You may have heard of Ford & Lopatin before, whether you know it or not. The two sides of this penny have been pretty well known for some work they’ve done previously, with Joel Ford having been a member of the band Tigercity and Daniel Lopatin making music under the moniker Oneohtrix Point Never. Outside of that, the duo have also been recording together for a little while now but using the name Games. After a series of mixtapes and and other general messing around in a studio, last year’s Games EP “That We Can Play” attracted some strong attention amongst the online community, bringing the appropriate hype along with it. Attached to that hype came some serious threats of lawsuits, because as you might expect the word “games” is far more common than you’d think, and also perhaps some of the samples they used weren’t entirely above board. So Ford & Lopatin it is, the combination of which is uncommon enough to where they can avoid any legal implications. Their official debut full length is titled “Channel Pressure”, and if you closely examine the cover art or just think of their old name Games, you should gain a surprisingly strong grasp of what the record might sound like.
Take one part electronica, another part 80s synth pop, and mix them together with a number of sonic elements that might otherwise be most at home on classic video games circa Atari or original Nintendo, and you’ve got the majority of what Ford & Lopatin are doing all over “Channel Pressure”. In order to best understand this sort of music, it really helps if you lived through it. As a child of the 80s, hopefully at some point you stayed up all night playing video games either at a friend’s house or at your own, depending on who had a system and what games. That was almost an essential part of any boy’s upbringing back in those days, and it’s those fond times that are triggered when listening to this record. It also helps if you’ve at least seen movies like “The Wizard” (starring Fred Savage) and “Tron” (the original) for what might best be described as “incidental music points” on the soundtrack. Like those movies and like those old video games, there wasn’t a whole lot going on in the way of vocals or lyrics, but sometimes if you kept listening to a particular song the instrumental would stick in your head anyways. Ford & Lopatin allow synth-laden instrumentals to take up most of “Channel Pressure”‘s running time, but they do make a concerted effort to bring in vocals whenever possible. Ford handles some of the singing, but Jeff Gitelman of The Stepkids and the effortlessly strange Autre Ne Veut each contribute a little bit as well, working to make this a much more traditional pop record than anything they’ve done in the past.
The way the songs on “Channel Pressure” are patterned is primarily in a staggered fashion, in which the instrumentals tend to fill in gaps or connect two songs with vocals. The first half of the album features three distinct highlights, all of them being the songs in which actual singing takes place (the chopped up “singing” that takes place on the title track doesn’t really count). For a first single, “Emergency Room” is remarkably fun and light, despite the darker content of the lyrics. The energy and strong bassline practically challenge you not to dance, while the swirling, woozy electro-synth bits in the background knock the track off-kilter in a fascinating way. The consistent repetition of the chorus helps too towards making this one of the record’s best and most memorable moments. The same cannot be said for “Too Much MIDI (Please Forgive Me)”, a song that gets by less on a hook-filled chorus and more courtesy of a generally strong groove that feels just a shade off something New Order would have done back at the height of their popularity. Tears for Fears is probably the best comparison to make when talking about “The Voices”, what with how the synths are layered and the few shimmering bells that pop up each time the remarkably catchy chorus rolls around. Paired directly next to the disco funk of “Joey Rogers”, it’s remarkable how two of the album’s most engaging tracks show up in the middle rather than at the more preferred junctures of the beginning or end. Still, the quality does drop just a little after that, with only Ne Veut’s surprisingly stable vocal turn on “I Surrender” and the pulsating, glitchy “World of Regret” providing moments worthy of being called great. In total that makes just under half the record worthy of your time, while the rest ranges anywhere from smooth transitional material to outright throwaways. The way those bigger moments are spread out across the duration of the album is immensely smart though, the little breadcrumb trails of delight just providing enough inspiration to keep you interested until the next one rolls around.
The good, if not great news for Ford & Lopatin is that “Channel Pressure” on the whole works better than it has any right to. Even when it’s not hitting the marks it needs to, the overall form and consistency of the record helps to make it stable. The outright pop songs they have put together are pretty great too. What should be of concern is how it apes so much of the excellent synth pop from the 80s yet fails to carve its own territory out of that niche. This album is unique if only because few if any artists are making music like this anymore. It is the bygone product of a bygone time, but in the sense that everything old is new again, Ford & Lopatin make a strong argument for bringing it back. They’re just hoping enough people will agree with them.