Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Nosaj Thing, Oh No And The Virtues of Compact Experimentation


Nosaj Thing, ne Jason Chung, is a L.A. based producer who conducts gorgeous digital symphonies with drum machines and samples. His debut album Drift is one of my favourite records of the year, a 12-song soundtrack to a turbulent midnight flight. While all the songs do sound of a piece, Drift doesn’t have a cohesive texture as such; these songs have a slippery nothingness to them that demands close listening to contextualize them as more than sonic wallpaper. The bass thuds and pumps and cold synths glide past like streaks of light. The primitive 3D album cover perfectly fits music that shows the beauty in the simplicity of abstraction.

Nosaj owes some props to Ennio Morricone, who deserves some credit for figuring out how to make wordless vocals so damn unsettling.

Separated from language, the human voice is just air. The assorted gasps, incomprehensible murmurs, and ghostly choruses that swirl around Drift’s songs only make them sound more unearthly. “Lords” is built on a a sampled choir whose vocals circle the bass subterranean thump like vultures.

And yet there’s still a lingering air of hip-hop in the percussion and bass that dances around the edges of the songs. Take “1685/Bach”. A vaguely classical keyboard motif propels the song, stuttering and shuddering like a mechanical heart. A single disembodied tambourine grounds the melody and reasserts the idea of rhythm. Producer/dancer Lunice found the hip-hop subtly buried in the song’s staccato pulse.

“1685/Bach” reminds me of the weirder beats on Oh No’s pair of world music sampling beat tapes. 2007’s Dr. No’s Oxperiment and this year’s Dr. No’s Ethiopium are filled with fairly conventional head nodders. Typically there’s a choice loop complemented by some hard drums and a thick bass line. But each album has its share of odd snippets, one-minute loops that hold no pretense of drum patterning or break-downs. Ethiopium’s “Louder” is built on a brief discordant snatch of horns and strings off some forgotten Ethiopian record. Oh No tacks drums and the oft-used vocal snippet (“Louder!”) from Mountain’s “Long Red” on top of it, and miraculously it holds “Louder” together for its 1:37 runtime. Oh No wouldn’t try to sell these beats to rappers, because most of them don’t loop cleanly. The fragmented, distracted sound doesn’t lend itself to 16 bar verses. But as a single songs on a 31 minute album, songs like “Louder” and “Adventure” shine.

From a recent HipHopDX interview:

DX: You make a lot of instrumental albums, and that’s a sort of lost art. How does that creative process differ from making beats for other people?
Oh No:
When I’m making an instrumental album, first and foremost, I’m not making an instrumental album. I’m just going to make one beat out of something, and that’s that. when I start getting in a zone, I start to hear everything. Everything sounds good, and I get mad hype off of it. When it comes out, I’ve usually made double whatever the album is. Dr. No's [Experiment] came out with 30-something tracks, but I really made 60-something. Ethiopium, we put out 18 tracks, but I really made 45 of them. I like to take certain joints that are going to make people trip—I don’t want to trip them out too much, because I’ve got super crazy stuff, and I’ve got stuff they can understand. …I try to make whatever style, new style, off-beat shit, whatever. I like to have everything. Loops, chops, filters, no filters, mega basslines, no basslines, whatever. And from there, I just randomly pick whatever, and that’s that. And make it flow together.

While Oh No’s instrumental albums seem to come from more of a beat-making mentality than a compositional one, the tracks still work as songs. But like Nosaj, he finds a way to pack experimentation and general weirdness into a half-hour beat tape. Drift is only 38 minutes long, with none of the songs running longer than three minutes and change; their effectiveness comes in how much growth and mood they generate in three minutes or less.These albums are head trips for the ADD generation.

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