Music is perhaps the most immaterial form of commercialized, widely consumed art. At times it may be difficult to view a song like we would an illustration or picture, but it is aesthetic composition nevertheless. There is something about a strong, production-focused album that curates and exemplifies the artistry of music better than any other type of project; for a group of songs largely lacking vocals to succeed, an extensive understanding is required of the producer.
Whether minimalist or maximalist, progressive or regressive, a beatmaker must paint a picture without a brush, tell a story with no or very few words. The beatmaker must graduate to the distinction of “artist.” Even more impressive is an instrumental album that, rather than solely consist of a collection of tracks, flows beautifully, creating an interpretable world for the listener to insert his or her own mind into and throughout.
Paul White creates such a world on Watch the Ants, a 10-song EP that quickens your heart one moment and steals your breath away the next. The voyage begins with the introductory title track; a hectic, near-panicked sonic environment in which a plucking synth and an archaic drum pattern act as the song’s driving forces, pushing the beat forward. The instrumental is given a vocalized companion here, though the bewildered chant utilized by White is more another part of the beat than anything else. The voice repeatedly bursts, “Seeking answers to all, everything.”
This explorative mindset shapes the entire project, and the evidence lies in the music that creates such an aura: the songs could collectively serve as a playlist for a traveler of space and time, and this playlist is addicting. Much like the eye-shaped portals placed in the hands that serve as the focal components of the album’s artwork, Watch the Ants is a gateway. While the listener may very well experience some journey, the culmination and combination of futuristic, breathy elements with comparatively tribal backbones brings attention to the reality that the specifics of this odyssey are unknown. Paul White’s mind takes him to the shining stars of the galaxy, yet it also transports him back to a simpler, ancient time. A resultant clash exists because of the seemingly polar differences, but the differences are musically maintained, as if to suggest a balance between the past and what lies ahead.
“Diving Rod” exhibits this entertaining discord through the presence of a single instrument, a lead flute that projects visions of dreamy meandering on an astral plain while conversely conjuring an image of a deep, untapped jungle. One aspect might imply very futuristic and fictional space travel, and the other regression. In either case, however, the theme of exploration, discovery, and travel remain steadfast. Similarly, “Minus” could supply the rhythm for an extraterrestrial, savage dance above the heavens.
Even in all of his production glory, White is not afraid to tap the talents of other artists, and this, too, works in his favor. White’s vocals layering the closing half of “Minus” are nothing less than sonic ecstasy, and the four hip-hip features add much and detract little from the overarching sound and purpose of the album. The features, acting as Watch the Ant’s most blatantly human moments, also embody the present more than any other aspect of the project. Danny Brown’s angered recognition of violence underneath the broken, dim “Street Lights” reverts the portal and carries the listener’s thoughts back to the troubles of the real world.
Nonetheless, soon after actuality is regained, White returns to the lands of the removed past, which, from another perspective, is to say the starlit plains of the unattainable. And he brings us all with him.