Part of the frustration (and fun) of keeping up with the incredibly fast-moving world of underground music is keeping track of the ridiculous number of subgenres and microgenres that bloom essentially everyday. It’s a topic that’s been touched on before, but to briefly summarize: the internet allows the invention of new music so quickly that a handful of likeminded musicians can coin a term and apply it to their music and form a scene in a staggeringly short amount of time. There are the well-known ones like Chillwave and Post-Dubstep that have birthed extremely popular musicians and bands like Neon Indian and Washed Out in the case of the former, and James Blake and Mount Kimbie for the latter. Witch House outdated itself very quickly with acts like Salem, but even with such a short time in the limelight, produced some quality records; Balam Acab’s Wander/Wonder was our 2nd favorite album of 2011, and Holy Other’s With U EP and recently released debut Held are both records that could stand the test of time outside of the associated stereotypes of its genre. Post-dirty south is a hip-hop subgenre that popped up recently to categorize artists like Lil Ugly Mane, Amber London, and Spaceghostpurrp. It’s probably a joke, but it still provides an example of just how easy it is to create a label and watch it turn into something legitimate overnight.
The new buzzworthy microgenre of 2012 is something called Vaporwave. The name is most likely meaningless, but the artists that carry the tag all share a very realized and similar aesthetic: Obsession with late 80s-early 90s VHS tapes, fascination with the early days of 3D computer graphics, and the usage of cryptic, nonsensical computer jargon or Japanese Katakana characters. Tiny Mix Tapes, a well-known music blog and website, has taken a particular liking to the warped sounds of vaporwave, which philosophically shares much in common with the Pop Art movement of the 1960s; tongue-in-cheek criticism of capitalist consumerism by re-imagining “not art” into “art.” One of the more notable vaporwave releases of 2012 is 情報デスクVIRTUAL’s 幌コンテンポラリー . Like Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, 幌コンテンポラリー repurposes content that was never intended to be viewed critically — elevator muzak, shopping mall music, corporate telephone hold music — and contorting it with elements of southern hip-hop and ambient noise to develop an unsettling new sound.
It’s almost Dadaist in it’s approach, if Duchamp could turn a urinal upside down and call it art in 1917, can someone in 2012 slow down and add reverb to smooth jazz and call it profound? Maybe by just placing this music in a new context, it becomes something else? 幌コンテンポラリー probably won’t stand to be the timeless work I’m making it sound like, but it’s an important point in the development of a microgenre that could possibly spawn something classic.
If Wander/Wonder was the culmination of the witch house bubble in 2011, 2012’s vaporwave equivalent might be YYU’s TIMETIMETIME&TIME. YYU is the moniker of an experimental musician named Ben Straus from Petaluma, CA. His latest release on Beer on the Rug Records, which has become the forerunner for 2012’s best new label, condenses some of the vaporwave themes into just under 30 minutes of experimentation with styles of some of the more innovative records of the last few years from artists like Oneohtrix Point Never, Mount Kimbie, and DJ Rashad. TIMETIMETIME&TIME bounces between chopped & screwed vocals (supposedly sung by the artist himself), freak folk acoustic guitar interludes glitched to oblivion, and juke and deep house bangers. Album opener “your hands/ moo .3” establishes the titular common theme by repeating the word “time” over and over in a rhythmic chant. That same word reappears throughout the album in many different vocal forms, and that repetition is what ties the whole record together so beautifully.
By the time the one minute long guitar interlude “um (don’t be)” (which sounds uncannily like something ex-Pullman local David Plell would make) ends, it seems like eons have passed in the best way possible. Album highlight “yyyy” contains the closest thing to a beat drop here, but the execution and placement of said drop never feels calculated or forced. In fact, what makes TIMETIMETIME&TIME so fantastic is how natural YYU makes all of these unnatural pieces sound as a cohesive entity. The album begins dancing back and forth between electronic and acoustic, and as you progress through it, the blurred line between analog and digital becomes less pronounced. When the titular phrase repeats yet again on “&time” accompanied by more choppy guitar, it doesn’t as seem out of place as it would on any other record.
I’ve been fascinated this year with albums that explore the relationship between humans and technology: Laurel Halo’s Quarantine, Hundred Waters’ self-titled record, and to some extent Animal Collective’s Centipede Hz. Vaporwave tries to touch on some of these themes in a lofty, heavy-handed sort of way, but the approach that YYU takes on TIMETIMETIME&TIME feels effortlessly gorgeous. It’s one of the year’s most unexpectedly endearing underground records.