For almost a decade now, L.A. Electronia producer Will Wiesenfeld has made consistently innovative, infectious Avant-Pop under his Baths moniker: his debut Cerulean put him on the map back in 2010, with its Dntel-inspired electro-acoustic glitch sensibilities and halcyon vision of love on the sunny West Coast; he came back in 2013 with Obsidian, Cerulean’s dark underbelly, wherein Wiesenfeld wrestles with depression, sexual frustration, and his experiences with near-death sickness—I joke with my friends that Obsidian was the best Nine Inch Nails album of 2013. It added more live instrumentation, including piano and strings, to Cerulean’s sound—and it works beautifully: Obsidian is a genuinely touching melancholic album, in part because it sounds so unique. Parallel to these albums as Baths, Wiesenfeld has made several really excellent ambient albums for his Geotic side-project, including this year’s brilliant new take on New Age, Abysma. With all of that in mind, the obsessive die-hard Baths fan in me has wondered for four years now where he could possibly go next with his sound. Cerulean and Obsidian have an obvious progression: a happy album and a sad album. And I have to say, I never could’ve guessed he would make Romaplasm, an album whose tone places itself somewhere between his former two records, but with that special brand of Baths-eccentricity that’s made his Twitter account so popular (read as: the gay anime nerd inside Wiesenfeld) turned up to its maximum. In this sense, Romaplasm plays out as the wet dream of an American Japanophile interested in Glitch-y Electro-acoustic Avant-Pop. It’s an album lyrically and sonically grounded (or perhaps more accurately, ungrounded) in fantasy and the constant wish-fulfillment associated with that genre—a bright vision of Wiesenfeld’s personal future, complete with tragedy and comedy, as well as a much-welcome universal positivity, an idyllic world where our individuality makes life worth living.
That said, Romaplasm is a very dense album, almost a sensory overload (like anime may seem to an American viewer)—so any description or criticism ought to be careful not to bite off more than it can chew. That said, the fifth track “Adam Copies”, best exemplifies the sheer density of Wiesenfeld’s new style—its main sections, the verse and chorus, are all-guns-blazing, Iglooghost-esque explosions of glitch mania. The track’s compositional complexity—with four or five combined verse and chorus parts—only adds to the frenzy. The track’s slight, ambient interlude, with its whispered vocals, streaming water samples, and undulating strings, adds a moment for reflection before the song jumps headfirst into a second verse of raving electronica. The song ends with a coda jumping through many of its different sections while Wiesenfeld screams—something he’s never previously done in his music. Lyrically, the track is deeply indebted to the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, especially its romantic and religious tone and Transcendentalist natural imagery. The song is a triumph of style: it’s electronically forward-thinking and in line with other current experiments in dance music, and it’s something lyrically out of left field, so to speak—no one else is exploring this kind of lyrical territory right now. Wiesenfeld’s cadence has a new skip to its step—prosaic in its length but poetic in its delivery. He’s pushing his songwriting and production farther in every direction.
More evidence of Wiesenfeld’s continued vocal experimentation may be found in “Human Bog”, wherein his voice moves between several different affects—mirroring the many different identities and fronts a young queer boy (like he once was) has to have to survive. It’s a beautiful song, and its juxtaposition with “Adam Copies” demonstrates Baths’ full range—from despairing to furious. He makes use of another new affect later on “Wilt” (a kind of pun on his name), which opens with a “Phaedra”-like shuffling piano rhythm, over which Wiesenfeld growls “I am but cloth / weak to the frost / weak to the gleaming blade / weak to the moth”. Together, the piano, vocals, lyrics, and ambience evince Gothic imagery to a degree you can’t find on any of Baths’ earlier works. Both of these tracks are gorgeous in their particular melancholy—and frankly some of the best music Baths has ever released.
Occasionally Romaplasm shares certain synth and production elements with Abysma, that Geotic album from earlier this year, but these are the only moments when the album ever sounds like a retread of previous Wiesenfeld work. For example, the tropical beat, New Age piano, and staccato arp synths on “Out”, sound essentially like a more developed version of the lead single from Abysma, “Actually Smiling”. I could say something similar for the closer “Broadback”—but in both cases, Baths’ vocal gymnastics, lyrical content, and extra details (since Geotic is mostly ambient music) make the music’s similarity essentially negligible—and in both cases, Wiesenfeld is making cutting-edge electronica; we should be able to forgive him if he sounds somewhat like himself as long as he always sounds like he’s on the precipice of some shining new future.
So Romaplasm, in my opinion, hits all the marks for a great new album: it’s experimental but not obscurantist; it’s catchy but never annoying; it’s Pop but underground; it’s complex but accessible. The first time I listened to it, my only consequent desire was to listen to it again as many times as I could. It’s ecstatic but doesn’t give everything away on a first listen—one can return to this album and still reap the same pleasure as the first time. Even after listening to “Human Bog” and “Adam Copies” several times to write this review, I still get goose bumps when they reach their peak. Baths, even as he approaches the end of his first decade recording music, continues to impress and innovate with the spark of a musician coasting at the top of his career—and if pushes his sound as much as he has here on further records, we can only imagine bright, anime horizons in his future.