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Daniel Lopatin’s Uncut Gems

2,533 words [1]

The Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems may have been a garish film that walked a dangerous line between parodying and celebrating degeneracy, however, the original score it boasts is anything but kitschy and unsettling. Composed by the highly talented Daniel Lopatin, better known professionally by his moniker Oneohtrix Point Never, the Uncut Gems OST is awash in Lopatin’s trademark New Age sounds, proto-vaporwave sensibilities, and his unabashed love for acid-influenced synthesizer. Like anything in the mainstream, however, it’s worth noticing details; such as the curiosity of Lopatin, a Brooklyn-based Jew, composing the score to a film made by other New York Jews.

This is a film score review, but there will be no spoilers, because I will focus more on the music than the film.

Lopatin has long been a highly skilled and influential composer and producer, but for Counter-Currents readers, he is most interesting as a pioneer of the “vaporwave” genre with his 2010 album Eccojams Volume 1, an idiosyncratic style guide for music that consisted of chopped and screwed 80s samples, washed-out production tones, and an emphasis on visual art accompaniments that usually ironically glorified consumer culture in the late 80s and 90s.

Vaporwave movement proved to be immensely influential, leading to a revolution in the way that counter-culture media was created in the mid-2010s. It’s likely one remembers the pink, blue, and orange hues of cyberpunk, outrun, and “fashwave” graphics that took the Internet by storm, or the equivalent subgenres that the Left grew fond of around the same time. Lopatin’s work as Oneohtrix Point Never is also critically acclaimed and loved by people from diverse backgrounds as ravers, New Age fans, ambient enthusiasts, and even those interested in harsh noise.

It’s a small irony, or conversely, entirely expected, that Lopatin would shift his focus away from the underground scene in which he created some of his most daring and important work and towards the mainstream. At least on silver screens, the only culture-jacking he can fear would be from his own sociopolitical and ethnic compatriots, and not from edgy teenagers with audio editing software and unmonitored internet access. Perhaps Lopatin’s story will become a sort of archetype for the rare Jew capable of creating genuinely beautiful art; fearing its appropriation by unsympathetic goyim, they’ll take to the establishment in droves. Our best hope is that the quality isn’t diminished.

The album’s introduction is the slow burner “Ballad of Howie Bling,” a lengthy meditation that seems to be crafted from equal parts mothership sounds and scrapped Windows 95 sound design. Lopatin’s Eno influences are highly apparent on this track, yet this song is indubitably still the work of Lopatin: Piercing bleeps drift throughout a lush soundscape reminiscent of an early 2010s Reddit producer’s work before the song breaks apart into a highly orchestral groove, fleshed out with the assistance of a pitch-shifted men and women’s choir. Lopatin’s own “Chrome Country” appears to be a major point of reference for him in the creation of this track, with common motifs including the pulse of a simulated Roland Juno-60, and a wordless choir in various states of exuberance. True to the medium of the soundtrack, Lopatin adds an extra dose of drama; where his work as Oneohtrix would often use crescendo and decrescendo as something of an accent, “Ballad” sweeps through all levels of volume in soundtrack fashion. Even with a sound that could be described as maximalist, “Ballad” also never overwhelms. This airy quality makes “Ballad” the perfect opening track to this record, touching on the various sounds contained within, but never overloading the listener or giving them false expectations.

“Pure Elation” is the second song, and it opens almost like an Animal Collective meditation. Pan flutes and sub-bass coexist comfortably on this track, but it’s unlike Lopatin to leave an opportunity for space-age sensibility unclaimed. A smattering of bleeps and bloops are tossed into the mix, and the end result is a short track (one minute, one second) ripe for use as an interlude between scenes.

“Followed” opens with a snip from Uncut Gems, with Sandler’s voice quickly melting away into a song highly reminiscent of vaporwave-era artists such as Vaporerror, or perhaps Blank Banshee. Synths in the low range arpeggiate, compress, decompress, and pan about the listener’s ears before fading out in tandem with the cascading sound of reverbing bells. “Followed” is also a short track, clocking in at one minute, thirty-two seconds, making it another example of a suitable interlude track.

“The Bet Hits” introduces itself with a flourish of flute that is quickly joined by electronic harmonics and a relatively inelastic bassline. The little percussion discerned on this track is that of a small shuffle, tucked away in the background, sounding almost like a lighter being struck. The blueprints of easy, calming ambient music are on clear display, with few difficult transitions. In fact, the song’s only major shift comes at 2 minutes in, when an arpeggio of mildly square synths dance atop the sparse arrangement of flute that has remained since the beginning. “The Bet Hits” ends with the gradual fade of its instruments and a final salute of the oscillator.

