Gesaffelstein – Hyperion
Endlessly experimental electronic producer Gesaffelstein tones down the weirdness a little with some more accessible instrumentals and big-name pop collabs for his second full-length project, Hyperion. Gesaffelstein was a major contributor to Kanye West’s Yeezus, the minimalist and industrial sound of which is currently everywhere you look in the world of pop music. We might have foreseen this switch coming – Gesaffelstein didn’t go pop, pop went Gesaffelstein. The mysterious producer’s experimental instincts are still firing on all cylinders across this project and we get a couple pretty exhilarating musical moments, but most of the time it feels a little too safe for someone who was previously so out there.
A lot of Gesaffelstein’s previous material was always incredibly admirable for even trying the idea out, but not necessarily something that I’d want to return to for multiple listens. The guy is doing something a little grander and more cinematic, crafting these unique sonic textures, than making music that’s structured in any way. That changes a little here, but not on the opening track “Hyperion”, essentially a robotic and glitchy loop of two alternating synth notes that is slowly built upon and expanded with harmonies and other synth flourishes as the track goes on, finally resolving in this beautiful, shimmering chord. A lot of the instrumental tracks here are actually similarly repetitive, but not many of them hit the same kind of fascinating shifting, changing being that the first one does, other than of course the final, near 11-minute monster “Humanity Gone”, which is a serious odyssey of a track that really showcases just how endlessly creative this guy can be. A track like “Reset” is an undeniable dark and grimy groove, but it’s really not much more than 4 bars repeating for three and a half minutes. A couple sounds are added and taken away, but it’s nothing revelatory. “Vortex” doesn’t fare much better, a shorter yet still very repetitive track that ends up getting a little grating due to the high pitched, siren-like synth that he used.
Of course, there are also a couple of huge featured artists on this thing. The first one we hear is The Weeknd himself on the hit single “Lost In The Fire”, which, again, seems uncharacteristically safe for Gesaffelstein despite the fact that it’s actually a pretty decent track with a great pop hook. It sounds a bit like a track that missed the cut on one of The Weeknd’s albums and became a song billed to the producer – a lot of The Weeknd’s recent material have been riding that same spastic, electronic Daft Punk-esque groove that was introduced on his hit “Starboy”. The best song with a featured artist here is easily “Blast Off” with Pharrell Williams. It’s a similar kind of dark, electronic place, but the interesting part is that Williams’ vocals are actually what provides the lighter contrast – where a huge, sparkly 80s synth might have blared in, it’s actually Williams layered vocal on that “ooooh, higher higher” melody. The music cutting out for that critical “blast off” as the beat roars back in is such a great moment. This is Gesaffelstein getting to flex his producer muscles as much as possible, and the creative ways he uses Williams’ always malleable vocals really elevates this track past everything else here.
The track “Forever” with Electric Youth is also a highlight, breaking up the monotony of Gesaffelstein’s instrumentals and creeping synth-bass – this is finally what Pharrell was delivering in instrumental form. We needed a bit of a lighter track, and this is it. I love the way the vocals are a little buried in the mix, singing “I’ll be with you forever” as Gesaffelstein makes us feel like we’re hurtling through space. There’s something timeless about it. The complete switch-up in the track’s second half to this chaotic, robotic series of bleeps and bloops is a huge welcome surprise in an album that doesn’t have many. HAIM’s appearance on the track “So Bad”, on the other hand, feels pretty empty. Their vocals are breathier and flit around cutting in and out, the track aiming for this kind of eerie, haunting effect, but the melodies don’t stick at all, especially with the huge dramatics of Gesaffelstein’s electronic world behind them. The sisters’ delivery doesn’t measure up to those huge, booming drums, and the whole track kind of lingers in the back without much of a resolution.
There’s so much that Gesaffelstein is capable of, and he shows it in little flashes across this project that become some of its best moments. It’s clear that he was trying to break through to a wider audience a bit with this one, and rereading the thoughts I’ve put down I feel like I was a little too critical just because my expectations were sky-high. A lot of this sounds great, but it’s also very repetitive and essentially the bare minimum to reach that status. Gesaffelstein could have done a lot more creatively here.
