Writing about Boards of Canada’s Music Has the Right to Children for Slant‘s Best Albums of the ‘90s, I deployed a phrase—“android pastoral”—that doesn’t appear to have been used anywhere else on the Internet. Ambient electronica, which is so often unfamiliar both in its structure and instrumentation, confronts reviewers with a nearly impossible descriptive task, and I suspect many readers roll their eyes when we indulge our poetic sides in trying to convey our listening experience. It’s not like I want to write reviews that sound like they were drafted with Magnetic Poetry, but the available alternatives (copy from a press release, name-drop egregiously) are even less appealing. And isn’t it ultimately a testament to the generative quality of the music itself that it so easily sloughs off the most well-crafted formulas and immunizes itself against cliché? By that metric, Oneohtrix Point Never’s Replica must be some sort of masterpiece, an assessment quantifiable in terms of the outlandish metaphors and sci-fi jargon that bloggers and critics have already repurposed in order to describe it.
Whether you end up interpreting Replica in terms of Blade Runner or that music theory course you took back in college, it makes for a fascinating addition to the already-extensive OPN catalogue. Replica is of a piece with the synth-based drone of Rifts and Returnal, and like both of those albums, it owes much of its musicality to recurring arpeggio motifs. One of the odd paradoxes of ambient music is that a musician’s decision to incorporate more song-like elements into their work will almost always be welcomed by critics as evidence of maturation; if anything, OPN mastermind Daniel Lopatin seems to be resisting that trajectory, since nothing here matches the relatively overt pop gambit of Returnal‘s title track. If Lopatin has made any concessions to accessibility this time out, they figure mostly into Replica‘s abstractly rhythmic qualities. With only one or two tracks employing anything like a beat, Lopatin’s fondness for cyclical phrasing nonetheless imbues his newest compositions with more body and direction than his previous work. And where actual percussion is employed, as on the coda to “Andro” or the title track’s recurring piano chords, the effect can be tremendous, as though the random functions of a few very noisy machines had spontaneously created something human.
As integral as repetition is to the internal logic of any given track, it has almost no place on the album considered as a whole. Replica is incredibly dynamic, with the title track’s lush synthesizers, the mariachi-inspired horns of “Power of Persuasion,” and the bizarre gulping sample that gives “Nassau” its rhythm forming a truly eclectic constellation of sounds. I suspect that “Child Soldier” could prove to be Replica‘s most polarizing track, since it finds Lopatin in an unusually literal mindset. Its chopped-up vocal samples include a number of childlike tones (one sample even sounds like a children’s chant), while the stabs of industrial noise evoke war without much ambiguity. For the duration of this one track, it’s easy to impute a narrative onto Lopatin’s music rather than simply immersing oneself in it, but that’s not necessarily a flaw. It simply demonstrates one path that Lopatin could take as a musician and storyteller, and whatever one might think about the merits of that path, there’s no denying that the track is quite beautiful. Lopatin follows it with “Explain,” a dreamy drone number that reprises many of the record’s sounds, allowing the listener to zone out of Replica much as they zoned in: carried off on inarticulate vocals and crystalline synth melodies, left to name the experience with whatever words should come to mind.