January 16, 2017
Released On September 14, 2014
Released By Dream Catalogue
It’s unfortunate that, for many people, vaporwave isn’t much more than a punchline and a chance to throw out the ubiquitous “a e s t h e t i c” in chatrooms and comment sections. What’s been described as the first “post-internet” music genre has, in fact, grown past its modest beginnings and oversaturation of product into a varied and mature style of music worthy of more than jokes and derision. With many vaporwave artists taking influences from other genres like trap, pop, dubstep, funk and soul, found sound, and ambient, there’s a multitude of dynamic and fantastic music being made under the vaporwave umbrella. One of my personal favorite strains is the ambient style that’s been put to the forefront of modern vaporwave by the successful label Dream Catalogue, and one of my favorite albums released in recent years is the haunting sci-fi romance A Heart Full Of Love by DARKPYRAMID.
DARKPYRAMID is a pseudonym of Dream Catalogue label runner and prominent vaporwave artist HKE. Formerly known as Hong Kong Express, he has also released music under a number of other aliases including Subaeris, Sandtimer, and more; he’s also one half of the incredibly successful duo 2 8 1 4 along with the great t e l e p a t h テレパシー能力者. DARKPYRAMID, though, is a side-project worthy of the same prominence that HKE and 2 8 1 4 have, and A Heart Full Of Love is proof.
Right from the first illusive latent noise and echoing electronic tones of opener “He Stole Her From The Company Of God,” DARKPYRAMID establishes the relationship between music and environmental sounds as almost equally important, giving the album a strong sense of setting and scope. Standout third track “The Sprawl In Decay” is a beautiful blend of sustained chords and shimmering high synth tones weaving throughout of various city sounds and dripping rain, probably the most interesting combination of ambient noise and musical composition on the entire record. The transition songs, “Falling,” “Forbidden,” and “Dreams” create a fine balance on the album in their shorter length and more standard downtempo electronic feel, allowing longer tracks like the aforementioned “The Sprawl In Decay,” “Kisses In Electric Rain,” and “A Hotel Room (Lit By A TV Screen)” to take their time to develop what’s often not much more than a single motif or idea in subtle and meandering ways. Case in point: the epic “Embracing” is thirteen minutes of constant organ-esque synth chords and vague, somewhat sinister booming and exploding industrial noise just beneath the music. Ending the record on something of a hopeful note after the relentless artificiality of all that came before, “Outside The Pyramid” and its lush, organic ocean waves and piano is one of the most soothing and cathartic album closers in recent memory.
Though the album almost never falls into the gimmicks and cliches often found in lesser vaporwave music, the times that it does, like the admittedly slightly grating “Shut Down / ESC” and the last computerized voice asking “Please enter your password,” slightly diminishes the album’s ability to fully shed the vaporwave label and stand on its own. Nonetheless, there is too much beauty to be found here to allow a couple of small missteps keep one from listening. On A Heart Full Of Love, DARKPYRAMID takes ambient music and marries it with a cyberpunk dystopian love story; the result is a hypnotic, cinematic album that pulls you into its futuristic world and leaves an impression long after it’s finished.
Perhaps the only known image of the anonymous musician known as DARKPYRAMID or Hong Kong Express or even David Russo.
When I’m listening to an ambient or soundtrack-esque instrumental album, there are a couple ways I tend to digest the music: “Still focused on real life, just with music that complements it,” and “I’ve been dropped into a movie scene.” Personally, even knowing there’s an underlying fictional concept/character in A Heart Full Of Love‘s 12 tracks, I would rather have something that fosters the former over the latter, as that happens to lend more of an immersive experience because the music can be interwoven with what’s happening around me and-or what I’m doing. Meanwhile, the latter creates a wall that doesn’t (at least for me) place listeners within whatever they’re being inspired to think about. The first half mixes softer dynamics with synthesizer tones light on attack/long on sustain, and organic sounds like rain falling on steel, (“The Sprawl In Decay,” “Kisses In Electric RainForbidden” is the first track where, even though it still provides a backdrop aesthetic and establishes a sonic/visual setting, the combination of sounds, and dynamic levels used for them, noticeably shifts going forward. Quite a few tracks in the second half brought up thoughts of very specific places where I could hear the music being synced; boosting an unrealistic medium. (“Dreams” feels like it belongs in David Firth’s old school flash series, Salad Fingers. “Falling” places the listener outside of a vivid psych thriller video game, setting the tone for a plot-heavy and intense cut scene.) There’s something about the industrial characteristics — the clanging, the scrapes, the water hitting and running against metal — that, even if I’m listening while it’s not raining or I’m not walking about the coldness of the city, I can still picture as something plausible I could be doing. The tracks would simply provide a musical dimension to those experiences and that’s what I think is one of A Heart Full Of Love‘s strongest drawing qualities, in a style often perceived as sonically monochromatic.
