On 2 September 2021, John Jagos took to the Twitter account of his Brothertiger moniker and posted the photo of which every musician has nightmares. The downpour of Hurricane Ira had flooded his New York basement recording studio.
His guitars were floating in waist-deep floodwater. He lost his amps, synths, computer, live equipment, and streaming rig, which allowed him to perform online for fans of his distinctly emotive synthpop. He thankfully didn’t suffer any personal harm, and a friend’s quick GoFundMe page quickly raised the $22,000 needed to cover the estimated costs of all of his equipment. It was only a setback, but Jagos was fully aware that he was one of the lucky ones.
As he noted in his flurry of tweets following the incident, the hard drives containing years of music were placed up high, thus being saved from the climate change disaster. Jagos’ story has a happy ending, but for many New Yorkers, the effects of Hurricane Ira have permanently altered their lives for the worst. Musicians primarily dependent on live shows for steady income have been hit especially hard during the Covid-19 pandemic, and tour dates and venue entry procedures continue to be inconsistent. In any other instance, a studio flood of this level would be career-ending.
Jagos isn’t letting the incident hold him back, as he plans to make a few live dates later in the year. Due to these overwhelming circumstances, there’s perhaps no better time than now to touch on the art that Brothertiger created since lockdowns began. While his fall 2020 full-length Paradise Lost showed off a darker side of his dynamic brand of chill-pop, he surprised his fans with a small trilogy of albums called Fundamentals throughout these past two years. They feature nothing but instrumentals that were born out of his pandemic livestreams.
The thing about all three volumes of Fundamentals is that although their release may have been casual, a thematic unity elevates them beyond mere fan service. Almost by accident, they are some of the most thrilling musical documents to come out of the pandemic, capturing the moods and emotions we all collectively went through in a way that goes beyond the need for lyrics. In short, these records need a much larger audience.
By itself, a trilogy of synthpop instrumentals may not sound like a work of distinction, but anyone who’s viewed any one of Jagos’ livestreams knows that his improvised compositions are labors of love. Opening up Ableton on camera, Jagos’ builds up small, quiet loops with little-to-no prompting, often taking over two hours to take specific motifs and play around with them as fans live-chat and offer input. He mixes pre-set sound packages with live instrumentation to create living and breathing works, the best of which he has condensed down in the four- and five-minute song forms for each Fundamentals release.
Yet the most surprising thing about the sudden drop of Fundamentals, Vol. 1 in June of 2020 wasn’t so much that we had Brothertiger’s first true-and-proper instrumental album so much as it was a beautiful piece of work. Jagos has created many outstanding chillwave records before, but by going instrumental only, it wasn’t so much that his voice was lost as much as the context was gained. He’s earned an audience for his kinetic way of making cathartic vital changes. Removed of voice and lyrics, his musical strengths are now front-and-center and stronger than ever in the Fundamentals context.
Opening with the quietly cool percolating synths of “Cascade”, Vol. 1 hits on a quiet, night sky vibe that continues throughout the record, as quiet echo sounds meet up with gradually-building percussion and, sometimes, even a true and proper beat. He plays with tone and texture; the crispness of the pads on closer “Tropic of Cancer” bounces out of the album’s mix differently. Still, the spirit of Vol. 1 is that of a calming presence, even as Jagos makes sure to never lean into full ambient territory.
However, the purpose of the Fundamentals series isn’t to serve as background music for studying (although it can be used for that, assuredly) so much as give a perhaps intentional, perhaps accidental document of our times. As the synths on “Cascade” fade out, leaving only light woodblock percussion, the album transits into “Tide Pool”, a beautiful, sad song that uses some minor keys to paint a picture of isolation, of transition, of acceptance. Even if these pieces were conceived separately, Jagos has fused them to become a primarily seamless mix, each seven-track volume coming in at under 35 minutes.
