Hi everyone — I hope you’re all enjoying 2020, because we’re actually about to take a little trip back to December 2019, a time when everyone decided to drop their albums in a bizarre, chaotic rush to beat the clock on the new decade. Or was that just me? Projection aside, there’s a lot of great tunes to unpack from the climactic finale of the 2010s, so we’re gonna linger here a bit for me to shine the spotlight on a lovely, experimental EP from the equally lovely Joe Swensen!
Formerly known as Turtle Beats, Joe’s been a formidable presence in the scene for a while, but they have recently launched into the forefront by their flawless execution of the “ChipWIN roster debut to new album to Chipspace showcase” true-combo we’ve seen play out plenty of times over the years! ‘Lachrymose Dreams of the Alchemist’ is a compact concept album packed to the brim with novel techniques in Joe’s lively, minimalist style. It’s certainly a must-listen for anyone brainstorming new directions for their next LSDJ project.
‘Dielectric Breakdown’ kicks off with a jazzy riff constructed from piano samples, which is soon accompanied by a dancey dpcm drumbeat. The track holds this pattern for a moment before opening up melodically a bit, retaining the repetition in the drumline and sampling. The tone of the piece is curious yet self reflective, and is flecked with somber notes. The string of piano samples are both melodically and technically intriguing (excellent use of cutoffs), and give the song a lot of character. At 1:15, the wavering instrument piloting the chordal progression becomes the focus and duets with the repeating piano sample motif, adding depth to and extending each segment. The pair are joined by noise channel high hats before the piece explodes into a electrifying breakdown (heh) completed by another dancey dpcm backbeat. After a brief pause in the percussion, the opening arrangement makes a subtle return, but this time it is complimented by a signature ‘LSDJ’ super-compressed drumline. Joe plays around with the drumkit sample sequence a lot here, adding several variations and flourishes that really make the section pop. The melody soon resumes the expressive, dynamic pattern that compliments the piano motif more closely. This time, however, the drumline syncs up to create an extended and complete downtempo harmony around the sample string. This continues on for a few chains, sprawling out into a lively breakdown ruled by a now fully-developed, highly spontaneous, and jazzy dpcm drumbeat. The track is capped off with a final flourish and a brief tail that perfectly sets up the following track to start on the next beat.
To me, ‘Miasma’ is the most strongly narrative track on the album and is a very unique listening experience all the way through. It has a scattered, almost minimalist sense of musical expression that comes alive against a suite of melodic and organizational developments. The track begins with a simplified LSDJ dirge that seems somewhat predictable until the 0:35 mark where an extremely stylized percussion sequence of pitched and clipped samples begin to pan freely. From this point, the melody shifts upward and the rest of the percussion and bassline kick in. Joe takes control of this escalation in tension by cutting deeper gaps in the melody and adding ‘dead zones’ which are dominated by the kick drum. The progression issued in this way is slower but more dramatic and adds a sense of scale to the track in a creative way. The melody and bassline continue to develop steadily, each segment bound by striking pauses. Joe chooses a particularly evocative moment to cut away sharply with an off-kilter harmonic modulation as the panning percussion string returns, advancing the already tense mood of the track substantially. Noise channel flourishes herald in the original, simplified build structure, but at 2:00 this quickly gives way to a tonally rich chorusing build sequence that climaxes dramatically at its apex, marked by a lingering variation to the central motif. From here, the song outros with another jazzy, harmonic modulation sequence. It then finally concludes with the panning clippy percussion string, which continues for a few moments after the other instruments are cut.
I’ve gutted the core of ‘Lachrymose Dreams of the Alchemist’ and dissected it here for y’all, but the best way to experience the EP is to listen to it all the way through. Joe put a lot of effort into constructing a narrative experience out of abstract instrumental composition and evocative song names, and to really get the full effect it should be digested as a unit. Plus Joe really nailed the song transitions and I’m about it. PLUS the whole thing is mastered wonderfully by Clover Shelley, a former Chiptunes = WIN blogger and pro music purveyor. This tight little journey gets a strong rec from me.