You know who probably loves this album more than anyone? Drake and his right hand man, producer Noah “40” Shebib. A Heart Full Of Love is essentially a Drake instrumental album, minus the ever-present boom of an 808 bass drum. The ambient backdrops provided by DARKPYRAMID can take you wherever your mind happens to wander: a massage therapy session (“Falling“), the spookiest church of all time (“Embracing“), or even the gates of Hell (“Shut Down / ESC“). It’s an interesting experience listening to this album. To be honest, I’ve never listened to this type of music before, and quite frankly, I’m not even sure what to call it. But I think I get it — sometimes you just want to zone out, maybe even get weird. And there’s certainly music for every occasion.
I’m sure I’m not the first person to observe this, but how strange is it that “static” is what we call the fuzzy, flashing stuff that used to show when something was wrong with the TV? In other contexts, the word is used to describe something that’s unmoving, but TV static is busy and frantic and makes you want to jump off the couch and smack the top of the television. The reason I bring this up is that A Heart Full Of Love is, in my mind, what that specific irony — the space between the two meanings of “static” — sounds like. In “Cytherea’s Song,” you’re presented with a plodding boom-boom-snap beat that proceeds with a cold, unflinching determination. It makes me think of a vast army marching deliberately to the front, oblivious to the towns and people that line the road it’s on. Yet from the very beginning of the song, there’s also a noise track in the background that combines an array of sounds that may or may not include children playing, a fountain, air rushing through a confined space, and coins being delivered via an automatic change dispenser. It’s mixed fairly low, but because of the way you internalize the unchanging beat, the background slowly becomes the focal point, and an otherwise sparse song ends up crackling with sound. Really neat, I think. It doesn’t, however, make me want to smack the top of my TV. In part because TV’s don’t have tops anymore.
Full of reel-distorted imagery that mirrors the sensual beat of the song as well as the veiled theme of the record.
With titles like “The Sprawl In Decay,” “Kisses In Electric Rain,” and “Forbidden,” it’s obvious that the mysterious avatars behind DARKPYRAMID are advancing a narrative on their 2014 album A Heart Full Of Love. But since this is abstract, electronic music of the “vaporwave” variety — think ambient with an occasional beat — whether or not you pursue that storyline in your mind as you listen is completely up to you. Either way this is gorgeous stuff, drifting soundscapes that are also elegant in their arrangements and in their sonics. If you didn’t know any of the titles or see the naked android/mannequin on the cover you might even take this as the best spa music you ever heard. And I mean that as a compliment: I value a good opportunity to relax body and mind and having been to a spa or two I’ve found that the music is rarely up to the standards of the rest of the experience. The relaxing spell is somewhat broken on the title track and “Shut Down / ESC,” which have some startling semi-vocals and slightly industrial sounds. You will definitely snap out of your reverie when the last track ends with a spoken instruction that is both completely quotidian and slightly creepy. Maybe the message is to get out of the sauna and give DARKPYRAMID your full attention — they deserve it.
DARKPYRAMID is like a futuristic digital rainstorm with lush reverb soundscapes over sparse glitchy beats. The track “Embracing” is like the ominous sounds you might hear leaking into your bunker after surviving the nuclear war. Their record label was established in 2814 and installs dreams (music?) into your brain. I guess that means Bandcamp will be backwards compatible and email is still the preferred contact method. I couldn’t name two other current bands in this subgenre without cheating, but one could probably link this movement back to bands like The Future Sound Of London.
A Heart Full Of Love is a record that I didn’t know that I wanted. An ambitious, fully realized concept that exists in a vaporwave realm that tells its story of a man falling in love with a female android. With a few words sprawled that read “she was just a test model / ‘but she was mine,’ he said” speak volumes as to what one might expect. In recent years, I’ve been fascinated by the ideas of scores and how they either exist to accompany a visual component or if they can exist in their own realm. Some recent examples that many have sought out in recent years include S U R V I V E (Stranger Things), Disasterpeace (It Follows), and Steve Moore of Zombi (The Guest). A lot of this can be traced back even further to the works of John Carpenter, Ennio Morricone, and Bernard Hermann, and it might seem like a given, but if you are going to talk about A Heart Full Of Love and DARKPYRAMID in general; it seems impossible to not bring up the work of Vangelis. In particular, his work scoring the Ridley Scott motion picture Blade Runner. The story similarities are there, but the sonic parallels are chilling and divisive of one another also. Every minutiae of sound is required to be listened to from start to finish on A Heart Full Of Love to really understand the story being told. While the song titles give you a glimpse of the synopsis, the real test of this record is deciding on whether you are will to jump on board for this visual choose your own adventure. I could go on and on about how rewarding the sonic journey feels as you imagine the romance between a human and an android play out in your imagination. Instead, I think I’ll take the advice of the closing request of a password entry and start from the beginning and see where A Heart Full Of Love goes on future listens.
