I started covering 10th Letter in the early days of Immersive, back when Jeremi Johnson’s ability to explore the organic and spiritual world through decidedly technical means was a revelation in the Atlanta music scene. Since then, the eclectic producer’s discography has doubled, and his methodology has broadened even as his aim has crystallized. His new album, Prism Scale, covers familiar sonic territory while transporting listeners to new psychedelic destinations.
Like many of Johnson’s recordings, this album is part of a story. In this case, it is the tale of a mysterious giant glass shard known as the Prism Scale. According to the LP’s Bandcamp description, what appeared to be part of a ruin turned out to be something far greater, “a tool used by ancestral spirits that have sworn to look after and protect their living predecessors.” He explains further: “The main purpose of the Prism Scale is to determine what living species will advance high enough in their astral abilities before the ancestors can begin to make direct contact with them and pass on wisdom that will make the recipient species the most powerful beings in the galaxy.” Rather than using Prism Scale to communicate this ancient fable, Johnson weaves the story into the fabric of the record. Each track draws the listener in towards the prism, making the listener part of the plot rather than simply adding information to the narrative.
The cinematic nature of 10th Letter’s music has gradually intensified over past few years, a fact inextricably related to his continued work on soundtracks and imaginary films, but one which has benefitted his work, especially in regards to the overarching narrative of his albums. The complexity of the songwriting, especially when it comes to rhythm and arrangement, can be daunting, but his ever-growing theatrical approach to composition and album design makes it easier to embrace the density of his music without being overwhelmed.
With titles like “Phase Velocity” and “Photoelectric Effect,” one might assume that this is 10th Letter’s most technology-obsessed release yet, but in many ways it is less robotic than previous releases. Most of the album revolves around downtempo backbeats, but occasionally it breaks orbit and ascends beyond the haze towards more sunny passages which thrum with ecstatic and revelatory fervor. Unlike most 10th Letter records, which reside in the balance between mind and spirit, there’s a refined sensuality to Prism Scale, and I’m not just saying that because of the saxophone melodies which pop up throughout the record. This is Johnson and crew at their most relaxed, feeding off one another’s creative energy in the form of cascading keys, gentle guitars, and shimmering soundscapes. Prism Scale is notably less frantic than his 2015 LP Portals & Compasses or his 2016 opus, The Revenge. Still, the underlying complexity is somehow more visible, in part because of the openness of the record. The mood shifts throughout the ten tracks are often tied into transitions between synthesizer bits and more traditional instruments, confounding any supposition that Prism Scale could devolve into a mundane, predictable record.
Prism Scale is 10th Letter’s third album of 2017, yet nothing here feels like an outtake. The record is reflective of Johnson as a visionary and as a collaborator. Even more so than his previous work, this LP feels like a living, breathing thing. Art like this is never unfinished or partial, yet it is always in a state of flux. Listen in the morning and it will sound different than in the evening. Listen tomorrow and it will sound different than yesterday. Listen in 20 years and just maybe you will find yourself closer to the power of the prism than ever before.
10th letter will celebrate the release of Prism Scale tomorrow night at 529 with the 10th Letter Ensemble, Divine Interface (EP Release), apt cmplx (Pamela_and her sons DJ set), and Fit of Body. Doors open at 9 p.m. Donations encouraged. 21+ to enter.