Emeralds are doubly anachronistic. It’s not just that they’re retro. They aren’t even retro in a particularly contemporary way. With vaporwave, 2012 saw the culmination of a logic that had partly begun in the mid noughties with hauntology and hypnagogic pop. Ariel Pink, Burial, Oneohtrix Point Never, James Ferraro, Ghost Box, Not Not Fun. This sort of music always had a certain “aboutness” to it. Burial wasn’t reproducing rave; he was mourning it. Ariel Pink wasn’t just resurrecting the pop of yesteryear; he was remembering it. On “Artifact” from 2005’s tellingly entitled Worn Copy, he sings through a fog of hypnagogic fuzz “Never forget the Golden Age… This is an artifact of that.” Both lyrically and sonically, this was music about other music. And that was a large part of what made it interesting.
This was the logic that vaporwave took up this year and radicalized. In doing so, it introduced a different regime of art-practice to the musical avant-underground: the readymade. Unlike seapunk with which it was regularly and erroneously lumped, vaporwave was always more than just a “sound,” a shared archive or set of production techniques. At its most radical, what it did was interrupt the logic of modernism. By dramatically foregrounding the act of appropriation, precisely by refusing to be “original” in the conventional sense of the term, it made the listening experience all about that original; maybe even about the discourse of originality itself. Either way, it seemed to be adopting some sort of critical position. And the impossibility of ever determining once and for all whether this amounted to endorsement or disavowal was a crucial part of the intrigue.
In other words, vaporwave did for music what Duchamp, Warhol, and Koons had done before in visual art. But it also did something else, something more. Vaporwave wasn’t simply derivative of a familiar logic; it extended and deepened it. In its musicality, its sonority, vaporwave had a fleshiness, a sensuality to it that even the biggest, brightest Koons never managed. Vaporwave was always more than just a conceptual gesture, in other words, a mere staging of the undecidability of the critical task. It enfolded you in the experience of that undecidability, held you in it, really forced you to feel it: to notice your attention coming in and out of focus as the album unfolded, at turns indifferent, the sound just washing over you, genuinely compelled and occasionally, yes, disgusted.
Emeralds’ relationship with the past is of a different brand entirely. What’s more, after vaporwave, it feels outdated and, to these ears anyway, uninteresting. Having originally made a name for themselves as a drone outfit, Emeralds officially “crossed over” with 2010’s Does It Look Like I’m Here (TMT Review). For the first time, there were melodies, song structures, and a distinctly “pop” sensibility to add to the neo-kosmiche new age vibes. Mark McGuire’s guitar noodlings took a distinctly proggy turn, and it all started to sound a lot like mid-to late-70s Klaus Schulze and Manuel Göttsching. These weren’t exactly slavish recreations. It was as if Emeralds had simply decided to pick up and continue to explore a genre that had last touched base with the zeitgeist some 30 or so years previously.
Nothing has changed on their most recent outing. Just to Feel Anything explores precisely the same territory as their last outing. Sure, there are programmed drums here for the first time. It’s all a little more Jan Hammer, a little more Knight Rider, a little more cruising the lonely cityscape at 3 AM. But it’s the kind of difference that will feel miniscule unless, like Emeralds, it’s precisely the details, precisely the minutiae that matter to you.
Such is the ethos of the fanboy, the obsessive, the Trekky. Above all, the commitment is to the genre itself, to a catalogue of very particular sounds, effects, and techniques. It is these that provide the framework within which any further experimentation must be confined. The problem is that unless you’re already on board in this respect, unless you’re also a fanboy, equally committed to the rules of the game, equally happy to judge a record according to its micro-innovations, or in terms of its ability to successfully inhabit the genre, then it can all feel a little bit… well… pointless.
So it turns out that there’s a little of the modernist in me yet. Not even vaporwave could put pay to it entirely. I’m more than happy with appropriation, it seems, a certain kind of totally overt relation with the past, but only so long as that relation feels new or refreshing somehow. In 2012, strange as it may seem to say it, nothing sounded newer or more refreshing than vaporwave. But Just to Feel Anything never quite seems to justify itself in the way that Does it Look Like I’m Here did, to compel you to pay attention in spite of its apparent familiarity, by whatever method. And as a result, it just feels like a lot of wasted energy. Unfortunately, “anything” isn’t quite enough.