Logo for Dream Catalogue, Hong Kong Express’ own label that consistently pushes vaporwave to new places both bold and inventive.
I expected DARKPYRAMID to be some sort of electro-goth band, based on their name. Maybe even one of those dark glitchy projects that got lumped in under the “witch house” label/trend a few years ago? (To be clear, I’m not hating — an article I wrote is actually cited in the witch house Wikipedia entry, believe it or not!) I can’t say I was entirely wrong, in that DARKPYRAMID is indeed slowed-down, spooky electronica. However, this if anything is more of an ambient project than any of that witch house stuff ever was. It straddles the line between the ambient techno experiments of Aphex Twin and the creepier works of some of the better artists to appear under the witch house umbrella at some point or another — think Creep, or Mater Suspiria Vision. There’s an overwhelming feeling of being outside amongst nature that pervades all of these tracks–rainstorms and crashing waves catch your attention at times, working with the minimal synthesized swells to create a sonic environment that could make you feel like you’re spending an overcast evening wandering along a damp beachfront. It can be a somewhat foreboding experience, but it’s never unpleasant.
About halfway through my first listen to A Heart Full Of Love, I Googled DARKPYRAMID and what I found was a challenge to my own personal biases about music. The genre that was associated with them (I’m not sure if it’s a group or an individual. It never matters unless you’re trying to form this exact kind sentence) was “Dance/Electronic” and that made me think very long and hard about what it takes to qualify for that genre. Did this album qualify? Are any of the tracks particularly danceable? The answer, much to my surprise, was yes. Ok, yeah, you’re not going to drop this to get a crowd hyped at a club, but songs like “Cytherea’s Song” have a repetitive, catchy beat and at least elevate me to the level of rhythmic swaying… which is a form of dancing, right? A trip over to DARKPYRAMID’s Last.fm page is enlightening. They are tagged as “ambient”, “electronic”, and “vaporwave” (which the on-site wiki defines as “A genre comprising a small number of artists on the internet reconstructing sound from audio wreckage and garbage music with computer software.”). So they’re not actually trying to get people moving’ and groovin’. They’re here to tell a story and I can certainly respect that. This album is amazing to listen to while driving in the rain at night, which was how I first experienced it. I don’t know if I’ve ever listened to music that made me feel more like I was already asleep and my brain was dreaming up these weird, paranoid instrumental tracks. It’s unlike any other music I can think of and I’m so happy to have it in my life!
It’s remarkable how familiar this music feels, despite being such a distinct musical mineral in execution. This really shouldn’t come as a surprise though — it seems the goal of all of these electronic off-shoots of the past decade is to do just that, whether you’re doing it through the lenses of vaporwave, chiptune, or even hypnagogic pop. But there’s something more about this record and this music that makes the familiarity so devastatingly effective and it’s not just something that’s formed from the grand design of a genre. Thematically, there’s a novel homage to the tale of Galatea and Pygmalion, but with more urgency and tragedy essential for modern pathos. Sonically, there are gorgeous movements and curious phrases that that vividly describe a world completely foreign, one that the listener immediately becomes immersed in just like the most lauded sci-fi scores. Hand in hand, they make a compelling record that’s gripping from the opening track, one full of wonder and mystique with a slightly damning title that sets the stage for the rest of the album: “He Stole Her From The Company Of God.” A sparse story unfolds from there, backed by adroit compositions and crucial pacing, but it’s not until the tail end of the record that its ability reveals itself. Song after song builds up the familiarity of a fabricated and inorganic world, and does this so well that when “Shut Down / ESC” begins, it’s almost unbearable. Agonizing words buzz out over a jarring backdrop in this desolate song, but despite its soulless structure, it’s the song that clearly has the most heart of the record… and that’s the real triumph here. DARKPYRAMID’s ability to inject soul into the digital unknown future and relay it to you with restrained instrumentation — it’s simply astonishing.
Dark Hope by Renée Fleming
Chosen By Kira Grunenberg