Vaporwave felt like an exhausting inside joke before it even started, an internet-spawned musical genre that, to the uninitiated, can feel like landing on the 64th page of a three-year-old message board discussion, where the replies have long since collapsed into granular disagreements and tangential squabbling. It doesn’t help that the vaporwave community itself doesn’t seem to know what vaporwave is or isn’t. Its myriad artists and the critics who have attempted to characterize them have typically waxed loftily—and inscrutably—about its “relation to cultural memory and the buried utopianism within capitalist commodities” or its “parody of American hypercontextualization of e-Asia circa 1995,” which isn’t helping anybody. Meanwhile, the genre itself has splintered into derivations like Mallsoft or Simpsonwave, where—appropriately for the age when the internet has made detecting sincerity or sarcasm nearly impossible—it’s difficult to know just how seriously to take them. All of which is to say vaporwave had yet to produce an album that’s wholly worth wading through these myriad levels of irony, culture jamming, and Derrida deconstruction. But finally, this year brought us 2814’s Rain Temple, vaporwave’s first genuine classic.
As always, that’s if it even is vaporwave, which some of the genre’s ever-vigilant guardians of semiotics have declared it isn’t—at least not by the rigorous definition applied to artists like James Ferraro, who traffics in blocky virtual-reality aesthetics and winkingly lobotomized Muzak, or Saint Pepsi, who samples and stretches old ’90s commercials and Japanese pop hits. Instead, 2814, the duo composed of artists HKE and Telepath, commit the sin of making wholly original musical compositions, which for some is enough to banish them forever from vaporwave’s tacky neon kingdom. In fact, HKE himself has shied away from the tag, calling the tracks he releases under his Dream Catalogue imprint “dream music.” HKE has his own eye-roll-inducing, possibly tongue-in-cheek ambitions about listeners in the year 2084 someday downloading the dreams he creates directly to their brains from the “ultracloud,” but don’t let that turn you off. When it comes down to it, 2814’s “dream music” is simply that: hazy works that exist in an intoxicating hypnagogic state, easily enjoyed by any fans of ambient music without needing to read up on Jean Baudrillard first.
Rain Temple represents the apotheosis of that aesthetic, building on the basic ideas of 2814’s two previous releases to create a purely cinematic, otherworldly experience. Like much of its early work (and much of vaporwave in general), the Japanese fetishism remains, though it’s slightly subtler; the album’s atmospheres conjure a drizzly, perpetually pink-and-azure-lit Tokyo cityscape akin to the one glimpsed on its cover, and there are bits of synthesized pan flutes and the like. But the album creates its limbo state by existing amid a wide geographical swath of genres and influences, recalling both the gothic pop of This Mortal Coil and Cocteau Twins and the dub-techno hymnals of Andy Stott on “Lost In A Dream” and “Contact,” touching on Eluvium’s post-rock grandeur in “Guided By Love,” and delving into glitchy witch-house (to name another ridiculed genre) beats à la Balam Acab on “This Body.” Meanwhile, the album’s standout track, the hypnotic “Eyes Of The Temple,” feels like a sci-fi noir theme just waiting to happen. Denis Villeneuve missed out not hiring these guys to score his Blade Runner sequel.
Still, if the group continues to put out work on this level—and particularly given the current appetite for these kinds of dark synthesizer moodscapes—it stands to reason they would someday get the chance. For now, 2814 can take pride in having created the first vaporwave album that feels truly substantial, rendering all those tedious genre trappings completely beside the point.