The Top Screamer


I am the Top Screamer and I scream so loud that the volume can be felt and makes the boundaries of all things porous and thin. All the men and the women and the children shriek furiously for me to stop but I can’t hear them over how loud and victorious I am all the time. I have screamed so loud before. Really, you just won’t even believe how loud I have screamed before.

~Austin R Ryan

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Mood and Vision and Ma-Te Lin


This Taiwan band is a singer-DJ combo with a penchant for animal rights and a solid range of sounds that can feel floaty and fun as froth on hot chocolate and heavy and lurching as raw wrath. In practical terms Ma-Te Lin bears similarity to Lana Del Ray and Lorde – and they claim as much – but their range of sound contains much more, including Nujabes style grooves, beats made from animal noises, chip tune rhythms that seem to come from video games, and more. At first listen it might seem that Ma-Te Lin is mostly pleasant and airy atmosphere music, but even their pared down songs pour out so many interesting sounds that the songs become so much more than just decently well composed, soft-sounding chillwave electronica that litters the internet. Ma-Te Lin is impressive in a way that many atmospheric electronic acts aren’t because they maintain laidback moods through an entire track while also constantly developing the backbeat, often in radical ways using sounds that are traditionally jarring and arrhythmic – such as dog barks, fuzzy guitars, mewing, harsh beeps, and whirring video game sounds. So many odd sounds weave into the songs that it is hard to separate out and define all of them, yet each one fits so tightly into the composition that they rarely register as an erratic noise that draws away from the beat.

The band’s ultimate chill song, “Manchi” is a great example. Though the song always feels atmospheric, light, and relaxed, there is still an impressive amount of dynamic noises layered over one another. Manchi does not just sit on one sample or sound that is aesthetically pleasant and ride it to the finish line, but it actively constructs and deconstructs rhythms of noise around the main, snappy drum rhythm. The whole thing culminates at around two and half minutes to three minutes in where the song features very low bass thrums, clapping, a smooth synth line, and a sharper, more robotic one. By the end an array of sampled sounds synthesize into an off-kilter rhythm that dies gently and smoothly into an echoing end. Despite a decent amount of layered complexity, the song still feels stripped, simple, and straightforwardly pleasant due to strong guiding vocals and very smart composition and mixing that emphasizes sounds – like the snappy drum rhythm – that keep the listener moored in a very full and sweet mood.

Ma-Te Lin excel at making mood through unorthodox noise and can maintain their unique sound selection over far more than just the happy and chill too. In “My Place” Ma-Te Lin reveals the dark and haunting end of their sonic grin. Instantly the song opens with the low thrum of a stand-up bass given a bit of dirty twang during the mixing. The singer falls into the rhythm with a smokiness that builds a dark little lounge around the light percussion and the twang of stand up bass. Gradually all sorts of dissonance in form of synthesizers that make a sort of wom-wom-wom sound and guitars that squeal and scratch out notes of half-formed solos erupt like spots of magma until the whole lounge of sound melts into itself. The singer gradually becomes more terrifying as her emotions spike and her words echo and lord dark messages over the listener (buhaoyisi is a light way to say sorry in mandarin and pounds furiously in the background as the song climaxes). Dense and rich with different sonic touches, “My Place” is Ma-Te Lin showing that they can do nasty and heavy without tearing apart their style of layer cake electronica.

Where this duo experiments they do sometimes falter as well as they lean too heard on over-saturated rhythms and downright cheesy phrases. Ma-Te Lin sometimes over-saturates their lyrics and rhythm so that some songs can feel overdone and less striking. “Pet Palace” uses a set of crooning baby animal noises that are inventive and bubby but also indistinct compared to their other more energetic and loaded tracks. The chorus similarly is invenetive and bubbly, “Have you heard of the pet palace? / Do you want to find the pet palace? /  Do you know you are in the pet palace?” but it feels a little saccharine, cheesy, and less intriguing than in some other songs. “Hope Popo” similarly leans on an awkward chorus (“we need a hope popo / no more cry oh oh”) that definitely borders on cheesy, but unlike “Pet Palace” it has a snappier and more interesting composition which keeps the song alive as it enters into verses full of layered vocals and varied sounds ranging from dog barks to distorted guitars to the tings of what sound like triangles or light bells. Even in less interesting songs Ma-Te Lin stays creative with their sound and style.

