New Dreams Ltd. Sleepline

[Self-Released; 2016]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: public broadcast, mass advertising, product placement
Others: Vektroid, Laserdisc Visions, Macintosh Plus

From the time it emerged into the public sphere at the tail end of 2011 to one of its supposed hibernations on August 30, 2012, vaporwave was perhaps one of the most unintentionally provocative music genres to emerge since the dawn of the internet. A product of long-distance relationships, file-sharing, and a slew of social media platforms, the mechanics of the music formed the basis of heated conversations about everything from taste to legal licensing to capitalism. Under at least a dozen monikers, Ramona Xavier was responsible for the most impressive and stimulating of these releases; within the span of a few months, she had produced two of our year-end favorites from 2012 — Macintosh Plus’s Floral Shoppe and 情報デスクVIRTUAL’s 札幌コンテンポラリー — before suggesting a temporary end to the genre she was so heavily involved with.

This announcement was marked by the free streaming of a particularly striking album called Shader, which came out under Xavier’s Sacred Tapestry moniker. Back then, Shader was an obscure album, veering away from the “virtual casino” of vaporwave to focus on a rougher, grittier sound, where public announcements and meditation segues were so jaggedly contorted and heavily layered that the music became almost abrasive.

Xavier’s latest production is a “lost chapter” from that period titled Sleepline, which was recently released for the first time alongside reworked editions of Shader and an album called Prism Genesis by Fuji Grid TV (now called Fuji Grid TV: EX by New Dreams Ltd). That these albums were dropped at the same time made sense aesthetically: the compositional approach is quite similar, even if the sample material and the mood of each varies drastically. By reconsidering the assumed “death” of vaporwave and resurrecting its eulogy, Sleepline acts as a reminder of not how much time critics spent debating artistic legitimacy, but just how powerful these recordings were from an aesthetic standpoint.

For some, the conversations about late-capitalist critique and cultural appropriation were on par with — or even more important than — the enjoyment of the music. For others, those conversations served as a gateway to an unsuspected appreciation of recontextualized sounds that were fascinating in their appeal, either as chopped-and-screwed funk, jazz, soft rock, and soul music or as “vaporwave,” carefully arranged and moderately manipulated arrangements of corporate muzak and MIDI instrumentals. Stylistically, Sleepline works its way into the former of those externally imposed categories, referencing both the beautiful ambient pieces that punctuate Shader (think the opening few minutes of “移住” on the first edition) and the seductive melodies that were so eloquently packaged on Home and Clear Skies.

But Sleepline is more than a meager revisiting of vaporwave by an artist accountable for some of its most captivating releases. Initially assembled in 2013, this collection is neither a rehash of past compositional ideas nor a tribute to them; it’s a coherent and distinctive assemblage that identifies how Xavier has shifted her approach to curation. Each track is sewn together in a way that seamlessly unites the various mediums of source material, and where these sounds might otherwise dissolve into the background and fall away from our lives forever, there exists something sensual and structured within their anonymity (provided that you are unfamiliar with the manipulated languages that have been used).

As the gentle plucking of strings fades into a 1980s pop-style clambering of big beats, the vocal contributors to Sleepline embody an often curious presence. Instead of acting as an accompaniment to the music, they emphasize an artistic fascination, not only for a specific musical style, but also for language and cultural appreciation. Whether the voices are singing, endorsing, or announcing something unobtainable to those who do not have access to the language (“Nakano #18” providing the most curious exception), each vocal sample seems to guide the music through its stylistic variations. “Muku Grid” offers the finest example of this, where otherwise garish harmonies are looped and reversed amid a bed of mild distortion before a pitch-shifted version of Air Supply’s “One Step Closer” breaks the track apart. The experience is akin to hearing random flashes of music that have been interspersed across different environments, like catching the beginning of a song while getting out of a cab before picking up a voicemail en route to a department store, where the rest of the song plays out. Sleepline unknowingly does justice to such coincidences while bridging the gaps with lush, soothing tones; it’s a stepping stone between the virtual plaza and the most mundane interactions with unassuming music, unlike almost any other vaporwave release.

Not only does Sleepline complement the albums that came before, but it refocuses the listener’s attention entirely toward the music. For all of its roughness and variation of style, Sleepline works as one of the more gratifying of Xavier’s productions to date, where the sideshow of debates concerning sincerity and appropriation are cast aside to reveal a new aesthetic plateau, an inspiring and thoughtful blend of found sound that’s void of provocation and exquisitely choreographed. As “Blue Earth” remains perhaps the most stirring and emotional piece of music I’ve heard this year, Xavier makes it clear that this is more than a timely flashback. It’s the start of a new era, our reconciliation in the New World Embassy.

Links: New Dreams Ltd.

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