Iglooghost and the Gospel of Maximalism
basslines and babywhines
There are sixteen huge subwoofers installed beneath Mount Fuji, each one blasting grime instrumentals at full volume, in reverse, at 220bpm, and the bass is causing avalanche after avalanche, avalanches of pure electricity that sound like exploding drum kits, avalanches which are in fact, upon close inspection, hordes of excitable puppies, shattering the mountain’s surface layer of rock and snow and revealing a gobstopper interior of purple chalk and icing sugar and precious metals — the gap year backpackers are screaming and crying at this point, but the Sherpas aren’t that phased, they just kind of sigh and start playing small flutes — meanwhile, the night sky turns bright white and *ding dong ding dong* millions of angels arrive to sing helium harmonies, a pastel-pink cloud rains down bells and chimes causing crowds of invisible children to cheer, a marching band starts parading around on neon gazelles and gliding down ski slopes made of piano keys and, oh shit, Craig Charles is at the summit DJing the entire history of funk and soul on PCP.
Such is the sound of Iglooghost, a UK producer whose colourful imagination hurts his head so much that he has to spill it all over the Internet just to make it stop. They’re painful and persistent headaches that cause his ears to roar with the myriad voices of ideas and thoughts and feelings and dreams all fighting for attention and begging to be set free, so when he expresses them musically and renders them electronically we’re left with this fruity tapestry of surrealist visuals, interdimensional beats, elaborate narratives, and straight up bad-boi bangers. All of this makes for an experience like nothing else within electronic music — one that has fortunately granted the little guy some pain relief, not to mention a deal with Brainfeeder, two EPs and a forthcoming album this summer.
Thematically, there are two distinct sides to Iglooghost’s imagination: one of them playful and light-hearted, the other more rough and frenetic, both bleeding into one another to create a sound that recalls the fairytale as much as it does the warehouse rave. The former sees Iggy embrace a vibrant, almost childlike aesthetic. He incorporates a play-room palette of timbres resembling music boxes, cot mobiles, rainbow xylophones — even the pummelling kick drums in the track Gold Tea (ft. Charlotte Day Wilson) squeak and shine like a rubber duck machine gun. He often takes vocal samples from grime MCs and pitch-shifts their voices all the way up into pre-puberty. In fact, all of his vocal samples sound like beautiful newborn aliens, giggling and whimpering in a hurricane of fluttering synths; or as Abra puts it, “Iglooghost turned me into a water nymph crying in an aquatic glitter bass garden.” It’s all very sweet and adorable. You just wanna pinch the music by the cheeks and give it a kiss on the nose.
But still, those painful imagination headaches keep on pounding away, piercing through the dreamy layer of lullabies and slapping the music with raw feelings of aggression. I mean, Iglooghost can get filthy: just listen to that wasp sting bassline in Ell (ft. Rocks FOE), or those tooth-crunching rhythms underpinning Honey Coat. Intense sounds are pooled from hip-hop, bass, dubstep, trap, glitch, breakcore, genres!, and forced into an awkward cuddle with the cheerful sounds of his softer side. The track Chinchou / Melon Lantern Girl’s Choir, for instance, evokes a cacophony of nursery kids armed with heavy artillery from the instrument box, buzzing on pink custard and sponge cake, doing their absolute worst on a footwork beat. It’s dark and stormy in the lower frequencies, but bright and airy at the top. Gritty basslines crash headfirst into squishy baby noises. The chipmunk vocals of UK garage weave between the gentle pitter-patters of Indonesian gamelan. You could punch walls to it or you could send your infant daughter to sleep with it — your choice!
All of this combined cultivates a sound that can be neatly summed up as ‘kimo-kawaii’, a Japanese term used to describe something that is cute and violent at the same time. Like — and I don’t properly remember this, but — when I was a toddler, maybe three or four years old, I once tried to make a dragon by gluing a butterfly to a frog. Listening to Iglooghost is probably a similar experience to watching me do that. It makes you go ‘awww’, but also very much ‘eughhh’. (In his words, it’s “kinda like when a kids cartoon hits you with some unexpectedly deep shit.”) Moreover, Iglooghost and Toddler Me share a similar creative process, as we both seem to enjoy combining things that probably shouldn’t be combined and forcing them to work. He compares this to messing around with Lego bricks and trying to “add the most unrelated ones together but make sure they all have a nice pocket to fit in.” Stretching this tenuous analogy to breaking point now: even a computer music veteran like David A. Jaffe could relate to my naive-if-not-a-little-sadistic ways, describing his approach as one “in which two or more sharply defined and highly contrasting aspects of experience are combined to produce something that is both alien and strangely familiar” — like my majestic butterfly-frog. Or in Iggy’s case, a roaring, shapeshifting, technicolour hybrid of anything and everything.
