Like so much electronic music to have come before it, Thug Entrancer’s Arcology has futurist themes encoded deep within its DNA. It takes its title from a term coined by the architect Paolo Soleri, best known for Arizona’s Arcosanti community, meant to describe architecture in balance with ecology. But the album’s press release speaks of alien colonies and world-building, while its cover art features a cybernetic figure wearing what look like VR goggles; a cable extrudes from the back of his skull, Matrix-style. (Zoom in far enough, and you may also notice a peeing-Calvin decal adorning his jack—the influence, perhaps, of Daniel Lopatin, whose Software label put out the record, and whose last album as Oneohtrix Point Never similarly grappled with science-fiction themes through the twin lenses of adolescence and trash-culture kitsch.)
But, as is the case with so much electronic music to have come before it, the sci-fi conceit also feels like a red herring. Thug Entrancer is Ryan McRyhew, a Denver-based musician who came up playing punky electronic music in the DIY scene around the city’s Rhinoceropolis space before moving for a time to Chicago, where he discovered local staples like juke, footwork, and acid. His debut album, 2014’s Death After Life, was a snapshot of his infatuation with those sounds as he acquainted himself with the mechanics of 160-BPM drum patterns and squirrelly 303 lines. Of Arcology, McRyhew says, “The album title stems from the idea of a structure or object that is entirely self-sufficient and life-generating with little to no outside influence.” But that’s precisely the opposite of how the album actually functions. Arcology, like its predecessor, is a genre study first and foremost, rearranging familiar elements according to McRyhew’s own idiosyncratic vision.
Those elements haven’t changed much since Death After Life; he’s still preoccupied with frenetic drum-machine workouts and lyrical bass melodies, and he’s still using classic pieces of kit like the Roland TR-808 and TB-303 (or, perhaps, plug-in simulators). But where his debut album was split mostly between flickering footwork tunes and, less successfully, sluggish slow-motion sketches, he’s expanded the tempo range here, and in doing so he’s opened up to a wealth of new ideas and moods. The early standouts “Ghostless M.S.” and “Arrakis” boast gnarled, overdriven acid lines that really sing, along with hectic-yet-nimble drum programming.
McRyhew boasts his considerable sound-design chops on a handful of ambient cuts, like “ROM” and “Low-Life” and “VR-Urge,” that come closer to the otherworldly ideas supposedly underpinning the album. The finest thing here, “Arcology,” also functions like an ambient track, even though it ripples away at 150 beats per minute: Its keening synth melody recalls early Autechre, back when they still wore their hearts on their sleeves, but it’s not directly derivative of anything or anyone. Its pinging, rustling background noises, meanwhile, sound like electronic imitations of running water. Formally, it is a picture of perfect balance, all its moving pieces in perfect synchronization with each other. Within the context of the album, it operates as a kind of clearing, an oasis, where the known universe falls away. If McRyhew really is interested in world-building, it is an excellent first stab at terraforming.