It’s not hard to guess why Jesse Somfay went with a pseudonym for his newest full-length. Up until now the Canadian producer has worked under his given name in a sonic realm entirely his own, releasing two excellent LPs on Pheek’s Archipel imprint–2005’s Between Heartbeats and 2009’s A Catch In The Voice–which slid their soapy tendrils gently and beautifully into the cracks between ambient and techno, gorgeous analog synth melodies and hyper-rhythmic subaquatic drum loops weaving lush, bathwater soundscapes and mining everything from shoegaze to trance. Somfay’s closest comparisons were artists like M83 and Ulrich Schnauss, which hardly accounted for the watery and abstracted depths the Canadian dove to. Not to mention the world of techno. That Somfay occupied a sonic space all his own was fine, if only because that space was so wondrously and carefully realized.
In 2012, it feels like Somfay sits comfortably amidst a bygone era’s class of dance music outsiders. The same era where Kompakt compilations ruled, microhouse existed, producers used major key tonality, shoegaze and electronic music we’re somehow mingling, and From Here We Go Sublime was the crossover record. A lot has happened since 2009, even if it was the tail end of that era, and Somfay knows it. Most notably, the influence of Untrue and UK garage has flipped the whole of the dance music landscape on its head. Instead of ignoring the changes that have taken place around him and plugging away at a proper followup to A Catch In The Voice, Somfay has decided to change his name and approach those changes head on.
It’d be overly reductive to call Voidness, Somfay’s first release as Borealis (also the title of the penultimate cut on A Catch In The Voice), the Canadian producer’s take on garage. But in many ways that’s what it is, even if it skews closer to familiar Somfay-ian touchstones. Somfay has added vinyl crackle, bony drum loops, and breathy vocal samples to his usual array of bleeding atomic analog synths and cavernous sense of space. But the additions are cranked to such a level that it’s hard not to see their use as a kind of overt subversion of overly familiar 2012 dynamics. For one, Voidness is still entrenched firmly in ambient and techno realms, and two, Somfay remains a student of sound rather than form. The crackle is turned into a kind of stormy, sandy riverbed, stirred and sculpted at the whims of the currents overhead. The drums are as thick as tree trunks and settle on an abstracted, confrontational grid. And the vocals are stretched to cosmic proportions and filtered through Somfay’s bleary underwater aesthetic. The results are beautiful and extravagant and wholly alien, managing a simple and compelling exercise in turning the familiar into the unfamiliar via a perspective shift.
Voidness has muscle and verticality, but it still works from a delicately ambient place. The trudging drums act as a kind of focal point for huge, dangling synth melodies, roaming, drift-dive sub-textures, and distant, peripheral percussive samples. “Dark Water” buoys itself to a hefty, start-stop drum loop and thick-hided sub-bass riptide while a pulsing arpeggio gains and loses momentum and distant shaker samples shiver at the track’s outlines. On “Unseen & Uncalled” Somfay throws brutal kicks and unfurling metallic samples into a gout of vinyl crackle that sounds like a roaring flame while a patient, blurry melody swims in and out of sight and drums continue to crash like exploding stars. Standout “Crimson Purple” stretches layers of billowing synths like galactic tides through a nettled beat, vocal transmissions echoing from across a vast empty distance.
Somfay approaches these tracks three-dimensionally. He seems more occupied with prodding and exploring the extremities of the record’s ever-shifting sounds rather than letting them alone to ride out the clenched beats. The latter has been a mark of the producer since Between Heartbeats. These tracks are womblike constructions, Somfay smoothing and stretching and wrapping thick multi-faceted aural layers with an organic, internal rhythm. On the Burial-esque “Not Of This Reality” and “Womb,” Somfay wrangles endlessly with the tracks’ centerpiece vocal samples, their surroundings exfoliating with planetary scale against an evolving landscape. On “Wearied, We Keep Away,” the track’s machine gun kick beats upward against its rewinding, psychedelic guitar sample while starry synths glide beneath, a climatic vocal sample calmly rising and consuming the track at its zenith. Then there’s the absolutely breathtaking “Nightfall,” which retains the cinematic glory of Somfay’s earlier works, anthemic synths clawing skyward around a stone-skipped-on-water drum while vocals toil tearfully near its roots. It’s dizzying and scenic and Somfay remains a constant felt presence, his fingers almost audibly pushing against the seams of each track.
Voidness marks an unexpected turn for Somfay, but considering the results, it’s not unwelcome. While subverting expectations (in more ways than one) might be a byproduct of the Canadian producer’s approach, it’s hardly his endgoal. Instead, Somfay is busy crafting an immersive and seamless dreamworld experience. One that delights in overt beauty, vivid emotional color, and an explorative imagination. So really, at the end of the day, despite the name Borealis, Voidness is a Jesse Somfay record.