Daniel Lopatin’s Oneohtrix Point Never project is often lumped in with the crop of hypnagogic pop artists like Sun Araw, Ducktails, and Toro Y Moi that are currently enjoying the critical limelight. Truthfully, Oneohtrix Point Never shares much of the repurposed VHS aesthetic of these projects. However, where the others focus exclusively on the past, invoking an antiquated vacation reel with tracking problems, Oneohtrix Point Never focuses on our various unfulfilled visions of the future. This takes the trick of nostalgia one step further.
A YouTube search reveals a striking consistency of tone; each upload pairs Lopatin’s music with cheap-looking ’80s video or stills. However, instead of sepia-toned pictures of palm trees and the ocean, they showcase a strangely optimistically imagined future. “Nobody Here” features a techno-colored highway leading forever into back-lit metropolises. “Disconnecting Entirely/Russian Minds” shows computer-generated, multicolored shapes melting into one another and falling mechanically into step. “Computer Vision” is illustrated by treated video of a girl demonstrating a new “Compact Disc.”
These videos, along with Oneohtrix Point Never’s album art (the sheen of the metallic, convoluted machine on the cover of Rifts) and song titles (“Hyperdawn,” “Laser to Laser”) recall a time when futurism was en vogue, when all our shared hopes seemed on the brink of being realized through technology. Our technology has outstripped these visions, but with none of the utopian progress implicit in them. One encounters the nostalgia of Oneohtrix Point Never not just with a sense of wistfulness but also with a stunning sense of the loss of an ideal.
Lopatin’s music, just like his visuals, is simultaneously retrospective and forward-looking. He uses analog synthesizers such as the Akai AX-60 and Roland Juno-60 to create ambient, avant-garde compositions. Last year’s Rifts, a compilation of his work spanning three LPs and several CD-R and cassette tracks, served as an introduction to his work for many. It was a daunting listen, clocking in at over two and a half hours, but it showcased the consistency of his sound: 27 tracks of arpeggiated, synth-based ambient or Kosmische music.
Returnal may be easier to digest, with only eight tracks clocking in around 40 minutes, but the ground it covers in this time makes it nearly as challenging. You’re placed in Oneohtrix Point Never’s world starting with the album art — faded images of what looks like a satellite view of Earth, overlaid with neon blocks of color and the message, “all these beauties will already be familiar to the visitor,” a quote taken from Calvino’s Invisible Cities. The album opens with “Nil Admirari,” a storm of noise like a bellicose swarm of bees, a recasting of Metal Machine Music‘s gray monolith in rainbow hues, before the frenzied synths settle into the lush, mesmeric hum of “Describing Bodies.” This track then shifts imperceptibly into “Stress Waves,” adding layers of staccato notes to the wash of sound to complete the opening triptych. The title track features vocals — a rarity for Lopatin, but one that fits the album’s overall style, as they are manipulated and effected as much as any other instrument here.
The second half of the album holds fewer surprises. It starts with “Pelham Island Road,” the album’s centerpiece and longest track. It, along with “Where Does Time Go” and “Ouroboros,” have all the hallmarks of Lopatin’s earlier work — hovering synth lines laying a foundation for meandering arpeggios. “Preyouandi” closes the album with chaotic percussion — another rarity — engulfing a staggered vocal line. Perhaps fittingly, the record ends with the human voice, distorted by synthetic noise and ultimately indecipherable.
If other purveyors of nostalgia like Washed Out and the Caretaker evoke the lost past of A.M. pop radio or haunted ballroom dance floors, Oneohtrix Point Never deals in cheap sci-fi novels and hack millennial forecasts. Returnal is future music from a forgotten past.