REVIEW: Tai Upgrade Rotan – Imaginarium (Instrumental)

Atlanta’s own Jack-of-all-trades Tai “Upgrade” Rotan released an instrumental album in August. This one is called Imaginarium and provides the listener a glimpse into Tai’s psyche, at least for a little while. Fitting together electronica, hip-hop, downtempo, and dance like a perfectly tailored hounds tooth jacket, Tai (the human entity behind sonicUPGRADE) weaves together a musical sojourn from the dark into the light.

Imaginarium begins with “Acidic Initiation,” an ominous trip through electro-world, clinging to the spoiler of a futuristic speeding car. The track progresses like a slithering snake, slightly unsettling but at the same time endowed with a beauty akin to variegated scales (see what I did there?). This track oozes exhilarated desperation, like losing at a video game, but with a bad ass character. “Unexpected Journey” is a shift into something more comfortable from the previous track, and a rhythmic initiation into the genius of what is yet to come.

“Black Lasers” is heavy on the bass, with rhythms mixed in like the words “emu” and “oleo” in the Friday’s Times crossword. This song would best be appreciated in an outfit that looked good under a black light. It’s too cool for even the strobe. All of a sudden, just as I’m considering whitening my teeth, “Black Lasers” smooths out and takes a turn for the sweet, like when your mind switches into slow-mo mindful mode during a night of dancing. As the drums kick in and kick up, “Black Lasers” drives away, on to the next party!

With a respectfully slow beat and echoes of the past and presentiments of the future, horns crash  behind the solid beat, bringing a warmth to the song like British booksellers bringing the concept of hygge to the masses. “Vintage Hip Hop” has the heavy bass that made being a sixteen-year-old with a driver’s license so much fun, but this time, in a mature context that understands the danger of sensorineural hearing loss and the annoyance of a blown-out speaker… In a way, I suppose they are the same thing.

Slower and smoother – like switching from 300 to 400 grit sandpaper – “Oui: The Wisdom and the Wonder” begins with piano overlaid by floating feminine vocals. Then things go electric. The piano melody cowers in the presence of such heavy bass – like the footsteps of giants – that is both scanty and sumptuous. That sound disappears into an uptempo version similar to what came before, but levitating. (I wonder how Tai rigs his equipment up off the floor like that.) The beat is sick, and then it is gone. As “Oui” fades into “Echoes in the Abyss,” it makes me wish I had another word for ethereal (if I said something else was ethereal in the past, I take it back; this is ethereal.) Tones rising and falling, staggered, like runners in the 800m dash. The beat floats just out of reach, coming back momentarily, like a well-controlled kite in challenging wind.

“Sirens in Space” features light, metallic vocals that could lure even the most suspicious astronaut from the safety and security of his vacuum-packed metal canister. Perhaps these are the Sirens of Titan. Or perhaps Tai is a present-day Malachi Constant… But maybe we’re getting ahead of things. The album eases away from the lightness of “Sirens in Space” with “International Cloud Watchers Society,” a track that begins laidback before picking up the pace into an orange and blue tracksuit number. Something that one of Mr. Rogers’s visitors might have worn, and just as fresh as the day it first say the neighborhood. As the song ended, I laced up my high tops and set out to see how I could get a membership with the ICWS.sonicupgrade-imaginarium

“Harriet Tubman” begins with a stern piano, organic drums, and a hint of danger. A bolt of electricity hits and the beat drops. The track rolls along with the ominous flavor served up at the beginning of the album, but there’s something in that synth, something that hints at the value of persistence, just how worthwhile it is to never giving up. “Chain Gang” features distorted vocals alongside bass that makes me drool. The distortion in the vocals lends them open to interpretation; at times, they sound full of youth and mirth, like children playing; other times, they sound weighted with experience and an interminable wisdom like Native spiritual vocals.

A wide open piano intro bolsters “Freedom,” a journey through a green meadow. There is something really pleasant about this track… it’s the taste when you suck on red clover. It’s the feeling of sun on your face. It’s the sound of music after seeing the news. It is a pleasant ending to another great album by sonicUpgrade.

Imaginarium is a solid follow-up to Stratosphere. If you’re a fan of the synthetic, or even certain strains of the natural, this album will make a good addition to your Music Library.

Gwendolyn Lewis Written by: