Vaporwave is the musical equivalent of surrealism for our century. Like surrealism, this relatively new genre is an art form obsessed with the foggy world of dreams, where lo-fi sounds play in an unconscious kind of music.
Like the paintings of Dali, vaporwave wants to show the familiar in an unfamiliar way. Pop idols are slowed down through unrecognisable samples. Innocent muzak suddenly sounds ghostly and effervescent. The surrealists did the same, with their lobsters as telephones, their mannequins as sitting portraits, showing everyday objects in a new light.
Finally, like surrealism, vaporwave is a many-varied art form, with no one definitive sound or ‘look’ to its soundscape. So while the seven albums below may seem different from one another, the same common threads of dreaminess and reconfiguration can be found within them all the same.
death’s dynamic shroud.wmv – I’ll Try Living Like This (2015)
I’ll Try Living Like This is probably the most overlooked album of 2015. Its nearest equivalent is either the Avalanches debut or Beck’s Odelay, collages of old or undercover samples that manage to build songs which capture the moment and decade that they’re released in. Remember how Odelay captured the lazily cool, loose-fingered homage-paying of a 90s in thrall to 1960s nostalgia and whatnot, whilst the Avalanches foresaw the forcing of ‘wackiness’ and similarly-tied pleas for a return to childhood innocence during the upheaval of our world-levelling 00s? Well, this LP from US-based death’s dynamic shroud.wmv plunders from the current white noise around us of the thousand competing media sources vying for our attention on a daily basis. The samples here come from video games, from K-pop with its mirror imaging of North American chart music, the messy and global feedback loop of Top 40s everywhere. The samples are old or frayed around the edges, yet digitally slick even as they jam and mesh like a scrambling video clip. It’s the sound of our Far Eastern smartphones tossed through a blender.
Whilst a lot of vaporwave actually looks to the 80s for inspiration, DDS.wmv aren’t afraid to sample recent Korean girl groups, or pay subtle homage to 90s ambient-techno like The Orb. Listen out for both influences in the track embedded above, the gobsmackingly staggering centrepiece of the album known as 내 마음은 떨고 (aka ‘Nae Maeumeun Tteolgo’, or My Heart is Trembling).
Eyeliner – LARP of Luxury (2013)
An interesting thing about vaporwave is no one country can lay claim to being the best source of output. Case in point is New Zealand artist Eyeliner, who’s up there quality-wise with their own muzak-influenced strain of vaporwave. While a lot of vaporwave is based off of the jazzy, Kenny G-strain of 80s muzak, Eyeliner’s tracks instead build from the equally inoffensive sounds of 90s corporate training videos or Windows CD-ROM sound effects, making up the uncanny and sterile sound of what’s called the ‘muzakcore’ sub-genre, sounds from a vaguely remembered past now reconfigured as dancefloor bangers
Mute Channel – 平白氣形 (2014)
Mute Channel is a name not as well-known as the heavy hitters above, but in my mind their 平白氣形release is an absolutely intoxicating collection of sounds. Each track is more of a sketch than a song, distilling the entire vapor genre into its bare components – obscure slow-mo sampling, the decaying sound quality of obsolete technologies, plus the ever-present ode to Far East exoticism. Recommended for any fan of Boards of Canada who isn’t afraid to remove beats from the equation.
2 8 1 4 – 新しい日の誕生 [Birth of a New Day] (2015)
Another example of the global breadth of quality vaporwave is UK duo 2814, whose 新しい日の誕生(‘Atarashī Ni~Tsu No Tanjō’) aka Birth of a New Day was released on Britain’s Dream Catalogue, probably the best known vapor-label out there. If Warp captured the essence of IDM in the 90s, then Dream Catalogue is doing the same for electronic music in the 2010s, with 2814’s sophomore release being their equivalent of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works. Listen above for a nostalgic trip within the Vangelis ambience of a forgotten city of the future, built in the past but ready to surprise us one day down the road.
Vaperror – Mana Pool (2014)
Also on Dream Catalogue are the unique vaporwave-meets-trap stylings of Vaperror. Yep, those two styles can mix, making the dreamy-yet-danceable CD-ROM gameplay sounds found on Mana Pool, an album popular enough to have been re-released on vinyl earlier this year by D.C.
テレヴァペ (Televape) – 超越愛 (2015)
Back to Vaperror again, who forms one half of duo テレヴァペ. A lot of the best vaporwave releases are usually collaborative works – 2814 from earlier, for example is a collab between Dream Catalogue founder HKE and telepath, the other brain behind this 超越愛 (aka Beyond Love) release from last year. It’s no surprise the two collaborations sound similar, therefore, and yet each one is beautiful in its own right. Televape comes highly recommended for anyone looking to be gently eased into the softer side of the vaporwave scene.
Macintosh Plus – Floral Shoppe (2011)
Vaporwave is currently at an all-time high in both quantity and quality. Proof is in how recently made a lot of the albums above are. Saying that, it’s best not to forget where the genre came from, especially if you’re new to the scene. One side of the vapor world can be traced back to the sample-heavy Eccojams Vol. 1from 2010, as released by Oneohtrixpointnever under the alias of Chuck Person. The other, more instrumental half was the progeny of Macintosh Plus, another alias of another equally prolific artist (Ramona Andra Xavier). Ambient, muzak and pop idols collide on a cassette release that now sells for up to 500 dollars on the second-hand market. Whilst the album is listed here for its quality, not value, it’s also here for its cover art, which has been much copied on the vapor scene, and even much parodied on the meme-o-sphere. Look closer, and we see a Roman bust. Some variations even have a faceless mannequin version of the same object. Look familiar? It will be if you know the art of Giorgio de Chirico, a 1900s artist who influenced the surrealists of the 20s. Busts and mannequins populated his eerie, modernist cityscapes, the familiar made unfamiliar. And so the past marches on into the present, heading onward into the future.