Lawrence English’s Approach is designed to work on two levels. First, its fourteen songs serve as a sort of personal marker or tribute to memory, and specifically, memories of English’s difficult adolescence. Or as he puts it, a “sonic postcard retrospectively drafted for that very unsteady and volatile version of myself.” But you’d be mistaken if you think that Approach is suffused with dreamy, nostalgic tones à la Epic45, July Skies, and other “nostalgist” acts.
And second, Approach is intended as an imaginary soundtrack to Yoshihisa Tagami’s Grey, a dystopic manga released in the mid ’80s and one of the first manga titles to be published in the West. Knowing that Approach was inspired by an ’80s manga might incline you to think that it owes a debt to city pop’s ultra-polished style. After all, Gorō Ōmi’s soundtrack for Grey’s anime adaptation — 1986’s Grey: Digital Target — has plenty of funky synths and soulful vocals. But again, you’d be mistaken.
Rather, Approach is characterized by atmospherics that wouldn’t sound at all out of place alongside Desiderii Marginis, Raison d’être, and Deaf Center. Which is to say, its songs are barren, ominous, and foreboding, and unrelentingly so (all good things in this case).
Rather than try to capture some ’80s zeitgeist à la vaporwave and future funk (both of which are heavily indebted to ’80s Japanese pop culture), Approach hews closer to the spirit of Tagami’s grim manga. The resulting songs convey the desperation, exhaustion, and terror that would almost certainly characterize a world like Grey’s, a world in which humanity’s remnants eke out a hardscrabble existence in a post-apocalyptic wasteland and battle each other in a never-ending war in hopes of gaining citizenship in a rumored paradise. (And if you’ve read the manga yourself, you know that Grey’s storyline gets even grimmer than that.)
There are moments of light and beauty — or perhaps more accurately, respite and relief — sprinkled throughout Approach, particularly if you’re listening via headphones (e.g., the haunting tones that drift through the background of “Approach VIII: Becoming Halfling” like echoes from an unseen utopia). But they’re few and far between. The overarching mood is one of desolation, but to English’s credit, it’s never staid or boring. He knows how to use dynamics to create an air of tension, to make his drones and atmospherics taut and suspenseful — and dare I say it, even majestic at times in their funereal-ness (e.g., “Approach I: Grey Death,” “Approach VII: Nagoshi”).
Put simply, English’s compositions are never less than evocative and compelling. And even if you’re completely unfamiliar with Yoshihisa Tagami’s manga, Approach remains an album of dark, drone-y ambience par excellence.