James Ferraro’s music falls into a genre called “hypnagogic pop”, a genre I know nothing about, and am not even sure I would be able to pronounce. In the old days we’d just slap an “unclassifiable” on it and call it a day, but labels make sites like RYM and Last.fm tick, so now everything’s gotta have a label. James Ferraro (who for some reason goes by “Jim” for this album only) is perhaps the living embodiment of “unclassifiable”, mutating and corrupting nearly everything he touches. But if you need a label, something as strange and left-field as “hypnagogic pop” will suffice.
On Air is a fascinating record in this sense; it is difficult to truly describe, perhaps comparable only to the other records James Ferraro released in 2010. Like Trout Mask Replica it is very much a desert island disc, if not for quality then for how unique and impenetrable it is. It is one of those albums that plays differently every time you hear it. Sometimes it sounds absolutely brilliant, sometimes it comes off like the music coming over the PA system that you desperately wish you could shut off. The best way I can describe it is this: imagine yourself drunkenly falling asleep with the TV still on, having those vivid dreams that are a combination of your own memories and whatever’s on the television – late-night news broadcasts, low-budget sci-fi movies, infomercials, or whatever the hell comes on at three in the morning. You keep waking up hungover with your senses only half-working, unable to gather the strength to shut the TV off, struggling to fall back asleep, but also randomly blacking out in fifteen-minute chunks. Also, you’ve been transported 30 years in the past for whatever reason.
There’s a thick haze that permeates throughout the album; though there are a lot of long synthesizer jams (somewhat reminiscent of Tangerine Dream), most of the time you don’t quite know what you’re hearing, thanks to this album’s deliberately bad fidelity (a trait that all of his pre-Far Side Virtual work shares). For some that’s going to be a turn off, but it’s one of the elements that makes On Air work, since it allows all these sounds to coalesce and mutate into one another. Outside of the long synth jams that open and close the record, nothing stays in place for long – even the “normal” sounding songs like “Angels of the Night” cut back and forth into infomercial themes and loopy, squiggly synthesizer bits. While the synths and the sequencers are the main instruments here (often sounding like they’re trying to imitate the Star Trek theme), there’s also a lot of guitar, alongside radio static, animal noises, and cartoony sound effects (“Green Popcorn”). All the whirring, clicking, and buzzing makes for a disorienting and queasy listening experience, but it’s also part of what makes this album so unique. You’re not really supposed to get a handle on it; even the 50’s-style rockabilly title track or the glam rocker “Moonshocked Dudettes” are slippery and disorienting, as though you’re hearing them as they play out in someone’s mind, even as they keep losing their train of thought.
As a whole the album reminds me of something Zappa might make; it’s collage-like nature, love of obnoxious sounds, and loose grip on satire are all Zappa hallmarks, and in some sense this comes off as a really strange take on Lumpy Gravy. It’s about as serious as those claymation commercials that MTV used to run, but also quite brilliant in its own way; as interchangeable as these hypnagogic/vaporwave releases can be, there’s no one else on the planet who could make an album like this one. And also like Zappa, there’s two very different versions of this album out there – the original CD-R, which has 14 tracks, and the double-LP, which has 25. Mind you, these are not merely “bonus tracks”, but rather the result of a totally re-sequenced and re-imagined album – even some of the original 14 tracks aren’t on the vinyl release, and those that are tend to be either remixed or completely re-recorded (check the title track on both versions). Of course, the idea of getting an expanded edition of a James Ferraro album is ridiculous in its own right (outside of Ferraro himself who has listened to every note this man has recorded?), but in this case it’s worth it. Not only does it sound cleaner, but there’s a lot of great stuff not on the original – particularly the Night Dolls-like “Cinderella” and the incredibly alien “Virtual Sumo Bubble Gum”. Listening to them back-to-back (not really recommended, by the way), the reissue sounds a lot more definitive; the original sounds like a demo in comparison. But get ’em both anyway – On Air is very much worth your time.