by Dennis Gudim
Having been officially coined a mere decade ago, the term ‘minimal wave’ describes early minimalistic synthesizer music, whose unofficial inception can be traced several decades back. The term has since been loosely applied in retrospect to a number of more obscure projects on the fringe of several styles utilizing electronic elements. After its reemergence in the mid-2000s, minimal wave has been turned into a more defined style adopted by a number of new underground acts. Being essentially a ‘retrospective’ style, minimal wave carries an inherent paradox of creating music across the time axis—a task of bringing together material referring to the certain standards belonging to the past as well as its well-defined aesthetics rooted in the future. Tweaking the time continuum to an extent, this combination renders the creative process more akin to navigating a time-travelling engine, quite often yielding remarkable results.
Jason Sloan is a name that should already be familiar to some of our readers. Prolific sound engineer, an interactive arts professor, a solo artist with more than a dozen releases under his belt, Jason is no stranger to minimalistic genres of music. L’Avenir (French for ‘the future’) is his venture into these vintage waters.
Just like the music itself, the overall presentation of the material doesn’t leave room for coincidences. Sweden’s Beläten, the imprint run by Trepaneringsritualen‘s Thomas Martin Ekelund, has made a wise choice; the limited cassette format is arguably the most considerate way for releasing this type of music, paying a proper tribute to the original format used by the genre originators from the late seventies. Simple black-and-white artwork maintains the intended level of ambiguity while at the same time placing focus on the music itself.
Material on L’Avenir’s self-titled release predates the project’s official debut, The Wait, and represents the beginnings (and the most restrictive manifestation) of the project’s output. From the very start, the slow-building ‘Aral Sea’ reassures the listener that both thematic and executional canons of minimal wave as a genre are being honoured. The restrained loops and beats, densely and evenly spread throughout the whole of the track’s body, set up a navigational skeleton, resounding the constructivistic undertones of the monochrome cover art while wandering synth motions gradually set the mood for the looming narrative of the record.
Devoid of any aggression, L’Avenir’s music instead confronts its audience with the coldness of its delivery. ‘Fallen Like a Snow II’—carried by the calligraphically precise bordering on militaristic synthetic beats and contrasted by interwoven, drawn-out analogue synth-drones—provides a combination that emits silent, inexplicable unease. Despite track-by-track variations in rhythmic speed, the synthesizer-generated melodic elements consistently unfold at a slow pace, establishing a distinctively brooding atmosphere. The technical limitations of vintage and analogue equipment that has been purposefully utilized are effectively employed to benefit the record and its themes, assembling the icy, constricted landscapes that envelope humanity’s vague future.
Belonging to a minimalistic side of the musical spectre is undeniably suggestive of the ways a record such as L’Avenir’s self-titled album ought to communicate with its audience; the complexity of the compositions is kept moderate. While some can complain about material’s perceived lack of variation, others would praise its overall consistency and depth from a more detail-oriented perspective. Indeed, taking into consideration Sloan’s musical pedigree, one wouldn’t be surprised to discover an impressive amount of nuances: tiny synth phrases, carefully placed noise blotches, brief ambient passages, all subtly spread throughout the record.
The intention to build upon his synthpop influences was one of the few reasons behind Sloan’s decision to develop L’Avenir as a standalone project, and one can notice the presence of those influences in the material. Tracks like ‘Fugue’ and ‘Wash’ feature memorable melodies reminiscent of the late-seventies and eighties genre greats (think Kraftwerk, D.A.F. or early Human League) as their main themes, while other tracks gently weave in shorter fragments of melodies into their rhythmic structures (‘An Empty Day’, ‘Fallout’). Never outstaying their welcome or interrupting the general sombre mood of the record, those sentimental synthpop moments are a valued addition to the futuristic, trance-like atmospheres, bringing in tiny hints of warmth to an otherwise chilled colour palette. There is nothing overdone in the ways these passages are used; the keyboard phrasings are deliberately austere, revealing emotional presence in strictly controlled dosages. Once again, Sloan’s capability to work within the confines of a style, providing a subtle depth to the material instead of resorting to throwing in a full-scale nostalgic trip, is undisputed.
Another piece of the puzzle advancing the record’s detached perfection is the vocal contribution by Sloan himself. A sparse, short-phrased, half-sung monologue, dispensed with numbing disaffection, has been processed and mixed in to function as another instrument; his vocal delivery is evidently tied to the traditions retained by many darker electronic acts. Bearing only subtle variations, the vocals represent yet another aspect of the record that ends up being held captive by stylistic and thematic confines.
Sloan’s previous involvement with contemplative styles of music translates into semi-abstract lyrics, here focusing on impressions and short snippets of reality from the first-person perspective. Stepping aside from a streamlined narrative, the lyrics communicate the presence of inner unrest that silently pierces the whole record together. ‘Eyes and Words’ illustrate this notion quite well:
‘Eyes. Words. Not seen, but spoken.
Eyes. Words. Dead, cold and broken.
Never look back. Look straight ahead.
All alone now. To die in an empty bed.’
Despite the prevalent emotionlessness of the delivery, there are still traces of subdued sensitivity to be found. The extensive use of reverb on the keys and vocals in particular create a certain aura of ageless melancholy that would resonate with the listeners, leaning towards the darker side of the music spectre. Doing so in their own equivocal manner, the lyrics illustrate loneliness, frustration, and struggles within oneself in the most accessible, everyday kind of way, reminding us of their integral part in the puzzle that constitutes our humanity.
There is no doubt that Sloan has high standards to aim for with L’Avenir. The technical execution is superb, and the overall presentation is spotless, demonstrating high attention to nuances and a substantial sense of measure in their use. In all of its perceived flawlessness, L’Avenir’s debut is a glimpse of a slick, static perfection of the future as well as a swift nostalgic glance towards the past. Elaborating on to the inherent duality of the minimal wave genre, the record can be experienced as a short diary of a future man recalling the past as he gradually grows detached from his life, drifting towards cruel perfection (as resounded in the lyrics of ‘Wash’):
‘Wash us clean – from this life before.
Wash us clean – ashes on the floor
…Don’t look back. Blood on the floor.
Wash it clean. No trace from a life before’
The futuristic prospects of the early electronic acts have now, forty years later, manifested in the music that pays tribute back to its humble origins. In that sense, L’Avenir delivers a solid example of the ingenious link connecting one with the other, completing the circle.