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M. Geddes Gengras - Hawaiki Tapes Music Album Reviews

M. Geddes Gengras - Hawaiki Tapes Music Album Reviews

Recorded on the humble Korg Volca FM during a vacation on the Big Island of Hawaii, this atmospheric, unobtrusive album lives somewhere between landscape sketch and spiritual sojourn.

Synthesizers are often celebrated as instruments of infinite possibility, but many electronic musicians are more inspired by their machines’ limitations. A recent spate of experiments has found a number of artists making records with a single device. Nine Inch Nails’ Alessandro Cortini recorded his 2017 album Avanti using only an early-1970s EMS Synthi AKS. The same year, Dawn of Midi’s Qasim Naqvi made FILM entirely on a Moog Model D, an analog synthesizer of a similar vintage, while Vancouver’s Cloudface made the sedate, bleepy Variations on a 1980s Korg Mono/Poly. Those are all hallowed instruments, but some musicians have made do with much less: Benjamin Brunn’s wonderful Pieces From a Small Corner of Paradise was recorded on the humble Korg Poly-800 mkII, a plastic digital/analog hybrid from the mid-1980s that could be worn on a guitar strap.

M. Geddes Gengras embraces an even humbler instrument on Hawaiki Tapes, a modest album recorded while the longtime Angeleno vacationed on the Big Island of Hawaii. His machine of choice, the Korg Volca FM, fit easily in his handheld luggage: Part of the Japanese electronics maker’s recent line of affordable, back-to-basics grooveboxes, the Volca FM retails for around $140 and measures roughly 10'' by 6'' by 2''—smaller than a tablet computer and thinner than a hoagie. As its name indicates, the machine is dedicated to FM synthesis, an arcane method often associated with the Yamaha DX7, released in 1983, that’s easily recognizable for its bright, glassy sheen.

Gengras avails himself of those vivid timbral qualities across this atmospheric, unobtrusive album, conjuring chimes, bells, and flutes in majestically paced tracks that suggest crystal pyramids emerging from the mist. He worked at night, running his Volca directly into a handheld recorder, and that sense of quiet isolation looms large. Tempos are glacially paced, reverb stretches to the horizon, and harmonic development is practically nil: One-bar arpeggios spin in languid circles while Gengras slowly tweaks his synth’s parameters, brightening and burnishing its tone before sending it back into the shadows again. The music’s unpredictable movement is a little like the play of light as the moon passes behind patchy clouds.

The Volca FM can only play three notes at once, and it has no onboard effects besides chorus. To compensate, Gengras availed himself of two reverb and delay pedals, yielding results that are at once restrained and suggestively layered. (On three tracks, he also added Moog bass parts once he was back in his studio.) He wrings an impressive range of sounds out of his instrument, from singing-saw drones to sparkling new age fantasias that nod to gongs or wind chimes. One of the album’s best tracks, “Mauna Kea,” is strongly reminiscent of Aphex Twin’s canonical Selected Ambient Works Vol. II, with dewdrop synths creating accidental counterpoints as they run through ping-pong delay. Another highlight, “Mauna Loa,” benefits from the contrast between earthshaking sub-bass and a whimsical, flute-like melody. Even accounting for the strange, glitched-out textures of “Lō'ihi” and “Nāhuku,” though, Gengras only manages to stretch his instrument’s palette so far, and over the course of 68 minutes, one occasionally wishes for a little more variation.

While many tracks are named after the island’s geography—“Hilina Slump” refers to a landslide on the south flank of Kilauea, while “Kapoho” is a bay on the island’s southeast coast that recently made news after being inundated with lava—the album title references the mythological ancestral home of the Polynesian people. In sound and mood, Hawaiki Tapes lives somewhere between landscape sketch and spiritual sojourn, much like Electronic Recordings From Maui Jungle, a pair of albums by Anthony Child, better known as the UK techno artist Surgeon. Child’s compositions are similarly restrained, and though his Buchla modular synthesizer (which is orders of magnitude more expensive than the Volca) generates a wider range of sounds, he’s drawn to a similarly ethereal palette and a similarly meditative mood.

This can be tricky territory: the white tourist seeking transcendence in a colonized landscape. (Child, at least, calls one song “Colonisation,” though he has another perhaps less reflectively titled “The Chief.”) But Gengras wisely avoids tipping too far into unearned mysticism. Ultimately, his search focuses mostly on the depths of his small plastic box— and it yields an unexpectedly fruitful bounty for an experiment cooked up on a hotel-room desk in the dead of night.

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