“High Life” begins with the sounds of a sweeping melody tossed through multiple pass-filters, which are then consumed by a stretched ambient flute and electrified bass riffs equally grandiose in their length and overdriven sound. These all melt away into silence in exactly one minute.

“No Vacation” is another track that begins with a clip from the movie. After the doozy of the line “We’ll be morons in Cancun,” high-pitched pinball machine music begins to play. “No Vacation” is one of Uncut Gems’ least-inspired tracks, sounding more like a brief sample of “Ballad” or perhaps several other tracks in Lopatin’s discography. On its own, there’s nothing wrong with it, and within the context of the film it would be a welcome mark of consistency in the sounds of scene interludes. But as part of a greater musical work, “No Vacation” lacks any noteworthy qualities possessed by many of the other songs.

“School Play” is an ominous song, beginning with a minor-key cacophony whose racket is hidden by the wetness of its reverb. A highly acidic bassline reminiscent of the electronic sounds of “On the Run” by Pink Floyd builds itself up in the listeners’ ears, accompanied by the shaking of light percussion and various stabs of mad electric sounds, whooshes, and sub-bass hits. “School Play” would almost work on some kind of underground dance floor, with a discernible rhythm acting as glue for a track with countless elements. All of these sounds create the sense of panic; one can’t help but feel as though some impending doom looms at the end of the track. Halfway through the song, much of the embellishment is dropped, leaving the modulated bassline to warble on its lonesome for a few brief seconds prior to a set of Juno pulses and wah-wah feedback joining it. The bassline slowly rises in pitch, the percussion gets louder, and a deep crescendo and pitch-shift of every instrument build more and more anticipation before a final drop into Sandler screaming for help amidst clattering toms. If one were to judge the songs on this album on their ability to inspire terror in the listener, “School Play” would be a prime choice.

The remarkably named “Fuck You Howard” is the next track. It’s borderline angelic, with various jazz-like chops of gleeful choir accompanied by a laser-sharp synthesizer screech punctuating buzzy drones and the Juno bassline. This pattern holds throughout most of the song, except the end, which has a gentle fade away into silence. Title-wise, this song does feel accurate; it’s an uplifting piece that does quite closely mimic the feeling of exuberance that overtakes one that just told another something they deserved to hear.

“Smoothie” contains an invigorating, albeit repetitive, brass melody that sits comfortably atop the ambient sounds Lopatin makes best. With a squelchy opener and soft touches of woodwind and beeps in the beginning, “Smoothie” is full of tension and anticipation. It’s another interlude track, comprising one minute and ten seconds.

“Back to Roslyn” is a very New York track, given the stumbling, droning bassline and lamentations of saxophone that glide about with the fluttering of piano and Juno plucks like the wings of a butterfly. There’s a satisfying element of give and take present on “Roslyn” as well, with the indeterminable slurry of elements present in the beginning eventually ceding to an identifiable rhythm at the midway point. It’s the kind of song that makes one want to sway back and forth.

“The Fountain” contains a foreboding, crescendo introduction of various ethereal noise. This yields to the thud-thud-thud-thud of a kick drum and a spacey choir mingling with near-industrial instrumental vibratos and clatter, which also only make their presence known for a few seconds. “The Fountain” is only two minutes and change, but contains multitudes. Upon each listen one is capable of identifying multiple individual elements and their respective transitions. It is probably Lopatin’s most tribally-influenced song on this record.

“Powerade,” another small cut, is brought to life with the titular Sandler line “Let’s get these guys some Powerade!” over the top of a highly funky groove that would not be out of place being played inside of some smoke-filled room selling $40 drinks. It’s only 52 seconds long, but there’s no reason for it to be longer. There isn’t much variation from the original melody beyond some modulated hums and Lopatin’s trademark glissando texturing. Like the album’s other interlude tracks, this one does a great job.

