Synthesizers can do many things. The vast proliferation of brands, synthesis methods, and models should indicate the variety available just in terms of the most basic sonic building blocks; but from there, possibilities grow to the horizon. A tight lead can fit over a bass line in a hip-hop hop track or act as the hook of a rock song; put an LFO on the filter cutoff, play a nasty bass line through it, and you have the beginnings of the famous dubstep wobble; layer pads, leads, and basses on some vintage gear with some basic melodies and you’ve got instant Vangelis. With vintage sounds “returning” and new equipment hitting the market every day, the synthesizer is approaching a renaissance across the board. But it’s all in what you do with it. You can use them to make music within already codified genres, or you can search for new lands. Matt Carlson’s All Moments, despite its evocation of past explorers, is an island somewhere in the vast ocean of new electronic sounds.
All Moments is one of the most pleasant records that has come out this year. Carlson’s synth acts less as a static weapon or a dread-inducing drone monster than a cloud and bubble dispenser. Instead of forcibly kidnapping you into extradimensional portals, All Moments fills your current space with twittering cartoon birds and pools of rainbow-colored Kool-Aid. We’re in Wonderland, not the Astral plane. The liquid sounds of resonant filters here do not alarm or reach an unnerving tempo; they simply flow. Melodies rise and drift away as Carlson’s vocoded voice announces the next stop on the monorail. Despite all its good vibrations, Carlson never allows All Moments a cornball second. Synthesizers already hold a stigma of cheesiness, and with such a bright mood, the threat of clichés abound. Carlson runs circles around them, taunting them back. It’s as if he wants to approach those signifiers to the very edge of their insinuation, but stops short just as he reaches them, voiding expectations and allowing the relaxing mood to continue, uninterrupted by silliness or irony. To say it’s pleasant is also not to suggest that All Moments is without tension. It’s just never uncomfortable, only enough to move the pieces forward.
It might seem that synthesizers suggest specific sounds and genres in themselves, that musicians are merely using preset functions, that the limitations of synthesizers sculpt our musical landscape. It’s true that certain sounds have memories associated with them — vocal pads, for instance, call up associations of new age music, and synth strings evoke 80s sci-fi soundtracks. But it seems more likely that these tools are only in their initial stages of development, that they open up their possibilities as humans more fully explore them. Carlson’s sound doesn’t sound entirely new, but it opens up a space that didn’t seem possible before: a miniature genre unto itself, perhaps near to exhaustion already at the end of this album. It’s a novel experience whose results are due primarily to the man playing the synthesizer, not the synthesizer itself.