For many music fans, vapourwave is an incredibly inaccessible genre of music, and deliberately so. Broadly speaking, at the heart of vapourwave lies no heart at all, with the style being expressly and consciously soulless. Aside from its stark and subversive take on the dark side of consumer capitalism, vapourwave’s nihilistic nature can be chalked up to the extent to which its aesthetic takes striking cues from the futuristic, “lowlife and high tech”, dystopian worlds of cyberpunk, particularly those from the realm of Japanese media, such as Ghost in the Shell and Serial Experiments Lain, with the avant-garde, Internet-orientated narrative of the latter being an especially apt example, given the extent to which vapourwave is inseparable from esoteric and retro Internet culture. As such, vapourwave is not simply inaccessible due to its heartless and hollow visual presentation, but also as a result of the genre, much like black metal, striving to remain as subterranean as possible, initially attempting to confine itself to the dingiest crevices of the web. Of course, with popular releases in the genre, such as Macintosh Plus’ Floral Shoppe and Blank Banshee’s Blank Banshee 0 gaining significant traction amongst more accessible Internet locations, largely courtesy of their meme status, vapourwave has reached a much larger audience, even if its creation and hardcore fan following still remain largely underground. Consequently, the genre has started to branch out from simply providing sleeker, sexier and more synthetic takes on Muzak and lounge music, with recent popular releases in the world of vapourwave, such as『新しい日の誕生』(or Birth of a New Day in English) by ２８１４ or any number of projects released on the Dream Catalogue record label, beginning to incorporate a much more eclectic pool of electronic influences into their sound, from styles such as ambient, industrial, noise and various forms of instrumental hip hop. Although still very much an act to exist outside of the average music listener’s lexicon, Nmesh, a veteran of the vapourwave scene, has been at the forefront of expanding the genre’s sound for quite some time now, with his latest full-length effort, Pharma, amounting to one of his most multifaceted projects to date.
Starting out his music career as a drummer in Captain Midnight, Alex Koenig has been releasing music as an electronic producer under his professional pseudonyms of Nmesh and ZONΞ ΞATΞR since before even the inception of vapourwave, continuously deriving stylistic sensibilities from plunderphonics, psychedelia, chill-out and ambient, and this remains the case on his latest effort. This being said, there is much more to Pharma than this, with Koenig integrating dance-based genres, such as drum and bass, techno and footwork, far more prominently into his usual sinuous stylings, making for some exceptionally forceful and pithy pieces featured throughout the tracklisting. Of course, Nmesh’s usual aesthetic remains and, as such, there is no end of references to classic video games, Internet culture, weed, memes and anime, with the album’s artwork bearing a striking resemblance to the notorious cover art for the Western release of The End of Evangelion, whilst Koenig continues to pillage sounds from all sorts of sources. With Pharma both being as long as Nmesh’s full-length projects tend to be and perhaps his most diverse undertaking thus far, however, although many of the record’s more hard-hitting cuts comprise some of the most dynamic and memorable compositions of the artist’s career, the tracklisting is lacking much in the way of consistency and direction, particularly towards its backend. Whilst Pharma is very possibly dishevelled in a deliberate manner, as to play towards the usual abstruseness and inaccessibility of vapourwave as a whole, the fact that there exists quite the disparity in potency between its most arresting and most inconspicuous cuts leaves the record feeling as if it could have been substantially whittled down into a more focussed and precise project. Nonetheless, with Nmesh laying to tape some of his most versatile, vibrant and aggressive tracks on Pharma, the musician continues to prove himself capable of evolving and maturing in interesting ways that will fortify his status as a gem of the vapourwave and underground electronic scene for a long time to come.
Whilst a great deal of Pharma is built on sample-heavy sound collages that pull from vapourwave and certain related subgenres such as mallsoft, the project nevertheless proves to span a substantial amount of stylistic ground whilst working within a plunderphonics paradigm. Of course, although this does contribute to the issues of inconsistency and messiness that appear towards its backend, the album nonetheless offers so much variety in its esoteric electronic endeavours that, given Koenig’s experience in his field, it should come as no surprise that there are countless examples of artful and inventive experiments to be found throughout the tracklisting. From the obtuse, abrasive, dance-based bangers that appear more towards the beginning of the record, to the works of loose auditory tapestry that see the artist freely piece together sounds from an eclectic array of sources, Nmesh is willing to test the listener in more ways than just one and, at the best of times, his abstract musical montages strike some arresting points of rhythm and melody that could be said to even carry a somewhat accessible quality to them. NΞ1✪NΞ1, for instance, entwines mountaintop ambience and the death sound effect from Pac-Man amidst a lumbering house beat that exploits Yello’s iconic 1980s anthem, Oh Yeah, by using Dieter Meier’s deep, husky voice as a growling bass line. Meanwhile, BΛSS///COP™ laces Britney Spears’ I’m A Slave 4 U seamlessly into the jittery rhythms and rattling, industrial percussion of a jagged, dance-driven neo soul tune, just as White Lodge Simulation witnesses Wookie’s classic UK garage track, What’s Going On, woven into a sparse, uptempo beat, which is punctuated by watery synth tones and upsurges of gurgling bass. Indeed, many of the most instantly enchanting tracks from Pharma are those that manage to strike a balance between avant-gardism and accessibility, with Koenig smoothly working his endless arsenal of arcane references and samples into some intense and infectious bangers that would sound completely at home in a club setting.
