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Charlesthefirst’s ‘The Ascent’ is a stroke of experimental genius [Album Review]

Charlesthefirst has been one name that’s on the lips of many in the left field bass world. For good reason too. During his opening sets for Bassnectar‘s Freestyle Sessions, CloZee‘s Evasion Tour, and Shpongle’s Bicycle Day, the Lake Tahoe-native has been captivating every crowd he’s come into contact with. He’s appeared on line-ups for Lightning in a Bottle, Oregon Eclipse, Shambhala, and The Untz, and is already slated for massive events like Electric Forest, Envision, and more to come in 2019.

It’s safe to say Charlesthefirst has garnered wide spread attention at this point.

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With several EPs out now, and a double album release in 2016 with Roots and Running Through The Forest, Charlesthefirst is no stranger to releasing with oddity. No hype, no teasers, no press releases. Just pure music. Such is the joy of being an independent artist, which comes with certain afforded freedoms to act truly left field and off-the-radar. He’s under no peer pressure to conform to a certain artist collective’s sound stamp, nor any contractual obligation from music executives to create compositions that appeal to the broader mainstream. It’s the luxury of acting as a supremely autonomous artist.

Though how does one describe the artistry of Charlesthefirst?

Well it isn’t easy, although many would ascribe his sound to breakbeat with lots of low end bass or tribal bass with touches of hip-hop. The fact that it’s so difficult to pin down his growing catalogue is precisely why Charlesthefirst is doing everything exactly right.

Simply put, it’s Charlesthefirst music —

— at times, downtrodden and deeply somber, at others ascendent and warm. It’s constantly coming full circle. It’s got roots in Tycho‘s ambient oeuvre, but also in Tipper‘s downtempo genius, with touches of CloZee’s tribal-induced bass. At the same time, it’s all very much his own.

One need merely listen to his most recent full length album, The Ascent, which the artist dropped rather enigmatically yesterday with no forewarnings whatsoever. Clocking in at 11 tracks, The Ascent is a burgeoning masterpiece of raw, organic sounds interspersed with progressive electronic elements. Simply put, the album renders its visitors into a catatonic listening state of pure downtempo dreamer’s delight. But at its core, the album is experimental sound design, through and through.

Take the album’s first track, “Crossing The Threshold,” which eases listeners into Charlesthefirst’s world quite fluidly despite the song’s jolty elements. The song begins with mechanistic sound sampling that lends itself over to field-recorded samples of water droplets, birds chirping, the crunching of twigs and leaves. Defiantly gradual builds, calmly engineered atmospheres, and energetic trip-hop sequences dominate the landscape. Oscillating between nature and machine, listener’s are now primed to enter into The Ascent‘s avante garde territory.

Moving into the album’s title track, “The Ascent” marks the beginning of the project’s peak. Fittingly so too since the track appears around the LP’s midpoint. A dominate chord repeats across the track, in a sense pulling and pushing listener back and forth until the song’s final drop. The notes change, mellowing out a bit after the first drop, but the chord structure is still present. Natural elements reemerge: the peck of a woodpecker, the chirping of birds. Although this time, the samples are more synthetic and technological.

After a rather energetic entryway into uptempo nu-skool breaks with “Nightfall,” we’re taken deep into “The Abyss” on track seven. It’s a somber, eerie terrain, though comforting nonetheless, and thus shrouded in mystery. At the song’s midpoint, the tempo begins picking up with layered drum kicks as dark and foreboding sounds waves begin taking over, all building to a rather abrupt halt.

The halted ending is a theme that carries over into the next few tracks, before arriving at the spaciest of the album’s tracks in “See You Again.” It is here where listeners are fully abducted into outer space before being dropped on another planet. Upon returning back down to earth in the glitched-out closing track, “In Pieces,” users finally emerge from the visceral sonic canvas with a sense of wonder and fulfillment.

From its outset with “Crossing The Threshold,” to the smooth bassline drifts of “Breathe,” to the wubby, wobbling low ends of “Won’t Always Be,” each offering on The Ascent pours into the next in service of crafting one larger, more cohesive storyline. That storyline is completely up to the subjective experience of the individual listener. Charlesthefirst provides no answers, no telling one what to think. He simply guides the listener through sound, laying out a meditative landscape for which listeners can feel comfortable getting lost in the mind to ultimately come back into the body.

In fact, if we hadn’t already garnered our year-in-music short lists, Charlesthefirst’s The Ascent would have definitively graced Conscious Electronic’s Top 10 Albums of 2018

Charlesthefirst is also heading out on the road for an album-accompanying tour next year, with support from Of The Trees. The Ascent Tour kicks off in late February and runs through early March. Tickets are available on his website now.