Photo by Gabriela Torres
Erik Gundel thinks a lot about music’s ability to communicate one’s interiority. In his work as a music therapist in Brooklyn, he encourages patients to explore music as a means of understanding and accepting their emotional states. Outside of his day job, he is the producer/multi-instrumentalist of the experimental pop duo Gemma. Early in the pandemic, with no live shows on the horizon, he started playing Dungeons and Dragons with his older brothers. He noticed how low-level characters in the game, who are essentially powerless, are still given magical characterizations. This discrepancy resonated with him and his work, as anxiety and depression fester when aspirations don’t line up with the way things actually are. Gundel approached making his new record, ‘Level 1 Mage,’ with this tension in mind.
Gundel’s sonic toolbox was similar to his 2017 record ‘Worn of my Strings.’ Where that album was recorded frenetically over two days, ‘Level 1 Mage’ required a more measured hand and the result is far more ambitious. The compositions that make up ‘Level 1 Mage’ attempt to prescribe form to formlessness. The pieces started as freeform synthesizer experimentations using VCV Rack, a free-to-use Eurorack simulator. He then began constructing songs over these shifting synth beds, richly layering an array of guitars, flute, pedal steel, and other sampled textures. This process embodied the record’s Quixotic theme: the imposition of order on a chaotic universe. Gundel doesn’t deny the value of this pursuit, but urges us to come to terms with its ultimate impossibility.
The record plays like a multi-textural collage that should be taken in all at once, but it has two distinct pillars that give shape to its emotional arc. ‘(Wanted To) So I Went There With You’ features Felicia Douglass, fellow Gemma bandmate and member of the art-pop outfits Dirty Projectors and Ava Luna. Douglass was given minimal instruction by Gundel, and ended up penning an indelible ode to showing up for the ones you love. Her vocal performance is dextrous, warm, and inviting. The track pushes the needle forward, an exciting look at the hyper-evolution of electronic pop music glimpsed by artists like Oneohtrix Point Never and SOPHIE.
Later on comes ‘Red Cradle of the Night,’ the only other piece on the record with vocals, this time sung by Will Skarstad of the black metal band Yellow Eyes. Skarstad’s screams are a shock to the system, unnerving due to their extreme juxtaposition. It provides the record with its climax, a moment of pure catharsis where everything that has been bubbling to the surface finally boils over. The piece highlights one of Gundel’s strengths, his ability to marry disparate sounds to create a truly distinct sonic landscape.
‘Level 1 Mage’ is an unforgettable listening experience due as much to its fluidity as its rigor. The compositions are dense and rich with color, elevating both shadow and light. They are sonic thickets to allow oneself to become hopelessly lost in. The record is an emotional listen, rife with fissures and eruptions. To listen to this album is to engage with a potent alchemy, and Gundel, the alchemist, is clearly no novice.
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