2012 / 2016
HCMJ's Chiptune Concestor
Once we're looking back, we saw the movement called Vaporwave coming all along, naturally. We also had (and still have) to face the various paradoxes and schisms that make and break a V-album. Video game soundtracks of pixel classics, voxel works and polygon masterstrokes, for instance, aren't necessarily considered part of the genre… if you even allow it to be called a genre after all, but oh my, ixnay on that topic-ay. If this nihilistic train of thought suits your fancy, then eureka, welcome to Dreams, a ten-track album envisioned in 2012 already by Philadelphia-based James Webster aka HCMJ aka one half of death's dynamic shroud.wmv and, on the above release, the sole proprietor of the Winter Sleep moniker. Based on and inspired by Sega's colorama Nights Into Dreams that was originally released in 1996 on their Saturn console, the album originally materialized in 2012 on the Chiptune label Pause. Little did James — and all of us — know that the sentient sentiment of this release would fit into the morphogenetic cotyledon of Vaporwave only mere months later.
Dreams is a declaration of love for the game, comprising escapism, sanguine delight and child-like — in lieu of childish — gullible emotions in the wake of cathodic paradises and tropical locales. With an album title like that, it is but a coup de main to have it featured in re-issued form on HKE's headquarters Dream Catalogue where it is stored on tape for the very first time. Released in March 2016 and available to purchase and stream on the label's Bandcamp page as always, Dreams adheres to the Chiptune and Casioware formulae, adds frantic japanophile complexions to the gamut and rounds off the gouraud-shaded bokeh with masterful melodies. Expect bouncing tone sequences, scintillating textures… and the following three overarching constituents that ennoble the rectangularly shaped artifact.
And so at last, it comes to this: Nights Into Dreams Into Tapes. Photograph by HKE.
One Man's Rain Pads Are Another One's Camphene Crystals
Oh how shiny these translucent synths glimmer and gleam and glint! The micro opener Winter Sleep -Logo- already embraces the panchromatic way of life within a mere 15 seconds or so. A mimicry — but not an echopraxia — of the playfully jingle-accompanied corporate logo escapism that greeted so many players (now gamers) of the 80's and 90's, this first track is but a wondrous gemstone of the things to come, emanating benignancy and friendliness aplenty. From this point onwards, Dreams surfs the vapor waves and races the pluvial tides. The second track Night In Dream City shows a luring rain forest/concrete jungle diffeomorphism chock-full with gorgeous rising eight-note saprotrophs, echoey bongo blebs and emerald erethism, with the fully immersive polyphony playfully piercing through the cochleae of the traveler. Or take the seventh track We're Sleeping where cave pearls and drenched flumes in b-minor evocate a susurrant New Age-oid Ambient mysticism as seen through a Japanese zoetrope, all the while the subsequent industrialism called Dread Nightmare is the epicentric hydronova of the album: mephitic and eldritch on the one hand (what with its vulturine cries), but also powered by yttrium atoms and lanthanide muons, one thing is for sure: the crystalline structure is elemental.
Covalent Bonding: Solar Solanums And Hibernal Heliospheres
Dreams shifts into enigmatic settings and rather pastel-colored interstices from time to time, but the languorous night shines on more often than not, and there's plenty of uplifting, fast-paced chiptune corkers to be absorbed, some of them even fittingly festive, as if the Christmas episode of the Nights Into Dreams video game series never faded away in the first place. The interplay between salubrious light and holy darkness sees its first highpoint in the saccharified Ice Cream Mountains: (hol)arctic choirs, mid-freq bass lariats and swooshing laser lights radiate an arcane aura, with the four-to-the-floor/breakbeat dualism pushing the tramontane boundaries even further. The Possibility meanwhile is an X-mas dream come true. An Ambient aureole that presents the amalgamation of a Buddhist chimescape with Occidental yearning, it might well be the strongest vaporwaviest track of James' early outing. The aforementioned Dread Nightmare then needs to make its encore in this paragraph as well, if only for the adiabatic heat and gelid crestfallen undertones that become mercilessly entangled. Is it a solar summer breeze or shock-frozen tropicandum? One thing is for sure: it's hard to pinpoint the real mood, but that doesn't make the track any less exciting. Dread Nightmare is mentioned two times in this review for a reason!
Arpeggiated Anthems, Helicoidal Hymns
You can't write hymns and anthems without stupefying tone sequences that are both open to scrutiny and entwined enough to enthrall. Severely so. Melody is king in James Webster's accidental Vaporwave peritoneum, and better still: the ditties are allowed to shine on their own, for Dub-infested effects and thunderous reverberations aren't the forte. The soundscape is always pristine, adamantly immediate despite the dreaminess, and always close to being tangible. Then again, there are the timbrical elements that work as a moiré of distance, for example the baroque harpsichord/lute hybrid that is entrapped within Forest Fountains. With a runtime of over six minutes, the listener is surrounded by a mercilessly catchy crystal wireframe, Italo pianos and upbeat hi-hat runlets, but the faux-ancient age of the presented material only lets the listener long for the oldest of vapor times (hint: the late 80's and 90's); sudenly, one realizes that these melodies once ruled the world. And equally suddenly, one becomes aware of the fact that a resurrection takes place: these antediluvian, moss-covered and retrogressive ayres still exist. In re-issued form no less!
A Proto-Vapor Star Is Born
Dream Catalogue has moved on, now is the time to look back for a moment and eminently embrace not just the coinciding vapor veils that float through Winter Sleep's pixellated proscenium, but its chiptune core that pulsates in the center of it all. Dreams has lost nothing of its naïvete; the child-like awe and moony wonders have likely increased since the original inception in 2012. For we know, Vaporwave has grown, been declared dead and subsequently resurrected on a monthly, if not weekly basis. Dreams is the ultimate refreshment in accordance with this wave-like structure in that it is meant as an aside, albeit an elemental one at that. It can certainly be connected to the V-craze in hindsight, but its intended retro sound, the MIDI muons and apocryphal interim state altogether merge into a delicious blending. Sega memories, video game memorabilia and Chiptune chasms are certainly helpful in appreciating the plinking starlit dioramas. Nights Into Dreams functions as as the clear-cut baseframe for this album, but there are no cheeky meanings or hidden innuendos enclosed in those sound-based crystals but love for the gamer lore whose mauve-colored mists wash over the happy listener. This reissue is both a bold step and clear sign that Dream Catalogue owner HKE is still open for soothingly dreamy centrioles. A winner is us.
Further listening and reading:
- You can stream and order Dreams at Bandcamp.
- Artist and label on Twitter: @HCMJmagic @dream_catalogue
- AmbientExotica's additional articles about James Webster can be found here.
Vaporwave Review 155: Winter Sleep – Dreams (2016). Originally published on Mar. 16, 2016 at AmbientExotica.com.