By Michael CA L
Phaserland is an artist who has the rare ability to keep exploring new musical territory while at the same time stamping his own unique trademark into each track he produces. His style is unmistakable, and from the opening moments of any of the songs within his growing body of work, the listener accepts that they're heading into the great sonic unknown while at the same time knowing that the experience will invariably be rife with stylish synth melodies, slickly executed chord changes, crisp and complex rhythmic elements, and an overall atmosphere and tone that is distinctly and retro-futuristically urban.
This urban sound I refer to, however, has nothing to do with the latest trends and attitudes of the moment that seem to take shape, magnify, and spread outward beyond the city limits of contemporary culture. On the contrary, this urban sound I'm referencing has much more to do with the look, feel, sound, attitudes and atmospheres found within a metropolitan melting pot that doesn't currently exist and quite possibly never did. It's a sound that formed within a city from an alternate reality or perhaps a city that is exclusively of the mind rather than one that actually exists in today's world. And despite not having a place on maps, in history books or in cultural studies texts, it's a city that I believe many aficionados of synthwave and other 80s-inspired music will recognize as easily as they recognize their own homes. This city is an amalgamation of concepts and ideas whose origins lay in the idealism of the mid-twentieth century and percolated throughout the ensuing decades only to be refined, polished and unleashed en masse in the 1980s. These concepts and ideas included new developments in science fiction film and literature (perhaps most notably, cyberpunk); the high-concept and often futuristic aesthetic found within the art, fashion and architecture of the times; the advancements in science and robotics; as well as the scientific theories, and philosophical questions on post and trans-humanism that took on a more fixed shape in this era.
These concepts and ideas (of which I've named only a few), have been taken by many 80s-influenced music-makers and remembered, re-examined, and reshaped to form new meanings and new interpretations, and Phaserland is an artist who takes this exercise to another level entirely. His work has a precision, a focus and a unique identity that is distinct among artists operating within the 80's-inspired scene, and these elements come together in such an inspired and visionary manner that the final product is not just a collection of perfectly-fitting pieces that contain powerful references to the aforementioned concepts, but complete cities unto themselves. Phaserland's latest city, Resemblance in Machine, is a powerful space to walk within.
Upon first entering this off-map metropolis, the tourist/listener is greeted by the atmospheric sounds of the EP's opening track "Dusty Universe." Like the Ident music for a broadcasting corporation or film distribution company from an anachronistic retro-future, the track has a welcoming tone to it that beckons you to put another foot forward and commit more fully to engaging with the new environment you're about to enter. It's a soothing introductory composition, with enticing guitar licks and a sweeping, hydraulic fluidity that is reminiscent of some of the ambient experiments found on Pink Floyd's synth-heavy and beautifully produced 80's albums A Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell. Those familiar with songs such as "Marooned", "Signs of Life" and "Terminal Frost" from the aforementioned albums will appreciate the combination of smooth guitar coupled with crystalline synthesizer pads. The result is a beautiful merging of the organic and the synthetic, and the result is an irresistible temptation to walk boldly into the cityscape of Resemblance in Machine and see what more it has to offer.
Resemblance in Machine
Whereas the opening track pulls the listener gently through the city gates, the EP's eponymous track is bold in its plan to hold you within its sway and teach you about the new city you find yourself in. With a light step and an up-front swagger, the synth melodies and slick grooves of "Resemblance in Machine" are presented at a steady mid-tempo that implies confidence and reassures the urban tourist. "Although you're very much a stranger in a strange land", the track seems to say, "you're in good hands and will enjoy your stay."
A crisp, closed hi-hat ticks away between kick and snare and the lead synth melody ventures in daring and surprising directions, all the while inspiring thoughts of moving smoothly through darkened streets lined with the soft glow of neon lighting, the curb-side hustlers beckoning the tourist to buy their wares. What these shadowy figures are selling is anybody's guess, but I image it could be everything from black-market neurolink transmitters to high-priced, antique cassette tape decks that went missing from the mansions of the rich in the uptown Delta sector of the city several days before.
There's a segment at two minutes and thirty seconds into the track when the beat breaks itself down and an overdriven guitar bleeds itself into the mix, the two elements converging in a manner that creates something that's both aggressive and imposing and restrained and coolly impartial to the risk, all at the same time. It's a beautiful component in a truly fantastic song, and it leaves a powerful impression on the listener. Beyond this segment, the song plunges headlong back into its slick and melodic groove before switching off the neon lights with an echo that's the sonic equivalent of a strobe light afterimage flickering into non-existence and leaving you dazed.
This third experience in the city is one that contains beautiful, retro-suggestive chord changes that are uncomplicated and yet completely evocative, catchy and memorable melodies (my favourite kind), and a funk bass line that is clear, tuneful and up-front, providing the kind of weight and momentum on which a song can be completely pulled along. It all comes together in a manner that shakes any ominous feelings the tourist might have had when they first entered the city.