Even when the chugging guitar strums come on during Vol. 1‘s “Windjammer”, they aren’t meant to add angst or energy to the song so much as pure texture. While Brothertiger’s long pop song discography is full of great hooks and artful lyrics, the Fundamentals series reveals a certain yearning that has always been hiding under Jagos’ discography. Although he will always stay in a sturdy 4/4 pocket, the man knows a thing or two about how a synth tone can evoke a feeling, working in cinematic scales while only occasionally leaning specifically into hard catharsis. Casual listens to each of these volumes independently may yield a distinct worldview, but the brilliance of Fundamentals is best experienced when all three volumes are heard together.
In truth, Jagos was wise to take his time between releases because while the title Fundamentals, Vol. 1 implied at least one more volume, the anticipation helped build hype. Fans still had to wait a full six months before releasing Vol. 2, unleashing it in early December 2020 with no warning.
“Up From the Lowlands” uses muted bell sounds to create an outdoorsy, woodlands atmosphere that articulates the record’s forest-surrounded-by-fog cover art perfectly. Vol. 2 digs even further into the nighttime feel of Vol. 1, as emotive guitar plucks glide atop of thick synth bass notes to give us a darker, moodier counterpart to the first Fundamentals offering. By the time Jagos gets to penultimate number “Ragged Point”, he’s dipped himself into sadness, holding his head under cool pools of keypad sound while only briefly re-emerging for air. Lacking some of the warmth that Vol. 1 invited us in with, Vol. 2 is very much the sound of how many of us felt in the winter of 2020: realizing that the pandemic is lasting longer than we ever could’ve imagined, unsure of when vaccines would be available for public consumption, and questioning if there would ever be a return to “normal.”
It was likely not Jagos’ intention to latch on to that specific kind of emotional arc, but the understated (and perhaps even unintentional) brilliance of the Fundamentals series is how each record compliments each other. If Vol. 1 was moody but exploratory and Vol. 2 was a dive into the darker sides of our thinking, then Vol. 3 is a feeling of release. Unveiled in July 2021, there is a buoyancy and joy to Vol. 3 that wouldn’t have worked on its previous installments. Even his track “Birds of Paradise” has some “baa-ee-ya” vocals that feel bright and even necessary in this context. If Vol. 1 was dusk and Vol. 2 was the deep of night, then Vol. 3 is the first break of dawn.
While the pandemic is not over, the fully-vaccinated were able to cautiously take back some of their pre-Covid lives in the summer of 2021, seeing friends and sometimes even dining in relative safety. Before the spikes due to the Delta variant, there was a quiet sense among some that we were on the other side of the Covid era, and as short-lived as that sense of relief was for some, Vol. 3 still feels like an earned slice of optimism.
The bright pianos of “Pelée” and the pure exhalation of closer “Gran Canaria” wrap Vol. 3 up in brighter tones, giving more shape and definition to the considered Vol. 1 and darker Vol. 2. Fundamentals excels as a continuous piece of work because each new edition enhances the emotions captured in the previous installments (and, with the Vol. 3 tracks “Tradewinds” and “Westerlies”, musically call back to earlier musical themes with a wink and a nod). As satisfying as the Fundamentals trilogy is, there is a notion that future volumes may still come out and redefine the shape of this project yet again.
While losing his entire studio in September of 2021 was undoubtedly a heavy blow for John Jagos, he will hopefully perform and continue to record unabated. Our planet is going through environmental and political crises, so most of us will find solace in whatever art soothes us the most. Some people have understandably avoided pandemic-inspired art because they don’t want to be reminded of their current situation.
Yet Brothertiger’s Fundamentals trilogy doesn’t aim to comment on what we’ve endured, as others have already done that to varying degrees of success. Instead, Fundamentals is less a literal document of the pandemic so much as it is an emotional one, capable of capturing our despair, our disappointments, and our triumphs through keypads and careful songwriting.
Each Fundamentals volume is its own kind of atmosphere. Once you’ve heard the whole trilogy, capturing the full breadth of an artist trying to make peace in a rapidly evolving world, you can see that Brothertiger has made a quiet instrumental masterpiece all his own.