[Permanent Vacation, 2012]
Jeff Pearson, August 20, 2012
Listen: “Last Land”
Anonymity in music is a funny thing. As the internet has completely changed the landscape of music, with image files and biographies of musical artists available at the click of a mouse, the mystique of musicians that was prevalent for so long has completely vanished. Several artists have tried to dodge the internet’s all-seeing eye by donning masks or costumes, trying to place the focus firmly on the art that they make. This is where the conundrum comes in. In hiding their identities, in embracing anonymity, these artists are effectively establishing an identity as their particular visage they have chosen. They are automatically associated with whatever symbol they represent themselves with, and basically their art comes second to their appearance even more than they had hoped to avoid in striving for anonymity. Basically, the more an artist strives for anonymity, the less they have it. There are exceptions, of course. Some artist’s work is so transcendental that image is an afterthought. Forward-thinking house producer, John Talabot, is one of those exceptions. Though he hides his face in press photos, usually with aluminum foil, Talabot makes music so progressive that the listener has no choice but to put all of their focus in it. Besides, the aluminum foil might protect Talabot’s identity from extraterrestrial beings and top-secret government organizations—might—but a person can only escape Wikipedia’s gaze for so long.
Having made music under a different alias since he was eighteen, eventually earning a residency at one of Barcelona’s biggest techno clubs, and seeing the scene he was ensconced in begin to dissipate, it was only natural for the artist now known as John Talabot to be born. In 2008, he took a break from music to regroup, collect ideas, and let those ideas guide him down the right path that felt truly like himself. He emerged with the single, “Sunshine,” a constantly building house anthem complete with funky disco guitar lines and sun-soaked, swirling vocal samples. In “becoming” John Talabot, he effectively ditched the minimalist approach to clicking his way through visceral techno music, and assumed an identity as a beatsmith of a different variety—a man producing both headphone- and club-ready music of an uplifting, constantly evolving nature. In taking a step back from techno music, where he was beginning to feel the confines of the genre surrounding him, he opened his music up to a colorful array of avenues, musical pathways lined with varying shades of neon tubing. A few more singles of this vein followed over the next few years, monstrous, varied songs that established Talabot as a dancefloor behemoth. Each of those singles led him to ƒIN, his debut full-length record on Permanent Vacation.
Though those early singles share the immediacy of ƒIN as a whole, when looked at as individual tracks, there is no obvious single. Instead, each track acts as a cog in the machinery, forming the arc of the entire record, and making it something that needs to be taken in as a whole. Not to say that any given standalone track on ƒIN isn’t completely poised to take over the dance world, however, because that just isn’t the case. Each piece of the mechanism ebbs and flows in such a delicately structured way that each funky bassline and raining synthesizer throughout the record plays into the overall pacing of ƒIN. Talabot said himself in a recent interview that he wanted to make a record that didn’t have one song take precedence over another, and ƒIN is meant to be ingested as whole. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle; each piece is equally important, but what is truly important is the full picture that those pieces form when fit together. I guess that makes the album’s closer, “So Will Be Now…,” that last piece that your friend had in their pocket and was waiting until you had done the bulk of the work on the puzzle until they could triumphantly place it as you look underneath the table for it.
The album immediately opens itself up to you, with the track “Depak Ine” seemingly emerging from the depths of a distant jungle; wild ambiance permeates through a deep, funky bassline moving at a mildly relaxed pace, though unrelenting in its delivery. The track establishes the structural elements that will be prevalent for the remainder of the 50-minute span of the record—Talabot displays a patience throughout, letting various portions of his production stir around, almost to the point of breaking, before adding a new touch that elevates the tracks to new sonic territory. The way that Talabot adds subtle nuances as the tracks build calls to mind the image of a painter working on the fly, delicately brushing the canvas with color until it seemingly cannot become any more vibrant a shade, and adding a brushstroke of anew color which puts the painting in an entirely different context. I suppose there is a pretty singular context of ƒIN overall—dancefloor-tinged brain candy—but it is the subtlety with which Talabot approaches his productions gives the record a myriad of variation, stylistically. Though the album is deeply entrenched in house music, Talabot didn’t want to put forth a straight house onslaught for his debut full-length record. There are elements of electronic music from all over the map, from the house that serves as ƒIN’s foundation to the slow-moving bump of hip-hop and R&B. The most interesting part about Talabot’s music is the ability that he displays to allow those genres to live and breathe alongside one another, thriving off one another and presenting themselves as cohesive thoughts.
“Destiny,” one of two tracks on ƒIN to feature the vocals of fellow Spanish producer Pional, highlights this ability of Talabot’s; soulful vocals sizzle atop the pulsing, funky house revolutions. The combination swells to the point of breaking, a triumph of pop music owing as much to disco—funky bass and vocal melodies smilingly delivered—as it does house—ever-building joy where you can practically see the arms flail and lights strobe as the song reaches its crescendo. The impressive part of “Destiny” is the aspects of each portion of the track’s split personality that bleed into one another. Very rarely has disco seemed so throbbing and heady, and the uplifting, poppy nature is certainly hardly as typically present—and more importantly, welcome—in such headphone-friendly dance music. This cohabitation of styles seems to be ever-present on ƒIN; while it isn’t necessarily always disco living side-by-side with celebratory house, Talabot shows his lack of fear in pushing his productions to new limits. “El Oeste” floats through space with ambient washes of sound, tethered to the earth only by sparse drum patterns and dark-wave synthesizers, while “Missing You” bounces heavily atop the popping hand drums, giving the song the feel of an African drummer lost in the heart of the Boiler Room.
The arguable peak of ƒIN comes with “Last Land.” The track shows Talabot at both his most restrained yet propulsive, weaving tightly-wound synthesizers around vocal samples and hard-hitting drums, before the entire track explodes into a technicolor dreamscape. The way that the drums phase through the speakers, the entire track swirling around the room, seeming like dust being hit by the light coming in through the window, is quite the accomplishment. “Last Land” marks the slow coming down process for ƒIN—the rest of the record plays like a send-off into the golden light of sunrise. As that last piece of the puzzle, “So Will Be Now…,” is laid on the table, with Talabot cutting Pional’s vocal and turning it into an arpeggiating instrument all its own, the entire context of the record is made completely clear. ƒIN is a balanced and meticulous look into the digital wavelength that seems to exist in John Talabot’s mind, and no amount of aluminum foil will block a music lover’s gaze from this. Somehow, though, I think that’s just how Talablot wants it.