The creativity in Ma-Te Lin seeps out from the music and into their image to make them a monstrously comprehensive artistic force. They have a clear vision and theme, promoting rights of humane treatment for animals and a generally gentler touch with nature; they have a beautiful, colorful and consistent aesthetic that involves a recurring cartoon character ala Gorillaz; they even collaborate with a talented Taiwanese artist (Little Oil) to make gorgeous music videos which fit perfectly to their dreamy sound. All three of these things bleed into each other so that animal noises enter as samples and beats in songs, the cartoon character is animalistic, colorful, and composed of sharp but clean angles that evoke the sound it embodies, and every collaborator aligns well with their spooky and smooth mood. All of this makes Ma-Te Lin visual material match so tremendously with their audio that it is a struggle to pick which of their music videos to showcase over the others. The calm and melancholy Nujabes vibes captured by the paints in “Circus” are as wonderful as the magical and fantastical puppet show in “The Girl in the Magic Shoes” or the serene sweetness in “Manchi.”

Ma-Te Lin may be too corny or too chill for a few people, but if you like a relaxed sound or strong, rich, and thick vocals Ma-Te Lin is worth a listen because Ma-Te Lin is never lazy; the duo does not lean on the vocals to carry everything; the duo does not rest on a nice central beat; the duo does not mistake soft for simple or complex for difficult. For some, the language and culture barrier that a Taiwanese act presents might seem to much to overcome, but when a band has strong enough a creative mindset they can fashion their own language to speak through – that’s exactly what Ma-Te Lin does. Ma-Te Lin bounces between English and Taiwanese, between audio and visual, but through all that they are always speaking and showing their own stern message and dreamy form. Through all the noise they layer around the rich and thick lead vocals, they are always. Oh, and for what it’s worth, their live show looks pretty damn good too.

~Austin R Ryan

The 5 Up and the 5 Down


I am in a new town so I am on new transit. For job training I have to go to up and up to the north end of Minneapolis so I am riding the 5 up and the 5 down. It is early and chilly and dry here. September is ending and everyone is huddled tight and small into jackets. When I left without one I doubled back so I could slink into it too.

The 5 stop is a few blocks down, on an intersection of two large streets. Where I am couchsurfing there are a lot of Somalian stores just on the near corner, and on the far corner where that street ends there is a hip record store called The Electric Fetus; in between all that there is a Wendy’s. About mid-way through the walk there is an overpass that looks through a rusted iron fence at the Minneapolis skyline. The buildings are tall and wide and glassy, mostly new but for some odd eggs like the Foshay. The sky is very wide and very open. The wide and blue of it is caught and pushed out a second time by the reflective skyscrapers so that looking at the cars all pour seamlessly inward feels like slipping into an undertow. It stops me for a minute and I let myself fall in and get washed around in the noise and the scenery.

It strikes me walking down the sidewalk that everyone here is unfamiliar, but it starts to matter less after each new city. At first it seems strange and indecipherable to be in a new brand of hectic city but after a while the elements bleed together. Nothing is so like Beijing or D.C. but nothing is so unlike them either. That feels very refreshing to me – akin to relapsing into a Jones soda or catching up with a friend from a while ago; familiar and unfamiliar. It scares me to imagine rural living because I don’t even have a frame of reference – wholly unfamiliar.

There are only a few people waiting at the same 5 stop as I am and even fewer that I can remember the look and bearing of. It takes a little while for the bus to get there, but it does and the man in front lets me know, friendly and folksy, where to swipe the bus pass I am borrowing. I am not feeling fine and out enough to reflect that energy well.

The first leg of the trip is through the city proper, us going underneath big buildings and near large malls. People really come and go around here. Once we clear into the north that’s when people quit their coming and going for settling and sitting. North Minneapolis has its troubles from what I am told and I believe all that, but in the daytime it does not matter so much. Walking to a specific destination down a big street during the day isn’t asking for trouble or anything else. It is odd to me that people feel keenly otherwise – imagining maybe rioting streets or lawless gang rule – but my worries over rural areas are as irrational – imagining horror movie sequences and serial killers. It is just difficult to get a frame of reference – planted wholly in the familiar.

As we get out of downtown and more towards the near north a woman gets on and starts to talk on the phone with some kind of legal counsel. It becomes clear she is prosecuting a case against someone as she reads out a list of charges in a perfectly flat and casual voice. It is hard not to eavesdrop because of how her casual and informal flow grinds against the seriousness of the various charges. After a while, overhearing her just becomes hearing her and it starts to feel zen to listen to the manifold charges wind out calmly – almost in procedure. I feel less worried; that might be a backwards response. I figure you could read her words backwards or forwards but what you should do was not read them at all and let them just be hers. It was already too late for me, and now it is too late for you too.

