Posted on August 18th, 2015 (2:00 pm) by Michael Negron

EDM is both loved and loathed due to expectation. It's become arguably the most expansive umbrella-term-genre despite being the youngest, largely because EDM artists are so willing to delve into new reaches of sonic manipulation. The "microgenre" has only entered common usage because of that pursuit of innovation, and while there's something to be said about throwing away ideas before you've really explored them thoroughly, the reality is that there is no genre pushing boundaries quicker than EDM.

That's why it's also frustrating to see the genre plagued by the same few tropes popping up again and again, so much so that you could make a drinking game out of them: drink every time there's an awkward transition between songs, a tempo increase mixed with upward pitch shifting, and each time you hear forced, poorly-implemented guest vocals (and again if they're female, and a third time if there's no beat), and I can guarantee that even Andrew WK would be out on his ass. Monstercat-affiliated producer Varien is essentially the paradigm of EDM, equal parts wildly creative and painfully trite, and on his latest release, The Ancient and Arcane, he continues to perpetuate the best and worst stereotypes the genre has to offer – plus a helping of atmospherics for good measure.

Over the course of 30 minutes, Varien, aka Nick Pittsinger, manages to pack in Spanish and Asiatic flair and instrumentation, spoken-word passages that read either like an inspirational quote or a cult leader depending on your predilection, and an unconventional mix of all-consuming soundscapes (that, yes, are more than a little reverb-reliant) and unexpected twists that range from guitar flourishes to melodic percussion. Varien actively challenges how far he can stretch the listener's expectations without really being a challenging listen, often taking the form of over-long atmospheric pieces accentuated by rapid-fire compositional variation. The structure varies pretty dramatically, too, sometimes resembling pop – especially in the more vocal-centric tracks – and sometimes meandering through a number of verses. By itself, it gives mostly a pretty satisfying feeling; testing the tolerance level for ambient centerpieces in an otherwise varied structure is definitely in at the moment, and Varien's adaptation to a more conventional approach is pleasantly refreshing.

The problem lies, unfortunately, in those overbearing tropes that find themselves lodged throughout his work. If we're still playing the drinking game, you wouldn't just be knocked out, you'd be dead from alcohol poisoning; the over-use of female guest vocals and samples even when they crowd out the much more engaging instrumentals ("Kamisama") or are irrelevant because of them ("Snowlight") really make you question why they were thought to be necessary. Include the fade-ins and outs, the ham-handed use of an "intermission" in an album that clearly has little thematic consistency, and an attraction to bombast even in ambient pieces that easily lend themselves to subtlety, and an all-too-common picture appears.

To Varien's credit, there are times even within these tropes that you can see what he's going for; the chorus of "Supercell" is outstanding, owed in no small part to Veela's breathy delivery. It takes skills to work within tropes, knowingly or otherwise, and make something decent, much less excellent, and he thankfully doesn't succumb to the pitch shift + tempo increase fad. If there's one song that could make the case for everything The Ancient and Arcane is trying to do, it's the closer; "Ghost Spores" is a perfect concoction that uses all the same elements as the rest of the tracks, but through careful design and diligent execution makes a strong rebuttal to everything I've said thus far. Whether or not that justifies the album is questionable, but at the very least, it's a damn good listen.

Track List:

  1. The Ancient & Arcance
  2. Snowlight
  3. Supercell (feat. Veela)
  4. Transmissions From Lemuria
  5. Hypnotique (feat. Charlotte Haining)
  6. Firefly (Intermission)
  7. Kamisama (feat. Miyoki)
  8. Ghost Spores (feat. Laura Brehm)
Varien - The Ancient and Arcane
Purchase at: Amazon | eMusic

Our Rating

65 / 100
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