The release marks a two year period in which OPN—Brooklyn's Daniel Lopatin—has moved to the forefront of an ever-expanding assembly of vintage synthesizer fiends, analogue devotees and '70s Krautrock acolytes like Emeralds, Gavin Russom or Carlos Giffoni. Last year, Giffoni's No Fun collected all three of Oneohtrix Point Never's full-lengths—Betrayed in the Octagon, Zones Without People, and Russian Mind—along with cuts from various cassette and CD-R releases onto the double album compilation, Rifts. Depending on your history with OPN—mine was minimal—Rifts was either a handy document preventing diggin' around your music stash or an eye-opening drift through Lopatin's increasingly meditative and assured synth compositions.
For Returnal, however, the advances in depth of tone, texture and a sort of ever-colliding cascade of melodies seem to have taken almost whiplash acceleration. Missing for the dense arpeggiated runs and many of his allusions to film composers like Carpenter, Leone or Argento; in their place are more streamlined melodies that gurgle where they used to rush. Its forebears are simple: The cosmic detours of Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze or Jean Michel Jarre to the eerier decor of Popol Vuh's work with Werner Herzog to Edward Artemiev's soundtracks for Tarkovsky. But OPN borrows equally from genres as entwined as drone, ambient, new age and psychedelic. Returnal feels like a document as dazed and dizzy as heatstroke, the other-state peace of dehydration or exhaustion. But its emotional terrain is in constant flux—if, thankfully, slow to evolve—full of transitions and almost sullen mood-swings that make it, at various points, entrancing, bewitching and often quite perplexing.
Opening almost in comic assault mode—the crude tangles of noise, serrated drum machines and vocal screams of "Nil Admirari"—quickly reclines into the brainy analogue explorations at Returnal's core. Routed by their warm pulsing synths, both "Describing Bodies" and "Stress Waves" are almost hymnal, while the title track buries Lopatin's pitch-shifted vocals into a disorienting forest-haunt that wouldn't have sounded out of place on Fever Ray's album. The gorgeous interlude "Ouroboros" detours briefly into wistful melancholia, while with its drowsy drones, processed vocals and solemn synth lines, closer "Preyouandi" almost resembles a more uneven version of Boards of Canada's open-field electronica. But, as Lopatin negotiates these slight shifts in tenor and tempo, it's to his credit that the album never shakes off its own narcotic bliss. If it's only mid-July, Returnal still seems like a lock for record of the year in a throwback genre expanding beyond cassette-collectors and Brain Records lovers. Not quite numb, but mostly comfortable.