The Ohio-based music label Orange Milk is refreshingly reminiscent of imprints like Blue Note and ECM – dedicated to a certain genre (in this case, experimental and largely electronic music) with a specific aesthetic not only in the music but the packaging. Garish, trippy, colorful artwork adorns the covers. The roster also seems more like a family than a collection of artists, dedicated to a common purpose: to create music that is off-kilter and impossible to classify.
The music of Matthew D. Gantt certainly fits within these parameters. As an educator, he’s taught electronic and experimental composition at the non-profit/public media studio Harvestworks, CUNY Brooklyn, Bard College, and a variety of community workshops aimed at creating equitable access to developing technologies. He’s also worked as a studio assistant to electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick. His sheer breadth of knowledge and experience is impressive within the experimental music community, and Diagnostics serves as proof of his skills if a resume is unavailable.
According to Gantt’s Bandcamp site, Diagnostics – available exclusively on cassette and digital download – is “a procession of nested MIDI architectures, clip art serialism, and hypothetical kinetic sculptures suspended in virtual space”. I haven’t the slightest idea what about 90 percent of that means, but listening to the album, you get the sense that there are some complex concepts, difficult for the layperson to grasp, at work here.
The music can be unrelenting, dizzying, and full of sounds, both artificial and sampled from everyday life. A potential comparison can be made between Gantt’s work and that of Japanese artist Ryu Yoshizawa, who records under the moniker Koaosaeme and released two albums for Orange Milk (including last year’s frenetic OBANIKESHI). Like Yoshizawa, the sounds come fast and furious, in a fusillade of electronic chaos. Beginning with the brief appetizer “Patella / GM Expo”, which sounds like someone is attempting to coax melodies out of a malfunctioning mainframe, longer tracks ensue. Gantt is intent on introducing a variety of seemingly unrelated samples and allowing them to work together in an unusual, almost comical sonic stew.
The title track includes artificial pizzicato strings, disembodied vocal samples, clattering percussion, operatic wailing, orchestral stabs, and guitar-shredding, among other noises. But where many artists can make this combination of sounds seem distant and monotone, Gantt infuses them with a sense of joy and playfulness. There’s also a highly eclectic nature to the variety of the sampling and melodic structure. That he’s able to gather sounds that seem like they were sampled yesterday and mix them with more retro-oriented artifacts as if they were pulled from a Yamaha DX-7 circa 1984 shows that Gantt isn’t interested in being nailed down to one particular aspect of musical experimentation.
The sound quality is also deeply sophisticated. Listening to Diagnostics loudly on a good set of headphones, the experience is almost cinematic and expertly draws the listener into a unique world. On “Vienna Shrine Index”, for example, there are moments of relative calm that create an almost unbearable tension until orchestral and percussion samples tumble down like a slew of instruments falling down a staircase. An acoustic bass dances around the bottom end of the track, often paired up with alien vocal samples, keeping up the dichotomy of thick experimentalism and outright goofiness. This combination is highly reminiscent of Civilization Phaze III, Frank Zappa’s ambitious, posthumous opus. Fans of experimental Synclavier works such as this will likely find plenty to enjoy here.
There’s also deep emotional resonance all over Diagnostics. Once the dissonant explosion of samples introduces “Drone Ops (Suburban)”, a somewhat conventional synthesizer sequence takes over and forms the spine of the song, sounding more like a traditional techno instrumental, albeit one draped in bursts of noise and effects. The closing track “Faded.JX” is also slightly more conventional than the rest of the album in that it is generally unadorned by rampant noise and is more of a gentle, futuristic coda, almost like a love theme for a 22nd-century motion picture. It ends the album as a sort of a soothing, layered lullaby, holding the listener tight.
Make no mistake – Diagnostics is one strange album. The average listener with more of an affinity for traditional pop music may find it off-putting. But anyone with a deep sense of musical adventure who wants to be shocked into a deeply immersive, kinetic, and experimental ride, will be in heaven. Matthew D. Gantt has the keys to the spaceship. Let him take you out for a spin.