Portland, OR's Zac Nelson is an artist I can no longer sleep on. In less than a year, the kid's managed to turn out three completely distinct, near-masterpieces on three completely distinct, near-flawless labels—Seattle's CD-r powerhouse Debacle, Portland's cassette-crazy Field Hymns, and Asheville's vinyl devouring Bathetic. Nelson is also an accomplished scultpor (that's a picture of one of his pieces up there called "Island," photographed by Megan Kathleen Mcisaac), tee-shirt designer, and insanely prolific at all of the various artistic mediums he works in—especially music. His newest just came in the mail, Sound A Sleep Sound, and that was the breaking point. Time to write. Since they are all more than worthy of your time coupled with the fact that the labels were all kind enough to pass them along, I decided to take them all on in this here SUPERPOST. But in addition to these three, it's tough not to mention his bandcamp page, which features a wonderful self-released album called A C O U S T I C O O K O O (Wonderful Being Here), showcasing yet another totally different Nelson from the three I'll be discussing below—his most accessible work I've heard so far with songs ranging in styles from quasi-alt/folk to junkyard noise-stomps mixed in with that washy synth-based ambience he has such a keen knack for. He's also made music as Hex Love, releasing several albums under that moniker including a stunning double LP on Weird Forest.
If there's one thing you can say about him for certain, it's that he just can't be pinned down. Each and every album I've come across—nay—each and every track has its own specific and unique character, Nelson experimenting with not only different styles and instruments, but crossing those instruments and styles over the top of one another in ways I've never heard before. Nevertheless, he has found a way (somehow) to bind his work with an indescribable common thread... when I hear a ZN track, I know it's a ZN track. And so, the time has finally come for this music obsesser/thinker to give in and go about the difficult task of breaking this guy's music down a little bit, at least in my own head. But everything I ever end up writing about him just reads really stupid when I look back at it. He's dodging my thoughts, my words. It's almost like he's saying things for me that I didn't even realize I wanted to say. But I digress, what I really want to say is that Zac Nelson is easily one of the most intriguing new artists to emerge of late. And with an already impressive back catalogue under his belt, featuring records out on several excellent, credible labels, he's still just getting started. Since this is indeed a SUPERPOST, I will try to keep these reviews succinct, but there's a lot in these records, and as I mentioned previously, this is difficult stuff to wrap a mind around, however inspiring and often absolutely beautiful. In chronological order:
The Same Hypnotic Point (Debacle)
My first introduction to the wild, wondrous mind of Zac Nelson is possibly (probably) the weirdest. At first I thought ZN was going to be another straight droner... until those first gorgeous 90 seconds gave way unto the album's magnum 18-minute piece "Love Me With A Body You Respect." Basically, the track centers around crashing percussion sounds that pitter, patter and pound in rapid succession like drizzling rain while a distant chorus of ghoulish voices moan and groan in the background. Drizzling rain... made of drums. So almost right away, The Same Hypnotic Point revealed Zac Nelson as an eclectic, prismatic figure, able to bend his mind around a number of different textural, rhythmic and stylistic ideas to get his point(s) across, and one that's using new avenues to get there (i.e. using something like percussion as an abient element, at least in this specific way). The album also includes the funky freshness of "Blue Jack," which comes comlete with some creepy diva-style vocals and stuttering beats. Then "ECAEPEKAF" (FAKEPEACE bacwards), a personal favorite individual work from Nelson, featuring a beautiful gliding tone pierced with sharp droplets that ripple out into massive, cascading waves of ethereal bliss. The ablum as a whole might be a bit schizophrenic, searching for a voice through multiple identities, but man is it terrific. Puzzling, but terrific. Immediately hooked.
Towards Our Own Worlds (Field Hymns)
This album finds Mr. Nelson combining his penchant for washy atmospherics and pop sensibilites simultaneously, a bit of a different direction from The Same Hypnotic Point which seemed to keep the two a bit more distinct. Look no further for an example than opener "Glassy," which moves between alternating glissandos and strange, pseudo-bossa nova grooves of which I can make out two distinct rhythms played at slightly different tempos and enter in at bizzare moments, overlap one another, and rarely really jive with what is harmonically happening in the song. It is a trip. From there, Nelson's muscles continually flex through drones that roll out in wide pastures or explore deep, dank caverns, all evoking moody colors that come in both smooth and hazy, gauzy qualities. His voice finds a more prominent role here, humming tunes and singing lyrics, doubling down on the drone as real ballads with nice potery and beautiful whispering melodies (see "Labendolla" especially). He's also adding instruments to the mix here, particularly piano and some more obviously synth-related modulations. Aside from "Glassy," overall Worlds tones down the craziness and focuses in on compositions that are a bit easier to swallow in their own right. This might still be a bit unfocused, and also the way some of the pieces just cut off out of nowhere is maddening. But Worlds is also home to some of the prettiest sounds I've heard Zac Nelson produce. Further hooked.
Sound A Sleep Sound (Bathetic)
It's just... that this record is so incredible. It makes my heart cave in a little every time I put it on. "Cloud Mine" is on the A Side. It begins and ends with a melody that is constantly turning on. Electrically. Each note arrives with a sublte swoop, like the components of an old machine being brought to life with the flip of several heavy-duty switches, lights glowing and growing brighter, and the chorus of humming electricity permeating your whole body, gathering internally in a hazy cloud (if you will...) that eventually sprinkles drips of liquid synth like cooling rain out your pores and onto the cement below. It feels so good. Side B is no less the stunner. A thick forest of drone hidden in a shadowy canopy, cut with beaming streaks of sunray-like tones. Utilizing a wide sonic range, each sound quivers with light tremolo in a spacious hum, making for a swirling, trembling piece of music that hovers in an elegantly stationary state, not unlike another TOME-fav, Water Lily Jaguar. With this release, Nelson is finding a more unified aesthetic than ever before, nixing some of the more "out" ideas found in the previous two and zoning in on a pair of totally alligned pieces that come together to form one brilliant, fully realized statement.... what I've secretly been wanting all along. Not to knock the Debacle or Field Hymns albums at all—as you have read, those contain plenty of great music full of imaginitave thinking and daring experimentalism. But sometimes we all need something a little more singular, solid, and defined, and Sound A Sleep Sound accomplishes this feat nicely. Fully hooked.
Also, straight up ridiculously great artwork for the cover, no?
p.s. Sorry... I guess I'm a little obsessed, here's some more ZN for you. I had to mention his new project, Biosexual, in which he sings alongside the music of Michael RJ Saalman. Look for a new tape from the duo on Crash Symbols (another great label... imagine.) coming soon!
Audio stream of "Sleigher" by Biosexual