It’s probably a given that a project involving Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) and Joel Ford (of pop-rockers Tigercity) is likely to involve some kind of retrospection. Lopatin’s OPN-related work generally harks back to earlier synth moments, be they the pioneering work of ’70s Krautrock bands or the crisper ’80s sounds of artists such as Jan Hammer. Tigercity’s sound, meanwhile, is molded by a pop aesthetic that can be located somewhere between the late ’70s and late ’80s (somewhere between Chic and post-Cupid and Psyche Scritti Politti). Together, Ford and Lopatin have previously collaborated under the title Games. The switch to using their own names for their production-cum-recording project coincides with the setting-up of their own label, Software, the debut release of which is the duo’s album Channel Pressure. And yes, it’s retrotastic.
Channel Pressure–allegedly a concept album about a teenager living in 2082, but let’s leave that for someone else to explain–is firmly rooted in the ’80s of European and North American pop, soft-rock, and R&B, a time when synths still ruled and recorded voices came to us as if they were from some robotic ether. It’s a time that is bit like now, really, given that more and more acts seem intent on revisiting it. But no matter how familiar the sounds of Rolands, Korgs, and Linns have become in recent years, no matter how ubiquitous the Vocoder-referencing use of Auto-Tune, there is still something definitive about the use to which such machines were put in the ’80s. Ford & Lopatin are geniuses at recreating such sounds, acting as curators and tour guides to a decade that, for many people right now, acts as a kind of nostos (homecoming), and for others, remains an empty, soulless void.
The tour takes us past the bouncing synths of Hammer and Giorgio Moroder; the pops, squeaks, and blurps of early Depeche Mode, Human League, and Yazoo; the drum machines of nearly everyone. This is a song-based album, so we’re also reintroduced to Jimmy Somerville’s falsetto, Green Gartside’s smooth croon, and the sweet intimacy of Prefab Sprout’s Paddy McAloon. The main references lie at the intersection of synth-pop and white soul but there are also nods to the processed funk of Prince and Cameo and to the kind of digital R&B voices that would come increasingly to the fore in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The lights are also turned on the perennially uncool ’80s intersections of prog and pop (think “Owner of a Lonely Heart”), or soft rock (“The Final Countdown”, hymned to perfection on “The Voices”). Then there’s the stutter of the past to be found in the drum machines, representative of the more general battle between analog and digital, “real” and synthesized, that occupied so much of that era’s aesthetics.
It would be easy to dismiss this as some kind of ghastly process in which pop’s long-recognized ability to feed on itself and its past was transmuted into some sort of sonic heritage industry, a series of 808 Stately Homes. But such feelings are countered by Ford & Lopatin’s amazing mastery of the idioms of the computer age, one born of a nerdy obsession that finds ingenuity in its remembrance of things past. Far from being subject to a nostalgia for inauthenticity, or a desire for style over content, Ford & Lopatin get involved in the labor of memory work, piecing together textures and re-composing slabs of sound in ways that challenge and change their original logic. Behind the mirrored glass of these audio skyscrapers, beneath the placid clam of the glacial synthscape, there are layers, building blocks, structures and counter-structures that only reveal themselves when one is willing to go beyond the superficial.
The audio collage that kicks the album off introduces the idea of channel-surfing as its attendant skips through time and space, while also offering a brief reminder of the slab of noise set at the portal to Lopatin’s breakthrough album of last year, Returnal. Between the logical beats of “Channel Pressure”, some unseen force is at work deconstructing the song, warping and bending its tempo and pitch. On “Break Inside”, voices bleed into synths, break down, stutter, and malfunction, like the broken and haunted vocals on James Blake’s recent album. As with that work, there is a sense of an impossibility to communicate, this inability made somehow worse in an era of hyper-communication. In some of the instrumental sections (for example, that preceding “Break Inside”), tunes wither on the vine or run down like broken music machines. “World of Regret” speaks of “communications breaking apart”, a collapse echoed in the increasingly unstable sheets of sound that are supposedly there to support the song.
The triumph of Channel Pressure lies in the way in which these sonic subversions are sculpted into a collection of magical pop sounds. “Emergency Room”, “Too Much MIDI”, and “The Voices” might not be songs to set the charts alight now (nor, perhaps would they be if we could transport them back 25 years) but they are great pop songs nonetheless. Comparisons to Blake could again be made with regard to the combination of glitchy techsperimentalism and beautiful melody, though I’d be equally tempted to reference Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle (when will Grandaddy be seen as the true precursors to this whole synth-nostalgia scene?).
It’s an album that gets better with every play, with every peeling back of its more obvious, glossy layers. It especially repays headphone use, where each stutter, bend, warp, and pitchshift can be discovered and new subtleties can become apparent. However it’s heard, Channel Pressure is a work of heroic heritage — reorganizing an era that is too often dismissed as sterile and empty.