“I liked the idea of a seamless, uninterrupted ‘trip’ as opposed to the conventional methods of mixing or laying out an album. Every bit of audio from movies/TV/radio was at my disposal and there were no holds barred — as my idols best put it, “we can plunder the waste bins of time” and that’s exactly what I did. I sampled and wrecked everything under the sun.”
One would think this quote pertains to Pharma, when it fact it was about a mix done in 2002 called Peel Blue Equinox. Alex Koenig, a.k.a. Nmesh (the “e” is silent) was in high school at the time, and Peel Blue was simply the first entry in what would quickly become a lengthy and diverse catalogue. Certainly his chops have improved in the meantime; Nmesh has the sort of discography that gets better and better the further down you go. But his “sample and wreck it” attitude has largely remained the same, going from distending Weezer songs until they’re completely unrecognizable to chopping and screwing Barbie commercials.
In retrospect it’s no surprise that Nmesh and vaporwave found each other; with Nmesh you’ve got a talented, eclectic producer in search of a scene to fit into, and with vaporwave you’ve got a peculiar and fascinating genre in search of some raw talent. The end result; Nu.Wav Hallucinations and Dream Sequins, not only breakthrough albums for Nmesh, but also the inspiration for several “Vaporwave-ain’t-dead-yet” articles. 2014’s Dream Sequins in particular felt like a big album; when I first heard it, it felt to me like the sort of album the founding members of The Orb might have made if they were born 20 years later. I’m guessing Nmesh himself felt it was a big album too; though he’s done a number of EPs and collaborations since (I think all vaporwave artists are required to release something each lunar cycle or they get booted from their labels), I think he sensed that the stakes were high for a proper follow-up.
What we got is no less than the culmination of nearly everything Nmesh has done up to this point, the sort of album that probably would have blown the balls off of the teenager who made Peel Blue Equinox half a lifetime ago. It is only vaporwave in a tangential sense; RYM and Discogs list it as the primary genre, and it’s destined to appear on a bunch of “Best Vaporwave of 2017” lists. But if you listen to it in a vacuum you wouldn’t tag it as such; I’d probably wind up calling this “Plunderphonic Drum n’ Bass” or something equally stupid. In terms of Nmesh’s catalogue, it resembles more his 2009 album GOD?AWFUL and his unfinished collaboration with Viper the Rapper than it does his last two albums. There’s still some lightweight bits and a good dose of humor, but for the most part this album goes a lot harder and asks a lot more of the listener. On Dream Sequins there was a track called “If I Tell You That I’m Happy”, an out-of-nowhere 90’s-style club banger that breaks up a lengthy ambient sequence, as if to clown on anyone who had fallen asleep or stopped paying attention. Pharma is full of moments like that, always putting the listener on edge, not knowing where things are going to go next. If Dream Sequins was the good trip, laying on the couch at 2 AM watching your old VHS tapes, Pharma is the bad trip, where the world spins around you and you’re not quite sure where you are. I’m not sure what combination of drugs and Taco Bell you’d need to ingest to make a night at the club sound like “BASS///COP” does, but there’s no way in hell you’re dancing.
For the most part this is due to the wide variety of audio editing effects on display here; the samples get pitched up and down, reversed, panned around the speakers, distorted to hell and back, and juxtaposed amongst themselves like nuts. At one point I swear I heard a 3-second drum loop that sounded like it was sampled at 64 kbps, just to switch things up for one bar. Some bits enter the drawling vaporzone at the same time as others go into hyperspeed – it’s like the MC Escher stairhouse of audio editing, screwing with you in multiple ways at the same time. Pharma is consistently messed up, the sort of album that you never can really get a handle on; even after you’ve heard it a half dozen times, there are still a number of “was that always there?” moments. Bits appear in one form and then get massively mutilated a few tracks later. Samples come from everywhere, from sports radio to infomercials to horror movies to smooth jazz records to private tape recordings. Occasionally the brakes do get pumped (“Cocktails in Space”, “/////LD-99/////”) but it’s not a stretch to say a solid three-quarters of this album is in a constant state of flux.
All of which makes this an incredibly entertaining, if disorienting and occasionally downright nauseating listen (looking at you, “Acid Baby”). It is chock full of “holy shit” moments, such as the chopped-and-screwed Katy Perry samples on “Hepatic Portal” and the hilarious Price is Right cut-up “High Speed Adjustable Broiler” (“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? To go with that fur coat? Do you want it, do you want it, do you really motherfuckin’ want it?”), which segues into a rather morbid tribute to disgraced TV pitchman Don Lapre (ending with a garbled “suicide….suicide….suicide”). Not to mention pretty much everything that goes on during the album’s two rollercoaster epics, “White Lodge Simulation” and “Mall Full of Drugs”. I mean, forget vaporwave, this is some next-level Squarepusher shit right here. Koenig claimed that “Mall” took six years to fully come together, and when you listen to it you can hear exactly why that is; it’s so loony and worked-over that it’s difficult to think of anything that even compares. Granted most of the album is that way but to hear that approach taken over an 8-9 minute track is really something. It’s the best track he’s ever done and it’s probably not even close. [DISCLAIMER: I have not yet listened to all 22 hours of the massive Seagate Backup Plus Desktop Drive compilation, so take this with a grain of salt. We don’t really do our homework here at Critter Jams. For all I know, “boatFISH (A Tale of Two Sea Pigs)” is the greatest accomplishment under the Nmesh umbrella]
In the end what makes this album tick is just pure density; not just in the number of layers and the sheer variety of sounds here, but also in the way it’s presented. That was clearly the point, too – you’re not supposed to know what’s coming or when exactly things are going to go off the rails. There are so many backmasked and distorted bits that it practically begs you to open up the audio editor and find that say, half the tracks have “Mambo No. 5” samples on them. Or that the random bits of baseball broadcasts can be traced back to their dates and run through a cipher to reveal a message like “KILL YOURSELF”. Not saying any of this is true, but it is that sort of album. Or maybe it is true! Find out for yourself.