Oneohtrix Point Never Albums From Worst To Best
After the recent passing of Chuck Berry, a letter Carl Sagan wrote to him in 1986 began circulating on social media. It congratulated Berry on the fact that the rollicking guitar riff on “Johnny B. Goode” was now hurtling through space via NASA’s Voyager Golden Record project, as an example of the very human sound of rock ‘n’ roll. Ironically, rock music was considered too “new” at the time to be considered essential to extraterrestrial understanding of earthlings, especially in comparison to classical greats, like Mozart, Beethoven, and Stravinsky.
These days it’s hard to think of music more appropriate in some ways, but less representative in others, of earthling sounds than the catalogue of Oneohtrix Point Never. If you took all the sounds on that Voyager Golden Record — thunderclaps, bird songs, whale noises, political speeches, Azerbaijani folk music — and mashed them up, perhaps you’d have something that sounds like R Plus Seven. Or, if you were an alien life form, perhaps your interpretation of the record would feel a lot like Garden Of Delete. It’s an atypical form of music, surely, but a futuristic, heady mélange of sounds made by human invention, sometimes in a weird attempt to recreate sounds in the natural world.
That’s because Daniel Lopatin, the man behind OPN, is almost more of a philosopher/sound-collagist than he is a musician. True, much of his work was composed using a vintage Roland Juno-60 synthesizer, but the forms he explores with it are often couched in deep layers of metaphysical theory, which goes hand-in-hand with its New Agey textures. You can’t dance to it and you can’t fuck to it (or at least it would be lousy for either of those activities). It’s music that, for better or for worse, you can only think about. OPN’s music can seem overly sterile on the first few encounters, but to dismiss it as simply pretentious would be ironic given the sonic palette Lopatin uses. He elevates sounds otherwise considered cheesy by putting them in a formal philosophical context. He wants you to think about why you have aversions to certain tones and timbers, and why others immediately bring childhood impressions screaming back into your brain. It’s the aural equivalent of a computer’s 3D rendering of a middle finger to anyone who lets haughtiness obscure understanding. These aren’t just songs, they’re ideas. Sometimes, they’re also jokes. Sometimes, Lopatin is laughing at you, not with you.
All that is to say, Oneohtrix Point Never makes for an intriguing listen. For the purposes of ranking the OPN catalogue, we’ve broken up Lopatin’s massive Rifts compilation into the three releases it reissued (Betrayed In The Octagon, Zones Without People, and Russian Mind), as well as two discs worth of bonus material (Drawn And Quartered and The Fall Into Time, which appeared on the 2012 reissue of Rifts and as stand-alone releases in 2013). When separated out, it’s easy to see how Lopatin’s early experimentation led to ideas he would later revisit. Despite his recent propensity to experiment with new constraints on subsequent releases, there’s no mistaking the work of Daniel Lopatin — whether it hits or misses, Oneohtrix Point Never is always distinct.
9. Drawn And Quartered (2013)
The 2012 re-reissue of Rifts allowed Daniel Lopatin to recontextualize some of his earliest material, and, like the 2009 reissue, he decided to include some tracks that did not appear on Betrayed In The Octagon, Zones Without People, and Russian Mind. For whatever reason, perhaps to appease OPN completists’ disdainful retread. Lopatin released two EPs that contained the “bonus material” found on the 2012 reissue just a year later. Originally, much of Drawn And Quartered appeared tacked on to the back half of the Russian Mind disc in 2009, and while it feels in some ways an extension of that EP in tone, it lacks the texture and grit and loses steam pretty quickly.
The seven-track album starts off promising, with the scribbling electronica of “Lovergirls Precinct,” which is followed by nine minutes of cascading, optimistic synth bliss on “Ships Without Meaning,” easily one of OPN’s loveliest offerings. From there, though, the album begins to sound like B-movie pastiche. Not only does the title of “Terminator Lake” automatically associate it with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reprogrammed robotic assassin, its snaky tones and low rumble could’ve easily soundtracked early Cronenberg films, even before the laser sounds shoot through Lopatin’s composition.
