Of course this was where vaporwave was headed: to a remix and reimagining of itself. Of course. Initiation Tape: Isle of Avalon Edition is an edited and expanded redo of 2011’s Initiation Tape, both released by Ramona Xavier under the New Dreams Ltd. moniker (one of at least 11 aliases she’s been known to use), and serves as not only a wonderful addition to the vaporwave cannon, but as a brilliant standalone statement of musical exploration and, as is de rigueur, capitalist critique.
The gorgeous melancholy and seductive groove of an opening tune, “Forever”, is interrupted midway through with pitch-shifted promotions for CBC Radio. Frustrating? Yes, but this is the perfect framing device with which to listen to this record. Xavier, at her best, uses nostalgic samples and modulated vocals to create a mood that is critical of, or is at least using irony to poke fun at, modernity. Lesser releases simply use nostalgia as a crutch, or modulate the samples only slightly, creating an uncomfortable and perhaps forgettable, if still enjoyable, musical trip. That feeling of discomfort is still present, especially when the sample being modulated is something as well-known as Toto’s “Africa”, but the fact that these tunes are being so brutally chopped and screwed and spliced into obnoxious beats against muzak and call waiting tunes is what elevates the album to wonderful. Forever’s appeal is in its immediate accessibility, familiarity, and warmth, which it itself undercuts and mocks by juxtaposing it with lofi radio advertisements as if to ask the listener, “Why are you enjoying this?”
This opening gambit is a hugely effective one, as it outlines the language the album will be operating in. From the “Her head is Harlow gold” loop taken from Betty Davis Eyes, which closes album highlight Cold Water, to the less obvious abstract samples work in Meditations, and the intense obnoxiousness of Cast’s repeated lyric from Fleetwood Mac’s “Silver Springs” (the “time cast a spell on you” line, naturally), this album trades in ironic displacement of the familiar. Of course, part of this appeal stems from one’s own knowledge of popular music, particularly from the 1980s and 90s, much like playing “I know that song” while listening to Girl Talk, yet the pleasures extend beyond simple recognition of the familiar amongst the obscure. Even when the work being sampled is unfamiliar (and to be honest, much of this could even be traditional, originally composed music — it’s so far from what most people could ever recognize), the senses of the familiar and the alienated are at constant conflict. Even when a beat seems natural and like the backbone of a song, it’s likely to skip and stutter before finding itself in a slower pace or swung melody — a reality anyone with a scratched CD or overclocking computer can identify with. That gets to the real heart of the album; an exploration of the beauty in the tropes of failing of digital music, or at least the unintended representation of musical in digital form. These, far more than more than any individual artist or period of music, takes reigns for the record from idea of nostalgic throwback and sentimentality. Elements of nostalgia are certainly present (all the more for those listeners born in the mid-80s to mid-90s), yet upon repeated listens, the appeal lies less in an ironic manipulation of nostalgia and more in a genuine appreciation of the broken. Broken beats, broken melodies, and, yes, even perhaps broken hearts, make up this album.
This is easily Xavier’s most accomplished work since 2011’s landmark Floral Shoppe, and perhaps her most mature effort yet. Even take the album art; the glitchy, pixelated pastiche art so associated with the genre is entirely absent. Instead we see a simple room, perhaps a hotel, slightly shifted along the y-axis. You think know these sounds, you think know this room, but look again, because it’s broken.