It was less than a year ago when underground vaporwave giants death’s dynamic shroud released Faith in Persona as one of the monthly installments in their NUWRLD Mixtape Club project. At the time, it felt like a massive progression in both the self-proclaimed “NUWRLD” aesthetic (which started as a meta-commentary on genre culture and now has transcended into a genre itself) that they’ve cultivated as their defining brand of sound over the years, and in the level of production.
Nobody else in electronic music was making anything remotely similar to the band’s amalgamation of popular music plunderphonics and glitchy texture. It felt difficult to even describe what genre the collaborative project of James Webster, Tech Honors and Keith Rankin was at that point. It clearly wasn’t the video game sampling style of vaporwave that outlined much of their early origins, nor was it trying to capture the new age tech aesthetic characterized by anime soundtracks and K-pop anthems defining the vaporwave community when they first broke out. Faith in Persona seemed to have grander aspirations, ones that might shift the entire paradigm of pop and electronic music. However, the album was only a solo production by Keith Rankin, so there was no indication that the rest of the collective was on a similar wavelength. When it was announced that they would be releasing an album featuring all members of the project in early fall, their first one since 2017’s Heavy Black Heart, it was evident that any lingering questions about the direction of their sound going forward would be answered then.
Darklife proves that the high-energy cinematic quality of Faith in Persona barely scratched the surface of how big death’s dynamic shroud could really go. Much like the glossy sheen of the Impact font that invades the album cover, the music of Darklife feels declarative of something completely new in the landscape of progressive electronic. The first track, “Stay,” enters with the sort of gravitas that one might associate with a curtain opening. With a sense for new age and ’80s synth, no doubt honed by spending countless years within the vaporwave aesthetic, death’s dynamic shroud builds a sense of showmanship through their use of a full horn section, video game-styled drum machine tracks and a symphonic closing that invites a feeling of mystic wonder throughout the rest of the album.
The collective manages to pack every second with as many different textures, ideas and influences as they possibly can. This becomes immediately apparent on the next track, “Judgment Bolt,” which swings much heavier in the electropop and hyperpop direction. The frenetic density of the song, as well as the distorted samples from various popular artists, falls in line with the hyperpop tag. That being said, unlike many hyperpop contemporaries, death’s dynamic shroud seems less interested in trying to isolate and twist elements of pop into something that obscures its identity and more focused on trying to understand exactly where the line between electronic and pop music exists.
It’s undeniable that death’s dynamic shroud could be considered one of the most important and influential players rising from underground electronics these days. Part of what establishes them clearly in a field comprised of so many enigmatic aesthetes and artists discovered from smoky 3 a.m. boiler room sets is their uncompromising mission to posit a new way to think about electronic music. It’s not about dismantling this line between electronic and pop, but rather to show that the line was never there in the first place. Of course, they aren’t the only ones to take on the admittedly ambitious challenge. The reason these hyperpop comparisons are even present is because the genre itself is also interested in achieving this goal. Still, death’s dynamic shroud is perhaps the most electronic-leaning artist to attempt it so far, and where Faith in Persona is the proof of concept, Darklife is the fully fleshed-out dissertation. Darklife marvels in the gray areas, built up through its constant maelstrom of competing ideas. Nothing is left unexplored, nor is anything allowed to drag on past its natural conclusion. And even if the intellectual statement of the album doesn’t pull the listener into its allure, the fact remains that Darklife is one hell of a set of catchy songs.
Daily Arts Writer Drew Gadbois can be reached at email@example.com