Favourite Tracks: Blast Off, Forever, Humanity Gone, Memora
Least Favourite Track: Vortex
Flume – Hi This Is Flume
Future bass pioneer Flume is another electronic producer who has had some serious influence over pop music over the last couple of years, though his full-length projects have often been rather inconsistent. Flume throws every idea possible at the wall and sometimes it winds up being a little too distorted or disjointed. This is his first major project since 2016’s Skin, and he’s made a major improvement on that front by taking the approach to an album as a single, shifting track. If you weren’t looking, you wouldn’t know the tracks switched over. The transitions on Hi This Is Flume are excellent across the board and it’s easy to get lost in the disorienting world of complex rhythmic patterns that Flume paints here. With 17 tracks that total only 38 minutes, the terming of this project as a “mixtape” makes sense, but it’s easily Flume’s most enjoyable work yet.
It’s tough to talk about individual tracks on this project, since they all flow into each other so nicely and most of them contain elements of the previous ones so its difficult to distinguish what makes each one of them individually great – it’s all just an experience from the first track to the last. After a brief intro, however, the track “Ecdysis” does a great job reminding us what exactly we love about Flume so much, sounding a lot like his older material and reinstating some of his signature rhythmic moves with the twinkling background synths and trademark glitchy … rushes of air? That’s the only way I can describe that invigorating noise that Flume uses all the time.
This transitions into the track “High Beams” that features British rapper Slowthai, who starts attacking the beat with a spastic and off-kilter flow. Quirkier rappers have always fit in well into Flume’s work, somehow navigating around all the insane series of sounds that he throws at them – I love that muted synth-piano in the track, that’s a sound I’ve never really heard used in that way. On a similar note, the best feature here is none other than JPEGMAFIA on the rap track “How To Build A Relationship”. Peggy is one of the most unique rappers in the game right now and I couldn’t imagine a better partnership – even if Flume’s instrumental might be one of the safest here on the whole project, essentially giving Peggy a standard menacing hip-hop beat, the vocals deliver the same kind of exhilarating unexpectedness with the odd screams, unique inflections and even a Game of Thrones reference to catch you off guard. It’s great to hear the two just having fun and goofing around on the back half as well.
Fellow experimental producer SOPHIE shows up twice here, contributing some of that bubbly yet distorted PC Music take on pop music to the track “Voices” and the other actually being a lengthy, and somehow, even more drawn-out, chilling remix of her track “Is It Cold In The Water?”. You wouldn’t think someone else’s track would fit in so well to the very stylized and individual mix Flume is building here, but it does.
“Jewel” is another standout track from the early goings just because it’s so much longer and it gives the groove Flume builds up more time to settle in. From the second that loud snare comes in on the offbeat and throws the listener off you know it’s going to be a classic Flume track – there’s a serious beauty in how he manages to slowly build up the instrumental world of the track to somehow make all the seemingly incongruous elements fit together properly. “Wormhole” to “MUD” is a pretty incredible sequence of tracks that could easily have been combined into its own – I love hearing Flume apply a certain theme to a specific area of the album, it’s clear that the sequencing was done very deliberately. This section is all about the percussion and rhythms, and Flume always brings his wonkiest beats to the table that somehow click together.
Of course, there are a couple down moments on the project where I’d love to be hearing even more of that chaotic Flume goodness, but they work just as well as a breather from the madness – it’s just that I won’t be likely to return to them as initial tracks. A track like “Dreamtime” doesn’t really go anywhere and serves as more of a buildup and intro to that SOPHIE remix track. The run from “Upgrade” to “Daze 22.00” is a little weaker than the rest of the album as well just because the tracks are so short and no individual idea really has the chance to take off before something else storms in, but that disorientation is all part of the Flume experience. You never know what’s going to come next and it’s a lot of fun for that reason. There’s a lot more focus on these futuristic synth arpeggios and vocal modulations throughout this section.
Flume finally found a way to make all of his diverse ideas flow together nicely with this project. It takes the style that he birthed and expands upon it in a world that’s using the basics of it everywhere else, and it’s really great to hear him reach the full potential that I could see on Skin.
