WHAT IS VAPORWAVE?
Vaporwave is considered to be the first internet-born music subgenre that was coined around the early 2010s. It’s actually a very multi-faceted style of music that also has an important visual aesthetic, so it isn’t easy to pinpoint a single defining trait to completely capture what Vaporwave really is. The 5 albums discussed in this article will reflect this, which are wildly different to each other in sound and approach.
Essentially Vaporwave is a variation of electronic music’s sample based sequencing, that can re-purpose existing recordings into a new context, and can be seen as an extension of both the chopped & screwed and plunderphonics subgenres. It is frequently common for Vaporwave albums to be constructed entirely from reconstructed samples in a similar methodology to DJ Shadow’s groundbreaking 1996 album ...Endtroducing, but can also consist of original compositions, though still being largely electronic based.
So what sets Vaporwave apart from the chopped & screwed and plunderphonics genres? Well it has to be the vibe, the mood and the choice of samples and sounds. Vaporwave’s modus operandi is to strongly evoke a sense of twisted and melancholic nostalgia by sounding reminiscent of ’80s and ’90s iconography such as old adverts, corporate music, synth pop hits and video game music. Samples are frequently distorted, pitch-shifted and reverberated to evoke the feeling of false memories and sometimes a dark, haunting and sad sense of things not being quite the way you remembered them. Just watching the music video for Macintosh Plus’ legendary song ‘リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー’ says it all, taking a lesser known ’80s Diana Ross upbeat funk song and slowing it down ’til it sounds eerie, like you are trapped inside the Black Lodge from Twin Peaks.
Visual presentation is an equally defining factor in Vaporwave, with music videos and cover art extending the sampling a e s t h e t i c by crudely cutting together imagery from old video games, outdated computer technology and long forgotten TV adverts.
Vaporwave is largely considered to be a new music subgenre that was born from the internet as Bandcamp, YouTube and blogspots have been the most widely accessible ways to discover Vaporwave releases. With so many uncleared samples and corporate properties being re-used, many artists and labels (Dream Catalogue, 100% Electronica and DMT Tapes FL being amongst the most prolific) release their music for free or cheap as digital only releases, largely disregarding physical release formats, perhaps out of fear of copyright infringement lawsuits. This means that it is easy on the wallet to dive deep down the Vaporwave rabbit-hole and discover a plethora of gems.
We will now discuss five of the most seminal records that define Vaporwave in no particular ranking order, but believe us we could have picked out so many more, so please comment some of your favourites.
CHUCK PERSON – ECCOJAMS Vol. 1
[The Curatorial Club // 2010]
Chuck Person is the alias of Oneohtrix Point Never mastermind Daniel Lopatin, who constructed this full length album in a plunderphonics style where every single track features a small looped sample that has been time-stretched and glitched out. There are a mixture of very popular and obscure samples used on this record, including the likes of Toto, Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel. In particular, the track dubbed ‘Nobody Here’ (all the tracks are officially untitled) has become something of a Vaporwave anthem, taking a small vocal snippet of Chris De Burgh’s ‘The Lady In Red’, and looping and pitch-shifting it to change the context into something much more bleak and melancholic.
With Lopatin already being well known as one of electronic music’s most cutting edge producers, Eccojams shows a larger quality in sequencing and editing than many of his peers, yet still holds a lo-fi production quality. Rumour has it that original cassette versions of this album appeared low key on merch stands at OPN shows in limited quantities, and online buzz and word of mouth helped spread the influence of this album. It is often considered to be the true inception point of Vaporwave, with the term “Eccojams” still being a popular hashtag and descriptor to define heavily sample based Vaporwave releases. The title and album art that apes from Sega’s Ecco the Dolphin video game franchise also helped to establish the visual aesthetic of Vaporwave. ‘Til this day, ECCOJAMS Vol. 1 remains one of the most defining, accessible and widely praised Vaporwave releases, and fans have been begging Lopatin to make that elusive second volume for years.
MACINTOSH PLUS – Floral Shoppe
[Beer On the Rug // 2011]
Floral Shoppe may not be the most critically praised Vaporwave release but it is probably the most famous and a great entry point into the subgenre. Critics at the time were left a bit baffled by this album’s rise in popularity, but in hindsight has been reappraised as a small cultural phenomenon. Macintosh Plus is the brainchild of Ramona Xavier Langley, AKA Vektroid, who has put out many Vaporwave albums over the years under various different recording aliases. Floral Shoppe is still her most talked about work and has reached meme status.
Though the editing and sequencing across the album may show a lack of finesse, in terms of vision and imagination it perfectly defines what Vaporwave is all about, with ‘リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー’ being something like the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ of Vaporwave. The whole album is moody, strange, vibrant and dreamlike, making you feel like you are wandering through an empty shopping mall in slow motion.
BLANK BANSHEE – 0
[Self-released // 2012]
Mysterious Canadian producer Blank Banshee represents a prime example of an artist synonymous with the Vaporwave scene who isn’t bound to the plunderphonics methodology of producing, as their works fused with the emerging popularity of trap beats. This gives Blank Banshee’s works a harder edge than most, and would appeal rather well to electronic music fans who dig the likes of Clams Casino, Crystal Castles and Flying Lotus. In fact ‘Venus Death Trap’ sounds like it could easily have sit on FlyLo’s Cosmogramma album.
Tracks on this album hit you with many layers of samples, some from sources as big as Rihanna and The Beach Boys. The beat programming can be erratic and intricate, giving Blank Banshee’s work a much broader appeal. Tracks like ‘Teen Pregnancy’ and ‘Dreamcast’ have already become classics of the Vaporwave subgenre. And with all three of Blank Banshee’s albums being available as free downloads on Bandcamp, there is really no excuse not to explore their amazing body of work.
NMESH – Dream Sequins®
[AMDISCS // 2014]
Louisville, Kentucky based producer Nmesh is one of the most prolific Vaporwave artists with many records, collabs and mixtapes under their wing, proving that they’ve really immersed themselves into Vaporwave culture.
Dream Sequins® is truly one of the most epic and ambitious records that you’ll come across in this style, running at a whopping 80 minutes in length and boasting a meticulous ear for sonic detail and layered, dynamic production. One interesting track to note is ‘Just A Simple Thing’ that uses 10cc’s hit ‘I’m Not In Love’ as the main sample, and sounds like a direct nod to the styles of Chuck Person and Macintosh Plus. The whole album has such a glossy and majestic sound as you would expect from the album title, and listening to the record feels like you are flying through the clouds looking down at the earth as it whizzes passed you. Truly Vaporwave at its most eclectic and well crafted.
2814 – 新しい日の誕生 (Birth of a New Day)
[Dream Catalogue // 2015]
Of all the albums listed here, 2814’s Birth of a New Day is the least typical sounding of Vaporwave, and perhaps tends to get lumped into the genre through circumstance, since being released on a predominantly Vaporwave focused label, by two of the subgenre’s pioneers, London, UK based HKE and Ohio, US resident Telepath テレパシー能力者 (whose own discographies are very much worth investigating).
Regardless of how it fits in, this collaborative record is very much worth your time and sonically owes a lot to the ambient dub movement of the ’90s, sounding similar to the likes of Global Communication and Biosphere. Birth of a New Day boasts lengthy, sprawling ambient pieces, that sound like they are unfolding at a glacial slow-motion pace and has proven to be one of the more subtle and nuanced entries into the Vaporwave movement. 2814 delightfully capture the atmosphere of gazing across at Neo-Tokyo glistening in the rain as gloriously depicted on the wonderful cover art.