Back in 2012, you would have been hard pushed to not be greeted with the tantalising prospect of an AFTERNAUT show as you scoured the monthly music listings. Having found his way onto any number of weird and wonderful bills, Adam Rowley became the go-to guy if your gig needed the aural essence of space travel in a delicious electronic package. Performing alongside the likes of Oneohtrix Point Never, Walls and BEAK> allowed him to develop his trademark blend of melancholy soundscapes and galactic beats, and reach a sympathetic audience in the process. Fast forward to the present and you’ll notice that an alarming amount of time has passed since the last Afternaut performance. However, far from slacking off, Rowley has been holed up in his bunker, toiling, experimenting and quickly developing a wide-eyed obsession with his new baby – a modular synth. And you know what? He’s created a monster.
Built from the ground up with his bare hands, this beautiful beast of knobs, switches and wires has been the subject of night after night of soldering and audio experimentation to create something with a life of its own. “At first I just had one oscillator,” begins Rowley giddily. “But that one oscillator made the most incredible sound, and I was hooked!” Through a mix of extended improvisation and delicate honing, this collaboration between man and machine has spat out a ferocious, fiery collection of tracks going by the name of Transmission. Rowley describes the release as a “collaborative project, the direction of which has been dictated by the modular”. It’s certainly a brave decision to cede a certain level of control to an unknown quantity, but it’s often these black hole explorations that produce the most interesting results. “It’s a very different experience writing music on a modular. You have to be much more inquisitive. Generally, the typical sound modulars make is very chaotic and random.” Fortunately his experience as an artist has provided a base from which to build that recognisable Afternaut sound. “When you make music you are constantly choosing options. As long as you are making those decisions for yourself then the finished music will have your personality embedded within it.”
The six songs on Transmission are no doubt a bold leap forward for Afternaut. Although his spacey atmospherics remain a continuing aspect of the sound, the wild parameters set by the untameable modular synth kick the music into uncharted waters. Rowley is still the pilot at the helm, but has turbo-charged his rocket. The result is a spectacular canvas of cacophony and crescendo that not only fills your headspace on a private headphone listen, but begs to be jet-propelled to a liquor-loosened live audience.
The mechanical chaos of the noise-machine has opened up new doors and Rowley’s inquisitive nature has allowed him to utilise to the maximum each and every squelch and clang that the modular churns out. “I’ve got recordings of hard drives and phones buzzing and popping which I used for a lot of the percussive elements. I’ve even got a dodgy patch cable [attached to the modular] that crackles and stutters.”
A Sound Designer for Sony by day, his obsession with all things audio helps in developing a signature aesthetic. Whether he’s out in the field capturing sound effects for the next PS4 game or painstakingly piecing together the results in the office, the bleed between business and pleasure is abundantly clear. This all-encompassing passion for audio also enabled him to relate easily to the work of the early-20th Century intrepid inventor and engineer Nikola Tesla, who was a pioneer in radio wave communication, and was for a time obsessed with the science of transmitting messages over long distances. Tesla’s insatiable appetite for discovery is evidently a source of fascination for Rowley: “I noticed that when you crank the output signal of the modular you can start to hear all sorts of weird things going on. Presumably these are the same noises that Nikola Tesla mistook for Martian communications.”
The idea of interplanetary communication is explored further with the retro-futurist visuals of the accompanying artwork, designed with the help of Kitsune Studio in Liverpool. “The plan was to use visual distortion to push the theme of ‘transmission’. I looked at tape and tube TV bleed effects as well as glitch art. I approached Kitsune because I knew they had a lot of experience with web and user interface design and they produce really beautiful work. I wanted something highly designed and crisp but also quite glitchy and other-worldly.” It’s testament to the overarching concept of Transmission that the words “highly designed”, “crisp”, “glitch” and “other-worldly” could very easily be attached to the music.
Added weight is given to the project with the inclusion of remixes by Wired To Follow and Rosko John, giving the work a fresh angle whilst maintaining the philosophy of experimentation. “Wired To Follow write really conceptual and powerful music so I couldn’t wait to see what they did with their remix,” explains Rowley. “They actually surpassed my expectations. They used recordings taken from the astronomical clock in Prague, which really adds another layer to the concept. I did a remix of Rosko John’s track Tactical Light earlier this year and I had been looking forward to him remixing something of mine. He really did me proud!”
With Transmission finally out into the world, Rowley is itching to give the new material an airing. “The new show is a lot more energetic than anything I’ve done before and it takes those epic sections of my new tracks and pushes them further. I’m actually really excited about it.” Back with a big bang, the future looks bright and beautiful in the world of Afternaut. The music is being received positively and, with the delicious prospect of live dates and a new show imminent, the buzz around the project is snowballing. It won’t be long until we begin to see a much-welcomed return of that Afternaut-packed listings page.
From that daring leap into the unknown world of modular synthesis to the high polish and exquisite execution of the finished product, Rowley has showcased his credentials as an artist and composer with that rare blend of courage and conviction. From concept to delivery, Transmission is a fascinating tale of discovery and an ode to the joys of experimentation and hard graft. A triumphant work that sends out a signal to the world and beyond.
Transmission is out now – available to buy from afternaut.bandcamp.com.