Photo: Jodi Heartz and Alex Blouin / Courtesy of the artist

CFCF’s ‘memoryland’ Is the Love Letter to ’90s Techno We Didn’t Know We Needed

On memoryland, CFCF builds a time machine to take you back to the sounds of ’90s techno, house, and dance-pop.

9 April 2021

Electronic music from the 1990s was bathed in a neon energy all its own. It was rainbow-tinted sunglasses worn indoors. It was capitalist futurism. It was ideas copied directly from anime, and it was strobe-lit rave scenes. It was a new kind of club culture, and it was Carl Cox megamixes. It was everywhere, and when it was in the mood, it could combine with any genre it wanted.

In the early ’90s, the abundance of mass-produced new gear from the likes of companies like Roland and the continued growth of home desktop computing, and the rise of the internet led to a whole new generation of listeners growing up on, discussing, and even creating danceable new forms as they were mutating live in front of them. While the 1980s electropop explosion soon felt the weight of dated synth production, albums like Massive Attack debut Blue Lines (1991), Aphex Twin‘s Selected Ambient Works 85–92 (1992), Underworld‘s Dubnobasswithmyheadman (1994), Paul van Dyk’s 45 RPM (1994), and the Chemical BrothersExit Planet Dust (1995) ushered in an endless swath of new subgenres. From trip-hop to progressive trance to IDM to “big beat”, all these specific styles started growing in popularity and soon crossed over into the mainstream.

As rock and electronic music frequently flirted with each other to achieve notable highs (The Prodigy‘s The Fat of the Land) and miserable lows (Oasis’ Standing on the Shoulders of Giants), there was no ceiling for innovation in the ’90s. All of these disparate strands co-existed peacefully, with the deep and colorful French House of Daft Punk’s Discovery getting airplay right next to the disposable Europop sounds of Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” next to the horrifying breakcore nightmare that was Aphex Twin’s Come to Daddy EP. All of these came out in 1997 alone. Innovation was occurring at a rate where it seemed that no one would keep up, and that, in part, was the beauty of the scene: it was joyous, rapturous chaos marching along at an ever-increasing BPM.

Enter Michael Silver. Born in 1989, this Montreal native grew up right as electronic music was hitting its saturation point, as, by the late 1990s, it seemed that few genres were immune from the touch of a digital remixer. A self-taught musician, Silver’s CFCF moniker is where he started making a name for himself, both in remixing the likes of Crystal Castles and Sally Shapiro but also DJ’ing weekly sets at Dance Dance Dance in his hometown. His first collection of original material (a quirky slice of video game digipop) came out in 2009. Yet as the decade rolled on, he became increasingly fascinated with moody ambient pieces and piano instrumentals, culminating in extraordinary releases like 2012’s sublime nocturne Exercises and his expansive foray into more traditional song structures with 2013’s Outside. In 2014, his lush remix of an orchestral Max Richter piece netted him his first Grammy nomination. CFCF was going places.

Part of Silver’s appeal was that no two CFCF releases sounded alike, and while he gained the most notoriety for his is slow-burn instrumental compositions, it’s clear that Silver wasn’t content with staying in one lane. Liquid Colours came out of nowhere in 2019 with a somewhat shocking turn towards ambient breakbeat, with crashing drum’n’bass percussion mixing with smooth keypads to give off a trendy chillhouse vibe. Upset with the album’s reception, he cheekily tweeted that he was “thinking about how I put out my best album to date almost two weeks ago and no one has reviewed it yet despite the fact that I am a really nice person.” And to be fair, his streaming numbers are all over the place, with one song off his hauntingly gorgeous 2016 record Radiance & Submission netting nearly ten million plays, likely due to some mood-themed playlist slotting. CFCF’s musical output is nearly breathless in its scope, but his most popular pieces are his beautiful instrumentals. It makes sense that he would want to change that perception.

