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  • Ben Gibbons

A Trip Through the Psychedelic Techno-World of Sleep Movies’ Melt Transmission

Sleep Movies’ latest album, Melt Transmission, transports listeners to a world both warped and not so different from our own. Ben Gibbons hears from Skyler Brimmeier about the making of his album and why it’s a psychedelic journey for our times.

Sleep Movies Melt Transmission
Illustration: The Pittsburgher / Image: Melt Transmission (2021) album cover

When you hear something described as “psychedelic,” the first image that comes to mind likely involves either lava lamps, shag carpets, young people with unkempt manes, or any number of extravagantly-named chemical substances. And while scenes of disaffected 20-somethings rolling around in the mud on a New York farm while Jimi Hendrix fractures “The Star-Spangled Banner” into shards of screaming noise while drinking acid-laced sweat out of his own headband can certainly be described as “psychedelic,” the term doesn’t die there—with drugs, Woodstock, and the 1960s.

I think of psychedelia as an art form that has the ability to elevate the mind above its own mundanity, be it through the vivid hues and queasy camera trickery of movies like Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy, the dark, diaphanous whimsy of a Leonora Carrington or Remedios Varo figure, or the apocalyptic surrealism of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach novels. Although their mediums are different, each of these experiences transcends the everyday and reaches for the impossible—creating worlds, sensations, sights, and sounds that you can’t find in nature. Psychedelia is escape, and psychedelia is the sublime.

Psychedelic and psychedelic-adjacent music makes up a large part of my excessive CD collection (they’re making a comeback soon, trust me!): the aural blankets of shoegaze; the heady clatter of IDM; the wild experimentation of free jazz; the near-subconscious drift of ambient. A good piece of psychedelic music will grip you straightaway, transporting your ears and mind to an alien realm full of warped pitches, disorienting lyrics, dissonant noise, and/or plenty of flange. I’ll always remember the first time I heard the abrasive, siren-like opening guitars of My Bloody Valentine’s “Only Shallow,” the Beach Boys-on-Mars melodies of Panda Bear’s “Boys Latin,” the compressed, undersea crunch of Candy Claws’ “Fell In Love (At The Water),” and, of course, the Alice In San Franciscoland strut of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” Each was like stepping into an undiscovered ocean teeming with sound and life.

Pittsburgh artist Sleep Movies recently released an album called Melt Transmission on the excellent local label Crafted Sounds, and damn if my first journey through its tracklist didn’t induce an effect similar to the examples mentioned above. In fact, the sonic wizard behind the project, Skyler Brimmeier, credits his musical voice to the same sensations; he told me via email that, years go, Smashing Pumpkins, Animal Collective, MGMT, and Sunset Rubdown profoundly affected his understanding of music. “[They] blew my mind and broadened my perspective on what music could be,” he said. “I was getting stoned from sounds. I started thinking about music differently—as being this magical, synesthetic thing….” Brimmeier the artist got his start by jamming with friends and family, recording sporadically on “an outdated Tascam 8-Track [his] Dad’s friend let [him] borrow.” In 2017, he decided to write and release his own EP, and Sleep Movies was born (the moniker, wrote Brimmeier, “sounded like something a child who never heard the word ‘dreams’ before would say to describe their dreams to another person.”). EDG, and its more expansive successor, Sleep Movies Drinks The Potion, serve as pillowy, evocative introductions to the artist’s sound, and create a sort of musical airlock between our world and the world of Melt Transmission.

Melt Transmission is, in some ways, a work of childlike innocence, and, in other ways, a not-so-funhouse reflection and extrapolation of our hyper-consumerist, technocentric lives. Brimmeier describes it as, “The idea of some kid a hundred years from now growing up on a space station, writing futuristic bedroom pop in their little isolated cubicle space station room, looking out their window at the void….” On the album, digitized beats creep and crawl like robotic bugs, woozy bass bleeds its way through the lower end of the mix, guitars impersonate synths and vice versa (thanks to a trusty Electro-Harmonix SYNTH9 that adds, according to Brimmeier, a nice, spacey wubbiness), and detached vocals hang in the air like a chemical haze. It’s like Black Moth Super Rainbow with less definition, or Boards of Canada with more oomph. The sound is alien and degraded, but contains a rich undercurrent of human melancholy and yearning. About this balance, Brimmeier wrote: “My frustration with the ever-ballooning chaotic state of the world was at a full-time peak and so likewise my feelings of hopelessness of anything getting better. To me it just seemed like reality was heading full speed into some purgatorial void. […] Authenticity just felt absent, both in my perception of the world and in my own expression, so I def feel like a yearning for aliveness and the need to cut through layer on top of layer of façade took on an urgency for me while recording.” The sound you hear on the album is that of a soul crying out from behind a glowing, pixelated screen.

Melt Transmission’s music reflects Brimmeier’s disjointed, overstimulated internal state, which he described as “automated and algorithmic.” “Scanner” finds the artist’s wailing vocals suspended in a mixture of chirping synths and percolating beeps, “Darkness” features the disembodied voice of guest Lys Scott situated atop halting percussion and squiggly tech bass, “Am I Abyss?” sounds like a Plutonian trap banger created by a posse of celestial ghouls, and the wonderfully named “Miley’s Iris” embodies the death drones of a brightly colored spacecraft. The album is purposefully imperfect; loops remain unquantized, and vocals are mostly stream-of-consciousness—as Brimmeier put it, “My whole creative process is basically just me stumbling around making a huge mess and then doing what I can to tidy up afterwards.” Melt Transmission’s flaws and relative sloppiness bring warmth to the music’s digital sheen, and flip the bird to notions of posthuman perfection and peak efficiency; in doing so, the album uses psychedelia not as a mere aesthetic gimmick, but as an implement of personal liberation.

I’m not yet old enough to have earned the right to say this, but the world grows less recognizable to me every day. We have conversations with our appliances. Personal trainers who may or may not exist shout at us from our Peloton bike screens. People make their fortunes by pranking people and uploading the results to YouTube. Investors buy worthless, Shiba Inu-themed online currency for laughs. Politician/entertainer hybrids “govern” via manic bursts of 280 characters. Billionaires fly to space because they can. As much as I sometimes want to stop reality and get off, I know it isn’t possible; however, I will continue to find relief through art that conjures worlds even stranger than ours. And what of Sleep Movies? Brimmeier anticipates that, “The future looks very cottagecore for me, both personally and musically,” adding, “I spend a lot of time in the woods learning about plants and fungi. It feels like a truly valuable thing to spend my time doing and it keeps me sane and youthful on the inside.” Plus, he just had a dream that he “was playing in this like weird black metal jazz band,” and has been considering taking his music in that direction as well. Whatever terrain Sleep Movies decides to terraform, I’m sure it will get weird. ▲

Ben Gibbons is a writer, part-time musician, and full-time music fan hailing from the Philadelphia suburbs and currently based out of Pittsburgh. He graduated from George Washington University in 2017 with a degree completely unrelated to music or writing, but, hey, who cares about majors anyway? He loves and appreciates all styles of music, and has spent the past few years exploring the local scene through his Bored In Pittsburgh blog.

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