REVIEW: Six doors to the Woobiverse

After making an indelible mark on the 90’s with his trippy ambient dance and spiky electronica for Em:t Records and Ninja Tune, British artist Paul Frankland aka Woob took a break from releasing in the 2000’s before rebooting his Woob project in 2009. He’s been active ever since, and electronic music in the new century is richer for it.

It’s hard to talk about just one of the recent Woob releases without talking about some of the others, as there are so many interconnected themes and narratives in his uniquely cinematic creations. So here are six albums which, taken together, nicely capture what’s been screening in the Woobiverse since his two retro 80’s horror stunners Adaption (2015) and Death By Coin-Op (2016).

Thematically, science fiction looms large in these releases, and his love of synthwave – 80’s synth music and 8-bit video game samples – continues undiminished. Tokyo Run (2017) and Suite 59201 (2020) both draw deep from the cyberpunk corner of sci-fi; think Blade Runner, Neuromancer, the Ghost In The Shell animes. Ridley Scott’s 1982 film in particular – Vangelis’ music, the spectral sound design, the delicious attention to visual detail – is all over these two albums. And why not? That one film is an entire genre in itself, sci-fi noir that’s astonishingly rich in ideas and possibilities. As genre author William Gibson once pointed out, while both himself and Scott owe inspiration to the 70’s work of French artist Moebius and others from Heavy Metal magazine, Blade Runner has proven to be a well of ideas deep enough to inspire everything from music and anime to clothing and architecture.

Tokyo Run puts slamming tech-trance and synthwave next to beatless bleep and droning noir-ish cityscapes. It’s quite a ride, ebbing and flowing, jolting and soothing, a wordless sci-fi drama about “a dystopian future nobody wants.” No other Woob album renders his love of cyberpunk across music of such wide dynamic range so successfully. Its density and detail induces a kind of perceptual overload, what Gibson called “a lyrical sort of information sickness…that postmodern cocktail of ecstasy and dread. It was what cyberpunk was supposed to be all about.” Strap on your headset and jack in.

Suite 59201 ditches the beats and takes a consistently more ambient route. Ever the frustrated film student turned musician, on this one he constructs an eerie narrative around the Lost Metropolis Hotel, a huge, decaying above-below ground building in some noir-ish dystopia where the hotel guests have to fend for themselves. Vangelis is the ghost in the shell here, to be sure. But let’s not forget that he checked out of the genre after just one night, leaving it to others to explore. Suite 59201 is brooding, dark and lush. It does what Woob does best: world building that’s detailed and visceral, yet with plenty left to your imagination. “The Great Hall” is a case in point with its massive spacey chords, icy strings and a throbbing bass underlay. Insert own scene here.

Texturally similar to the cyberpunk offerings but less dystopian are the often beatless 新 プログラム aka New Program (2018) and スリープ 研究 プログラム aka Sleep Research Program (2019). Both are based on an intriguing little concept about sleep therapy programs designed by the Tokyo-based KIMURA-AOKI Research Institute, “offering re-programming for citizens through sound since 2084.” These albums are abundant in lovely, dreamy synthetic tones with trippy field recordings and samples, broken up here and there with arpeggiated grooves or expansive tunes like New Program’s title track – a hypnotising melody of a tinkling, glittering bells that gradually segues into a procession of grand sweeping chords.

The remaining two albums are different again.

Hypersleep 10 (2019) is an unusual compilation of signature Woob moments in remixed, limited or alternative forms drawn from the last 10 years, plus a surreal reworking of his ambient dub classic “Estarlay” from 1994 (originally made under his Journeyman alias). The album hangs together surprisingly well given its disparate sources, and it’s actually an excellent entry point into latter-day ambient Woob if you’re not familiar with his stuff since the reboot.

2002 (2020) is the best so far from a planned series of nine experimental releases that may or may not meet people’s expectations of what Woob should sound like. The deeply gorgeous title track is almost Balearic with its floating piano figure and rippling electric guitars. I say ‘almost’ because snaking through the mix is that raw, John Carpenter-ish 80’s buzzing bass line that’s a signature Woob sound. He’s cheekily christened it “beachwave”, which I have to tell you is not actually a thing. Yet.

Six albums, six movies, six different entry points into the labyrinth of Paul Frankland’s 21 century cinema of the mind. You’ll find Woob headquarters these days centred around his Bandcamp page, home to a deep catalogue of sonic delights as well as occasional artifacts like the beautiful Zoetrope Vinyl editions. And to those who moan, as several did recently on a certain FB Groups post, that Woob was better in the olden days, please choose a response depending on what mood I’m in: 1) Shut up. 2) Listen closer. 3) Whatever. 

Visit Woob at Bandcamp

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