An easily digestible expression that teases a marriage between Boards of Canada and Explosions in the Sky.
By day, Scott Hansen is ISO50, an outstanding photographer and graphic designer. By night, he is Tycho, creator of lush, yet mellow soundscapes that have played accompaniment to many nights’ sleep, or a particularly clear late night’s drive through the hilly quiet of San Francisco. Awake is Tycho’s second full-length release from Ghostly International, and marks their first recording as a three-piece band alongside Mr. Hansen’s warm synths and hushed drones, in which he also plays guitar and bass. Boasting tracks that hover comfortably around the four-and-a-half minute mark, Awake is an easily digestible expression that teases a marriage between Boards of Canada and Explosions in the Sky. There are times when it’s more post-rock than electronic, but it provides a welcome change to what would have otherwise might have grown stale.
In searching about the web for information on the record, I quickly discovered that Tycho, along with other artists from Ghostly International, are working collaboratively with Sony Computer Entertainment (PlayStation) to create a soundtrack for a game called Hohokum, which appears to be an interactive experience designed to show pretty colors and smiling cartoon’ish faces to gamers while they appreciate the outstanding musical accompaniment of Tycho, Matthew Dear, Ben Benjamin, and others. I watched the trailer, which happened to have “L” from ‘Awake’ playing over it, and I found it a near-perfect visual representation of the scenes that play in my mind’s eye when I listen to the record. It’s worth checking out.
Awake opens with its title track, which unashamedly puts the musicians behind the guitars front and center, establishing the prevailing theme through the record, wherein the interplay of melodies on the guitar weaving effortlessly with synth lines carries listeners through their vision of bright pastel landscapes, while the ever-present drones in the background paint a beautiful sky against which the lights of the melodies shine even more brightly.
“Montana” continues the motif set by “Awake,” but the track is decidedly post-rock which has been informed by Tycho’s history as an excellent downtempo producer. It’s a more upbeat tune, employing classic funk rhythms that slide nonchalantly once again into familiar post-rock territory. It showcases drummer Rory O’Connor’s fluency with his instrument, as well as his respect for the value of holding back as much as letting loose. “Montana” moves with more energy than one might expect from an album from a musician known for ambient and downtempo, but there are kernels of that same, beautiful drone, alongside calming synths that remind the listener where exactly Tycho is coming from.
When we reach “L,” the arrival of a more direct electronic approach is welcome, though it is once again integrated seamlessly with the recorded guitars and drums. With its widely smiling pop melodies and dancey body, “L” is a fitting selection for the visuals represented in that video game trailer I mentioned above. In that visual, a colorful snakelike creature traverses a radiant plane which is adorned here and there with simple structures, replete with standing figures in a variety of shapes and sizes who climb aboard the serpent and go along for the ride. It’s a spectacular accompaniment to the music.
In “Dye” we see an intermediary stage between “L” and “Montanta,” which up to now have acted as the bounding walls for traversing between the genres. “Dye” meanders back and forth from IDM to post-rock, and does so admirably. The transition between quiet acoustic guitar melodies and wide synthscapes accompanied by active drumming are seamless, despite taking place over only a few bars. Familiar melodies come in and out of center stage, melding with either of the feelings easily, and generating a different feeling in each context.
“See” opens with what can only be called a pop riff on the bass, though the melodies that build atop it—using guitars with liberally applied delay effects and more arpeggiated synth lines with yet more delay—take it out of the realm of pop into that spot Tycho has carved for themselves in these two seemingly-disparate genres. It’s easy to move to “See,” which plays with the arpeggiations and delayed guitars throughout its five minutes without growing dull. We hear a bit of distortion on the guitars as well, which brings the energy level of the tune up more than the consistent clap does, but the energy level of the whole piece climbs smoothly and elegantly, letting up only with ten seconds to cool you down before dropping into “Apogee,” which brings the energy back almost instantaneously, only to level out in a mellow groove a minute-and-a half into the song. At that point, we’re greeted again by the theme of guitars melding beautifully and seamlessly with synths, as a solid beat around 90bpm urges you to groove along with it.
“Spectre” is an aptly named piece, for its ethereal, reverb-heavy sounds, though the effect is somewhat marred initially by the dance beat that invades the moment, only to relinquish control to more reverb-delay-guitar goodness, which adds layer upon layer to the image, forming a more corporeal form as the seconds tick on. An exquisite crescendo of drums crashes into the large image, releasing once more into the ethereal rhythms of the delay effects generated by the guitars. The dance beat returns, more welcome the second time, and carries the song through until just before its reverb-soaked end.
The last track, “Plains,” incorporates the warmth of acoustic guitars—and the ever-present metallic attack of pick-to-string—into the image of a golden meadow as a golden sun sets upon it, casting a burning glow across the landscape. A gentle, but quick, drum enters, before quickly departing, as if to serve as a reminder that sunset is no more than a transition, and that in darkness there’s more opportunity for expression and creativity.
All told, Tycho’s Awake features pieces of music that would be at home at a club or at a post-rock show, and others that occupy the space between, who need a different home entirely, though they fit snugly with the thematic presentation of the record. Bonus points to Scott Hansen for designing beautiful album art and offering a gorgeous cream-white vinyl release of this excellent record, which is given even more of its warmth under the needle.
Awake is available on Ghostly International.