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Jon Burkhart, the St. Louis native who records music that seeks the danceable intersection of pop and experimental music, came late to the synths, samplers and sequencers that make up his current rig. He was formally trained on piano, guitar and trombone as a student, and spent his youth playing in conventional settings, bashing it out in cover bands and serving as sideman in his friends' projects.
But a few years living on a communal farm in rural northeast Missouri gave him time, space and inspiration to record as a solo artist. He began by using his electric guitar and a looping pedal, but the purchase of an entry-level Moog synthesizer — the MG1, originally distributed by none other than RadioShack — turned his head and started Burkhart down the path of synthesis. It also made him a relative oddball in the bucolic farmland setting.
"The guitar-loop thing is more conservative, more traditional," Burkhart says. "I was trying to blend traditional guitar with experimental electronics. I guess that's how my personality works, going against the grain. There was too much folk music happening up there."
His debut recording as Hylidae, Intransitive, came out last year. It formally introduced an artist with an unabashed love for the rhythms and intent of dance music, but also graced with a willingness to whittle away at the genre's tentpoles. But where that record was imbued with some of the Moog's near-organic warmth, his new self-titled record embraces a new workflow (rackmount synths, a hardware sequencer) and the resulting move toward slightly colder and harsher sounds.
"This album was totally written living here in St. Louis," says Burkhart. "Living in an urban environment shaped that. I definitely wanted to explore how intense I can take it."
His sequences start small and pile up as they go; this time around, Burkhart pulls more liberally from straight-ahead dance music traditions. Opening track "Darondo" starts subtly enough as a playground for a clanking, whistling melody on top of susurrating slaps and underwater bass, but as it grows some nearly Hi-NRG vocal samples get resurrected from an early '90s warehouse party. That energy turns manic on "Stress" with a faster BPM and a flange-effected bass under constant bombardment by the laser cannons that take up much of the song's airspace.
The album's key outlier is "Flyover," a track with spoken-word samples embedded in it. The track is a confluence of Burkhart's more youthful obsessions: the first album by London dubstep pioneer Burial and a fascination with conspiracy theories. "The samples that are on that song are from a UFO conspiracy theorist's speech I found on YouTube. A lot of time with conspiracy theories, they're all the same — they all have the same vibe of 'you've got to wake up, people!'" he says with a laugh.
"Content-wise it wasn't that interesting, but the way he was talking was drawing me in," Burkhart continues. "I tried to remove all the content and tried to emphasize the paranoia and fear. What conspiracy theorists are tapping into is real — the fear is real. You can insert your own conspiracy theory into it."
On Intransitive, Burkhart wasn't shy about using his own vocals on tracks, but on this self-titled release only one track, "Smoldering Event," features his voice front-and-center. It's the song that follows the most conventional pop-song structure, though he subverts the form with dreadful subject matter.
"That one references the West Lake nuclear fire," he says, referring to the underground landfill fire in north St. Louis County that caught national attention last fall. "The lyrics are all over the place but the chorus references that." For Burkhart, a time of post-surgery convalescence coincided with what he calls "a critical mass of people finding out about this looming situation and what it means for people living here." That rumination on impending doom and relative immobility informs the track.
"That's kind of the vibe for my project in general — take heavy subject matter and make it fun, make it danceable."
Hylidae will have its physical release on the Minneapolis tape label Night People, which has previously released work by acts such as Beat Detectives and Circuit des Yeux. The seven-track album's release coincides with Burkhart's first out-of-state tour as Hylidae; he'll do an eight-date run at the end of the month with local artist Larva. According to Burkhart, the self-titled album is as close as he's come to capturing his live performance.
"I am thinking of this as perfecting what I've been doing live for the past year or two," he says. "It's a blend of trying to keep things spontaneous and chaotic."
Stream the new album in full below: