There’s something delightfully nostalgic about the 1980s and 1990s. Apple introduced the Macintosh in 1984. Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd starred in the classic sci-fi comedy “Back to the Future” the following year. John Hughes created a stream of classic films like “The Breakfast Club”, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, and “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.” Walkmans and VHS tapes became ubiquitous, while synthpop, new wave, and gothic post-punk bands singlehandedly created the 80s sound. Not to mention, Brian Eno produced his famous “Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks”, as well as co-produced U2’s “The Joshua Tree”, which is currently celebrating its 30th anniversary. Although Nirvana, Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails and Pearl Jam became popular in the 1990s, Microsoft launched Windows 95. The sounds of the start-up (also created by Eno) and dial-up internet are memorable to those like me who experienced it. Furthermore, CDs were slowly overtaking the cassette tape (way before the digital era that would lead to its slow demise).
Why mention all of this? For some reason, the sounds, images, and nostalgia of that time are having a revival. Com Truise and Kavinsky among others are producing popular outrun/synthwave music, utilizing famous drum machines and analog synths of the time. Two members of the Austin, Texas-based band S U R V I V E have soundtracked the score to Netflix’s popular sci-fi series, “Stranger Things”. If that wasn’t strange enough, Urban Outfitters is once again selling Walkman-like tape players and cassettes of today’s modern music. Add to that this fact: hundreds of underground labels are printing limited edition cassette tapes. But in light of this unexpected comeback of such warm analog nostalgia, nothing is more popular, shocking, and controversial than one tiny microgenre of electronic music: vaporwave.
To sum up briefly this microgenre: after a handful of experimental producers like James Ferraro, Daniel Lopatin (a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never), and Ramona Xavier (a.k.a. Vektroid) produced a few albums chopping up the easy listening elevator music of the 1980s (with Vektroid’s “Floral Shoppe” in 2011 being considered the pioneering “vaporwave” album), and paired such music with album covers of colorful 1980s nostalgia (known on the Internet as A E S T H E T I C), floods of anonymous producers raided the Internet with this kind of music. Note the uniqueness of this: while almost all musical styles are associated with particular cities or groups and later spread across the world, vaporwave is the first globalized musical genre. The vaporwave community started on websites like Reddit and 4chan, and its music is distributed on sites like Bandcamp. Almost every vaporwave artist is known by a pseudonym, but their real names and locations are never revealed (although it’s assumed that the artists are teenagers and young adults). While microgenres within vaporwave have cropped up, almost every album is known to contain obscure samples of 1980s Muzak with neon cyberpunk artwork to boot.
Why all the 1980s nostalgia? Within the vaporwave subculture, plenty of albums and artists satirize consumerism and popular culture. If you think of the 1980s, you probably have plenty of images of Pepsi commercials and workout videos running in your mind. This is the very thing vaporwave takes on, and it does so through the unabashed sampling and homages to those decades. There are many who believe genre to be a joke, while others believe it to be real. Some have tried to create original music within the vaporwave genre, leading some to question whether it can truly be called “vaporwave”. Many have said “vaporwave is dead”, due to the media attention and the oversaturation of similar music, while others have said that the style is merely evolving. Whether you love it or hate it, your opinion ultimately doesn’t matter: vaporwave is here to stay. Whether it’s dead or not, one thing is for certain: it’s not stopping anytime soon.
One such web label that is consistently releasing vaporwave music is Business Casual. Established by digital entrepreneur John Zobele in 2013, the label prides itself on being the biggest label of vaporwave music on the Internet. When I say that the label is big and consistent, it’s no joke: Business Casual releases a new album every Friday at 12 PM EST. They also release limited edition cassette tapes, as well as a bi-monthly package called BIZBOX. As far as this week’s release, “a:/ スタートキーを押し,” it comes from a vaporwave artist known as 猫 シ Corp., or Cat System Corp. Like almost all vaporwave artists, it is unknown who is behind the project, but it appears to have started in 2013. The project utilizes samples of obscure music, to which the artist has stated that “All samples are used for educational purposes to give real demonstrations of the use of audio manipulation. Audio is being used as ‘paint’ for my digital ‘paintings’, the soundtrack to a retrofuturistic society.” The album being reviewed here actually consists of two separate releases. “a : /” is a collection of both a long forgotten and unfinished collab album with an artist named Goldface, as well as B-sides released in 2016. “スタートキーを押し,” on the other hand, was previously released in 2013.
What can you expect from this music? If you’ve never heard of vaporwave before, this is a good place to start (although Vektroid’s “Floral Shoppe” is still the classic of the genre). But you’ll either get it or you won’t. The first five tracks consist of “a:/”, in which a basic formula is utilized. R&B/easy listening songs are sampled, repeated, change speed, smothered in reverb, and end with awkward fade-outs. Either the entire track is slowed down, or in the case of “30 day trial”, the speed is frantically adjusted and confuses the listener. “Please insert your Username” is a slowed down R&B jam filled with smooth piano and a sexy saxophone, but the entire song seems to be stuck in a delightfully endless loop. The final track, “Custom Workspace”, follows a similar formula, with funky guitar riffs and an unintelligible vocal line repeated throughout.
While the vignettes of “a:/” are half-baked (and for good reason, since Cat System Corp. claims the album was unfinished), the majority of “スタートキーを押し ” contains even shorter interludes, but the album feels like a more cohesive and mature release. “Installation Wizard” and “Loading…” are similar to the drastic speed changes of “30 day trial”, although you can imagine that these tracks envelop the all too familiar feelings of waiting impatiently for a software to finishing installing or loading. Other tracks like “フリー Aquarium Screensaver フリー”, “FOREST THEME”, and “Virtual Reality?” recall the nostalgia of old computer games, animated screensavers, and synthesized film soundtracks. “Workbench 98”, “FLOPPY 生存”, “Cat System Corp Customer Service”, and “Surf the World インターネットカフェ” contain delightful tunes of hyper-bright synthesizers and easy-listening Muzak, and they’re my personal favorite tracks on the entire album. These tunes are drenched in a nostalgia that brings to mind PC start-up sounds and holding music for a corporate office, but is often interrupted by Japanese speaking and the sound of dial-up Internet. Hilariously, the album ends with a warped message from Cat System Corp, thanking the listener for completing the “training session” and giving a list of phone numbers to call for future orders.
Is this album memorable? Maybe. Maybe not. Although Cat System Corp has between 5,000 to 6,000 followers on both their Facebook and Soundcloud, it’s certainly not a commercial pop release. So you certainly won’t be hearing this on the radio anytime soon. But the fun nostalgic factor of the music alone is worth every listen. The music bleeds of the tackiness and lo-fi computer graphics of the 1980s and 1990s. It takes listeners on a disorientating journey through the Muzak of shopping malls, early video games, Windows 95, corporate training videos, and Netscape. If those words either make you yearn for that time period or cringe a little inside, then you MUST hear this album. Both Cat System Corp and Business Casual have a LOT of music, but this is a great introduction to both, and a fantastic introduction to the musical labyrinth known as vaporwave.
But I warn you: you might hate this music and think I’m crazy for liking it. Or you might love it like I do, and find yourself sucked into the bottomless pit of what this Internet genre entails. You can either take the blue pill and return to your normal life, or take the red pill and see how deep this rabbit hole goes. I’ve chosen the red one. It’s your turn to choose.
Artist: 猫 シ Corp.
Album: a:/ スタートキーを押し
This album is available to download at http://music.businesscasual.biz/album/a.