The internet has seen its fair share of aesthetic trends throughout the last decade, as far back as the scene and emo kids on myspace - trends which seemed to disappear from the internet just as mysteriously as the site they became famous on. Nowadays, genres such as witch house, seapunk, and cloud rap are only a few of the bizzare names you'll hear and see discussed around the internet, typically accompanying hashtags like #sadboys and #badvibes and adorned with shitty 3D renderings of wingdings and japanese characters.
Vaporwave is a standout of these subcultures, and with no real distinct origin, it's as if vaporwave appeared one day and took over. The earliest forms of vaporwave originated in the early 2010's through "weird" tumblr blogs filled with poorly rendered mid-90's computer graphics, washed out pastel palettes and Japanese aesthetics. Glitch art involving mescaline-fueled tropical landscapes layered with chopped and screwed smooth jazz songs became tagged as vaporwave as the word itself built its own meaning in its aesthetic. One half of 'vaporware' - or, tech products that are announced commercially but never actually make the shelves - the other half, a play on the Marxist concept of waves: a cultural and ideological shift in rhetoric.
As vaporwave matured into it's own entity of art, aesthetics, music and animations, the intentions of the movement started to get questioned as the style became more mainstream. A discourse of anti-capitalism and critique of consumer culture began to become attached to vaporwave, and emphasis that since it's currently one of the largest instances of globalism in internet culture, the genre began to tear itself apart towards the end of 2012. With creatives split between the political discourse and the nostalgic aesthetic, it became apparent that the genre wasn't going to last much longer due to most creatives losing interest in the stagnation.
Enter Blank Banshee: An anonymous producer based in Vancouver, Blank Banshee's debut album Blank Banshee 0 emerged enigmatically in late 2012 among the saturated #vaporwave soundcloud and bandcamp marshes. However, instead of the typical looping pitch-shifted Diana Ross samples and reverb-stuffed synth drones that crowded the sound at the time, Blank Banshee approached the genre with a beat-forward production style. Edgy trap hihats sizzle forward aggressively while Windows 98 boot samples shimmer like ice overhead. Misty 808s lumber behind Donkey Kong 64 soundtrack cuts. The usual Xanax fog of vaporwave hangs in the air, but instead of leaving you feeling stuffy and confused, Blank Banshee pulls you through the mist into a virtual reality that belongs inside a Mac laptop. Underwater.
Blank Banshee's latest, released October 10th, is a maturation of his signature sound. MEGA contains more vocal samples cut and spliced among icy-crisp keyboard arpeggios that highlight a much more grounded and ethereal online universe, and less ambient, contemplative spaces that normally punctuated his former releases means for a visceral, emotional and even primal voyage through a sound that is gilded in the sound of contemporary anxiety. Tracks like Web Ring sample mysterious angelic chants among cold, calculated mechanical whirrs and beeps, juxtaposing the uncomfortable beauty of today's modern tech with the melodic hymns of thousands of years past. Gunshots is part bedside heartbreak confessional, part high speed chase through a series of shadowy, rain slicked alleys set in a nameless dystopian city. Cerulean feels like a Final Fantasy 10 OST B-side colliding with a late 90's RnB beat machine.
Blank Banshee's music is accompanied by visuals that can be found online, and are often projected on screens throughout his live sets. The music feels more like the soundtrack to a computer hacking, with progressions through movements that swell with samples at times and descend into deep, murky drones the next. When joined with 3D renders of shopping malls and glitching oases, it's hard not to be transported into an artifical world inside a computer that's permanently trapped in 1999. "I think it heavily stimulates people’s imagination and generates a lot of conversation and that’s a good thing." He muses on these references, which include muzak, mall soundtracks, and relaxation tapes. "Boring music doesn’t do that."
I have a video on my phone from one of BB's live sets last year at an illegal venue on East Hastings; a seizure-inducing projection of corrupted video tapes, half second anime stills and damaged VHS footage flashing behind the masked producer set to eardrum pummeling reverb. This setting of disconnected consumer culture juxtaposed against visceral digital sounds feels like a collage of everything vaporwave wants to be, perfectly situated in a DIY art space and witnessed by barely a hundred stoned 20-somethings. Fragmented pieces of 90s pop culture flashing by in audio and video samples, trying to pull us back to a period in our lives where anime and video games were our escape in an increasingly alienating pre-Y2K world.
"It’s all connected to some form of emotion but I was into samplers for a while before Blank Banshee. The idea of sampling things from everyday life into music has always been really interesting to me and using sounds from old technology and operating systems was just an obvious choice. I think it all stemmed from a desire to separate myself from the guitar driven music I was making and listening to at the time."
The aforementioned show was part of a series of shows under the title Icefest, an indie electronic "festival" made up of young and creative Vancouver-based producers all creating music under similar genres. Operating with no real promotion beyond word of mouth and fellow artist support, Icefest had Blank Banshee perform as a headliner for their second major event. For those interested in the genre and who actively follow it online, having such a headliner was a huge boost. "Vancouver has an incredible amount of creative people and most of them are still in high school. I think the online following thing is just a matter of perspective."
Seeing him share the stage amongst young creatives with not a single feeling of classism or gatekeeping felt wholly organic, inspiring, and true to Vancouver's historically deep punk roots. "What I care about is making good art and as far as I can tell so do a lot of other people in his city, so I feel like most of us are on the same page. I love making music and if I inspire other people to make music I think that’s dope."
"Even though it was short-lived, Icefest was definitely somewhat of a special series of events in the scope of young DIY musicians in Vancouver, and Blank Banshee played a really pivotal role in the 2nd Installment." Young Vancouver producer, rapper and Icefest organizer Isaiah Bonette, explains. "We were so super stoked to have him."Bonette, who goes by Hermit, along with other artists like Kyross and Slippery Jibberish, are part of the upcoming wave of underground electronic producers making their mark in Vancouver, and are pivotal to the accessible spaces that underground music can provide to the lower-income creatives and young artists in the city.
Whether it's Blank Banshee's swirly trap beats that draw you to vaporwave, raw vocoder-happy cloud rappers experimenting with the sounds the genre produces, or the original uncomfortable droned-out samples that dominated the earlier period of the genre, it's clear that the art movement that belongs to today's anxious 20 somethings plays heavily with the themes of hollow consumer culture of the last few decades, and whether its tongue-in-cheek or not, ironic iPhone samples amongst trap beats can make intoxicating sounds. "When someone says they listen to something ironically what they really mean is they subconsciously like it and haven’t admitted it to themselves yet."
Maybe that's why we can't get the funk of sampled 90's jingles for Pepsi out of our heads.