Purelink’s debut single might have been a time machine. One track, the B-side’s “Head on a Swivel,” invoked the ’90s drum’n’bass of artists like Photek and Source Direct, in which breakbeats splintered like shards of glass over inky pools of bass. The A-side’s “Maintain the Bliss” was hazier in feel yet even more sharply focused on its contemporaneous reference points. Buoyed by vaporous clouds of synth, with featherweight filters sweeping back and forth over soft explosions of sub-bass, it was reminiscent of a strain of ambient techno perfected a quarter-century ago by acts like Vladislav Delay, Deepchord, and a little-known Glaswegian artist named Pub, whose 2000 dub-techno epic “Summer” drew the blueprint for Purelink’s blissed-out reverie.
Obscure as these reference points may seem, they’re worth noting because they indicate just how specific Purelink’s vision is. All still in their twenties, the Chicago trio’s members—Tommy Paslaski (aka Concave Reflection), Ben Paulson (aka Kindtree), and Akeem Asani (aka Millia)—appear to be connoisseurs of a rarefied strain of Y2K-era experimental techno. But where many acolytes of bygone styles labor under the anxiety of influence, “Maintain the Bliss” felt effortless. It could easily have been a lost classic rescued from a 25-year-old DAT.
The new album Signs keeps its gaze trained on the digital avant-garde of the late 1990s and early 2000s. The glinting contours of the opening “In Circuits” are reminiscent of Jan Jelinek and Oval, while the faintly dubwise rhythms and distant crackle recall Pole. In one sense, they’re right on time. With so many young musicians reanimating the skeletons of shoegaze, nu-metal, ’90s alternative, and jungle, it stands to reason that someone would devote equal attention to these marginal sounds from the same period.
But Signs never feels expressly retro. That might be because there are so few obvious cultural associations to attach to these sounds in the first place—the so-called clicks + cuts movement was always among electronic music’s most faceless sectors, its unshowy practitioners stubbornly hidden behind their laptop screens. But what chiefly saves the record from feeling backward-looking is the sheer loveliness of the results. Ambient and dub techno have always foregrounded sensory pleasure, and Purelink excel in that department. Signs is a virtual steambath of foggy chords, chest-massaging bass, and sumptuous, ultra-vivid textures.
They maintain a uniform mood of gentle repose across the whole 39-minute release. There’s nothing as insistent as a four-to-the-floor beat; where kick drums appear, they land only every so often, offering the merest hint of a pulse. Instead, movement comes from the way that synths and filters swirl, curling like foam along the shoreline. Tracks are largely monochromatic in tone, with the exception of “4k Murmurs,” whose gliding chord progression is the record’s emotional high point. At the same time, Purelink elevate themselves above more overtly functional chillout producers in their uncanny grasp of detail. These tracks tend to sit comfortably in the background; in fact, their lulling rhythms and hushed volume makes them difficult to concentrate on for long. But occasionally, a sound flashes out like a beacon—a crisply tapped ride cymbal, or a brisk tintinnabulation, or an unfamiliar chug cutting crosswise through the mix. Purelink’s hypnotic music is good at putting you under, but it rewards those occasions where you straighten up and snap to attention.
In addition to “4k Murmurs,” the other highlight is the penultimate track, “Untitled.” At first glance, it appears to be the least distinctive of the bunch: just a murky churn of chords flecked with trebly fizz and arrhythmic clanks. Listen deep enough into its matrix of signals, though, and you may imagine that you hear footsteps or creaking brakes. The track’s stillness suggests an abandoned city at night, sounds wafting upward like steam from a subway grate. Metallic chords periodically strike, with no audible rhyme nor reason to their timing; it sounds like a kind of automatic music, as though no humans were involved in its making. Rather than being off-putting, that anonymity is comforting: a snapshot of the digital sublime, a hymn to the beauty of accidents. Purelink’s intentions, whatever they’re trying to do with such classic influences, are immaterial: On Signs, the sounds are moving gracefully through them.