There is his name, of course, doubled with both the physical sense of water (Evian, the name of the French mineral water, bottled near Lake Geneva, its source) and the metaphysical, Christlike sense that making music, or being a music-maker, can give you. And then there is the mystery in his music, something that makes it not only angelic, but also urban and dangerous; I dub it “Metal Gear Solid music,” because if you listen closely to the timbre of the beats, it’s hard to distinguish them from those of gunshots, one of the main features of the Metal Gear games. Years ago, after I listened to Kings and Them on a Brooklyn balcony for the first time, I went home remembering the name and knew from that moment on that I would listen to everything Evian Christ (real name: Joshua Leary) would record, which would later include his ambient Duga-3 mix, my favorite music he’s released, and now his new EP, Waterfall. If you’re like me and listened to Evian Christ pre-Yeezus, you knew that his music, though forged in shades of gray and black, promised light.
I can set off a string of adjectives about Waterfall, calling it industrial, claustrophobic, and violent, but nothing describes it better than its last few seconds: a round of rapid machine-gun fire. The shots are fake, of course, just MIDI synth sounds. But to end an EP with gunshots is bold, a big “fuck you” to the listener, and an ironic gesture since this EP is, for many, their first encounter with Leary’s music. The gunshots aren’t out of left field when you recall the lyrics on Kings and Them, mainly sampled vocals of mainstream Compton rapper Tyga, which deal with themes of sex, violence, and decadence. The difference is that, this time, instead of the linguistic representation of violence, the violence is sonic and theatrical, meant to shock immediately, in its strange “there but not there” virtuality. Despite whatever vocals we do have on this EP — the Jamaican voice sample in “Waterfall,” for example, or the scrambled vocals on “Salt Carousel” — the vocal-less-ness suggests new territory for Leary: an aura of spasmodic restlessness without clear agency. The EP is messy and cold until those last few seconds, when shit gets hot, and the life is cut out of the listener, unexpectedly, as if we were the victim of a drive-by. (First the author dies, now the listener does.)
So what happened, then, to the ambient direction (“amborap”) we expected Leary to take flight in? Compared to Duga-3, a 20-minute meditation on the Cold War, Waterfall is all about swag. Evian Christ seems hellbent on success, which to him is not making ambience anymore, but collaborating with rappers and being accessible to rappers. Because of that, it’s important to show off his British swagger the British way. Enter: London, New York City’s older sister. These beats are a form of architecture that take on the look and sound of London, though Leary is originally from Ellesmere Port, a small town near Liverpool and Manchester. The presence of London — in, say, the Jamaican voice brilliantly placed between the fake-bamboo sound and dotted points of synth emeralds on “Waterfall” — points to the idea of two Evian Christs: the one who, like water, amplifies environments, and the other who, like Christ, seeks massive appeal. To record with Kanye West was, if anything, an ego-strengthener, an accomplishment that threw him into a media frenzy, answering questions here and there about the future between them, as if he had all the answers. At the moment, the swag level is high for Leary, but so is a sense of evaporation, that it all doesn’t make sense, that it’s all a farce, a shadow or a mirror, a wicked display of absolutely nothing but male ego and male masculinity. The problem with swag is that it’s metaphysical, a product of the hyper-normalized music industry.
To construe this EP as four beats of masculine expression would be to misunderstand it, though. Now, with a clearer, more daunting career as a beat-maker, handling his newfound attention will either reveal Leary’s truest intention as a mainstream, cash-rules-everything-around-me producer or move him into the profile of other up-and-coming experimental beatmakers. While both moves are commendable, what I want from him more, and what I hope he doesn’t forget about his previous music, is that sense of vagueness that informed it: what I thought was his style. I want him to investigate ambience more; I want him to be more into recording fixation, hulking over landscapes, pressing his beats into tight elevators, then throwing them into magma or camouflaging them with echos and moss and damp haze. If there can be a floral scent to his music, if his music can investigate the linguistic realities of our digital world, then all the better. And moreover, he should remember his stranger choices of sampling, such as picking “Wind and Snow” — a song by Grouper, the pseudonym of the Oregonian singer-songwriter Liz Harris — as the main sample for “Thrown Like Jacks.”
In the end, I hope he doesn’t forget the secret entrances, concrete skyways, digital gardens, and computer passwords that make up today’s music landscape. The beats he makes are limiting his expression, which used to be about being a regulatory system that organized us in some semblance of sonic order, binding us loosely, bailing others of us together like straw, but always into a connection, albeit sometimes an extremely loose one, like a lock of hair that falls over the eye, suspended in an agitated trance. Waterfall is promising, but it’s perhaps the first Evian Christ release that hasn’t amazed me.