Favourite Tracks: How To Build A Relationship, Jewel, High Beams, Ecdysis, Wormhole
Least Favourite Track: Dreamtime
Solange – When I Get Home
R&B and neo-soul singer, producer, and of course, member of the Knowles family Solange didn’t take nearly as long as last time to drop a new album. When I Get Home is her fourth full length and arrives about two and a half years after the stunning and political A Seat At The Table. Of course, no matter what Solange dropped now it’d be pretty impossible to follow that project up, and again my expectations were set pretty high. When I Get Home is a much quieter, more understated and very atmospheric record than its predecessor, Solange recruiting a lengthy list of impressive collaborators to help build these worlds around her vocals. She’s said that this album represents “what she had to feel” where her last was “what she had to say”, and this is partially represented by Solange’s songwriting getting much more simplistic and repetitive. While this can make these tracks a little underwhelming and sometimes even sound a little unfinished, like a series of vignettes and demos that were never turned into something concrete, the best way to appreciate this project is to just remove all preconceptions and let the calming sounds wash over you. Solange’s voice is as beautiful as ever, and even if she didn’t quite make a similar enormous statement, there’s quite a lot to love about this project as well.
Solange taps into the psychedelic and jazzy neo-soul side of her voice and artistry for the most part here, the synths running up and down the jazz scales in the intro “Things I Imagined” clearly meant to be more of a focus than her vocals repeating the title. Things really pick up for the first time on the track “Down With The Clique”, which gets an assist on the keys and backing vocals from Tyler, The Creator, one of the biggest collaborators to the project. It’s a simultaneously unexpected and obvious combo especially after Flower Boy, both of them tapping into this sunny jazz-funk area. Solange’s falsetto soul belt is a little weird on the quieter instrumental, but she always sounds seriously angelic. Solange’s voice acts as almost a kind of endlessly capable foil for all of her collaborators to work around – whether it’s Metro Boomin, Dev Hynes, Pharrell or Steve Lacy. A lot of these tracks blend together, lending to the sense of projecting a feeling to the listeners rather than a message. It’s not very memorable, but it’s very interesting when you’re in the middle of it.
There aren’t many fully established songs that you can really nod your head to, it’s a lot more nuanced than that – but it makes me appreciate something like “Stay Flo” even more. The Metro track, it drops into more of a recognizable structure with some great harmonies in Solange’s lower range and some rattling hi-hats bouncing off of a great bassline – it definitely reminds me of some of her sister’s work, just using her voice as another instrument without actually saying much of consequence to distract from the vibe. Many of the lyrics here are very repetitive, some not even stretching past a single, repeated line that the instrumental shifts around – tracks like “Dreams” and “Time (is)” sound absolutely beautiful, but they don’t give me much meaning or keep me interested all the way through even a very short track.
I really start to understand what Solange was going for in other places, though. On a track like “Almeda”, referencing a location in her hometown of Houston, I’m reminded that Solange doesn’t need to be overtly political at all to project her sense of identity onto a track – the “feeling” she’s putting out represents the words of her last album without even saying it. Solange uses this track to make a much simpler statement over the traditional Houston chopped and screwed beat, simply listing black and brown things before stating “black faith still can’t be washed away”. Playboi Carti drops a verse on the track to complement her new simplistic writing style. “My Skin My Logo” with Gucci Mane is similar, the two naming each other and essentially just listing what each other like to do over a minimal funk bassline.
After the track “Jerrod”, a very atmospheric sensual jam, the remainder of the project really becomes more like a series of brief ideas than ever before, only one of the final 6 tracks actually exceeding 2 minutes. “Binz” is a highlight, Solange trading some speedier, hip-hop influenced bars with The-Dream about living lavish, but I really wish it went on for a little longer before transitioning into “Beltway”, one of the most subdued tracks on the whole project. Despite how masterfully crafted each one of these tracks are, I can’t help but feel like these idea fragments would work better with better sequencing on the tracklist.
I’m quite sure that there’s a lot of this project that goes directly over my head, but this is a big risk that mostly paid off even if I don’t think it reaches the heights of something like A Seat At The Table. This is another highly conceptual work that really aims to make you feel something, and even if I didn’t get all of it, it’s still something to admire.
Favourite Tracks: Stay Flo, Way To The Show, Almeda, My Skin My Logo, Binz
Least Favourite Track: Beltway