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So far, Spencer Doran’s mixtapes have overshadowed his actual albums. In 2010, the Portland, Oregon, producer posted Fairlights, Mallets and Bamboo—Fourth-World Japan, Years 1980–1986, a stunning collection of early-’80s Japanese synthesizer music by artists like Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Haruomi Hosono and Ryuichi Sakamoto. While not a party-starting DJ set, it was in its own meticulous, contemplative way, influential; you can hear its sensibility course through later works by the likes of Oneohtrix Point Never, Neon Indian, Motion Graphics, and the entire vaporwave contingency. A second volume followed, as did another series, Music Interiors, cementing Doran’s status as an innovative curator of now-obscure sounds.
But despite the bubbling ambience and generally high quality of Doran and partner Ryan Carlile’s 2015 debut album as Visible Cloaks, the initial full-length was overshadowed by the earlier mixes. On their second album, Reassemblage, however, the duo fully absorb these far-flung influences, weaving the strands into something delicate yet decidedly original. Lullaby-like though compositionally rigorous, serene but slightly unsettled, organic and synthetic, Reassemblage strikes an intriguing balance between extremes.
Like Daniel Lopatin, James Ferraro, and Laurel Halo did during the short reign of Hippos in Tanks at the start of the decade, Visible Cloaks scrutinize the once-novel digital sounds that now riddle modern pop and envelop us in our everyday lives. Just don’t call Visible Cloaks “vaporwave”—if anything, Reassemblage is the antithesis of that trend. While on the surface there is a shared obsession with the cleanliness of early digital music and the Japanese pop culture that helped usher it in the early ‘80s, what Doran and Carlile do with the raw material stands apart.
Scroll through the Discogs page for vaporwave and almost any title bears either a visual wink or track title that mimics Japanese script. As an Esquire piece proclaiming that vaporwave was dead posited last year, the genre itself was a “musical parody of pop consciousness… [a] sarcastic take on the unachieved utopias of previous decades.” But as Fairlights, Mallets, and Bamboo showed, there was a deeper investigation into the music beyond a mocking appropriation of a cool surface. The title itself comes from Vietnamese filmmaker/theorist Trinh T. Minh-ha’s 1982 film Reassemblage, a documentary filmed in Senegal that doubles as a tacit admission that one can never fully decipher another culture. While never able to fully grasp the Japanese sounds they adore, Visible Cloaks nevertheless have created an album along the axis of Fennesz’s Endless Summer and OPN’s Replica, an abstract electronic album that’s readily accessible and an immersive listen.
Visible Cloaks specialize in blurring boundaries, as they collapse organic sounds into precisely machined new shapes. “Mask” works from a palette closest to those Root Strata mixes, as gamelan bowls, bird calls, and vocodered hums are stretched and processed like a Fennesz track. “Terrazzo” has Doran and Carlile team up with Motion Graphics’ Joe Williams, taking his flute and elongating it until it more closely resembles a shakuhachi bamboo version. Around this timbre, the duo stir a marsh of small blips, twinkling crystals, and koto strings, a strange sensation of natural ambience and glitching electronics blending into an alien landscape.
Even when working with thoroughly synthetic tones, Cloaks tease them out so that they clench and exhale, emerging as digital blips that seem as natural as breath. Water sounds gush out of “Screen,” but rather than replicate new age nature sounds, the frequencies become high and crinkled, like the baldly fake cellophane sea of Frederico Fellini’s And the Ship Sails On. “Valve” continues with that gentle pacing, this time featuring the crystalline vocals of Miyako Koda, one-half of Japanese elegant ’80s group Dip in the Pool. Curiously, the group didn’t factor into any of Doran’s mixes, but “Valve” sounds like a lost Bamboo selection with its deliberate mallets and misty chords. Koda is the perfect fit here and the duo shadows her already gossamer voice with what might be puffs of steam on glass rods.
Water, glass, cellophane, crystals, glass—these metaphors suggest sound that can at once seem transparent and featureless. But Visible Cloaks take pains to pivot their compositions every so often, so that light catches off the sleek edges and a full spectrum of color suddenly appears. And as the album glides along, Cloaks moves away from the easy Hosono and Sakamoto comparisons. “Circle”—with its slivers of voices, strings, and woodwinds—sounds exacting in its every gesture, bringing to mind modern composition rather than laptop mincing. “Neume”—named for an early form of musical notation—finds the Cloaks collaborating with fellow Portlander Matt Carlson. They Auto-Tune his voice, but also warp it until he starts to resemble the polyphonic chants of a medieval organum. It’s one of Reassemblage’s loveliest moments and reveals Visible Cloaks’ essential appeal, not where East meets West so much as where ancient music anticipates its digital future.Share