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Evan Caminiti, "Refraction"

cover imageThis latest EP is a companion piece of sorts to Caminiti's 2017 Toxic City album, albeit one that draws its inspiration from NYC's hidden oases of calm and space rather than its more claustrophobic and dystopian elements. Much like its predecessor, Refraction continues to explore Caminiti's deep interest in dub techno, yet he has stretched the boundaries of the form in an intriguing, thoughtful, and almost quixotic way: with these four pieces, he attempts to replace the rhythm of the dancefloor with a more languorous and organic pulse ("like a circulatory system made audible"). With casual and relatively inattentive listening, these experiments feel kind of like a classic Basic Channel or Mille Plateaux release that has been deconstructed and stretched into something vaporous and drifting rather than pulsing, but the depth and quiet beauty of Caminiti's unconventional vision comes into vivid focus when Refraction is experienced through headphones.

Make Noise

Given that Refraction was released by Make Noise, it is no surprise that Caminiti composed these four pieces using a synthesizer.However, describing it as a "synth album" would be quite deceptive, as Caminiti's approach to the instrument was every bit as inventive as his approach to dub.In fact, he arguably subverts the whole idea of making a synth album, but it would probably be more accurate to say that he exploits that constrained palette in ways that illustrate some intriguing and fresh possibilities.Each piece is built primarily from a single patch recorded "live," but that recording was then fed into a different "dub-style" patch to transform it into something quite different.For the most part, all of the essential components of classic dub techno are present (warm synth chords, reverberant decay, loads of hiss, throbbing bass), but everything has been slowed down and recontextualized so that it adds up to a dreamlike ambient fog rather than a groove.Or perhaps those elements have merely been transformed into a new type of groove that approximates the tempo of slow inhalation/exhalation (the key difference lies mostly the timescale rather than the structure).In essence, Caminiti has crafted an understated and subtly hallucinatory soundtrack for a meditative nocturnal stroll, which makes perfect sense, as many of the EP's non-synth sounds are field recordings that he made in Brooklyn Bridge Park on summer nights.Much like with the original synth patches, however, those field recordings are more of a lingering ghost than a consistently recognizable, palpable presence.The essence certainly remains, but usually not in the original form.

The opening "Refraction Praxis" is a fairly representative piece, as a hissing chorus of crickets drifts in and out of hearing while a series of warm, shivering chords fitfully propel the song forward.It would be a strong start to a conventional dub techno gem, but Caminiti never allows it to fully cohere into a consistent pulse, opting instead to let it linger in an unusual state of suspended animation.If that was the full extent of his vision, it would be a bit frustrating, as it feels like a promising theme has been reduced to a limping and precarious shadow of what it could be.Instead of completely languishing in neutral, however, "Refraction Praxis" is a vibrant feast of playfully unpredictable dynamics and false starts, as phantom chord changes and bass throbs endlessly hint at a transformation that never comes.The other, subtly different, type of piece on Refraction is best represented by "Mutation (Version)."In a lot of ways, it closely adheres to the same template as "Refraction Praxis," yet the spaces between the chords are allowed to fill with long, reverberant decays and gurgling, wobbly bass pulses.While that is structurally quite a minor difference, it has a significant impact on the feel of the piece, resembling an undulating fog that occasionally blossoms into more defined shapes.The remaining two pieces do not depart much from those twin templates, but they offer enough variation to keep the release compelling.In "Neurotoxin," for example, the underlying chords lock into in a slow-motion pulse of whooshing swells as a moaning, spectral theme elusively drifts through the foreground.The closing "Revealer (Reduction)," on the other hand, almost completely dissolves any recognizable structure, slowing to just a glacially repeating chord in a sea of hiss, albeit one illuminated by hints of a buried, burbling melody that is never allowed to fully surface.

Each piece is texturally vibrant and unusual in its own way, which amounts to a solid EP, but Caminiti was wise to make this a fairly concise release: Refraction is all tease with no pay-off.While these pieces work to some degree as both experimental dub and shimmering, ghostly ambience, their ability to fully satisfy as the latter is limited by the starkly minimal palette: Caminiti is wringing as many shades of emotion and intriguing transformations as he can from a single patch, so building a steadily deepening longform piece from that would be a tall order. As the former, however, Refraction is quite a characteristically impressive achievement.Over the years, Caminiti's vision has taken many shapes, but the thread that runs through it all is his ability to master a form, then intuitively reassemble the component pieces into his own distinctive take that bleeds through the expected boundaries and opens up new territory.Based on the wonderful and varied textures he conjures and the skillful way that they are juggled and manipulated here, it is safe to say that Caminiti could have easily made a stellar straightforward dub album if he put his mind to it, but likely have been bored out of his goddamn mind in the process.Admittedly, I would have been perfectly happy to hear him try his hand at more instantly gratifying fare, as I can count the number of great recent dub albums on one hand (an amusing dearth, given how pervasive it is as an influence).From an artistic standpoint, however, I am glad that Caminiti chose this more challenging path instead, asattentive listening reveals Refraction to be a unique and memorable gem of understated beauty.

Samples can be found here.