The last 10-15 years of popular music, be it mainstream or alternative, have been dominated by revival, followed by cross-pollination. Genres that were radical or innovative in the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties and even nineties have been plundered ad infinitum, rehashed and copied, and then, more recently, thrown together in cocktails that at times tasted wondrous (see most of the “dub meets pop meets punk meets drone meets folk” output of the Not Not Fun and Olde English Spelling Bee labels), at others rather mismatched (see some of the recent attempts to splice dubstep with just about any genre possible).
Of course, such a development was largely predictable. Music has long been reinventing itself, the old getting a facelift to fit in with more recent trends. But I have to say I did not expect New Age music to be back on the radar so soon, nor to be met with such enthusiasm. And yet, the much-maligned synthesizer, buried by punk, resurrected by post-punk only to be buried again by grunge and Brit-pop, is back – first returned to by mainstream post-New Order revivalists like The Rapture and The Killers, and in the last couple of years as a tool for creating soothing, pretty and often inoffensive electronic soundscapes. This is of course something of a simplification, and a lot of very challenging and innovative synth-based music has long been flitting around on the fringes. However it’s only in recent years that this has really begun to attract a hefty dose of column inches and commercial recognition.
The two Wire-bolstered horsemen of this New Age revival are Oneohtrix Point Never (aka Daniel Lopatin) and the trio Emeralds. Whilst both have definitely produced tracks that expertly bridge the gap between twee old-school synth music and post-noise “noughties” culture, I have always found much of their respective outputs (with the exception of OPN’s latest, and excellent, album Returnal, I should mention) to be rather insubstantial and unchallenging, which was the main problem with New Age in the first place.
But above all, when it comes to synth-based drone and ambience, I can never shake the feeling that the Germans did it all a whole lot better decades ago. In the late sixties and early seventies, whilst popular British and American artists were cranking up the volume of their amps, or escaping to rural pastures to expand their minds and turning to folk or prog, several German krautrock and kosmische musicians and bands were using the drone templates of avant-garde composers such as LaMonte Young, Eliane Radigue and Pauline Oliveros to stretch beyond typical rock and pop structures and into the musical cosmos. But where modern-day synth revivalists strain for similar objectives using retro-psychedelic synth melodies and faux-futuristic imagery, they simply cannot compete with the planet-sized, overwhelming sonic explorations of Cluster, Klaus Schulze, Popol Vuh or Ash Ra Tempel.
Which is where Annapurna Illusion, the “doom and dark” project of Not Not Fun alumnus High Wolf, aka “Max”, comes in. Because, even if you forgo the links to Hindu mythology and the Himalayas inherent to the name, Annapurna Illusion creates the sort of deeply enveloping and mystical synth music that was, up until now, the near-exclusive domain of the best of the kosmische acts. To put it in less wanky terms, Life Is An Illusion is simply one of the best albums released thus far in 2011. From the very first shimmering notes of ‘Entering Illusion’, you are given a sense that this music is meant to be huge, uncontrollable and all-consuming.
Throughout Life Is An Illusion, the synths are MASSIVE. On the album’s centrepiece, ‘Dizzy Vultures’, a pulsating, metronomic rhythmic line propels the piece forwards, whilst the synths dart and roar around it like some mad electronic tempest. The proof is here, should one need it, that wholly synthetic music can as heavy, to quote the Les Rallizes Denudes’ album title, as a death in the family. Forget the easy-going patter of Oneohtrix Point Never, the music on Life Is An Illusion feels as dense, unforgiving and mystical as the two great electronic drone albums of early-seventies Germany: Schulze’s Irrlicht and Cluster’s Cluster ’71.
Which is not to say that this is a vulgar case of a young disciple aping his predecessors, far from it. If Daniel Lopatin has one major quality, it’s that he increasingly uses his Oneohtrix Point Never project to inject shades of noise, rock and the avant-garde into mellow synth music, and “Max” does much the same on Life Is An lllusion, only better. ‘Entering Illusion’ may serve to ease the listener into the Annapurna Illusion soundscape, but it still bristles with uneasy electricity, ending in a crackle of volcanic hiss and noise. Throughout ‘Dizzy Vultures’, unsettling vocalisations and rumbles add extra tension to the mix, the track coming on like Cyborg-era Schulze blended with the deconstructed techno of Squarepusher or Aphex Twin. Meanwhile, flexing his kraut muscles to the full, “Max” then adds hard electronic percussion to ‘Crane and Bear’ and ‘Ambrosio’, managing to evoke not just the motorik grooves of Neu! and Harmonia but also the post-industrial clang of Skullflower or Ramleh. The whole album is a heady, subtle blend of approaches and styles, which creates a startlingly powerful and cohesive whole, a sum much greater than its collective influences.
What Annapurna Illusion has essentially lifted from the kosmische giants of 69-73 is not so much their sound as their overall approach. The music on Life Is An Illusion is gigantic and all-encompassing, conjuring up images of towering mountains, lost gods and swirling cosmos. At the same time, he elegantly suffuses his insistent and open-ended drones with touches of industrial noise and saturation that in less capable hands would seem out of place or clumsy. As such, Life Is An Illusion is one of the most accomplished synth drone albums released this last decade, and a welcome addition to the great kosmische canon.
You can also read this review here: http://www.theliminal.co.uk/2011/08/annapurna-illusion-%E2%80%93-life-is-an-illusion/