Shasta Cults, "Shasta Cults"

Sunday, 15 December 2019 11:51 Anthony D'Amico Reviews - Albums and Singles
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Shasta Cults' Richard Smith has not been releasing albums for very long, but has been an integral and in-demand figure in synthesizer circles for quite a while due to his singular talent for repairing vintage Buchla gear.  In fact, this project was originally born from recordings that Smith made to demonstrate the various rare synths that wound up in his workshop.  In keeping with that theme, this full-length vinyl debut was composed entirely on the world's sole fully operational Buchla Touché.  That certainly makes this a unique and significant release for vintage synth enthusiasts, but it is also a remarkably excellent and well-crafted album that I can enjoy too.  Whether or not this is the strongest Shasta Cults release to date is up for debate, however, as competition from 2017’s Arguments for Trivialism and 2019's EP is quite fierce.  Each Shasta Cults release has its own distinct character though and the Touché seemed to bring out Smith's warmer, more meditative side, making this release a bit more accessible than the colder, heavier drones of his previous work.

Important Records

The Buchla Touché first appeared in 1978 as an innovative hybrid synth that combined analog circuitry with a digital computer, though apparently only seven (at most) were ever built.  Consequently, it is quite easy to understand why there is only one left that still works, but it is legitimately surprising that even that one is operational: I cannot imagine that there are many people keen on wrestling with a 40-year-old computer, much less one programmed using a proprietary language (in this case, FOIL).  Characteristically, I know fuck-all about the distinctions between classic Buchla synths, but the Touché appears to have been unusual for featuring a six-octave keyboard and an impressively large battery of oscillators.  I am not sure that the expanded keyboard shaped Smith's vision much at all, as his fondness for sustained drones remains unwavering.  However, it definitely seems like he had an especially rich and nuanced textural palette at his disposal for this album, as there is a mesmerizing amount of depth and subtle transformation lurking within its six simmering and spacey reveries.  The opening "Prologue" is a particularly fine example of that aesthetic, as Smith conjures up a gorgeously shimmering, quivering, and liquescent pool of sustained tones that gradually blossoms into deep throbs, shifting harmonies, and ghostly, feedback-like swells.  It is easily one of the best pieces on the album and beautifully highlights an aspect of Smith's art that I love: years of demonstrating the effects capabilities of synthesizers have made him an absolute sorcerer at transforming deceptively simple themes into something complex, multi-layered, and hypnotically hallucinatory.

While Smith certainly has a fondness for structural minimalism, he is not averse to occasionally expanding into lush chord progressions.  The achingly lovely "Fourgan" is one such piece, as two chords languorously seesaw beneath a harmonically rich and sensuously undulating mass of smeared organ-like tones.  As it unfolds, it quietly builds in power to a glimmering, phantasmagoric intensity that feels akin to watching a cold, starry night sky slowly melt and change color.  Needless to say, that sets an impossibly high bar for the rest of the album and the remaining four pieces never quite scale the same heights.  They are, however, all quite likable and add up to quite an absorbing, thoughtfully constructed, and varied whole (albeit within a very deliberately focused and constrained overarching vision).  The dreamy, quivering radiance of "Incline," for example, sounds like a more stable and understated variation on the oceanic bliss of "Prologue," while "DA3" transforms Smith's drones into a gnarled and roiling series of rhythmic waves.  On the closing "Chinook," however, Smith stretches out of his droning comfort zone once more, as a forlorn-sounding melodic loop insistently repeats over an intensifying hollow drone that seethes with cosmic dread.   It sounds like what might result if Abul Mogard was commissioned to soundtrack a deeply atmospheric and psychologically disturbing science fiction film, which is very appealing terrain indeed.

For me, the fact that this album was recorded on an extremely rare synthesizer is mostly just an interesting bit of trivia and a good hook for generating interest.  The primary appeal for Shasta Cults is mostly that it is an especially strong synth album that evokes and sustains a heady, psychotropic atmosphere akin to a dispatch from a haunted and glimmering future: this is the kind of music that an improbably soulful replicant might make in the world of Blade Runner.  At its heart, however, Shasta Cults actually feels like something more unique and fascinating than that, which is why this album resonates with me more than a lot of ostensibly similar fare: these songs could have only been birthed from this specific combination of machine and man.  That is not to say that Smith achieves some kind of grand stylistic breakthrough here, but it genuinely feels like he has an intuitive genius for bringing out the essence and personality of each mass of knobs and wires that he spends a significant amount of time with.  After hearing Shasta Cults, it is very tempting to over-romanticize Smith as some kind of "synth whisperer" or "analog empath" and I will (grudgingly) resist the urge to do that.  However, Smith's intimate and nuanced understanding of oscillators, waves, and signal processing is very real and it often yields very compelling results.

Samples can be found here.

Last Updated on Monday, 16 December 2019 19:30