When You Awake, the latest offering from Changwon-based producer mcthfg, is a concept album of sorts – “the outline of an SF story set to music”, inspired by the music of legendary roots-rock group The Band and the writing of speculative fiction authors N.K. Jemisin and Yoon Ha Lee. It’s an ambitious project; The five tracks (six, if one includes the album mix that forms track 6) on When You Awake range over a wide variety of musical styles, and the narrative intent is clear in the way in which the tracks progress and flow into one another.
Opening track ‘The Traveller’ starts off with a melody of microscopic blips, before being joined by a slowed-down electro groove and a warm Reese-esque bass groove. The track makes great use of the stereo field; low-passed arps, wooden-sounding drum fills and spacey dub chords flow seamlessly from one headphone to the next, making the listener feel totally submerged in the music. The following track, ‘The World’, has a similar effect, achieved this time with dusty, delay-drenched synth notes bubbling in and out of hearing, punctuated every now and then by what sounds like the screech of a violin being fed through an over-spun loop of degraded tape. Other details – the occasional air-raid siren sweep, sparse, melancholic piano notes, a kind of dirty G-funk bass – combine to give the track a palpable sense of digital dread.
This atmosphere of dread and tension gradually evaporates over the course of the next track, ‘The Game’. Here, mcthfg deploys slow, evolving, Eno-like ambient pads and a relatively minimal arrangement that comes as a bit of a palette cleanser after the intensity of the two preceding tracks. A dry, tinny beat feels there to add texture rather than momentum, and overall the track reminds me of the kind of woozy, head-nodding numbers that occasionally crop up in the vaporwave end of the ambient spectrum.
If ‘The Game’ acts as the album’s pre-climactic ‘quiet before the storm’, then ‘The Difference’ is the storm itself. A heavy, echoey beat, with all the emphasis placed on the snare, gives the track a distinct mid 90s trip-hop vibe. This impression is only further entrenched by the arrival of dramatic organ chords that give the track its defining character. In my notes for this review, I see I have scrawled “mcthfg Does Portishead” next to the title of this track, and it honestly feels like the most accurate summation of what he’s done here.
Closing track ‘The End’ forms a kind of book-end to opener ‘The Traveller’, utilizing a similar opening melody, though here it sounds far more cosmic and ethereal. The bass is fathoms deep, and like ‘The Difference’, there is something a little retro, specifically something a little 90s, about the sound design in this track. Capping it all off is a distorted lead synth that, at the track’s peak moments, almost begins to feel like the wailing of an electric guitar, spliced and stitched into something far stranger.
The album ends with a continuous 32-minute mix of all the preceding tracks, a nice touch and one that highlights one of the key strengths of When You Awake; the flow of the music. Each track, while having its own distinct sense of identity, leads very naturally into the next, and overall the sequencing of the album is very well executed, something that sets it aside from a lot of other Bandcamp artists who, while they are gifted at making music, aren’t always as gifted when it comes to putting that music together in an aesthetically pleasing order. Part of this, no doubt, stems from the overarching narrative concept behind the album – the album is structured like a story, and its major moments feel like key scenes in a gripping graphic novel. Perfect tunes to close your eyes and explore future universes to.
When You Awake is available for purchase over on Dubmission’s Bandcamp.