ADR’s Chunky Monkey opens with what sounds like an acoustic instrument — a dissonant, bent-up string bass jab reminiscent of something Flea might have played on a Red Hot Chili Peppers jam circa 1985. Then a brief silence, some warm hiss, and a mic so hot you can hear the air pressure changing in the room, before a swarm of synthesized finger snaps and brushed snare drops in on the scene, and all of a sudden you think oh shit, I see what’s going on here, dude is seriously messing with my sense of context. Or perhaps more simply, what is this?
The teasing first few seconds of album opener “Casual Friday” set a precedent for what’s to come on Chunky Monkey. The record is a deluge of sounds running the gamut from “tasteful” to “cheesy,” stripped of the context supplied by an easily classifiable genre. He’s messing with our symbolic order of coolness. The sleek world that ADR imagines on this record is striking for the utterly canned sounds that populate it: breathy scatting gets layered over loungefied breakbeats and woozy trip-hop, porntastic jazz flute licks and spacepad synth swells somehow combine to cultivate a meditative and laid-back feel. It’s kind of like getting stoned and going to Rainforest Cafe and realizing that even though everything there is fake, it’s bizarrely real at the same time. Chunky Monkey is frequently unsettling, but only when you stop vibing and start thinking about the sounds you’re hearing.
Aaron David Ross is definitely playing some tricks on the listener here. He wants you to get comfortable, but not too comfortable. He wants to indulge your guiltiest consumerist pleasures and most luxurious fantasies of leisure. And while you are too busy tapping your feet and bopping your head to think about how weird the whole thing is, he’ll sneak in the suggestion that maybe your guilty pleasures aren’t really guilty at all.
ADR does on this record what a lot of digital-era artists are trying to do. That is, to undermine the old rockist dichotomy between low and high art, “dope” and “weak,” the sacred and the profane, however you want to phrase it. Pirated versions of Ableton and free SoundCloud accounts have indeed done away with a lot of things that used to take precedence in the pre-internet era — live instrumentation, narrative songwriting, the LP format — but in many ways, the acceleration of the data stream has only complicated the question of where to find meaning.
Now it’s 2013 and a lot of us are still floundering in the puddles left behind by the giant chillwave that knocked us all off our feet towards the close of the last decade. It sent us reeling into the era of the ethereal, the dominance of the microgenre. The increasing ability of more and more people to produce and share art over the internet has made music a more polyphonous landscape, but it brings to light a new question: how do we find value in a world oversaturated with sensory data? Microgenres take shape, fracture, and then fade into obscurity with the refresh of a browser window. It’s a dizzying environment for listener and artist alike to find their feet in.
On his sophomore solo release, Ross is seriously monkeying around inside this overload of sensory data. The record is delightfully warped, populated with fragments of the self as they bounce back from the kaleidoscopic echo chamber of the virtual. Every track on Gatekeeper’s last record, Exo, came equipped with its own virtual environment, and it’s not hard to imagine a similar project to accompany this record — every song conjures up an environment unto itself. As Ross himself intimated in a recent interview wherein he praises the aesthetic merits of the Peets Coffee logo, confesses his obsession with e-cigarette culture, and likens the title of the record to “a mural in a Starbucks,” Chunky Monkey takes more influence from the sleek visual aesthetics of Millennial-era consumerism than it does from any single genre of music. It cleverly sidesteps the pitfalls of microgenrism by treating genre as a palette of compositional tools rather than a starting point.
Nevertheless, it seems impossible to discuss a record that trades so heavily in overtly corporate aesthetics without at least acknowledging its similarity to the Muzak-influenced internet phenomenon of vaporwave. The Hippos In Tanks press release for Chunky Monkey frames it as “a sound for shopping malls and/or space stations; a shark-eyed jest downloaded from the fractured fizz of New Consumerism.” On the surface, this record would seem to trade in a sonic market indistinguishable from that of vaporwave — Ross pieced together many of the tunes here from “really nicely recorded, really poorly composed” stock loops scavenged from software programs intended for jazz music composition. This description immediately recalls the primary technique of most vaporwave artists: to slow down, pitch shift, and otherwise digitally alter material sourced from troves of indistinct library music and Muzak catalogs.
Indeed, the sounds here do have an uncanny advertisement-ready sheen to them, but it’s not digitally distorted and stripped of compositional structure like in vaporwave. The restitched “canned” samples on Chunky Monkey shed any remaining traces of cheese within ADR’s meticulous compositions and shimmering, 1080p productions. Ross’ compositions evoke a free-flowing vibe that is at once luxurious and carefree, yet bookended by a lingering sense of dread. And it’s never quite clear which sounds are producing which effects: in true hyperreal form, no sound here is more real or more artificial than another, and that’s what makes it such a playful listening experience.
The visuo-sonic language of Chunky Monkey is an ingenious and well-timed divergence from vaporwave’s increasingly one-note obsession with chopped and screwed boardroom jams and faceless, quasi-corporate visuals. Confronted with the identity-shrinking crisis of the Information Age, vaporwave artists were the first to bring to light the problem outlined above: a future wherein all art threatens to dissolve into a totally homogeneous ether. Vaporwave operates irrespective to the human subject; it captures the sound of a world of things relating to other things. Vaporwave does not care about you.
It’s evident on Chunky Monkey that Ross has digested and drawn inspiration from vaporwave, but his long list of past forays into art concerning the virtual shows that he’s considered multiple angles of what a hyperlinked future could mean for humanity. Gatekeeper’s apocalyptic productions are very much steeped in the same cybernetic warfare influence exhibited by art school contemporaries Fatima Al Qadiri and Massacooramaan, and Ross played a dual role as producer and performing member of the digital boy band HD Boyz alongside fellow net artists de jour Ryder Ripps and Tabor Robak. Ross and his contemporaries are concerned with the virtual, but they bring the human to the forefront.
In many ways, ADR’s Chunky Monkey stands in as the missing link between these two scenes: the anonymous and (largely) homogeneous monolith of vaporwave versus the avatar experimentation and virtually persona-fied projects of his contemporaries. Ross’ sly clipart monkey serves a mediator between the consumerist jungle conjured up on Chunky Monkey and the listener, the human subject. By crafting music that is consistent with a sonic brand, a vibe, rather than a specific genre, Ross refocuses the conversation begun by vaporwave back on the human subject — the seemingly opposing roles of the human as both consumer and artist blur here in a way that is not dystopian, but playful.