This is both an obituary and a baptism.
Vaporwave will turn out to have been a blip: less a genre than a methodological and conceptual gesture pursued briefly but vigorously by a number of highly prolific artists inspired by Daniel Lopatin and James Ferraro. Although it was already beginning to emerge from bedrooms/internet connections in 2011, vaporwave will have registered in the critical consciousness for only about six months, between mid 2012 and the start of 2013. And even then only in a few dark corners of the web. And then it will have vanished, its practitioners and theorists moved on to new projects, different gestures, unrelated sounds.
What’s more, there will be exceptionally little to show for it. Vaporwave will have yielded hardly any physical releases and will barely ever have been heard “live.” Apart from a bunch of MP3s, almost all of which will have been exchanged “for free” (that is, their interaction with the market will have been limited to the $$$s vicariously donated to ISPs and Apple), vaporwave will have left very little mark on the world. Not just that. In 10 years’ time, virtually no one will still listen to it.
Nevertheless, vaporwave will have been important. And it will have been important because this sort of story will become ever increasingly familiar in the musical avant-garde as the decade continues. A method will be pursued, a “concept” interrogated, intensely and repeatedly, but no sooner has it been around for long enough to seem to coalesce into a genre than it will be discarded. Monikers will proliferate. Sometimes it will be possible to establish continuities between them. Often not. Lopatin and Ferraro will be gods. The only constancy according to this new model will be change. Which is not necessarily to say evolution. Evolution will have been for the Rockists.
Prism Projector, a split cassette between Datavis and Forgotten Light, is not vaporwave, but it is crucial to understanding both how vaporwave’s practitioners work and what will become of them. Datavis is Will Burnett. Is INTERNET CLUB. Is ECCO UNLIMITED. Which is to say, one of vaporwave’s major exponents. And Forgotten Light is Leonce Nelson. Which is to say Geotherm. And La Mer. And, with Burnett, one half of Datavision Ltd. Together, the two (nine?) of them run Hexagon Recordings.
What’s so interesting about this record, what makes it so pertinent in relation to my argument above, is the fact that it could hardly sound any less like vaporwave if it tried. It’s a pretty standard drone record actually. As Burnett and Nelson put it on their website (it’s characteristic of this new mold of artist, incidentally, that they’re extremely fluent at describing/conceptualizing their own work): “Both artists join forces on a split record that is actually intertwined together to interplay upon their respective ideas and sounds. 45 minutes of slow faded ambience to soundtrack a sluggish mindstate.”
If there are differences between the tracks produced by each artist here, they are not especially noticeable. The gently mutating synths are audible only deep under a patina of analog hiss and crackle. If Burnett and Nelson are aping/expanding on Lopatin and Ferraro when they do vaporwave, here they’re riffing off William Basinski. And just like with so much of Basinski’s output, this is a record that will yield what you permit it to. It is at turns totally absent — hardly even there — and utterly sublime, depending on both the headspace you bring to it and the extent to which you give it your attention. This is one possible link, perhaps, with vaporwave. In a certain sense, this record too is undecidable.
The main affect here is a sense of distance, of the music being permanently and irretrievably out of reach. If Prism Projector sounds like anything, it’s the soundtrack to an old movie about space exploration that’s just been dug out of an old box on VHS. And in that sense, it has a nostalgic quality to it: space travel, of course, is now very much in HD.
So Prism Projector neither sounds anything like vaporwave nor explores particularly similar conceptual territory, except in that they are both somewhat undecidable and both bear some passing relation to hauntology. But that’s exactly why it’s so interesting from a critical perspective. Burnett has already moved on from vaporwave. Who knows what Nelson’s up to these days. But this is a record of one of their projects, just one gesture among many from earlier in 2012, a document produced by a couple of artists — both very young, both emblematic/symptomatic to some extent of the next generation of the avant-garde — more committed to experimenting with methodologies than alloying themselves to any particular genre. Moreover, this is not a matter of simple ambivalence. It is political. A value system. An ethos. And soon enough it will have been the future.