Contrast has long since existed as a central tenet of electronic music. Whether it be light and darkness, life and death, industrialism and nature or spirituality and realism, electronic artists have long since juxtaposed opposing concepts as a means of adding thematic depth to their explorations of textures and nuances. As Evan Shornstein acknowledges, the use of synthesizer music for scoring nature documentaries about environmental degradation and species endangerment during the 1970s is an appropriate and blunt summarisation of the intrinsic dichotomies that have forever existed at the cornerstones of electronic music and its related artistic philosophies. Whilst the music that Shornstein has released under his Photay alias has worked within the same conflicting parameters that have guided the works of many of his electronic contemporaries and luminaries, the fundamental credo of his latest record, Onism, is rooted in an absolute oneness that, in itself, acts in direct opposition to the underlying polarities that nevertheless permeate much of the project. Coined by John Koenig, ‘onism’, a portmanteau of ‘monism’ and ‘onanism’, is defined as, “the frustration of being stuck in just one body, that inhabits only one place at a time, which is like standing in front of the departures screen at an airport, flickering over with strange place names like other people’s passwords, each representing one more thing you’ll never get to see before you die and all because, as the arrow on the map helpfully points out, you are here.” As such, Koenig’s concept of onism provides a somewhat gritty perspective on existentialism that reflects the realism of an individual only experiencing a cosmic morsel of all that which our world and life in general has to offer. Despite the stark singularity of the album’s conceptual origins, Onism nevertheless reflects upon many of the dichotomies that have often existed in Photay’s music, such as the contrast of lavish disco grooves set against cavernous, ambient backdrops or the pairing of African- and Latin-inspired rhythms with upfront pop melodies, and, in fact, the record expands on these points of divergence in numerous ways. A vital disparity to the record’s themes comes in the form of the conflicting nature of its omnipresent digital and robotic tones with the natural imagery that has clearly shaped Shornstein’s perception of the place of electronic music in the modern world, with even the album artwork, in which the musician stands proudly framed by the forests of Yosemite National Park in Northern California, appearing more like the cover to a folksy singer-songwriter record than an eclectic electronic project. Needless to say, with Photay’s esoteric electronic stylings offsetting catchy, coruscating chillwave melodies with spacious, borderline IDM-infused soundscapes, Onism is a beautifully well-balanced album that pivots both gracefully and enigmatically between the mountainous peaks and sepulchral lows of its dynamic range.
The immense sonic scope of Onism sees Shornstein craft a record that swings effortlessly between indulgent, danceable, glam grooves and wallowing, downtempo atmospheres, as well as glitchy, hypnagogic, electronic melodies and primal, thunderous rhythms, with the end product being far from the monochrome colour palette brandished on the album cover and more like a natural kaleidoscope that has been supplemented with man-made images of maximalism. The pattering, electronic chimes and melodies that sound as if they are being played on a telephone’s keypad that introduce The Everyday Push play against the sound of birds chirping in the background; a fitting reflection of the aforementioned anecdote about environmental documentaries from the 1970s. The dawn chorus is soon overpowered by the ensuing clacking percussion, booming bass and springy West African melodies played on a percussion idiophone originating from Mali called a balafon that are intertwined in a fascinating fashion as to create some obtuse, but no less beautiful, harmonies. The composition approaches its culmination as abrupt bursts of brass compete with one another, all whilst the increasingly pungent hisses of electronic melodies and percussion bubble underneath, crafting a fabulously rich soundscape that reaches it boiling point only to dramatically fizzle back down to the serenity and subtlety of the plucky electronics that opened the track. The first cut in the tracklisting, Screens, toys with the listener’s expectations of the build up and release of tension in a similarly gratifying manner. With the abstruse, synthesized squonks that introduce the song being built upon with jittery handclaps and warm organ chords, whilst the pitter-patter of hand percussion supports these bassy croaks when they are at their most squalid before the entrance of the song’s bright disco melodies, Screens is constantly piling on the layers of eclectic sounds from all over the musical map, teasing towards some grand denouement, only to knock down the song at its upmost sonic heights with the sudden shift to some gurgling polyrhythms. That’s not to say that the track’s lack of a definitive climax is unsatisfying, however, as the piece is framed around myriad mini-climaxes at the points wherein the instrumentation reaches one peak or another that acts as a pay-off for the bevy of sweeping swells placed throughout the cut. The broader point I wish to highlight here, however, relates to the fact that Onism touches on such an array of styles and concepts within electronic music that compositions such as Screens and The Everyday Push that have a defined direction — albeit one that is structured in a deliberately jarring manner at times — can fit completely naturally in the tracklisting next to the wistful, drifting ambience of cuts like Storm. Although pinpointing exactly why this is the case can prove somewhat difficult, it seems to be a result of the record’s willingness to leave vast amounts of space within the soundscapes of these songs, as is emphasised by the scarce textures of Storm, which leaves a captivating immensity that shrouds even the cuts that brandish decadent textures and timbres.