There have been albums like memoryland before, wherein an artist wants to send a musical love letter to a genre that meant so much to them. (As recently as last year, Sam Sparro’s adoring tribute to late ’80s pop production landed him on PopMatters’ Best Pop Albums of 2020 list.) Yet for Silver, ’90s electronica covers such a wide of styles, so in paying tribute, he couldn’t limit himself to just one. Thus, for memoryland, he decided to tackle them all. This album could be seen as a quirky one-off curiosity or a fun break from the norm in the hands of anyone else. Yet Silver, as always, excels in making every sonic detail count, and in tipping his bucket-hat to dance music’s storied past, he truly has made his best album to date in the process.

“Around here, it’s like, if you listen to anything weird, you’re considered some type of alien or something,” says one of the many teenage girls used on the audio clips that play throughout the record, all of them noting in some way or another how much of an escape music was to them. Clocking in at 71 minutes and 58 seconds (which in itself is a hilarious nod to the 72-minute runtime limit that most compact discs had in the ’90s), memoryland feels like a time machine to a much more innocent time for pop music.

Silver litters the album with clever references to dance music’s multi-faceted history, whether it be in the title of the lead single “Life Is Perfecto” (citing DJ Paul Oakenfold’s long-running Perfecto Records), the orchestral pads that open “End — Curve of Forgetting” being teleported directly from Aphex Twin’s “Boy/Girl Song”, or even the bassline of “Self Service 1999” dipping right into the descending scales of Daft Punk’s “Around the World”. These are all cute in-jokes that the casual listener may skip, but true dance music historians will unquestionably clue in on Silver’s many clever winks.

Yet sly references do not a great album make, and thankfully, Silver’s love for the era pours out in hugely successful compositions that hop from subgenre to subgenre while still sounding like they come from the same creative place. A masterpiece in sequencing (that somehow managed not to be a continuous mix), memoryland seamlessly places progressive house numbers like the very Underworld-indebted “Night/Day/Work/Home” next to a track like “Punksong”. This propulsive dance-rock rager pushes My Bloody Valentine-styled guitar distortion over purposely repetitive drum machines. A deep techno cut like “Slippery Plastic Euphoric” sits perfectly next to a blissed-out two-step track like “After the After”.

Even the obligatory “DJ club cut with airy female vocalist track” gets a star turn here, with Sarah Bonito (of Kero Kero Bonito) providing the kind of crossover performance on “Heaven” that one could see maybe playing on MTV in 1998. The fact that it’s paired with a “credits roll” downtempo number to close out the record makes perfect sense. It’s clear that Silver had absolute giddy fun in crafting this record, and his enthusiasm radiates off of memoryland, like a trusted friend excitedly wanting you to listen to this one song because it changed their life. They’re hoping it will change yours as well.

Every inch of memoryland has been carefully rendered, right down to the loungey interludes and closer, which serve as a nice breath in the middle of what would otherwise be a non-stop dance party. The simple fact that “Self Service 1999” sounds like the best song that Daft Punk never wrote is in itself a minor miracle, as so many groups have tried to copy the sound of those French robo-boys only to end up sampling them instead. This is the kind of record that rewards multiple listens, as it’s so overstuffed with sonic detail and cascading instruments that you’re likely to miss some the first time out.

Dance music, by its very nature, is always looking towards the future, seeking sonic innovation even if its end goal has always been the same: to get you moving and grooving. As such, much of techno’s past feels closely tied to its era, up to the point where it borders on feeling dated. For this reason, few people outside of dedicated genreheads would want to revisit something like ’90s dance music for anything other than nostalgia.

Yet memoryland is a record like nothing else: with its spoken-word reflections, its clear tributes to the greats that came before it, and remarkable concept and presentation, it feels absolutely lived-in. At times, it feels less like an album and more like a time machine, designed to take you back to a time where it felt like there were a lot fewer worries in your life and a whole lot more euphoria. In short, memoryland is a rave, a dorm-room dance party, a neon-lit museum, a headphone masterpiece, and a love letter all at once. Few dance albums fully understand their own place in techno music’s chronology, but if history has any justice to it, memoryland will be remembered as one of the great ones.

RATING 9 / 10