read #25 here: https://www.patreon.com/posts/32405138
this is a repost from my blog here: https://ellaguro.blogspot.com/2019/12/top-25-tracks-of-2010s-24-vessel-paplu.html
as someone originally from the Midwestern United States of America, where much of modern electronic dance music is originally from, i always find Europe and especially the UK's monopoly on so much electronic music culture kind of infuriating. so many of the prestige, ultra-hyped artists that led me to embracing and finally wanting to explore that space a lot more as an artist (Aphex Twin, Burial, Boards of Canada) all come from some part of the UK. i grew up having more of an affinity to experimental music from the start without really knowing that, but i came from the rock music-loving state of Ohio, where being a producer of beats and sounds was extremely niche and unpopular. (i'm sure that's changed somewhat, but anyway...) most of my favorite stuff back then all came from the more experimental moments of artsy indie rock albums, or prestige artists like Radiohead, but i never thought of electronic music as its own space worth exploring until later. for whatever reason the culture in the US doesn't seem to produce nearly as much electronic music i have any affinity towards compared to the UK, and i really couldn't say exactly why that is! if anything, the last decade revealed to me how much rock music has failed to go anywhere or do anything particularly new and other genres (hip-hop, pop, r&b, and electronica) are all taking the exciting leaps forward.
that's not saying that electronica is always this great birthing ground of exciting new sonic innovations or whatever. it has plenty of its own stiff, tired cliches that artists like to endlessly trot out because those ideas feel comfy or familiar. it's common to look to the past for inspiration, but the it's same past as everyone else: some sort of retro-futurist dreams of the early to mid 20th century, or the future sci-fi Blade Runner dystopia that literally already so oversaturated in media that it's a copy of a copy now. it's easy for artists working with that same set of references to just do a worse and less interesting job of what someone else did before them, because why wouldn't they? hard to say anything new there.
as far as i care to interpret it, dubstep was an attempt to fuse some kind of virtuosity with sonic experimentation and have it be danceable that gained widespread popularity in the late 00's. by now dubstep is all but dead and a lot of artists who came from it have shifted their sounds and approaches in interesting ways. Sebastian Gainsborough's (great name btw) first album as Vessel, 2012's Order of Noise definitely sounds dubsteppy to me, if not on the weirder and quirkier end of that style of music. it's definitely sonic experimentation that exists from within a very particular palette of sounds and framework of genre that probably seems much less clever and more dated to someone like me who is not coming from that scene. i'm more familiar with Vessel's second album Punish, Honey which sounds more like some kind of dark industrial music that's started to fester and grow worms and bacteria out of it. my favorite track from that is called "Red Sex" with its perversely gyrating buzzsaw synths. they're very simple - they're like low-level organic lifeforms. but they've grown legs, and now all they've learned to do is how to have sex and it's kind of bizarre and kind of terrifying, but also kind of funny. i like how silly the pitch shifting in that track is. but most of the album is not so silly but dirty, rusty music that is pretty fun sonic adventure into the coal mines but not something that's necessarily going to take you on a ambitious journey to some place you've never been. to be honest, i mostly forgot about Punish, Honey other than "Red Sex" several years after.
Queen of Golden Dogs from 2018 is far more virtuostic in its instrumentation - the chamber strings and voice, and the cover art seemingly inspired by famous female surrealist artist Remedios Varo obviously point to that. this is a more stereotypically "female" album i guess you could say (a generalization i hate using, especially in the age of heavy mainstream TERFdom). most obviously the album is interspersed with several tracks tend to very slow, languid meditations that are filled with mostly strings and female-sounding choirs not speaking in English. in the more ambitious electronic tracks, the lead synths sound far more lacy and intricate than anything in his previous work... but they also have an unmistakable edge to them. they're more highly developed than the low-level lifeforms of the previous album. they don't just stay in one place - they're quick. but they can still shock you if you touch them. these tracks are actually really fun and energizing to listen to.
"Paplu (Love That Moves The Sun)" contains many of the strains of the most forward-looking sonic experimentation of the last decade in electronic music. but it's also being more ambitious and tightly structured than most of that stuff, and feels like it'll end up coming off far less dated in the future. in spite of Sebastian Gainsborough's dubstep origins, this isn't the work of a "scenius", and it's not really something you need to be well-researched in a specific scene or have a lot context to understand. it's music you feel first and it's universal, in the way the Romantics might have envisioned it.