On the other side of the spectrum are the project’s more overtly opaque pieces, which tend to brandish soundscapes saturated with esoteric samples that meld together into a frothing cesspool of skittish dissonance and frazzled sonic obscurity. Although often seemingly past the point of comprehension or dissection on the surface. many of these scrapbook-style songs end up revealing some of the most stimulating and riveting titbits of unhinged auditory abstraction on the entire album. Case in point, the muffled, discordant hypnosis of Fall Any Vegetable (which is presumably a play on The Mothers of Invention’s Call Any Vegetable) loops in some oddly enrapturing ways, with the fried vocal sample, plopping synth sound effect and tangles of serrated electronic noise coming together to form the musical equivalent of a car crash from which the bystanders cannot look away. Slightly more palpable is Mall Full Of Drugs, which, as its title suggests, seemingly takes the mallsoft aesthetic to its trippiest heights, with a patchwork of loosely strung together, marijuana-orientated samples being woven on top of a mesmerising cycle of glitchy synths and arbitrary outbursts of jittery rhythms. The more subtle side of Pharma crops up on cuts such as Acid Baby, wherein fellow Internet music critic Anthony Fantano (who is credited on the track as Tony Bamanaboni, the notorious Grand Theft Auto IV meme) delivers an eerie spoken word passage that retains an almost ASMR-like quality to it, which only works to make his tale of a child being deep-fried in acid before being left out in the sizzling sun all the more off-putting. Likewise, the instrumental on this track straddles the line between being soothing and unsettling in a really striking fashion, as the sounds of dawn chorus, chirping crickets and softly throbbing electronic hums are offset by sudden spasms of synthesizer glitches, with the entire piece essentially teetering between being calming and creepy. Similarly subdued and disquieting is the succeeding song, PBS Ancillary Rack Room, which reads like an abstract hip hop track from the drab underground of a deserted dystopia, with hollow clangours and the distant, barely audible pounding of a 808 kick drum that may as well be a human heartbeat bubbling beneath a down-tuned dirge of a rap. Indeed, Pharma may have its more digestible moments in the form of some compelling, danceable bangers, but Nmesh also comes through with more than enough in the way of cryptic, jumbled, auditory jargon to sate the desires of those scouring the deepest and darkest depths of Bandcamp’s ‘sound collage’ tag for some fuel for either their drug-induced hallucinations or their nightmares.
Where Pharma is less endearing in its opacity, however, is in its lengthy and disorderly nature, which, during the latter half of the tracklisting, begins to pass the point of being appropriately patience-testing and into the realm of being slightly too aimless. Whilst — for many, including myself — such a chaotic configuration may amount to a significant portion of the appeal of an artist like Nmesh, there comes a point on Pharma wherein the themes and motifs that Koenig strings through his compositions become somewhat trite, with certain cuts seemingly reiterating much of the psychedelic philosophy that underpins the entirety of the record, leaving the project to become gradually more threadbare as the tracklisting rattles on. With so much of the second half of Pharma being dominated by brief, 30-to-90 second tracks that burn through sample after sample without necessarily expanding on any specific, gripping ideas, such as Pants-A-Thon @ SQUAREBASE, The Program (You Are Stars), Workalude and Left Alone In A Blue Room, this portion of the record can become noticeably less engaging than the first leg of the tracklisting. There are unequivocally some treasures to be found towards the backend of Pharma, however, whether this be the swirling bass groove and percussion that could be coming from an inner-city construction site on NΞW JΛCK CITY or the surges of blaring distortion that are intermixed with Company B’s Fascinated on Hepatic Portal, but even still, such moments can feel almost drowned out by the surrounding songs that fail to be as striking in any significant fashion. Once again, it’s not as if the first half of Pharma is not at all messy in any way, but the second half seems comparatively less abundant in the captivating and well-incorporated concepts that made some of the record’s earliest moments so compelling.
With Nmesh being an artist who remains forever prone to darting in all manner of stylistic directions for no rhyme or reason other than to test the endurance of his audience, Pharma is another fittingly feverish and labyrinthine addition to the musician’s ever-growing back-catalogue of eclectic electronic trickery. Even though there are most definitely points wherein the album’s loss of focus results in a similar loss of focus for the listener, its most absorbing moments are solidified by some strong undertakings into some exceptionally jarring and biting sonic territory, even by Koenig’s standards. Indeed, the producer’s embrace of some particularly hard-hitting and abrasive dance-based beats peppers the project with a great deal of dynamism and flashes of accessibility amidst the usual abstraction of a Nmesh album, to the point that Pharma may very well be the musician’s most multidimensional and vibrant endeavour thus far, even if the record, as a whole, is lacking in the same clear artistic vision of some of his previous, more well-rounded efforts.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10