Let’s be honest here. The whole 80s revival thing has gotten a bit tired. All that hazy, synth-soaked straight-to-cassette bullshit being puked out at hyper–independent labels like NOT NOT FUN and Ole-English Spelling Bee is really awful stuff. Save for a few arduously mined gems (Maria Minerva’s Tallinn at Dawn comes to mind), there hardly exists enough good music in the bunch to fill the silence of a car trip to the local superstore to buy a much, much higher quality album. For years James Ferraro has been one of the guiltiest purveyors of just this sort of garbage – spitting out LPs, CD-Rs and cassettes at a pace so rapid, genuine music-lovers could hardly throw them away fast enough. Not so anymore. Far Side Virtual could quite honestly be the first masterpiece to have crawled from the primordial cesspool now known as ‘Retromania’ (thanks Simon Reynolds).
While Far Side Virtual may be the loftiest spire to have shot out of the imagination wasteland that is the ‘hypnagogic pop’ genre, James Ferraro has never been more down to earth. By abandoning his crippling obsession with the aesthetics and life-style of the 80s for a focus on the present, Ferraro has crafted an album that speaks more powerfully from and about the time in which it was created. In many ways it’s unfair to compare Far Side Virtual to the aforementioned mass of recycle-worthy records; it’s worlds apart from anything in hypnagogic pop. Far Side Virtual is made up of angular, glossy, blissed-out tunes (the kind of functional near-ambient fodder that’s easily imaginable as elevator music), far removed from the dreamy art-damaged pop that has no doubt paid Ferraro’s rent for the last seven years or more. Furthermore, Ferraro’s vision here is much less self-indulgent than we’ve come to expect, and yet thoroughly more immersive than any art he’s been a part of before. That being said, this is not an easy listen per se, it’s a rather difficult record to swallow both sonically and conceptually.
An album whose content is as squeaky clean as the iPad screen that adorns its cover, Far Side Virtual is a significant departure from the entirety of Ferraro’s exhaustive discography. Ferraro’s new approach is not merely an upgrade or some theoretical sidestep in his musical vein; it’s a total overhaul. Murk has become sheen, mud into laminate, and his lo-fi lense now shimmers in HD. No longer is the music weighed down by incessant audio clipping and dingy effects, texture has finally taken backseat to invention, not to mention a newly found vision that is as refreshing as it is groundbreaking. Far Side Virtual is truly unlike anything else out there right now, an accomplishment that is light-years ahead of Ferraro’s peers.
Far Side Virtual’s musical content is as tongue-in-cheek as the concepts behind it. The work as a whole comes off like a musical still life composed of audio clip art married to track after track of synthetic instrumentation (whose analog counterparts would sound no less cheesy). All the tracks feel nearly interchangeable, all seemingly pieced together by the same pro-tools sound pool. In fact, apart from the album’s context, these songs are essentially meaningless. From tinny, over blown sax parts and overdubbed strings, to the sort of synth melodies customarily preprogrammed on plastic keyboards, each cut feels as dispensable as the last. It’s obvious, of course, that this is Ferraro’s intention: to make songs pregnant with as much meaning as the common ring tone. It is surprising however, how efficient this peculiar strategy has been in producing an album with such a profound effect.
‘Dream On’ is the only notable smudge on the otherwise pristine glass house that is Far Side Virtual. Here we witness Ferraro falling back into old habits: masking beautiful melodies with foggy production, favoring empty repetition over song development, and ultimately including a cut whose exclusion would have made for a tighter final product. Luckily, this misstep is closely followed by the strongest, and most sonically engaging portion of the album. It all begins with ‘Earth Minutes,’ arguably the only track that contains intrinsic merit apart from the record as a whole; a bubbly ambient (not in the Eno-esque sort of way, but rather in the listen-while-you-wait kind of way) affair that unexpectedly opens up into the kind of piano-driven pop track that the power-lunch crowd would probably confuse for dance music.
The tone throughout Far Side Virtual is achingly synthetic and yet this record just feels more real than anything I’ve heard this year. Much like the frightening prophecies laid out in Huxley’s A Brave New World, Far Side Virtual’s theatrical depiction of our online lifestyles is infinitely more revealing than any nonfiction story line ever could be. Track after track, Far Side Virtual tastefully constructs a satire on the ever encroaching technologies that drive our everyday lives; and does so by utilizing the kitschy sound elements that define our era — a clever device that serves a gut-wrenching wake-up call to those who take our twenty-first century way of life just a bit too seriously. This social comment on the makeup of American consumerism is at times so damning that self-conviction is all but a certainty.
On the ears, Far Side Virtual is one uniform uncomplicated journey through a concept world of idealized beauty. It’s also James Ferraro’s vision of the contemporary world distilled into music. Whether we are to interpret this vision as authentically utopian or rather as the depiction of some pleasure-centered technologic-distopia is a question best left to the listener. Regardless of the answer, Far Side Virtual is one of those rare albums that can stand out of its temporal context and, without falling victim to the constraints therein, speak about the time period in which it exists.
While the album is almost entirely instrumental, the unexpected vocal sound-bites that occasionally drift in and out of focus are used to great affect. In fact one can’t help but be reminded of the retro-futurism of films like Blade Runner or those faux advertisements that exist in the backgrounds of spaced-themed B movies. And although this analogy might be clichéd, the journey the album provides is anything but. Somehow – and it’s nothing short of a miraculous feat – Ferraro has managed to package emotional nostalgia for an era that has yet to pass: our own. It’s eerie how tangible the experience of Far Side Virtual is; more akin to a faded memory than any mood brought about by spinning plastic. But this is simply what it’s like to listen to Far Side Virtual; one can’t help but play the role of bright-eyed naiveté scanning art installations of some far off future that has already arrived. In the end, these pieces end up speaking more profoundly about our future, and more importantly modernity, than any less shameless music ever could; and I for one can’t help but be impressed.