Reassemblage is a 1982 film by Vietnamese filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha. Ostensibly it's about life in post-colonial Senegal, but really it's a critique of films that try to explain one culture from the perspective of another. Minh-ha's disjointed sequence of sounds and images doesn't help us understand the Senegalese way of life so much as bewilder us further. At the beginning of the film, she narrates: "I do not attempt to speak about—just speak nearby."
In their album of the same name, Visible Cloaks take this idea to heart. The lead single, "Valve," samples a spoken word track from Jupiter, the 1998 solo album of Dip in The Pool singer Miyako Koda (which was reissued as an EP last year). The Portland duo have translated the speech into MIDI information and fed it into a battery of synths, so that their pentatonic cascades uncannily mirror Koda's voice.
This is pretty much the album's MO. Its serene new age moods and bright synthetic palette suggest a strong primary influence: the Japanese leftfield synth scene of which Koda was a part, celebrated on the influential Fairlights, Mallets and Bamboo mixes recorded by Visible Cloaks' Spencer Doran. But the duo don't simply mimic the style, nor fetishise it as exotic. Instead, they "speak nearby" it, using "chance operations, MIDI 'translation,' and other generative principles" to refract it into modern shapes.
Voices are often central to the duo's method. On "Bloodstream," hints of speech surface from a scree of clicking synth arpeggios. Later, strange trembling sounds flirt with the uncanny—they're either synths processed to sound voice-like, or voices with a vocoded robotic sheen. On "Mask," similar vocoder tones make gentle interjections over an exquisite texture of mallet percussion and ersatz birdsong. And on "Neume," the duo, alongside fellow Portland synth explorer Matt Carlson, conduct a wobbly robot choir in a sort of smeared update of baroque choral music.
Carlson isn't the album's only guest appearance. "Terrazzo," with Motion Graphics, is one of its highlights, echoing the Domino producer's recent self-titled LP in its innovative use of software instruments. First woodwinds, then plucked strings, are bent into uncanny digital shapes—a celebration of faked human inflection. The duo repeat the trick on "Circle," where some kind of synthetic saxophone is sent into bizarre, breathy paroxysms.
Visible Cloaks' music makes sense alongside a set of Motion Graphics-related projects—such as Lifted and Co La—that are equally abstract, playful, and boundary-breaking in their use of digital tools. Reassemblage is the finest LP yet to emerge from this diffuse scene, and it also brings a new set of ideas to the table. In engaging with a specific, pre-internet style, it brushes against knotty debates about appropriation, exoticism and decontextualised borrowing in the online age. The music's gorgeous synthetic babble suggests ways of "speaking nearby" the things we love but will never fully understand.