In January 2013, synth musician Steve Hauschildt wrote a series of messages on Twitter to share some sad news. His band of seven years, the beloved Cleveland-based trio Emeralds, had come to an end. He closed with a quote from legendary experimental composer Pauline Oliveros, writing, “Listen to a sound until you no longer recognize it.” The line is a prompt from her 1974 book of textual compositions, Sonic Meditations, which she’s referred to as “recipes” for listening. On its face the prompt is clearly prescriptive: Allow a sound to repeat until your perception of it changes. But maybe there’s another suggestion there, as well. Allow yourself to become so lost in the act of listening that the source and context of a sound disappear, leaving only the innate qualities of sensation.
For a group like Emeralds, whose members weren’t anonymous but did seem determined to melt away behind their gear, there was ever only the sounds themselves. Make it to one of their many storied basement performances in the early years and find three kids in their 20s on the floor, heads craned over an array of knobs and triggers, performing a delicate ritual to draw forth another uncanny electronic frequency: Hauschildt with his Novation Bass Station or Prophet ’08, John Elliott with his Korg MS-20 or Moog Voyager OS, and guitarist Mark McGuire running his Les Paul through any number of pedals. The band’s best work would blur the line between instrument and operator so far that it was impossible—not to mention pointless—to distinguish intent from accident.
Honing this mix of control and improvisation since 2006, Emeralds brought a uniquely personal magic to their exploratory synth music. But not until their third album, 2010’s awe-inspiring Does It Look Like I’m Here?, did the trio’s undercurrent of emotional resonance rise to the surface. It was a watershed moment, or as McGuire described it to XLR8R, “the culmination of scrambling in the studio constantly for four or five years.” The humanity of the musicians looms large in “Candy Shoppe,” the miniaturized melodic suite that trains its ambitions on the sky. Each shimmering layer of the densely orchestrated “Genetic” reveals a religious dedication to craft, while seemingly basic chord changes evoke an almost spiritual ecstasy. Even in more understated pieces, like the tumbling synth mulch of “Shade,” Emeralds underpin their tangle of sound with radiant drones and soft staccato notes that fall like raindrops. Thirteen years later, each recording sounds as alive and teeming with secrets as ever.
Now remastered and packaged with seven bonus tracks, an excellent new edition of Does It Look Like I’m Here? renews a monumental modern synth record. The remaster from renowned engineer Heba Kadry (Björk, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Tim Hecker) brings some added depth and fullness to the frequencies. Propulsive songs like “Double Helix” and the title track have a fresh airiness without losing their weight. “Now You See Me,” the closest we get to an Emeralds ballad, sounds more tender and gentle with a better balance of the central guitar chords, synth pads, and vocal swells. McGuire’s guitar strums in “Goes By” are warmer, nestled deep within the slow-moving synth drift. Such updates aren’t blatantly obvious, but they bring subtle details that reward deeper listening.
The bonus tracks joining the original 12 include languid ambient meditations (“Escape Wheel,” “Lake Effect Snow”) and slow-building electronic whorls (“August (Extended),” “In Love”), rounded out by two excellent remixes that Dan Snaith produced in 2012 under his club-minded alias Daphni. But the showstopper is the 28-minute “Genetic (Rehearsal),” a song that seems to encompass Emeralds’ sphere of influence. The proggy inclinations of Tangerine Dream shine through the circuitous guitar; watery synth noise and galactic drones reflect Klaus Schulze’s analog sound design. And when the core arpeggiations drop away and the music begins to bask in a spacey float, echoes of Cluster and Fennesz rattle across the spectrum. For all its indulgence, the extended version still doesn’t overshadow the more concise 12-minute original; none of the additional tracks here can compare to the main event. But having more readily available Emeralds music from the most important era of their career is no bad thing.
Since disbanding in 2013, all three members of Emeralds have continued to release their own music. Hauschildt’s six solo albums span kosmische, ambient, and synth-pop. As Imaginary Softwoods, Elliott has burrowed deep into the possibilities of psychedelic electronic music. And McGuire’s constant stream of cosmic guitar experiments unfolds like a collection of daily devotionals. Each has brought the supernatural essence of Emeralds to a different destination, and the expanded remaster of Does It Look Like I’m Here? is the ideal place to begin to retrace those winding paths. As a career inflection point and catalyst for contemporary synth music, it stands as canon. As a pure listening experience, it begs to be unrecognizable.
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