When I get off the 5 I actually missed my stop by a bit and pulled the wire before we had even reached a cross street. The bus driver stops right away anyways and I get back headed the right way. Coincidentally the right way has a cool look and a load of interesting stores – including what I think was a gas station painted entirely over with this somewhat abstract mural that my mind grasps more for the colors and swirls than the shapes and substance. I think there might be a Wendy’s up here too – in between everything else.

 

On the way back down the bus is at first empty of any other passengers. I am feeling fine and out enough to squeeze a small conversation from quiet bus driver while we figure out if my transit card has enough money on it. A really trendy and smartly dressed young woman comes on and graciously waits for me to sort myself out. For a while there is barely anyone on the bus but as we near downtown, it gets more crowded. A pretty drunk or just bizarrely enthusiastic and loud man swaggers on board and instantly tries to befriend the quiet bus driver. After a minimal interaction he declares success, screaming, “This is my man! This is my brother!” about the bus driver to the rest of the bus. He eventually saunters over to the middle of the bus and his thoughts spill audibly out – about half the full portion of his head tumbling out in accidental volume spikes. When another man comes on and is taking his time to pay at the front, the (presumably) drunk man offers to cover the charge. The whole bus, he declares, is family. The man paying upfront, maybe not feeling like family or too much like family, refuses the drunk man’s help once, then twice, and then sternly. The drunk man returns to his seat but he still holds on to the family point for a bit.

In what feels like just an instant we get downtown and people pour the bus back up to full. A girl who sounds about high school age sitting behind me. A bit later another man comes onto the bus and makes some kind of loud noise for some reason – I had stopped paying attention. I had stopped paying attention at a bad time because the girl behind me says, “damn son!” so loudly and resolutely and naturally that a good chunk of the bus chuckles; a middle aged woman even giggles herself into tears. She laughs and laughs, gearing up so much that a second wind sweeps over me and the rest of the bus and we all laugh and chuckle and smile again.

“Oh thank you.” She says to the girl, “I needed that.” Afterwards the laughing woman reassures the man too, “we are laughing with you not at you.” Being a good sport about the whole thing, he agrees that it was pretty funny. I still don’t know if it was pretty funny, or if it was even a comedy at all, but it might have been better that way.

A few stops down the line another girl who knew the first one comes in and they both settle quickly into a conversation. The one tells the other how she got the bus to laugh – seeming as surprised by the whole thing as I was – and the other tells the one how she just got done with a fight.

“Well, you look pretty good for just getting out of a fight.”

“Yeah she didn’t even have time to hit me.”

It all feels very nonchalant, but energetic and excited at the brims and edges.

They both sound pretty young, but I don’t really know how young they are. They go on for a bit back and forth about how some neighborhood folk gave the second girl’s pregnant sister some trouble. The first girl notes how that should be out of line while an old woman in a pink overcoat, with thick black sunglasses sits down next to me. She smells faintly like cigarettes in a surprisingly pleasant way and we both make eye contact and smile at each other for a moment. This woman is the stereotypical picture of the urban old woman – covered in fuzzy pink, clutching a cane and a plastic bag, big hat and big glasses that leave only her little grin showing – but I don’t really know how old she is.

Not long after that the drunk man stumbles off the bus angered and with others around him encouraging him to get gone. In a little bit I’ll leave too and so I get up and stand by the exit door. A man gives me a hello so warm that you’d think we knew each other. He thinks we do; he asks if we had talked to each other earlier and I say no, because we haven’t. When we get off he wraps an arm around my shoulders and tells me that he’s a homeless vet named Lorenzo and ask for three dollars for a bite to eat and I say I used up the last of my cash on the bus fare, because I had. His lips knit into a tight and small frown and his arm falls limply off of me. I apologize and wish him good luck before slipping off, away from the bus stop.

Public transit can be one of the most interesting sights in a city but also one of the most dull. The lottery of it is as much part of the city character as anything. Flitting moments of realities far outside of all my self-obsession drift into orbit for a second. It draws me out like a spectacle but it isn’t one. The moments are not mine and so I don’t have to chase them down for completion or explanation or plainly owe them or have them owe me anything at all. The moments apply like a texture on top of the smooth, simple, scheduled rhythm of city transit and blend in with the other sensory memories on top of other buses and subways and characters of other cities until it is all this familiar and unfamiliar thing I feel like I’ve seen and never seen.