Oneohtrix Point Never: Returnal

By , Jun 17 2010

Available on: Editions Mego LP

Many people familiar with Peter Rehberg’s Editions Mego label were surprised to learn that it would be releasing Returnal, the new album from Oneohtrix Point Never. Thanks to artists like Russell Haswell, Florian Hecker and Rehberg himself, Mego has become synonymous with edifying but ear-savaging digital noise, despite myriad more gentle offerings over the years from the likes of Fennesz, Jim O’Rourke and Bruce Gilbert. One suspects that it’s partly dissatisfaction with this reductive idea of what Mego “is” that prompted Rehberg to sign Returnal and Emerald’s recent Does It Look Like I’m Here, both albums that largely reject dissonance in search of a hyper-melodic, psychedelic sublime . But Returnal is no mere gesture, for artist or for label; indeed, it may turn out to be Mego’s most significant and successful release since Endless Summer.

As a good number of you will know by now, Oneohtrix Point Never is the main recording guise of Boston’s Daniel Lopatin. His uniquely searching, earnest take on synthesizer music has been turning heads for some time, reaching an apogee of sorts at the tail-end of 2009, when No Fun Productions released Rifts, a compilation of tracks from OPN’s best cassette and vinyl releases to date. Though he’s  a determinedly underground concern, Oneohtrix Point Never’s work has a broad appeal within it – being musically and conceptually rich enough to equally enchant the post-Animal Collective indie kid, the middle-aged synth geek, the jaded techno fan, the tape-foraging noise freak; the hipsters, the hauntologists and the hypnagogists all. Far from being cause for alarm or suspicion, this pliability is to be admired and cherished; in our ever more atomized cultural life, something which resonates across genre and scene divides is a rare phenomenon, and potentially a very powerful one.

There are a lot of people in the world making gently undulating synthesizer music; what immediately marks out Lopatin from the pack is that his work doesn’t sound retro. Sure, there are riffs on the past here and there, and pretty much all melodic synthesizer music exists perforce in the shadow of 70s kosmische and its 80s descendents, but for me OPN’s music is retro only in so far as it strives, with an unfashionable sincerity, to reconnect with the visionary ambition and unashamed futurism of past masters like Klaus Schulze and Edward Artemiev. Whereas so much contemporary synthesizer music is self-reflexive and all too aware of its own history, seeking to pay witty, memory-collapsing homage to what’s gone before rather than strike out into the unknown, OPN has a guile and a naivety that locates his music in the grandest tradition of sonic dream-craft.

Returnal begins jarringly with ‘Nil Admirari’, a five-minute maelstrom of noise that outstays its welcome after one or two. It’s hard not to read as a tongue-in-cheek expression of Megoness before the real action begins, and also as a hex to ward off the fairweather fans. ‘Describing Bodies’ follows, and its title neatly encapsulates the aims and characteristics of Returnal: it’s music driven by an ecological rather than a narrative impulse, more interested in testing the limits of space rather than telling stories within it. In a sense, Returnal feels like part of an isolationist lineage that includes artists like Biosphere, Lull (Mick Harris), Lustmord and so on, but it also seems to reach for something that’s very much communal, very much shared. Lopatin recently told me that he considered his music to be assuredly psychedelic, in the sense that it seeks to reject linear time in favour of what he calls “sacred time” (an idea which Sun Ra and T.S. Eliot alike would probably endorse). There’s no doubt that Returnal is successful in this endeavour – but it’s a less expansive and more tactile beast than OPN’s best work to date, Russian Mind; a psychedelia more earthbound than cosmic.

On first listen, it can seem that Returnal‘s success as psychedelia has come at the cost of something else more essential – that it stimulates the mind but merely skirts around the heart, opening up the space for contemplation but not for true feeling. Initially it seems only to evoke a vague melancholy, vague terror, a vague ecstasy, all whooshingly intermingled. But the effect is cumulative, and that sustained emotional ambiguity explodes in the soul-searing sequences of ‘Ouroboros’  – a short, elegiac wonder reminiscent of Brian Eno’s most vital 70s work. For me, Returnal reveals itself at this point to be concerned with a feeling too massive and too dreadful to ever glimpse fully: our mortality. ‘Pelham Island Road’ finds Lopatin foregrounding his own heavily treated vocals, their otherworldly layering calling to Peter Christopherson’s late work with Coil and his recent, wryly ritualistic Threshold HouseBoys Choir material. It also reminds us of Lopatin’s considerable pop nous, something he makes the most of while avoiding the mawkishness, the cuteness of so many analogue fetishists. There’s a kind of disturbance to even the most pillowy sequences here, a sense that entropy and annihilation are never too far away.

Simon Reynolds and other commentators have astutely pointed out Returnal‘s occasional similarities to the “fourth world music” of Jon Hassell. Closing track ‘Preyouandia’ certainly comes across as an explicit homage to Hassell’s Possible Musics and Earthquake Island – right down to the shambling, water-logged percussion and clipped, insect-like synth patterns. Again, a rejection of the cosmic in favour of the earthly is implied; ‘Preyouandi’ is more Heart of Darkness than Solaris, or at least suggests that the two might be more similar than we think.

I’ll admit that there have been moments over the past year when I’ve wondered whether Oneohtrix Point Never might just be a convenient and arbitrarily assigned poster-boy for the escalating global synth scene, and that his music is as popular as it is because it provides a nice unobtrusive soundtrack to internet surfing, babysitting, college assignments. In short, I thought it was ambient. The riveting, often terrifying Returnal makes me ashamed for thinking any such thing: Daniel Lopatin is the real deal, deserving of his current elevated status, and even if he never makes another good record again, this one will endure.

Kiran Sande

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