The Essential… Oneohtrix Point Never

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It’s the usual response after getting to that mouthful of a name. Always misheard, occasionally mispronounced (we’ve all cringed at someone, possibly ourselves, upon the utterance of ‘Oh-Nee-Oh-Trix’). That awkwardness is a built-in quality which every fan’s grappled with while internally composing their best sales pitch. We have it easy on Twitter with its spacious social canvas, but who has time for 140 characters IRL? All apologies if that sounds glib, but really thank you so much for the click.

Miscommunication is at the heart of Daniel Lopatin’s work as Oneohtrix Point Never, the central form being arguably the most personal: memory, that slippery interference with our sense of self in time. The name is a garbled reference to the radio station Magic 106.7 from the Boston area where Lopatin grew up. The channel, in a medium that’s always earned affection for its knob-twiddling fight for clarity, becomes Oneohtrix Point Never: a project that captures the same distortion in our own memory.

Memory is constant in Oneohtrix’s wildly diverse world — it may comfort and soothe us, it may torture us with dread and anxiety, but it is always constant. 106.7 was an adult contemporary station — tomorrow’s golden oldies — and while some oldies are certainly ‘goodies’ as advertised, the format can feel exploitative, designed to catalyze a triggered response (“Now, lovers, we’re gonna take you back to that sweet summer of ’72 with the one and only…”) that temporarily untethers our minds from our decaying bodies. It’s that displaced drift that Lopatin’s first releases floated in, or to borrow the title from one of those early pieces, what he offered us was time, decanted.

But memory is a potent product in 2015. Humanity’s entire recorded musical history is being mined for inspiration, vinyl is booming for the first time since the 90s and we safely program nostalgia into our daily routine with every Timehop update. Music, television and movies increasingly leave us in an ouroboros of people staring at screens of people staring at screens.

While all these ingredients play into Lopatin’s gifts as a sound sculptor and a producer, they’re not what make him a great artist. Miscommunication and memory are at the heart of Oneohtrix Point Never, but through all that interference and acceleration he’s never let us lose sight of that heart. This is not music that settles for perfection, because perfection is commonplace — look at the screen you’re reading this on, feel the smoothness of the tablet in your hands, pull out the pocket-sized computer you call a phone. This is music that aspires to humanity. With every increasingly glossy OPN update, Lopatin’s soul, humor, and stumbling grace have remained like some troublesome glitch that refuses to be fixed, spell-checked, or deleted.

In the truest sense of the word, he has made folk music for this generation, hymns that don’t simply channel the wonder of our modern age in all of its light-speed progress, but capture the brief, terrified glimpse back at what we were and how far we’ve come.

Oneohtrix Point Never’s music is not meant to move linearly, it’s meant to disorient us. In that spirit, this Essential Guide is not designed to be read chronologically. You can navigate back and forth with the arrow keys, but click any link in a post to be pulled to a related piece, past or present, in this ever-expanding body of work.

Magic Oneohtrix Point Never
‘Woe Is Transgression’
(Deception Island, 2007)

Though the earliest OPN releases led some to paint the author as a sort of kosmische wunderkind, Lopatin was fairly direct about his intentions from the start. He admitted in an interview with Rare Frequency, “Outside of a few records… I can’t say that I was deeply touched by cosmic music or krautrock”. The first phase of his work, beginning with the debut Betrayed In the Octagon (under the name Magic Oneohtrix Point Never), certainly touches on those sounds, but its opening track ‘Woe Is Transgression’ reaches to something far more resonant: Chip Tanaka’s score to Metroid. Tanaka described his lonely, unsettling music — uncharacteristic for the family friendly NES — as a way to make players feel like they were encountering “a living organism”, blurring the line between music and sound effect to the point that he famously withheld any melody until the game’s final moments. The virtual worlds in video games have always felt like an essential influence on Lopatin’s music — from Second Life to Ikaruga — but this is perhaps the most central. “Hearing the Metroid theme was probably the first time I got goosebumps from the music alone,” he put it far more enthusiastically to Dazed.

The last few years have seen a popularity in the term “world building” to describe many producers’ atmospheric and conceptual approaches to sound design, and Lopatin’s music feels essential to that. Yet this discography has proven time and again that it’s not about progression — it’s about deepening the same themes, slowly expanding the same universe, as he once sang: “You’ve never left, you’ve been here the whole time”. ‘Woe Is Transgression’ is where that world began in all its primordial anxiety. Taken in both its parts, ‘Woe Is Transgression’ rounds out to a vast 20 minutes of cold hums, distant howls, and faint echoes. It remains a fascinating space to enter and with each advancing release it has only gotten richer.

