I’m Fine opens with a circle of notes resembling a crystal structure made of smokey emerald that outlines the inward-poised scaffolding of an off-key merry-go-round, throbs of bass lurching out from the cogs hidden inside the machinery that resonate deep inside the chest. The most ethereal particles of grime, stripped down to a pure sonic consistency and set forth in an unsettling diagrammatic cycle, with ornamental textures and emotive blurts blossoming through rearrangement, reverberation, and repetition into the foundations of an untapped language of pain.
The following six compositions are interlocking meditations on duress, wound tightly as in a lattice of diamond, barren soundscapes carved painstakingly from a vast, culturally-literate reservoir of suffering. This language is made up not only of words (though familiar syllables, words, and phrases even do surface occasionally), but also of spectral, pentatonic tones and a sparse few key rhythmic gestures. Uncanny, breathy vocal samples bearing the ghostly imprint of digital processing articulate over elastic, bouncing eski phrases; subterranean throbs of bass underpin an increasingly labyrinthine top end.
On the surface, this strain of R&B-inflected, minimalist grime that Visionist refines on I’m Fine might seem like a carbon-copy of the futurist club aesthetic championed by UK dance juggernaut Night Slugs and its stateside sister label Fade To Mind. I’m Fine is the third release to come out on digital-only imprint Lit City Trax (who last year released an utterly skippable and derivative juke mixtape that I definitely don’t consider to be my favorite record of all time), and label founder J-Cush makes up 1/4 of the net-savvy supergroup Future Brown, alongside Fade to Mind mainstays Nguzunguzu and Fatima Al Qadiri (who drops in on I’m Fine’s “The Call” for a characteristically drone-stricken contribution). The “sad, sexy, scary” vibe (as Nguzunguzu have described it in interviews) championed by these artists does elicit serious emotional gravitas with millennial listeners, tailor-made for both the short, sampladelic attention span and for a vast catalog of database-supported nostalgia. But like all styles that follow a formula, it threatens to render itself cliché upon repetition, as it becomes more ubiquitous and easily imitable.
As listeners in the US begin to connect the transatlantic dots between trap and grime, the decentered head-nod that serves as a heartbeat for Visionist’s music appears to be making a comeback as #relevant sonic couture in 2013. Make no mistake, though, Louis Carnell (the man behind Visionist) is about as far away from the status of trend-jacker as you can get. Even before he started making beats upon relocating to London to attend university back in 2011, Carnell cut his teeth as a grime emcee in his teenage stomping grounds of Nottingham. These days, Carnell’s label Lost Codes is one of the key players in the resurrection of instrumental grime, and his own project is carrying the genre into a loftier headspace than it’s ever pondered before.
On I’m Fine, Visionist sets himself apart from bandwagoners by carving out a sonic world unto itself, delving further with each tune into the emotive capabilities of the often heavily anthropomorphic samples he employs. “Pain” is a standout example of how Carnell’s compositional asceticism and confidence in advancing his ideas work to brilliant results: over a murky, spacious bass drone that sounds like it could’ve been churned out of a steel turbine, Carnell paints a squirming, elusive pattern of breathy synths, inverted snares, and dots of empty space, sent over the top into pure extract of suffering by a faceless, nameless diva’s improvised vocal run that drops around the halfway mark. The imprints of ethereal, instantaneous emotions become weight-carrying symbols in the context of I’m Fine’s self-referential poetry, which only elucidates more fully as the record progresses.
Some tracks on the EP, such as “Lost” and “Escape,” have a decidedly more rhythmic focus (as in, the percussion is actual rather than implied), but the record never breaks tone, fractalizing throughout the course of its terse, 17-minute run time into a mandala of eerie paeans called out into the void, with no one but the sufferer’s own mind to receive them. The compositions here all assume the subtle, self-considering, and ultimately lethal shape of deep, depressive ruminations, the record concluding its own doomed cycle on a note of resignation with “I Don’t Care.” Clocking in at just under five minutes, this track is also the EP’s longest and least urgent composition, with serpentine melodies and cavernous empty spaces between percussion hits cleansing the emotional palette and leading the listener calmly and circuitously back to the start of the record: a self-contained cryptogram is revealed, a pained message in a bottle broken over the skull to reproduce more of itself.
The all-encompassing yet ambiguous pain at the center of I’m Fine is exorcised, reconciled through the total realization of Carnell’s singular aesthetic language, but the whole exercise ultimately results in something like a spiral. Visionist’s art is itself a gesture in the larger cultural cycle in which it by force of nature must participate, a somber comment on the borrowed expressions and emulated gestures the post-digital generation has no chance but to rely on in exploring our own feelings of alienation from the past. Within, Carnell manages to elevate the forgotten signs of the sonic undergrounds and pop nostalgias that preceded him into a sensitive, spiritually-charged poetics, a semiotic economy whose elliptical timbre peers into the question mark lurking in the years of technological advance and aesthetic recursion to come. Whether or not Visionist and his peers will ever succeed in (re)producing themselves outside of the hypnagogic spiral is unsure; for the time being, there’s beauty enough in watching their meditations spill out from the inside.