If ’80s synth-pop and early ’90s R&B can make a comeback and work their way into the indie collective consciousness with little resistance, why not synth-based prog? As it turns out, Los Angeles-based label Stones Throw thinks that people are ready for just that. The debut album from Chrome Canyon, aka New York artist Morgan Z, aims for and hits an odd balance between Wish You Were Here-era Pink Floyd and Yes’ prog rock album Fragile. Unlike those bands though, the tracks which comprise Elemental Themes are almost entirely constructed without guitars and rely exclusively on the shimmering synths and hammering beats to convey their intent and obvious love for all things synthetically symphonic.
The spirit that guides Chrome Canyon feels very much in line with those band’s use of overarching themes and repeated musical motifs as a way of furthering their own generally convoluted narratives. And Morgan Z does this all without words. It’s an odd conglomeration of styles and execution to find yourself being immediately drawn to, but he never relies too heavily on our previous experience or knowledge of his influences to engender any kind of forced recognition. His songs billow out over the album in a strangely organic fashion, which belies their artificial origins.
Morgan wastes no time in setting the tone of the album, as the deep bass piano notes and plasticine arpeggio on opener “Beginnings” soon give way to a warbling, serpentine synth line that seems intent on burying itself as deep in your brain as possible. It would almost seem ridiculous in its affectation and candy-coated echoes if it weren’t for the inherently rhythmic way that the song expands and makes you believe that Yes were actually a musically relevant band (well, almost makes you believe). Even those who would say that “Beginnings,” and Elemental Themes in general, has more in common with intello-dance-floor practitioners such as (now-defunct) LCD Soundsystem or Hot Chip aren’t that far off in their assessment. As odd as it may seem, the malleable synths and contortionist beats of prog rock bands like Yes and King Crimson have found modern interpreters in these kind of electronic artists, and Chrome Canyon seems an honest expression of that continued evolution and assimilation. The album veers between low-key displays of technical wizardry and over-the-top bursts of technicolor urgency so seamlessly that this feels less the work of an aspiring musician and more the continuing progression of an already established artist.
This is most noticeable on 8-bit pleasure point “Pluze” and lead single “Branches,” whose airtight production and swells of fluid synths demonstrate an inherent appreciation and proficiency, which seems curiously developed for a debut record. The simplicity of these tracks allows the music to connect with the listener on a fundamental level. You forget that you’re listening to a synthetic prog record and focus instead on the aural textures that Morgan Z weaves so effortless in front of you. And it’s in these details that the album really finds its footing. A case could be made that he uses many similar sounding synth derivations and that there are only so many ways to stretch out and manipulate a basic melody, but within the core structure that he has laid out for the album, there are remarkable wonders in the smallest details. From the eerily foreboding ’80s movie soundtrack requirement “Sign From the Old World” to the old school video game tendencies of “Generations,” Elemental Themes crafts a loving tribute to the sounds and artists who obviously had a substantial influence on Morgan Z in his formative years.
But Elemental Themes is not without its share of missteps. As successfully as Morgan Z makes the case for the album’s existence, his head can, at times, be stuck on a repeating loop of amorphous synths and aqueous rhythms, too much Yes and too little Pink Floyd. Tracks like “Chasing the Dead” and “Memories of a Scientist,” for all their apparent superficial distinction, lose much of their appeal on repeated listens. The looping patterns and vibrant beats of the songs obscure what amounts to a fairly hollow center. They collapse inward at the slightest touch, and for an album which succeeds at so many other things, to hear the creative shortcuts within these particular songs is a bit disappointing. Other tracks like “Legends” and the interstitial “Cave of Light” feel less than inspired, though they do hold up well enough. It just seems to be a case of running in place and playing to Morgan’s strengths. And though there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that as long as there is forward movement, just because something sounds genuine doesn’t mean that it actually has much creative purpose. Thankfully though, for all their flaws and analog plasticity, these tracks do have a pulse and a warm heart that pushes them forward.
It should have been easy to dismiss Elemental Themes as disposable and unnecessary, but even in a year so littered with great records as this one, there is something refreshing about an artist trying to, and generally succeeding at, incorporating influences which may or may not be in style at the moment. When was the last time you saw someone at an Animal Collective show wearing a Yes shirt and not felt that they were wearing it ironically? This is not to say that I’m aiming for some kind of critical re-evaluation of Yes’ work, only that it’s interesting to hear their influence on Chrome Canyon, exhibited without all the pretentiousness and overly complicated narrative nonsense common to prog in general. But even with all its recognizable aspects, Elemental Themes is still Morgan Z’s original creation. No matter who else we see in his work, this record stands on its own in terms of how it plays for the listener. It shimmers and ripples with laser-point synths and trebly squelches that play tag with the echoing, elastic beats, always turning in on themselves, waiting for just the right time to burst forth and consume everything around them. Prog by any other name, right?