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Mr. Tophat - Dusk to Dawn Music Album Reviews

The Swedish producer and frequent Robyn collaborator offers an ambitious three-album suite of understated, occasionally disquieting techno nocturnes.
Hardcore Robyn fans already know the work of Swedish producer Rudolf Nordström, aka Mr. Tophat. He co-produced “Baby Forgive Me” and “Beach2k20,” two of the gorgeous, gently filtered house-pop tracks from last year’s Honey; his own 2017 release Trust Me, a three-song, 35-minute EP of throbbing, desaturated grooves, featured Robyn throughout. His latest solo release, Dusk to Dawn, is an ambitious three-album suite of understated, occasionally disquieting techno nocturnes. More melodic than the distortion-warped A Memoir From the Youth, two and a half hours of mostly chill, mid-tempo house conceal interesting moments within slack expanses. At its best, it’s a triple-album endurance listen that rewards partial concentration; at its slowest, it’s an illustration that Tophat’s signature long-format tracks don’t scale.

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Ned Lagin - Seastones Music Album Reviews

Ned Lagin - Seastones Music Album Reviews
An expanded new mix of an overlooked, misunderstood 1975 electronic “biomusic” opus—featuring mysterious contributions from Jerry Garcia, David Crosby, Phil Lesh, and others—finally gives the record its due.

While there were bushels of pioneering electronic composers active in the mid 1970s, few modular synth players performed their compositions to full arenas and put out nationally distributed quadrophonic LPs. When Seastones, Ned Lagin’s sole album of “biomusic,” was released in 1975, it received enough FM radio play to edge into the outer boroughs of Billboard’s charts despite its pressing in SQ quad, one of three quad competitors that would die in brutal mid-’70s format wars. Though the mix promised stereo compatibility, most turntables rendered a murky presentation of Seastones’ already obtuse music. A 1990 CD realization, meanwhile, accidentally deleted the track breaks. But a crystalline new mix, available only through Lagin’s website, presents a vastly expanded and rearranged two-CD iteration of Seastones, gorgeously reanimating one of the most misunderstood and literally misheard projects in the rock/experimental family tree.

Between 1970 and 1975, Lagin and Seastones arrived at what Brian Eno and others would later call “generative music.” Running modular-synth signals through chains of effects and gates—often involving other musicians as filters—the M.I.T.-trained biologist created what he called “moment forms,” not intended to be listened to in any fixed order. Broken down for the first time into 83 unnamed individual tracks, ready for shuffling at the highest possible fidelity (or cherry-picking one’s favorites) the new Seastones is an ever-changing carousel of surprising sound sculptures, tangible and visceral, often exquisitely delicate—and nearly all unsuited for anything other than total foreground listening, linear only if a listener is willing to commit to a stroll through Lagin’s creations. While some moment forms seem to anticipate Eno’s own experiments with atmospheric music, they disappear into Seastones’ constant reminders about the beauty, power, and sometimes discomfort of pure sound.

Though the original Seastones would find an audience among experimental-music heads and noise connoisseurs, it would likewise remain in the record-collecting memory due to its other feature: an all-star lineup, albeit one with a major caveat. It features significant participation by the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, and Mickey Hart; Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick; the ever-game David Crosby; and others. As the Dead’s in-house modular-synth genius, Lagin performed with the Dead live—check out 9/11/74—and in the studio, and these appearances would cement him as a glowing avant-garde node within the Dead’s music when the band got hip again around the turn of the 21st century. Throughout 1974, Lagin and Lesh would perform unannounced through the Dead’s mammoth Wall of Sound speaker array, making music that was often a combination of minimalist, rumbling, and disconcerting, sometimes moving from harsh and expressive noise to sublime space jazz.

Yet, with a few notable exceptions, these marquee names are virtually unrecognizable except as their most distilled musical personalities, their egos subsumed into the larger creation. On the original, not even Lagin’s name was on the front cover, with Lesh receiving a large-font second billing on the LP sticker itself, though not here. Originally issued on Garcia and Ron Rakow’s independent label Round Records, Lagin’s music would confound generations of Deadheads, though it would also inspire at least one Ph.D thesis chapter and the detailed chronology NedBase.

Perhaps best listened to in the dark on headphones, or sitting directly between properly cranked speakers, Seastones offers a variety of synaesthetic vistas: cybernetic pebbles skipping across a digital pond and over the event horizon (“Track 79”); interdimensional pipe-organ swells (“Track 57”); modular synth beats only a knob-tweak (and bass drop) away from a modern dance floor (“Track 05”); conversations in impenetrable tongues (“Track 06”); cackling insect reveries (“Track 80”); an all-too-brief three-minute movement of Yayoi Kusama-like dots (“Track 70”); bursts of fine-grained static (the 17-second “Track 17”); the rush of ocean in a seashell (“Track 54”); and much more. Very occasionally, recognizable human voices emerge, like the unmistakable quizzical smokiness of Grace Slick, delivering Joycean wordplay (“Track 20”). The double album’s pick hit, as it were, is “Track 66”: Jerry Garcia intoning half-sung poetry (in variations on the original LP’s back cover), a performance as psychedelic as it is tender, his voice merging seamlessly into Lagin’s electronic tapestry.

The culmination of a half-decade of work at M.I.T., Brandeis, and in the wilds of Marin County, the new edition of Seastones is Ned Lagin’s opus, a vast and beautiful musical universe. Ranging from seven seconds to 10 minutes, the 83 non-linear segments of Lagin’s “open form mobile composition” are microcosmic windows into his world. In expansive liner notes peppered by quotes from ecologist-activists like Rachel Carson and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lagin patches the long-tail forces of natural history to the moment-form technical specs of his sound-making tools—including modular synths by E-mu and Buchla, a pair of Arps (2500 and Odyssey), and an Interdata 7/16 processor that Lagin programmed directly in machine code and assembly language.

All of it comes glowing with the optimism of the age, combining 20th-century modernism with the San Francisco psychedelic renaissance. The latter was then reaching its apex, rock’n’roll’s pre-punk aspirations still pointing towards the society-changing visions of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog as much as the avant-garde atmospheres of Seastones, with its musical ecologies and systems harmonies. It was all destined to go awry. Lagin would walk away from the Dead world only months after the album was released, resurfacing last year with his first new public work since the ’70s in the form of new photographs, art, writing, and an eclectic, beguiling album called Cat Dreams, less like the atonality of Seastones and perhaps more like what Jerry Garcia might have done had he pushed more rigorously into the age of MIDI.

A quiet and almost secret coda to an age of unimaginable creative ambition, Seastones remains an island of sound removed from the classic-rock archipelago, hewn by waves and now separated by time. “Seas tones,” as Lagin sometimes spells it, the moment forms collected along the shore. The music remains fully mysterious, but no longer impenetrable. Cleaned up, with nearly a half-century more of electronic pioneers behind it, the 21st century Seastones is more knowable than ever—sensations to link the ear and brain on an even more faraway beach.

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