The problem with trying to quantify Emeralds is that potential descriptors of the group veer into the utterly formless. “Drone” and “hypnagogia” are en vogue terms that fail to summarize and completely locate the group within a movement. In some ways, definitive terms have almost become toxic. Once something is defined, it’s doomed. While it’s tempting to throw around terms like this, they ultimately feel disingenuous and exclusionary. Sadly its the critics’ terminal plight to try to define movements, therefore containing them, suffocating them. Maybe in this specific context, I should leave the problem of defining Emeralds’ sound to my iTunes; the genre tag it gave to Does It Look Like I’m Here? was simply “data.”
Emeralds is the trio of Mark McGuire, Steve Hauschildt, and John Elliott. Each one of these guys, despite being in their early 20s, are already prominent, accomplished experimental musicians, each responsible for many lauded solo works. In a recent interview, Emeralds explains that their solo work has helped to project their individual voices into the band. Just like famous German electronic composers Roedelius and Mobius, these guys are capable of so much — collaborations, solo work, existing as a group — always making wonderfully dense, inventive music. In fact, with time, people may speak of the components of Emeralds as something akin to Cluster, as a nexus of creativity, as wonderful harmony constructed among individuals with their own powerful creative voices.
There have been heavy expectations for this band since even before their being cornered into some kind of ambiguous “drone” movement, a signifier so vague that it includes everything from sunn 0))) to Grouper. The truth is that Emeralds exist outside of time, reaching back to the advent of vintage synths, a wonderful era of communion between humans and analog machines that produced the German kosmische music of the 1970s embodied by Cluster, Klaus Schulze, and Ash Ra Temple. There is a clear connection between Emeralds and the musicians from this era, and the music of this Cleveland trio is certainly working to evolve this landmark point in music history. Meanwhile, lots of bearded faces with bespectacled eyes are gazing on them with high anticipation.
Does It Look Like I’m Here? is Emeralds’ third widely-distributed release and undoubtedly their most accessible. This increased accessibility is due to their conscious effort to craft the record track-by-track instead of working in the largely improvised manner that characterized much of their previous work. In a 2009 interview with Tiny Mix Tapes, the band laid out its direction toward writing more focused records. It’s a move that is strangely synchronized with other highly prolific contemporaries such as Grouper, Pocahaunted, and Oneohtrix Point Never: “tape scene” bands that are putting out less ultra-limited releases in favor of more fully realized pieces of work. In this way, Does It Look Like I’m Here? not only shows a shift in how Emeralds are operating, but also is a zeitgeist for this moment when similarly-minded artists, who have transparently honed their craft through a slew of tapes, CD-Rs, and records, have decided to begin crafting major works.
Opening track “Candy Shoppe” is without a doubt the most instantly accessible song Emeralds have ever recorded, bringing to mind early Kraftwerk, eventually swelling into a blissful moment of wonderfully granular synth, a moment that wouldn’t be out of place on an M83 record. “Double Helix” and “Shade” are both full-throttle pieces bristling with energy. The album’s two longest pieces, “Genetic” and “Does It Look Like I’m Here?”, also exhibit this tendency for denser compositions with sustained intensity. Undoubtedly the band’s pronounced, more focused approach has allowed them to comfortably jam more action into their songs.
Unfortunately, many of the album’s mellower, more pensive songs feel like vignettes. On What Happened? or Solar Bridge, these songs would have felt as though they were strung together as part of a whole. That’s not to say that they’re incomplete or forgettable, but they would certainly carry more heft if they were formed into something like “Damaged Kids.” This slight feeling of uncertainty arises here and there along the sprawling expanse ofDoes It Look Like I’m Here?. Despite being almost the same length as the less song-based What Happened?, this album lacks that record’s effortlessness. Even though it is hailed as a new era of development for Emeralds, Does It Look Like I’m Here? feels more like a transitional album. Still, there is no doubt more much to come, and this record will be looked at as a cocoon in chrysalis, promising to hatch something truly special.