It should be illegal for music this indulgent to be so good. Nonlocal Forecast, the latest Fire-Toolz affiliate from Chicago polymath Angel Marcloid to worm its way into my steady listening diet, is so crassly synthetic yet cerebral, ornate yet somehow earnest, it’s like if Weather Report composed their outtakes on Windows 95 and made it work.
Bubble Universe! has no business being this enjoyable. The scintillating glam-synth cheese weaves harmonic webs that are too complex to be catchy, and the crisp drum pads churn out dense polyrhythms on the level of progressive death metal watersheds like Cynic and Atheist. As the opener “Celestial Nervous System” winds down with its cloying coral reef marimba lines, you may be struggling to believe that you actually enjoyed this shit. A lot. But you did, and you will.
Quick aside. In a high school theatre club, I once had the role of someone who had snorted too much cocaine. The only problem was that I was only familiar with the effects of marijuana, so the idea of an “upper” seemed somewhat foreign to me, and I was doing the part all wrong. The instructor pulled me aside during a break and whispered to me, sternly, “I only tried cocaine once. And never again. Because it was the greatest fucking feeling of my life, and I knew it would ruin me if I ever went back.” That didn’t actually help me perform any better, but it stuck with me.
The background music on public access TV infomercials, the elevator music you hear when the poison control hotline puts you on hold, the new-agey flute music on loop at your local massage parlour—none of that stuff is supposed to sound good. But here Marcloid elevates it to high art, and it’s an enchanting adventure. It’s the shimmering spell of a dash of cocaine spilled on an orange shag carpet in Gordon Gekko’s waiting room beckoning to you.
Bubble Universe! distils the best elements of some of the worst music out there, particularly from an embarrassing phase in which Smooth Jazz tried to co-opt different Asian musical traditions under the brand of “world music.” In particular, the bouncy tracks like “The Evolutionary Game” or “Cloud-Hidden” evoke some of the cringier elements of world-fusion experiments by white-guy rock musicians Peter Gabriel and Michael Brook.
At a certain point, music just has to be fun to listen to—before it can be interesting, technically accomplished, or emotionally moving, it has to be fun. Sometimes we forget why we ever listen to music in the first place, but Fire-Toolz and the Hausu Mountain label seem to intuit why we don’t stop listening. If the hold music was all that bad, you’d hang up the phone before ordering that amazing new kitchen appliance you just saw. There’s something good about it, and there lies infinite potential.
The concluding drone of “Wave Form” bubbles with bells and birdsong, still taunting you. Yeah, you loved this, you naughty thing, you.