ElectroniCON is an incredibly important event for the vaporwave and adjacent communities. Presented by George Clanton of 100% Electronica, ElectroniCON 3 was a pilgrimage that brought vaporwave fans together from all over the globe, to Brooklyn NY on August 20th, 2022. Today, one month later, we sit down to reminisce on the fantastical experience of the 2022 New York Vaporwave Community Weekend, including the Tape Swap 3 presented by Utopia District, Club Genki presented by Pacific Plaza Records and Pocari Sweat, and Vaporspace Invaders presented by Vaporspace StL. Join us as we wallow through our memories and video footage of this amazing weekend.
Ah, 1997. I was at the tender, innocent age of five, discovering the things that would influence me for the rest of my life, such as Power Rangers and mimosas. It was also the final year that the original Sailor Moon anime was aired on American television sets. Back then, I didn’t really care, but it appears that for one vaporwave artist, this was nothing short of a tragedy.
Eric Gordon — aka Darien Shields — has been in the vaporwave game since 2017 and told me that he had a goal in mind when creating this alias: to create a total of seven unique albums, themed according to the years that Sailor Moon (the show he takes his name from) aired on television, so from 1991 to the aforementioned 1997. Platinum Phantom is the last in this series of albums, and as such, every sample from the album is from the far-off year of 1997. Besides the theming, he stated this time that he, in his own words, wanted to lean more into vaporwave cliches.
“This time I focused a lot more on MIDI composing than on any previous albums though. Some songs are wholly original compositions made from the samples I lifted. Some parts are just straight up slow-downs, but I tried to do that as sparingly as possible this time so I could really explore more and invest more of myself into the music.”
I like vaporwave albums with themes as it helps in the artist’s grand quest to make the listener feel something. Walking through a rainy Japanese mega-city or shopping in an eerily empty indoor mall or just making you feel sad as !@#$ are all popular themes in vaporwave. The question is; what is this album trying to make you feel? And the answer is: Well I’m not quite sure. Yes, nearly all of the samples are from 1997, but at no point did the album feel like this is something that was from or paying homage to that year. The album seems to lack a coherent vision or goal, not just overall, but in the individual songs as well.
So let us get right into it with… a slowed-down voice clip from Austin Powers? With that rather curious introduction, “Backstreet” continues. It begins intriguingly enough — Austin Powers sample aside — with an interesting melody, but instead of adding variation to that melody or having the song ramp up, it does the opposite and slams on the brakes. The music stops and what replaces it is some ultra lofi drum work and what sounds like someone banging on a pot with a metal spoon. This goes on for a bit before the melody from earlier fades back in. However, by this time my “groove,” as it were, was broken, leaving me rather unsatisfied. Vaporwave is no stranger to change-ups, however, there is usually an overarching feeling the artist is trying to convey when this is done. With this track, and many others on the album, it almost feels as though it is two different tracks and ideas unharmoniously meshed together.
“Comrade Chad” begins with a few scattered sound effects. Blowing wind, the sound of shoes squeaking on gym floors, and a tambourine. These sounds start to come together to create an interesting beat, but it just straight up stops before anything can come of it. What follows is a vaporwave tune with some pan flute thrown in which lasts for all of 47 seconds (I counted) before it again turns into something else that does not at all resemble what came before. A simple tambourine and drum-filled rhythm that can be described as rather plain. There never feels like there is a reason for these change-ups to take place and there isn’t enough time for each piece to develop before it goes on to the next one.
“Tux” is a classic vaporwave affair with a slowed-down sample and some sexual undertones. It is minimally edited, but this harkens back to the vaporwave “cliches” that Darien mentioned earlier, so it appears this was very much on purpose. It does not sound bad, just rather plain, though it is undoubtedly vaporwave, and likely will scratch an itch for those who are a fan of the classic style.
“Cosplay” is a faster tune that sounds like it should be blasted at a fashion show. This is to say, that while it plays like it ought to be turned up nice and loud, it is not what your attention and focus should be on, leaving it in a bit of an odd position. I know that is not exactly helpful for what the music actually sounds like though, so I will say that it has a lot of electronic sounds and sirens and such. It is not poorly composed or made, but it is simply not something I can see myself listening to outside of a Zoolander film.
The uncomfortably named “Daddy” is in the same vein as “Tux.” We get a slowed-down sample that ups the groove factor, and has served as the base of vaporwave for over a decade now. This one is a bit more edited than “Tux,” which puts more of Darien’s personal touch on it. Reverbed, mixed, and tuned down with some impressive sound engineering towards the end with how the song fades out.
“Novartis” is a nice little tune that kicks things down a notch and conjures up images of running down a beach in slow motion, or at the very least watching a commercial for a Sandles Resort. It is a very light track and the one I think most has the “vibe” of 1997 that I think Darien is trying to convey throughout the entire album.
It leads into “Daisuki,” which has very little to say about itself, as the song appears to be two minutes of a nine-second melody on repeat with only minimal variation. The sound itself is very “mallsoft” and the right amount of echo is put on the track to make it feel the part, but it sounds like it should be a piece of something larger. If this was a track on a mallsoft album, I would excuse it as simply there to set the tone, but I am unsure of how to feel about it on an album like this. As with change-ups, repetitiveness is something that is no stranger to vaporwave. For some artists, it has even become their go-to technique, but when one does this, you had best make sure those nine seconds resonate with the listener. Unfortunately, this one doesn’t.
I liked the next track, “Outrun.” However, this may be only because I am on a chiptune kick as of late. Just over two minutes of classic arcade-sounding goodness, and though it feels out of place on the album, as a stand-alone track, it is a catchy piece and is an example of repetitiveness done the right way. It conveys a clear feeling of “retro-ness” and has the clearest intentions of all the songs on the album. It isn’t complex, but in this instance and with what the song is trying to make you feel, it doesn’t need to be.
Sampling a scene from the 1997 box-office bomb B.A.P.S is “Pimpsqueak.” Following the sample is a short tune in the classic vaporwave style, with a slightly tropical feel, before “Main Drag (Feat. Donor Lens)” takes us back to the throbbing beat of a dance club. It is slightly minimalistic in its sound, but I feel like it does what it sets out to do. A track that sounds like it is meant to be played as a generic dance tune in an action movie, with the main character moving his way through a club, on his way to confront the drug lord that distributes his product in the basement of the place. The song is meant to inform you that, yes, this is indeed a place where young people go to boogie and do drugs, but that is it. It is one of those rare dance tracks that is not actually meant to be played too loud. A bit repetitive yes, but I dare you to find a dance track that is not.
The longest track on the album is the finale, “Deep Blue/Orange Julius.” It begins with a 1:40 piano piece before suddenly transitioning into a slowed-down version of Amy Grant’s pop hit, “Good for Me.” A great choice for a sample, however, there are some issues. It appears to only be minimally edited, save for being slowed down. I also fail to see the significance of pairing it up with the initial piano solo. I feel like the artist was trying to get across a message to me that I simply did not understand, and I really tried. I thought perhaps there was some significance in the name, with the piano being Deep Blue and the Amy Grant part being Orange Julius, but a google search revealed no correlation. And finally, though it is a small issue, “Good for Me” was released in 1992. Just sayin’
Looking at the info on the Bandcamp page for this album reveals that there are a wide and impressive variety of samples used in the making of this album, but for such variety, it seems that there is very minimal usage of them in meaningful ways. So much so that I was fooled into thinking that a track that used multiple samples, had only one source. The love is just spread too thin. The talent is there (Shields’ previous albums attest to that) and you can tell it’s there, just not the sound. If I had to sum up the album with a single phrase, it would be: missed opportunity. There are plenty of instances where the album hints at something great, but then switches to something… not as great. The jumping around of tones and styles is jarring and the theme of 1997 just does not excuse this. Platinum Phantom feels like three completely different incomplete albums rolled up into one, only sort of complete album.
While this new self-titled release may technically be the third album under Male Tears’ belt, it does in many ways represent a debut. What originally began as a solo act — under which the albums Endless Tears and Artism reside — is now a duo as Mister Mellow joins up, and the sound of the group has shifted and changed to reflect this new formula. While Male Tears remains at its core a synthpop outfit, there is now a greater representation of sounds, of styles, and most importantly, of personality.
Album Art By GRYFF
Right out of the gate, the opening track, “Chained Up” is able to evoke the greatest acts of the new wave. If that’s a genre or sound you’ve grown up on or just grown fond of, the influence is immediately apparent. But this is no mere copy. The music doesn’t exist merely to pay homage to that which came before. The tandem has something of its own to say. Between the many music videos that have been released for tracks off this album, as well as the artwork itself, there is a cohesive vision at play. While sonically things scream New Order, visually we are met with something a bit more malleable. Think more along the lines of the chameleonic nature that helped define the career of David Bowie and you’re in the ballpark. The album elicits a fiercely androgynous sex appeal that permeates every layer of the release. The masks of these two personae –lipstick, eye shadow, hairstyling- are no better represented than on the album cover, with a version for each member of the group. Even the instruments contribute to this, as the tones and choices made culminate to help you peer at the world through the lens of Male Tears.
