A Google search of the word “Onism” will immediately bring up The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a melancholic Tumblr blog and video series comprised of invented words and portmanteaus to describe emotional states that don’t otherwise have words. Onism, as defined by the site’s author, is the feeling of frustration and disappointment that comes with knowing that there are hundreds of things one can’t see experience because we can only exist in one place and one time and have such a limited amount of time. It is a sort of FOMO taken to the ultimate extreme. This kind of feeling could certainly lead to an intense, opposing reaction; That is to cram as much experience into one’s life, at every moment, as humanly possible. It should come as no surprise that Onism, the album, is jam-packed with dense instrumentals that take inspiration from all over the world and all over the musical spectrum.
The album is meant to portray an acknowledgment of that concept. That there is only so much one has experienced or will ever experience. It addresses the questions of how to make the most of life, especially in the modern world with its constant balancing act of the natural and the technological. And that answer starts with low laser sounds that almost replicate a bowed double-bass or a bassoon. And from there, the influences and ideas get more and more fluid. Latin drums mix with thrumming bass, jazzy piano chords, and deep, new-wavy synth pads. But what remains consistent is the ultimate goal of any electronic, instrumental pop-music: it’s fun to listen to.
The second track, “Inharmonious Slog”, is built around of the sounds of footsteps, a nod to that distinct pleasure of having you walking pace match the rhythm of the song you’re listening to. Even before the bass line comes in full force, it can be heard faintly rolling in the background as though it’s too much fun to hold back anymore. The horns in “Balsam Massacre” are tense and thrilling and just anchor the chaos of the song. And the album’s closer “Bombogenesis” is a house-disco dream with hazy synths and deep, wide filters slowly laid over everything. You could close your eyes and see nothing but smoke and neon.
The density of the compositions emerges most thoroughly after multiple listens. The first time, it’s mostly just a fun time, but the second time, one can hear the layers more fully. This isn’t just electronic music for its own sake; there is a lot of history, research, intellectual organization, and music theory buried in these songs. “The Everyday Push” plays with time signatures, beat stresses and especially with instrumental dynamics. “Eco Friend” runs complex polyrhythms together with video game sounds and smooth saxophone in something closer to math jazz than dance music. But the aspect that prompts the use of the repeat button more than anything else is the “what instrument is that?” aspect. Is that a string bass or a bassoon? A steel drum or a marimba? A saxophone or a synth? A flute or a synth? Are these things all just synths? More often than not the answer isn’t just one thing. Melodies are doubled and tripled; accents fade in and out too quickly to be heard. Every play seems to bring out more nuance and more layers to unravel.
Much of the album doesn’t feel like it’s missing much. Madison McFerrin’s voice in “Outré Lux” adds a pleasant but not overpowering lyrical presence at just the right moment. But the very last chunk of songs seems just a little off after the success of the earlier tracks. “Aura” for instance starts off strong with a captivating rhythm and chill vibe and even a chorus in which Shornstein himself sings, a rare attempt by the artist. And he does well for the most part, but the song’s bridge shifts suddenly and is so muddy that his singing comes off too strong, like slightly off karaoke. “Off-Piste” is a well-produced track, but contains so much less of the elements that make the album’s other songs great. It’s disappointingly simplistic, just loud bass and ethereal chords in a not-too-hot, not-too-cold package. And “Bombogenesis”, as much fun as it is, comes in fits and starts and doesn’t ever fully press down the gas until what feels like a build at the very end but ends up being the end of the track. Intentional perhaps, but ending an album with a tease like that is no way to make friends in electronic music.
Photay’s promotional material with Onism does speak to the album’s concept as a meeting of two ideas saying it was constructed “in the heart of Brooklyn and shrouded by the silence of national parks or on trips home to the woodlands of the Hudson Valley in between touring the urban centers of foreign countries. Scattered but connected…” Each song contains some element of calm contrasted with an element of intensity. The balance of the album seems to be in an attempt to supplement or counteract the overindulgence that might naturally result from the feeling of onism. Sure, he packed the songs pretty heavily with stuff, maybe partially because nowadays there’s just so much stuff you can do. But he also seems to know when to let it be. Sometimes it’s ok to accept that only having one body in one place at a time isn’t a cause for frustration, but a cause for celebration.