On his Bandcamp page, Atlanta producer Jeremi Johnson, a.k.a. 10th Letter, describes Portals & Compasses as “an audible voyage that explores the ties between jazz, hip hop, ghetto tech, psych, early electronic music and the glue that binds them.” Although the variety exhibited on the album’s 13 tracks is impressive, the truly astonishing aspect is the intersections between genre, where 10th Letter releases his expert hold and lets the sonic collisions burst out of our world and into the cosmos. Like Sun Ra before him, Johnson’s music is both a spiritual destination and the tome which can guide us there.
On this most recent effort, 10th Letter displays his willingness to continue pushing boundaries, even after seven albums. Like his previous works, Portals & Compasses is a trippy menu of sounds and ideas. Johnson explores each sound individually, observing the interplay, and letting each musical idea have ample room to breathe within the mix.
Unlike some experimental electronica and hip-hop albums, the tracks here don’t run together, but instead each encapsulates a particular sonic idea. None of the songs are interludes or unfinished ideas, but most average a concise four-minute run time. Though it is tempting to assume that more continuity could help the listener better appreciate and decipher 10th Letter’s musical prophecies, the new musical ideas introduced in each track help the album retain a freshness from beginning to end. Despite the multitude of thematic shifts, Johnson deftly unifies the record through his percussive choices. The airy, organic shakers and chimes would sound equally at home in a back porch jam session as in a cosmic temple, giving them a quality which is both intimate and aloof throughout Portals & Compasses.
“Mystic Traveler” sets the tone for the album, as 10th Letter looks over the horizon and sees an endless, multidimensional journey awaiting him. He takes his first step into the great beyond, preaching over an urgent backbeat and languid, reverberating synthesizers. From there he falls into the frenetic void of “Temporal Paradox,” one of the record’s strongest tracks and the first display of the wide variety which awaits the listener. Longtime collaborative partner Saira Raza’s vibraphone is tender and playful, but the drumbeat is crowded with distorted hand claps reminiscent of early Squarepusher, albeit slightly more spacious.
Throughout Portals & Compasses, we find that 10th Letter still writes with the curiosity of a child and the confidence of a sage. He continues to expand his sound without losing the simplicity that has made his production so attractive over his past albums. The concept of cosmic rebirth isn’t a new theme for experimental music, but it is a difficult concept to engage without slipping from the surreal to the nonsensical. It is upon this line which 10th Letter so deftly maneuvers, teasing the audience while challenging our preconceptions of experimental hip-hop.
10th Letter (featuring Saira Raza) will celebrate the release of Portals & Compasses tomorrow night at 529. Supporting him will be Haunted (Phil Jones of Dog Bite) and Skull Buddha (Eric Grantham and Gage Gilmore of deadCAT). Doors open at 9 p.m. Admission is $5.