Review: James Emrick – Actoma (Soda Gong, Mar 17)

Since the last thing by Brooklyn’s James Emrick I heard was Conject on Prensa Manual, a label notable for its highly conceptual and often austere material, I wasn’t expecting the softness that “MWLHWOF-4” immediately introduces to Actoma, a region of delicate ambience I associate with early aughts electronica like Vert, Pimmon, and Vote Robot. Though Emrick pretty much runs the gamut in terms of computer music techniques throughout the LP’s 36ish-minute run time, that gossamer candy-floss digital beauty is never fully abandoned. “Upqp” and especially “Skor” turn their focus to the plasticine contours of spectral processing, while “Nooumenon,” the record’s longest piece, combines those smooth textural surfaces with the more fractured topology of raw data–driven click and crackle. Some semblance of real-world tactility emerges in the granular mist of “Saxd,” but it doesn’t feel any more grounded (or grounding) than even the most thoroughly manipulated sounds. As is often the case, the album’s own liner notes put it best: “Perhaps Emrick’s greatest accomplishment is creating a music that remains rigorously committed to severe levels of abstraction while avoiding sterility and coldness entirely.” As if to prove this point, Actoma closes on its most left-field track with “Barrel Arbor,” which still manages to bookend extremity with serenity in a way that somehow frames the whole thing as a pensive closer. One for sleepyheads and AMOLEDs alike.