Pretty impressive for an album that’s mostly slowed-down, chopped-up ‘80s hits.
To hear Eccojams Vol. 1 in 2016 is to hear vaporwave before it became a cartoon—before the memes, before the East Asian appropriation, before the Greek busts, before vaportrap and future funk, before the smirking elitism. Though there’s no consensus on who “invented” vaporwave, Eccojams is certainly among its earliest and purest manifestations, and a great reminder of what drew people to the genre in the first place. Eccojams Vol. 1 isn’t great because it skewers corporate culture or “uncool” music, as later releases by artists like Vektroid might. It’s great because it feels so vast and mysterious. It doesn’t make us feel big; it makes us feel small. Pretty impressive for an album that’s mostly slowed-down, chopped-up ‘80s hits.
The songs Daniel Lopatin messes with here are chestnuts many of us have heard in shopping malls, restaurants and waiting rooms for decades. ‘80s soft rock seems to be the ambient music of the corporate world; it’s about as unobtrusive as music gets without people wondering what the hell they’re listening to. As Lopatin slows these songs down and submerges them in echo and reverb, they take on a weird, otherworldly quality, as if unmoored from space and time. Rather than being trapped by the boundaries of pop production, they become foggy and ethereal, half-hidden in the mist—like the memories we might associate with these songs, whether by consciously listening to them or just hearing them at a Thai restaurant or something.
Many Eccojams first surfaced as accompaniment to ominous, lo-fi CG YouTube videos, many of which would be compiled into a half-hour video called Memory Vague that should serve as a pretty good primer to the vaporwave aesthetic. In addition to the CG videos, which evoked educational films and early Internet visuals, Memory Vague featured clips from workout videos and infomercials—things associated with the ‘80s, during which Lopatin, born 1982, was a child. It’s not hard to read Eccojams as a tour through Lopatin’s own nostalgia, an assemblage of refracted memories. It feels like a deeply personal project, and it’ll probably strike a chord in the hearts of many millennials who grew up around the same ambient corporatism Lopatin did.
Lopatin doesn’t do much with these songs. He mostly just takes his favorite part, loops it and adds some effects. It’s more or less the same approach Houston’s chopped-and-screwed hip hop DJs take, except focusing on tiny bits of the music rather than full songs. There are moments when the puppetmaster behind the music becomes obvious, as when Lopatin ends “A8” with a spectacular blizzard of noise. But mostly it’s just bits of pop songs, adrift in space. Listeners who like a bit more elbow grease to go into their music might be put off by Eccojams and gravitate towards something more obviously crafted, like Blank Banshee or Saint Pepsi.
Nonetheless, untethered to their sources, the bits of roaming pop songs take on new, weird contexts. There’s real loneliness when a sonorous voice moans, “There’s nobody here, there’s nobody here” on “B4”—which is remarkable given that the source, Chris DeBurgh’s “The Lady in Red,” is as lush and warm as seduction songs come (“There’s nobody here, just you and me” is the original lyric, though you’d never know it). Slowed down, Stevie Nicks’ sultry blue notes on “Gypsy” edit, “B2,” sound drunken, off-key, more like a rapper like D.R.A.M. than the cool chanteuse we know and love. And never before will you have noticed how gorgeous Toto’s “Africa” is until its shimmering synths slowly noodle up to heaven on “A1,” the album’s opener.
It’s not just ’80s pop, either. 2Pac’s “Me Against the World,” itself built around the immortal riff from Isaac Hayes’ “Walk On By,” makes an appearance on “B5.” “A7” is built around a song called “The Four Horsemen” from cult Greek prog band Aphrodite’s Child; the lyric “The second horse” is clearly audible, injecting a bit of apocalyptic dread into the landscape. (Something certainly seems a bit apocalyptic about vaporwave.) And “A5,” a creepy little skit so blurred in effects as to be unrecognizable, comes from the Byrds. He seems to use these rock and rap songs to create the album’s uglier bits, letting the pop contribute most of the prettier moments.
The emotion at the core of Eccojams seems to be disconnection—from the technological world, from bygone eras, from half-recalled memories. Though it’ll bring a warm wave of nostalgia to many, the music here is deliberately cold, alienating and dystopian. It might seem silly to discuss emotions like these in a review of an album of chopped-up pop. But either Lopatin’s doing something right or the people he sampled did. Either way, there’s magic at work here.
Lopatin has remastered Eccojams from the original cassettes. This version is crisp and trebly, closer to the sound quality of the original songs than the rips online. Some, however, might prefer how the murky quality of the YouTube “full album” video further obfuscates the music. This isn’t an essential remaster, but it’s promising; Lopatin’s claimed to have several more volumes of Eccojams in the “cryotank,” and a track called “ECCOJAMC1” made a brief appearance on his recent album Garden of Delete. Eccojams Vol. 1 is one of the greatest vaporwave albums ever made. It’d be wonderful if it were only the beginning of a rich tradition.