Brian Altano is a man I first came to know through his work in the video games industry. Lead Writer for IGN’s Up at Noon and co-host of the hugely popular and rather adult Comedy Button podcast, Brian is a man whose name is pretty well known by people within the nerdy gamer world. However, like many creative types who do a 9-5 day job in their chosen creative persuit, Brian likes to branch out and make music when he’s not writing comedy sketches and doing video game type things. So, I bring you my thoughts on Brian Altano’s newest creative endevour, his new experimental Hip Hop/ Electronica Sci-Fi album Misanthrope.
Track 1 – Misanthrope. Misanthrope opens with it’s title track and I was pretty caught off guard with what I heard. The track, which wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the background to some sci-fi mystery show in it’s opening moments, starts with a layer of ambient electronic sounds and solemn piano. This is layered over with a laid back beat, a slightly sour saxophone and a male voice doing an almost beat-box style stuttering rendition of the song title every so often. It has a real outer space style feel to it, backed up by some spoken word segments that sound like clips from an old television program. The spoken word exchange talks about a desire to think of someone back on earth, suggesting that my space style interpretation of the track’s tone was probably something intentional in the song’s design. It’s an interesting direction, one that I was very pleased to see repeated throughout the remainder of the album.
Track 2 – It’s Payday, Mr. Jopeck. Continuing this outer space audio theme, the second track on the album feels somewhat like it would fit best in the interior of some large and sprawling space station or alien mothership. Using some very menacing and lonely tones, we get a brief bit of speech from a man, sounding like he’s on the far end of some kind of intercom system, telling the listener threateningly that that they should “reach deep down inside yourself and try to find something to keep yourself awake just a little while longer” and discussing the listener’s remaining will to live. It painted a picture of a prisoner to me, someone without much hope, someone on the edge of giving up.
We then get the drums coming into the mix in a huge fast repetitive burst, somewhat reminiscent of bursts of gunfire. More aggressively and defiantly paced than the previous track, this fast and powerful gunfire of drums is a repeated theme throughout the track. We get quiet and mournful sections, plucking of guitar strings and a light twinkling of the piano over ambient scene setting sounds, but it’s never too long before that drum beat comes back to remind you of the important and desperate nature of the track.
Track 3 – Dial Tone. Put up early on Soundcloud to get people excited for the album pre release, Dial Tone keeps the running ethereal other worldly tone at its core. The melody layered over this ambience is all a bit distant, electronic and distorted, fighting to be noticed underneath a very short and sharp drum line. Every drum beat is snappy, punchy and very direct. It’s pinpoint in its use of drums and is constantly fighting to stay on top of the distorted and distant, but increasingly loud melody layer. Every time the melody rises, the drums snap back to the forefront, making sure they demand your focus above all else in the track.
Track 4 – Misery Loves Companies. The more this album goes on, the more I’m growing to love its use of what sound like old tv dialogue snippets to enforce tone. We open with an argument between two men on board some form of spaceship. When ordered to continue a mission at the expense of his men, we hear a captain stubbornly assert his right to defy the orders he has been issued and get his men home to earth and to their families. It’s a dramatic start to the track and fits nicely between the controlling drumline of the previous track and loud and fast drums that begin this track. Using a higher frequency of high pitched held notes, we get the introduction of what is described by one of the voices as a laser, paving the way for an almost dubstep-eque beat drop and wobble setup. We get lots of shrill high pitches and audio wobbles, perfectly capturing musically the feel of how a laser beam looks in my mind. It’s a very futuristic feeling track and one that I couldn’t help finding setting up mental images in my head while I listened.
Track 5 – Break You Down. A much more desolate track than the last couple of songs, we start off with a slow piano segment that evokes the sadness of loss that a death brings. This is routinely layered with what sounded to my internal gamer geek mind like the booming sound of a Reaper from Mass Effect unleashing it’s terrifying death beam. As the track progresses a pacey beat is introduced that picks up the pace of the song without actually speeding up the underlying melody. With it’s introduction the alien alarm sound becomes louder and shifts in focus, becoming more less echoing and booming, instead being more angry and assertive. The song ends by suddenly dropping back down to just the piano, ending just as desolate and hopeless as it began.
Track 6 – Let’s Try This Again. The second half of Misanthrope kicks off with a track that does something a little different to previous tracks. Underneath the track’s drum beat there’s a base audio layer that’s best described as a mix between static and white noise. It’s just this fuzzy humming sound, that kind of sound that is impossible to focus on properly and just exists as a garbled and unintelligible layer of buzzing inside your head.
Every so often the song is brightened by quick and pacey flurries of electronic sci-fi sound effects. Lasers, electronic machinery, roboting whirring and the rest of the sounds that summed up every vision of the future anyone televised in the 80’s. These become more common and the beat grows more complex, slowly building up until the base static sound is almost entirely impossible to make out any longer.