Oneohtrix Point Never
‘I Know It’s Taking Pictures From Another Plane (Inside Your Sun)’
(Young Beidnahga, Ruralfaune, 2009)

A quick coda to the often overlooked Young Beidnahga EP, this might be the most alien OPN song because it’s one of the few that sounds like it was made on this planet. Over hazy, but shockingly raw, vocals and acoustic guitar, ‘Inside Your Sun’ sounds like something that Scott Walker’s 30th Century Man might overhear through his deep freeze sleep. It’s a moment of near-clarity that we rarely see so directly. Still, this isn’t getting banged out at an open mic any time soon, as each guitar strum bends and curls into silvery spirals. It’s a brief, marvelous gem and one of Lopatin’s few songs that feels separate from everything happening around it.

Oneohtrix Point Never
‘Computer Vision’ / ‘Format & Journey North’
(Zones Without People, Arbor, 2009)

Betrayed In The Octagon found OPN’s universe patiently forming with the miasmatic ‘Woe Is Transgression’, but Zones Without People begins mid-flight. ‘Computer Vision’ is a dramatic leap forward — one of the best examples of that whirring arpeggiated calling card that drew so many to him early on. It’s a relentless introduction — my own, in fact, just about six years before writing this article — but its impact is doubled by what follows.

If ‘Computer Vision’ is the white-hot fall through the atmosphere, ‘Format & Journey North’ simulates the mysterious first steps onto the alien planet. The first sound we hear isn’t his trusty Roland Juno 60 but rather a trickling stream and birds. Well, it is and it isn’t – what you’re hearing specifically is Lopatin’s sample of a YouTube video of streams and birds, an “impression of an impression” as he once described it. The inauthenticity in that moment is so subtle, and essential to this body of work. It’s a reminder that the retro-futurist sounds you’re hearing are ultimately neither retro nor futurist — they’re grounded here, in the present day, on a computer screen emulating dated fantasies of the future. Describing the work of Rousseau, who famously painted jungles without ever seeing one, Lopatin once said, “It’s not actually about tigers. It’s about that man,” and the quote indirectly sums up his own work. Of course, you probably won’t think about any of that when listening, the replica is too good.

Oneohtrix Point Never
Memory Vague
(Memory Vague, Root Strata, 2009)

The 30-minute audiovisual composition Memory Vague is one of the most overlooked projects in the OPN discography, which is too bad because it manages to tie multiple releases together that you might not have expected. Released on DVDr several months before Rifts would catapult the project to greater attention, Memory Vague touches on a few key moments from that compilation (‘Computer Vision’, ‘Zones Without People’) alongside the curiously looped ‘Angel’ (which would reappear the following year under a different name) and pairs them with a video collage sourced entirely from YouTube. By design it makes for the most synesthetic release in his catalogue while acting like a wormhole linking the music of Rifts, Chuck Person’s looping trickery, and the internet rabbit holes that inspired Replica and beyond.

Oneohtrix Point Never
‘‡ Nil Admirari’
(Returnal, Editions Mego, 2010)

Rifts shifted attention to OPN for good reason, but it was also over half a decade of work compiled on a single release. Returnal had the double pressure of being the first new album for the audience that had discovered him through Rifts, and a critical release for earlier fans who knew the significance of an Editions Mego debut. In other words, you had the heads on TinyMixTapes curious about his thoughts on the political implications of commercial music (more on that) and the newcomers reading Pitchfork just curious about the dude’s favourite video games (top-down shoot-em-ups, more on that). Returnal is the album that needed to split the difference, and ‘Nil Admirari’ does so with the force of a jackhammer.

Really, Returnal is an almost hilariously manipulative album. It’s a record of immense subtlety and beauty, crystalizing the wandering synthscapes of his past while hinting at a future of more lyrical work and commercial potential, but the most memorable moment is an opener that hits the listener like a brick to the face. ‘Nil Admirari’ — or ‘to wonder at nothing’ — is all crushing noise and howling screams, making the subdued wonder of everything that follows an even sweeter anesthetic. Lopatin has described the album as his “Rousseau record” due its cloistered recording process, but ‘Nil Admirari’ is a bait-and-switch worthy of P.T. Barnum.

