Every genre of music has innovators whose influence is so broad, so overarching that citing their hand in new releases is both unavoidable and played-out. In much the same way that the indie rock press has to wrangle their way around Nirvana and REM signifiers and hip hop writers have Jay-Z and Nas’ legacies to contend with on a daily basis, we have Skinny Puppy nibbling at the edges of just about everything we cover. Hell, a search for S’Puppy on our own site turns up way more discussion of the band’s impact on others than of the band themselves, no small feat considering how much chin-scratching we lent to Handover. So, a record like Volt 9000’s sophomore release, Atomica, communicates an odd sense of “same but different” by cleaving closely not to the foundational records Ogre released with cEvin as Puppy, but to his work with Mark Walk under the ohGr mantle.
It’s somewhat difficult to remember given Puppy’s return and the darker sound of Devils In My Details and Undeveloped, but when Welt dropped over ten years ago, the sense of poppy fun and play which that record was infused with was a shock, especially given the bleakness and tragedy which The Process is associated with. That said, it’s easy in retrospect to see Welt as a foreshadowing of the mid-decade return of 8-bit composition under the chiptune tag. On Atomica, Cory Gorski underlines that connection not just through bleeping melodies, but through pitch-shifted, occasionally quasi-rapped vocals which skim heavily from the like of “Lusid” and “Pore”. This proximity does get a tad slavish at times, but also points to how unexplored the territory staked out by ohGr has been in North America. While synthpop’s never fallen off in Europe and can point to the likes of Welle: Erdball when it’s feeling nostalgic and silly, the North American post-industrial tradition has rarely looked backwards with the irreverence that Volt 9000 do.
The similarities with ohGr, while pronounced, are thankfully not the only thing at play in Atomica. The more you listen, the more the rich, fuzzed-out sawtooth crackle lying underneath the vocals and bleepy leads comes to the fore. This enthusiasm for a very particular brand of retro electronics calls to mind Gorski’s fellow Torontonian and synth-fetishist, Jason Amm, AKA Solvent. Though Solvent’s music is marked by a melancholy nostalgia for the analog era and Volt 9000’s is of a more exuberant and goofy cast (there’s a “Garbage day!” sample, fer Pete’s sake), that same indefatigable love for a certain point in sonic history shines through, and when matched with the retro video game aesthetic of Volt 9000, forms a clear and likeable identity for the project. Atomica is a more plaintive and personal record than Volt 9000’s debut, Retrogenesis. Less thick and unrelenting, it makes excellent use of space and slower tempos, as on “Trancers”. Towards the end of the album the more explicit ohGr copping has dropped off, and the slow builds of “Continuum” and the closing title track show Gorski’s talents for developed composition as well as developing synth tones.
At a certain point, an artist’s influence can become so widespread that it becomes undetectable (“You’re soaking in it!”). In following up on a different path taken by one of those artists, Volt 9000’s lineage and debt may be placed in far sharper contrast than those of others without actually borrowing more than anyone else. At the end of the day, one’s influences become an academic question in relation to what one does with them (like Rakim said, it ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at), and Volt 9000 have turned out a fun and stylish sophomore LP, full stop.