Long a staple of underground music, darker and heavier music has steadily been on the rise since the 2008 recession. One need look no further than the success of London’s Tri Angle Records — whose stable of artists emphasize the more ominous side of electronic music — and the current crop of grim styles from indie-music darlings such as Balam Acab and Andy Stott. One could even find a parallel movement in the exploding electronic dance music (EDM) world, where the sinister and bombastic bass of mutated dubstep reigns supreme. Be it the influence of the economy or technology (or, more likely, a combination of both), dense and shadowy sounds have become a dominant theme within a wide variety of electronic music. The Bay Area has become a hotbed for this sonic evolution, best heard in Oakland’s Some Ember and The Soft Moon, which released its sophomore album Zeros on October 30.
“It comes from a certain zone that’s relevant again for some reason,” said Dylan Travis, the producer behind Some Ember, a darkwave project from the former Man/Miracle frontman. “I just think about the amount of our lives that is spent staring at a computer screen and how that quotient is rising, and I think it makes us start to occupy a different, more technological psychic space.”
Some Ember — whose music Travis largely produces on his own and then translates to an intense live performance with a full backing band — is not alone in connecting personal and cultural expressions to dark textures. While the term “darkwave” is rather amorphous (essentially boiling down to a hybrid of post-punk — pioneered by bands such as Joy Division — and electronic, synthesizer-heavy pop), there are a number of East Bay bands that could fall under the umbrella: Uncanny Valley offers up a partially psychedelic brand of twisted synth-pop propped up by the steady pulse of programmed drums; Metal Mother follows a similar path but with an extra infusion of layered orchestration; and Black Jeans takes its cues from hardware-style techno and adds monstrous vocals. San Francisco bands of a similar vein include Group Rhoda and Chasms, plus the more established oOoOO and Water Borders, both of which have releases on Tri Angle Records. While many of these bands have crossed paths (Some Ember, Black Jeans, Chasms, and Uncanny Valley all recently shared bills together), it may be too soon to proclaim a “darkwave scene,” but the Bay Area — in particular Oakland — appears to be well on its way to a tangible musical movement.
Some Ember’s path to its current state is somewhat unique. Until late last year, Travis led one of the East Bay’s more adventurous and successful indie-rock outfits, Man/Miracle, but toward the end of completing the band’s second album, Travis abruptly ended the effort. He said he was simply ready for a change. Frustrated with the lengthy recording process and the lack of creative control being in a four-piece band necessitates, Travis began self-producing songs on his laptop with a pirated copy of Ableton Live that would eventually become Some Ember’s debut record, Hotel of Lost Light.
“I desired more control and less bureaucracy,” Travis said when asked about his decision to start making his own music, but added half-jokingly, “That’s just the asshole answer.”
Travis’ choice was also due in part to economic reasons, as he quickly listed the factors that currently contribute to the decaying state of traditional bands: the cost of renting practice spaces and touring, and the time required to record and release a record. Above all, Travis said he preferred the results of creating music on his own.
“I had been making music on my computer that I thought was better than what I had been doing even in a full studio,” Travis explained. “And I just liked the process more. If you’re producing in Ableton, by the time your creative process is over, the track is also done and you can hit save and move on.”
While the musical projects are not directly related, Some Ember and The Soft Moon have a lot of parallels. The latter is headed by Luis Vasquez and has spread far beyond its Oakland roots to become one of darkwave’s most successful local stories. Both Some Ember and The Soft Moon are deeply personal solo projects that are reimagined into vivid live performances with the help of musical collaborators, and both creators claim to not have initially landed on their eerie and intimate sound entirely on purpose.
“I was always searching for something I connected with,” Vasquez said. “I had tried many different genres over the past twelve years — acoustic stuff, weird electronic music — and it just took me some time to come up with a sound and a formula that really spoke to me.”
That exploration ultimately ended up taking shape as a poignant combination of twisted synthscapes, propulsive drum-machine beats, and obscured vocals, which Vasquez landed on as part of an experiment to explore himself through music. His 2010 debut, The Soft Moon, is a collection of strange, synth-driven pop songs that sound like a more personal and demented take on Bauhaus, New Order, or the avant-garde moments of The Cure. The follow-up to 2011’s Total Decay EP, Zeros is a continuation of Vasquez’s now-established style.
“I just wanted this record to feel similar to the first record, but more focused and more sharp, more conceptual,” Vasquez explained. “I wasn’t prepared to really take [the idea] out much further or evolve too quickly.”
Still, Zeros does take some steps forward, particularly in its sense of urgency. Like previous releases, the new album is darkly introspective, but it is also unrelentingly propulsive — Vasquez sounds as if he were pushing through the fuzz to deliver a haunting message, one wrapped in industrial rhythms and with details obscured beyond the point of recognition by the singer’s own murky vocals. On Zeros, the prominence of synthesizers is again at the heart of The Soft Moon’s sound, providing the growling tones and hiss-laden leads that fray the edges of each song. Vasquez admitted that this aspect of his production was more a matter of timing and curiosity than anything else, having purchased his first synthesizer just prior to writing his debut album. “When I first started The Soft Moon, it was pretty much the first time I had used synthesizers in my own music,” Vasquez said. “I happened to be really intrigued by them at the time, and I just wanted that instrument because it was something I had never used before.”
Accidental or not, Vasquez and Travis both stumbled upon a style that can come off as cold and distant, and transformed it into a personal expression that holds the listener close. If the trend toward ominous electronic music persists, the Bay Area’s like-minded crafters of darkwave have a high bar to aspire to.