Songs like “Terminator Lake,” while not totally unenjoyable (especially for those with a penchant for synth-fried horror scores), are the reason Lopatin is often compared to Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream. “A Pact Between Strangers” suffers the same fate as “Terminator Lake,” feeling hopelessly cheesy almost from the get-go, with some eagle and wolf noises thrown in for good measure. In between, “Transmat Memories” stretches out, well, unmemorably. Along with “When I Get Back From New York,” there’s nothing that sticks – Lopatin is known for eschewing drum machines in favor of letting rhythm reveal itself in other ways, but most of Drawn And Quartered meanders beatless and turbid to its own demise. The demise, in this case, is the bizarre inclusion of the sole acoustic jam in the entirety of Lopatin’s catalogue: “I Know It’s Taking Pictures From Another Plane (Inside Your Sun).” The song itself is intriguing — it sounds watery and psychedelic, and Lopatin’s distorted vocals feel wise and otherworldly. But at no time does it resemble an Oneohtrix Point Never song, and measuring it against other OPN songs is baffling task at best.
Rifts is known for two things: first, that it cemented Lopatin as an electronic music visionary, and second, that it’s really long. While it’s a fascinating peek into the big bang of ideas that eventually birthed OPN as we know it today, it wouldn’t have suffered from editing, and most of Drawn And Quartered could’ve easily been axed from the tracklist without anyone batting an eye — except for Lopatin himself, who, by releasing it, reveals himself to be too enamored of his own ideas to flush out the effluvium.
8. Zones Without People (2009)
Pessimistic Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran once said: “I’ve invented nothing; I’ve simply been the secretary of my sensations.” It’s telling that Cioran — a nihilist confounded by simple beauty — would be a figure of fascination (and something of a kindred spirit) for Daniel Lopatin. His homage to Cioran appears on Zones Without People, the second LP of the Rifts trilogy. Its throbbing, pitchy squeal winnows to mellow, atmospheric synths over just three and a half minutes, a miniature buffet of the sounds Lopatin was capable of wringing from his beloved Juno. In particular, Zones Without People explores the psychedelic and meditative possibilities within the Juno’s realm, and Lopatin acts as a guide through it all; a secretary of sensations in his own right.
As with many of Oneohtrix Point Never’s albums, it’s hard to know if Lopatin is making a serious inquiry into repurposing New Age sounds or if he’s making tongue-in-cheek references to them; the likely conclusion is that he does a bit of both. An appraisal of Zones Without People as an exploration into the meditative qualities of ambient music reveals varying levels of success, perhaps depending on something as subjective as the listeners’ preferences. Take “Format & Journey North,” for instance: heavy drone acts as a counterweight to airy pan flute, with a sample of running water thrown in for added effect. Or the undulating opening bars of “Learning To Control Myself” at the moment they descend into a frenetic tangle of laser rumble, ironically like the spasms of someone losing all motor function. On Lopatin’s spectrum, it’s all fair game, and no rune goes unturned.
But if Zones is a collection of experiments, it can feel as devoid of humanity as its title suggests. These are ideas Lopatin would return to, but Zones feels mostly restless, inconclusive, and indulgently metaphysical. If this were the first release someone new to OPN encountered, there’s a strong possibility that its idiosyncrasy would be off-putting, thus doing a disservice to the inventiveness of Lopatin’s whims.
7. R Plus Seven (2013)
In 1960, Frenchmen Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais developed a mathematical way of writing poetry known as OuLiPo, which sought creativity in a set of constraints that include replacing every noun in a poem with the seventh one to follow it in the dictionary. In 2013, Daniel Lopatin wrote R Plus Seven loosely based on the same principles, with tonal elements, text scripts, and software patches triggered by MIDI presets. It was a purposely convoluted way for Lopatin to explore musical objects in relation to one another, but even that was a metaphor for what was going on behind the scenes; Lopatin wrote the record at the home he shared with his girlfriend, seeking her immediate opinion on the material he was creating. R Plus Seven is as much a study of his relationship with her as it is of the sounds it contains, and this romance signified the end of another — the album is the first not to feature Lopatin’s Juno synthesizer.
Most of these tracks manifest in gasping, gusty bursts — like the weird airy puffs and choral snippets of “Inside World,” or the disembodied banjos and growls of “He She.” The effect can be jarring, a disruption of the elemental flow that characterizes Lopatin’s best work. Certain tones, like the baseball stadium organ on “Boring Angel” and “Americans” feel totally out of place. Lopatin admits that he was driven by a desire to wrestle with “crass elements” and “clichéd sounds” to see what would result, and while the juxtaposition can be intriguing, it doesn’t always gel, giving tracks like “Still Life” and “Problem Areas” a haphazardly-assembled feel that belies the work Lopatin put in to composing them, like free jazz but devoid of soul or intuition.
