One thing about instrumental music is this: Even if the composer has an explicit story to tell, the listener can pretty easily ignore that narrative and create their own iteration. I do it all the time.
I’ve been pulling this with the music of Com Truise (AKA Seth Haley) for years. I’ve come up with all sorts of stories and theories to go along with his gorgeous, off-kilter, heavily manipulated synthwave/synthpop/synthfunk fare. I’ve certainly integrated his modern, retro-infused concoctions into my own personal story.
Nevertheless, at the heart of the music of Haley’s Com Truise project is a tale about “Com Truise,” a robot astronaut and his adventures. Specifically, on new album Iteration — which comes out Friday, June 16, via Ghostly — Haley closes the book on his years-long narrative with an episode he says is about overcoming oppression, and ends up making his best album in the process. (Note to Self: Convince a talented artist and writer to create a graphic novel based on Com Truise’s years’ long tale.)
The story of Com Truise, the robot astronaut, began with the magnificent debut album, 2011’s Galactic Melt — apparently, AMDISCS-released Cyanide Sisters is pre-story. Over the course of EPs, including the exquisite Wave 1, and last year’s profound Silicon Tare, odds and sods release In Decay, and finally this new album, the robot’s quest takes him to different planets and galaxies, some war-torn and hopeless, in an epic struggle that includes the real human experience of building and losing romantic relationships. (This is all according to the artist Com Truise’s official Ghostly biography.)
Iteration lays out the final moments Com Truise, the astronaut, spends on the treacherous planet Wave 1, before the robot and his romantic partner escape the peril to find peace.
So that’s the fictional narrative underpinning all of Com Truise’s music since 2011. Ultimately, the bio continues, this album is a story of triumph and self-realization. The feeling one gets when hit with either of those sentiments is what I felt when listening to Iteration. Naturally, overcoming oppression is a celebratory affair, but as history shows it comes with a great cost. Certain triumphs and self-actualization have their own expense, but they’re not always so taxing.
An Extraordinary Triumph
In my Grand Unified Theory of Com Truise, written when Haley released the Silicon Tare EP last year, I proposed that Haley uses his project’s nostalgic-laced medium to destroy nostalgia: “However, whereas most synthwave seems to embrace nostalgia as a raison d’être, I’m convinced Haley’s trying to use the tools of the past to bring us forward.”
After all, even if he occasionally uses synths and drum machines that evoke composers like Jan Hammer, Haley’s mode for using those tools is decidedly more experimental and IDM, and more contemporary. You wouldn’t have heard the the intricate arpeggiations and time signatures of Iteration or any other Com Truise offering on Miami Vice.
Iteration is Haley’s best, most fully realized Com Truise album, because it most fully realizes the grand theory and truly overcomes the oppression of nostalgia. It’s also just really fucking good musically. He’s got extraordinary talent.
Take “Propagation,” the album’s most recent single and a cut that falls at the mid-way point on the record. It’s the best song on the record, and certainly one of the top five Com Truise cuts of all time. But, more importantly, it’s laden in pastel synths and a triumphant, emotionally cathartic chord progression that together act as a trojan horse into your sensibilities. In this sense, “Propagation” speaks for the entire album.
There are moments on first blush when “Propagation” is the soundtrack to sunny, beach-side driving — palm trees and brick-sized cell phones and “Morning in America” — or the earnestness of Pretty in Pink. But quintessential Com Truise elements, like a jittery, off-kilter rhythm and sound patches eroding with haste, serve well not only the robot’s narrative but also our own. We must escape the clutches of what once was, and by dissolving aging tropes as they are on display right in front of us, Haley gives us a chance to do that and succeed. Another Iteration cut, the crystalline beauty “Ternary,” is also a good example of the message.
On “Syrthio,” Haley takes Com Truise into ominous territory. The shackles are coming off at the cost of tuning. Each detuned musical expression and searing, jacked-up synth run is filled with a haunting tension. This is Com Truise, the astronaut, nearing freedom, and the listener getting further to catharsis. (At least musically, “Syrthio” sounds like a companion piece to “Idle Withdrawl,” Haley’s recent contribution to the companion soundtrack to forthcoming documentary The Rise of the Synths.) It’s like Buddha facing extraordinary tests ‘neath the Bodhi tree before reaching enlightenment, which in our case comes with the transcendent and gorgeous next cut “When Will You Find the Limit.”
The heavily rhythmic “Ephemeron” is the Iteration cut most likely to remind people of past releases. It’s true that each of the album’s cuts is most obviously Com Truise, but “Ephemeron” feels the most like it could fit quite nicely on Wave 1 next to “Declination,” Haley’s collaboration with Joel Ford and a rare Com Truise vocal cut, or following the title cut of Silicon Tare. This is good, though. We need some connection with the past in order to live a more fulfilling present and future. It’s yearning retrospect that’s harmful; not mere memories of the past.
What we can learn from Haley — who not long ago left the East Coast into which he was born for the sunshine challenges of Los Angeles — is that at some point we have to close the book on the long-running narratives we tell ourselves, or that we let others tell us about ourselves. We have to regain our sense of autonomy and get out from under that oppression. Sure, take the elements of your story with you as open a new book. Just don’t get lost in nostalgia.
Starting June 16, buy Iteration via Bandcamp (below) and everywhere else in digital and physical forms. Or just pre-order today.