A look back on one of last year’s most intriguing projects, a complete album that coerces the listener into total open-mindedness.
Beats are the hard currency of underground music. In 2020 we find ourselves at a point where art is traded as a commodity – which it is. Graphic designers use their visuals as bargaining chips, opens and placements drive high prices from notable rappers, and producers – those who craft the musical soil in which most homemade music grows – monetise their work with systems of leases, and commercialised collaboration. In this way, instrumentals have taken on a great deal of value as Soundcloud rap and its many child scenes have grown. The economy of underground music is, like the world economy that presides over all of us, layered, nuanced, and unavoidable.
“Rogue Intruder, Soul Enhancer”, Oli XL’s album released in mid 2019, is obsessed with the value of sound. He plays the roles of banker and beggar amidst swathes of auditory collapse. If the world were made purely of sound, “Rogue” would be the sound of a corporate heist, desperate in how it grabs each drum and synth refrain from seemingly thin air, but much too clean, precise, and calculated for a shotgun robbery. Throughout, though, Oli XL is master of illusion – he pushes these deeply held emotions onto the listener, forcing them to forget that the Swedish artist held all the cards all along. He possesses an inordinate amount of musical cash for the entirety of the album, but plays as if he has nothing, allowing for a gripping dichotomy of destitute sporadicism and inspiring beauty.
Largely instrumental, “Rogue” feels like a direct response to the capitalistic inflation of modern musical production; it is supremely restrained, often permitting only snares or only kicks to fire at a single moment, with samples rarely overlapping. It elucidates that those with talent do not have to show the full extent of their prowess in every work, though the comfort of Oli’s label, Bloom (a sub-label of YEAR0001), allows him to think outside the need to reach musical employment. It directly contrasts the culture of ‘type beats’, in which myriad talented producers showcase the very best of what they can do, and then offer it to any artist with the right funds, or even just an email address. Creatives must be paid and any means that facilitate this are beyond valid (and it’s not uncommon to see original creations branded as ‘type beats’ for the sake of exposure) but Oli XL’s polar opposite is just so refreshing. Its discipline challenges the underground, but mocks the mainstream, providing songs more engaging than much of the charts with a third of the moving pieces. “Rogue” is so defiantly unique that even a direct interpolation of Beck’s “Loser” on the eleventh track doesn’t stop the impression that it imitates no one.
“Cygnostik”, the opening track, states a commitment to minutiae immediately, featuring a swirl away from blaring horns into a punchy drum sequence, offset by unintelligible vocals, compressed to mimic a hand radio. Akin to a foreword in literature, “Cygnostik” discusses much of what “Rogue” does in three minutes. A digital, rolling sample is subjected to phasers, filters, repetition. When original synths enter they take the form of a single note echoed across four bars, and drums crack and break like branches while light ambient notes from field recordings fill out the background. “Liquid Love” is a direct follow up, seeing Oli take more control with the drums, fitting each click, slide, or snap between the others with near-total precision. At the song’s second half, sweetened pads run from left to right and back again. All of these parts demand full attention despite their quietness, as by now Oli is so obviously proficient that intrigue becomes the listener’s motivation.
“Mimetic” carries the first true vocal performance on “Rogue Intruder”, pitched up and apathetic, weaving through a chain of hi-hats and bulging bass that dies only to reappear milliseconds later, unnaturally hardy. “You look at me like I ain’t got a clue” signifies an awareness of the chaos of Oli’s work, and self-affirmation of its merit via his flippant tone. Oli XL knows how alien this all sounds when coming from the overloaded mainstream, but will not bend to those specifications, instead bending concepts of dance and pop around the songs themselves. In fact, “Rogue” is full of this type of reconsideration; “DnL” channels lowercase music with scratches of chalk on slate, and “Hesitate” devalues the presence of Ecco2k by having him deliver his verse unaltered and over the phone. This lofi appearance from Ecco asks us to rethink the use of popular guests on a track, checking the expectations of those who rush into the work of a new artist for the sake of hearing a familiar voice. “Imposter” recalls elements of vaporwave, and is the least gripping of any song here; with its silvery tone it forms a gracious interlude but, unlike the other ten tracks, does not repurpose its inspirations in any meaningful sense. All of this is done playfully – the vocal sample of “boring, lame!” on “DnL” is a sarcastic mimicry of maximalist detractors, and the bouncy sweetness of “Jet Generation” is limited to ninety seconds of repetition. These taunts challenge the listener to think as Oli XL does, manipulating themselves around the work rather than expecting it to comfort them.
In its second half “Rogue” allows more immersive sound work to bleed through the chokehold of Oli XL’s drum machines. “Flower Circuit”, a song in two acts, is the furthest thing from organic, running in place for three minutes before diving into a pool of deep ambience. It’s the first track on the album that is entrancing by design, simplified initially so that the beat change hits hard. Mundanity is repurposed, the ringtone of an office phone warps alongside a noisy, phasing synthesiser, and unrecognisable patterns of day to day life are displayed to be re-learned by the consumer. “Orchid Itch” is musical parasitosis, wriggling noise claws at the listener as vocal twitches leave them unable to pinpoint a clear message. Oli is at his most warlike here, the coherent rhythm of the opener is treated like sickness, cured by trademark glitchy licks and slight differences in the drum pattern from bar to bar. “Clumsy” flips this coin. Rather than dismiss the consensus around beauty in music as “Cygnostik” or “Orchid Itch” do, “Clumsy” offers an alternative take. It demonstrates that the popular ideal can be subverted to meet the same quality, and therefore tacitly encourages experimentation. An even timbre is punctuated by an infallible kick drum that shatters the low end every time it hits, as if mining for dopamine. The aforementioned Beck interpolation galvanises the statement Oli makes throughout the album. With sardonic reference to the strangeness of “Rogue” (and perhaps anticipation of negative or subdued reception) he asks; “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?”.
Fortunately, “Rogue Intruder, Soul Enhancer” was met with critical praise from outlets like Pitchfork and RA, though most of its songs are yet to break 100,000 plays on Spotify. It’s a shame that this album, despite the efforts of these and other institutions, has not reached a wider audience. For all intents and purposes, “Rogue” currently exists in a pocket dimension, serving as a critique of the mainstream, of oversaturation, and of one-note listening habits. It’s the mission of Oli XL to not become a paradox. He walks a fine wire between critique of established patterns and repurposing these same patterns to create a sort of fake (but alluring) familiarity. In order for his philosophy to take effect, he must attain greater saturation within the industry. What this album showcases though is a more likely reality, that he’s happy to remain a combination consumer-creator, personally guiding each rogue listener through a world of hidden musical wealth.
Listen to “Rogue Intruder, Soul Enhancer” here.
– Jamie (@youngjade1216)