I always find it interesting how some musicians exist in a sort of publicity void, too small-time and obscure to be acknowledged by mainstream reviewers, and yet somehow too raw or guileless to be rated by the likes of Pitchfork or Consequence of Sound. Often these artists are cult acts, and often their music is just a little too openly emotional or too negligent of current trends to be acknowledged by the hipsterati. There seems to be an unspoken rule: if your heart is worn openly on your sleeve, then you better be pretty damn hip to make up for it. As I noted in an earlier post on this blog, Mindless Self Indulgence is a pretty good example of this phenomenon. Frankenstein Girls Will Seem Strangely Sexy, a crass and incredible cult classic that goes well beyond making a joke about the art of trying to look cool, is an undeniably infamous album. It has left its mark on the goth/punk/industrial subconscious, and MSI has a sizable following. But good luck finding a review of the album outside of Amazon. It’s somehow unrateable.
Lain Trzaska exists in a similar realm. He’s currently one of the most prolific underground electronic artists in the world, with 11 EPs and full albums released since 2004 and 11 singles in the past eight years, all of which contain material separate from the albums. He has a serious love for making music. Most of it has come under the banner of “she” (not capitalized, likely in deference to Yasutaka Nakata’s capsule, one of his biggest influences).
“she” is the aural equivalent of an electrical fever dream. Trzaska is the kind of producer who can’t keep his hands off the knobs for a second, and every single track oozes with an obsessive attention to detail. He cuts up vocals, pours on the filters, abuses sidechaining, and layers all of his sonic elements with such dizzying speed and precision that a track can often literally leave one breathless. On Electric Girl, a blistering song called Voltage is punctuated at its end with a dreamy fluttering interlude where a girl hums to herself, breathes, smacks her lips. It’s a literal “breather,” a necessary and earned release from the unfettered sonic blasts that come before it, and the contrast feels sublime.
But the world is full of dense and pounding computerized music, and loud/soft dynamics are nothing new either. What sets she apart is the emotionality. Trzaska, perhaps better than any artist I’ve ever heard, puts the lie to the old cliche that electronic music lacks the human element. His music is nothing if not human, and the energy of some she songs is so undeniably real and infectious, the sense of catharsis so strong, that one almost has to gasp. Trzaska manages to harness the same essence of youthful abandon as punk rock, but mixes it with such a masterful control of electronic sound that the result is an effervescent landscape of emotional peaks and lows, sometimes bottoming out but always bouncing back in cathartic exultation.
In “Touch and Go,” a blazing track of just under 2 minutes from 2008’s Coloris, tension builds through a wakka-chikka guitar, stacked vocal samples, a wicked real bassline, and a lead synth that whines and screams like an electric guitar. Just after the minute mark, almost everything drops out. “I don’t know what it is,” a girl says shyly, “but my life’s just really messed up. I try to fix it, but it doesn’t fixxxx.” The song explodes, the bass ascends to a peak, and then suddenly it cuts out and drops the listener into waves of gorgeous flowing synth pad. It’s a sensation that almost feels like flying, and with a catharsis like this, who needs to be fixed? The song is a realization of life, a gush of bottled joy.
“Touch and Go” represents she at at a frenetic peak. Trzaska’s albums have always contained slower tracks, dreamy interludes between his most impassioned bursts of emotional noise, but with 2012’s Electric Girl something changed. It was hard for me to pin down at first, and when I first listened to the album I felt a bit disappointed. It was Trzaska doing what he had always done, but the tempos were perhaps a bit slower and the atmosphere a bit more meditative and melancholy. It took me a while to realize what he was doing, and to feel that it might be greater than anything he’d ever done. Like most of the great albums I’ve come to love in my life, Electric Girl is one that grows on you.
The first track, “Electric Girl,” serves its function as a successively building intro, and “Be Alright” builds further on this energy, propelling things forward but not quite feeling like the main event itself. Things start to solidify in “Headshot,” a punchy pop-and-lock number that stands up with some of she’s best material. The song is short and direct at two and a half minutes, but it has a fantastic breakdown.
At four tracks in, “Closer Together” is the point on the album where I started to raise my eyebrows. In the past, Trzaska has typically confined his vocal elements to samples, but this track contains a lot of actual singing. And even more oddly, given his consistent fondness for female vocals, one of the singers is a guy.
Perhaps to initially roughen what becomes soft, the track begins with off-kilter chip noise, a woozy alien lead synth and bursts of gritty sidechained bass, seguing into a heavy beat. But then smooth layers of pads come in, and a positively heavenly filtered female vocal rises above the mix before slowly submerging back under them. The pads flash and pulsate. Within the first minute, through the power of immaculate production, we’ve been drawn into a dream. We can feel the infatuation growing.
