“Inside you are two wolves,” goes the proverb/meme. If you’re taking it seriously, the two wolves are your good and evil sides, constantly at odds with each other but still unquestionable parts of your being. If you’re going the shitposting route, those wolves inside you are chill, just vibing.
When the COVID-19 pandemic started and worldwide lockdowns became commonplace, many people were forced to confront their thoughts in a deeply uncomfortable way. Some realized their romantic partners weren’t ideal to be around 24/7, or their work-life balance was severely one-sided. Many people discovered they were queer. It was a time of reflection, anger, powerlessness, and acceptance. The anger still rages on in some parts of the world: sometimes fiercely, sometimes impotently. A lucky few may have found bliss, but several others rage quietly (or not-so-quietly).
OHYUNG (Brooklyn artist Robert Ouyang Rusli) has experienced that whole spectrum of emotion. For them, the pandemic unleashed the entire gamut of feelings and difficult confrontations, many of which were expressed and captured across two records that couldn’t be more dissimilar. For GODLESS, released in February 2022, OHYUNG drew out every angry fiber of their being to create a chaotic, clattering collection of harsh beats and screaming synths that perfectly embodied the pointed emptiness of self-isolation. Songs like “FUCK ELON MUSK” and “WHOLLY OTHER” scrape the eardrums, occasionally evoking the ghost Death Grips as they created, per their liner notes, “aberrations for your cathartic release”.
A mere two months later, OHYUNG unveiled their second sonic wolf in the form of imagine naked!, their first-ever attempt at creating an entirely ambient record. With song titles lifted from the poem “Vegetalscape” by t. tran le, imagine naked! leads the listener on with exclamation marks and hints of excitement. Yet the core of imagine naked! is of a different kind of vulnerability: calm, understated, and deeply emotional.
With the 15-minute opener “my torn cuticles!” and the 37-minute closer “release like gloves!”, OHYUNG wastes no time throwing a listener into the deep end. Going full William Basinski with these two mirrored pieces, simple melodic phrases (played on similarly ghostlike synth pads) get repeated ad nauseam. There are no significant shifts or changes throughout these pieces, as the intended effect is that of great ambient drone music: to displace the listener’s mind and keep them locked in a calm, endless dreamscape. The track lengths alone may be too high a bar of entry for some (the entire album clocks in at a weighty 114 minutes), but the biggest success of imagine naked! is how it achieves its aims through various techniques, moods, and styles. This record is calm in an eternal storm, a welcome and earned peace.
The light, plodding percussion of “i’m remembering!” evokes the sound of Leaving Records artists like Green-House, where light staccato keyboard notes give an air of domesticity, of home. The brilliance of OHYUNG’s compositions — apparently achieved through a series of rehearsals and finalized in a gamut-running 72-hour recording session — is how they interrogate structure in fascinating ways. While the unending drones of “releases like gloves!” are of a specific aesthetic caste, tracks like “my hands hold flora!” subtly shift and change, introducing new chords and waves of sound amidst lightly clattering speaker fuzz. When a bright new tone comes in after the three-minute mark, it sounds akin to a ray of sunlight stabbing through clouds, shining a light on all that follows it.
The melodies presented throughout imagine naked! are minimal but effective, with OHYUNG’s other work as a film composer coming to the fore. They know how to craft a whispered gem of a tone that is emotional without becoming too ethereal. The dusted air sounds of “to fill the quiet!” tumble through the air without resistance, only a light dusting of digital static touching the crest of every swell. Most tracks hover around the six-minute mark, with OHYUNG being acutely aware of how long each composition’s lifespan is. Their songs play out to their natural intended length, with no song proving too short or too long. If they’re making “releases like gloves!” a full 37-minutes, it’s because there is a purpose to existence at that length.
While it’s not essential to hear the roaring sonic destruction of GODLESS to appreciate the sepia-toned calm of imagine naked!, it certainly doesn’t hurt to ingest these twin releases to see the extremes of OHYUNG’s musical personality. These records were born out of the same worldwide traumatic event but carry the weight of this shared experience. At times the serenity of imagine naked! is from a place of safety, while at others (like on the slightly minor-key title track), it is more about centering.
Not every composition speaks of warmth, nor does every movement speak of peace. “yes my weeping frame!” finds its catharsis through traditional piano chords, cascading and descending, repeating and looping, a quiet solemnity filling your ears. A record of all-warmth, all-calm would be disingenuous: even in our most private moments, grief sometimes slips through our emotional cracks and reaches our too-fragile core.
OHYOUNG said in a recent interview that they’ve “seen people write about this record, and everyone gets something different out of it. I’ve never had people engaged in my music in a way that I didn’t expect, but that’s what’s really beautiful.” Everyone’s takeaways from imagine naked! will be markedly individual, but the result remains the same. OHYUNG has crafted one of the most thoughtful, cathartic ambient records of the recent era, powering through emotional walls to produce an album as daring in sheer ambition as it is rendering in its effect. Inside you are two wolves, and they’d both feel better after listening to imagine naked!.