It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
As music-crit clichés go, "quantum leap" is right up there with "tour de force," but given Daniel Lopatin's penchant for sci-fi-inspired imagery, that seems a fitting way to describe his latest album as Oneohtrix Point Never. From 2007's Betrayed in the Octagon until 2010's Returnal, the Brooklyn musician followed a more or less straight and continuous path. Call it asymptotic transcendence: Working with outmoded synthesizers and a musical vocabulary heavily inspired by cosmically-inclined keyboard specialists like Klaus Schulze, Edgar Froese and K. Leimer, Lopatin didn't so much write songs as build bridges across the unknown, stacking arpeggios like he was constructing a gleaming space elevator to the infinite. Factoring in the nostalgic kitsch of his appropriative YouTube projects (under the name Sunsetcorp) and the techno-mystical bent of his titles ("Computer Vision," "Ouroboros," "Sleep Dealer"), it was easy to imagine his albums as stepping-stones to the Singularity. All he needed to do was lock in that perfect sequencer pattern, and boom: we'd all find ourselves transported to some extra-dimensional realm where lines of code intermingle with the air molecules — like The Matrix but with a way better soundtrack.
Then, with 2011's Replica, Lopatin abruptly changed course, turning to samples sourced from '80s television commercials and balancing woozy loops with elegant piano melodies. It sounded like the work of an artist determined to break old habits but not yet sure how to replace them. It remains an excellent album, but R Plus Seven shows the extent to which Replica was merely a transitional work. On the new record, Lopatin sounds creatively reborn. His sonic palette is broader and bolder than ever, moving definitively beyond the shopworn Roland synths and lo-fi affect to embrace gleaming, hi-def, resolutely digital sounds, as well as pipe organs and children's choirs.
But the biggest shift is found in Lopatin's sense of structure. Abandoning the horizontal aspect of his previous work, in which layered patterns would extend in long, unbroken lines, he delights in feints and switchbacks and sudden left turns. In "Americans," a new age interpretation of pulse minimalism abruptly gives way to static choral pads, which in turn explode into a spray of bubbles and phonemes. "Zebra," likewise, builds up an ebullient approximation of Philip Glass or Steve Reich and then pulls the rug out; what remains feels like the sticky residue which has come before. It can make for a disorienting listening experience; Lopatin's fondness for taking non-linear tangents, combined with his habit of reusing sounds that are themselves heavily coded, charged with the subtexts of '80s techno-schmaltz, inscribe a sense of déjà vu in the album. You've been here before, you think, but the scenery never looks the same way twice.
As the silvery arpeggios of Oneohtrix Point Never's "Boring Angel" zip heavenward like some kind of galactic YKK, images of cloud-streaked cityscapes and canyons may flash through your mind at high speed. It's almost impossible not to be reminded of Philip Glass's Koyaanisqatsi (and, by extension, the 1982 film it accompanied). For anyone who has seen the film, at least, Glass's signature polyrhythms have come to seem inextricably entwined with director Godfrey Reggio and cinematographer Ron Fricke's stunning depictions of a world spinning out of control. Glass had been working with similar ideas since the late 1960s, when he adopted minimalism's repetitive figures and consonant tones in compositions like Music with Changing Parts, and by 1981's Glassworks, his approach could just as well have been termed "maximalist." Glassworks, Glass's first album for CBS, was written expressly for the recording studio; the composer has said the album "was intended to introduce my work to a more general audience than had been familiar with it up to then, which might explain its expanded expressive range." Both "Floe" and "Rubric" anticipate the pinwheeling motion of Koyaanisqatsi's most expansive passages, as woodwinds and synthesizers spin like some kind of complicated clockworks, piling up in dazzling moiré patterns.
The Skip Tracer
Markus Popp's breakout album under his Oval alias, 1994's Sistemisch, came as a revelation to anyone who had ever spaced out to the sounds of a skipping CD player. (It may be hard to remember now, but that actually happened with surprising frequency in the cafés of the late '90s, where stray coffee grounds and lasers proved entirely incompatible.) If Sistemisch sounded like skipping CDs, that's because that was precisely how Popp had recorded the music, scratching and coloring on pre-recorded discs and then sampling the pop and stutter of their perpetually erratic playback. Despite its digital underpinnings, it turned out to be a surprisingly organic sound, as quiet and rich in tone as flakes of mica falling from the mother chunk, or the slap of agates underwater. You can hear a similar technique on Oneohtrix Point Never's R Plus Seven, particularly on "Zebra," whose principal melody line foregrounds a staccato sliver of bright, synthetic sound. Paradoxically, it's by making the sounds so small that OPN makes them almost tactile and imbues them with the quality of physical heft. More than any of his previous albums, R Plus Seven explores sound as an object: instead of the time-based sprawl of his earlier, arpeggio-heavy works, the new one picks its way through a series of motifs and sonic baubles as though rearranging objects on the shelf. (In that sense — and also in its radical break from the sound for which OPN is best known — it also bears comparison to Oval's 2010 album O, in which Popp leaves behind the glitches in favor of nodes and clusters of plucked electric guitar, as though a Derek Bailey improvisation had been dropped into a very coarse blender.)