There are some success stories, though. The skittering synth of “Zebra” meshes well against coasting bars of distorted vocals, blips of horns, and gonging bells, rippling together like the black and white-striped hide of the beast for which its named. “Along” returns listeners to the meditative quagmire that characterized the best moments of Rifts-era OPN. The album’s closer, “Chrome Country,” is particularly stunning, with its bright choral elements fanning into digital shards and propulsive piano rhythms, and when the Phantom Of The Opera organ returns it’s more revelatory than grating. Mathematics might not offer the most effective approach for interpreting human relationships, but it’s certainly a novel way of investigating musical ones.
6. The Fall Into Time (2013)
Like Drawn And Quartered, The Fall Into Time is comprised of older material re-released as a stand-alone offering; though select tracks had previously appeared on the 2012 iteration of Rifts, these were absent from the 2009 reissue. Named after an Emil Cioran text, the LP’s six tracks mostly channel OPN’s ambient tendencies, making for a soothing, if somewhat tepid, listen. “Blue Drive” kicks things off with soft, atmospheric drones washing gently against one another. “The Trouble With Being Born” has a pitch-shifted high note-low note repetition, like an ambulance siren slowed way down and punctuated by wise, bell-like tones. These tracks successfully tap into the meditative vibe Lopatin was reaching for on Zones Without People.
Similarly, the glassy overture of “Sand Partina” expands that sonic motif, interlacing its tubular echoes with brassy, Arabian-inflected synth projections. “Melancholy Descriptions Of Simple 3D Environments” is rather bright sounding and genteel despite its title, which hints at Lopatin’s fascination with spatial rendering as a jumping off point for composing music — the concept he ran away with on the 2013 release R Plus Seven.
Also notable is the inclusion of “Memory Vague,” which partly soundtracked his 2009 DVD of the same name that compiled videos Lopatin sourced from YouTube and then edited together. Lopatin’s Memory Vague project established his repeated use of YouTube as an instrument in its own right. Though its music was composed with synths, Lopatin would later return to the video-sharing website as both a sound bank and a source of inspiration.
Each of these tracks, including the LP’s final offering, “KGB Nights,” utilize undulating crescendos to build a nondescript narrative. Though The Fall Into Time can feel a bit redundant and studied, it works within hypnogogic pop’s soothing parameters. Many of the roads that Lopatin would travel with OPN lead back to the ideas heard here, making its reissue particularly relevant.
5. Betrayed In The Octagon (2007)
Representing some of Lopatin’s earliest work, Betrayed In The Octagon chronicles his communion with his father’s Roland Juno-60 (that he affectionately refers to as Judy), particularly the process of getting to know what moods it could evoke. Any artist that relies solely on one instrument must be well-versed in how to navigate it without getting lost or bogged down, and though the title implies some sort of double-crossing, Lopatin here achieves a glorious synergy with his synth — culling from it an array of compelling effects and ideas. The record’s variety is its strength; the haunted drone of tracks like “Woe Is The Transgression” (which appears in two parts) and glitch-laden “Eyeballs” provide some intensity and unease, while the arpeggiations of the title track come across as both eloquent and inquisitive. Betrayed is successful because it pushes and pulls at all the right moments but is endlessly mysterious. It brings to mind the fascination that compels humanity, both primal and futuristic, to touch the matte-black monolith in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and access its knowledge.
That sci-fi movie soundtrack feel is most obvious on “Parallel Minds,” “Behind The Bank,” and “Laser To Laser,” and is a big part of the reason Lopatin has spent a lifetime dodging the term “nostalgia.” It’s not a wholly unfair synopsis of his work, but it is overly simplistic and connotes a sentimentality he is totally uninterested in interrogating. Lopatin may be mining the sounds of the past (or the past’s ideas about what the future would be like), but there’s plenty of distance and disquietude, too. Even in 2007, Lopatin’s movements were furtive and momentum-based, never allowing him to rest too long on any one mode of delivery, and ultimately, that would become the thing that would sustain critical fascination with his work as OPN continued to morph.
