Sometimes it feels like alternative electronic music has reached a critical mass; as if all the experiments have been run through, the wildest sounds have all been played out, and the arrangements have been mashed up so thoroughly that we're through the ringer and a straight-up four-four beat has become innovative.
Within this landscape, the Boston-based producer Maxfield feels right at home. A string of EPs and singles tied together across Gravitas, Wormhole, and The Rust Music in the past year has perked ears in the right places, but with so much excellent music dropping daily, it wasn't cutting through the noise. Now, as his performance schedule has begun to ramp up this festival season, Maxfield comes with Under the Pink Umbrella on Street Ritual. It's his strongest work to date, breaching the surface with dynamic tunes that bear his own unique fingerprint as a producer. Ironically, though, Under the Pink Umbrella is less the product of a concerted effort towards an envisioned goal, but rather the result of a wandering creativity that Jake Maxfield has been wise enough to indulge.
Across his catalog, Maxfield blurs the already hazy distinctions between sub-genres of electronic music. Under the Pink Umbrella expands on this thread. “As electronic music gets a little more popular the fan base is getting a little more educated about, like, what makes a genre a genre," Jake told me at the Psychedelic Sleepover in June. "People hear certain sounds ...for so many years now that they know those sounds and they know what defines a genre. I like to take bits of that and then smash them together, so that people are like, 'woah, what is this.'” Take "Tiny Hand Low Five" as an example. There's no discernible genre at play here, or even a familiar pattern or movement. It's refreshing. The lead melody is carried by a heavy bass synthesizer that strives forward like a giant roaming the countryside. The breakdown is full of darting and ducking effects, the kind of vowel-sounding synthesis epitomized by the Formant synthesizer. "Some people think of electronic music and they think of clubs and stuff," says Jake, "but this was kind of a shift towards a more 'go out in the woods and get abducted by aliens' kind of vibe." Touche.
For all the value in experimentation, some people including your correspondent are just partial towards a straight-forward bumping beat. Give me a kick, snare and a little swing and I'm aces. That's what Maxfield delivers on "Kids These Days", our standout cut on Under the Pink Umbrella. The organic percussion is well executed and the sound design is so crisp. Split seconds of synthesis sound like laser beams poking in between sandy, open hi-hats. A whopping snare guides the arrangement and a sprinkling of cowbell adds texture to the mix. The inspiration behind the tune is relatable. "There’s these really young kids making all this mind altering music," Jake says. "You’ll hear the wildest song and your friend's like, 'you know that kids like 14?' It’s just about envy, and the motivation that comes form envy. That day I had heard something that was just so good that came from someone a couple years younger than me. I had this knot in my stomach until I got something out, and the 'Kids These Days' idea is what started from that."
The EP winds down with a special cut, almost a ballad or ballet called "Outsource to Outerspace". It takes courage to put a slow, seven-minute song on your EP in this climate where producers are all jockeying for the limited attention spans of listeners. This song has deep meaning for Jake, though. It offers an enchanting and reposeful end to a roller coaster of an EP. Despite the calm setting, Maxfield opens up the hatch on his sound design with more force and fullness here than anywhere else on the EP. The main movement is replicated across several instruments, and an electric guitar played by Jake himself wails into outerspace like someone begging a question, lost in their own thoughts.
Jake's introduction to electronic music was atypical, and that may in part account for his tending toward unique, left-field composition. He attended Berklee College of Music seeking to become "the world's shreddiest, nastiest guitar player", but soon found that he had too much ground to cover on his peers for this dream to become a reality. On a whim he took an introductory Music Technology course and the rest, as they say, is history. "When you’re doing music education for a long time, you learn a bunch about rhythm, you learn a bunch about harmony, you play instruments, and you do all these things. But nobody was ever like 'what if you could change the sound of that instrument?'" With his roots in the world of tonal instrumentation and his branches reaching out into the exciting realms of sound synthesis and automated percussion, Maxfield is uniquely positioned to push boundaries in electronic music. While impressive, Under the Pink Umbrella feels like just a starting point.