The Vocal Visionary
Laurie Anderson and Oneohtrix Point Never don't share that much in common, unless you consider that Anderson was NASA's first artist-in-residence, and Daniel Lopatin deserves to be one, given the way songs like "Chrome Country" could double as the automated wake-up soundtracks for long-haul space travelers coming out of cryogenic sleep. (For that matter, R Plus Seven even has a song called "Cryo.") Anderson is a performance artist whose work is deeply invested in text, speech and (mis-)communication; Lopatin is a studio composer whose music seems tailored for a post-linguistic age, when we'll all communicate using a system of digitized tones and timbres, like electronic bats, or crickets. But in purely musical terms, Laurie Anderson's 1981 single "O Superman" offers an obvious antecedent to the kind of vocal processing that characterizes R Plus Seven. The isolated syllables that Lopatin chops, loops, and smears are dead ringers for the truncated vowel sound (somewhere between "Ha ha ha ha" and "Ah ah ah ah") that runs like a guy wire from end to end of Anderson's hypnotic meditation on the end of empire.
Anderson's song was an unlikely contender for the kind of crossover success it eventually found: More than eight minutes long and effectively a cappella, it was made of nothing but Anderson's own electronically harmonized and multi-tracked vocals. It was absolutely chilling, too, once you absorbed the lyrics. The song revolves around a pair of messages left on an answering machine, late at night. The first is from the subject's mother, asking when she is coming home; the second is an unknown caller who darkly warns, "This is the hand, the hand that takes. Here come the planes. They're American planes, made in America. Smoking or non-smoking? …Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night shall stay these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."
Since 9/11, "O Superman" has, quite understandably, taken on a new resonance. With its closing lines, "So hold me, Mom, in your long arms/ Your petrochemical arms, your military arms/ In your electronic arms," it was always, in some sense, a political song, but history rendered it eerily prophetic. Still, in its rich, synthetic harmonies and its ostinato pulse, there's something reassuring about "O Superman"; it presents solace in the form of a mother's arms, and also in the form of a natural world that's barely audible beneath the flatness of the technological realm. As Anderson sings "petrochemical," in fact, the sound of birdsong rises from deep in the mix; it's tempting to wonder if Lopatin had that in mind when he laced forest field recordings through his own "Americans."
The Synth Wizard
Jean-Michel Jarre is recognized as an electronic-music pioneer, although "popularizer" might be a better term. His debut album, Oxygene, has sold more than 12 million albums since it was released in 1977; by 1978, when he released Equinoxe, he was a big enough star in his native France that he could draw a reported 1 million people to an outdoor concert, and an additional television audience of 100 million — not bad, for a guy playing keyboards. Compared with contemporaries like Tangerine Dream, however, Jarre was far less experimental. He was equipped with cutting-edge technology, but his musical instincts were far more old-school, favoring stately melodic themes and cozy resolutions. From a present-day vantage point, much of his work scans as a little bit corny. But Lopatin has never been one to shy away from cheese — just consider the cybernetic rainforest vibes of "Americans" — and you can hear Jarre's influence in both the spiraling arpeggios of early Oneohtrix Point Never and the queasy digital chimes of R Plus Seven. (The cover of Oneohtrix Point Never's Returnal even seems to quote from Jarre's skull-emblazoned Oxygene sleeve.) Jarre's 1981 album Les Chants Magnétiques is slathered with the kind of vaporous choir samples and viscous effects favored by Lopatin, and the twists and turns of the album's 18-minute opener, while grandiose and prog-indebted, aren't so far off from the oblique gestures that give R Plus Seven its strange ebb-and-flow. The three-minute "Chants Magnétiques Pt. 3, meanwhile, has held up remarkably well; you could slot it into a mixtape crammed with modern-day cloud rap, Balearic disco, and lo-fi ambient, and listeners wouldn't bat an eye.
Luigi Russolo's essay "The Art of Noises," from 1913, is one of the foundational texts of the 20th Century's musical avant-garde. The Art of Noise, on the other hand, were determined to extend Russolo's concept of "noise-sounds" to the world of popular music. And that they did. ZTT label founder Trevor Horn and his collaborators (engineer Gary Langan, programmer J.J. Jeczalik, arranger Anne Dudley and music journalist Paul Morley, whose primary roles were naming and branding the group) weren't exactly musical innovators; the breakbeat-inspired rhythms and whiplashed beats of their debut album were already staples of the freestyle and electro-funk that followed in the wake of disco, and the synth-pop melodies of songs like "Beat Box (Diversion One)" were old news by new-wave standards. What Art of Noise did was to turn the fabric of recorded sound inside out, using a Fairlight CMI sampler — a $25,000 piece of gear that had only been on the market for a few years — to turn voices, drum hits and orchestral stabs into radically defamiliarized lumps of raw audio material that hung awkwardly in the balance between the referential and the purely sensory. It can be hard to remember, now that their techniques have been so fully incorporated into popular music at every level, how disconcerting their cut-up aesthetic and brute repetition could sound, but it's a testament to their vision that the pile-driving percussion of "A Time to Fear (Who's Afraid)" still sounds so alien. Are those gunshots? Coughs? Where did that symphony orchestra come from — and who tied them to the railroad in front of the oncoming train? Many of R Plus Seven's individual sounds can be traced back to (Who's Afraid of) The Art of Noise?: Consider the artificial choir that appears halfway through "A Time to Fear (Who's Afraid)," for instance, and the breathy vocal pads of "Close (To the Edit)." "Momento," meanwhile, with its just-out-of-earshot murk that blossoms into ringing organ chords, offers a direct antecedent for R Plus Seven's hypermodern cathedral sounds.