R0x4ry – Empire
Empire is the culmination of two years of work by Norwegian artist R0x4ry, the co-owner and creative force behind the Asura Revolver label. Released in May 2017 following Asura Revolver’s five-month hiatus, Empire was described by R0x4ry as “get[ting] trapped inside of a maze or a concrete jungle, [where] everything gets bigger and more oppressive”.1 Additionally, Empire was created from remnants of past “failed projects” that were recontextualized and edited in their current form, with significant influence from contemporary dreampunk and vaporwave artists. As with Shader by Sacred Tapestry of the early Vektroid projects, Empire samples R0x4ry’s own works and contains bits of earlier compositions and demos; the result is an entrancing example of self-referential drone music.
Although a dreampunk/drone album at heart, several tracks on Empire came from experimenting with house music and hardvapour. “Holding On” is “basically the main line of a house track” that R0x4ry produced in 2015, and “Skyscraper” was built from a hardvapour melody with an exceptional amount of reverb. During the album’s production (which occurred at the same time as Descent, a lo-fi hip-hop album released through Smirk Sounds in May 2016), R0x4ry “kinda fell in love” with telepath’s 仮想夢プラザ (Virtual Dream Plaza) project and drone music; this inspired the creation of “Reflection”, which was produced “in like forty minutes”. Ten-minute opener “Subway” came from R0x4ry’s newfound interest in drone/doom metal bands such as Sunn O))) and Boris; in his own words, “Subway” was R0x4ry’s attempt “to make something doomish”. Fitting this, the ambient leads on “Subway” are guitars, not synthesizers. “4’33″” (a reference to the John Cage composition of the same name) was “a happy accident” and is edited to sound as if made from found sounds and field recordings. “2:00 AM” and “Empire” were both made last; the former includes hints of classic-style vaporwave production with wordless pitch-/tempo-shifted vocals in the background, and the latter was birthed out of “the first four notes of ‘Goldenrod City’ from Pokemon Gold and Silver“.
The release of Empire proved two things for R0x4ry: that Asura “wasn’t just something that I was gonna drop”, and that “I could prove to myself that […] I actually could make a good album”. This last part heightens the personal themes behind Empire, which R0x4ry descirbed as a “mishmash of failed stuff”. The essence of each track born from a different failure also reflects the ideological base of Asura Revolver being “unromantic music”. Specifically, Asura Revolver and Empire reflect R0x4ry’s realization that he “can’t make romantic music [and] dreamvapour is all about romantic music”.
Empire (and Asura Revolver by extension) demonstrates this unromantic approach through its coldness in production and melody. Each track (especially “Reflection” and “Subway”) lacks the warmth that makes up Dream Catalogue releases such as HK or You Forget This, and oftentimes the songs have a distinct focus on high-range sounds that contrast with the full-bodied mix of dreampunk. In this sense, Empire has more in common with the experimental dreampunk and drone music released through Dream Catalogue imprint TKX Vault, such as Question 4 by Unknown Artist and Dilation of the Soul Electronic by Keito Shimuguchi. By nature of the aforementioned compositional process, songs use a lot of distortion – the effects on “Holding On” and “4’33″” sound akin to the wind samples utilized by Paysage d’Hiver, which is extra-fitting considering the latter track’s reference to the natural music of one’s environment as originally theorized by Cage. Several tracks lead into one another with amorphous swirls and synthesizer chords, providing neutral palette-cleansers for the next idea.
A common criticism of drone music is its monotony, which is not entirely undeserved. Early producers of ambient music stated that the genre should be as interesting as it is ignorable, and much of drone is simply ignorable. The best drone and ambient artists – e.g. LaMonte Young and Brian Eno – are able to insert small variations within their compositions that could equally reward attentive or background listening. For the former, it was microtonal variations in long, progressive melodies that strained classical concepts of modality (e.g. “Four Violins”); for the latter, experiments in looping and repetition so that the same fragment was never to be heard in the same context twice (e.g. Ambient 1: Music for Airports). Likewise, Empire eschews same-soundyness through each track’s foundation in otherwise disparate “failures” from house and hardvapour, culminating in a thoughtful recontextualization of past sounds that one can pick out in bits and pieces. This makes Empire not only an engaging album by way of its history but also by sheer creativity in composition.
1. Subway – (10:16)
2. 2:00 AM – (5:36)
3. Skyscraper – (3:52)
4. Reflection – (6:01)
5. Holding On – (6:11)
6. Empire – (5:56)
7. 4’33” – (4:33)
1All quotes sourced from a conversation with R0x4ry over Twitter.