Chuck Person
(Chuck Person’s Eccojam’s Vol. 1, The Curatorial Club, 2010)

It’s ironic that Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol.1, a collection of recordings released with little fanfare, ended up becoming a definitive turning point in the OPN discography. Consumerism, pop music and spirituality all intersected as explicit themes in later works, but this collection of simple, repetitive loops remains the blueprint. The idea is simple — top 40 hooks are chopped away from their origin and looped to infinity, in the process mutating from pop detritus to religious mantra like some candy-coloured variation on Basinski’s Disintegration Loops. ‘A3’ is the best of the batch, trapping JoJo’s ‘Too Little Too Late’ in amber. With each dopamine-charged cycle it remains the most pure-pleasure album Lopatin has ever made — as well as the most influential.

The greatness of Eccojams is measured in the music that appeared in its wake both above and below the line of popularity. When PC Music started working with OPN it confirmed an inspiration the Chuck Person tape already suggested. Meanwhile the sound was a jumping off point for the first (and best) vaporwave artists using its compositional form to explore themes of queerness and capitalist alienation in the internet age. Macintosh Plus’ Floral Shoppe is settling into the experimental music canon and Wakesleep/Internet Club’s epic ‘To Anyone’ perfected the eccojam while making a transgender anthem in the process.

Oneohtrix Point Never
‘Returnal (Antony’s Vocal Version)’
(Antony | Fennesz : Returnal, Editions Mego, 2010)

Returnal’s other shocker came through its title track. It’s both the centerpiece and the one that seems to stand outside of everything around it. Returnal was composed at Lopatin’s parent’s home in Massachusetts, using a sealed, air-conditioned room as a jumping off point to perfect the cosmic-exotica of his “impressions of impressions,” but he waited until he was back in Brooklyn to make this shockingly direct vocal piece. On ‘Returnal’, he weaves treated vocals that could almost fit on The Knife’s Silent Shout through slow synth pulses like a string of DNA. If it hinted at a lyrical richness that was always there in one way or another, the alternate version with Antony Hegarty makes it explicit in a way that the project wouldn’t approach for years to come.

Lopatin was always quick to point out the digital tweaking that went into his early work, but this ‘Returnal’ glistens in its rawness. The cold synth pulse is replaced by warm piano chords as Antony brings into focus the originally hidden poetry of the lyrics. Here the subtle variations in repetition we’ve heard through countless arpeggios appear in lyrics that explore technological anxiety (“Visualize dark thoughts it was in a dream / Internet as a self-atomizing machine”), but also a rare tenderness (“Bending the air, love is so small” mutates into “Bending the air, love is so full”). Finally, it’s Antony — one of the most empathetic and profoundly human singers alive — who lays bare that haunting chorus, which sums up much of this discography: “Returnal – you’ve never left, you’ve been here the whole time.”

Oneohtrix Point Never
‘Sleep Dealer’ / ‘Remember’
(Replica, Software, 2011)

Replica, released on Lopatin’s fledgling Mexican Summer imprint Software, remains the breakthrough Oneohtrix Point Never release. It’s not that it’s thematically different from anything before, but it opened up the limitless ways those themes could be explored. These breathy collages spliced from TV commercials were a dramatic shift from the kosmische that Returnal put to rest. Naggingly familiar and entirely alien, nothing sounded like Replica. Many of its greatest moments play tricks on you, finding a sensuality in their scrambled commercial transmissions that peaks with a three-song run towards the heart of the album.

‘Sleep Dealer’, presented here with its Dean Blunt & Inga Copeland-directed video, floats in a kind of staccato jazziness best punctuated by lush, refreshed sighs snatched from a Wrigley’s gum commercial. The ‘Remember’ choral vocals provide an almost church-like foundation before eccojamming the sad titular plea. It’s the moment that best sums up Replica. It could mean anything, even if the reality is that the voice was just asking us to “Remember the great taste of McDonalds.”

Oneohtrix Point Never
(Replica, Software, 2011)

That double helping of commercial trickery leads abruptly into Replica’s sobering title track — one of the most drained sounding pieces of music I’ve ever heard. The song’s fallout-wrecked synth and piano melodies sound like the smoke rising as Rifts burns up on its return back to earth. There is a release, but it feels less like a climax than whatever life was left in the track being deflated in one final exhale. Taken with its music video — a simple accompaniment of old cartoons — it’s a haunting pairing and a strong contender for Lopatin’s best composition.

