The new Clams Casino album is a sharp distillation of white noise. Over the past decade, hip-hop producer and composer of electronica Mike Volpe has been refining his minimalist ambient style: sputtering static, muffled keyboard melodies and occasional disembodied moans that coalesce into sluggish, blurry, immersive waves of sound, frozen and inexpressive, yet emit a mesmerizing pull. Moon Trip Radio, out since November, realizes his aesthetic; these are immaculately squishy, oddly emotional slices of mood music.
Clams Casino’s main calling is that of a hip-hop beat-producer. His dreamy, aqueous style (“cloud rap,” as taxonomists would say) has informed not only the druggy haze of contemporary SoundCloud rap, but also the reticent shimmer of alternative R&B — and, more indirectly, the recent gradual enervation of mainstream pop, getting ever slower and more echoey each year.
When he started releasing his beats on their own, stripped of vocals, he stood revealed as an avant-electronic experimentalist, and a certain friendly weirdness became apparent; what sounded murky behind a rapper ’ clicked when presented as a standalone environment with room to breathe. The records in Casino’s Instrumental Mixtape series (currently on volume 4) are the craftiest of minimalist exercises: some of the tracks are instrumental versions of previously released rap songs, while others are new, but all sound like whooshing abstractions, barely coherent as music, before soothing melodies and harmonic structures reliably surface.
His first official album, 32 Levels (2016), included various rappers and R&B singers (Vince Staples, A$AP Rocky, Lil B, Kelela) in an attempt to go pop or blow it up, but as with many mainstream accommodations, the gesture felt uneven as his collaborators pulled the music too decisively toward their own style.
As an instrumental studio album, Moon Trip Radio gets it both ways: while diving into the amniotic ocean, it’s more sonically cohesive than the mixtapes, unified by a sustained, woozy gleam. It’s the surreal dream of nature that his beats have hinted at, rendered in electric color.
Casino’s instrumental music often projects an initial illusion of formlessness, all the better to surprise you with sneak details later, and Moon Trip Radio reaches a new level of feigned nebulosity. These tracks hardly move; they trickle and tingle in place, as the thick keyboard textures cast drooping shadows. Yet there’s tender feeling in this music, and just as you stop to wonder where it might be coming from, along comes the muddy undertow.
“Healing” hides motion behind stillness: while drums and high harp(-ish) strings plunk at double time, a stately violin swells calmly until, finally, the sound of wind drowns out the rest of the song. “In a Mirror” marches over shifty piano chords, with a sharp metal click striking at odd intervals; heard together, the click brings out a melody in the piano that it isn’t playing directly. Halfway through, there’s a sudden crunch, an electronic whirr, and a drum machine discreetly enters, as if to affirm a moment of quiet fragility.
As standalone compositions, these pieces lack many of the devices that mark Casino’s rap beats — repetitive melodic loops, rhythms designed to be emulated vocally — and edge toward musique concrete; the hooks lie in the soft ooze of the keyboards, the luscious graininess of the percussion, the unlikely dissonances and harmonies that materialize when textures are juxtaposed. The wordless whispers and moans he likes to summon remain, but the nature sounds have multiplied: wind, rain, birds (sparrow, nightingale, owl), crickets.
“Fire Blue” floats through crackling air, as simple, melancholy keyboard chords and a flat, distorted snare drum accompany what sounds like a sad whale, or perhaps the ghost of a bovine dinosaur. The voice emerges from the depths, moans its plaintive song, and in under two minutes, forlornly recedes again.
While Moon Trip Radio reveals the extent to which Casino’s fingerprints have covered hip-hop fashion throughout the past decade, it also demonstrates what hasn’t caught on: his loopy lyricism, the need to contemplate digital beauty from a distance. The album reminds me less of any other contemporary meditative electronica (chill vibe music is an industry now) than, say, the instrumental passages on a late Sonic Youth album (NYC Ghosts & Flowers, maybe) — a dazzled, skewed tour through a concrete pastoral cityscape, frequently stopping to admire the light refracting through windows and between skyscrapers, with occasional hushed voices that rustle like street conversations faintly overheard.
Behold: ambient music made from abrasive sounds. Only the nature sounds avoid inorganic discord; otherwise, the scraped synthesizers in “Twilit,” the scratchy drums in “Cupidwing,” the modulated groans in “Rune,” and the grainy static that envelops the album would all sound harsh in isolation. But by immersing so totally in the minute details of electronic texture, Casino treats abrasion as something romantic and wondrous, something to get lost in and surrender to.
Since the beginning, the puzzle with Casino has always been why the mood of the music shifts so drastically when a rapper is present on the beat, and how such warm sounds could have influenced such surly successors. When A$AP Rocky raps through a swirly haze, the effect is to contrast his personal presence with his musical environment, turning the haze, already necessarily less humane, into a sinister, ever-present specter of hedonism overload, a black hole threatening to eat Rocky alive. When hermetically sealed, however, without a performer’s pronouncements getting in the way, the same music percolates happily according to its own internal logic. To hear a bunch of white noise become friendly and reassuring startles — isn’t this what you’re trying to tune out every day?
Quiet, intent, comfortable in its peaceful late-night solitude, Moon Trip Radio is a blur of fuzz and shimmer with hooks buried inside. It jumbles categories — natural and artificial, pretty and ugly, nervous and still. It comes into focus as you listen.