The ideas presented by this Jaffe bloke, as explained in an article he wrote back in 1995 titled Orchestrating the Chimera, actually help us to understand Iglooghost’s music in context. Motivated by a certain “willingness to embrace the strange and unfamiliar,” Jaffe pioneered what he called a ‘maximalist’ style of composition that allowed for “complex systems of juxtapositions and collisions, in which all outside influences are viewed as potential raw material.” As such, his electronic works were among the first to tap into the limitless potential of computers: the potential to synthesise novel sounds that no instrument can play, to explore impossible combinations that no ear can recognise, and to create complex music that no human can perform. It’s a thread that still runs through the work of modern electronic producers today, only thickened and strengthened by exponential advances in technology and connectivity over the last 20 years. Right now, in just three clicks, you can jump from some Lesothan famo music, to the Crystal Maze theme tune, to your little brother’s new dubstep track — and you have the tools necessary to put them all together and make something that sounds cohesive.
So, in its purest form, contemporary maximalism involves an open-minded, experimental, optimistic, inclusive attitude toward source materials, mixing disparate sounds together like an extremely strong cocktail, and welcoming with open arms whatever chaos may erupt as a result. If it were a human being, it would be frolicking around your local city centre with a ‘free hugs’ sign around its neck and 16 layers of hair dye on its head.
In this sense, Iglooghost operates at peak maximalism, taking full advantage of the omnipotence of computers and the omniscience of the Internet in order to explore the very extremes of sound, complexity, and emotion. In terms of influence, he honours the ancestry of his label — inheriting the experimental sensibilities of the LA beat scene and taking cues from label boss Flying Lotus — while also seizing the future with the unmistakable audacity of a pure-blooded cyber baby, infinitely tumbling down YouTube rabbit holes and picking up a rich spectrum of styles and genres on the way. And we’re not just talking musical influence here: he’s just as likely to find inspiration in a piece of visual art, a good story, or a particularly tasty potato dauphinoise — such is the maximalist way. The track Mametchi / Usohachi serves as a good example because, to put it simply, it has lots of sounds — sounds for days — meticulous and grid-fixed in the vein of Nancarrow’s Studies for Player Piano. It simulates the coltish babbles of an artificially intelligent organism trying to invent music and language from scratch, its many layers thick with absurdist lyrics and minefield soundscapes. Over the course of three minutes you can hear: rainforest ambience; Gregorian chant; squeak toys; a jammed printer; schizophrenia; metal pipes; a rap verse by Mr. Yote, the word ‘gravy’; Iglooghost’s little sister; a passing car; minions; an entire sci-fi sound effect bank; AAAAGH; record scratches; the abstract concept of shame; and an oboe.
With so much going on at the same time, it’s almost as if the music is pulling your emotions in different directions and daring you to feel something, anything, amidst all the chaos. Igor Stravinsky conveyed a similar pathos with his avant-garde banger The Rite of Spring, a piece of music so barbarous that it caused a small riot at its 1913 premier. An audience adjusted to traditional western harmony were ambushed with an irregularly accented onslaught of bristling polychords, violent and jagged like some kind of pre-war mathcore. Some people were into it, most people were definitely not into it, emotions were divided, voices were raised, punches were thrown, and with that the first ever mosh pit was born. This was all fair play given that Stravinsky had purposely set out to “send them all to hell.” But if the audience were able to conjure up images of hell from a couple pieces of wood and metal, just imagine how they would have responded to Iglooghost’s music. The track Xiangjiao plays out like the soundtrack to an exotic apocalypse: manipulated voices scream and whisper and chant from every direction, frantic bass lines erupt beneath tangled melodies, stuttering rhythms rush through endless permutations, aggressive timbres grind against soft synth chords — yeah, they would have literally thought that hell was opening up before them and spreading through the air in a sonic miasma. Forget the concert hall, entire civilisations would have fallen into a state of moral panic. They would have plugged their ears with bread, fired guns into the sky and, not really knowing what else to do, they would have probably killed loads of women.
There has to be some meaning behind the madness, surely. What is all this? Why does he do all this? Well, as Iglooghost says, “the stuff I make is probably an amalgamation of the things I listen to.” No real statement, no real metaphor. Unfortunately, however — sorry, I don’t wanna step on any… toes, here — I hate to say this folks but, heh, umm: he is wrong. He is wrong about his own music. Because the stuff he makes is actually just another garish product of the Internet, the digital age, the data smog, you know, the attention economy, the information glut, have you seen this TED Talk?
