Ambient experimental pop captures the childlike wonder in all
Beatmaker, producer, singer, guitarist and CEO Aaron Mader, also known by the moniker Lazerbeak, has touched just about every corner of the musical world. His first release, 2008’s Hand Over Fist collaboration with Mike Mictlan, saw Mader explore hip-hop beat making, while his later production credits include work for the budding pop icon Lizzo, the bluegrass staple Trampled By Turtles, the dark indie starlet Banks and the classical offerings of the Grammy-winning Minnesota Orchestra. Oh, and he’s also the CEO and General Manager of his own label, Doomtree Records. It’s safe to say Lazerbeak has been around the block.
Mader is now 38, working multiple jobs, with three children, and those drastic changes in his life are reflected on his 2020 release Penelope, the second installment in a trilogy of ambient albums inspired by his kids. Named after his eight-year-old child, Penelope ditches the epic, heavy-hitting sound endemic of Lazerbeak’s earlier albums. Instead, he said in his announcement of the album, “I wanted the music to reflect all the sunny, hopeful, fearless and warm attributes that I see in [Penelope] every day. My hope was to make a gigantic, happy instrumental anthem for the days when things just don’t seem to be going right.”
Penelope is indeed gigantic and happy, and that’s evident from the first few seconds of opener “Treetops.” It can be described only as jungle pop, with plenty of brightness and bounciness emanating from the percussion, which is made up primarily of bongos, hand claps and deep, heavy kicks. Lazerbeak combines that organic sound with cheery elements like spliced strings, glowing synthesizers and gorgeous bell harmonies, and the result is an energetic, feel-good banger.
But Penelope explores more than just that bright, poppy sound, as Lazerbeak meticulously crafts ambient backdrops for his beats. The second track “Feels” uncovers more of that expansive sound. Soft, gliding synths, muddled guitar and ghostly vocals are muddled together to give the track a feeling of wetness and fluidity, and it’s almost as if people are peering into a puddle, gazing at their own reflection. He fittingly captures the childlike wonder and whimsy of his daughter, and he does so with tremendous originality.
Perhaps the most inventive aspect of the album is its use of driving, chugging percussive beats. On the trippy “Light Work,” the listener can hear wood blocks, chimes, shakers, guiro, washboard and rim shots push the track forward at different points. Layered synthesizers reverberate and pulsate beneath the drums, and delicate keyboard hits add a warmth to the track that’s seldom seen on other Lazerbeak projects. That driving percussion resurfaces on the grandiose “Top Down,” mainly taking the form of wood blocks, booming toms, deep kicks and cymbal crashes. The track has an undeniably triumphant aura around it, big and bright, as if it’s signaling the arrival of a king and queen. But at the same time, Lazerbeak maintains the woozy, dreamy feel of past songs.
Mader continues to explore new percussive styles on lead single “River Wide,” which chugs along with its grainy, static-engulfed drumming. Sprinkled into the mix are cheery sounds like techno synths and xylophone, and the track has a distinct Lion King-esque feel to it, evoking the curiosity and innocence of a child (or lion cub). Most songs on Penelope are dynamic, ebbing and flowing gracefully from passage to passage, and that’s perhaps exemplified with its penultimate track “On the Lawn.” Lazerbeak uses a looped synth riff and a driving industrial beat as the foundation of the tune, allowing ambient noise and different synth variants to flutter in and out of the mix.
But in terms of fluidity and expansiveness, closer “Marlo” takes the cake. A collage of bubbling synths create a dreamy backdrop, with sweet chords eventually taking shape from within the muddle. Some of Penelope’s most beautiful moments occur on this track, including some gorgeous glowing synth hits that will make your heart flutter. “Marlo” feels like a daydream, bright and hopeful but with a washed out feel to it, with a diverse array of synths cutting in and out of the mix. It’s a warm, sunny conclusion to an ambient jungle pop expanse.
In one of his first forays into ambient pop music, Lazerbeak has produced something special with Penelope. The way he captures the innocence, curiosity and warmth of his daughter is reminiscent of M83’s magnum opus Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. Although Penelope is half the length of that record, its expansiveness is impressive, and its world-building is comparable. Lazerbeak’s combination of fluid ambience, organic percussion and off-kilter vocal effects make for a delightfully hopeful and engaging sound, one that’s sure to put a smile on the face of his children and many others.