hen it comes to artists who can completely change your preconceptions of what electronic music is, KOAN Sound may do it best. Listening to their new album "Led By Ancient Light" makes me think of a not-too-distant future where former “wooks” are dressed to the nines attending KOAN Sound’s newest A/V experience at the Sydney Opera House or Carnegie Hall. The performance would probably be developing upon a saga of stories that only gives more weight & emotion to the incredibly complex music production. This is beyond the blending of genres, this is the future of music and we are here to witness it.

KOAN Sound has been making music since the early 2000s but their new album “Led By Ancient Light” is a more ambitious project for the British duo consisting of Will Weeks and Jim Bastow. This album is set apart from the rest of their releases because there is an entire sci-fi narrative that is attached to it. They wanted to go beyond the goal of making the coolest-sounding track by creating music with a narrative attached to it. A story.

We wanted the album to be a more narrative experience with a focus on meaningful themes and sounds that are personal to us. We would love to have an orchestra involved, but there's also an intimate aspect of the album which lends itself well to a more stripped-back show. We did however involve a cellist for our Denver show at the Ogden. Narrative definitely makes it easier to carve out an interesting structure of a track. It's easy to be formulaic with dance music with a simple drop/breakdown structure, but expressing a mood shift or a narrative moment can lead to more unexpected and creative directions. - KOAN Sound

Each track of the album comes with a lengthy chapter depicting the stories of Jak & Ryker. These two characters deal with the crippling nihilism of a future world with a dying sun (sound familiar?) In many ways, this sci-fi world could be construed as a future version of our society with people spending every waking moment in a VR metaverse. The journey of these characters represent a newfound human spirit in this technological age and eventually allows them to meet an ancient entity that can save them from their existential fears. 

Tech is moving so fast and it’s easy to get distracted by all this new technology and entertainment. Not that any of that is inherently bad but it can be easy to be sucked into an endless cycle of being “hooked up” to machines for all waking hours of the day, and forgetting to spend some time with real people. We are actually very optimistic and excited about new technology like VR though. It can definitely enhance the human experience instead of replacing it, but it's easy to imagine a future where people live in a 24-hour virtual world because it’s basically how a lot of people live now. - KOAN Sound

If the complexity of the story shocks you, wait till you hear how much thought they put into the music production and visual imagery involved in this project. They put so much work into it that they produced a documentary to show how it was done. One of Weeks & Bastows' goals has been to score a movie and this was their first major attempt. They wanted to base the entire skeleton of the album on the interplay between two instruments, the cello and piano. 

We love the sound of string harmonies and we especially love the sound of the cello; it's warm but has a lot of characteristics which make it great for sound design too, such as the bassy low notes and raspy noise of close up recordings. The cello is such a versatile instrument that we thought it would be perfect for creating all manner of moods and textures. - KOAN Sound

A few early recordings of deep cello sounds and intricate piano melodies would act as a sketch for the future painting that would become "Led By Ancient Light". This album not only touches upon the current trends of EDM but adds a certain tension that is usually paired with cinema. The soft piano instrumentals can suddenly turn into drum & bass drops or a glitchy ambient wonderland of ethereal bass. According to Bastow and Weeks, they’ve gone in the direction of “blending real and synthetic sounds”.

After listening to the album and reading the story, I was very interested in how they were going to present it live in Portland. The night started off with an excellent lineup consisting of Hudson Lee & Frequent, Curra, COPYCATT, and Edit (1/3 Founding Members of The Glitch Mob). The curation of this lineup shows the discerning eye that KOAN Sound has developed over the years (The last time they came to Portland they brought along Resonant Language!).

When Weeks & Bastow took the stage, it was clear that live piano and modular synth rack would be involved with the entire set. The room was dripping in anticipation. This show was truly unlike any other I had attended because the visuals reminded me of the story I read and it felt like more than a concert. At the same moment of being visually reminded of the story, I was also being pulled further into the music with the live instrumentation and “five new tracks to fit between some of the songs.”  

“For the live show, we wanted to keep the narrative aspect of the album so we decided to play the whole album in order, but we wanted to expand on the album by making five new tracks to fit between some of the songs. They gave us a chance to make tracks specifically aimed at making more use of our live setup. The setup involves a modular synth rack on Will’s side and a piano on Jim’s. The modular rack is being used to process cello samples to make live bass pounds with lots of filtering and distortion, and also using cello sounds to create pads and granular effects. One of the goals of the album was to not use synth sounds and just make bass from cello samples so we wanted to carry that into the live show too.” – KOAN Sound

KOAN Sound has truly outdone themselves with this show and they may be coming to your city to play.

Photos by
Pedro Acosta