Nine years on from its release, Steph Kretowicz looks back on the pioneering album that defined vaporwave.
In 2011, James Ferraro's Far Side Virtual changed the course of experimental music. It was released on the now-defunct Hippos In Tanks label, which in 2011 alone dropped influential records by musicians and producers like Laurel Halo, Autre Ne Veut, Hype Williams and Grimes. Ferraro's reputation has never grown beyond his underground cult status, but that's probably because he's always been ahead of his time. Far Side Virtual's digital sound palette presented a painfully vivid post-noise take on ambient, chiptune and lo-fi pop in a hi-tech world. It predated a global culture of electronic producers using online sample libraries and standard software app idents as their primary audio sources.
Ferraro made a name for himself as one half of The Skaters. Together with Spencer Clark, he put out an epic number of noise and drone releases before striking out on his own and joining a cluster of artists making music that has since been called "hypnagogic pop." Named after the trance-like state between sleep and being awake, and excavating recent US pop culture history, the term spanned a spectrum of artists and styles. It went from Ariel Pink's psychedelic dream pop to Oneohtrix Point Never's 2009 YouTube upload-gone-viral of a sample of Chris DeBurgh's "Lady In Red" looping in an eerie ambience on "nobody here."
The Skaters and Ferraro's music was on the noisier end of the spectrum, which makes sense because Ferraro credits power electronic duo Whitehouse as a huge influence on Far Side Virtual, even though it sounds nothing like them. "I don't find it much of a departure from [Whitehouse] but I guess it's open to interpretation," Ferraro once told me about the album. A track like Far Side Virtual's "Palm Trees, Wi-Fi and Dream Sushi" uses a guitar, drums, synth and vocals. That sounds standard enough, except the album is essentially a collection of recordings taken from an entirely digital environment, cobbled together on GarageBand and initially intended for release as a series of smartphone ringtones.
"It's sort of departed further and further away from music to the point where it's not even really music anymore," Ferraro said, describing himself more as a visual artist than producer. The sound of Far Side Virtual reflected that. Overwhelmingly artificial, it drew from the intended calm, minimal sheen of the easy-listening lounge jazz of hold music. Tracks like "PIXARnia And The Future Of Norman Rockwell," "Starbucks, Dr. Seussism, And While Your Mac Is Sleeping" and "Global Lunch" tapped into the underlying dread of a glossy techno-capitalism before the realities of Facebook data harvesting and Google facial recognition experiments were fully known.
Despite its cultural impact as a landmark album for the "corporate mood music" of vaporwave, Far Side Virtual isn't particularly easy to own. Predating the widespread use of streaming services and perhaps incompatibly released on vinyl in 2011, it can only be downloaded from a few official sites, and only available to listen to on Spotify and in incomplete form on YouTube. This speaks to the modern reality of disposability Ferraro himself envisioned for the album.
"Consumer transience was in fact always a part of the concept of the record," he told The Quietus in 2011. "The last note of my record will be the sound of the uninterested listener disposing the album into the trash bin and emptying out their desktops." This reflects the ambivalence and ambiguity of Far Side Virtual, where even the endless "copies of copies of copies" online can't guarantee its permanence.
Sat / 15 Feb 2020
01. Linden Dollars
02. Global Lunch
03. Dubai Dream Tone
05. Bags & Contrapposto Water Bottle
06. PIXARnia And The Future Of Norman Rockwell
07. Palm Trees, Wi-Fi And Dream Sushi
08. Fro Yo And Cellular Bits
09. Google Poeises
10. Starbucks, Dr. Seussism, And While Your Mac Is Sleeping
11. Adventures In Green Foot Printing
12. Dream On
13. Earth Minutes
14. Tomorrow's Baby Of The Year
15. Condo Pets
16. Solar Panel Smile