At least that’s what the think pieces will tell you. In reality, Iggy only sets out to make the music he wants to hear, working at the whim of nothing but his own creative impulse. But in their premature attempts to pin down context, music critics have repeatedly positioned maximalist producers within a wider culture of ‘digital excess’. Just look at the predictable commentary surrounding albums like Glass Swords by Rustie, which for Tim Jonze “seems to represent perfectly our attention-skipping, information-crammed age,” or Cosmogramma by Flying Lotus, which for Simon Reynolds “is made by and for nervous systems moulded by online culture… drifting, distracted, assembling itself according to an additive logic of audio greed.” For these writers, it’s not just that the music sounds dense, complex, fast-paced, busy, it’s also that the music represents or in some way results from a digital culture that is itself dense, complex, fast-paced, busy — i.e. things often construed negatively as everyday obstacles to clarity, authenticity and even humanity.
In his 2011 Pitchfork article, Maximal Nation, Reynolds tried to capture all of these ideas with the term ‘digital maximalism’, which at the time described an ongoing surge of electronic music marked by “properties of post-everything omnivorousness, structural convolution, and texture-saturated overload.” After defining the aesthetics of digital maximalism by contrasting it with the minimalist aesthetics that preceded it, he goes on to assess the concept in a more cultural sense. He seems to imply a connection between maximalist electronic music and the idea that “maximizing connectivity can max out your nervous system, leaving you in a brittle state of hectic numbness,” though he ultimately settles on the more modest claim that such music “seems to speak to our current moment.” In his book Retromania, however, he ditches the modesty altogether and shows his true colours, writing that “musicians glutted with influences and inputs almost inevitably make clotted music: rich and potent on some levels, but ultimately fatiguing and bewildering for most listeners.”
Now there’s no denying that the electronic music landscape at the turn of this decade felt very rowdy. Warp Records were dealing pure MDMA in the form of Hudson Mohawke and Rustie, every single Vauxhall Corsa in the world was belching out an onslaught of Skrillex tunes, and Lex Luger was busy defining contemporary trap savagery by mass-producing beats in the hundreds. (Fact: phrases like turn that garbage off and what is this noise? experienced an all-time high among the older population at the time.) But why must this exciting change in tone be viewed through the lens of this fear-mongering narrative that there is Just Too Much Stuff and then parsed in terms of ‘overload’, ‘overkill’, ‘fatigue’ and ‘excess’? What do these negative critiques of modern technology have to do with great art?
I understand that all this stuff has the potential to be overwhelming, not least from an artist’s perspective. Reynolds claims that “having access to so many resources and being able to manipulate them so extensively lends itself to a certain grandiosity,” and worries that this level of control is “likely to cause complete artistic paralysis.” Here he echoes the concerns of technophobes who warn that “too much information can result in analysis paralysis, where you become paralyzed by all of the information, facts, and opinions being thrown at you.” (This is a quote from a HuffPo article titled How The Content Tsunami Is Killing Productivity and Five Ways To Fix It, which is itself a prime cut of juicy list-based content: both the disease and the cure.) But with Iglooghost, you get the impression that he has mastered information technology as second nature. He probably got an A-star in GCSE I.T. without even trying. I suppose if you’re a ~millennial~ like Iggy and myself, the concepts of ‘information overload’ and ‘digital excess’ have no real purchase on you and your life — unless you’re one of those screen-hating pun-making sunset-loving spoken word types, in which case, you are so inspirational, you are so brave, you bring tears to my unenlightened eyes, and I promise never to call you a ‘millennial’ again, I’m so sorry — but if you’re just a focus-lacking button-pushing Zucker-fucking sheep like the rest of us, these concepts are simply your everyday.
But it’s not a matter of being ‘desensitized’: Iglooghost makes the most of our digital culture by outright refusing to see it as problematic in any way, instead using his powers purely for the sake of fun. He stares deep into the entire history of recorded sound and sees nothing but fresh opportunities for sikk beatz. The track 悪DENG悪 gets you jumping within the first three seconds with a smack of bass-driven bliss before dropping you into some kind of dirty half-time skank and leaving you off on some pretty video game sounds — all within a minute and a half. It embodies the pleasure-seeking spirit of the pre-drinks DJ, twitching in a dark corner with an aux cord and a brick of ket, refusing to play any song for more than 20 seconds, absolutely battering a small but enthusiastic crowd with drop after drop after chorus after chorus, no build-ups, no stops-for-breath, not one fucking verse. Quite different from the effects of paralysis, listening to Iggy is like listening to a mind on the brink of overdose: dangerous and decadent on the surface, certainly, but deep beneath the gurgles and the spasms you just know there are great times being had.
