The Dept. of Harmonic Integrity - In Deck and Depth, A Whim, A Weft
A Beest has just been born in Iowa City, and among the first releases of this new label is the debut of The Dept. of Harmonic Integrity. Before I even begin to address this music, though, I have to say that I find this album art almost impossibly beautiful. Like fetish object beautiful. Head over to the BandCamp page for this recording to look at the other Beest releases in the right column. Go ahead and click on “more releases,” while you’re at it. I love the colors, the font choices, the layout template, and that Beest logo itself, a clever stylization of a chord fingering diagram. While I’m much more interested in music than visual design, these are seriously awesome, and a damned striking way to launch a label.
As it turns out, the fellow behind these eye-popping album covers is also half of The Dept. of Harmonic Integrity. You may already know “Wayne Longer” as “Adderall Canyonly" from Field Hymns, and along with "Min Roach," the pair have delivered a marvelous debut.
This kind of recording is totally refreshing to me from a review perspective, because I like the music immediately while still having to do a lot of work to describe what I think is happening here. In the last few years, particularly coming from cassette labels like Field Hymns and Orange Milk, there is a new genre coalescing, a subset of electronic music that is heavy on synths and sprinkled with samples and field recordings. In terms of influence, these recordings seem to draw from musique concrete/early electronic music without taking themselves too seriously and disappearing into academia, while absorbing technical and emotionally evocative contents from a potpourri of under-respected musical forms: B-movie horror and sci-fi soundtracks, cartoons, early video game sound design, library music, cheesy Moog albums, 80s neon shapes and stripes and cracklepaint, Wal-Mart synths, early/naive iterations of consumer culture, etc. In other words, whatever one would call this genre (is there a name that I don’t know yet?), it unites highbrow and lowbrow forms of music with an ease that reminds me of what Juxtapoz magazine did in the ’90s for under-appreciated forms of visual art like hot rods and graffiti.
My first thought about this album’s cover is that it looks like the world’s most awesome “library album" jacket. And the music really manages to sustain that kind of vibe, sounding both exotic and vaguely familiar at once. It’s all synths, unfolding with a deliberate patience I associate with highbrow minimalism and timbres from early Tangerine Dream/Klaus Schulze and the like. Tempo choices are laid-back, and layers of synths rise and fall to build space. Smoother waveforms generally form slowly-evolving pads, and slightly more aggressive timbres are introduced when melodies need some differentiation. Some pieces like "Limbs +" focus on rhythmic and textural ideas, while others like "Upon the Starry Skies" have much more emphasis on harmonic content.
In addition to the more “classical” and early komische influences on this music, moments of sci-fi or horror soundtrack drama creep into the album at times: the last few minutes of “Upon the Starry Skies,” for example, has a tense organ bass melody and ethereal synth chords seems to indicate trouble in a spaceship in a dark forest, and “The Ouudan” could serve as an alternate soundtrack to “Chariots of the Gods" in my book. That’s my favorite track here, which is broken into two sections. The first third phases a metallic-sounding riff against itself within a rich bath of delay and reverb, and gradually fades out into a long metamorphosis of aviation-sounding drones finding their way back to ancient synths and sirens and feedback-like drones. It’s a real treat of spatial and dynamic effects.
But in general, this music is made from a very minimal collection of elements—the quality of the synth sounds themselves is such an important factor in digging this music, I suggest swinging over to that BandCamp page again. If you dig these synths, you’ll have a good time getting lost in this album. Here’s to hoping Beest gets a chance to release this stuff on vinyl, too, as this music and its artwork already seem like a treasured relic from the retrofuture.