One of the most interesting connections between Alex Gray’s menagerie of projects is his utilization of space: Halogen buzzfeeds, portafilter pressure sequences, fractured defrost cycles — resonance that comes in a variety of forms and fills each soundscape with unequal measure. On ESPRESSO DIGITAL’s opening number, Gray uses a heartfelt wedding speech to create space amid the presented setting and the context of his latest mixtape. Behind the voices (and their accompanying refrain) lies a thumping hum that inhabits the track’s entirety; it feels like the scene is being played on a TV set surrounded by broken appliances — the whirring of a busted fridge or an unfastened bulb — that bleed through into the mix. If you focus on the words and the melody within that introductory piece, then “SHE CAN YELL” acts as a slap straight across the groom’s besotted chops. And if you are drawn in by the hum, then the latter track bursts open with tenacious force, lubricating a desire for more crushed electronic snapping, flickered static, bludgeoning bass, and twisted crystals. It’s already been a full year since the incredible HEAD TEAR OF THE DRUNKEN SUN, and within a few minutes of tucking into this new release, fond memories of the P/I debut are instantly rekindled.
Since joining forces with Cameron Stallones and performing in his Sun Araw band, Alex Gray has been busy circulating material under a flurry of different monikers. In late 2011, he dropped, after a string of other mixtapes, the exquisite I’m Fuckin You Tonight as Heat Wave, which he soon followed up with FUKD IN THA GAME (see #41 on our Favorite 50 Albums of 2012) and SWEETS (an extraordinary mix that just got reissued through ONIBABA RECORDS). The Heat Wave sound is a combination of garbled soul, jazz, and hip-hop samples, beat tapes that are hacked together with movie dialogue and a collection of scrambled instrumentation — strings, percussion, and effects — which Gray describes as “a nasty reinterpretation of cultural artifacts.” Chance Images, which was previously Deep Tapes/Heat Rave, is yet another channel through which these reinterpretations are fed — Gray’s label is responsible for distributing works by guitar/sax improv artist Rob Magill and Nocturnal Dance Concert, among others. It’s a testament to the lack of restrictions the L.A. musician imposes on his own work, as well as on the artists he collaborates with. On the flip side of his production style, there’s Deep Magic, through which he recently upped a tropical ambient sample from the forthcoming album Reflections of Most Forgotten Love. In between all of that, he has released a number of EPs, mixes, and singles as both DJ TRIBAL SHIT SHOW and DJ/PURPLE/IMAGE, which have explored the most disorientating channels of his self-proclaimed “cyber fuck” fashion, not to mention that Lana Del Rey remix.
Even with such prolific output, HEAD TEAR OF THE DRUNKEN SUN remains the most arresting and beautiful release from Gray’s back-catalog. He used that album as a platform for bringing crumbled grit and hiss to the forefront of his music, whereas throughout Heat Wave, it had been optimized as thread, stitching surrounding sounds and samples together. The spaces within HEAD TEAR were cramped and dislocated, an embodiment of the fractured aesthetic preferences embedded within the rest of his material. ESPRESSO DIGITAL continues that dislocation, but frames it differently, focusing more on elements of glitch and buildup — it retains a feeling of distraction while acting as a springboard for experimental micro-soundscapes and sonic cocktails of scuffed chaos. The buzz and static are ever-present (see the abraded waves and ruptured bass of “OLDER MODEL PT 3”), but instead of operating as a blanket layer for intentionally drowning out subtle effects, they act as a stylistic underlay — just listen to that distant crackle across the looped strings of “PRIMER” — it’s a terrific sensation that exemplifies the artist’s incredible attention to detail in the throes of disarray.
Upon being separated from their aural environment, every track on ESPRESSO DIGITAL exudes an experimental chunk that’s somehow distilled, but void of focus. And yet, there ensues a sense of cohesion within the product as a whole, which was lacking on most of the mixtapes since HEAD TEAR (I’m thinking of CRY TOGETHER. “IT KNOWS IT’S GONNA DIE,” in particular). On Gray’s latest offering, he has taken the disjunction and run with it, creating a phenomenal body of diverted improvisation. Take “SHE CAN YELL,” which is grounded in an aggressive vocal loop: “You’ve got to back it up!/ She can yell, She can yell, She can yell, What’s up?” A spiraling glitch sequence then weaves across each statement, which sounds like virtual code, cataloging or calculating vented hostility — it’s a completely random balancing act that shuffles high- and low-pitched sequences throughout the track’s course. Compare that with “ALL IN,” which uses similar patterns, but different instrumentation; there’s a dubby echo that resonates behind madcap glitches, gongs, and synths — no distinguishable vocals are present, but there exists an untold number of layers, operating in their own, muddled capacity. Severed from its surroundings, the piece feels completely unsettled and twitchy, but in the context of the tape, it slots perfectly alongside other deranged entanglements; it’s unsettling, broken, and wonderfully captivating.
“Improvisation is risky no matter how you slice it, and that’s how [Stallones and I] got together — through the intensity of our improvisational styles. When you put [those] different elements together, you just never know what you are going to get. It might sound like trash, you have no idea”
That’s Alex Gray talking to Canal 180 at Festival EDP Paredes de Coura in 2012. “But trash is good,” he adds after an affirmative response from Stallones. Indeed, ESPRESSO DIGITAL couldn’t be anything other than beautifully arranged trash. With its garbled beat tape aesthetic conjured from haphazard improv sessions, trash runs through the ventricles of this beast, pumping the blood through each and every one of its shattered arteries and feeding it with energy, until the next project drops.