When you think of electronic music, you probably might think of a sleek futuristic soundtrack that presents or portends a vision of things to come – the most revolutionary acts mine sounds that have yet to be seemingly coaxed out of computers at the time of their respective releases. Think how unordinary Radiohead’s Kid A was to the most mainstream listener upon its debut, and you might get a sense of the uncanny electronica seems to push towards. Chrome Canyon – the alias for Brooklyn’s Morgan Z – has it the other way, in reverse. Elemental Themes is full of mostly instrumental throwback sounds to the halcyon days of analog synth music of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Other reviewers have compared the music to being some kind of bizarre cross between the soundtrack work of Wendy Carlos, Vangelis (with “Chasing the Dead” particularly Blade Runner-esque), Goblin and John Carpenter (heck, even “Signs from an Old World” almost riffs off the “feel” of the Halloween theme), but you could suspect that some of this work could fit quite comfortably in the oeuvre of John Hughes as well. Add to that a pinch of Journey, and maybe even a touch of Yanni, and, well, you would be well on your way to describing the puzzling work of Chrome Canyon. Puzzling, because it is so reverential to days of future past that you’re not sure whether or not this is meant as sincere homage, or an attempt to glorify a brand of music that you could cook on the stovetop as Kraft Dinner. Meaning: it’s cheesy. Very, very cheesy. In fact, I would go as far to say that Elemental Themes might be 2012’s ultimate critic-proof album, alongside Black Banana’s Rad Times Xpress IV. You’re either going to go along with this in a major way, or your response might be a bit (or a lot) more muted – a big “so what’s the big deal” and a shrug. Or even, to borrow a song title from this release, a “Carfire on the Highway”. Me? I straddle somewhere in the middle.
Actually, where Elemental Themes tends to stumble a bit is on those tracks that are meant to be bright and cheery. Single “Memories of a Scientist” even conjures up and evokes the feel of another group I have yet to mention: the late ’70s jazz-rock fusion of the Doobie Brothers. Seriously. Listen to the song and try and not tell me that Michael McDonald’s vocals wouldn’t fit nicely on top of parts of this. Elsewhere on this long-player, the title track sneaks in a saxophone part that sounds very well that it could have been borrowed from George Michael’s early work, dare I say a “Careless Whisper” of a piece of trash art? And that’s when Morgan Z isn’t offering bizarre modern day takes on the German fugue a few moments later on the same track. The ultimate take in silliness comes, though, on the opening cut, “Beginnings”, which appears to be aping the most base, airy nature of early ’80s synth pop with its changing, shape-shifting nature that just can’t sit still. In fact, you sort of need to get through the opening clutch of the album’s first three songs before you stumble upon anything of intrinsic worth. “Pluze”, the second track, does have a bit of a hummable section or “chorus”, if you could call it that, but it just gets into spooky trickery that sounds like you could play it in a haunted graveyard on your front lawn at Halloween, so kitschy it is. “Legends”, meanwhile, feels a little on the lightweight side, and offers up keyboard sounds that are jarringly both dark and fluffy – a mix that doesn’t really need the full five minutes-plus it gets here to stretch out.
Indeed, much of the album’s strength is derived from the gravitational pull of its mid-section. “Cave of Light” has a broken down carnival feel, portraying a feel of psychedelic melancholia that comes across in a rather bereft minute-thirty. “Chasing the Dead”, perhaps the most appealing track here, puts images in your mind’s eye of Rick Deckard flying around in a spinner, but pushes beyond Vangelis into almost classical territory with its flourishes of acoustic guitar. If anything can be said about Elemental Themes, it is that it doesn’t play into elemental song structures: there are curves and deviations to be had either, which have the effect of either being pleasurable (“Chasing the Dead”) or just too much (“Beginnings”). “Sacred Mountain” is also a bit intriguing for offering up sounds of a wind-swept panorama, alongside its dark and foreboding synth washes.
Elemental Themes does show and illustrate that Morgan Z has a mastery of the keyboard as an instrument, for both presenting straight-up songs with structure and deviations into progressive rock territory with its arpeggiated touches. The album is a retro pop fetishist’s dream in that way, beyond the scope of the antiquated sounds that Z pushes out of his synthesizers. However, this also leads to a bit of bafflement: is Elemental Themes meant to be a pop record, or is it meant to be some kind of version of a bizarre soundtrack to a movie that doesn’t quite exist in the collective consciousness? It doesn’t know what it wants to be – which is part of its weakness. Overall, this release is a bit hard to take seriously because of its intention: is this actually dead earnest or some kind of past-tinged joke? It’s ultimately hard to say from the material presented here, but if it is indeed some sort of gag unleashed upon the cosmos, I know at least what kind of meal with go best with this artistic statement: some kind of morsel with a generous helping of aged cheddar.