Review: Arjun Vagale’s Reflective Journey Into Outer Space On ‘Exit Fragments’
3 November 2021
Arjun Vagale is no stranger to establishing firsts for India’s techno community. Previously as part of the group Jalebee Cartel and constantly as a solo artist, the New Delhi talent has been part of getting the country’s electronica scene recognition on the global dance music map – marking first appearances by an Indian act on renowned stages and receiving support on releases by some of the most revered voices of the genre. Therefore, when the news broke that his first LP as a solo artist will be dropping via techno pioneer Jeff Mills’ Axis Records, one of the genre’s premiere labels, it came not only as a befitting milestone for the Indian frontrunner but also for the country’s dance music community.
In turn, Vagale’s album ‘Exit Fragments’ serves more like an accumulation of his musical voice’s decades-worth development than an expansion of it. He sifts through experimentations done under his own name or as his moniker Asymetrik to connect to the root of his musicality, economically whittling down to only the elements that work for both the dancefloor and a conceptual album.
“This one was an experiment in minimalism (not the genre, but the process of less is more)”, Vagale tells us while recounting creating most of the album within a month during one of the waves of creativity that punctuated his introspective COVID-19 lockdowns. The resulting 10 tracks fall primarily in the minimal techno bracket, a style quite synonymous with Mills himself. But Vagale doesn’t spend his time reminiscing of the past even when he sticks to the more puristical idioms of the genre.
Beyond the seasoned dynamism of the drum parts that drive the ebb and flow of the energy, there is a defining hint of adventurism to the music which is aware of the demands it can make on the modern listener of the style. More observable in the latter half of the LP, the overlying repeated arpeggios and motifs slip in and out of the underlying groove to go against it and modify it in the process – syncopating against each other and other times lining up to let the focus of an active listener shift to the interplay of peripheral noises on tracks like ‘Stigmata’ and ‘SCaN’.
The latter also serves as the best moment to showcase the album’s ability to go beyond its purpose on the dancefloor, highlighting the emotionality of its harmonic and melodic content. The whirring arpeggio of the track creates discomforting anticipation, turning maddening with its unceasingness before the resolution of the rhythm section makes a meditative home out of the very motif.
Besides ‘SCaN’, the ominous grandiosity of opener ‘First Contact’, the majestic reflection of the closing title track and the change of tone that comes with the invigorating modular interplay on the standout number ‘Rene’, combine with the album and track titles to make the concept of a cosmic journey more overt. “I'm a huge Sci-Fi buff and spend a lot of time watching obscure documentaries on Youtube. I also actively follow what's going on in the world of space exploration, and do a fair amount of research – just for my curiosity,” explains Vagale. He pins the intense wave of creativity that produced the album as the force that transformed his interest into an underlying connecting concept, providing the thread that connected the tracks into an album for the first time in his solo career.
Arjun Vagale performing as AsymetriK || Credits: MK Chaitanya
The release’s liner notes detail its attempts to ponder upon the questions around the recently declassified “outerspace type music” heard during the early Apollo missions from the far side of the moon, its similarity to basic synthesizers, and the anticipated eventual breakthrough of space exploration.
“There is a special universal understanding and language between Techno Music and Space Science. It’s one that has been permeating for almost 40 years now,” explains Jeff Mills himself, whose own work – as a producer, as the label-head of Axis Records and as the editor of its webzine The Escape Velocity – has regularly connected music to concepts beyond Earth, while underlining how Vagale’s work fitted the label’s vision. “That all those bleeps and vernacular ways of designating voices are to mean something more than just a musical note or a chord. In my opinion, these are answers to questions that haven’t been asked yet,” adds Mills. “When I first heard Arjun’s album, I immediately recognized this language through the way he treated sound as a conduit, not as a product. The product is what you imagine and rationalize in your mind. What Arjun did was reverse engineer a complex theory for us to understand and enjoy.”
While the literal details of the concept can’t be obtained from just the abstract music itself, Vagale’s referral to space science is hard to miss from the sound design. Yet, even while connecting to the genre’s association with sci-fi (which it has maintained almost since its inception) and the simpler tonal choices, Vagale’s vision isn’t retrospective or an exercise in nostalgia, and neither does it fall into the trap of retrofuturism. Instead, it connects more to the timeless or the constant themes associated with exploration and technical advancement. Using the connotations of space travel, he adds a flavour of imposing mystery to a tale of journey, discovery and learning about far-removed knowledge (which is gleaned through the sequence of moods and tracks of the album), providing a common ground for both personal and astronomical narratives.
Consequently, ‘Exit Fragments’ is as much a product of 25 years of working for the dancefloor, as much as it is about being locked down by the COVID-19 pandemic, the same way it can connect the concept of faraway places with introspective journeys. “Most productions are created by one person, alone with their studio and instruments. This might indicate that what we’re hearing in their albums are deep thoughts that are often unspoken or not mentioned in their ordinary lives,” says Mills, demystifying how an album rooted in dance music about extraterrestrial concepts can also double as a personal revelation while explaining how he has found techno works from across the world being influenced by everything from ethnicity and language to even local average temperature and visual surroundings. He continues: “More and more, I learn and understand that this music is not just about me or you, but it’s more about it.”
The full album can be purchased and previewed here.
Words by Amaan Khan
Artwork by Aniruddh Mehta at Studio Bigfat