4. Garden Of Delete (2015)
After years of creating extremely esoteric music, Lopatin finally authored an album with an incredibly generous backstory and an unexpected influence: ’90s grunge. He’d just spent several months as a supporting act for Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden on an arena tour; as a nerdy, somewhat alienated teenager, he’d been more into jazz fusion than so-called “modern rock.” But on Garden Of Delete, Lopatin gets his revenge, inventing an alien teen named Ezra as a stand-in for the awkward adolescent he used to be. It’s the first album where lyrics feature heavily, though they’re filtered through vocal synthesis software Chipspeech. It’s also the first OPN record to feature a guitar solo (on “Lift”). Lopatin rolled out Garden Of Delete with rich, extra-musical material, including a cryptic blog that Ezra wrote dedicated to a fake band called Kaoss Edge (a moniker that, in a way, highlights OPN’s formal properties). Ezra’s blog includes an interview with Lopatin, while the website for Kaoss Edge features the raw MIDI building blocks Lopatin used to created Garden Of Delete, an implicit invitation to Lopatin’s fans to play around with his raw material. Intricate and self-referential, you finally gets the sense that Lopatin, while serious about his craft, doesn’t always take himself so seriously.
Sonically, that sense of fun is reflected in the record’s industrial and grunge elements: throbbing blastbeats, metal-indebted snarls, sampled shrapnel. While the album’s thematic focus is on the melodrama of being a teenager, Lopatin approaches puberty’s turbulence with respect for how real those emotions can seem and how they can shape us, even as he chuckles about how overblown those emotions are. He maintains a fatherly, sensible sympathy about the coming-of-age ordeal that everyone who’s made it to adulthood has experienced, and even though these songs are presented from the view of a fictitious avatar, it’s Lopatin’s most autobiographical work.
Unlike R Plus Seven, which often fails to connect its disparate sonic elements, Garden Of Delete miraculously flows from the slowed samples of “ECCOJAMC1” to the tangled club pop of “Sticky Drama” to the mournful, vaguely dystopian “Animals” (which Lopatin refers to as his version of a “heroin jam”) to the salty self-hatred freak out of “No Good.” “I Bite Through It,” in particular, comes across as a hormone-addled moodswing — its placid acoustic noodling torn asunder by digital shred. The record has the same attention to detail as any OPN release, but here, it’s no longer clinical — instead, it’s reactionary and acutely felt, right down to the bone.
3. Russian Mind (2009)
Oneohtrix Point Never’s earliest critics quickly connected the project to hypnogogic pop, a term used to describe the inherent longing for unrealized futures that dominated Lopatin’s output. Russian Mind links that fascination to Lopatin’s heritage as the son of Russian immigrants from the former Soviet Union, perhaps haunted by communism’s downfall as described in the 1993 Jacques Derrida text Spectres Of Marx. The text produced the term “hauntology,” which in the context of cultural criticism, is linked to hypnogogic pop. Russian Mind’s collected tracks allow Lopatin to own his tendency to recycle retro aesthetics as an almost inherited trait.
It may seem like a tenuous connection, but Russian Mind is rife with sonic cues. Both of Lopatin’s parents had musical backgrounds, and much of his acquaintance with experimental synthesizer music came from his father’s interest in it, particularly the dubbed jazz fusion tapes he collected. Mostly comprised of Lopatin’s experiments with computer-generated music that he says predates OPN proper, there’s a grain to the tracks on Russian Mind that makes them especially beautiful, particularly behind the chopped-up piano dirge “Grief And Repetition.” Cassette hiss buzzes behind the oceanic churn of “Physical Memory,” too; its title hints at these songs’ origins, at RAM as a ghostly pattern of zeroes and ones. Moreover, this remarkable texture evokes the almost tactile sensations our recollections can elicit — like the static that grounds its otherwise atmospheric drift, the fuzzy sounds of a dubbed mixtape. Russian Mind offers these sensations up as though they were objects that can be grasped, examined, and catalogued — that even time itself can be “decanted.” Glistening ambient stunners like “Months” and “Immanence,” which bookend Russian Mind, act like portals to Lopatin’s examination of future worlds that never existed. As a compilation, Rifts has its highs and lows, but Russian Mind feels like a purposeful pinnacle, an attempt on Lopatin’s part to identify his own brand of hypnogogic pop. Lopatin said that his larger goal as Oneohtrix Point Never was to carve seamless sculptural figures from vast sound worlds, but on Russian Mind, he effectively carves a niche for himself out of his own history.
