Don’t look back

Alias returns to Portland for his latest Anticon release
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  August 27, 2008

electronic_alias2_SuzyPolin.jpg

Resurgam | by Alias | released by Anticon | August 26

After a childhood in the wilds of Hollis, Maine, and a breakthrough stretch in Oakland, California, as a staple of the Bay Area indie hip-hop label Anticon, Brendon Whitney — alias Alias — returned to Portland last year. He nestled in for a brutal Maine winter and recorded Resurgam, his first solo album in five years.

A prolific remixer (his Collected Remixes, released last year on Anticon, features tracks by indie-folk mainstays the One AM Radio and John Vanderslice, among others) and a renowned producer, his solo work is serene but dense, a ray of light sneaking into a murky underground cavern. The beats on Resurgam (it's Portland's city motto, which, in Latin, means “I shall rise again”) are more ambient and organic than Alias’s past work, but for an album about both moving on and coming home, the largely peaceful tone suits his newfound old environment.

Resurgam begins, appropriately, with a reintroduction of sorts. “New to a Few” is a barrage of syncopated, rat-a-tat drum-machine clacks and vocal samples obscured in a morass of tweaked synth licks. Alias excels at playing with vocals; his name is spelled out with a gruff Speak ’n Spell voice in the opener, and he takes advantage of the repeating “A” to turn the sequence into a labyrinthine roundelay. “I Heart Drum Machines” begins in tranquil raindrops, then clicks and twitters its way into an industrial hip-hop beat. The predominant vocal sample — “I think I’m breaking the rules again” — is so well integrated with the beat it sometimes sounds like the singer is belching in a stutter.

The first of two collaborations on the album, “Well Water Black” features Why?’s Yoni Wolf. Wolf is an ideal partner for Alias, who can relax too much (or, sometimes, too little) when he works with other people’s lyrics. Here, he manipulates Wolf’s antic cadence and lengthy rhymes (“I’d like to think I’d take dictation from something big and evasive that I’ve yet to see the face of”), and amplifies his quirkiness and aggression with xylophone and electric guitar touches. (Why? and Alias perform together at SPACE Gallery on September 20; we’ll review Why?’s excellent new Anticon album, Alopecia, in advance of the gig.)

“M.G. Jack” begins a groove that is more or less sustained through the rest of the album. The style is largely a molding of instrumental hip-hop and modern ambient pop, rife with fractured acoustic guitar loops and minor-key touches (melodica, horns, piano). Alias touches on techniques by most of those genres’ notable artists of recent years — shades of Prefuse 73’s finely diced, channel-bouncing beats; Ratatat’s (and sometimes RJD2’s) guitar-heavy anthemics; and the atmospheric blips of Lali Puna and Boards of Canada — and they’re all integrated seamlessly enough that they don’t sound derivative. Most tracks shine brightest at a high volume; Alias lays a low-end “Oooo” through most of “Death Watch,” and before it pokes to the surface, it mingles with other layers in the mix to sound like a harsh winter breeze.

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