This latest album continues to explore the more electronic phase of Evan Caminiti's art, yet feels quite a bit different from his other recent work. Inspired by the "psychic and physical toxicity of life in late capitalism," Toxic City Music is a corroded, crackling, and bleary miasma of processed guitar and industrial textures gleaned from Caminiti's surroundings in NYC. While the prevailing aesthetic is a somewhat noirish ambient fantasia on urban decay and alienation, the smoggy gloom is artfully balanced out by some fine spectral dub-techno touches. In fact, this record is most successful when viewed as a deeply experimental electronic dub album, as Caminiti is not so much appropriating a new influence as he is dipping it into the acid bath of his flickering and smoky dystopic vision, then presenting the barely recognizable remains. Toxic City may be a diffuse, shadowy, and understated vision, but it is a very compelling and distinctive one as well.
Over the course of his career with Barn Owl and his many solo and collaborative releases, Evan Caminiti has covered a remarkable amount of stylistic territory, so this latest album is not a particularly radical aesthetic move. What is radical, however, is how completely Caminiti has shifted from a composer mindset to that of a producer. While a rare melodic motif occasionally surfaces, Toxic City Music is an album that is almost entirely fixated on texture, largely drifting along as a murky, crackling fog fitfully disrupted by industrial rumblings. The opening "Acid Shadow I" is a perfectly representative harbinger of everything that follows: cavernous, wobbly throbs; washes of hissing static; enigmatic snatches of machine noise; and ghostly, indistinct swells of processed guitar. Most of these pieces never quite cohere into anything particularly song-like, but that is very much by design. Caminiti’s intention here, for the most part, seems to be just conjuring a shifting and vaguely menacing fog that sometimes fleetingly dissipates to yield a glimpse of the structures beneath. That is an admittedly compelling and ambitious aesthetic move, but one that only works because it is not all tease: a few more substantial pieces eventually emerge from the morass as the album progresses.
The first piece to come more sharply into focus is "Joaquin," which sounds like massive high-tension cables swaying and shuddering in the wind over a desolate cityscape. There are some warm and dubby chord swells lurking beneath the subdued cacophony of roaring and hissing textures as well, but it is primarily the reverberant non-musical elements that occupy the foreground. It sounds a lot like trying to quietly enjoy my favorite Mille Plateaux album in an empty parking garage as a city collapses in slow-motion around me, albeit with all the sharper sounds softened and blurred into hallucinatory abstraction. Elsewhere, "NYC Ego" pushes the dub elements further to the fore, dragging along a woozily static and droning chord with a glacial and erratic beat, but gradually stretching and dissolving the structure until it is largely eclipsed with swells of overtones, echoing cracks, and snarling electronics. It is one of Caminiti's most inspired moments on the album, as it feels like he had an actual song, but decided to see what would happen if he allowed all the minor details to break free of their normal constraints and consume everything. The following "Toxic Tape (Love Canal)" stands out for similar reasons, starting off as lushly gorgeous bit of electronic dub that increasingly sounds like it has been drugged and is rapidly unraveling: rather than building, the piece deconstructs into isolated individual components drifting lost in a haze of emptiness and existential dread. The closing "Acid Shadow III" takes deconstruction still further, as its initial thrum of drones gives way to a simple wobbling and sputtering motif that dances nimbly through a wreckage of static and hollow scrapes. It feels like one cool sound from a Chain Reaction classic decontextualized and isolated to endlessly flit around in a decayed tape loop like a ghost.
To his credit, Caminiti certainly did not choose an easy or expected path for Toxic City Music, which makes some of its exquisite pleasures somewhat elusive and challenging to appreciate: it often feels like Caminiti recorded an absolutely sublime and beautiful album, then dumped a bunch of rubble on it and left it to rot. The more obvious pleasures peeking through the ruin are certainly an important part of the art, but the more interesting and distinctive aspect is largely the transformative decay. In fact, the rare forays into minor key melodies feel like missteps to me, as the darkness of this vision works best when it is shadowy, indistinct, and "natural" rather than composed and explicit. Also, while it is not a flaw, the subtlety of Toxic City means that it takes a bit of effort and attention to fully appreciate what Caminiti has done, as most conventionally gratifying aspects of music (hooks, beats, harmonies) have been willfully blurred and stretched into muted oblivion. I am perfectly fine with that, but it admittedly took a significant recalibration of my expectations to fully warm to this release: Toxic City Music is not exactly a good dub album, but it beautifully evokes what a good dub album might sound like if it was being played on a dusty and malfunctioning tape deck through blown-out speakers in a bombed-out building. As far as I am concerned, the latter is the far more intriguing achievement. If there could be a darkly lysergic nexus where electronic dub; Basinski-esque tape decay; and post-apocalyptic, rusted-out urban wasteland all seamlessly came together, it would probably sound a hell of a lot like this.