For the sake of reference, let's take a quick stroll back to good ol' 2010. Ron Paul was a rare and irrelevant blip in our Facebook feeds, Lost still had us guessing on the whole "Smoke Monster" thing, bro-on-bro "icing" was a minor epidemic, and for one or two hot minutes, "chillwave" — or its less-remembered synonym "glo-fi" — was a popular "new" thing. It was less a movement and more an end-user hashtag created by digital journalists (and subsequently heralded by the likes of The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times) to lump together a handful of pseudonym-utilizing laptop soloists from across the globe who somewhat simultaneously released a series of home-recorded, electronic dream-pop records. Scrutiny was instantaneous, as others were quick to point out that, to different extents, it was simply a meld of two other short-lived subgenres: '80s New Romantic synth pop and '90s shoegaze, already pioneered at great length by the likes of Ariel Pink and Secret Colors.
Two years later, "chillwave" sounds just as dated as most predicted it would, but its founding fathers soldier on. Chaz Bundick (aka Toro y Moi) has updated his sound considerably to squirm from underneath the banner, while other glo-fi stalwarts like Memory Tapes and Washed Out continue to embrace mellow, down-tempo, bedroom-tracked electronica, and still fare well with critics.
None of the above, however, quite defined the mellifluous trend — nor were they able to transcend it so quickly via commercial success — like Denton, Texas' Neon Indian. Composed entirely by then 21-year-old Alan Palomo, their debut, Psychic Chasms, was an accessibly lo-fi document of woozy, analog-washed, psychedelic synth pop that embraced, if not exaggerated, the warped artifacts of home recording. With a live show much more captivating than most chillwavers (Palomo eschewed the man-with-laptop shtick in favor of a fully formed band), Neon Indian was all the rage at 2010's South by Southwest Festival, and they even scored a slot at local megafest Bonnaroo later that year. Now on the road supporting their follow-up, Era Extraña, how does the genre's flagship act transition from chillwave's crest to the sandy shores of trends gone by?
With the help of producer Dave Fridmann — best known for his work with The Flaming Lips, with whom the band released a collaborative 12-inch last year — Neon Indian has simply crafted yet another LP of mindfully druggy synth-psych that does indeed borrow from trends both current and past, but stands apart from any ongoing or previously dated mock movements.
If anything, the record finds the group significantly more focused at what they do best. The faux-analog methods that warped the mixes of their debut have given way to sleek melodies and intricately arranged layers of shimmering synths, obscured samples, video-game noises and found sounds. Apparently written all within the confines of a Helsinki apartment last winter, its biggest departure from Chasms is its intent. Less a foggy smattering of catchy weirdness, Era Extraña's isolated conception carries with it a darker undercurrent, with themes of solitude and separation — but it keeps the summery drug-pop vibe of its predecessor in tow. The blippy, epic instrumental intro "Heart: Attack" surfaces from static crunch into a bubbly bliss of epic synth strings, while standout track "Polish Girl" sits somewhere between a synth-bent sci-fi score and an '80s jazzercise soundtrack.
Most importantly, Era Extraña may just be strong enough to bury "chillwave" alongside "witch house," "ghost drone" and "psybient" in the indie subgenre fantasy graveyard.
Nice piece, Jim.
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