GoGo Penguin is a jazz trio that plays minimal grooves with light electronic effects. I’m a sucker for good musicianship, and these guys do not disappoint here with their dexterous break-beats and sensitive grooves. Harmonically they stick within fairly safe territory, staying true to a post-modern vibe that’s emotional but generic. It’s hard to listen to this music without comparing it to a traditional jazz trio, and this is why I am so affected by the relatively minimal harmonies here. I want there to be more to distinguish this group musically, and so I listen for the electronic effects. The electronics are limited at most, though, with understated reverb and delay effects that only serve to create atmosphere. Where, then, can I find satisfaction in this music?
When I listen to a jazz trio I know immediately to pay close attention to the changes, and the way they are treated by each musician. It’s a meticulous listening experience, and it requires a degree of concentration similar to classical music. This, however, plays more to the idea of ambient music, where less attention is necessary. Hearing those three instruments played together, though, cues up my attention all the same. In order to fully appreciate this group I have to separate myself from these habits and learn not to listen. As I actively listen, though, I still find this music very entertaining.
This is a fun album to listen to, and not because I like the music. In fact, this particular brand of synthpop seems to combine elements of genres that I normally despise: the square repetitive rhythms of house, the effeminate male crooning of indie pop. My search for things to enjoy about this music, then, is much more of a challenge. This proactive approach to music appreciation is one of my favorite parts of this daily new music project, and it’s a form of music enjoyment that I think most people will sadly never experience because they never strive to leave their musical comfort zone.
What I do love here is the synths, in effect a medium of endless sonic possibilities. The warm oscillations that rise to the fore from time to time elevate this poppy dance music into something that is highly introspective in nature. And so as I listen to this music I reflect—who is Porches’ audience, and what do they like about his music?
To his credit, this is more than a careless hodgepodge of modern pop idioms. Each of these 13 vignettes has a different musical personality, and there seems to be at least some effort to reconcile these various ideas under the same musical identity. This is a rather understated kind of dance music, the kind you don’t actually dance to, but might imagine yourself doing so in an esoteric dream. Perhaps this music is for people who fancy the idea of dancing, but are too shy to go out and do so themselves. Perhaps there is an underground scene in Europe where club goers actually find this kind of music danceable. At any rate, this music is certainly not for me, and it’s precisely for that reason that I found it an interesting listen.
Since this sounds kind of like house music, the club analogy might work here: you’re in a club where this music is playing. What is your environment?
Strangely, this club is filled with the warm vibes of nostalgia. At first this seems out of place—after all, there were no clubs in my childhood to reminisce about. Perhaps as a result of this, I found it easy to dismiss this music at first as uncool, or at least ignorant of club sensibilities. After several playbacks, though, the undeniable warmth of this music washed over me as I grew comfortable with this LA producer’s unique sound world. That’s often how nostalgia seems to work: first a quick dismissal for its cheesy banality, then a gradual coming to acceptance over repeated exposures. After a time nostalgia can even become profound, as it implies the passage of time and the mortality of past experiences.
This particular reminiscence is of one dear Cindy, who has presumably passed on. It’s appropriate, then, that this music should have some sense of profundity. It also makes sense from the young girl on the album cover that this music should simultaneously feel somewhat childlike, which is why the camp works so well. It’s interesting how these feelings can be imparted through the music even though I never knew Cindy or even read anything about her. The power of music is often at its most apparent when there is absolutely no context, which is why I love writing about these albums without doing any research.
Listening to Nightmares on Wax takes me back to my younger listening years, bumping Carboot Soul and knowing that it was a good album, but not really understanding why. I spent a lot of time in those years consuming music with an intent to expand my musical vocabulary as much as possible, but I lacked the breadth of understanding to truly appreciate the music I was hoarding in my memory bank. Now that I’ve grown as a musician (and as a human being), I can listen to this album with a fresh perspective on this British DJ.
The kind of music that Nightmares on Wax peddles is well-suited to this nostalgic flavor of musical journeys—smooth and easygoing, full of luscious sonic landscapes to explore. The album sometimes evokes electric reggae (“Tomorrow”), other times classic hip-hop (“On It Maestro”), and still otherwise deep experimentalism (“Tenor Fly”). This level of musical variety is managed thanks to an ever-revolving cast of guest artists, and their diverse styles are glued together by the unifying theme of “downtempo.” Naturally, it seems, artist collaborations are commonplace for downtempo and trip-hop artists like Nightmares on Wax and Thievery Corporation. Good vibes, after all, are responsible for bringing communities together, and music can often be the best example of this.
I like using the club analogy when listening to EDM. If I were listening to this music in a club, what would that club be like? What time is it, and how many people are there? What are the vibes like—are people dancing along, listening intently, or having a side conversation with their friends? For me, visualizing an environment often helps me understand the music better. I even use this approach for music that was never meant for clubs (take the spacey sounds of EDD-989 for example). After all, every kind of music needs its proper place, and that place is often as much a part of the musical experience as the sounds themselves.
For this album, though, I have no idea what kind of club I’m at. In fact, the walls here keep morphing into staircases, and the bar floats away from me as colors whirl by me at a dizzying pace. Am I too drunk? No, I’m completely sober… but I think I’m losing my mind. Strangely, there’s no one else at the club, if you can even call this a club anymore. At this point I’ve left the grid, grinding past specks of harsh white light that seem to be pulsing to a rhythm.
So time still exists, you think to yourself as you suddenly find yourself in the second person. But if space has no meaning out here, then how can time continue on at such a familiar clip, pulsing along encouragingly as you struggle to hold on to the very fabric of reality? You suppose you may never truly know.
I find it incredibly difficult to describe ambient music. It seems so understated to me as to offer as little musical information as possible, and I’m more often left with vague feelings than precise thoughts. Luckily, the Certain Creatures themselves (or himself, Oliver Chapoy) offers some context to the music on his bandcamp site. He describes the album as “a study in timelessness — crystalline, heartfelt ambient music designed to push light through shadow.” Aha, now it all makes sense!
Even the creator of this music seems limited to ambivalent feelings as he attempts characterize the music in words. This is because the music is very inexpressive for the most part, leaving much of the work to the listener to follow along on the listening journey. I think this is why discussion of ambient music is often so fantastical (Chapoy calls it “music for space travelers”). It does offer its moments, but they seem to blend into one another in a way that can’t be traced. Even the tracks lack much distinction from one another, as each new moment seems to swell out of what came before it. It’s an altogether different listening experience, for a very special kind of listening journey uninterrupted with the normal distractions of contemporary life. I do like it, but often find I just don’t have the time for it.
Picture yourself in elementary school, on a school field trip to the local planetarium. Hear the faint ambience of “space sounds” as a half-sedated man does his very best to convince you just how insignificant you are in the grand scheme of things. Now imagine you’re at a nightclub, with those same sounds pounding a steady beat somewhere, but certainly not where you are. No, the beat is somewhere lightyears away from here, at an astronomical distance to the order of magnitude that exceeds even the number of atoms in your puny human brain. And yet its sounds still reach you, pulsating from billions of years ago. You know they say that if the history of Earth was a 24 hour clock, human existence would begin about a minute before midnight. The universe is at least three times as old. Don’t you realize how small your problems are now, kid? Now get on the bus, it’s time to go back to school!
Long story short, this kind of space music has to be some sort of memo from a place a long time ago, in a galaxy far away (totally punintentional). Without the images of stars and planets to display the sheer wonder and magnitude of space, though, the music takes on a more tame identity. Ambient music isn’t meant to command the listener’s full attention, anyway.