The overall tone of the track is one of fun and pleasure-pursuit, in which the sightseer is on the move and driving fast along the streets of the city. As the title of the track implies, there's an feeling of escape within the song, but it's not a feeling of fear or danger. Rather, it's a feeling of escaping the mundane, fearlessly embracing the state of cognitive estrangement they've been in the grip of since entering this brave new world, and allowing oneself to enjoy the hyper-sensory newness of the situation while being enthusiastically watchful for trace elements that the tourist thinks they may have come across in another place and time.
We Go Tonight
With a mood of hopeful optimism and celebration of diversity, this track begins at a gentle rhythmic tempo and has the unusual distinction of being both calm and soothing and intensely engaging and full of a simmering energy all at the same time. The cause of this, I suspect, lies in the contrast between the minimalist rhythmic aspects and the multitude of complex synth melodies that comprise each moment of the song. These two dissimilar elements provide a beautifully appealing juxtaposition, with the down-tempo rhythm and the highly kinetic melodies recognizing and appreciating their disparate attributes yet coming together to form something that truly works.
Whether it's that compelling bass line which provides a low-frequency bounce to the slow-rolling rhythm or the dynamic, staccato synths that ride above street-level, there's an energy and playfulness to this track that is rich in flavour, diverse in elements, and hugely enjoyable to experience. Of course, the world's best cities also contain a similar kind of diversity, where elements from many cultures converge to form a complex, unique, lively and respectful celebration of difference that is incredibly creative and undeniably interesting. This metropolis that Phaserland has built is the sonic equivalent of a multicultural city. The result is a warm, engaging and memorable song that showcases how different elements can coexist in a way that's far more creative, interesting and valuable than what monoculture has to offer.
Room for Love
"Room for Love" is the go-to track on this EP as far as seductive, smouldering mood is concerned. Containing some aspects that bring to mind "Night Talk", a track from Phaserland's first LP Night Talk in Paradise, "Room for Love" initially feels like a kind of spiritual successor to it and contains some of the same sex-laced tone, pacing and atmosphere of urban heat as the aforementioned. Instead of intensifying into an up-tempo homage to the carnal energies that bubble to the surface when the sun goes down (as does "Night Talk"), "Room for Love" remains staunchly down-tempo and is a brief, less a sexually forthright and more tenderly persuasive piece. I'd like to note that "Night Talk" was the very first track I ever heard by Phaserland back in the early months of 2014 and I was immediately captivated by its slick sound, funky synth bass, seductive atmosphere, and complex melodies. To hear a track that is closely aligned in theme and tone but carries different nuances and subtleties is an absolute pleasure to my ears.
Blue Green Dreams
The bass very often takes center stage on this EP, and "Blue Green Dreams" is yet another reminder that Phaserland's ability to compose tight, complex, muscular bass lines that blend beautifully with the synth melodies laid upon them is virtually unparalleled within the realm of 80's-inspired synth music. Similar to "Room for Love", this track has an air of lush sensuality to it, but whereas "Room" establishes its down-tempo nature from the get-go and maintains it throughout its duration, the pace of "Blue Green Dreams" quickens and declines like a coastal scene on the edges of the vast city, with the waves crashing and receding and the tide ebbing and flowing as the tourist soaks up the panorama and reflects on the experiences he or she has had over the course of their brief but remarkable stay. With equal parts gentle stillness and kinetic bounce, it's a striking piece and a fitting end to a journey that contained both of these elements in abundance.
Having completed our tour of Resemblance in Machine, we've walked through the streets of a newly built city and we've been exposed to a retro-futuristic aesthetic that could only come from the mind of Phaserland. To declare that his work is distinct and inimitable is not necessarily an understatement, but it doesn't fully encompass the detail, precision, complexities and clarity-of-vision that is ever-present in his work.
Music reviews try to articulate something about what a release is all about and what the listener might expect. It's been said many a time, though, that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture", and that quote, for obvious reasons, hits the mark especially closely in this particular review. When it comes to Phaserland's work, the task of writing about it is exceptionally difficult due to the sheer expansive nature of the release and the complex interconnectedness of each piece housed within it. They are, you may remember me stating at the onset of this review, complete cities unto themselves, and yet no city can possibly be explored thoroughly in a single (or even several) outings. With so many elements contributing to the whole, it takes ample time to even get the faintest understanding of an urban environment, and Phaserland's releases are much the same. This is what makes cities great, and it's also what makes Resemblance in Machine a powerful space to walk within.
Resemblance in Machine comes very, very highly recommended by Synthetix.FM and is available through Phaserland's Bandcamp page here.