Tumbling into YouTube holes can be a risky business. One minute you’re learning about dark matter or the Italian Futurists, the next you’re watching a pseudo Professor Denzil Dexter explain how the moon is, in fact, hollow and made out of toilet roll tubes. Things escalate quickly as one video links almost unfathomably to the next. And that’s how, sometime in 2012, I stumbled across ‘Dream Castle’ by Tanning Salon.
From the first moments of that strange, ambient electronica I was intrigued. It’s unclear, initially, whether the sound is synthetic or natural, malevolent or benign. This only compounds its mystery, as the video itself is simply a static image of the sleeve – but this too is somehow odd and alluring. A pixelated castle, which recalls the graphics from some old Atari game or other, sits beneath a massive window in the sky, through which peeks what appears to be Mount Fuji. It’s the medieval West connecting through space and time with the universal East.
But it’s the music that really compels: there’s analogue wobble and bend, like that of an old cassette left too close to a magnet, which lends the melody an enigmatic edge. It appears like a moment of indecision within the sound itself, as though decisions about which direction to take are being made in real-time, wavering between the spooky and the nostalgic, before selecting at the very last second. It’s like some sonic ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book, except without words, which allows the listener to weave their own uncanny narratives into the melodic shifts and sinister textures. With titles like ‘Dunadd Hill’, ‘Larsen Harbour’ and ‘Camelot Wanderers’ this only adds to the sense of the fantastical.
What really grabbed me was just how difficult it is to describe. While there’s something of the Brian Eno or Grouper about it, it’s far too strident and brimming with purpose to be labelled as straight ambient. Similarly, it’s too opaque and, at times, downright sinister to be bound up with the vaporwave movement that was having a fleeting moment in the sun when this record was made.
Tanning Salon is the alter ego of Vektroid, aka Portland producer Ramona Xavier who is best known for her work in the vapourwave genre. ‘Dream Castle’ was originally released digitally only in 2011 and has since been reissued several times on various limited runs on cassette to (only slightly) wider pressings of vinyl.
Having become suitably obsessed with that YouTube video, I began to dig around for a physical copy and discovered that I was actually more likely to acquire the figurative defecations of a rocking horse. More mystery! But there have been recent – but equally limited – reissues, most notably on the Old English Spelling Bee label. However, a quick look at Discogs is enough to quell any notion of picking up a bargain – copies are scarce and get speedily snaffled for upwards of £50. So if anyone would like to send me a copy, it’d be very much appreciated. Until then, I’ll keep stumbling into my YouTube holes.