Low End Theory founder and man behind Alpha Pup Records, Daddy Kev, would know a thing or three about the Beats Scene. Having quipped that Low End Theory's cultural relevance peaked around 2011, he remains optimistic about the future. This optimism undoubtedly rests on his perspective that the Beats Scene is defined by the fact that genres and aesthetics can be revisited, so long as it's done with new talent. Given that Nosaj Thing's debut album 'Drift' was released on the Alpha Pup imprint, it's an interesting perspective, one that provides a strangely congruent and revealing lens through which to view Nosaj Thing's long awaited sophomore effort, 'Home'.
With contemporaries forming the likes of Flying Lotus and Daedelus, and remix credits that include Radiohead and Philip Glass, it’s not too much of a stretch to call Nosaj Thing, aka Jason Chung, one of the Beats Scene's more forward-thinking luminaries. Establishing himself with debut album 'Drift' in 2009, the Los Angeles-based producer nailed an artery where the flow of understated glitch-hop, dub step-py grooves and a contemplative spaciousness all coalesced effortlessly. The introspective darkness was complemented by Chung’s programming, that was inquisitive in its playfulness, and unique in its oddness. Within the backdrop of the burgeoning scene, 'Drift's' release was further solidified by its exquisite timing.
With 'Home', an expected progression is seen, though one with quite varying results. Perhaps a little too early on sits standout track 'Eclipse/Blue', arguably the best track on the album. Here, the ephemeral vocals of Blonde Redhead's Kazu Makino effortlessly streams from an icy chasm, swaying through in controlled washes of swelling reverb. All this, while a frenetic kick drum and fractured snap of a distant snare seals in the feeling of mysterious desolation. It's like the most sublime bits of Elizabeth Fraser's 'This Love' and FC Kahuna's 'Hayling' taken out of trip-hop context and assembled with a more sonically arctic and brazen palette.
It's apparent that Chung's dedication towards wide and expansive synth-scapes and texturally encased melodies remains firmly intact. So intact in fact, that it creates a tension that invariably ends up working against it. On one hand, it's immediately obvious that a deeper ambient approach forms the bedrock of the album. On the other hand, this ambient approach is marred by opposing habits yet to be outgrown. A prime example includes the 'predictably abrupt' endings that cap almost every song, independent of the song's particular mood. The synth line draws to a close, and either makes another stab, or not, before the Release envelope gradually takes over. It smacks of a very software-reflective process of musical arrangement. Ironically, this is least apparent in the album's shortest track, the 'classically ambient' piano mood-piece that is 'Prelude'. At just over a minute and a half, 'Prelude', as opposed to most other tracks, feels complete as a 'piece'; as an expression of a quantified something.
Chung's production chops and beat aesthetics have definitely evolved, with the size, lushness and warmth of the sounds making themselves apparent from the get-go. A beefier and tighter sonic signature pervades every track, with a more stylistic cachet of drum sounds being utilised. To his credit, Chung has dispensed with the brashness of programmed claps and overly sibilant hihats, in favour of understated yet beefy kick drums and filtered snares that sit well in their sophistication, as can be heard on tracks like ‘Distance’ and ‘Phase III’. However, mastery of certain skills often means the artistry gets displaced to more difficult areas. Here, the fuller, more expressive sound, the standout vocal track, the tasteful elements, all sound great in and of themselves, but they also reveal the lack of a unifying focus that all these elements invariably serve.
While it's never wrong to have recurring elements across albums, these elements should always serve a bigger purpose, which usually comes in the form of songwriting, and here is where it falls short. The inability to settle into the mode of an aural environ, or follow the narrative trajectory of a 'song', proves unnerving in the meanderings of 'Safe' and 'Glue'. Sure, these tracks are 'nice and listenable', but the question is: 'Will you listen to them again?'
It remains doubtless that 'Home' conjures up currents of intricacy and grandeur with undertones that imply the possibility of something deeper. The cohesive nature of its studied soundscapes reveals a direction borne of sophistication. Yet there is much to be said of what sound can result when affluent nihilism and improved Internet access meet in an era of post-Shadow breaks, glitch and left-field hip-hop. Taking into account the myriad answers, when the penchant swings toward ambient contemplation, 'Home' has shown that it invariably leans toward a perfect soundtrack to doing household chores while stoned. Or in a more refined sense, the perfect musical vignette to accompany an ode to an abandoned subway station.
Within a genre often synonymous with things cutting-edge, it's almost meaningless to say a particular artist's work sounds like it's pushing the boundaries. But the sound of the boundaries pushing back is quite something else. And for better or worse, that's an apt description of 'Home'. Despite the masterfully warm production and epic sound, 'Home' remains a collection of sonic vignettes that are largely underwhelming, especially when they mostly don't live up to the musical arc they set themselves up to follow. Chung has definitely developed himself along the trajectory set forth by the first album, but in doing so, it's become apparent what the limitations of that path are.
While it won't be surprising that this album might have mixed reviews, it's quite certain that longevity is to be found in change for Nosaj Thing. And harking back to Daddy Kev's perspective on genres and aesthetics being revisited by new talents, it does leave one wondering whether it would have made a difference if 'Home' was someone else's debut effort instead?
02. Eclipse/Blue feat. Kazu Makino
09. Try (feat. Toro y Moi)
10. Phase III
11. Light 3