Ash Koosha's 'Return 0' Is an AI Manifesto First and an Album Second
Return 0 is a far more rewarding affair than much of Ash Koosha's recent work, even though it doesn't care too much about being an album.
21 September 2018
After 2015's masterpiece Guud, Ash Koosha's ear for sound started to outweigh his ability to compose. Most of the music on follow-up releases I AKA I and Aktual exhibited a plethora of sonic brilliance that merely writhed in place. Koosha knows when a sample becomes haunting or how to manipulate a synth sound to the point where you can't look away. However, these days, he often lacks the precision that made his peak so compelling. He tends to throw a bunch of sounds into the mix to see what sticks and, at his worst, create a wad of sonic sludge that is equal parts overpacked and ill-fitting.
That doesn't usually happen though. Most of the time, Koosha's raw talent shines through the messiness. Sometimes one incredible noise is enough to drive an entire song, and when it's given enough space to breathe, the formula works. Return 0 is a lot more melodically driven that much of Koosha's past work and these melodies avoid becoming smothered. However, it says a lot that they stand out because they are often the most human parts of the music.
What do I mean by that? Well, Return 0 is a manifesto of sorts, a step towards a future where human input in music is becoming less and less essential. In the most basic sense, Koosha sees no escape from a future where humans merge with machine intelligence in every aspect of their life, even art. Koosha is a "software humanist" who views this as a necessary and inevitable thing. However, instead of writing code to generate songs and fully detaching himself from the process, he envisions a utopia where the human provides the refinement, the taste-informed guidance that the machine cannot grasp. Meanwhile, in his own words, "the computer can create arpeggios and melodies — parts that I don't necessarily want to spend time on."
I'm not sure if I buy it. Regardless of the philosophical question machine art poses, lots of Return 0 lacks the quality to back up what could be shrugged off as apathy. Many moments, like the aimless arpeggios on "Redempshun" or the grating polyrhythms on "Baptizanax", sound about as cohesive as someone randomly mashing keys on a keyboard. It's Ash Koosha, so the texture is still there, but the more you think about it, the lazier it seems. Sure, the capabilities of AI are growing to the point where there's something new every week to make me fear enslavement to a cyborg overlord. However, there's no reason for me to believe that AI makes better music than humans. At least not yet.
Return 0's gimmick is interesting at first, but it's much more compelling as a science experiment, as a stride towards something innovative. However, at this early developmental stage, it feels inessential and almost lazy. Saying that humans are replaceable is hardly enough of a statement to provide the fodder for an entire album. Although I'm not fully convinced of either side of the argument as it stands, the mechanical element of Return 0 feels more like a barrier than a door.
However, as a collection of music, this is a much more rewarding affair than much of Koosha's recent work. It frees itself from the clutter and brings a lot of beautiful melodies to the table. The meditative harmonies of "Fukushima", the scorching synth peaks of "Earth", and the bumping rhythm of "StuSs" gather enough momentum not to be diminished by the distracting pops and clicks going off around them. This, ironically, is one of Koosha's more conventional affairs, one that leans on simple pleasures like distortion or hooks instead of abstract complexity. However, if AI will eventually march into territories humans cannot, there's very little on Return 0 to suggest that we're there yet.
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