“Windows” begins with an infectious jungle house rhythm, chopped human vocals that range from “hmms” and “hahs,” and a syncopated smack of percussion on occasional downbeats. The initial percussion has a few distinct phases, whether it’s a breakdown or a hi-hat like roll. The inclusion of vocals and no lyrics gives the track a primitive atmosphere befitting of its deeply primal basslines, but there is no confusion about this track’s contemporary composition. “Windows” is a marvelous exercise in retrofuturist music, taking old forms such as the hymnal chanting of the choir and interpolating them with the sleek edge of modern audio processing. The end result is what one could imagine is played inside the temples of some alternate universe in which cities grew out of rainforest tree trunks and people still went to church every Sunday — in their hovercars. As the song slowly comes to an end, the sounds and drumline become more frenetic and even neurotic in form. This is also a Lopatin staple; even his most sonically pleasant tracks contain at least one deviation from what is commonly regarded as normal in music. Whether these diversions are pleasant or not depends on the listener. “Windows” ends with a resounding crash, almost like cannon fire, fading away to total silence.

“Buzz Me Out” follows the established form for most of this soundtrack’s shorter tracks by starting with a slow burn. Eerie atmosphere fills the listener’s ears, and the sound of a ringing bell tower is sprinkled throughout the steady drone. As the track progresses, this drone begins to keep time with the bell tower, increasing in volume with each stroke of the hour. About three-quarters of the way through, the small, almost fearful graces of the choir join, holding just a handful of harmonies steady alongside the clock tower. The ending of “Buzz Me Out” makes a perfectly crafted transition to the next track by holding the choir’s voices steady and fading out the other sounds.

After the choir of “Buzz Me Out” is sent away with a gong, an arpeggiated and drowned synth riff graces the introduction of “The Blade.” Featuring a pointed brass ensemble powering over the top of the initial arpeggio, this track conveys a sense of achievement, or perhaps victory. Midway through the song, percussion kicks in and a handful of stings floating across measures join in until the track reaches a graceful crescendo and plateau. It’s a staggering, almost disarming song; and all of this tension resolves itself in a final blast of the brass. “Buzz Me Out” passes muster for everything needed in a dramatic interlude without sounding boring or tired, a distinction not know to at least one of this soundtrack’s shorter songs, being just one minute and thirty-two seconds long.

“Mohegan Suite” opens with a mildly compressed synth lead clearly treated with a low-pass filter. This initial melody is greeted by a slightly more square harmony and multiple ambient flourishes ranging from throbbing bass hits and a droning men’s choir. All of these elements mingle amongst each other, with each member of this electric orchestra having its moment in the spotlight before a lethargic, yet tight bassline consumes everything. More and more pieces of this track become modulated, screwed, and panned in and out of the listener’s ear for several measures. Small embellishments of stretched howling and siren-like drones fill in the remaining atmosphere, and then everything comes together for one ecstatic and anxious minute before the track’s conclusion. “Mohegan Suite” ends with a fade. Clocking in at four minutes and forty-two seconds, it’s one of the soundtrack’s few long-form songs, yet none of it seems to drag on.

“Uncut Gems” is the titular and final piece of the soundtrack. A glaring bass drone slowly morphs into a soft pad for the introduction, and then Lopatin tosses in a few strikes of what sounds like an electric, overdriven piano. The men’s choir from the previous song engages in a reprise, holding the same note as before until about a minute into the song, where they slide into their upper register. Dramatic crescendo, a tool Lopatin is not afraid to use on this album, guides the listener into an intense peak and transition where the pad sounds gain focus and pierce the otherwise lush sonic landscape to provide rhythm in absence of percussion. “Uncut Gems” as a title and concluding song holds significant merit for its ability to repackage the themes present on the record without being a copy of the first track; orchestral sense, carefully handled drones oozing with life, and a gleeful synth lead give this song a sense of completion and satisfaction. The tasks that were carried out on every other track are now noted, reflected upon, and then gently consigned to rest with each fade-out. The last twenty seconds of the song contain two synth melodies and one blowing bassline that all mingle, and then halt.

Uncut Gems is a marvel of sound design and highly impactful storytelling. But it is a strange beast to analyze. Musically, it is mostly enjoyable. Even the few tracks that seem derivative are usually short and handily mixed into the tracks that surround them, creating the impression of one continuous soundscape that never fails to evolve. From a cultural standpoint, however, this album feels like a sellout.

Why would such a talented and well-known underground musician go into composing soundtracks for high-budget, controversy-free motion pictures? Was it the money? Was it his desire to distance himself from the monster he created? Why did he compose this under his own name rather than Oneohtrix Point Never?

Maybe it was just in his nature.