Two bothersome monikers that have been attached to electronic music are “video game music” or “rave music.” It’s been labeled, that is, as a type of music that serves a function. It can’t just exist as a piece of art. I’m not sure why, and I don’t have reasons for it, but I’ve noticed it.
It’s probably the same reason that Adult Swim gets labeled “stoner TV.” People are willing to call something weird just for the sake of labeling things to separate and segregate. People aren’t willing to call acts like Brian Eno’s “The Ship” or Aphex Twins’ ambient works electronic in the same sense they’d label C418 (the guy who made the music for Minecraft) or Skrillex electronic music.
Why this is a bad thing is because it gets to a point where people won’t listen to music unless it’s justified. You can’t just like the music, you have to like it because it was in the game you played, the movie you saw or because it’s specifically aimed at a situation you are in. Ta-Ku’s “Music to Break Up To” is an example of this, and one may purport that it’s the musical equivalent of Rupi Kaur’s book “Milk and Honey.” That is, you can listen to this music, but only if you have a reason to do so.
What I like about Nosaj Thing’s album “Parallels” is that it acts a reminder of a counter to the idea of justified music. “Parallels” isn’t a prescriptive album, and it’s beautiful because of its lack of instructions. I’m not saying I have a problem with musicians with a purpose, I just think this idea of justification of creation has gone into absurd territory, territory Nosaj Thing has steered around.
Nosaj Thing is an LA-based musician who has been consistently making some well-honed and well-crafted electronic albums for years. Along with this—on the side—he’s produced tracks for artists such as Chance the Rapper (Chance’s best track ever actually, Nosaj produced the track “Paranoia” from Chance’s album “Acid Rap”) and Kendrick Lamar. But he hasn’t produced much for them. His focus is on his own music.
Nosaj Thing has developed his own musical style independent of other artist’s stamps. This all started with his featureless debut “Drift,” which was an excellent album that distilled a colorfully somber tone in an excellently short format. It wasn’t music for raving, and it wasn’t music for doing something else; it was an album that Nosaj Thing pulled from himself and put out into the world.
Then, Nosaj Thing released two albums, “Home” and “Fated,” that were all right. For me at least, these albums just felt a tad more generic than his debut. Something about them felt more like he was just going through the motions rather than genuine creation; these albums lacked a sort of spark. Nosaj Thing has happily recovered this spark with “Parallels.”
If I had to compare “Parallels” with another creative endeavor, I’d compare it to David Fincher’s film “Gone Girl.” To me, “Gone Girl” is so great because of how atmospheric it is: It’s as sleek as a foreign car and as grey as a rainy day. These two artistic modes are something that go incredibly well together. “Parallels” adequately parallels these filmic themes across the medium into music in a way that feel unique and not just “Trent Reznor + Atticus Ross with a beat.”
You get an intense feeling of this alluring melancholy on tracks like Burial-esque “IGYC” or “All Points Back to You,” featuring Steve Spacek. The synths on “All Points Back to You” are absolutely stellar. They glare like flares and pair so well with the slowly shrieking tones that are interspersed throughout the track. And then Spacek’s vocals come in to bring a great sense of cohesion to the track. It’s a song about deception and blame, and the ghostly production with the equally ghastly vocals create this absolutely dense crystal of sleek musical pleasure.
The reason why I like this so much and why I think this album is well worth your time is that it feels so refreshing despite being relatively unoriginal. I think this whole sort of techno-music- with-a-soul archetype had its blow-up, like most things, with Daft Punk. There is no denying that Daft Punk’s track “Something About Us” made popular the idea that music with electronic tendencies could have a poetic/soulful/bluesy/ whatever edge to it.
But then Daft Punk released “Random Access Memories” and also proved that they couldn’t just do the same thing twice; “Touch,” “Doing it Right” and “Within” were all tracks where the band placed a pretentious, masturbatory idea of “musicality” before the piece of art as a whole. And this trend has infected electronic music wholesale.
Electronic musicians have gotten lost within their own heads and created music that, while being inventive, has sacrificed creativity for trite “musicality”: Deadmau5 dabbled with film scores, Flying Lotus started making jazz fusion and acts like Ta-Ku have been pandering to the crowds by making their music painfully blatant in its emotional appeal. Why I am bothered by this is that it feels like we’re supposed to pretend this is new or groundbreaking. It isn’t. It’s been done to death, and there’s been no invention in the field for ages it feels like.
Nosaj Thing and his “Parallels” avoids this. It doesn’t place musicality before cohesion nor does it place thematic depth above musical IQ. Nosaj Thing is fine with letting tracks develop into a single synth line with some field recordings playing in the background and letting the listener pull out their own meaning on the track “Form” instead of labeling the track something like “Urban Rain” or “Meet in the Middle.”
I’m not saying that “Parallels” is superior to any sort of rave music or music made for a purpose. I’m just saying that “Parallels” is an album that I found refreshing in a really surprising way. Grey and sleek are by no means new ideas. And yet, Nosaj Thing has put these two concepts together in a way that I find utterly intoxicating.