As if to confirm this, the beat kicks in and two voices sing together: “Standing in your dream/Hoping to meet you.” The way the voices wind around one another, subtly trading volume levels, slightly echoed, shows an incredible attention to production detail that is unsurprising coming from Trzaska, but amazing nonetheless. The message is conveyed by the delivery: the masculine and the feminine are merged. For them to be “closer together” would be hard.
This song positively radiates love. It literally pulsates, the core of its melody constantly throbbing, breathing like human lungs, the drums beating like a heart. The aural analogy is so obvious that there’s little doubt it was intended. Through amazingly detailed electronic manipulation, Trzaska draws out the very biological rhythms of longing and affection, the subtle physiological flows of human need. The lyrics are plain, simple and cliche. And why not? There’s no cleverness involved in truly loving and needing someone. “I wonder what you see, in me,” they sing. “There is nothing more to this broken machine/And it’s you who can replace it/As long as you are here with me, together.”
As the song nears its end, the voices become wordless, harmonizing cries of passion. A shimmering lead synth takes over, and after a time they appear again briefly, dissolved into snippets of ecstasy buried within the mix, linguistic expression overtaken by emotion. Except for one final question: “Wonder what you see?”
This is followed by a track called “Yes OK” which is classic she, an absolute sonic celebration. Nothing but unbridled joy: breakneck sample editing, grinding jagged synth bass, bouncing waves of aural positivity. A rapping robotic voice a-la Daft Punk propelling the track on, its only decipherable utterance being: “super music.” Upon this exclamation, the track bends and sways like a building about to collapse. “I love you,” a digitized girl intones, and waves of warm pads spray onto the song like liquid bliss, pouring from some shining computer-sprinkler. There’s a heavily filtered breakdown, and then the song slams back into gear again. Yes, OK.
“All I Need Is Music” is a similar mission statement, a bit subtler and slower-burning. But the same sense of delight is palpable throughout. Writing this, I realize that it’s actually difficult to listen to she closely. Every song is so complicated that isolating the individual elements becomes overwhelming; the emotive response one gets from a close listen is powerful, but experiencing the music this way for more than ten minutes at a time is like constantly staring into a dizzying kaleidoscope of sound. One can only wonder what it was like for Trzaska to make the stuff. It’s probably why his albums contain so many breathers.
The last track of Electric Girl, “Heartbeats,” is something different from the rest, and seems to be what “Closer Together” pointed us towards. It’s neither breather nor banger, and upon hearing it I realized Trzaska had truly accomplished something new. There’s a tenderness and delicacy here that’s been hinted at in past tracks, but the melancholy confidence that seems to flow from the song is entirely new, and the emotion is bolstered immensely by the vocals and the lyrics. Like “Closer Together,” male and female vocals are intertwined, but the lyrics are more poetic, more abstract, letting go of connection and structure: “And all the things you say/feel/slowly/fading/away/so they say/so they say.”
“Heartbeats” is powerful because it’s so restrained. Lain has the ability to throw the kitchen sink at the track, but he doesn’t. He holds back, and the relative minimalism shows his real strength as a songwriter and producer. The song is elegant, and despite being far simpler in its structure than many of his other songs, its beat is far more sophisticated than what one would typically find in the genre. There’s a buoyant, rebounding quality to it that suggests a confidence in recurrence, a soul returning to the source of its strength. When the synth solo kicks in halfway through the track, it soars with a relaxed and casual mastery that can’t help but provoke a smile. The backbeat continues to surge upward behind it, pushing forward again and again. This is Lain at the top of his game.
It feels odd for a she album to end on what is essentially a breakup song. Often in the past Trzaska has ended things on slowed-down notes, as in Chiptek‘s “1997,” a wistfully nostalgic ode to some private memory of that year, or in Orion‘s titular closer, which floats ethereally along with water sounds, birds, Japanese narration by a female vocal, and a resurging beat not unlike the one in “Heartbeats.” But “Heartbeats” is very specifically about loss, and it carries a much heavier and more direct emotional punch than these other songs did. The song sounds like it’s the point of Electric Girl, rather than being a dreamy way to come down from it.
“This beat sounds/harder than your heart,” the vocal in the chorus repeatedly reminds us. Perhaps the song was spawned by some kind of loss, but if that’s the case the loss seems to have only reinforced Trzaska’s confidence in his own abilities. The track is more of a celebration than a lament, and the complexity of the sentiment it conveys proves that electronic pop can go far beyond the “dance music” cliche it’s normally relegated to. There is a great depth of humanity here, one that without the sophistication of Lain’s instruments couldn’t be adequately conveyed. Not calculated enough, perhaps, to achieve critical acclaim, or simply not traveling along the same aesthetic rails as the critical judges of Western culture, Trzaska’s music nonetheless remains a fine example in its achievements: it squeezes blood from a stone, liquid emotions from silicon.