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Bioluminescence shows Teen Daze at the height of its powers (so far)

June 3, 2019

I am a huge Teen Daze fan, which means that I’m incredibly picky and specific about any new Teen Daze work. (It is a tragedy that sometimes it is harder to please your biggest fans than it is the casual fans. Sorry, In League with Dragons.)  Yet even while being incredibly picky and specific, it’s hard to find anything to knock in BioluminescenceFrom the title to the last second of the album, Jamison Isaak shows that he understands exactly what he’s been building in Teen Daze and that he knows how to further the project’s vision.

Teen Daze emerged as an electronic music project that fit neatly into the zeitgeist of the blink-and-you-miss-it chillwave moment. Most of the first-era chillwave artists have moved on to other sounds (psych or motorik or techno or indie-rock or whathaveyou) or retired altogether. Teen Daze is no exception to the moving on, but the direction in which the project has moved has honed in on what made chillwave great.

Compare “Treten” (opener of TD’s excellent full-length debut All of Us, Together) to “Near” (opener of Bioluminescence). “Treten” has reverb-heavy synths floating in the background, click-whoosh percussion, bloop-bloop bass, and a perky melody. It’s a great piece of electro that shows restraint in relation to more club-ready electronic genres and far more motion than ambient works. It nails a pleasant, warm, summery feeling. It is ideal chillwave.

Now listen to “Near”: It opens with reverb-laden pad synths, then layers in a synthesizer that sounds much like a violin. There’s a subtle-but-steady marching beat that contrasts against the free-flowing reverb synths. (This rhythmic tension comes from the much more patterned A World Away.) Then piano delicately joins. More percussion layers in. A thumping beat comes in for roughly ten seconds, then the track fades out. By its conclusion, it’s a dense, satisfying track that could have been expanded for much more time. Instead, it gives you everything you need to know about the track, teases you with what it could be, and opens up into the sophisticated, complex arrangement of “Spring.” “Near” is not only an introduction to the album and “Spring” (that would sell the track short), but it’s a perfect opener to the album. It’s much more patient as a track than “Treten” and points toward the songwriting maturity that Jamison Isaak brings to Bioluminescence.

The maturity is manifested in the attention to detail evident in “Near”. For the ten seconds that the beat is thumping, the track could fit in a lot of different albums of Teen Daze’s discography. But the way it gets there is unique to Bioluminescence. The track still offers all the joys of chillwave (warm sounds, a space between ambient and techno variants, easygoing vibes) but in a way that expresses sonic development in the track and previews the sonic development of the album.

And boy, is the album sonically developed. Far from being an upgrade on ambient, Bioluminescence is chock-full of complex, highly-coordinated arrangements. “Spring” is the chillwave song that everyone wanted to write, perfectly locked in to a space of relaxation while still including multiple melodic and percussive lines. The impressive bass work of “Hidden Worlds” can be called funky. The opening beat of “Ocean Floor” is either impressively sampled, intricately played on real percussion, or both; any 10-minute techno track would be jealous for that beat as the backbone of a club banger. The delicate, romantic, ballad-esque approach of “Longing” will woo old-school Teen Daze fans and send them on a trip back into the TD archives to find more like it.

Soincally, Teen Daze has long been about the connections and tensions between electronic and acoustic. Conceptually, Isaak has recently been focusing on the climate problems we have created for the world. In labeling this work Bioluminescence, Isaak points toward both of those ideas: bioluminescence itself is naturally-produced light (light that we usually assume comes from electricity). Bioluminescence also points obliquely to Jamison Isaak’s high regard for the luminosity and wonder of the biological world.

Isaak expresses that reverence for the natural via electronic music, and in particular electronic music that sounds very organic and acoustic. I mentioned the violin-like sounds and piano already; the piano in particular comes through on the record and provides the connection point between the natural and the electronic (“Drifts” and “Endless Light” in particular). The connection between the electronic and the acoustic, foregrounded in the title, is what makes this album so special. It’s not just a highly-sophisticated, beautiful collection of electronic music; it’s a collection that is written with a clearly-evident theme and purpose in mind. When the conceptual and sonic ideas of a record line up in beautifully-constructed tracks, there’s little to critique–this is a record that sets out with lofty goals and achieves them.

I started following Teen Daze because I liked chillwave then, and I love it now. Teen Daze is in touch with all of the elements that make chillwave so great, but has vastly expanded on them sonically and conceptually. Bioluminescence is a totally satisfying record that leaves nothing on the table: Jamison Isaak calls his shot and nails it with this one. This record is Teen Daze at the height of its powers so far. If you’re interested in any sort of electronic music, this is a must-hear that may well end up on your end-of-year-lists. I know it will be a strong contender for mine. Highly recommended.

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Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.

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