It’s been over a decade since Alias’ (Brendon Whitney’s) masterful debut with Deep Puddle Dynamics. It’s been slightly under a decade since he emceed, (mostly) solo, on The Other Side of the Looking Glass. It’s been eight years since he turned instrumental, or Muted, as he calls it. Portland (ME) to Oakland and back again: Resurgam. Before all of this, a wife. And after all of it, a child. I’ve been privileged to follow, more or less, all of this in real time. Youthful and adrift in all that is transient and intensely felt, his earliest lyrics (painfully self-conscious, self-deprecating, smart) resonated with me. They were nearly unmatched, at the time, in what they had to give the listener — a self, in tangles and searching. (It must be noted that anticon., in general, provided a space for lyrical ingenuity and grace that has been largely unparalleled in recent music.) But Alias shut up. And muted, his songs spoke through titles: “Caged In, Wasting Away,” “Fuel the Fear Without Words,” and “Prelude to a Death Watch.” Still, instrumentally, they created increasingly emotional, intelligent, and exciting atmospheres.
Then it all stopped. Three mute years.
Silence and duration heighten the intensity of the return. And over a decade of output makes any subsequent release significant. Anyone reviewing this album is forced to reckon with both the wait and the weight of an oeuvre. But Fever Dream doesn’t return to the heavy company of its predecessors. Instead, it looks back upon it all (as a means, or a way) with a happy nod and smile. Sometimes a silence is just a break, and sometimes time is just growing up (uneventful in a lot of ways), and sometimes angst just dissipates. Freud knew this well. I think Alias does, too. But I don’t wish to psychoanalyze (Alias on the iCouch, and me with my headphones on and tablet in hand), so I will get on with the album.
Fever Dream is Alias’ sixth studio album for anticon. It follows Resurgam, if only sequentially. This is not to suggest that Fever Dream is an absolute departure from a prior aesthetic, because it’s not. But there is a different quality to Alias’ recent work that puts it, conceptually and practically, ahead of his previous albums. There remain obvious similarities between Fever Dream and its predecessors: the beats, for example. Alias’ beats (the patches and patterns) have always stood out as remarkable, exciting things. Their architecture has been a complex one often closer to IDM than traditional hip-hop production. But if they previously relied too heavily upon abrasive noise sampling and curious time signatures, now they’ve found comfort in their shape and weight. Less reliant upon glitch and abrasion, Fever Dream liberally utilizes big-, break-, and house-beats, while also incorporating certain downtempo elements of trip-hop and a casual, tame jazziness of Air. That’s not to suggest that rhythmic experimentation has entirely given way to something conventional or bland, but, rather, that Alias has turned something conventional (and often bland) into something that is totally his own.
Likewise, Alias has become increasingly comfortable with his synths — with both their possibilities for lushness and the reality of their limitations. His (existent) ability to create complex, warm, washed out, and dreamy patterns (as in “Feverdreamin”) keeps him from becoming totally subsumed within the simplistic, California dreamin’ commercial-driven indie pop of late. Instantly, Air, in both their mood and substance, come to mind as key synth-etic influences, though Alias is by no means derivative. And his ability to utilize and revitalize over-used and worn-out synth patches and patterns (as in “Wanna Let it Go” and “Sugarpeeee”) is downright inspiring. While listening, I find myself reminded of the first time I listened to cLOUDDEAD, and the synthetic wonderland they pulled together from the tired languages of electronic music and hip-hop. This is not to pre-date Fever Dream, but to suggest that it contains an ability to work the old into the new. Each song exudes newness. Whereas Alias’ older loop patterns provided a stable ground on which to stand, now they are constantly shaking. Or in a Heraclitian fashion: on Fever Dream, you never stand in the same loop twice. Fortunately, the internal shifts are subtle and natural, and create a complex lyricism that words can’t easily rival.
A YouTube commenter, as they are oft to do, bemoans: Alias. he doesn’t rap any more :(
And yet, as Alias has muted himself, he’s brought other voices to the fore. We hear them in the first seconds of the album when they (surprisingly, because) confidently declare: “Only a fool would ignore this.” (Indeed.) They complete the album: “Thank you for stopping by.” (My pleasure.) In between, they pitch-bend and shift, they sweep and scatter, they fall and contract. Alias is master of his sampler and has actually chosen some interesting samples to work with. He reveals himself as the best kind of aural collage artist — with a precise ear for organization and manipulation. And, of course, he brings collaborators into the fold. “Lady Lambin’” (featuring Lady Lamb’s la-dee-da’ing and woo-oh-oh’ing) is unique in that the voice itself precedes and grounds (more or less) the beat. The album’s most explicitly experimental (and R&B) track, “Talk in Technicolor,” is a friendly battle between Dax Pierson’s (of Subtle) voice and some of Alias’ most complex beats present. Yoni Wolf’s (of WHY?) sampled voice bends and carries “Boom Boom Boom” into a melancholic ambience (really, the only melancholia to be found throughout the album).
Sometimes things change a life — 10 years and a move and a child, especially. I don’t want to be trite, but I remember my parents telling me that some things just shift and lift with age. Eventually, hopefully, we grow up and carry ourselves into our future endeavors. We remain ourselves, but grow. (Consider anticon. as a whole, and the transformation the label and its affiliates have undergone in one decade. Still identifiably anticon., but otherwise than before — and, in many ways, better.) Yes, with Fever Dream, Alias has given us his most mature album and his best — to date. He gives us his most lyrical, intelligent, and confident statements as an artist that we’ve heard so far. He gives us an album that knows exactly how it wants to move, with precise lifts, falls, voices, and silences, and somehow manages to make it feel graceful and spontaneous. He gives us an album that constantly shifts its sonic dimensions, and yet never comes across as gimmicky or trite. He gives us an album that shows the language of electronic music has not been exhausted, even while remaining fairly conventional and totally listenable and, if I may, totally fucking chill. Finally, Alias gives us a promise that, after closing a three-year mute gap, after a decade of production and creation, there is still in him an artist to be excited about.