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Ash Koosha - Return 0 Music Album Reviews

The London IDM polymath’s fourth album puts artificial intelligence in the composer’s seat, rounding out computer-generated rhythms and melodies with AI-penned lyrics sung by Koosha himself.

Over the last decade human beings have gotten used to artificial intelligence nuzzling into our everyday lives. Virtual assistants like Siri have normalized the idea of chatting away to our devices, the self-driving car is (almost) a reality, and computers have trounced humans at everything from Go to “Jeopardy!” Computer-created music, however, remains something of a moot point. While computers are present in some form in the vast majority of modern recordings, the idea of a computer actually composing is at odds with a widely held belief in music as a deeply felt form of human expression.

Return 0, the fourth album from the London IDM polymath Ash Koosha, pushes against these notions. Koosha, who has previously dabbled in VR and spatial computing, used generative software to create melodies, arpeggios, and chord sequences that he then arranged into their final form on Return 0. “Humans are best at taste because we have intention in finalizing and presenting something,” he explained in a recent interview. “The computer can create arpeggios and melodies—parts that I don’t necessarily want to spend time on.” This interplay between human and machine is perhaps best seen in the album’s vocal lines, which Koosha sings from melodies and lyrics generated by computer. Or, as he puts it, “I perform the machine’s output as voice.”

Without wanting to sound like the last human apologist in front of our silicon overlords, these human-sung vocals are probably the most satisfactory part of Return 0. Previous attempts at computer-generated music have tended to deliver songs that are catchy without tapping into much human emotion—a predictable result for work born out of analysing vast amounts of data—and the same happens here. “Muzikenono” has a circular vocal melody that unwinds like a great spiritual yawn from the depths of the speakers, while “Wild Heart” immerses a soaring vocal run in the haunting sound of the Kamancheh, an Iranian bowed string instrument. Strong as these melodies are, though, they really flourish thanks to the producer’s effects-laden voice, which injects a touch of humanity that was notably absent on “Yona 1.1 (feat. Yona),” a song on Koosha’s previous album, Aktual, that was sung by a computer.

Musically, the album is more disappointing, for reasons attributable to both humans and computers. While there are moments of instrumental brilliance on Return 0—notably “Redempshun”’s warped neo-classical procession, which brings to mind the unsettling electronics of Wendy Carlos’ A Clockwork Orange soundtrack—at many other points the album flops, as middling computer melodies come up against all-too-lenient human editing. “Reach” seems to go on about twice as long as necessary, the pointillist synth lines soon losing their charm, while “Baptizanax” is shaggy, chaotic, and ill-formed, like a repository for all the instrumental parts Koosha couldn’t fit elsewhere on the record. You wonder, too, if the producer could have done more to tidy up the album’s computer-generated lyrics, whose nonsensical nature contributes to the album’s detached air.

In the end, for all Return 0’s innovative conception, the faults that scupper the album are the same ones that Koosha has faced throughout his recording career, notably a weak editorial voice and a tendency to drift that leaves many songs sounding like noises in search of a genre. Return 0 is an interesting record that breaks new ground without coming across as too self consciously important. Ultimately, though, it ends up a proof of concept that’s more rewarding to read about than listen to. There’s lots to admire here, but frustratingly little to love.

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