The fact that Onism is as rife with stark sonic contrasts and multi-faceted stylistic sensibilities as it is only adds to the wonder of how well the album comes together as a cohesive whole. Undoubtedly, however, a great deal of this circles back to the consistently cavernous production that leaves little to no limitations on Shornstein’s capacities as a crafter of sound across the record. As such, the diverse instrumental arrangements, which span from the sudden stutter of saxophone on Screens to the soulful and lusciously multi-tracked vocals from Madison McFerrin on Outré Lux to the percussion that sounds like a sample of some high-heels clacking across concrete on Inharmonious Slog, all fit snuggly next to one another within the broader strokes painted by Shornstein’s capacious sound design. The effortless versatility that ensues across Onism as a result is truly bewitching for much of the album’s lifespan. Inharmonious Slog, which is a misnomer if there ever was one, weaves its way through warm, velvety keyboard chords, squelchy synth leads that could adorn any number of sugary sweet pop tunes, subtle saxophone incidentals sounding off in the distance and glistening electronic chimes, yet, despite its sonic flexibility, remains wound in the same house grooves and infectious earworm-ery that leaves the song feeling like a satisfying and well-rounded four-minute dance-pop track. Meanwhile, the myriad components to Eco Friend are aligned in single-file as to cogently accommodate for the song’s sudden tone shifts, despite just how incongruous they may seem on paper. The cut’s initial pattering percussion accompanies abrupt bursts of ambiguous sound that reads like a golden age hip hop sample, whilst cascades of drippy synth noises tumble down in the distance, before a muted 808 kick drum crescendos into earshot and instantly switches up the groove of the piece entirely, with this simple technique paying off massively for the fluidity of the track. Somehow, the complete change in tempo and timbre towards the middle of the track — as a syrupy smooth saxophone line takes the helm, bolstered by some meandering bass licks and tapping electronic percussion — is executed as to sound astonishingly fluent and natural. Indeed, from the skittish, electronic honks and quacks of Balsam Massacre to the luxurious, smothering synth swells flourished throughout Off-Piste, the immense sonic expanse of Onism remains firmly grounded in the contagious pop melodies and propulsive house rhythms that maintain a sense of familiarity amidst the album’s comprehensive exploration of electronic music’s unplumbed depths. Whilst this is undoubtedly the case for much of the album, however, there are surely some instances in which Shornstein’s ideas could have been expanded on in a slightly more effective and generally well-rounded manner, leading to certain tracks paling in comparison to others. The aforementioned Storm, for instance, whilst a perfectly pretty ambient piece that is broken up in such a way as to distance itself from some of the genre’s usual trappings of looming drones and hums, nevertheless lacks the textural detail of much of the rest of the record, which makes it stand out as feeling somewhat less substantial than the surrounding songs in the tracklisting. Likewise, the closing track, Bombogenesis, may strike some mystical tones at times, especially thanks to its swooping cello melodies, but much of the track follows some rather typical house tropes that leave its development feeling tied down to convention in a way that doesn’t allow for the full scope of potential evident during its best moments. Even still, such issues are minimal and no track across Onism could be said to squander the impressive breadth allowed by Shornstein’s expansive sound design.
Amidst the yawning contrasts of Onism remains a definitive oneness at the record’s core that binds Shornstein’s tremendous experimentations together under the guise of his distinct stylings that fluently pair spacious, unsettling, ambient undercurrents with jagged pop melodies communicated through strange and esoteric sounds. With its title being an eponym of a concept that diagnoses the hopeless limitations that bog down the human spirit, it would seem as if Shornstein’s intention across Onism is to expand the listener’s exposure to, and participation in, the limitless reach of the musical world and, on that basis, this album is unequivocally an enriching and enlightening electronic experience.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7.5/10