December 6, 2021

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d’Eon: Rhododendron Album Review | Pitchfork


A decade ago, Chris d’Eon went looking for the archangel Gabriel in the depths of cyberspace. Having recently returned from a year-long stay at an Indian monastery, he was living in a windowless room in Montreal and working in a call center. The economy was falling apart. Everywhere around him he felt a sense of malaise, a creeping pessimism at odds with Silicon Valley’s utopian promises. It felt clear that God, if He existed, had abandoned us; if His messenger was out there, d’Eon reasoned, he might be lurking somewhere in the chaos of the internet.

The result of d’Eon’s spiritual quest was LP, an ambitious and occasionally overblown album that loaded up an opulent bed of synthesizers with new-age atmospheres, pop melodies, jungle beats, and lyrics shot through with Quranic references and technological disillusionment. Following 2011’s Darkbloom, d’Eon’s split EP with fellow Montrealer Grimes, LP cemented his reputation as a visionary figure in the nascent vaporwave scene. But while Grimes turned a similar strain of techno-spiritualist world-building into bona fide hits—and a career as the world’s foremost futurist pop star—d’Eon’s music only became more hermetic. With his Music for Keyboards series, also inaugurated in 2012, he largely abandoned LP’s pop overtones and lyrical preoccupations in favor of sparkling synthesizer etudes fit for crystal emporia. The Trios series, launched in 2015, veered down a knottier path, trading prismatic bliss for dissonant thickets akin to black MIDI. Rhododendron, which marks d’Eon’s first physical release in six years, feels like a return from the wilderness and a culmination of his diverse interests, folding classical pastiche, obsolete technology, and bracingly inventive compositions into an unmistakably heartfelt package.

Stylistically, Rhododendron is a curious hodgepodge of neo-Baroque, medieval folk music, and 20th-century serialism, moving among intricate counterpoints, Ren Faire melodies, and impenetrable blasts of atonalism. What holds it all together is a palette of chamber instruments like harpsichord, oboe, and clarinet—or synthetic versions of them, anyway. But these are not particularly faithful copies; they are clunkily ersatz and clearly fake. The vibrato is too steady, the harmonies too perfect. But that patina of inauthenticity is a big part of their charm. d’Eon’s use of “rompler” synths popular among game designers in the 1990s—devices capable of playing back pre-recorded sounds of acoustic instruments—imbues the music with an almost subliminal nostalgic charge: The idealized forms of the 18th and 19th centuries come cloaked in the outmoded sounds of the much more recent past. It triggers a kind of temporal vertigo.

In mood, Rhododendron often feels like a series of fake-outs. “Intro” opens the album with stately cello and reeds before “Rhododendron pt. I” launches into an innocent pastoral refrain. Every eight bars, a new voice enters the frame; the melodic themes amount to a breezy amalgam of Baroque, pop, and classical minimalism. Two more versions of “Rhododendron” appear across the album, each one jauntier and more bucolic than the last; by the end, it sounds almost as though d’Eon has been pilfering old tapes from the music library of PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre. But as the album progresses, other pieces turn thorny and dissonant, less Switched on Bach than “Jazz From Hell.” “Into the Clearing pt. I” begins as an airy fantasia for woodwind, but jabbing harpsichords upset the key signature; the scattershot “Into the Clearing pt. II,” which follows, sounds as indeterminate as John Cage’s star-chart compositions. The two-part “Through the Mangrove,” for electric organ and harp, hiccups like a tangled garden hose of wrong notes.

Even d’Eon’s more melodic tracks are not always what they seem. “Cobra” follows the limpid, reassuringly consonant “Rhododendron pt. I” with a jarring study in contrasts. This time, dissonance reigns, trills clattering like coins on a countertop. But after a series of sour, staccato counterpoints, the song eases into a slinky, almost Latin-tinged pop motif, like some unholy blend of Shakira’s pert “Me Enamoré” with David Sylvian’s dour “Pop Song.” Here, all the contradictions of d’Eon’s music come excitingly to the fore. He grinds gears between exaggerated naivete and extreme difficulty; possibilities multiply in the uncanny valley of his presets. The chintziness of his synthetic instruments is almost poignant, like a remnant of a simpler era. In its own way, Rhododendron feels as much like a spiritual quest as LP did. Now, however, instead of looking for messages from God in the darkest corners of the internet, he’s seeking transcendence in shopworn tropes, bargain-bin synths, and the collision of sounds that were never meant to go together.


Buy: Rough Trade

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