Let’s Try This Again also features a few snippets of a teenage boy shouting out for help. The louder the music gets, the more desperately he screams “Can Anyone Hear Me?”. It lends a real sense of danger and struggle to the track, something that the sparse use of vocals has actually done really well every time it has come up so far.
Track 7 – One A.M. Okay, this track on the album really creeped me out. It is full of sounds that would feel at home within some kind of children’s music box, but they’re all tweaked just enough to make them disturbing as hell. Maybe it’s the context within the surrounding audio layers, the order the notes are swapped between or even the surrounding glitch like audio, but something about the pliny plonky sounds that permeate the track just filled me with this rather large sense of dread.
As the track continues it’s layered with more dramatic and stronger layers of audio, the kind of sounds that only served to increase my sense of dread. It continues to grow, forming a mental picture for me of the kind of setting where a small child might be being snatched from their bed in the middle of the night by whatever alien force has been present in the back of my mind throughout the whole series of songs. It’s a genuinely worrying prospect, but it’s carried off so well here that I can’t stop listening, it just keeps me hooked on for the ride.
Track 8 – Silver Shank. Opening with a mix of dial up modem style beeps and the kind of low and hollow notes that you’d expect to come from someone hitting a full scientific beaker with a soft headed drum mallet, we are given the setup for the track by way of more spoken word audio as a man rushes around discussing an impossible distress signal. He presses some buttons, an alert is raised and bam, the song kicks into gear.
The low and booming drum beats, accompanied by those previously mentioned hollow notes paint a very vivid picture of an assault or mission being embarked upon into some form of secret lab. We storm into this very medical and scientific audio landscape and suddenly things get serious, we rush through the track, pushing forward with speed and urgency.
A quiet reprise, a slow moment to look around and assess the situation, then the song kicks back in, pushing the listener forward through the experience. Pushing us forward, never looking back.
Track 9 – If You Need Me I’m Gone. This is by far my favourite track on the album. Clocking in at just over five minutes long, it’s an emotional roller coaster that really resonated with me upon my first listen of the album. The track starts with a very romantic and melodic piano line, but it doesn’t take more than a few seconds for that romantic tone to start gradually shifting and changing. Over the course of the song’s opening 2 minutes we get layer after layer placed on top of this simple piano line, gradually changing the tone of the piece. We get additional, more melancholy, piano lines slowly layered first, signifying a change from the initial romantic tone to one that is more suggestive of a relationship beginning to fall apart, or someone being separated from the one they love.
Then we get the heavy bass sounds introduced, booming and powerful, unstoppable in scope. This is no longer someone leaving their love, it’s someone being forcibly dragged away from them, kicking and screaming, fighting not to be taken away.
There’s something very much defiant and resilient in the last few minutes of the song as the electric guitar starts to be added in. It feels like the person being dragged away is kicking and screaming, punching and kicking, doing everything they can to fight their way back to freedom and their love. It gets rockier, busier, faster and more intricate, then very quickly everything falls away, everything is quiet, whatever grand escape attempt was being made is over. It’s unclear if it’s a good thing or not, it’s just over one way or another.
I found myself creating elaborate stories in my head to match the track, applying it to my own romantic life and just listening on repeat. It’s a masterful example of how to take someone on an emotional journey without saying a word and the albums hidden gem, the track I’ll be using to sell friends on why Misanthrope is worth spending their money on.
Track 10 – Take it All. The final track on Misanthrope returns to the subdued, space style ambience of the album’s early tracks. Opening with discussion of attempts to “create the perfect being”, the sound-scape evolves by introducing steadily more and more sounds of alarms, computers bleeping and electronic effects like laser beams and scanners into the mix. The drums kick in with a fast paced beat as the electronic sounds become more like dubstep wubs, but while maintaining their electronic tone and theme.
The drum beat over this track is incredibly interesting. In place of what would usually be snare beats, we instead get short powerful blasts of concentrated static. Layered over the dubstep style electronic melody, this combination adds up to an awesome new sound that’s unlike quite anything else I’ve ever heard. It’s dramatic, catchy, distorted and raw, but it’s thematically consistent with everything that came before it and feels like a fantastic climax to the journey that this album has been. It eventually slows down, calms itself and settles to a gentle piano based stop.
Overall Thoughts – Brian Altano’s new album is unlike quite anything else I’ve ever listened to, in all the best ways. It’s a creative attempt to mash some serious space and sci-fi inspirations in with some of the hip-hop sounds and influences he’s known to have grown up enjoying, with a sprinkling of raw rough garage rock in it’s guitar lines. It’s a wonderful journey or emotions, creativity and adventure. It’s going to be available as a pay as you want download when it releases on December 10th, but I can’t overstate how much I enjoyed it and really feel you should throw some money his way for the experience. Just stick yourself in a pitch black room with some big headphones turned right up, stick the album on and just let yourself experience the sprawling half an hour sound-scape that has been crafted for you.
Misanthrope will be available here from December 10th 2013.