In contrast to how giddy, fun and playfully subversive Iglooghost’s music is, this whole digital maximalism thing can be a bit of a downer, tbqhwy. Writing for Pitchfork in 2015, Meaghan Garvey argued that the concept had become “our exhausting day-to-day reality”: fatiguing, shallow, saturated, ughhh, over and over again these bleak descriptions come up, cloaking good music in pejorative rhetoric and reducing it to mere digital ephemera, the coughs and splutters of a society choking on its own excesses. Only the musicologist Adam Harper has pushed for a positive discourse of maximalist electronic music. In his sarcastically-titled paper How Internet Music is Frying Your Brain, he argues that maximalism “could just as well be described as engaging constructively with changing forms of human expression” instead of “playing up to narratives of digital degeneracy.” In this sense, Iglooghost doesn’t embrace technology in all its extremities to make some kind of statement about information overload. Nor does he do it because information overload has ravaged all his senses. He does it simply because it’s the best way for him to express his massive imagination. And as future generations continue to make tunes on their laptops with pirated software and unauthorised samples, they will only get even better at bending digital technology to their will, they will only grow more and more accustomed to electronic music as an authentic form of expression, and the resulting music will probably be wilder than ever before. Call it whatever you want — excessive, overindulgent, tiresome, congested — just recognise that this isn’t some kind of stylistic quirk or silly fad, this isn’t a deviation from some kind of established norm: like it or not, whatever ‘it’ may be, it’s here to stay.
It’s just a shame that, despite its relevance to a great deal of electronic music in recent times, the term ‘maximalism’ is so unbelievably lame. Enter the male toilets at a Swans concert and you will hear ‘maximalism’ at least 11 times. Say ‘maximalism’ out loud and the word materialises in a thick cloud of vape smoke. Reddit loves ‘maximalism’. Not unlike ‘organic’ or ‘aesthetic’ or ‘progressive’, the term mostly serves to signal the intelligence of whoever uses it, rather than accurately describe the thing it refers to. ‘Maximalist interior design’ is just a sanitised form of hoarding for zany middle class people. ‘Maximalist fashion’ is just wearing a big dirty coat and mismatched socks and harem pants — festival clothes… it’s festival clothes. When this blogger writes about how “the remix takes a maximalist EDM-pop track and gives it a minimalist trapstep treatment,” you hear nothing substantive about the music itself, only the distant sound of aggressive self-gratification (perhaps with the Electronic Music Genres wiki page as a visual aid). When this journalist first described Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as “a startlingly maximalist take on East Coast rap traditionalism,” every single journalist followed suit — maximalism maximalism maximalism maximalism — aggressively gratifying each other.
I invite you to consider the following tweet. Study it closely. Really think about it. Repeat it to yourself in a mantra-like cadence. Become one with it:
Yes. This is how to earn the respect of your peers. But, regrettably, you only listen to Majestic Casual playlists, don’t you? Maybe, just maybe, you listen to a bit of mainstream grime, but you don’t really get it, do you? So you only get to say things like “ah, this one’s a tune…” and “it’s just like, chill, you know?” You are what they call ‘basic’. You’re basic. How do you get by in a life of such crippling insignificance? Open your third eye. Take magnesium glycinate every day. Pierce your lip. Shoplift. Google search: ‘Theodor Adorno’.
At this point, it’s worth mentioning that Bassnectar makes bread-and-butter dubstep that sounds like the culmination of two months binging on FL Studio tutorials (fight me, bassheads) and calling his music ‘omnitempo maximalism’ is like calling Clean Bandit’s music ‘microtonal transethnicism’. With this kind of attitude in mind, I can’t help but cringe a little bit when Lorenzo Senni describes his music as ‘pointillistic trance’, because however accurate this phrase may be in his own analysis, I just know that it will pique the shallow interests of tracksuit intellectuals. When asked the question “so what kind of music are you into?” on a tinder date, they will produce a laptop and a binder full of notes and they will deliver a three-hour-and-ninety-slide-long presentation, one-to-one, complete with a slide titled ‘That Time I Met Carl Cox’s Agent At Bestival’. They like their trance to be pointillistic, their dance music to be intelligent, their hip hop to be conscious, their bass to be future, and their skin to be white. And politically, let it be known, they describe themselves as ‘transhumanist-anarcho-communist’.
So it is with a heavy heart that I must announce the death of ‘maximalism’. Having been beaten and abused by sweaty Bassnectar fans and stripped of any real definition or purpose by music critics, nothing is left but the worn skeleton of an empty signifier. It died slowly and painfully. Upon its grave, a solemn epitaph recalls the uplifting words of a wise old sage, words which we would all do good to heed:
“dude, who cares what it is, if it makes u feel good just enjoy the music and shut the fuck up, why has everyone always gotta label shit?” — digimon916, YouTube comment, 2009