Marbles. Matriarch. Overstayer. To the uninitiated, they might sound like cryptocurrencies, or maybe Triple Crown contenders – names you’d hear once or twice before they drift to the back of your consciousness.
They’re actually components of the modular synthesizer rig that Richmond-based recording engineer and producer Adrian Olsen has been using to release weekly electronic compositions under the banner of syndays by ao.
Certain aspects of the series give this self-described “incidental music” the feel of a personal regimen being shared publicly. New entries arrive each Sunday, and the art for each week’s release provides a keyhole view of the equipment Olsen uses. A single treble dial graces the cover of Week 8’s track, “overstayer.” Olsen’s Pulsar 23 drum machine appears on Week 11’s. Viewed together, they form a mosaic of keyboards, lights, and colorful patch cables – an artful glimpse of the unique and complex machine Olsen wields. And by extension, of the person who wields it.
A modular synth allows for tremendous control over sound. Basic components like tone, volume and wave shape can be manipulated in countless ways, and the more components you link together, the more you can customize. You can even engineer randomness; that’s what the aforementioned Marbles sampler is designed to do. It’s a fascinating intersection of control and chaos, and true to form, the syndays by ao series is anything but predictable.
The compositions range from dark to light, from driving to contemplative – sometimes within a single track. Most entries in the series clock in between 10 and 20 minutes, providing plenty of time for evolution and resolution. Tracks are regularly improvised, and some are even listed as unedited. It’s as if Olsen is conducting an orchestra while continuously encouraging its players to determine the direction of the piece. It’s a thrill knowing your first listen is so similar to the journey Olsen took while creating it.
In that sense, the syndays series offers a rare and generous glimpse into Olsen’s musical mind. He’s an experienced performer; his discography includes a successful run as part of rock band Avers that ended with the excellent 2016 album “Omega/Whatever.” And while his contributions to Richmond’s music community have only grown, his own voice has become necessarily harder to hear given the behind-the-scenes roles he plays behind the console at his Montrose Recording studio.
Albums by Natalie Prass, Dan Croll, Matthew E. White and McKinley Dixon have all benefited from his expertise, whether he was serving as recording engineer, mixing engineer, producer or all three. (The McKinley Dixon album he mixed, “For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her,” won the 2022 Newlin Prize which names the best full-length album from the Richmond-Petersburg area.) And while Olsen’s name in production credits is always a sign of good things to come, seeing his initials back in the artist’s spot is a welcome sight.
The liner notes list when each track was recorded, starting with the New Year’s Eve 2021 creation of Week 1’s track, “Teenager.” Most were captured close to the time of their release. And while getting into a routine can often mean things are going smoothly, Olsen has been documenting the challenges he’s faced.
“Yesterday left the synth uninspired,” he writes in the liner notes for Week 10’s track, “Sea Diving.” “Turned it on this morning and everything was slow and simple - lesson learned,” he continues, “but it’s hard to keep things simple sometimes.”
The simple moments in the series are rewarding. There are weeks where Olsen operates closer to the ambient side of electronic music. “Drone for DF” delights in that type of gradual change, building slowly and peaking in moments that resemble bright, ecstatic realization. Other weeks have struck a more kinetic tone. True to its name, “Bouncer” is built with buoyant, pulsing tones that seem to be meeting and greeting one another before zooming out of frame, and parts of “Strollin’” wouldn’t be out of place drifting over a dance floor.
“Drip Drop,” released Feb. 27, splits the difference. One of the series’ finest compositions, it loops a wistful, two-part melodic phrase over gentle and subtly shape-shifting percussion. The song calls to mind William Basinski’s hour-plus-long "Dlp 1.1," from “The Disintegration Loops,” in how repetition allows the melody to gradually accrue emotional weight until it feels like it could burst at the seams.
Whether you’re listening with your whole heart or barely listening at all – letting the music find a place in your subconscious while you go about your day – there’s something for everyone. One other constant in the series is that each track comes with activity pairings. Week 10’s track, “Sea Diving,” is ideal for “breathing, slow mornings, meditation, focus, painting, or just slowing down in general,” Olsen suggests. The seventh track in the series, “Pop n Bop,” is a go-to if you’re metal detecting.
- Adrian Olsen
As great as this music can be for that type of passive listening, where you lose yourself in focus and forget you have earbuds in, the series is anything but forgettable. With its regular release schedule and consistent quality, syndays by ao belongs at the forefront of any list of the most compelling music to come out of Richmond in 2022 thus far.
To hear the syndays by ao series, visit syndays.bandcamp.com. New tracks are released each Sunday.