Spotted Peccary (2023)
AeTopus, a.k.a. Bryan T. Hughes, somewhat reinvents himself as he transitions from self-releasing his music to joining the star-studded label, Spotted Peccary. I believe that the (what for me are) subtle/not-so subtle changes were not brought about by the switch but instead represents an evolution in Hughes’ musical persona itself. When I posited this theory on his AeTopus Facebook page, i.e., asking if Cup represented a musical shift in his style, he replied "You are absolutely not a clueless nutball and, in fact, you are the first to express these ideas. I've really gotten into so-called 'IDM' over the past couple of years, and a lot of that glitchy detail and percussive unpredictability has apparently snuck into the sound. AeTopus seems to be evolving, and I'm really looking forward to your observations!' "
I have followed Hughes' career beginning back in 2002 with Memories of the Elder of which I wrote "Suffice it to say that Memories of the Elder explores darker territory than most modern day electronic keyboard music, but seldom, if ever, wanders over into floating ambient terrain or noir-ish scariness…What makes the work of AeTopus/Hughes so remarkable is how fresh all this sounds. There is no trace of faux sentimentality and no attempt to play it safe on this CD. While it's nothing if not accessible, it's also an exciting and different take on keyboard music that I never grew tired of, even when I played it back-to-back. I can't offer a stronger endorsement than that."
Over the next twenty years, Hughes continuously pushed both the genre's and his own personal envelope, but with Cup he has, at least somewhat, thrown away the old envelope and bought a new one. On this album, he explores some of the same stylings as on past work, i.e., meshing assorted EM and "melodic" ambient styles while also incorporating a more direct Berlin school influence at times, and adding glitch, IDM, and on some cuts, a distinctive retro electronic style from way back in the days of e.g., Michael Garrison, Patrick Gleeson, and other pioneers of synthesizer music. Explaining further, what I hear is not imitative or even directly influenced by these or other artists, because one thing that Hughes has always emphasized is his originality (see the prologue to my review of his previous album, Urbus, which is posted at the same time as this one).
Some of what was present on Urbus is either missing or subdued here and instead a somewhat darker and more fluid purer ambient/spacemusic sound surfaces here and there. I admit to missing some of his more mystical/tribal/mythic elements (as I stated in my Urbus review "For comparison’s sake, one of the albums that Hughes music reminds me of is Robyn Miller’s brilliant soundtrack to the legendary computer game, Riven. So, you can surmise from that comment that Urbus could lend its sonic pleasures to flights of fantasy if one turned out the lights and had an active and visual imagination."
Cup lends itself to the same visual imaging as his earlier work, but it's somehow different. The overt (IMO) presence of so many "call outs" in a more pronounced manner is, for me, a kind of trip down EM memory lane… e.g. I was reminded of the Groove Ultd artist Can Atilla at the four-minute mark of "Beam," and the bass-heavy techno-ish second half of "Access." On the other hand, the opening of "Clean Break" is vintage AeTopus with its ancient tribal rhythms matched with haunting snippets of melody played on some of his more usual characteristic keyboards (before incorporating a sound that, for me, reminds me what Daft Punk did on some tracks of their Tron: Legacy soundtrack.
Look, any creative artist worth his/her salt evolves over time unless they are stuck in a holding pattern of their design. Bryan T. Hughes never was "in a mold", so to speak, as his music, in and of itself, was always coloring outside the lines. Cup, though, showcases his willingness, maybe even his need, to roam farther afield than his other albums while still staying true to his core musical self. By bringing in new elements, his appeal can only broaden, except for those to whom change is anathema. I am not one of those people and I can only imagine that Hughes will have more up his sleeve in the years to come.
All tracks composed, performed, produced, and arranged by Bryan Tewell Hughes
Mixing by Bill Simpkins at Alpenglow Sound Studios, Bellingham, WA
Percussion on "Relic," "Glance," and "Sundial" performed by Mike Bajuk
Mastered by Howard Givens at Spotted Peccary Studios NW in Portland, OR
Album design by Daniel Pipitone at Spotted Peccary Studios NE in Ligonier, PA