Cast your memory back to 2009 and recall if you can that shimmering season known as the Summer of Chillwave.
Known to a very nerdy few, that is. Music bloggers—a powerful lobby at the time—invented the dopey genre term to describe music made by bands that basked in a winsome style of electronic-based musical nostalgia, sending sun-bleached sonic postcards from fantasy family vacations that never really happened. Chillwave was deployed with implied post-ironic scare quotes but the aesthetic was real.
Seattle issued several major players on this minor scene: Big Spider’s Back, Beat Connection and USF released songs on MySpace (srsly) and albums on various indie labels, gained notoriety in tastemaking circles and played shows together in Northwest basements and all-ages venues. It all coalesced for a woozy moment five years ago. Then the Internet did what the Internet does and replaced the chillwave meme with some other nano-genre or happycat.gif and everyone moved on.
Sort of. Outside the blogospheric spotlight, each of these bands continued making music. Members graduated from college, entered the working world and evolved their creative pursuits. This summer we’re flashing back: Big Spider’s Back recently put out an excellent EP of infectious house music on Hush Hush Records (see “Attractive Singles,” April 2014). Beat Connection announced their next full-length with a brilliant new single (see this month’s “Attractive Singles” on page 40). And this month brings USF’s SIMISM, their third EP in as many years, and like the rest, a smart, sensual update on indie electronica.
USF’s Jason Baxter and Kyle Hargus are hardcore dorks, osmotic and catholic fans of music, television, film and literature. They balance esotericism with good taste just as they balance SIMISM's over-intellectualization with a playful nudge toward the dance floor. Nothing here is straightforward; everything is remarkable.
First single “Sibilant” starts with what sounds like a down-pitched vocal sample and sets up a stuttering ascent that coalesces into a luscious, hands-in-the-air swirl before completely disassembling at the end. The seven-minute “Outtamind” features minimalist drums and the rapturous exhortations of Portland vocalist Fatha Green—“I’m going outta! I’m going outta!”—like a presage to Motown Records in 2020.
As the album’s opener and coda respectively, “Roof Access” and “Hyperspace Honeymoon” bear the strongest scent of chillwave’s adolescent romance. Both are mid-tempo meanders of analog-like synth sounds; the former features a snippet of what might be saxophone, the latter a miasma of distorted male and female vocals that echo like wispy memories.
It’s in these moments that USF calls back its nostalgia-oriented origins—otherwise SIMISM is entirely forward-looking. But chillwave was ahistoric, or maybe omnihistoric, embracing multiple possible narratives in the face of infinitely networked culture. It dwelled in conceptual space rather than meatspace. And that’s where this new material leaves old genre tags behind. Everyone’s half a decade older now, five years more aware of mortality. The album title suggests a simulation of a simulation but the music, in its dance-party impulse, offers an opportunity for real connection.