Precious Systems

MJ Guider, 2016

Kranky records—longtime champions of ambient pop and slowcore—is the perfect home for MJ Guider, whose debut, Precious Systems, navigates channels between driftpop and cold wave electronics. Like a meeting between Grouper and Cold Cave, MJ Guider's songs slip into being as amorphous clouds of tone, gaining a pulse from geiger-counter drum machines. Laminal melodies are hinted at with mumbled lyrics buried within echoes. It's chilliest aspect derives from the artificial feel of the reverb, which renders the most naturally acoustic element in the mix—a human voice—the most distant.

fermentation and fruition

A particular brand of liminal music, which I like to call drift pop is… having a moment. You can see it cresting all up-and-down the pop culture ticket. Follow it from the up-and-comers Kaitlyn Aurelia-Smith and Ian William Craig, to the well-established acts like Grouper and Benoît Pioulard, all the way to the old-guard, like Brian Eno. Hell, even Kevin Martin (best known for his ballistic dancehall productions as The Bug), made some drift pop with King Midas Sound, sourcing material from Fennesz. 

What, exactly, is it, though? Drift pop is a particularly gaseous song form, steeped in hazy ambience and unmoored by any conventional rhythm section. There's a heavy emphasis on sound processing and sonic texture. It still features vocals—both traditional and wordless—that (vaguely) resemble pop structures, but they're often lost in a fog of reverb. It's drone music that's learned to sing. Of late, it's been crossed-pollinated with a modular synthesis revival and the North American tape ambient scene, creating a fertile seam of musical pathways.

While it has many roots, it's longest and greatest champion has been Kranky Records. From their very inception, they've pioneered the style—almost as it is known today. In 1994, Kranky's first release was Labradford's Prazision LP—which is so fully formed it feels wrong to label it 'proto'. They were also early champions of Grouper, the styles' first breakout star, earning rave reviews in high profile publications.

Even though it's steeped in our pop culture for a decades now, 2016 feels like the year drift pop went from fringe sub-culture to a fully acknowledged category. The sheer number of albums being produced has spiked dramatically, and plenty of them are getting reviewed and promoted on pretty mainstream sites. The new release lists I follow feature at least one-a-week, lately. Drift pop is competing heavily to dominate my best-of-the-year list. When I go these shows—to my surprise—it's often packed houses.

Which begs the question, why? It's easy to say it's the flavor of the month, but I subscribe to the belief that even our artistic consumption is guided: culture, as a whole, moves for a reason. We look for art to explain the world around us, or to help reflect on and examine ourselves—or to escape all of the above. I find a fractured, lonely beauty in drift pop: yearning voices cut loose in a sea of sound. There's beguiling mystery, getting lost in an ambient fog. Does this appeal more, now, because we are in fact more isolated in our new digital lives? Is it  more aspirational—a refuge and retreat from a world that seems universally intrusive? Does this kind of expression sound more authentic in a space as ambiguous as emotions themselves? 

It's easy to understand one appeal of drift pop to me, personally—so many of it's earliest modern incarnations happened while I was coming-of-age, musically. At first, this recent uptick just seemed like a run of good luck. About the time Brian Eno announced The Ship, it was clear I was just surfing the zeitgeist along with everyone else.

This may be drift pop's moment. While it was here before—and will likely continue—2016 will likely represent some sort of apex. In a few years, pop culture will have moved on and all this will be processed and catalogued—largely shorthanded, remembered and referenced by a few key records. That is the way of things. For now, though, you can drown in the drift pop swells.


Disappears, 2015

At first I found Disappears fun(ish), but a tad dull. By their fifth record, I'd say they're absolutely compelling. It's not merely a result of them becoming better (they have), but now I like their older records far more than I used to. I suppose I needed an 'a-ha' moment; meet them on their own terms. That fifth record—Irreal, my personal revelation—seems a perfect pick then to include in my collection. It's urgently dystopian, but fixed to the spot. The repetitions, though they invoke krautrock, are far more reminiscent of industrial music: rather than driving it straight on to the horizon, they provide a fixed center for the rest of the song to swirl around. The production is elegantly dub-touched, with echoes, drop-ins and a heavy bass undertow. I am now, officially, look forward to their next missive.