Epoch may very well be a stunning and unexpected surprise release from post-rock collective Tycho, but its unexpected appearance is the least interesting thing about such an accomplished set.
"I've been on this planet a while and never been this contented," noted Conan O'Brien while playing Hohokum during a 2013 visit to E3. "I spent six weeks with the Dalai Lama and I didn't feel this good."
The game is simple: you go around and collect seeds which turn into kites which you and your friends fly around on, and during the Conan segment, O'Brien's colorful and perhaps too-blissful gaming experience is soundtracked by the fluid, sunshine-through-clouds instrumental thump of "L" by Tycho. There are no doubt those that saw the bit and were intrigued by what they heard, and although Tycho takes up a few slots on Hohokum's official soundtrack, his songs so easily outshine and outrank the compilations other artists that it almost doesn't seem fair.
Not that Scott Hansen is an asshole, mind you. He's not a showboater: he's a San Francisco graphic artist who just so happens to also have a successful music career. What separates and differentiates him from his contemporaries is his ability to structure his Boards of Canada-indebted ambient-dance numbers in a way that is relatable and immediate, keeping his actual chord progressions astoundingly simple but embellishing each production with enough atmosphere and tiny details that each track feels like a personal epic, a custom-designed soundtrack scoring you and your life. Fans have responded in kind, turning out in droves to his live shows and going so far as to put his heralded 2014 effort Awake in the Top 25 of the Billboard 200 -- an astounding feat for a post-rock instrumental set.
What a surprise it must be for some fans than to hear a new song called "Epoch" without warning and then find out that Tycho's latest full-length (of the same name) was surprise-dropped less than two weeks later. Some call surprise album-releases gimmicky, while others view it as "appointment listening". It's a stunt no matter how you look at it, but in truth, the sudden release of Epoch is the least interesting thing about it. For a man who so commandingly has cornered his own space in the post-spectrum, Epoch pushes Hansen's sound forward in a way that few could have anticipated: it's more aggressive and yet more pop-friendly at the same time, showing off new angles of his sonic while clearly retaining that relatable open-air accessibility that has enraptured tens of thousands of fans.
As the slowly-warming tones of Epoch's opener "Glider" wrap the listener in a sense of immediate familiarity, a skittery, fast-paced drum beat soon enters, and it's clear that for all the goodwill Hansen has developed since his debut album dropped a decade prior, he's starting to set his sights beyond the restraints of his genre, recognizing that even in the indie-instrumental electronica circuit, there are still valleys that haven't been explored, and he's more than willing to spend some of his capital to arrive at his new destination with his fans in tow.
After all, once "Horizon" kicks on, with its '80s synthpop opening lick, it's clear that what Hansen is going for with Epoch is something that he wouldn't have been able to accomplish with his previous albums: there's a little bit more propulsion to the proceedings, his basslines firing more rapidly and his usually-warm synths now dipped in a cool silicone bath, forcing Hansen to trade in the pulsing heart that's driven Tycho's best work for a sleekness that Awake only started to hint at, and even with that in mind, he still fights hard to achieve that deep emotional resonance that his songs are capable of conjuring, even in the midst of all the new challenges Hansen has given himself.
While tracks like "Slack" and the sparse guitar strummer "Source" could easily have been placed on Tycho's previous two full-lengths, "Receiver" is the kind of moody, Auntumn-hued number that fans have been pining for since 2011's Dive: a slower, more deliberate kind of song that shows restraint, using its minimalist tones to lull the listener into a state of ease before eventually soundtracking an emotional scene for a yet-to-be-made Jason Reitman melodrama.
To casual fans, the changes between Awake and Epoch may hardly be detectable, but the confidence to which Hansen and his band attack the new compositions recalls the change in tone that his contemporary Mark McGuire ran into between his 2014 steel-grey sky guitar instrumental set Along the Way and the far more rocking 2015 set Beyond Belief, wherein McGuire realized that even within the confines of his genre, there was room for great textural expansion, turning up the fuzz guitar but still remaining relaxing and relatable in new and exciting ways.
Similarly for Tycho, a sparse xx-styled guitar closer like "Field" isn't necessarily out of left field for Hansen and co., but as a capper for his shortest, sweetest, and most concise album to date, it feels lived-in and considered, inspiring his fans while making everyone else wonder where this newfound confidence is going to propel Tycho next.