“A Better Way” is the result of Jeff Pupa’s return to continental America from Alaska, a Vermont electronic project from the man who brought you Bone Blanket and Vows. Jon Dice’s music is alternately glitchy and polished, a wonderful exploration of the intersection between vintage analogue tunes (i.e. what he samples) and a newer, more streamlined glitch audio (i.e. what the samples end up sounding like). No Smoking is proud to present the exclusive stream of “A Better Way” to start 2015 off right.
The album begins with a minute of chunky synth tones which build into the straightforwardly warped electro-jam that is “Dead Horse.” Barely-audible spoken-word samples worm their way over the intersecting digitized melodies (think less playful Todd Terje with words added into the mix), creating a sort of whirlwind of artificial sound that’s as colorful as it is driving. “Ticks” begins with very slight tonal clicks (or ticks, one might say) over a stomp-clap beat and slippery synth pads; quickly, the idyllic calm is broken by a wobbly and harsh bass tone reminiscent of EDM (but not executed in a style typical of dance music). Drippy synth licks slide upwards in the gaps left between bass beats, and the almost-inaudible words return to befuddle us yet again (something about “hard labor” and “flows through your blood”). The groove lasts for a while until the synth pads suddenly fade out to let a vocal sample shine through – “I’ll fucking blind you” is perfectly comprehensible, and the mix gets violent yet again. “CEO” (as previously premiered on No Smoking) is essentially a noir film soundtrack, a sharp left turn away from the chunky/artificial/glitchy sounds of the first two tracks. The violin melody is created artificially, sure, and a robot voice breaks up instrumental sections, but there’s still the curated sensation of being transported to a time where the synthesizer didn’t quite exist. The self-titled track brings us back to the altered EDM feels with synthesized tones that streak by in hard left/right pans, and we’re finally treated to a comprehensible vocal sample that sings melody over a pleasant groove (“you will find a better way – entertain”).
There is a constant tension on this album between dissonance and harmony, between acquiescing to the expectations of listeners and shattering them entirely. Songs like “CEO” and “A Better Way” are built from melody, while songs like “Split Clip” and “Bigwig, dumbfk” rely on looped vocal samples to create beats. Split Clip opens with “the empire of oppression,” which is repeated a few times before transitioning to a slap-funk bassline and underwater synth tones. Disorientation is the name of the game here, and this is represented perfectly by a saxophone sample which doesn’t seem to be entirely sure of its place in the song (out of key and arrhythmic). “Deuce Coop” confirms my suspicions that Jon Dice is somehow making fun of EDM with an extended siren intro and loosely arpeggiated synths. The production is extremely streamlined and appealing, blipping in and out between left and right headphones in a way that would have been entirely unpleasant if not executed correctly. The beat on this song is as typical as all the rest, but by this point in the album you accept the normalcy of the beats as the basis for accepting the weirdness of the harmonic/non-harmonic components on the album (that is to say, you forgive the generic four-on-the-floor beats when Jon Dice consistently surpasses your expectations). Popular music necessitates some aspects that don’t defy expectations, anyway; I don’t demand polyrhythms 24/7. Anyway, continuing: “bigwig, dumbfk” is GREAT. Reminds me of Oneohtrix Point Never’s “Up” in that it uses one vocal sample (totally without context) to create a sound which matches the content of the vocal samples. The continuous pitch-shifting and filtering of “bigwig, dumbfk” is hilarious and an extremely welcome moment of comic relief in the midst of tracks which might be accused of taking themselves too seriously. I would make a comparison to Ween’s “Big Fat Fuck,” but that wouldn’t be fair to either party being compared, I don’t think. After two minutes, the built-up groove breaks down into a spoken-word monologue reminiscent of OK Computer’s “Fitter Happier.”
“S.P.A.N.K” begins with motorcycle revving, sampled tom beats, and what sounds like a funk singer saying something about “doing this thang” before fading back into a derivative of EDM with plinking individual synth notes over typical kick drum/hi-hat rhythms. Before I can get comfortable, though, the motorcycle and black man are back to confuse me yet again – it’s a pleasant confusion, though. Just like “CEO,” this track is an exercise in going back in time yet somehow also creating a timeless space outside of anything immediately recognizable to the average listener. “41” brings in a considerably more interesting beat for the first time on the album, plus a goofy synth melody that sounds almost like a Hot Sugar lead. Murmured and pitch-shifted vocals make their appearance over sparse production, again not actually forming words but merely present for their tone and ability to be recognized as somehow human.
All in all, “A Better Way” is a pretty crazy, cohesive, and thorough listen – certainly something that should draw the attention of pretty much any fan of electronic music. Fans of Madlib, Oneohtrix Point Never, Lapalux, and even more generic stuff like David Guetta should find their tastes tantalized by this motley arrangement of tracks, and I for one am definitely looking forward to hearing more from Jon Dice.
Watch the video for “Ticks” below: