Tycho blew up. What was once the modest, Boards of Canada-inspired hobby of San Francisco-based graphic designer Scott Hansen now merits Grammy nods and consistently appears near the top of the Dance/Electronic charts. And with this surge of fame, Hansen’s sound has blown up as well. He used to use guitars and live drums as embellishment, but now, his dainty music sits atop a monolithic rock chassis. Tycho’s a band now—Hansen on guitar and synth, Zac Brown (not that Zac Brown) on bass and a revolving cast of drummers.

Epoch feels like Tycho’s gift to the cheap seats. There is none of the slow builds and ambient meanderings that defined his breakout album Dive or its more rock-centric follow-up Awake. Instead, it hurtles forward at breakneck speed, all clattering math-rock drums and big, suspenseful chord progressions. Though swaths of it go by unobtrusively, it doesn’t feel ambient. What it perhaps resembles most is an instrumental version of the buzzy electropop in vogue about 10 years ago. You’d be forgiven for expecting Thomas Mars to start singing.

This music will probably go over great when Hansen makes his appearance at this year’s Coachella, but it leaves a lot to be desired for home listening. There’s none of the textural intricacy that defined Dive and Awake. Those albums seemed to open up into something more than music, conjuring little dimensions you could explore for the better part of an hour. Epoch stays right there in your headphones. The bass sounds like a bass, the guitar sounds like a guitar, the synth sounds like a synth and none of them do anything particularly interesting.

The most obvious difference between Epoch and Hansen’s past work is how muscular it is. The drums and bass are mixed way in the front, and the record suffers from the main pitfall of modern rock production: the idea that everything has to have muscle, that the midrange should hit like a train. A lot of Tycho’s appeal is that his work is more substantial than most ambient music, endearing it to rock and EDM fans who like a bit more drive than what, say, a Biosphere album provides. But you can still usually curl up and sink into his music. Epoch punches you awake.

Save his signature guitar, Tycho doesn’t benefit from the addition of live instruments at all. The best track here, “Receiver,” is the only one that sounds like it could have been made by Hansen alone; it’s spare, minimal and gives the listener plenty of room to breathe. When the beat enters, it’s not to add extra oomph but to tie everything together. When it fades into the wistful pad that opens the title track, we hope the album has finally yielded its ambient treasure. But no; a titanic kick drum enters, and “Epoch” explodes with the ungraceful force of a Katy Perry hit.

Unless Hansen really prefers this tightly-wound rock sound, I suspect the addition of a live band is to make his set more interesting at festivals. Live instruments are a good failsafe for electronic acts who can’t afford Daft Punk pyramids and might otherwise look boring crouching behind a soundboard. And the extra drive of live drums means crowds are more likely to dance and less likely to get bored. It all feels a bit cynical. Perhaps this is the step Hansen needed to take at this point in his career, but though it’ll do a lot for his ticket sales, it does little for his music.

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2 Comments

  1. pick Erika

    June 29, 2017 at 5:13 am

    Oh he is fiiiiine.

    Reply

  2. RecoilDM

    February 26, 2018 at 7:03 am

    Probably the most spot-on review of Epoch i’ve read yet.
    Yep, it’s probably the direction Scott Hansen felt pursued to go in, and it drives drives drives it all into your conscious. All the laurels about how great the drumming and bass were on the previous albums seemed to get him to decide to put that stuff up front and center. Take a look at the recent Tycho remixes of Portugal. The Man “Live in the Moment”, sort of the same thing. (although as a change up, I really actually enjoy them…although the Sunset mix is my favorite).
    I can put on Dive and Awake and literally get lost in a sonic landscape. They both utilize live instrumentation almost as a subtle augmentation that allows your mind to just float everywhere, and yet the beat does keep one focused. I call these albums my “centering” music and it does that masterfully, while at the same time allows me to float away somewhere. Each song on those 2 albums are distinct and flow beautifully. Epoch is good, because it’s all still there, but to me I can’t often tell when one song on Epoch ends and another begins. It’s all the same and before I know it, it’s over and i’m not left with that lingering thought in my head “I really need to listen to Montana again”. I’m left with a “wow Rory really is a good drummer”, “it’s over?” and “ok, I can put ‘Dive’ on again….’Hours’ is so good”. So while it’s excellent (it really is, i’m being picky) it just doesn’t resonate the same way as the other albums do.

    Yes, certainly your comment on the live show will prove to be true, but I also believe it won’t quite be as well received. It kind of reminds me of what Depeche Mode has gravitated towards this days, post Alan Wilder. He introduced a lot of live instrumentation back in 1993 on Songs of Faith and Devotion as augmentation to their digital/dance. It was never meant to overtake their melodies and ambiance and they found a perfect mix. Now, they do shells of their former work live will a full-on live instrumentation. Guitarists, bassists, and a drummer that actually bashes away at “Enjoy The Silence”. Somewhere Alan Wilder is shaking his head. My point is that I hope Tycho doesn’t get caught in that trap. Progress is needed, but it needs to be for a point. Progress for progress’s sake alone isn’t progress at all.

    Reply

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