Consider for a moment the pop-psychology spiel of dangerous predators and the rustle in the grass. In his 2000 book How We Believe, American science writer and self-described skeptic Michael Shermer discusses the concept of patternicity: a tendency “to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise.” What he holds responsible for our readiness to believe is the idea that, evolutionarily, we have been conditioned to see meaningful connections wherever we turn our heads and to understand chance events as driven by uncompromising cosmological principles rather than, well, chance. Self-preservation would be the chief reason for this, in Shermer’s view: interpreting every suspicious sound in the wild as a creeping beast, as opposed to a gust of wind stirring up a pile of leaves, helped early hominids enjoy their anxiety-filled existences for a little while longer.
Listening to the debut solo EP from Los Angeles-based DJ and producer AMAZONDOTCOM catapults us into a place where patterns, dangerous predators, and rustles in the grass are all pertinent considerations, if not keywords. As the inaugural release for SUBREAL, a label the artist had founded with like-minded dance music pacesetter Siete Catorce, Mirror River reveals an aural habitat that can feel both unnervingly outlandish and crushingly gorgeous. It comes without a map, though, dazing the listener with capricious sound design and forcing us to pay attention to whatever’s happening at any given moment, come to terms with how all of its disparate elements fit together, and respond appropriately: be it by losing ourselves in dance-floor ecstasy or running the hell away.
To shape this environment, AMAZONDOTCOM employs negative space as a principal instrument rather than just her canvas. The space between the sheets of the album’s instrumentation and splashes of sampled pigment acts like a gaping hole — the menace and the hope in the environment. Take opener “A Flower, Nocturnal and Permanent,” which develops slowly around an irregularly pulsating backbone of spare low-end (a spine that will be present until the end). Heavily processed birds chirping, digital cicadas clumsily flying into the air, a skeletal beat slowly reconstructing itself, and oblong UK-bass synths all enter the space but as if accidentally overheard. We are being pulled through a post-human forest at night or slowly awoken from a disco nap by a phone blowing up. In a vacuum, these sounds lack obvious connection, but with negative space acting as a frame, they become agents of a finely-drawn surrounding. The context yields the pattern.
The world of Mirror River can be jarring and ominous, quaint and picturesque, but most of all, it buzzes with motion. “Leopard’s Dream” boasts a striking richness of texture, with wobbly bass twists and bends, syncopated percussion, synthesizers that alternatively screech and coo, and surprisingly soothing background ambience. Variations of all of these come and go of their own volition, finally producing a juxtaposition of the very digital and the very human. AMAZONDOTCOM mentions shamanism as a chief inspiration behind the EP, defining it “as a body of knowledge predicated upon the animation of the natural world’s forces and the unseen;” it would be hard to think of a more fitting metaphor for how her sounds come into existence.
In truth, AMAZONDOTCOM’s seeming lack of governance over the living environment she created with Mirror River comes off as both the EP’s strongest suit and its weakest aspect. When we’re fortunate enough to witness the environment’s inhabitants come together in cohesion — like space dust gravitating toward the cosmic mass of “Priestess’s” infectious, ritualistic drive — the effect is mind-blowing: a quasi-religious experience of awe for the universe’s design. Other times, however, we feel stuck in a place where most sounds do seem like a random rustle in the grass; themes emerge just to die before we have a chance to follow them to a more interesting place or appear so disconnected from their surroundings that we brush them off as a figment of our imagination. Ultimately, Mirror River takes a chance on the listener’s capacity to make sense of their experience; plunging into it can be just as rewarding as we want to believe it is.