Summertime rolls in, and many people begin planning automotive adventures across the globe. It’s good then that Itasca Road Trip, the sixth full-length album from Seattle-via-Minnesota electronica project Boreal Network, is re-issued on CiTR’s own More Than Human label over 10 months after its initial release on Illuminated Paths. Just like a road trip, this 18-track long offering from producer Nicole Johnson is filled with moments of levity, wonder, and poignant introspection. From the bumbling, pleasant title track to the beautiful and stirring “The View from the Needles,” Johnson blends tactile, somewhat rigid synths and muted, kitschy drums to cultivate a landscape that feels incredibly organic, despite these more synthetic elements.
The music of Road Trip floats in a vague space: often peppy and insistent, the feel is offset by a subtle ambience, and accompanied by lo-fi, shuffling drum beats. This ambiguity can be felt clearly on a track like “Badlands.” The song features a mischievous synth riff that, while undeniably digital, seems to contain a distant memory of an outro segment from some ‘60s southern rock ballad. It’s accompanied only by cyclical drums fading in and out, and the inconsequential, easy chatter of a group of friends, that can’t really be understood clearly no matter how one tries.
This combination of pop pastiche with a somewhat detached perspective gives the album a close kinship with many vaporwave artists, such as ECO VIRTUAL, Macintosh Plus, and ESPRIT 空想. These links are further emphasised in Johnson’s incorporation of interludes and muzak into the album, with the short song “The Couch” making me feel like I’m watching the weather channel or the 10 o’clock news on a tiny ‘80s CRT television set. Unlike these producers however, Johnson seems to be turning these textures and all-too-familiar sounds away from the ironic cynicism of vaporwave, and towards something more bright and optimistic.
Itasca Road Trip works very well as a piece of ambient music. But for the attentive listener it might outstay its welcome — Johnson’s palette of sounds doesn’t vary massively throughout the album. While this might be wearisome at times, this coherence serves to reinforce the industrial-cum-pastoral mood of the music, and creates the perfect soundtrack to a drive through the prairies under purple skies, watching oil derricks and power plants crest the horizon and fade away into the distance.