Oneohtrix Point Never
‘I Only Have Eyes For You’
(Commissions I, Software, 2014)

One of the most unique and beautiful moments in Lopatin’s career comes through this ghostly reimagining of a pop classic commissioned for Doug Aitken’s ‘Happening’ installation for Washington DC’s Hirshhorn Museum, one of many commissioned pieces we’d see from the project. Written in 1934 and popularized by the Flamingos in 1959, Lopatin’s version slices away the memorable “doo-wop sh-bop” hook, leaving a fog of stuttering coos and moans which resemble pop music by way of Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel. ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ is a stand-alone piece (though it closes the first Commissions compilation) but its threads echo what came before and point to what lies ahead.

Oneohtrix Point Never
(Rifts, Software 2012)

Zones Without People was arguably the best of the recordings compiled on Rifts, but ‘Hyperdawn’ is the peak of Lopatin’s early period no matter how you’re exposed to it. It’s the supernova finale of Zones, the curtain drop moment between discs on Not Fun’s original release of Rifts, but it makes the most sense on the triple CD re-release on Lopatin’s own Software imprint. There he lets it sit right in the middle of the three-hour, 33-track behemoth. With a runtime of 4:33, ‘Hyperdawn’ is comparatively brief, but its arpeggiated rush burns so brightly that the rest of Rifts’ universe can’t help but revolve around it.

True to the name, ‘Hyperdawn’ is a focal point to Rifts. Here, the contrasting forces Zones laid out at the beginning meet in a single burst that spins deeper into space until we hear birds return. As a closer for Zones it could be a blissful return to nature, but sitting at the highest peak upon Rifts it’s a pull-back moment, wide enough to see everything for the projected computer vision it is.

Oneohtrix Point Never and Brian Reitzell
(Boss: The Original Soundtrack, 2012)

As uncommercial as Oneohtrix Point Never’s early work appeared and as potentially cynical as his breakthrough Replica could be seen, Lopatin has nonetheless seen increasing success doing soundtrack work. In 2012, he worked on his first original score for Sophia Coppola’s The Bling Ring alongside Brian Reitzell, who also supervised an impeccably charged collection of pop songs. Lopatin’s music was laid out against pop tracks by Sleigh Bells and Azealia Banks, with the Returnal highlight, ‘Ouroboros’, providing a particularly sobering moment. Even better was the soundtrack to the short-lived Starz series Boss (starring Kelsey Grammer) where Reitzell and Lopatin made the impeccable ‘Ceiba’.

Lopatin’s commissioned work is always fascinating because it can often let you glimpse ideas that will be expanded later. Just as his later piece ‘Bullet Hell Abstraction’ would hint at sounds he explored on Garden Of Delete, ‘Ceiba’ hints at the orchestral direction Lopatin would take the following year on R Plus Seven with its fractured strings and careful ambient pulses, but it also stands on its own as a unique and very pretty rarity.

Oneohtrix Point Never
‘Boring Angel’
(R Plus Seven, Warp, 2013)

‘Boring Angel’ is the best opener on any OPN album, and a dramatic signal of everything his debut for Warp would do so well. R Plus Seven contains many of Lopatin’s most ambitious ideas primarily because of how it smashes them into one another. Here his materials are cheesy 80s keyboard presets, crisp MIDI splashes and subtly bent choral samples, but he builds them into songs that bring to mind the perfectionism idealized through endlessly slicker technology filtered through an abstracted religious grace.

True to those two poles, the working title of this piece was ‘Coptic Angel’, a religious reference to the light that comes through stained glass in Coptic churches, but also a sly reference to ‘Coptic Light’, one of Morton Feldman’s final compositions, from which the weaving of raw spiritual feelings to inhumanly complex forms remains a primary inspiration for Lopatin’s work. It’s the introduction to an album that makes for one of the most jarring, and accurate, musical representations of the uncanny valley, with songs built from digitized trash blown out with the grandeur of space stations and cathedrals.

‘Boring Angel’, presented above in its sneakily powerful emoji music video, brings to mind both of those spaces. From the initial pressurizing drone, it abruptly blasts off with a strobing arpeggio. It’s the first of many trance-inducing moments on an album where everything seems to be moving fast and slow at the same time — like a wheel spinning so rapidly, to a flawed human eye, that it appears to move gently in reverse. The light-speed rotations end with an equally jarring church organ blast — those moments separated by one carefully placed silence, a pause that leaves you straddled in a familiar position between past and future before falling through into R Plus Seven’s more fractured valleys as the digital birds of the next track begin to rush by.

