Vaporwave is not dead
Sometimes the best or most interesting releases of the year fly under the radar. In The Catch Up, we shine a light on the films and albums we missed at first glance.
Critics of this supposed blink-and-you-miss-it genre have been hollering about its demise for a year or two, snarling from their comfortable corners in cyberspace. “Anthony Fantano did this,” or “popularity and commercialisation did that.” It’s a story we’ve all heard before, especially within hipster circles; the moment an artist, album, or thing becomes popular, scenesters run screaming, wide-eyed and in search of the next obscurity to throw their hands on.
Such is the so-called story of vaporwave. Rising from the ashes of similarly short-lived micro-cultures like chillwave and seapunk, vaporwave has arguably become the most adored and despised genre of the underground music community, which is to say it’s the most fascinating. The sample-based genre takes its aesthetic from forgotten music from the 1980s onward; crappy pop ballads, R&B B-sides, lounge, MIDI, Muzak, computer scores and smooth jazz each frequent vaporwave’s inspiration, but little is off-limits considering the genre’s vast aural palette. These samples are manipulated beyond comprehension via multi-layering, pitching, chopping, and slowing down, creating strange, nightmarish reinterpretations of familiar sounds.
“Musical language has an extensive repertoire of punctuation devices but nothing equivalent to literature’s “ “ quotation marks. […] Without a quotation system, well-intended correspondences cannot be distinguished from plagiarism and fraud. But anyway, the quoting of notes is a small and insignificant portion of common appropriation.”
John Oswald, Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative.
The genre’s trajectory can be traced back to Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1, an astonishing 2010 release from Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never). The album, notably released on cassette, is comprised of two sidelong tracks utilising samples from a bizarre array of pop artists spanning the previous five decades. Snippets of tracks by The Byrds, JoJo, UB40, Michael Jackson, Chris de Burgh, 2Pac, Fleetwood Mac and more, are spliced, pitched, repeated and drowned in reverb and digital delay (decay?), creating fascinating, hallucinatory sounds from tiny ten second cross sections.
About a year later, the ever-prolific, ever-pseudonymous James Ferraro released his Far Side Virtual album, a mix of found sounds that had seemingly lay dormant since at least the late 1990s. Ferraro fused forgotten and ironic (?) junk into cleverly crafted pop gems and was unanimously praised for its ingenuity. The foundations of the vaporwave aesthetic had now been laid; all it needed was a title.
In 2011 and 2012, a plethora of vaporwave artists flooded bandcamp leading notable members of the online music press to begin finally paying attention. Though influential blogs like Pitchfork and Drowned in Sound seemingly refused to touch vaporwave throughout the genre’s two-year “peak”, smaller publications like Tiny Mix Tapes, Dummy and Sputnikmusic championed the movement. Respect for vaporwave’s aesthetic and intellectual qualities grew and members of the musical intelligentsia reinterpreted vaporwave as an incredibly thoughtful process, tagging words like globalisaton, post-structuralism, situationalism, Marxism, post-capitalism and post-irony to vaporwave’s rapidly expanding descriptors.
“Is it a critique of capitalism or a capitulation to it? Both and neither. These musicians can be read as sarcastic anti-capitalists revealing the lies and slippages of modern techno-culture and its representations, or as its willing facilitators, shivering with delight upon each new wave of delicious sound.”
Dummy writer Adam Harper, Vaporwave and the pop-art of the virtual plaza.
But soon enough haters of this sudden success, those who felt vaporwave’s underground status was what it needed to survive, took to their blogs to vocally detest the genre, denouncing it as a passing fad. Hiding behind a sea of stupid MACINTOSH PLUS jokes, angry bloggers filled forums with cries demanding the music community yield vaporwave’s head on a stick. The Needle Drop’s Anthony Fantano acted as a kind of very loud mouthpiece for all this hatred; unhappy with the road the genre was taking he famously slammed one of the genre’s finest achievements and seemingly moved on to other things. It was all very hipper-than-thou; very “I liked this before it was cool.”
All it took was a handful of clowns to announce the genre as “dead” before a whole wave of trollers removed themselves from the very movement they helped create. Unfortunately, vaporwave now carries with it a stigma, and the very mention of the word will likely attract an array of disapproval, bitter comments and angry memes.
“This micro-scene needs real beatmakers and music producers, and not hipster kids doing rough edits. SAMPLING is cool, copycat and dumb followers of the macintosh plus is not cool. Stop releasing these shitty things, vaporwave 'artists'. […] Choose a RAD alias like " KELLOG'S FROOT LOOPS でたらめ" and do your thing on mixcloud, 8tracks, whatever. But please, STOP this joke. […] It’s over, kids. Let's go to the next step.”
vaporwave Facebook rant, July 2013.
