Panorama: Acrobatic Thoughts Album Review

Working backwards through Raffaele Martirani’s catalog as Panoram, you might get the impression that he’s an incorrigible trickster. The most recent release from the Rome-born, Brooklyn-based musician was a 7″ faint electro-funk and wistful ambient with a real cannabis leaf pressed into the clear vinyl disc. The promotional text hinted that the label responsible, a new outfit called Arpabong, is said to have delved into his own stash: “Life forms and attached information fuse in a sonic mash-up that is re-coupled with the inexorable pluralism of flora, order, listening statistics and scientific protocols evolving towards a bio-acoustic morphology.” That came of course on April 20th.

However, the record for that was a more serious matter. Piano Sequence Vol.1 collected Martirani’s experiments on the Yamaha DC7X, a MIDI-controlled acoustic grand piano capable of both breathtaking complexity and deep delicacy. Aphex Twin is believed to have used a similar instrument on “April 14”; Martirani used it to achieve a black MIDI-esque blur of runs that no human could play, as well as elegantly detuned tones that suggest light is flowing around black holes.

The truth of Martirani’s musical character probably lies somewhere between those two poles: Conlon Nancarrow in the streets, Jeff Spicoli in the sheets. Since 2014, he has developed a quirky signature, fusing different styles – IDM, library music, classical minimalism – into a loose, low-key vibe where kitsch mingles with the sublime and quirky tickles the funny bone. It’s an unpredictable sound, lysergic and squirrel-like. In the world of Panorama, only a few neurons separate a chuckle from a swoon. But Acrobatic thoughts marks a subtle shift in emphasis, smoothing out some of Martirani’s gonzo edges and sinking deeper than ever into an air of wide-eyed delight.

The album takes its tonal cues from classic chill-out sounds. It’s awash with luscious synthesizers slathered with creamy harmonies, while telltale vocal textures—be it choral synth pads or monosyllabic samples played up and down the scale—impart human warmth. A century of ambient tropes swirl together in “Pseudolove”, where Satie-esque piano chords mingle with pitch-bent strings reminiscent of the KLF’s steel guitars Relax. In ‘Wandering Frames’, a stumbling, slowed-down sample of new-wave drums anchors synths billowing like hot air balloons, and an indistinct loop of a speaking child recalls the merry emotional blackmail of Boards of Canada. The space-age lounge jazz of “Z Miles” evokes the fascination of 90s electronics for the 60s; the song’s reverberant drums, dubbed vibraphone and abstract splashes of sax wouldn’t look out of place on Mo Wax’s canonical version headz compilations.

But Acrobatic thoughts never settles for mere trip hop pastiche. In ‘Storme’ rippling synth patterns mimic Steve Reich’s moiré-like layers, but there’s also a touch of My Bloody Valentine in the way the chords seem to smear together; The erratic pulse of the song, flowing across the rhythmic grid, feels unplayed or programmed, but possibly generative, as if triggered by natural processes — dripping icicles perhaps recorded in time-lapse, or the chemical communication of a mycelial network. “Monocielo” is even more intense, with violin-like arpeggios spinning frantically atop the sounds of rolling waves. In “Fiction of a Sea,” Martirani puts a softer spin on the aquatic world, using jazzy chords to represent the translucent curl of a wave and bursts of digital distortion to simulate the froth of the pause. A layer of squeaks and screeches of solid color in the seagulls on the edge of the frame. Playing the vaguely campy atmosphere of vintage porn soundtracks and nature documentaries, Martirani paints a vivid picture in sound.

He’s most rambunctious on the dizzying “Beautiful Engines,” a Boards of Canada-inspired reverie that explodes into tumultuous prog-rock drum fills. It’s a tricky balancing act, juggling such opposing modes, but Martirani manages; the drums never quite tilt in complete ridiculousness. On the contrary, this willingness to get a little crazy is what makes Acrobatic thoughts so refreshing: in spite of the piety of mood music, Martirani takes advantage of the eccentricity that fueled the best Balearic music of the 80s and 90s. And despite the big, flowing chords, sloppy like a golden retriever’s kiss, there’s often a hint of something wild lurking underneath. The album’s highlight “Seabrain” is a prime example: the song’s airy, major keys and sharply pinging percussion, dead ring tones for Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92, are suffused with all the optimism of golden age rave music. Listen deeper though and dissonant metal shards cut crosswise against that blissful mood. The mix of emotions is pure Panoram: the sunset is so rosy, you hardly notice the leaf glittering halfway away.

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