Cut Copy fans may enjoy this record, but ambient lovers should know to beware of what lie ahead.
January Tape is a new ambient record from Cut Copy. It was released on a short run cassette through their site, and is now seeing additional life through the technical marvel that is streaming services. If you are a person that hears “Cut Copy Ambient Cassette” and thinks that sounds awesome, you will think this record is awesome; fans of ambient, however, should know to beware.
The record starts out with “Part 1”, which is the sound of a synthesizer napping for 10 minutes, but it's not boring at all. One breathing synth floats in and out like waves, while other featured moments trickle in and out, creating the sound of synthesizers dreaming. The flutes halfway through sound like Pink Floyd during their not-yet-Roger-Waters-but-definitely-not-Syd-Barrett-phase of ‘69-’70. A phasing key tone rests on top of the breathing until it all fades into one long sunset of a synth piece, like Tim Hecker lite. If the record hit that note in five different ways, it would be stronger than it is. But Cut Copy couldn’t resist the urge to tie this record in with their others tonally in the other tracks.
“Part 2” tip-toes slowly while echoing voices bring signs of life missing from the first section. About a minute into it, a clicking beat starts, like a 50-foot-tall alarm clock resting on a beach in Florida. When the familiar synth tone of 1:50 rings in, the Cut Copy feel begins. It isn’t bad; it just prevents this project from feeling as left-field as it could. Different drum machine sounds start and stop in a Moby-esque pattern as the vocals continue to appear and disappear. It works, and so does the choir that soon resounds. They skillfully toss pieces in and out, like a slow motion magician, which is atypical of most ambient music, but familiar to their pop-leaning fans. With those styles blending, they create something of an introduction to ambient techno. Like the grandson of Selected Ambient Works 85-92 but instead of seeking immortality, the track seeks relevance.
When the song peaks, synth palettes spill onto the canvas in pleasing patterns. The problem is, as the song is peaking, so is the record. “Part 3” continues the feel of "Part 2" with an ambient techno beat and colorful synths on top, and as time goes on, it begins to groove and you begin to wonder if a full-on Cut Copy song is moments away. It does the opposite, though, slowly fizzling out for five-and-a-half minutes. “Part 4” climbs in the window with Boards of Canada synthesizers and echoes in the background that sound like distorted other world animal calls.
The track is stellar but it doesn’t fit the motif of track one and two; rather, it feels disorienting to hear the BPM pick up, and when the male vocals dominate the hook section, it moves too close to existing Cut Copy territory. Not that an instrumental Cut Copy record would be bad; it's just that this seems more like pieces left around the studio than a cohesive ambient project. The guitar here suffers from the same problem -- it is so strong and dancey that the project itself seems to wonder exactly what it is.
It is aimless when they abandon the sound of the whole record about 35 minutes into the production. If they didn’t trust us to enjoy a full record of ambient, then why release this at all? Or if you wanted this to feel more like outtakes, then brand it that way. The record works much better without this track. And, keep in mind, it’s a solid song, but it just doesn’t fit the stated purpose of the record. The record concludes with “Part 5”, which gives the record a cyclical feeling as we end where we started. I suppose you could attach a narrative to the record, like a day cycle a la Immunity by Jon Hopkins, but in the end, we have a collection of ambient techno and similar tracks.
The final part feels tacked on as its length is half of the second shortest song. When the background guitar/synth tone creeps in at the last few seconds, I felt an M83 explosion coming, but luckily, it toned out.
Ambient music is rapidly expanding as a concept. The word is hot in the last three years and writers and bands especially want to use it to describe anything that is “quiet”. When they take the word and describe the Stranger Things soundtrack or a calm moment on a Radiohead track, they miss the express purpose of the genre: background. Not that music genres can’t change goals or ideals, but true ambient records and artists like Steve Roach, Julianna Barwick and others echo Brian Eno’s desire for the genre.
I suppose purism will always be destroyed. If you don’t believe me, look at the top rock and roll, jazz or hip-hop records from the last five years. Almost all are significant departures from the original genres ideas. Being on the purist side here, this record is mostly mis-labeled by the band and comes just short of feeling like the cohesive project it was described as. Our generation definitely overvalues narrative in music as part of its enjoyment, but here, by the time my cassette arrived, I was expecting something different.
Overall, January Tape is an exciting and surprising release. Fans solely of ambient will leave feeling something was missing but fans of Cut Copy will find a side moment to revel in for years to come. My hope for the band is to continue in this direction, mixing some of what they have learned into their next pop masterpiece.