7 Jan 2016

10 Records of 2015: easyFun's Deep Trouble EP

Given the amount I’ve been listening to the PC Music label this year, I thought I might have to include their Volume 1 compilation in this list, even though I’ve only listened to it through once. There are plenty of incredible tracks on there; however, their inclusion together on a single release invites a particularly annoying response that is common in the label’s critical reception, whereby every release is lumped together in terms of a single ‘project’, which we are invited either to approve of or disapprove of. Happily, the label released another record this year — easyFun’s Deep Trouble EP — which exemplifies a lot of what I love most about this music, which often gets left out of the debate.

But first: another short kvetch about music criticism

I think about half of what is written on PC Music is bullshit, and this bullshit is largely responsible for the pretty superficial way in which the music has been received. The entire label is reduced to a provocation, or a single conceptual statement standing in for an identifiable set of post-internet phenomena (this is compounded by the label’s iconography, including the image of black-lit cables on the compilation cover), and as a result, the huge diversity exhibited among the associated artists (or ‘avatars’) risks going unremarked.

This appearance of aesthetic unity has clearly been a goal of the label, given the way it presents itself. My favourite PC Music-related releases have actually been A. G. Cook’s various mixes (in particular, the ‘Radio Tank Mix’ for Tank Magazine), which reproduce the bewildering experience of his DJ sets. Like all mixes, these releases not only showcase influences and exhibit taste; they function as long-form theatricalisations of some of the label’s more oblique, object-like singles. This approach goes further than curation; as on a dance floor, the tracks are melted down and remade within a new context. This allows the artist to foreground certain elements of the tracks — unravelling the mess of influences, from European sentimentalism and kitsch, to East Asian alter-humanism and Black avant-gardism — that disappear behind the more overt cultural references and satire. Placed within a certain sequence of samples, remixes, covers and other detritus, these tight little bundles of contradictory elements begin to resemble one thing or another. Their irony or ambivalence is replaced by a kind of commitment. Most importantly, the mix creates a contextual frame for the vocal experimentation that can otherwise seem like a gimmick. For me, as with The Scene Between (see previous post), the success of these mixes relies on our refusal to hear the result as the smart-alecky posturing of a single hipster producer (or his private empire of signs) and instead allow the music to comment on, deconstruct and critique itself. Presumably this was easier before the day of superstar DJs, auteur producers and Boiler Room sets, but I’m sure it is still possible.

Clearly, I myself am not averse to talking about the PC Music project as a whole. The music invites such conversations; the problem comes when these are reduced to speculations on the motivations of the artists, meta-responses obsessing over how best to respond, and a fixation on a few extra-sonic details (particularly the whole QT campaign), which are more conducive to a quick and easy hot take than the sounds in question. At any rate, to talk about Danny L. Harle’s flights of arpeggiated fantasy and GFOTY’s post-punk-via-SMS as both reducible to the same single ‘concept’ would seem to beg a far more important question: How?

Rather than talk any more about this here, I would say that what I actually get from Cook’s music in particular, far more than any diverting thoughts about the nature of the musical commodity or the alienating tendencies of social media, is a unique kind of beauty. As declared in the title of his most enduring track, a return to the beautiful is certainly part of Cook’s particular manifesto. Like all my favourite attempts at the beautiful, it is a beauty in spite of something. It suggests a belief in beauty in spite of failure, in spite of the sophistication (and insecurity) of a world that must necessarily label it kitsch or a joke, in spite of an acknowledgement of its own artificiality or impossibility. And all of this makes it more beautiful. I also find it deeply nostalgic: for recent musical movements in which a similar belief in beauty, sentimentality and earnestness was possible; for early dance music at its most naïve, populist and utopian; for the unjaded pop appropriations of Asia and the wide-eared wonder that greeted the golden age of the synthesiser.

easyFun: the Beautiful, the Classical

For me, easyFun’s Deep Trouble EP (along with his ‘easyMix’, also released this year) reflects this belief in beauty perfectly. The centrepiece of the three-track EP, ‘Fanta’, was possibly the most beautiful track of the year. However, what this release really emphasised for me is the ‘formal compositional’ influences behind the PC Music crew (a few of whom were educated on formal composition courses), which are often underplayed.

