Friday, January 20, 2017

album review: 'the anthill' by eric taxxon

So I've talked a little in the past about accessibility to music, and how in today's day and age anyone with an internet connection can find ways to get their music out there, record labels be damned. But over the past couple of years as a music critic, I've observed both sides to this issue, especially for independent acts - sure, you might not need a label for promotion or to ensure your music is vaguely listenable, but that means that the floodgates have been torn open and for every act of high quality we get a whole lot more copycats, recycled material, and weirdness that for everyone's sake should have gotten lost in the avalanche. And I definitely think this is worth restating: just because an artist might have a weird idea that seems different doesn't mean they get a free pass - points for creativity, but execution also matters.

And yet given that I've now opened my own schedule doors thanks to Patreon, we have one of those more experimental acts who have climbed the list: Eric Taxxon. An electronic producer from Santa Cruz, California, the claim on his bandcamp is that none of his projects will sound the same - and having gone through all dozen or so of them, he's definitely correct in that regard, because his material tears through every reach of electronica like it's going out of style. From plunderphonics to drone to midi-driven electro-pop and noise, this guy has gone into a lot of territory with his disjointed grasp of melody, fascinating collage of samples, and occasionally fascinating conceptual frameworks. Oh, and did I mention that the majority of them were dropped over the past year? We're past Drake and Ty Segall levels, folks, the sheer amount of material Taxxon has released is a little astounding - but it's also indicative that some of his pieces could afford a bit more care and refinement - Taxxon puts his toes in these waters, but perhaps a little more refinement might make them stick the landing a little better, or feel like more cohesive and developed songs? Because here's the thing, he has made some stuff I've liked - the more developed synthpop of Fymynob was pretty solid, and some of his plunderphonics experiments have been fascinating, especially Copy - but I'd be curious to see what would happen if Taxxon decided to dedicate more focus to a singular project and really refine it. That said, his newest project The Anthill did seem like something I could get behind - pivoting back towards synthpop, it could very well be interesting. So what did we get with The Anthill?

Well, if anything, we probably got one of his most accessible and borderline-conventional projects to date - and yet it's arguably one of Eric Taxxon's better projects, mostly because it refines a lot of his melodic instincts into a pretty tightly written MIDI-inspired synthpop package. He described it as a 'collection of pop tunes for dogs and other gentle creatures to jam out to', and if these dogs were the sort of sweetly innocent and quirky animals that could get into bouncy, MIDI-driven synthpop, I'd entirely agree with that assessment. And when you analyze it on that smaller scale and framing, I'd argue there's something special about The Anthill, filling its own tiny niche in the genre admirably and yet still with enough originality to feel distinct.

So first, a little bit of context, because The Anthill isn't precisely a big or immediately impressive project in its sound - as, of course, it's not trying to be. Just over a half hour, it's primarily composed on keyboards that span piano to more sequenced, chirpy synth loops, with hints of the scratchier, rougher percussion that Taxxon is better known for and that gives it a hint of organic presence. But even with all of that, much of the darker, more immediately abrasive whiplash transitions and samples are not here - if anything, this project is positively precious in its usage of bright, upbeat melodies on the keys, almost cute in a strange way. I was initially inclined to make comparisons between this and The Postal Service - and make no mistake, you can definitely draw the parallel - but while there is some underlying melancholy with the more muted tones interwoven, the emotions are framed as smaller and more intimate, not just through the placement of the keys and beats very close to the front of the mix but also how there are only touches of greater depth, like around the vocals on 'Small Hopes' or the absolutely beautiful ethereal swells around 'Small Rivers'. And that framing means that the piano interlude 'Small Pianos' feels more semi-improvised than amateurish in its halting but interesting progression, or how the blubbery MIDI tones that are borderline chiptune manage put you in the mind of old retro video games, or how the actual rap verses on 'Small Minds' might feel old school but connect surprisingly well. For as much as The Flaming Lips were trying to stare towards youth on Oczy Mlody, Eric Taxxon much more nimbly gets to the core of the childlike innocence that comes in being a slightly depressed preteen who doesn't feel like he has much control, but ultimately still has hope and creativity going forward.

And a big part of this is delivery, and one of the reasons I'd argue the Postal Service comparison is apt - because Taxxon actually contributes vocals to this project himself, something he has rarely if ever done. Now he's not a great singer - there are songs where you can hear him slipping flat on the high notes, which no, was not an excuse for the chipmunk vocals on 'Small Dreams', probably the most dance-ready track and also my least-favourite - but between the lo-fi filter and hushed delivery, he doesn't really need to be. Again, the key words here are intimate and small, with the only real shift against it being some beats that probably hit with a little more impact that you'd expect - but when you focus with that much of a small soundscape, you can assert a lot of control over the atmosphere, and Taxxon keeps it melodic and interesting, from the theremin tones on 'Small Dangers' to emphasize the eerieness to the chirpy brightness of 'Small Virtues' to how he doesn't shy away from progressions that could feel borderline twee if they weren't balanced against lower, often muted or melancholic tones.

Now granted, there are problems with this record, and they do come in the lyrics and writing - mostly because these songs can feel underwritten. Take 'Small Adventures' - it's one story, told over and over with only variances in the instrumentation, and while the detail is good, it does drag pretty quickly. Or take 'Small Minds' - he's a good enough MC that I would have preferred a third verse instead of just overlaying the first and second on top of each other to end the track. But at the end of the day, those are minor concerns on an otherwise pretty interesting little project. It doesn't blow my mind in the production or writing, but I've always had a slight aversion to the more twee side of music and it's a testament to Taxxon's command of his atmosphere that this doesn't get insufferable fast. In fact, for me this is a light 7/10, I did enjoy this, and definitely a recommendation if you can get behind some introverted but melodically well-balanced synthpop, and especially if you're a fan of the Postal Service. In comparison to his other projects, The Anthill is easily one of Eric Taxxon's most accessible records - but arguably one of his tightest and most cohesive as well, and even though I doubt he'll return to this sound any time soon, this was a good experiment - definitely check it out. 

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