Oneohtrix Point Never's latest album, Returnal, begins with a scream — or something like it. "Nil Admirari" is an abrasive, frightening introduction. It seemingly compresses an absurd batch of sounds into about five minutes. Those sounds include a nightmarish blast of grinding and grating, unearthly ululations; a massive, aging printer being fed into a trash compactor; someone idly tapping a bottle; and a time bomb ticking ominously. "Nil" may contain all or none of these noises; it's impossible to competently parse every second of the synth-generated song. (With no melody or repeating sounds, it's also kind of hard to call it a "song.") Most amusing is the track's ending: After that choleric spray of mangled noise, "Nil" finishes with a glassy, ambient purr that continues through the next song and most of Returnal.
"Nil admirari" is Latin for "to be excited by nothing," which is what the track represents: aural garbage that must be excised to make room for an actual album. Putting it at the front of Returnal is a prankish move — getting through it is a war in itself — and it's the kind of test of resolve Oneohtrix Point Never is skilled at providing.
Since 2007, Daniel Lopatin has recorded and performed under the Oneohtrix alias. The Brooklynite creates work that straddles and investigates the divide between pop music and noise. Even his pseudonym plays on this concept. It is a corruption of the numerical portion of MAGIC 106.7, a Boston soft-rock radio station that sits on a completely separate plane from his mind-bending music. "When I would go to the dentist, I enjoyed hearing the sound of metal grinding inside my mouth alongside MOR soft-rock jams on 106.7," he says. "Conceptually, [assuming that name] seemed like a good starting point for my music."
Attempting to discern pop from noise has long been a point of interest for Lopatin, who isn't sure where his own sound typically falls. "All of my favorite records mess with that [pop or noise] dichotomy," he says, mentioning My Bloody Valentine's Loveless and Christian Fennesz' Endless Summer as examples. "I'm into operating along the edges of styles. It's not necessarily a unique idea, but in terms of music, it's effective."
Nearly everything Lopatin uses to make his work is plugged in. The tools include a Boss sampler and a plethora of vintage Roland, Yamaha, and Akai polysynths; a few effects ("mostly just delay and pitch"); and audio snatched from YouTube clips. When making a track, he compiles "lots of layers" of sound, shifts them to a stereo track, and layers them again until he's content with the result. While not every Oneohtrix composition is developed this way (some pieces from previous albums Russian Mind and Zones Without People are "totally a break from the rigors of multitracking"), most of his finished works drastically vary from their earliest incarnations.
Lopatin derives his portraits from reality, even as Returnal becomes empyreal and obscure. "'Pelham Island Road' is literally an impression of my favorite road in my hometown" in Massachusetts, he says. "I have driven up and down it at night a million times. The view of Heard's Pond at night is superdark and black metal, and I wanted to capture it somehow via sound."
"Preyouandi," the album's distant closer, is influenced by less beloved memories: "National Geographic crap on TV and popular science — this sort of Westernized sheen or gloss as applied to third-world stuff," he says. "I thought that I could translate the sort of disjunct communication between 'worlds' over to sounds, like overdriving a pan flute or talking drums from YouTube."
Though Oneohtrix Point Never songs are the products of knotted alchemy, Lopatin is self-effacing when discussing them. "I'm definitely neither populist nor elitist about how people absorb cultural stuff," he says. "I find that a lot of people 'use' my music for ordinary day-to-day activities like sleeping or doing homework or driving or making out or whatever. 'Useful music' is what I hear."