A brilliant drummer/composer as comfortable leveling a straight-ahead ride cymbal groove as fulminating an avant-garde pulse, Gerald Cleaver has made an electronic-based album that upends convention. Signs, his 16th release, was composed and recorded using VCV Rack, a free, open-source cross-platform software modular synthesizer. Harnessing his ample composing skills and imagination to new technology, Cleaver creates electronic music that—unlike some contemporary examples of the form that remain largely static from start to finish—burrows down a deep rabbit hole driven by detailed arrangements that evolve like a wonderful instrumental solo.
Opener “Jackie’s Smiles” begins with the sound of squeaking doors effected to create a rhythm, overlaid by bubbly, galloping tones that recall subway commuters shoving each other at rush hour. By track’s end the squeaky sounds are replaced by a chirpy beat, the bubbles by dancing Moog-ish tones. “Amidst Curses” rolls out fast and eerie, its spooky halo tones juggling over shifting, unidentifiable beat ingredients. Oddly comforting, like freezing snowbound before you die, “Amidst Curses” slowly changes shape but never loses its suffocating atmosphere. Watery bell sounds open “Blow,” the bell tones gradually morphing into ear-piercing, drill-like beams. Late-’90s Warp act Plone receive an unintentional homage in “Tomasz,” as happy, bouncing vibrations dart and play while a friendly synth swarm rises in the background. “Signs I,” “II,” and “III” clatter and jangle, their ominous melodies and rhythms suggesting nothing good. Signs is a welcome distraction, a deep electronic dive.