I’m excited, folks. It appears Harrison Lemke, the prolific artist of many names from Austin, TX has been precisely as productive as he told me he’d be when I interviewed him in my last podcast episode. It was an enlightening interview for me, and I came away from it with heightened appreciation for the lo-fi aesthetic. Harrison works with a 4-track tape recorder, which brings some limitations, and with it, altered creative output. His project Dragon Warrior stays true to the form I saw previously in Pastoral II with an expanded instrumental palette.
During the listening of this album and the reading of this review, consider the act of recording music on tape and its similarities to Polaroid photography. When one takes a Polaroid photo, there isn’t much that can be done to modify that moment in time post-event. Audio on tape is very similar. You can erase it, dub over it, run your audio through effects and record it on a different track, and even EQ it, but the features of a modern-day DAW are missing. You can’t modify that one particular note with a few clicks of the mouse. This leads to an honesty of sorts in your media. What you hear is what happened. Harrison and other lo-fi artists aim for this aesthetic intentionally, and “World of Darkness, World of Light” is no exception, embracing this manifesto whole-heartedly.
The bio for ‘World of Darkness, World of Light’ reads ‘DRAGON WARRIOR is a coalition of bargain-bin electronics, human bodies, ghosts of old Nintendo games, and a miasma of apocalyptic unease. This is their first album…’ I find it fitting, given this description, that the album consists of twenty songs averaging about two minutes in length each; just enough to capture the spirit of the instruments of choice before wandering on to the next theme. I imagine Harrison channeling here in a way, asking his old keyboards and bargain bin toys, ‘What would you like to say today?’ and letting them run their natural course through his own interpretive lens.
The album starts off with ‘cosmic death no. 1’, a dissonant fifty-two second track. One keyboard riff pans left while another pans right, a dissonant call and response complimented by a third melody shifting left and right over the top. I imagine no significant mix-downs were needed due to the number of tracks used here. I felt this opening track kicked off the album well, as it defines the limitations of a four-track recording device. In many ways, I feel the four-channel concept should be a comfortable one for many of us, as some of the most prolific sound chips out there use four channels as well. Hmm…perhaps there’s some significance, some historical experience that established this preference for four channel, four instrument, four voice things?
‘Sunstruck wasteland theme’ is another short tidbit, coming in at just under one minute in length. I find myself less cognizant of the four-track limit at this point in the album. I don’t hear the presence of more than four instruments at a time, but I don’t hear any sort of musical components lacking from the content, either. There is a distinct warmth to recording in this fashion that can’t be easily recreated with other hardware.
‘Cave of amplifiers’ captures the warmth of the tape medium well, full of buzzing and distorted waveforms. It took several listens to pick up on some of the complexities, from the hum of the audio source being grounded to the clanging sounds of a conveyor belt being manipulated in the background. The construction loop is sped up at times, doubled I believe, to give it a different tonal quality and cadence. I’m intrigued by how these simple concepts can end up so complex when your audio sources are organic. It gives the listener a lot more to notice in the end, once you break down the elements.
‘Sea of rain’ makes wonderful use of delay and distortion, creating something that reminds me of a ‘Black Moth Super Rainbow’ demo; warm, raw, pure and dirty at the same time.
‘In August, the dry pines’ has some wonderful concepts, my two favorite being the constant up and down shift in tempo and the presence of a very clean FM synthesizer, (a Yamaha, I guessed. Yep, nailed it: PSS-140,) providing the melody over the top.
While I have had some idea how each sound was made specifically up to this point, ‘sea of clouds’ makes enough use of analog/tape delay and looping to where I can’t really picture how and with what the selected sonic textures were made. For many of these tracks I have been able to actually picture these songs being performed, to a certain extent. Here I lose that grasp and drift off, simply enjoying the alien soundscapes.
‘Texarkosmos’ is perhaps my favorite track of the album, just a few bars of lyrics and a snare shy of a Mac DeMarco song. It reminds me of a sunset, beautiful but reminiscent of something coming to an end. Happy, but wistful and discordant at the same time.
‘neon electric circus!’ seems to serve as an intermission of sorts, a minute to take a breather before delving back into more serious material. Some of those old Casio beats and patches could be hard to work with, and this track contains elements I would have avoided had I sat down with the same gear. This one took guts to write.
‘Newport boardwalk’ features a slow Casio rhythm and bassline run through what I believe to be a spring reverb, which contributes little ‘droplet’ tones to each kick, a unique atmospheric addition. Acoustic guitar and softly sung vocals accentuate the Casio backbone, adding a diverse yet complimentary palette to this sad, dreamy song.
Harrison channels the fifties in ‘love you’, a song that could have been classified as doo-wop had it only had a battery of vocalists singing nonsensical connections of vowels and consonants over it. Keyboards have been given fuzz, which allows for a refreshing degree of organic feel to what would otherwise be a somewhat sanitary progression of notes and tones.
‘a string of paper lanterns, dusk’ caps off the album, leaving the listener with a sweet, sorrowful duet performed by Harrison and his guest artist, M. Webbon. I’m happy to see that the specific instruments used were included in the track info. It appears Harrison used MuddyGB here, which is a refreshing approach as many Game Boy composers prefer LSDJ or nanoloop.
All in all, I would call ‘World of Darkness, World of Light’ a collection of twenty successful sonic experiments. I am pleased to hear this side project, Dragon Warrior, is living up to the promises of Brother Android and I’m looking forward to many more releases from the mind of one H. Lemke.