bo en - pale machine
Written by Enoch Kim (@ProCreateEnoch)
One day we’ll look back on the start of the surrealism movement in J-Pop and center on two pioneers. One will obviously be Yasutaka Nakata’s work with Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. The other will be some white dude in London by the name of Callum Bowem. One fighting in the mainstream, one fighting in the underground. Or at least that’s what I hope will happen because pale machine is a revelation; a truly revolutionary album that distorts all the rules of pop and dance and establishes its own order.
How the fuck did I miss this?
While KPP’s surrealism mostly take the form of the disconnect from her music and her image, bo en creates a surrealistic soundscape. Taking cues from silver-age idol pop, EDM, trap, dempa, and 80’s easy listening, bo en’s sound feels like a 21st century Wonderland. Beautiful piano solos are cut by trap snares and wobbly dubstep bass, NES-reminicent triangle are complemented by strings and Casio keyboards, and the synergy between Bowen’s vocal performance and his use of Vocaloid is fun and inspired. Gluing the production are simple and bouncy melodies stemming from Bowen’s background as a prolific videogame composer.
It’s a novel and captivating sound that demands repeat listens with many instantly memorable “setpiece” moments. Immediately recallable are the 808 transition to the house synth beat at the beginning of miss you, the fm bass and vocalization at the beginning of be okay, the introduction of the reversed stabs and its interplay with the primitive triangle wave synths in winter valentine, and, probably most memorable, the trap bridge from the second chorus on my time. Maybe not so memorable that you know the exact placement in each composition but still something that can be instantly recalled with “Hey, you remember when those trap snares came in on my time?” “Yeah, holy shit that went hard as fuck.”
But I think after the novelty of the his genre-breaking production wears off (and it’s going to take a long to wear off), it’ll be Bowen’s lyricism that’ll stand as timeless. Yes, there’s also a sense of novelty in the lyrics with its play between English and Japanese (one that wears a bit thinner than the production) but it’s jumping between playfulness and somberness is what really sells the surreal atmosphere of pale machine. Bowen tackles themes of unrequited love, loneliness, mediocrity, and stale comfort with both personal introspection and universal accessibility. The motif of time is brilliantly used both in lyrics and production. Musings of time passing by with your dreams languishing or being merely okay with a idealized perfect daily life are not new but Bowen makes them both timely and timeless. The titular track pale machine is to our technology-attached generation what Pink Floyd’s Time was to millions of bedroom guitarists in the 70’s. It’s not just same themes adapted to today, it pertains to the issues of today. We’re all so connected to the million text boxes in our lives I personally feel lost and nervous without them, unable to clutch onto the inherent spatial disconnect to mull about my feelings for just a couple more seconds and pale machine strikes that hidden anxiety bullseye.
The absolute best track in the album- the one everyone remembers, the one used in the OMORI GAME trailer- is by far my time. It is the absolute encapsulation of the bo en sound, arguably perfecting it. The calm piano solo and strings along with Bowne’s soothing voice are abruptly interrupted by airhorns, trap snares, vodocoded vocals, rising laser leads, and explosive synth effects, exemplifying the daredevilly surreal balancing act of the serene and the absurdly chaotic. The lyrics cannot be improved upon- you can’t make a perfect thing better. It drifts in an out of calm and calamity; the bliss and anxiety of both reality and wonderland, your consciousness and subconscious working to trip you up with bouts of regret and doubt and yet Wonderland seems so much more preferable. Maybe it’s the lack of consequence, maybe it’s the lack of other people keeping your inhibitions in check, maybe it’s all these reasons.
my time is one of the few tracks in the album that really clicks with me with its use of Japanese. The simplistic use of おやすみ [oyasumi] just works. It’s effective and its pretend use as a name is powerful, as if your dream state is an alter ego, that it’s not really you.
pale machine feels like the work of a soothsayer, it’s both the culmination of the international underground scene of EDM and J-Pop but also something that’s unlike anything before it. Is Callum Bowen a psychic or just a genius? I don’t care to find out because either way he made something absolutely magical and revolutionary.
Again, how the fuck did I miss out on this album?
Grade: A Buy It
Go play all the music video/game hybrids made for pale machine!The gifs were taken from them. Also don’t miss the OMORI GAME kickstarter- a crowdfunding campaign for a very important game. Read my account of the game’s demo premier here.