Anthony Naples kicked off his debut album with a fakeout. The New York producer had made his name in 2012, at just 22, with an effervescent house jam that was ranked among the year’s best dance music, and he wasted no time in reinforcing his club bona fides with a string of EPs that built upon his signature overdriven machine rhythms. But in 2015, a first encounter with his debut LP, Body Pill, was enough to make one wonder if there had been an error at the pressing plant: After two minutes of ambient scene-setting, the first song exploded into mid-tempo drums and ringing chords, almost like an homage to Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation—albeit crafted at home on a laptop.
The rest of Body Pill returned to Naples’ customary blasted-out house music, and in the years since, with the exception of 2018’s ambient Take Me With You, he has dependably concentrated his efforts on a fairly narrow context—call it music for grotty Brooklyn warehouse parties where the sun is just starting to pry its fingers through dust covered windows. But on Chameleon, his first album in two years, Naples returns to that hard-to-place territory he began mapping out in Body Pill’s first few minutes, in which guitars and drums are swirled into a liquid pool of electronic sound. The result flows together the way a silted river carves branching shapes through a river delta.
A dance producer adopting an ambient-adjacent side hustle during the pandemic might not sound like a terribly novel proposition. But Chameleon, despite what its title might suggest, never resembles the work of a musician defensively morphing his colors to suit a sudden change in the environment. The music’s meandering path has a genuinely exploratory feel; the searching synth-and-guitar counterpoints are meditative but never maudlin. The music’s playful spirit keeps Chameleon refreshingly free of any hackneyed balm-for-troubled-times baggage.
In fact, Naples, plagued by a sense that he had played it safe on his previous album, had already begun work on a new direction by the autumn of 2019. Lockdown afforded him the kind of free time—and maybe even the neuroses—conducive to making more experimental music. Feeling stir crazy, he’d strip the room of everything but a single synthesizer, microphone, and lamp before proceeding to record. To combat writer’s block, he’d pretend that the music was actually being played by other musicians, and he was just the producer tasked with sculpting their output into its final shape.
You can detect traces of those strategies in the stripped-down shape of Body Pill’s songs, and also in the record’s approach to genre, which sometimes feels almost like a kind of role play. Shades of all sorts of unexpected influences drift through the music: the phased guitars of the Cure’s Seventeen Seconds, the feathery strumming of the Paisley Underground, the chunky breakbeats of trip-hop. The album tends to zig-zag between heavier fare, led by electric bass and drum kit, and pools of the purest ambient tone. Dub and post-punk are clear inspirations, but Naples never falls back on obvious tropes. Their influence is felt only glancingly—in the muscle applied to a booming floor tom or a brief burst of analog delay that scatters a song’s parts to the winds.
Many of the record’s most intriguing tracks propose unusual collisions, like the Portastudio equivalent of a Hollywood exec’s elevator pitch. The cosmic shimmer and bluesy soloing of “Massiv Mello,” a blissed-out post-rock epic, suggests Manuel Göttsching’s E2-E4 for the jam-band circuit. “You Got What It Takes” might be Mark McGuire trying out for the Mo Wax roster. And the dazzling “Full O’ Stars” sounds like McGuire’s band Emeralds by way of Carl Craig’s Landcruising or More Songs About Food and Revolutionary Art. Craig’s pioneering approach to ambient techno is all over Chameleon. In the mid 1990s, the Detroit producer masterminded a style of electronic music in which driving rhythms were tempered by powdery textures and dreamy, drawn-out pads, and here Naples picks up that careful balance of opposing influences. Underpinning the churning arpeggios of the nominally ambient “Hydra” is the kind of seismic sub-bass that could shake Berghain to its foundations.
Despite the sketch-like feel of some of the record’s shorter songs, Chameleon feels like a unified body of work, meant to be experienced whole. The back-and-forth dialogue of Naples’ synth and guitar phrases is gestural, tentative; you can practically hear the question mark hanging in midair, and each successive track is posed almost like a response to the one before it, with themes recurring throughout—a monologue in the form of a crowded conversation. What holds it all together is a kind of relaxed restlessness. It’s never hurried or frantic, but yet it constantly changes shape, tries out new sounds, and shifts ideas around the way someone working through cabin fever might doggedly rearrange the furniture in search of clarity. For a record crafted in the claustrophobic doldrums of quarantine, Chameleon suggests almost limitless horizons.
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