Tycho – Awake (Ghostly, 2014)

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Just two years after his seminal release Dive, Scott Hansen’s Tycho project has returned for his/their 3rd full length release in the carefully hyped and yet disappointing Awake.

There’s always going to be a certain special place in my heart for Tycho; 2008 single “Adrift” was one of the defining tracks that pushed me towards listening to Ambient music in the first place, so you can blame Scott for making the track that’s put me here today I suppose, and I’ve loved and been enjoying his music for the last 5 years or so, pre Dive hype. But now I’m not so sure; following in the wake of such a successful album is certainly no mean feat and it was clear from pre-release singles that a new direction was already being struck up, but change doesn’t seem to the problem here, the problem is the abandonment of their past sound.

The title track appropriately opens us to the album, “Awake”. Already there’s an important distinction in the sound that separates it fundamentally from works past; the guitar is now an enormous component of the sonic palette that was always previously relegated to supplementary texture. There’s some synth here too but it’s so hard to get away from the guitar, it’s at every textural layer; even the synth processing sounds like it at times. There is an admitted warmth and joviality to the piece that’s hard to deny also, it’s chipper and alive and forward pushing, but there’s also a really frustrating circularity that’s hard to escape. “Montana” follows and now there’s an entirely different focus, it’s kind of like we’re slowly being introduced to the different band members; first Zac’s guitars, now Rory’s drumming. The pace is entirely more driven and refreshingly progressive it must be said, occasionally lapsing into little lo-fi pools of swirling riffs and never following the same patterns; it certainly does evoke the whole “road trip”vibe that has been mentioned frequently in the album’s press.

Just when you thought that the individual focus theory was about to fall through, “L” slowly expands into a bubble of cutesy, drum assisted synths. It’s actually really nice to see that, stylistically at least, there’s not been much change in the predominant synth processing since his debut way back when in 2004, it’s kind of like the stable heart of the continually evolving band, that reverb saturated and deeply 70s style remaining a constant presence despite the entirely more modern processing that enshrouds it. But finally we’re allowed some kind of respite and reentry into more familiar and comfortable territory with the comparatively more downtempo “Dye” cruising luxuriously into view. Everything is dialled down, the synth squeezed out into warm, elongate drones whilst the accompanying instrumentation moves at a languid and easygoing pace but slowly coagulating as the track evolves, slowly converting it away from the nostalgic electronica into the more grounded reality of the acoustic sounds.

I like where followup piece “See” is going; flutters of digital information zip by at the periphery of our vision whilst the drums and percussion forms the centerpiece of the track, the endless blur of tarmac and concrete and pavement we stare down for mile after mile, but there’s something about the presentation that just intensely, well, dull quite honestly. The guitar adds nothing and yet seems to once again impose itself and smother much of the great and necessarily sparse melodies and forcing them to adhere to its own overwhelming tune. And this relationship is somehow inverted within “Apogee” which opens to a crazed mass of percussive wankery, to put it bluntly, thankfully only to be abandoned by the wayside with the much more palatable synth and guitar work taking up the downtempo mantle in this night cruise, the Moon and stars occasionally peeking out through the clouds above the punctuated darkness of the road. “Spectre” also appears to want to continue in this vein but just cant quite make up its mind and thusly ends up flip-flopping between thickly reverbed slow picked guitar and empowered drums and rapid riffing, it’s something of a confusing anomaly that also seems to fit the sonic style perfectly.

Finally, closer “Plains” brings too little too late in perhaps the most beautiful and most downtempo track of the album. Like the few tracks before it there’s little in the way of that gorgeous synth that I so miss but the guitar finally does some real good and Zac plays a really beautiful solo every bit as expansive and unencumbered as its namesake. Everything just seems to melt away into a sea of carefree drone but not quite before the drums come in just wildly unnecessarily right before the end and it closes in a quietly seething mass of static.

I wont lie it’s hard to remain objective and not hide my disappointment and unenthusiastic approach to this album, it’s one of my weaknesses. Scott has said that Awake is the closest interpretation to the “true” Tycho sound they’ve ever made, and if that’s true then consider me thoroughly unimpressed. The original Tycho was all about atmospherics and expansive sounds aided so prominently by Scott’s electronic excursions; it feels so much like he’s taken a total backseat in this album and not pushed any of his own ideologies forward and let his other bandmates smother his presence. I’m not saying I want a stagnant and unevolving Tycho, I just want one that doesnt feel kind of like a sellout. If you want a mediocre followup to a fantastic Ambient and Downtempo release, filled with emotionally crippled percussion and overexcited guitar riffing, then this is the album for you.

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