Digital Mystery: Yokai’s WEBBRAND is an Artful Blank Slate

by Nick HanoverYokai

Mystery’s role as a seducer goes beyond romance, it’s just as prevalent and effective in the musical realm. Think back to Sunny Day Real Estate and their refusal to abide by record industry standards like “album art” or “publicity photos,” and how their mystique helped build up the emo mythos that made the genre a juggernaut long after they broke up. Or The Residents and their eye ball masks and top hats and complete lack of identity. But both those acts had lyrics in their songs, giving you at least some identity to hold on to. For Yokai, that’s not the case– the unGoogleable (and unFacebookeable) Austin “chillstep” artist makes dreamy electronic soundscapes with no vocals, just a whole lot of emotion, with the latest album (W E B B R A N D) self-identified as being about “boredom and duplicitous behavior and being sad.” The song titles of the album are equally mystifying, mostly mononymic, ranging from odd consumerist touchstones like “Powerbook” to the more personal “Self Image.” Yokai might give a loose set of feelings that the album is about, but the general message is that this is music to ascribe your own meaning to, that suits a wide range of emotions and memories.

Where so many other chillwave acts prominently utilize nostalgic samples and synth sounds, Yokai is arguably closer to glitchy California artists in aesthetic and instrumentation, whether it’s Baths or Nosaj Thing. Both in title and atmosphere, “Lacrimal Essence” is Yokai’s most Baths-y moment, its stuttering electronic drumbeat playfully at odds with the more lackadaisical synth pads filling out the backend while a haunted organ synth cranks out the melody. But as Yokai’s sort of single “Pharmacy,” there’s also a significant New Age influence to Yokai’s style, the song mostly a showcase for some meandering pads and textures and a click-clack beat. The most chillwave moment on the album is really “Transfer Student,” with its plucky Casiotone lead and lo-fi filter beat, a throwback to the aimless sounds you might have developed if you were a high school kid playing with thrift store synths and pirated DAWs for the first time, except, you know, actually good.

There is a similar nostalgia at the heart of “Asuka~” but there the rhythm is more insistent, the hooks more solid and the tempo nearly dancey. Here the nostalgia is more literal, everything run through a filter that makes it sound like a memory you’re picking up from scents and trigger phrases rather than actual evidence. It’s not as trance inducing as the rest of the album, making it a bit of an outlier, but it’s hard to resist and had I been the one pulling the trigger on what to give to Noisey as an advanced preview, this would have been my choice. Or maybe that honor would have gone to “Temple,” with its near neo-soul groove set against haunting chimy licks, digital finger snaps setting a sultry mood only to be offset by some ominous electronic voices and a percussive sample that sounds like someone brushing ice off their car.

The haunted groove of “Temple” kind of mirrors earlier standout “Indoor Pool,” where the synths are more luxurious and the beat is hi-hat focused but still just as skeletal, the song’s cheerful bubbly synth lead set right in line with that summer sprinkler percussion. It’s here that the album gives you a clearer sense of what Yokai means by stating the album is partially about boredom– it’s not that it’s sluggish or unexciting, but that it’s restless music for restless folks, aimed not at pushing them towards adventure but of soundtracking their indoor slacking. No one wants to be bored, but sometimes boredom is a totally legitimate mode for the day, a kind of mental vacation from the unwanted excitement life can frequently bring.

(W E B B R A N D)’s more somber moments are as effective as they are because of these lighter offerings, but they also speak to the duplicitous behavior that gets mentioned in the quasi-liner notes. We get bored and make bad decisions. Or maybe we’re bored because we fear making bad decisions. Maybe the process of trying to not be duplicitous makes us sad. Maybe we were already duplicitous. Maybe someone was duplicitous to us. Yokai’s lack of identity and information makes it easier to flex this album to fit whatever you’re bringing to that statement, turning the album into a basically blank slate filled out with beautiful background details but no narrative in order for you to decide what you want it to be yourself. That may sound easy, but in a time where everyone knows too much about everyone else, it’s kind of a remarkable feat.

Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Ovrld as well as Loser City, where he mostly writes about comics. You can also flip through his archives at  Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with his friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover