Switched On – YACHT – Chain Tripping (DFA)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

This is the seventh album from Portland trio YACHT, their third release for the DFA label. Given that their name is an acronym for Young Americans Challenging High Technology, it feels entirely appropriate that this record should embrace AI and machine learning.

As the press release explains, the trio ‘used neural networks to break their patterns apart into infinite variations, which they re-assembled into new songs that they then learned, performed, and recorded live. Rather than rely on a single tool, they brought together several distinct AI processes: text generation (Char-RNN), latent space interpolation, raw audio generation (SampleRNN), and a ‘neural synthesizer’ called the NSynth. They were inspired by the long history of generative composition, from William S. Burroughs’ cut-up writing method to David Bowie’s custom ‘Verbasizer’ lyrics software from the ‘90s.

What’s the music like?

It is ironic to use the word ‘deadpan’ given the AI involvement, but there is a flatlining aspect to this record, a straight-faced approach that Chain Tripping has to electronic music.

Claire Evans’ vocals are treated carefully to sound like the intervention of a machine, meaning when she sings a lyric like “I was born to lose control”, on the single SCATTERHEAD, the irony is heavy. Hers is a great voice for this sort of album though, dueling with trimmed beats and riffs. Given the nature of the album it is perhaps inevitable that nothing feels left to chance, the rigid instrumentation and content all closely monitored.

There is still time for funk, however. Blue On Blue is a really catchy track, while DEATH has a great bassline to take away from its darkly murderous lyrics. Stick It To The Station is also excellent, with a slow but really loose bassline and a track that gains heft as it develops.

(Downtown) Dancing, the first track, bids us “welcome to your pleasure” but has a bit of a disembodied feel. It works well though, as does the cooing from Evans at the start of Hey Hey. Loud Light adds a heavy slab of irony, with the line “I’m so in love I can feel it in my heart”.

If you didn’t know that the album had its origins in AI you would think it was a very solid piece of work, deriving a little from English electronica such as Human League or Yazoo, but with Evans at the front always packing a strong personality. She saves us from death by automaton, a charismatic presence.

Does it all work?

Not all the time. The technology does to a large extent prevent the personal from getting through, especially when you compare Chain Tripping to previous YACHT songs such as the brilliant Walk The Line. Yet maybe this is the intent, to show that technology might be able to help create a good set of beats, riffs and songs, but what it can’t yet achieve to 100% capability is a full emotional canvas.

As a result these songs would sound great in a club, but only in the context of others that live and breathe more.

Is it recommended?

Yes, for devotees – it is certainly a record of interest, and still good enough to keep YACHT fans happy. Newcomers are better directing themselves to slightly earlier in the band’s canon.