PC Music is in love with harmony: the perfect chord progression, the immense power in a small harmonic feint, the potential of harmony to articulate structure, reharmonisation as a means of transforming emotional content. This isn’t harmony as she material — as in the dense harmonic explorations of jazz-influenced music — but rather a love affair with functional harmony, or harmony as it has come to function within pop. It is a Classical approach, in the sense that it evokes the clarity and functionality of the Classical period, but one that emerges from the study of pop and dance music (in particular, in its non-bluesy varieties), rather than from trying to translate an inappropriate harmonic vocabulary into pop production (which is usually very unsuccessful).

For all their poignancy, easyFun’s tracks could be described as scherzi, or musical ‘jokes’, that gently play with our expectations of metre and harmonic rhythm, climax and closure. ‘Fanta’ restates its vocal refrain over an unpredictably metamorphosing lattice of melodies and countermelodies; as the texture contracts, an undertow of wildly syncopated beats pulls the track into delirious cadential cul de sacs. ‘Full Circle’ plucks out an eccentric ground bass that cycles resolutely as it is orbited by increasingly exuberant comet-tailed counter-melodies. Meanwhile, the twinkle-toed vocal dances on and off the beat with ease, riding the passing rhythms and pinging between subtly shifting harmonic constellations.

‘easyMix’ is a rollercoaster of a track, which employs a three-part structure that mirrors the EP in miniature, descending from a vertiginous passacaglia on the refrain from Ariana Grande’s ‘Break Free’ and rolling into a muddy ABBA chorale, before ascending once again in an extraordinary Jessie J-fuelled toccata. This reappropriation of EDM pop arpeggiation as automated Philip Glass organ etude might sound extraordinarily geeky. Yet the bass progression that pitches and rolls the vocal through the ecstatically extended chorus of ‘Domino’ — and the tremendous desire that the frustrated cadence whips up — are no less valid or affecting in this context than in previous deployments of such harmonic techniques. In fact, for me, they are actually more so.

In talking about classical influences in this context, I would never suggest that the mere application of formal compositional skills to an unfamiliar genre would be enough to recommend it. In fact, I’m not sure a formal compositional background is often anything other than a hindrance to innovation in most pop music. It can lead to overly mannered, pastiched or ‘professional’ music, and the possibility of intuitive discoveries are foreclosed by technically or aesthetically ‘correct’ decisions. I would actually view the cross-genre expertise of easyFun, A. G. Cook, Danny L. Harle and others in terms of the opposite dynamic: an important opportunity for classical composition. Composers of the classical period frequently adopted the stylistic languages of popular dance styles as a medium for experimentation. In the same way, Eurodance, trance and EDM pop are all musical mediums through which sounds cohere in different ways. What’s more, like the composers of the classical period, these musics are in love with harmony and melody: minimal bass and drums as ballast for a return to pure pitch. What else is a big brash saw synth but a kind of fountain of pitch: a saturation of pitch so excessive that it becomes texture, like a hosepipe blasting paint that stick in thick globs on a canvas. Similarly, raising the pitch of a vocal is also a way of saturating it with pitch: exchanging some of the human grain for pure melody, integrating it within a harmony machine. Likewise, the creation of synthesised instruments, binding samples to a pitched keyboard, alongside the prominence of pitched percussion sounds like glockenspiels or celestas.

The string quartet was developed during the Classical period as a medium for the investigation of pure harmony, due to the relative homogeneity of timbre across a very broad pitch range. As the genre developed, and especially in the late 20th century, composers became more interested in highlighting the elements that were overlooked in this obsession with harmony: the sound of fingernails scraping strings, the action of drawing a bow, the resonating air between the players. In many ways, PC Music are part of a broader moment in pop music which involves the re-pitching of noise. As a tendency, this can perhaps be best represented by the curious excess of pitch that coats the voice when autotune is used on vocals. In mid-’10s pop, rumbles, kicks, fuzzes and blares are steeped in pitch and integrated within a harmonic scheme. Thus, on ‘Laplander’, an erratic hail of squeaks, skids and pitched exclamations are fine-tuned into a kind of orrery that rotates around the listener and the pleading vocalist in perfect synchrony, periodically aligning in heart-breaking harmonic shifts.

While there are perhaps reactionary elements to the PC Music project as electronic music, as contemporary composition they signify an escape route rather than a way back. Pop tonality is post-humanist, aware of its own artificiality. Its sense of beauty harbours no illusion of universal truth. It is contained and constrained, and yet it still dreams. It is a fascinating terrain to explore on its own terms, but the real success of projects like easyFun come not from a technical interest but from an emotional investment in the medium.