John Tejada – Signs Under Test

 John Tejada‘s latest album-length is an emotional, introspective volume, full of wonderful ideas and polished material. The album as a whole takes on a techy-progressive vibe, but replaces the often serious shades found in deep and minimal with something less reticent, and more telling. His partnership with Kompakt has yielded two other albums that communicate in a similar language, though ‘Signs Under Test’ is perhaps his most coherent of the three. The prolific L.A-based producer is certainly familiar with the album format, having now written twelve of them. This sort of experience is subtly imbued in Tejada’s sophisticated sound and his aptitude for narrative.

‘Two 0 One’ goes straight in with its tender melody and sentimental ambience. The track sets the tone for the rest of the album: ultimately warm and benevolent; and it is arguably the strongest track on the album. The arrival of the off-beat clang brings the track’s pulse to the fore, as the opening motif returns with its yearning. The album’s opening is overall a positive one, though the emotive melody suggests a kind of sad retrospection, one that speaks of loss and pain – this seems to be explored further in the next track, ‘Y 0 Why’.

‘Y 0 Why’ takes us further inside, though markedly darker, with a quietly menacing bass-line and frenetic synth textures above. Tejada goes on a breaks tip here, the syncopated kick and rippling hats providing the back-bone to what is quite a complex mix. The leading synth line jitters out questioningly, very much alone and despairing. Indeed, the simplified title asks “why, oh why?”.

‘Beacht’ is characterised by its catchy chord progression and the emergence of the horn line during the reprise. More resolute than the previous track, ‘Beacht’s ballad-like style sees Tejada move away from his typical routine to produce something that artfully encapsulates the ‘Kompakt’ sound. The track takes on elements of the anthemic vernacular of peers such as Stephan Bodzin and Oliver Huntemann – and particularly Bodzin’s ability for sputtering glitch-type timbres in fact permeates most of Tejada’s textural work here (‘Liebe Ist’ comes to mind).

Yet what makes this album different is its readiness to cater for private listening, away from the specific technical and emotional needs of the dance-floor. Having said this many of the tracks still follow the same structural formula, with the familiar break downs and repeated exposition.

‘R.U.R’ draws the energy downwards, guiding us through something a little less dramatic. It takes on the form of a more conventional minimal-tech track – conservative melodic material accompanied by tight drums and percussion. The panned interjections that bring the track in are just a momentary exposure of Tejada’s thoughtful sound programming; this is a prominent feature of his work, yet it manages to mix in effortlessly without sounding gimmicky or unnecessarily contrived.

What makes ‘R.U.R’ work so well is the counterpoint between the various synth voices, amalgamated by the simple bass-line. The twinkling background melodies and the plodding bass-line illustrate Tejada’s subtle flirtation with acid on this LP, where ‘Vaalbara’ is probably another track where this is most applicable. Listening back, the tone of this one is reminiscent of acid label Absurd (also based in L.A), with its focus on analogue sound; one wonders whether Tejada might ever release on the label in the future.

By the fifth track in you realise that the album is actually pretty stylistically diverse – despite working so coherently. ‘Vaalbara’ trundles forward with a strange, blissful ignorance. The wayfaring synth lead brings to mind the work of Orbital (specifically ‘Where is it Going?’), and slots this track firmly under a 90s mantle.

Similarly ‘Cryptochrome’ continues in this trajectory, syncopated counter melodies and the 808 styled arrangement really bring out this retrospective sound, while Tejada’s own creative touch makes this music sound fresh and current. But perhaps this is Tejada saying something. The album seems to take on a Janus-faced perspective on past and future; while coming to terms with existential problems like ‘time’ and ‘change’, uplifting numbers such as ‘Rubric’ and to some degree ‘Two 0 One’ douses the album with comfort and optimism.    

‘Rubric’s opening drum beat dispels the subsiding ambience of ‘Cryptochrome’ to make way for something equally contemplative. As soon as the beat is established Tejada brings in familiar sonic colours, and eventually an accompanying bass-line. The break-beat feel of ‘Beacht’ is revived here with the irregular kick and off-beat percussion. The majority of Tejada’s melodic material is wonderfully addictive, and this is a quality that really gives the album its appeal. Moreover, tracks like ‘Two 0 One’, ‘Cryptochrome’ and ‘Rubric’ will no doubt soundtrack the sunrise of many festivals this Summer.

‘Penumbra’s vintage techno syntax will be a favourite for those who are fans of old-school electronica. The dissonant chord stabs alternate in a call-and-answer fashion while yet more intricate hi-hat work provides an energy that help make this one more danceable.

‘Endorphins’ teases dance-floor functionality, yet drops back into a more breaks-oriented groove. Again, catchy chord progressions and an acid palette make this great to jam out to. While ‘Endorphins’ only makes it half-way to the dance-floor, ‘Meadow’s use of the off-beat hat and insistent bass-line solidifies the 4×4 feel; albeit utterances of contemplative synth material keep this one deep and mellow. As the penultimate track on the album, its outro prepares us for the down-beat ambience of the final track.   

‘Heave In Sight’ concludes the album wonderfully. It feels as if we have arrived at some sort of consolation; a contemplative melody hops across glistening textures and a stripped back break-beat, very much peripheral to the lush sonic features found in the retrograded piano responses.

‘Signs Under Test’ draws on a focussed timbral palette that links all eleven tracks into something communicative and transparent, weaving together several different stylistic elements to deliver a work that is original and meaningful. This is unmistakably Tejada – quirky sonic arrangements and intricate sound programming make his style instantly recognisable. In an increasingly saturated field, creative autonomy remains an elusive quality, yet it seems that Tejada has clearly retained this during his productive tenure at Kompakt.