Musically speaking, Los Angeles was a much different place in 2009. Flying Lotus’ 2007’s album-length love letter to the city still had enough of a hold on the electronic landscape to define almost anything even tangentially related to the city’s ultimate proving ground, the North Broadway club night, Low End Theory. Brainfeeder, Anticon, and Alpha Pup amongst others released a generation of LPs between ’08 and ’10 from artists like Lorn, Teebs, and Baths that came to define a whole movement of left-field hip-hop with influences spanning the Atlantic loosely (and lamely) termed glitch hop. And you couldn’t start a conversation about any of it without mentioning Los Angeles. But then Flying Lotus released Cosmogramma in the middle of 2010 and it was as good a sign as any that it was time for those beholden to his previous record to perhaps evolve.
Jason Chung aka Nosaj Thing released his full-length debut, Drift, on Alpha Pup in 2009 and it was one of the few long-players that, while existing within the ecosystem Los Angeles had created, managed to stand well on its own. Drift has its fair share of video game-y snyths, glitch-heavy samples, drunken drum programming, and exceeding amounts of production dexterity, to be sure–it’s an album that forever exists in the fevered glow and energy of Low End Theory–but there’s a sustained and delicate subtlety working in the shadows of the record and a sophisticated sense of song structure that’s easily mistaken as just a part of the melee. Nosaj Thing’s sophomore LP, Home, is a much different record. Despite all its intricacy and grandeur, Drift existed in bursts as each new synth hook or production centerpiece swung into place. The album managed mood and atmosphere, but it was secondary. On Home, it’s the main concern.
Chung builds the entire album around currents of a cohesive atmosphere. At first glance Home is a more simplistic record, but Chung’s production talents have only been further submerged, working in the recesses of the tracks to create a profoundly subtle and detailed mosaic of subdued synth textures and samples. A lot of Home‘s devotion to big patient, syncopated synth melodies reminds me of UK dubstep producer Kuedo’s 2011 record, Severant, and texturally, with its percussive bell-like samples, downer undertones, and analog leanings, Home veers closer to Ninja Tune, Dial, or Warp without losing sight of the producer’s Los Angeleno roots. But instead of dotting the album with an intricate, highly defined portrait of individual sounds, Chung blurs and warps things into something singular and cloaked like a flurry of shadows behind a transparent curtain.
Home‘s two vocal collaborations are perhaps the strongest examples of the sound on the album. Chung makes no concessions for the vocalists and somehow manages to seamlessly fold both into the album’s overall flow as if they’re just another texture to weave into the LP’s fabric. Kazu Makino of Blonde Redhead appears on early album standout, “Eclipse/Blue.” The track centers around some supple, shuddering guitar plucks and a quickened 4/4, blooming synth arpeggios keeping pace while a snapping snare vamps its way in and Chung stretches the vocal echoes into melodic background fixtures like bursts from a choir. It’s an uptempo track and it’s busy with all the echo panning, but there’s an eager hush about it. The track’s drive and weight comes with the simple yet powerful addition of its bass synth, which sits deep in the sub-octaves. Chung’s ability to balance all these elements and come up with a restrained yet emotionally hefty track is breathtaking.
The trend continues across the rest of the album, but the emotional weight and beauty come in even subtler shades. “Safe” is barely there with its peeling synth melodies and cloud of floating, stretched vocals. The textures are a syrupy, formless expanse, tent-poled by bony handclaps, yet they’re constantly shifting and building. “Glue” surrounds some lonely, overcast synth melodies with a ricocheting woody snare and a male vocal that sounds blown apart on the wind. “Distance” is a web of muffled, bell tones. And “Try,” which might be the slowest thing on the album, is a collection of bubbling Londoner synths before Toro y Moi’s perfectly sleepy vocals slide in.
Home is long way from Drift. The album’s success is partly owed to Chung’s change in focus, exploring the more minute areas of his sound. The record is patient and delicate, but Chung remains a constant if not aggressive presence within every track, imbuing each with immaculate detail. There’s an earnestness in the producer’s fingerprints, which makes the album’s thick and calm atmosphere and tactility seem all the more purposeful. These tracks strike an almost imperceptible balance between mood pieces and actual songs, and with a cut like “Eclipse/Blue” it’s obvious Nosaj Thing hasn’t just shifted focus, but matured as an artist as well.