2. Returnal (2010)
Beginning with a squelching noise track whose Latin title translates to “let nothing astonish you,” Returnal was the first album Lopatin made after reissuing his early, limited-edition EPs as the gobsmackingly comprehensive compilation Rifts. With people now taking note of his work, Lopatin must have felt some sort of pressure to both address his critics’ concerns and live up to his own hype. But, save for that fuck-you jolt of “Nil Admirari,” Returnal is a placid, amorphous, and often beautiful record. It’s easily his most cohesive, each track flowing smoothly into the next. And despite the Latin imperative, it does astonish; his decision to include vocals — albeit distorted alien ones — on some of the tracks charted new territory for Lopatin and provided a little insight into the concepts that anchor the record.
Though Lopatin was living in Brooklyn, he produced most of Returnal in a bedroom in his parents’ Massachusetts home after a bad breakup. He revisits the fertile ground of Derrida’s hauntological arguments, broaching the idea of hyperreal world-music based not on actual world music, but on a fleeting impression of it. More importantly, though, his lyrics on the title track robotically taunt “you’ve never left, you’ve been here the whole time;” there’s a heartbreaking piano version sung by Antony Hegarty (who would tap Lopatin to produce her first record as Anohni) on the single’s Editions Mego 7” that really hammers the desperation home. But even on the album version, Lopatin seems worried that his ideas about the world outside his parents’ house are frozen in some impressionistic interpretation of it, caught up in the same dreamlike innocence that informs the cold exoticism of “Pelham Island Road,” the undulating reverie of “Where Does Time Go,” or the primordial trickle of “Preyouandi,” which reprises the lyrics from “Returnal” in syrupy slow motion. Lopatin may have felt locked into a groove, even going so far as to compare himself to a snake eating its own tale on lush, hesitant album standout “Ouroboros.” But in OPN’s case especially, an obsession with the past isn’t always a bad thing, especially when rendered with such bold, painterly strokes.
1. Replica (2011)
With Rifts and Returnal, Lopatin reached peak critical acclaim; these near-universally admired releases gave him enough leverage to be invited by Brooklyn-based record label Mexican Summer to curate his own imprint, Software, with partner in crime Joel Ford. The duo were entrenched in nostalgia-mining for their eponymous side project Ford & Lopatin, formerly known as Games. Though the more straightforward song structures and clearer references to funk, jazz, and synth-pop make their only full-length, Channel Pressure, completely different in feel from Oneohtrix Point Never’s output, it’s important to note that Replica was released less than five months later. There’s a line in “Too Much MIDI (Please Forgive Me)” that goes, “You say I’m crazy, making sure these cuts are right,” and it sounds like a sentence Lopatin might’ve spoken to Ford or to the head honchos at Mexican Summer: an apology for his painstaking approach to Replica (which Ford helped produce).
In a near one-eighty from Returnal’s gentler sculptural waves, Replica saw Lopatin chopping up soundbites from ’80s and ’90s commercial compilations sourced from YouTube, recontextualizing these “audio snacks” based on the way the samples played off one another. While sound collage was certainly nothing new — hip-hop, of course, had made great use of it, while the Books and Avalanches had popularized the form with indie audiences — Lopatin’s strict fascination with sounds specific to this particular era made Replica an instant extension of the OPN brand. It was a time when burgeoning technology dominated the American mindscape, manifesting in both how jingles were created and the products they were representing. But Lopatin wasn’t interested in simply splicing recognizable effects together, rather, he wanted to divorce them as much as possible from their origins. Pulling audio snippets from commercials was almost incidental: after all, for Lopatin, the format simply offered an easily digestible bank from which to withdraw extra-potent material, and maybe make a sly comment on late-stage capitalism in the process. It also allowed him the opportunity to construct songs as an editor, rather than progenitor, of the tones Replica uses.
Where R Plus Seven would lose rhythm in its choppiness, Replica utilizes clever edits in percussive ways. An early example is the syllabic vocal clips of “Sleep Dealer,” but that technique pops up again in the bubbly, beachy “Nassau.” Replica, really, is one of OPN’s most beat-oriented records — even its most aggressive track, “Child Soldier,” manages a kind of laser-fried stutter, and “Up” samples tribal-sounding drums. The record’s more atmospheric moments (“Andro,” “Submersible,” “Explain”) hearken back to the Rifts’ more meditative moods, but it is tracks like “Remember” and “Replica” that combine that undercurrent with suggestive scraps of videomercial detritus that highlight Lopatin’s sense of humor and duty to homage. There are moments in Oneohtrix Point Never’s catalogue that are evocative to a fault, and others that rely too heavily on pretentious concept, but there’s something to be said for Lopatin’s ability to twist memories — collective, false, or intensely personal — into distinct patterns of his own making.