"Paplu (Love That Moves The Sun)" comes towards the end of the album and it's the longest and best distilled of any of Vessel's music. it also just summarizes a lot of the best ideas put forward by the biggest sonic experimenters of the decade in an extremely tight music package. It starts a little slow: the melody mostly jogs in place energetically for the first 3 minutes as its warming up its different component parts as much as it possibly can before peeling out. as a side note, i generally find this album mostly to be sonically perfect (however you want to interpret that), EXCEPT FOR the damn handclaps he uses which feel a bit too obvious and clumsy on top of everything else for me. but that's a nitpick: because this is all about polyrhythms and juxtapositions and layers upon layers of instrumentation that warp and change dimensions in strange ways. it's a kind of surrealism, but a very old (almost ancient kind of surrealism)
we're far beyond the point of just sitting inside a vibe or a framework and appreciating the little innovations that might exist there. this album isn't commenting on or reacting to any contemporary scene or movement as far as i can tell. if i were a more uncharitable person, i might ascribe some strains of "cultural appropriation" to the sound of Queen of Golden Dogs because some of its instrumental timbres are obviously non-Western and the intent to marry classical music with is very reminiscent of other recent sonic experimenters like Ash Koosha. you could also definitely hit it with some accusations of Orientalism in the overall sound and approach. but i think the problem with using that critique here is that the package isn't distinctly either Western or Non-western, but a smashing together of different ideas or sounds. i don't really look at it as appropriating a particular sound, but more an abstract idea. the base it's building off of is an old, strict, deeply formalist kind of spirituality that seems fairly universal to a lot of different cultures. that's something that seems very much out of time, very much not fashion-forward in a way that a lot of the sexy dystopian, warping electronica of the 2010's sounds. at least not until it starts getting amped up.
Eventually all the warm-ups for the first 3 minutes bring us to a squawking, angelic melodic voice that forms the baseline of the rest of the track. the voice sounds vaguely still feminine, but it's distorted and warped now: the cut-and-dry femininity of the chamber music voices is being messed with and interrogated. the amped up, super hyper poly-rhythms are pushing it much farther and in a much different direction than it was ever meant to go, and it's trying to keep up with it in vain. it feels almost as if it's being crushed. there's something that feels a bit wrong and deeply grotesque about it - which of course, makes it feel more disarming, and more exciting.
the track, like much of the album, coasts on a subversion of expectations: you don't expect all this manic energy to be coming from such old and stiff, formalist book of sounds. things are amped up to a degree of intensity that feels almost inappropriate. its initial surface of stiff formalism give way to an increasingly complex and interlocking series of shapes and patterns. a portal to the future that exists from within some sort of imagined past reconstructed from old, fading books and pieces of art. it's a new feeling, but a sort of newness that still feels like it could only come straight from the distant past, something that we just collectively forgot.
and so you're coming from a place and a direction you didn't expect to be coming from at all. there is also a really strong positivity about the track that is disarming, even when compared to the rest of the album. i think in abstract "Paplu (Love That Moves The Sun)" is about the inevitable evolution and complication of time. the simple squawking voice is unchanging, like a heartbeat - like it's from a much more primitive era and was never built to be transposed in the midst of all this industrial machinery that threatens to bury it or underwrite it. and yet the voice continues to stay afloat, and all these other processes are being lead behind it - they only underscore it or comment in reaction to it. something about the speed of the pace of technological change of the past several centuries is deeply frightening and alienating when you think about how new it is. everything moves so fast, maybe too fast. but the fundamentals of life stay the same. and we forget so much so quickly.
i've been thinking a lot lately of artists like the Iranian-born Ash Koosha who is translating textures and ideas from traditional and classic music (in his case, Iranian classic music) to something more plugged-in, contemporary, and exciting. it reminds me of (famous Hungarian composer) Béla Bartók and his attempts to study Eastern European folk music and translate it to something more ambitious and contemporary. it's allowing a lot of ideas that weren't given the chance to live outside a particular context to grow and evolve - and to also complicate them. as a socialist this concept obviously appeals to me. in the case of Ash Koosha it's also a way to non-Westernize music in a way that's attempting to be both respectful to the traditional music he grew up with and while also still trying to push the envelope as sonic experimentation.
Vessel has no such concrete goals to unearth one particular tradition, and yet the need to translate the old into something new and complicate it feels very deeply a part of this music. considering the original dubstep context of Vessel it's easy to just expect that it'll just be music that's "good for the scene it comes from" but doesn't stand as much outside of that. but that's why it's truly exciting for me to see these kinds of artistic leaps being taken by artists i didn't have much of an expectation for before that happened. who really knows where the artists who are going to push us into a new, more adventurous future of music are? i can only hope those artists are given the resources and encouragement and ability to move in that direction and this doesn't just become the province of artists from London on very hip, gatekeepery record labels owned by rich art kids though (this is a call-out post about Tri Angle Records, i'm sorry). anyway - i can only hope!