Tropical Depression, the excellent new album coming Friday, July 27, from experimental/ambient electronic musician Jake Schrock, carries a particular type of weight: an inherent and carefully cultivated seriousness that nevertheless allows ample room for a healthy amount of carefree bliss.
The push and pull manifests in the album’s seven compositions as the Berlin School on summer vacation in the Balearic Islands off Spain’s Mediterranean coast, spending a healthy amount of time in the ocean drone/marine gaze of the likes of British duo Seahawks but with a spiritual foundation in the academy of the likes of Manuel Göttsching, Edgar Froese, and Kraftwerk.
On each of the tracks, the Dallas-based Schrock weaves an intricate web of synthesizers that unfurl securely around memorable musical themes which are often supported by a tight, relatively unassuming and pulsating drum machine. The various analog gear — the synth arps, pads, and basses, along with the Roland CR-68 drums — serve up movements that carefully assess just how laid-back things should get or just how much of a core sense of suspense and foreboding should be embraced. It’s a constant discussion centered on how much Schrock is willing to let loose — or, perhaps, willing to let us let loose. And we have the opportunity to determine that which we’re willing to let go.
‘Tropical Depression’ is an extraordinary body of work from an extremely talented musician.
As a relatively serious person myself, I can identify with this kind of trepidation and emotional negotiation. It’s probably healthy and more likely a natural extension of getting older than it is some kind of malady. Or so I tell myself. Let’s take a look at how this plays out across the record.
The record kicks off with “Surface Data,” which represents the excitement of the honeymoon period preceding and during the first few days of a vacation. The vacation could be literal — studies show that just planning and anticipating a vacation or big event can be more psychologically rewarding than the actual thing — or it could be a metaphorical vacation, a shaking off of baggage and muck. We’re excited for the possibility of that loosened grip. We’ve been looking forward to this retreat for ages.
Literal or figurative, the opener is when Schrock sounds at his most kinetic, going easy on the tempered excitement via a rhythm section that recalls Jam City’s remix of the Dita Von Teese & Sébastien Tellier cut “Porcelaine,” but with a catchy, upbeat synth lead that twists and turns with great entrancement. He builds a grand sense of anticipation and interest in this exploration on which he’s leading us.
Tropical Depression is at its most free on “Hyperphysics,” in which Schrock taps into the blissed-out waves of Seahawks in such a manner that can’t help but make me dream for a collaboration. The cadre of down-to-earth and ethereal synths slowly but intently cultivate a growing and visceral sense of serenity, buttressed by a steady but delicate samba-strewn drum machine. There’s a certain resolve here — maybe we’ll keep our troubles and worries back at home and enjoy our time in a more care-free space, or maybe we’ll just be happy with the changes we’ve tried to make in our lives. Oh, trepidation tries its damnedest to seep into the mix, to be sure! But we’re here for bliss, or the best substitute we can muster. We embrace our shifting realities in earnest.
By the time album closer “Cerebral Shelter” hits, with its uplifting and rich tapestry of synths, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that Schrock has fully converted to the warm embrace of whatever type of cathartic release he’s seeking through his music — as if the Berlin School luminaries decided to move to the Balearics full-time. However, I’m not so sure. There’s still an anxious vibration inherent in the synthscape that suggests the “vacation” is almost over. The sense of weightlessness — of the bricks of worry and caution and anxiety and orderly seriousness cast away — was fleeting, even if it was an utter joy. We’re back to the grind ‘neath grey skies and surrounded by cement. Although even this still bears legendary fruit, it’s easy to see how a getaway can give us even a little leeway to feel how life could be different. The getaway offers a perspective we can use when we return to the grind to improve things.
I realize I’ve woven a few metaphors into this review. It could be because I’m currently in my own state of radical self-assessment and existential inquiry — my own rabid tug-of-war between the routine of orderly seriousness and caution and the better angels of meaning-seeking. Or maybe I haven’t had a solid vacation yet this year. Or, perhaps, it’s the loudest signal of all: To inject into Schrock’s profoundly executed album a sense of duty to be grounded, providing a window to harmonize that grounding with an obligation to let go — periodically, ephemerally, or for the more advanced of us, an attempt at perpetuity.
Though we are still bound by the intricately woven web of reality with which we live on a daily basis, for better or worse, we should be allowed some variety of ablution. We should be able to experience the bliss of finding our more truer selves — our harmonious and centered truer selves. Or at least the opportunity to try. Even for a little bit.
Tropical Depression releases on July 27 via Holodeck Records. It will be available in digital and cassette formats. Here’s the title cut for your listening pleasure.