A few months ago, I managed to smuggle a track by Oneohtrix Point Never onto an Uncut CD; a David Bowie-themed compilation of vaguely futuristic music. Oneohtrix is the project of a guy based in New York called Daniel Lopatin, who reconfigures various kosmische tropes with some ‘80s sci-fi vibes and comes up with a kind of New Age music for underground noise fans.
“Physical Memory”, the track on the Uncut CD, is pretty majestic: looming interstellar ambience taken from a 2009 compilation of rare Oneohtrix releases, “Rifts”. But while this sort of music has certainly been gaining some traction in the interim – both from electronica fans, and from hipper followers of the hazy bedroom scene known as chillwave – I didn’t anticipate Oneohtrix’s year to turn out in quite this way.
Namely, with his 2010 album, “Returnal”, sitting happily in Uncut’s Top 20 Albums Of The Year. There are plenty of other audio cosmographers working in this sphere right now: off the top of my head, Arp, White Rainbow, Robert AA Lowe, Stellar Om Source, Mountains. But from the burst of granular noise that opens Returnal, it seems as if Lopatin has upped the ante.
Returnal, essentially, feels like the point of entry into a hidden musical universe. Much of it consists of beatless, crystalline glides; ambience which, nevertheless, sounds more unnerving than restful. It’s not a stretch to suggest that Oneohtrix Point Never could work in the same way as Boards Of Canada did a decade ago; as eldritch comedown music, albeit more indebted to Tangerine Dream.
There is, too, a pop song; “Returnal”’s title track, which Lopatin sings with an alien quaver that recalls Fever Ray. “Returnal” has already been re-imagined as a piano ballad, with the lead being taken by Antony Hegarty. The next time Bjork goes searching for new electronic talent to help her out, it’s hard to imagine she’ll look much further than Lopatin.
For me, though, there’s another act on the scene who are even better than Oneohtrix. Emeralds are a trio from Cleveland who’ve racked up a frankly bewildering catalogue in the past few years, and who’ve inched fractionally closer to the mainstream in 2010 with the superb “Does It Look Like I’m Here”. This one has a lot of similarities with Lopatin’s work, but amps up the intensity somewhat thanks to a lot of Terry Rileyish ripples and the presence in the lineup of Mark McGuire, a freakout guitarist evidently keen on Manuel Gottsching (who’s playing in Glasgow, incidentally, on December 11).
McGuire has a fiercely active solo career, too (this year’s “Living With Yourself” isn’t too far from post-rock; “Tidings/Amethyst Waves” is the best I’ve tracked down).
A few Sundays back, Emeralds played a basement club on the City Of London’s edge, and effectively massacred most of my preconceptions about them. McGuire lunged back and forth in guitar hero ecstasies, while one of the two electronics operatives had his back to the audience and headbanged vigorously throughout. Occasionally, he’d turn round, grimace, and punch the air.
This happened quite a lot during the spectacularly pummelling 20 minutes of “Genetic”, all turbo-Bach arpeggios and a treatment of psychedelia that verged on punkish. Instead of three serene New Age practitioners, Emeralds seemed to have become fierce rock marauders.
“Does It Look Like I’m Here”, incidentally, should figure fairly high up in my personal albums of the year. If you’re interested, I’ll post a full list – as close to a Top 100 as I can stretch – in the next week or so.