Made of Oak’s emotive sound pushes the evolution of electronic music
Electronic music was originally defined by its adherence to computers and synths, but now the genre is so much more complex and nuanced that when it comes to understanding the music, the hardware is useless. What’s more important now is the response it evokes.
Made of Oak’s music, for instance, would be categorized as moody, contemplative instrumental music, as opposed to, say, mindless fist-pumping dance music at the other end of the electronic spectrum. It’s almost beside the point that sole member Nicholas Sanborn even uses computers. His music is gorgeous, dynamic and surreal.
Made of Oak will release its debut EP, Penumbra, on Nov. 6, but some may already be familiar with Sanborn from his electro-pop duo Sylvan Esso, which also occupies that same territory of emotive electronic music that you can technically dance to, but probably wouldn’t. Sylvan Esso features singer Amelia Meath, who was already well-known going into the project as part of Americana group Mountain Man. Her ethereal voice draws out the melancholy undertones of the music, as she easily connects the dots between her contemplative Appalachian folk band and the synth loops and computer beats of Sylvan Esso. Sanborn, for that project, keeps his production sparse, allowing listeners to focus instead on Meath.
Made of Oak, on the other hand, is entirely different. It isn’t about how he can make a machine sound human—Kraftwerk already did that 40 years ago. It’s about his subtle blending of organic and synthetic instruments into a single cohesive collage of sounds. I’m not even sure what instruments he’s using. There are times when it sounds like acoustic guitars and Casio keyboards are mixed in with the drum machines and computer noises, but I can’t tell because he mixes it all into layers of mutating sounds, with audio textures shifting all around as each song progresses.
The cover of the record is a dark image of two sweat-glistening hands holding each other in a stoic but passionate embrace. It’s an image that is all over the teaser video for the track “Pinebender,” along with several other close-ups of equally sweaty body parts. It seems very intentional that the imagery for the song is so organic. Yet these close-ups with no discernable narrative or context come off as distant and in a way lacking humanity. This seems to tap into the deeper contradiction of Penumbra. As much as the computer sounds mimic something organic and emotive, the overall combined mix is also ambient and trance-inducing, almost tapping into the cold facets of humanity, and interpreting them musically.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a strong record. Despite this being his debut solo EP, and though even his primary group Sylvan Esso is a relatively new group, Sanborn has been active for much longer outside of the spotlight, producing and playing backing instruments for groups like Decibully, Megafaun, and Highlights. His musicianship is confident, and his grasp on layering and mixing is subtle, and, at moments, astounding.
None of this is necessary to enjoy the music. Whatever his intention with the record is, and regardless of whether or not there’s a deeper meaning, Sanborn has crafted an exceptional EP with a running time of just 20 minutes that will make the perfect accompaniment to a chill evening in your living room, or a (not so) long drive at night when you have a little thinking to do.
INFO: 8:30 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 6, Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. catalystclub.com, 429-4135.