Computer at Sea, the one-man lovechild of Galen Richmond, proves there's an ocean of difference between electronica and esoterica. The newly issued Palace of the Lightbulbs, recorded by local production guru Ron Harrity, represents Richmond's first official release of songs he's composed from the inelegant sounds of handmade electronics, dirty synths, and antiquated video-game consoles. It's an unconventional method for sure, but Palace follows such traditional pop structures that nobody will be lost in the code.
It's a music journalism cliché to compare a modern electronic artist to Brian Eno, but sometimes the man can't be avoided. Both structurally and sonically, Palace of the Lightbulbs is a distant cousin to Another Green World and Before and After Science, the final post-Roxy pop records Eno made before focusing on purely ambient music. While they're great listens as '70s pop records, those albums are most notable for their groundbreaking compositional structure. Another Green World is essentially four or five meticulously composed ballads tied together by 10 instrumental compositions, and Before and After Science is the aural equivalent of a negative image, a radically more spacious and somber album on side B than its jaunty A. Both records give impressions of a strange absence or a negative space that the listener is forced to fill in, which is a fun way to listen to music.
Something is similarly missing in Palace of the Lightbulbs. It's a six-song EP, but it plays like an LP longing for its other half. Its binaries are simpler than Eno's (pop vs. noise, rhythm vs. chaos, simplistic vs. erudite), but they're so tightly woven that you cannot listen for a trait of the record without hearing its inverse.
Palace begins with a banger of the highest order, at least by the strictures of glitch-pop. "How the Cup is Being Filled (Now)" melds a programmed discotheque rhythm and synth melody with discrete bleeps and whirs in various pitches, assembled as if accidentally into clunky harmonies. Richmond's vocals are simultaneously hummable and ho-hum, like a kid singing along to FM radio under his breath.
Most electronic musicians aren't terrific singers, but it's not a problem until they overcompensate, hiding behind a veneer of ironic vocal effects or maudlin sentimentality. It's with deep relief that Richmond avoids both. His lyrics can get a little busy ("the conductor wires the electrical fires/to a burning bag of garbage and the radial tires" sheds its image before finding the rhyme), but the simplicity of his vocal hooks make room for the wordiness. His words are sincere, tackling complex social situations with clever observations, and you don't have to poke around too long to find themes of sadness and lust. "The monorail conductor doesn't mind he lives alone/the dial tone swallows the phone" seals "How the Cup..."'s fate as a downer anthem, and the album contains several references to misplaced milk, distracted nurses, and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
"Spiders in the Moat" is a plinking meditation that lives up to the strong image in its title, a modern update to the meditative instrumental tableaux of Another Green World. "Palace (Exterior)" accomplishes a similar task. Building from a rhythm that sounds like a damaged C&C Music Factory sample, Richmond layers a smattering of noisy DSP harmonies in a gross symphony of timbres. Like "Spiders," it's an instrumental seemingly intended to bridge the album's poppier tracks, but it's hardly skippable. Just under three minutes long, "Palace" might be the record's most satisfying track.