Would you watch a musical version of Chopped? Imagine a competition populated by songwriters and producers instead of amateur chefs, one where each round’s mystery baskets were filled with samples and sounds instead of obscure ingredients. It wouldn’t take long to discern the values and ideas at the core of each contestant. How do you create something expressive and unique when you’re working with the same source material as the person next to you?
MTV might not be greenlighting this show anytime soon, but three LPs released by electronic artists last week achieved roughly the same effect. All of them — Lone’s Levitate, Flume’s Skin, and Gold Panda’s Good Luck and Do Your Best — draw from the same pool of influences: the erudite IDM of Boards of Canada and Aphex Twin, Madlib and J Dilla’s playful crate-digging, decades of colorful club music. And while the ingredients are common, the products couldn’t be more different: each album feels like a personal statement, a little brick that owes just as much to geography, experience, and temperament as the artists listed above.
If there’s a natural way to separate these albums, it’s time. Matt Cutler is tapping into the past with Levitate, his seventh LP as Lone. It’s a marble of a record: hard, shiny, built for speed. And while rave music’s always exerted an influence on Cutler, it’s never been more prominent or forceful than it is on Levitate. This is the closest he’s come to straightforward revivalism since the start of his career.
But when the furious breakbeats of jungle and hardcore appeared in Cutler’s earlier music, they were typically tempered by the synth melodies that have become his signature. 2012’s impressive Galaxy Garden smothered complicated rhythms in lustrous, hooting patterns, like bird calls emerging from deep within some neon jungle; 2014’s Reality Testing slowed his frenetic tracks down to a smooth glide. Levitate prizes velocity and intensity over everything else. The beats making up tracks like "Backtail Was Heavy" and "Vapour Trail" are relentless, and after a few minutes they start to warp the music around them. When "Triple Helix" starts to melt halfway through its run, you start to believe the beat might succumb to the groaning wave that’s been introduced. Instead, it sucks it up and chops it into pieces like a jet engine devouring debris left on a runway.
Homesickness for a place you can never visit
Levitate is more nostalgic than other Lone records, an appropriate quality given the specificity and intensity of its references. Cutler was just a kid during rave’s golden age, so he can’t look back at his own life during that time, but he’s still interested in the power of memory. (This has proven fertile terrain for everyone from Burial to Jamie xx over the last decade — if you’re a young British producer, it’s a longing you’ve probably thought about exploring.) It’s an album that acknowledges the transient nature of everything: joy, sickness, youth, even the sounds that give the album its backbone. Its placid interstitial tracks — "The Morning Birds," "Breeze Out" — are gasps for breath and opportunities for reflection. A sampled speaker on the latter talks about tagging stuff and impressing girls with a mixture of hubris and bashfulness. And the elegant, ambient album closer "Hiraeth" pulls its title from a Welsh word without a direct English translation. It’s meant to signify homesickness for a place you know you can’t revisit — a powerful, painful yearning. Levitate is Cutler’s tribute to a time and scene he’ll never know.
Skin is Harley Streten’s second full-length album as Flume, and it’s hard to imagine a more textbook bit of crossover EDM. (If you imagine a spectrum with "indie cachet" on one end and "Ultra Music Festival realness" on the other, Streten’s tilting towards the latter side; he’s closer to Major Lazer and Skrillex than Hudson Mohawke and Jamie xx, but only slightly. Call it the Disclosure Zone.) It’s a post-genre electronic stew, one studded with guests from all over the musical world. Want young, hungry rappers? You’ve got Vince Staples and Vic Mensa. Looking for someone a little more grizzled? There’s a Raekwon verse. More at home with indie pop? Check out the hook work from Little Dragon, AlunaGeorge, and Tove Lo. Ready to give up and listen to Beck? Beck is in the house!
It's like flipping through a design manual
Streten’s greatest strength is his penchant for sound design. He’s the kind of musician who readily describes himself as a "massive nerd," someone who finds a way to work an experimental spirit into tracks otherwise intended for digestion by huge audiences. Skin’s shorter solo pieces are built around scraps and stray thoughts: corrosive melodies, oscillating riffs, pieces of trap anthems gone by. Even the album’s most conventional songs are crammed with weird, subcutaneous details. "Never Be Like You" stutters and jangles like a pocket full of loose change; "Numb & Getting Colder" is post-Yeezus electro-pop, spitting and tearing with abandon.
All of Skin is sharp and bright, but there’s no real aesthetic thread holding it together. That’s partly by design: after debuting with an album that clung to a single tempo and mood, Streten wanted to push his own boundaries with music that was broad and sprawling. The album’s a success in that regard, flitting from pop to hip-hop to festival fare without a moment’s hesitation, and yet I find myself yearning for Levitate’s concision and perspective after spending an hour with Streten’s near-future whizbangs. It feels like reading someone’s journal; Skin is more like flipping through a design manual. It’s style searching for soul.
The memories Derwin Panda mined for his latest album, Good Luck and Do Your Best are rooted in Japan, his one-time home and continuing source of inspiration. He visited the country twice in 2014 with photographer Laura Lewis, hoping to emerge with material for a future documentary; he came away inspired, ready to make another record. (A Hiroshima cab driver gave the album its title when he bid Panda goodbye with the titular send-off, a bastardized English version of a Japanese saying — like "Hiraeth" — that has no true translation.)
Some of Good Luck and Do Your Best’s tracks reference specific scenes and sounds. "In My Car" is a perfect instrumental hip-hop track, one crying out for a rapper with an adventurous spirit; "Pink and Green" is meant to reflect the colors that dominate the twilight hour come springtime in Japan. But for the most part, Panda just wants you to understand the feelings those places generated, with or without context. The slow build of "Metal Bird" suggests an international jet gliding through the sky, and you can feel the anticipation coursing through it. "Autumn Fall" and "Halyards" are stunning, but they’re touched with the subtle sadness of a season fading. Closer "Your Good Times are Just Beginning" ends the album with radiant optimism.
When you spend time with Good Luck and Do Your Best, you don’t think, "Wow, this guy really likes Japan!" You don’t get the sense he’s trying to render scenes from his visit or capture a specific time, either. It’s music meant to facilitate connection to your own experiences and memories. I hear "Chiba Nights" and see myself out on the town with my friends, strutting down the street and feeling on top of the world; a few songs later, I hear "Halyards" and see myself saying goodbye, walking through a park alone with leaves underfoot. And while "Time Eater" is just one of the album’s tracks, I’m convinced it’d make a fitting alternate title for the album as a whole. It’s an album that drags long-forgotten parts of your life through time and space and into the here and now, forcing you to reckon with feelings you didn’t expect.
Levitate, Skin, and Good Luck and Do Your Best are all available on major streaming services now.