Oneohtrix Point Never
‘Bullet Hell Abstraction’
(Commissions II, Software, 2015)

In his first interview with Pitchfork in 2010, Lopatin was asked to name his favorite video games. He doesn’t have a specific favorite, but he mentions a love for “bullet hells” and Ikaruga in particular. “Bullet hells” are a sort of aggressive evolution of the top down shooters popularized in the 80s by Konami’s Gradius and Lifeforce, games where you guide your small ship through waves of hazards and where one mistake leads to death (and another quarter for the arcade machines). As tech advanced into the 90s, the limit of how many bullets and enemies could appear on screen wasn’t a detriment any more, leading to “bullet hells” so difficult they border between game and abstract art. Several years later, in a commissioned piece for Red Bull Music Academy on Japanese game music, Lopatin blurred that line further.

The fractured metal of ‘Bullet Hell Abstraction’ comes in two pieces. It begins with grinding synthesized guitar riffs before whipping itself into a flurry of laser bleeps and squelching effects until its glassier, prettier second half. In an interview just last month, Lopatin revisited video games, describing the enjoyment he gets from simply watching someone else play. It’s no wonder bullet hells would be an influence on him — they’re unforgiving to players, punishing the slightest, briefest betrayal of attention, but that’s inverted for an observer, with the most extreme moments becoming hypnotically beautiful. Watch a video of Ikaruga in action and Oneohtrix’s ‘Bullet Hell Abstraction’ becomes a synesthetic experience in marveling at chaos.

Oneohtrix Point Never
‘I Bite Through It’
(Garden Of Delete, Warp, 2015)

Released this year, Garden Of Delete is a record many of us are still processing. The album was the end result of a train of thought inspired by a stint opening for 90s angst icons Nine Inch Nails. Yet for all the aggression found in this new world, G.o.D. feels like the most intimate part of that same universe we first heard forming on ‘Woe Is Transgression’. There are threads running throughout, from Chuck Person’s Eccojams to R Plus Seven’s microediting (used all over, but to staggeringly beautiful effect on ‘Child Of Rage’), even the trance epic ‘Mutant Standard’ sources its ghostly pre-pubescent voices from deep YouTube (and as always, the birds return). But before all that we just had ‘I Bite Through It’ following a dizzying ARG-style announcement to knock us off balance, ensuring that this sonic haymaker landed full force.

None of the OPN-threads in ‘I Bite Through It’ are apparent the first time you hear it (except maybe ‘Nil Admiari’, just because both knock you on your ass), but there wasn’t a better track to introduce this new sound with. All the rage and agitation found inside Garden Of Delete is bottlenecked into tight, focused blasts — the grinding metal guitar one minute in, the syllabic titular shrieks — but they’re enveloped inside tranquil sections of proggy noodling. It lays out everything great about the record without giving anything away.

Oneohtrix Point Never
‘Sticky Drama’
(Garden Of Delete, Warp, 2015)

I Bite Through It’ fell into our hands like the puzzle box in Hellraiser — curious, enticing, hinting at the horror and pleasure lurking inside. When you first hear Garden Of Delete in full, however, it’s clear everything hinges on ‘Sticky Drama’.

Here, Lopatin takes the album’s main theme head on, approaching a different sort of uncanny valley, the building anxiety that comes with puberty and sexual maturity, while bending and blurring his own adolescent memories in the same manner as the radio station that gave him his moniker. It’s even more explicit in the short film the track is paired with, where hormonal changes are reappropriated as Cronenbergian body horror, and ejaculation comes with all the exaggeration of a splatter film, but ‘Sticky Drama’ is experienced best on its own where the orgasmic, featherlight vocals and choked digital screams whirl in a twisted portrait of sexual crisis.

But this is all about puberty in the same way that Zones Without People was about space: it’s not actually about tigers, it’s about that man. True to that, ‘Sticky Drama’ finds Lopatin distorting these memories through his most contemporary sounds and for the first time embracing his role as a leader in experimental and popular electronic music. You hear that in the fractured EDM bass-drops and the taffy-vocals that echo SOPHIE; it’s music that admittedly might not be built to last, but through it you finally get the sense Lopatin’s music is. It’s a bold, hysterical, terrifying, and maturing moment and an assurance that when he comes back with a new album in 2017 (providing we’re not all dead, it will be the project’s 10-year anniversary) there’ll be an even bigger audience spreading the word, willing to endure that first, guaranteed response: “what?

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