Albums / EPs, Reviews

Album Review: Daniel Gray – Fantasmagoria

Daniel Gray is a Capetonian electronic producer whose debut album, Fantasmagoria, deals with the…

Daniel Gray is a Capetonian electronic producer whose debut album, Fantasmagoria, deals with the sonic exploration of texture and pulse, tending towards an extra-terrestrial soundscape. In association with corruptedarchives.com, an incredible forum for creative intuition and growth, Gray seems to have relied heavily on perception and an inquisitive mind to create a boundary-breaking and emotive album, varying between bouts of experimental vigour, and lethargic moodiness. Despite the contrast between these two sonic dispositions, he has been able to develop a balance and flow that exists between the realms of the deliberate and the impulsive.  

It is perhaps easier to understand how and why an album like this came into being when one delves deeper into corruptedarchives – a collaborative audio-visual project started by Thuli Gamedze and Daniel Gray himself. The project description mentions how it is based on intuitive creative response to a brief, with the idea that “one artist creates a piece of sound/video of a specific length of time and briefs the other artist with a phrase/image/word/clue, as well as the exact length of the piece. The second artist then creates a piece of video/sound of the exact same length, in response to the brief, without actually hearing/seeing the original work. The two pieces are then fused. No. matter. What.” It is probably the nature of this venture that has allowed for an album with such a visually enthused sound to emerge, with the abundance of texture throughout becoming a palpable force to reckon with. 

‘Munros’, the short opening track of the album, is an amorphous piece littered with crackling details and jarring cuts of noise. As the wobbling synth churns back and forth, it’s evident that Gray has presented us with a visual exploration of sound, where our ears play the role of a spectator, and the sound presents itself as an impromptu performer: eager to show off its skill, but also terrified to stumble. As the album progresses, the confidence in exploration and execution becomes more assured and deliberate, and it is in this that the balance between the resolute and the impulsive develops. ‘Felicitis’ showcases Gray’s more tenacious side – arpeggiated synths dominate, rhythmic beats cut sharply against the smoothness of the track. A driving bassline provides depth, while a woman’s distorted cry adds an element of despair. Reminiscent of the great Dark Days Exit by Felix LaBand, there is an air of foreboding in this album that keeps you sitting on edge. 

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Indeed, Fantasamagoria is an emotionally taxing offering, but a rewarding one, too. Just as if your eyes were absorbing the unfamiliarity of an otherworld for the first time, so too do your ears become saturated with strange and new sound combinations that both enlighten and exhaust. Even the moments of brief tranquility are short-lived, or inundated by something inspired and intriguing. In his persistence to transcend the norm, Gray has been able to refresh the mind in the most unusual way – almost like catching a whiff of the most pungent coffee beans amidst smelling millions of bottles of perfume. 

At the height of his study, the moody ‘Cerebellum’, presents us with a fluid guitar line working itself off distortions of the synth-work. Eventually, it caves into an abyss of abstract and shape-shifting sounds. The zenith of the album thus comes to a close, giving way to the aerated palpitations that line the alien-like voices in ‘Meditations in the Womb.’ As the track stretches out further into the void of its trance, it fizzles into the unknown for ‘Slope’ to bring the unintelligible vocal samples back to life. They dance through vague and staccato tendrils of sound and drums, only to find their feet in the form of a steady rhythm created by subtle guitar strums, a firm beat, and a pulsing synth-line. There’s a confidence here capable of pulling the listener towards its inner-throb, making it the most danceable track on the album.

The last two songs bring about the gradual close with the composed, opening moments of ‘A temporary dream’ serving to wind down. Gray has shown himself to be capable of understanding the ebb and flow of a work of art. Just as a painter is able to guide a viewer’s eye to find the focal point, the ears have been steered on a tour, and are now left to reflect and absorb what has been heard before ‘Maria of the moon’, a near 14 minute long grand finale. As it expands, it takes on many different directions and is altogether too much to comprehend in light of the preceding density of the album. Nevertheless, its complexity in the abundance of sound is an impressive feat alone and worthy of praise.

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Daniel Gray has created a sensory experience. The texture is a singular accomplishment in and of itself, providing a maze of invigorating content for the listener to absorb. Following in the footsteps of his contemporaries, Felix LaBand and Jacob Israel, Fantasmagoria is a breakthrough album in the South African electronic music scene. Considering the source of its being, there is a sense of it not being fulfilled by its visual counterpart. However, with a keenness for visualisation and innovation, Gray has been able to engineer sight-from-sound manipulation with an intricate framework to keep it secure.

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