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Review: Visionist’s Debut LP Will Keep You ‘Safe’ From Mental Anguish

7
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: October 9, 2015
Label: PAN

For years now, the producer born Louis Carnell has been trying to straighten his head out. The shattered compositions the London-based musician makes as Visionist are largely abstract and hard to pin down, but the titles of his work function as a guide. He called a 2013 EP I’m Fine and another Can’t Forget, all the while using spectral vocal samples as a way of exploring grief and loss. As the names suggest, it’s music as self-help, with brutal evocations of ghosts in the margins to function as a sort of exposure therapy — you’ve gotta get worse before you can get better, Carnell seems to argue.

He builds his debut LP Safe similarly, using labyrinthine constructions to match, ostensibly, a lifetime battle with anxiety (“mental self-harm,” he calls it in interviews). But the beauty of the release, despite all of its sputtering collapses and overwhelming atmospheric collisions, is that it more often feels like a salve than a mirror to mental entanglement — a sort of Nü Age for healing and centering in the midst of internal and external chaos.

Lead singles “Victim” and “Tired Tears, Awake Fears” bear the most downcast titles of the 12 tracks Carnell offers up, but even these find the sun peaking through the shuddering, Grime-indebted monochromes that fill his previous releases. The former starts with a series of synthesizer gasps that might feel familiar to those who know Visionist’s palette — or any acts involved in a similar sort of disembodied beatwork, like Arca or Visionist’s PAN labelmates. But where they, and he, might have previously spun these sounds into an overwhelming disarray, Carnell gives each of his parts room to breathe, eventually layering them precariously, but without the terror and the danger that marked his past output. Even on “Let Me In,” where things eventually build to a strobing climax, his music never feels like a shock to the system, and then as soon as moments like this hit, he allows a sliver of a vocal sample to peek through the accumulated cumulus. It’s a pat on the back — a bit of human in a fragment of digitalist disorder, and one that feels comforting even as he evokes unsettled and otherworldly headspaces.

That approach to sampling has been the defining characteristic of Visionist’s work to date. He apparently collects his monosyllabic vocals by taking to YouTube, plugging single words into the search bar and combing through the results, but it feels like he’s taken increased care to use these voices as remedies rather than apparitions. Even on “Too Careful to Care,” where the wordless samples chatter like a mouthful of broken teeth, their presence arrives following one of the record’s moments of true alien horror. This tact feel like Carnell’s assurance that everything’s gonna be alright — even when the inside of your head’s starting to feel like an unfamiliar wasteland.

It’s a stark contrast to others who work in similar lanes, producers and composers who contort the human body to unrecognizable extremes or who use fetish-y skits as their only personal presence on otherwise (intentionally) cold and distant records. But despite the fact that Carnell appears on the cover of his own record drained of both pigment and life, this record’s full of both — moments of calm that justify the storm, peaceful lapping waves that follow the tempest. His music-making process has always been about dealing with his s**t, and Safe is so wonderfully functional that it may help you deal with yours.