It’s that “music” in the title that’s nagging at me, its unqualified vagueness reaching for something universal. Celebrate Music Synthesizer Group is the new and presumably one-off project from what may be loosely termed “the Sun Araw collective” — L.A.-based friends and collaborators Cameron Stallones, M. Geddes Gengras, Tony Lowe, and Butchy Fuego — and universality is something that’s often been at the heart of their work. I used to wonder if they ever cared about the concept’s problematic nature: back in 2009, Stallones would talk earnestly of “energies,” “connectedness,” and “speaking the word,” seemingly unaware that his surfy, tropical music and New Age spirituality — that is, the very nature and expression of his striving for oneness — might be peculiarly Californian.
They do care, of course, and are keenly aware. In recent years, the gloopy melting pot seems to have separated out into its constituent parts, as all have been exploring their deeply personal utopias in wildly diverging ways. Between Gengras’ dense synth experiments, The Inner Treaty’s cleaner squiggles, and Fuego’s ravey dance music as San Gabriel, any simplistic idea of universality is blown apart. Recent interviews have seen Stallones eloquently discussing the influence of specific cultures, locations, and communities on the individual psyche, and projects such as the Ancient Romans concept album and the joyous Icon Give Thank collaboration with the Congos show an obvious willingness to try out other cultures’ ideas and methods of transcendence.
Celebrate Music Synthesizer Group continues in that vein, with the group convening in Rotterdam for a week-long jam session exploring yet another culturally specific vision of perfection: European synth music. The cover sets out the paradox nicely, with the super-lingual typography and faceless ideal of synthesized sound providing not only possible means of subverting cultural barriers, but also, ironically, direct links with the specific cultures of Stockhausen and Apollinaire.
The music treads a similar line. On the one hand, these synthesizers offer an infinite range of possible sounds, and the wide-open forms allow the players to try just about anything: arpeggiated bleeps, blasts of noise, short percussive sounds, and smooth bending tones all sound at home here. With the added coherence and accessibility of danceable rhythms — four of these tracks are held together by the unifying thump of a 4/4 kick — it’s a pretty powerful expression of connectedness.
On the other hand, the styles they end up in can often be placed within well-defined traditions. Opener “Warung Mini” recalls the dubby tech-house of Thomas Fehlmann, “Worm = Spice” bumps along like Vladislav Delay, and the lurching rattle of “Millions of Decaliters” suggests Ekoplekz’s broken dubstep. The album’s exuberant centerpiece, the 20-minute “CMSG Suite, Worm Sign,” moves through trippy, snare-rolling trance and Depeche Mode-style electro-stomp to an extended coda of melodic electronica in the style of early Warp artists. Seen this way, the music of Celebrate Music Synthesizer Group is far from universal, more a ragbag of fairly specific connotations.
What’s exciting is how the group interrogate the paradox. Their explorations come off not as pure pastiche, but rather as investigations into the latent possibilities of their own sounds. The last three tracks here are prime examples: emerging naturally from the artists’ previous works, they’d sit happily on, say, The Inner Treaty if transcribed for more traditional instruments; as it is, though, they could probably be passed off as a new Autechre EP. Eventually, perhaps, it comes full circle: the more styles these artists try out and prove themselves adept at, the more they expand both their own visions and their chance of finding something truly universal among it all.