Album Art By GRYFF
After the opener, things get even more energetic, with the intriguing “Let’s Pretend,” an uncannily catchy tune that revels in hypotheticals. In a world still reeling from the ongoing pandemic, the idea of viewing love or romance as an idea to be solely indulged in hypothetically is an especially intriguing concept. After the opener, it’s the first real moment where the album “locks eyes” with the listener as well. While the gaze may grow ever intense as the release wears on, here it’s teasing, playful.
But as we dive deeper into the release, the darker side of things starts to show up. While the tunes maintain their airiness thanks in large part to tinkling synths, the subject matter gets more concerning. Even the track titles themselves start to paint this picture. Playing pretend was fun and all, but “Good in the Dark” starts to take these fleeting fantasies further. While on the surface, this is the best Pat Benatar track in decades, the manifestations of those casual glances are getting more intense. Things are heating up, but what happens when the dark gives way to light?
“Creep Distance” is the answer to that question, which carries a far less peppy melody. The drums cut that extra bit harder, the vocals croon more, and the fantasy seems to be over. The most frequently uttered line in the track is “don’t stand so close to me.” A divide in the earlier dreams has formed. This is further reaffirmed by the lyrics explicity, saying “now that we’ve grown far apart.” If that doesn’t spell things out enough, the next track, “Human Errorz,” unbelievably gets more sinister. While the lyrical content is more pensive and less dramatic, the synths in this one are downright sinister. And that’s to say nothing of the punctuating, downright propulsive percussion.
But things can’t all be grim, can they? Surely you’ve got to be able to turn a corner eventually, right? Well what if we just fast-forwarded right to that? That’s what “Future X” decides to do, jumping forward past the dour ruminations of the last couple emotional tracks. We have a more peppy beat again, the synthesized strings are back, and the lyrics talk about not wanting to “think about any time but the future,” before repeating “take me to the future” in the chorus. A future where things are looking up perhaps?
But not so fast. “Adult Film” hasn’t had its say just yet. Opening with a solo bass line that sounds handmade for a keytar, this track probably has the most dramatic vocals of the release. The rigors of singing are more evident than ever, with the emotional strain of the subject matter being most evident. Really, the whole track feels off the rails. The dizzying arpeggiated xylophones represent the nucleus of the tune running through basically the whole song. But this manic pace was never going to last.
“She Lives in the Pipes” tones things back down a bit, bringing the tempo to a calmer, more controlled level. While the subject matter on the surface might sound, well, strange, sonically, this is one of the standouts on the album. While it’s a little trickier to find a place for this in the “story” we’ve crafted here, it’s got maybe the best chorus on the whole album. So let’s think of it as a narrative interlude or the infectiously catchy commercial that interrupted your regularly scheduled programming.
The respite doesn’t last long though, as the penultimate track brings an incredibly important revelation both in the context of the album, and more broadly, in everyday life. “I Should Feel How I Feel” may attempt to tackle the ability — or inability — to accept oneself for who they are. The song appears to deal with some pretty troubling subject matter, almost as if not being accepted is deserved for someone being the way that they are, and trying to come to grips with that revelation. After all of the events that had come before, this track may represent some kind of resigned acceptance to one’s role or purpose in the world. But understanding and acknowledging that is an important step in being able to move beyond it. It’s pretty bleak stuff, so what comes next is rather surprising.
Whatever you were expecting next, it’s probably not a brilliant Rick Astley-esque tune, is it? Well with “Take My Picture”, that’s what we get. The drums carry the expected crisp gated reverb that defined much of ‘80s drumming — and don’t get us started on the synth tones! Given how bleak some of the past few minutes have felt, it’s perhaps encouraging that the album ends so optimistically. It affords us some hope for the future. And it’s a wonderful closer on an album that has us as optimistic as ever for the future of Male Tears.
If you’re anxious to get your hands on the album you won’t need to wait long, as it will be dropping on Pacific Plaza Records Sunday, February 14th –yes, that’s Valentine’s Day- at 12PM PST.