Oneohtrix Point Never (Daniel Lopatin’s identity as sonic auteur) sounds a lot like an extraterrestrial frequency beamed to earth from the edge of infinity by some all-knowing and benevolent cosmic jester; it’s fitting, too, as the name’s origin is in a pun on the soft rock radio station 106.7 in Lopatin’s home town of Boston. As OPN, Lopatin has seemingly become that jester, and the transmissions he’s been beaming into pineal glands worldwide has absolutely lit up the blogosphere over the past year or so, generating reams of praise (from this site included) for, among other things, the magnificent Rifts compilation released last year on No Fun. Returnal is OPN’s first recorded appearance of 2010 and his debut on Peter Rehberg’s Editions Mego label, released almost concurrently with Does It Look Like I’m Here, the sprawling double disc from the like-minded Ohio group Emeralds. It’s a testament to the burgeoning popularity of the synth revival movement that a label who has for the most part adhered to abstract computer-generated noise has now set their sights technologically to the past in an attempt to discover the 21st-century potentials of what was, up until recently, condemned to become a reliquary of the 20th, i.e., the consumer electronic analog synthesizer.
While Does It Look Like I’m Here displays a clear attempt to shift the aforementioned “movement” into more pop-oriented terrains (presumably in hopes of tapping into new and larger demographics), Returnal sees at least a partial effort to move the other way with it. Its two bookending tracks are fairly atypical for Point Never. Opener “Nil Admirari” (a Greek term loosely translated as “being astonished by nothing”) is a veritable Big Bang of sound art; a densely compressed mass of spliced drum samples, fractured synths, stumbling drum machines, and sliced fragments of white noise explodes into the void as Lopatin attempts to mold a sonic universe from the enveloping chaos. It’s a sequenced and sampled bit of sound collage that gives a nod and a wink to the work of eMego proprietor Peter “Pita” Rehberg and his normally glitchy label. Closer “Preyouandi” is cut from a similar, albeit more subdued, cloth and skitters the album to a boisterous end.
The meat of Returnal, however, is considerably less dissonant. After exiting the aural asteroid belt of “Nil Admirari,” the listener is brought into the cool, calm expanse of space as a seamless segue materializes into “Describing Bodies.” From there, we glide gently into “Stress Waves,” as another of Lopatin’s signature triptychs comes into vision. On these two gently arcing pieces, we can hear the ghosts of crisp arpeggios from older material like “Computer Vision” and “Russian Mind.” Here they are pushed to the back while the amorphous atmospheres are pushed forward. The sequences are generally farther-reaching than much of the sharply syncopated polyrhythms present throughout Rifts, as fragments of eternally braided arpeggios often rise and fall nearly imperceptibly. Side one ends with the particularly accessible title track, a shape-shifting new-age hymnal whose gamelan-inspired sequences and new-age, pitch-shifted vocals converge to form a retro-futurist manifesto on par with Gary Numan’s “Cars” or Neil Young’s “Computer Age.” With the ghostly remnants of what could be a Three 6 Mafia beat interlaced into its DNA, “Returnal” is just the kind of track that could mark a turning point for “hypnagogia” at large.
Apart from its title track, the album seems less concerned than Rifts with bold sequences and clear mathematical progressions, and more interested in exploring the surfaces and facades of sounds. Much of Returnal is a study in thin planes and panels of new-age bliss, and that’s nowhere more evident than on “Pelham Island Road,” whose shifting panes of synthesized veneers run through an array of octaves before smearing out into an electronic Aurora Borealis. The hot and gaseous cut — heavy with tropical atmospheres, thick mist, and chirping reptiles — is most likely a nod to the auteur’s obsession with the music of the Ituri rain forest and adds a primal force to OPN’s usually unwavering sci-fi bent.
Much like the Steven O’Malley cover art — on which evenly cut strips of a reflective material (possibly of extraterrestrial provenance) lay in perfect symbiosis to form an entirely new and alien shape — Lopatin dissects elements of sound and arranges them into new magickal sigils, making Returnal not just a collection of tracks but an indivisible and cohesive whole, held in place this time not by grids and zones but by atmospheres and plumes. That’s not to say that Returnal is a total game-changer, however, as we see a clear philosophical continuation from past work, namely Lopatin’s obsession with “ouroborous,” the unbroken chain that inevitably leads humankind always to the same spot. Returnal is a travelogue of the human spirit that documents this “eternal return,” the persistent disintegration and reintegration of all life that is in essence its genesis. That Returnal lacks much of the immediate Harold Faltermeyer / Dr. Who gratification of Zones Without People or the looped pop culture meme destruction of “Angel” and “Nobody Here,” might be a point of contention for some. But to tap into its power as a living feedback loop sewn into the fabric of the alpha and omega, a meditative stillness is a must.