(ghost): Departure

Ocoeur: Light as a Feather

Ruxpin: This Time We Go Together

Overseen by Mike Cadoo, n5MD is one of the most consistent labels around, with every one of its releases, no matter how stylistically different they are from one another, guaranteed to satisfy the listener in one way or another. A case in point is this recent trio of albums by (ghost), Ocoeur, and Ruxpin, which dish out ample servings of classic IDM-electronica and vocal-heavy synth-pop.

Connecticut-based Brian Froh aka (ghost) seems in many ways the prototypical bedroom electronic producer, the kind of guy whose skills have developed at such a preternaturally young age and rapid pace that his fifty-five-minute debut album sounds like the work of an old hand. Departure's ten tracks update the classic IDM sound refined by artists associated with Merck and early Warp, figures such as Proem, Plaid, Proswell, Boards of Canada, and others. An emphasis on analogue synthesizer timbres also strengthens the connection between (ghost) and those artists. Though the (ghost) sound is a largely synthetic one, a few non-synthetic elements—field recordings, piano, and electric guitar—also work their way into the sound design.

Froh brings a well-developed melodic command to the material, with tracks such as “Soft Sands” and “Abyss” elevated as much by their ethereal melodic content as their electro-tribal percussive makeup. The album's no shrinking violet either as much of it hits with aggressive force and is delivered with no small amount of exuberance and energy. Midway through the album, skittering beats and gleaming keyboard patterns give “Distance” a potent punch, whereas the electric guitar-inflected “Full Cycle” and wistful “Endless Roads” dial the intensity level down to something a tad more soothing. Certainly “Plans To Escape” includes enough whirr'n'click and early Autechre-styled basslines to keep the standard IDM head happy, and a bit of electro-funk threads its way into the downtempo emotional electronica of “Leaving It All Behind,” too.

There's supposedly a narrative of sorts in play—something to do with a protagonist attempting to break free of confinement of some kind (song titles alone suggest as much)—but as always with instrumental collections the album succeeds perfectly well on purely listening grounds, as handily proven by “Vertical,” the luscious dreamscape that closes the album.

As atmospheric as Departure is Light as a Feather, the sophomore album by French electronic musician Franck Zaragoza aka Ocoeur (2011's Les hommes ne savent pas voler, issued on the Musica Vermella net label, was the first). That “au coeur” translates into English as “to the heart” says much about the emotional and child-like qualities of his musical style, as Zaragoza is unafraid to incorporate into his material the playful spirit and melancholic feelings associated with youth. Like (ghost), Ocoeur references the traditions of IDM and electronica in his style while at the same time personalizing it. Electronic beats power a typical Ocoeur piece, but Zaragoza couples a track's rhythms with dancing swirls of keyboard patterns to brand it as a Ocoeur production (in a not unwelcome move, “Astral Projection” even nudges the album into a techno zone).

The fifty-minute Light as a Feather often plays like a study in contrast, with a given track juxtaposing elements that are diametrically opposite in mood and character. In “Light,” for instance, bright music box patterns are offset by the track's ominous undercurrent, while “Resonance” likewise blankets a snappy electronic pulse with a rainswept melancholia. The album does suffer from the occasional misstep, however. The inclusion of rainfall is hardly necessary in “My Love” when the piano playing already communicates the melancholic feeling so clearly, and rain dribble in “Arret Sur Image” and the closing “Envol” is likewise featured too prominently. “Feather” also would be better if its noise textures were removed so that the graceful keyboards and strings patterns could be heard minus the unnecessary clutter. Though such moments suggest that Zaragoza's music would benefit from a more restrained touch, they are also relatively minor missteps on an otherwise fine collection.

Clearly the most pop song-oriented of the three releases is This Time We Go Together, Jonas Thor Gudmundsson's eighth Ruxpin album and follow-up to 2010's Where Do We Go From Here? The Icelandic musician's answer? Sixteen melodic electronica songs that the listener is able to quickly and easily warm up to. Though Gudmundsson's certainly resourceful—the Ruxpin set comes fast on the heels of an album and two EPs he issued in 2012 with fellow Icelander Fannar Asgrimsson under the Asonat name—This Time We Go Together sounds like anything but a rush job. If anything, the fifty-six-minute recording suggests that melodic pop tunes must pour out of Gudmundsson with no seeming effort at all. And though funk, breakbeat, and hip-hop rhythms work their way into his tracks (drum'n'bass even sneaks into “We Have Come to Our End”), the tunes end up sounding like Ruxpin productions rather than derivative mash-ups.

Musically, the songs are exuberant in spirit and extroverted in tone, with a typical Ruxpin track heavily atmospheric, lavishly dressed in synthetic garb, and ornamented with an occasional vocal (and field recording, too). The songs range in style from electronic new wave (“Such a Distance to Fall”) and nostalgic set-pieces (the piano-based “We Will Reach There in Time”) to downtempo funk (“As We Exhale, We Enter,” “Here the Sun Hardly Sets”) and glistening, synth-pop instrumentals (“Cloud in My Spacesuit”).

Olena Simon's vocal delivery in “A Start From the End” and “Love Interest” can't help but invite comparison to Bjork (though the songs aren't spoiled as a result), while Chihiro Dunn adds her own breathy coo to the slippery funk workout “With Our Hands We Form Contact.” Certain pieces do stand out for being exceptionally pretty (the lilting reverie “We Are Far Away From All the Things We Know” and wistful closer “This Place Was Ours to Begin With”), but the quality level remains consistently high throughout This Time We Go Together.

July 2013