So with the genre supposedly buried at least a year, what is vaporwave doing in 2014? Well, a quick bandcamp scan reveals several artists are still prolifically pushing the virtual plaza to see how far it can go. And Broperwave is now a thing. And the hateful rants continue flooding in, hard and fast. And trolls are still telling MACINTOSH PLUS jokes.
Finally, as if proving life remains within this chastised genre, 2014 has produced vaporwave’s magnum opus, an album which rises phoenix-like from the ashes. Dream Sequins®, the latest album from ex-heavy metal drummer/prolific electronic experimentalist Nmesh, is the kind of record the genre needed, a real slap in the face to haters and detesters alike. The album surpasses Eccojams Vol.1, Far Side Virtual and even FLORAL SHOPPE in its grandiosity and scope, taking the genre, and all music, into uncharted, stratospheric territory.
Dream Sequins® is the kind of album that could only exist in 2014 — a time where the internet is taking over, becoming a filthier, ever-expanding universe stretching infinitely through space and time, devouring society from the inside out. Nmesh lifts samples and soundbites from the seediest fringes of our globalised world, repurposing quickly forgotten moments, as if tattooing us with our past obsessions and failings.
“It (the internet) induces a very shallow, ethereal and ephemeral involvement and as such, I think it’s grossly over-promoted and there’s a great deal of hyperbole surrounding it.”
Clifford Stoll, scientist and novelist, 1995 interview.
What propels the ambitiousness of Dream Sequins® beyond its predecessors and peers is Nmesh’s ability to craft vast landscapes from these samples, resulting in a dynamically diverse, round (head) trip through the good, the bad and the incredibly ugly of the past 30 years. We hear terrifying witch cackles, black-funk wig outs, spritely jingles, a tennis match, a weather report, pitch-shifted viral YouTube clips, a “message from our sponsor” and an abundance of other seemingly random clips, pieced together, Frankenstein-like, to craft some psychedelic, futuristic nightmare — and that’s just the first half-dozen tracks.
Littered throughout Dream Sequins® are some spectacular, comparatively normal eccojams, wonderfully selected and placed amongst the chaotic, impending doom of the rest of the record. “//KΞΞP/////THIS/////”, “Dream Sequins®” and the first half of “Just a Simple Thing” are wonderful moments to remind the listener that, at its heart, Dream Sequins® really is a vaporwave record. As expected, these samples are taken from the least likely of places; Sophie B. Hawkins, 10CC and Selena — each forgotten relics in their own right, the unwilling originators of these spectacular sound splices.
But it’s not all nostalgia and bygone bites that form this record. Nmesh does something a little extra on Dream Sequins®, solidifying it as a truly unique listening experience. “Climbing the Corporate Ladder”, though embodying the subtextual aesthetics of vaporwave, doesn’t sound like anything the genre has produced in its short, three-year life span. Instead it belongs in the realm of IDM or acid house, its propelling beat and swirly synth ruminating on pure ecstatic catharsis. Similarly, the opening minutes of “Rainforest Suite® V1.3” move through Ferraro-esque soundscapes and it’s as if Nmesh felt the need to aurally reference both proto-vaporwave and the genre’s unquestionably expansive future.
“Yeah, but for me [Far Side Virtual] was the darkest record I’ve ever made in my life and people don’t really see it like that. I love that people take away that plastic eco-pop, that frozen yogurt brain-dead vibe, but people think it’s a joke but for me… I’m really shocked because I don’t understand. How is that a joke?”
James Ferraro, Stereogum interview.
These beat-driven tracks punctuate Dream Sequins® and keep the listener grounded, but it is the experimental ventures into extra-terrestrial ambience that pushes Nmesh’s enterprising further. Untethered freak-outs like “The Gull Wing Doors of Perception”, “DΞΞP COMΛ™ SKKY Diving” and the audacious, 13-minute “The Unconscious Connection” — the latter of which cheekily samples that infamous Fantano FLORAL SHOPPE review — each further the boundaries of the album’s complex sound and emphasize the chaotic nature of the Internet age.
With all this darkness, lightness, nostalgia and technical fuckery, one would expect the 80-minute Dream Sequins® to be an incomprehensible, overwhelming listening experience. Surprisingly, it’s not. Adventurous listeners will be sucked into its vortex of sound and, if one closes their eyes and simply takes it all in, the subsequent Dream Sequins® journey would be like a paradoxical whip-around through the life and future death of the internet. You will travel everywhere and nowhere, just let the synthetic neon light guide you.