Kelly Kirwan

TOPAZ crafts a lo-fi, island style of electronica that wafts through the room in subtle waves. In his new EP Phrases, the Chicago-based producer (Zack Johnson) sparks daydreams of warmer weather with predominantly mellow synths, muted beats, and sparse but soothing vocals. It’s not the kind of EP that relies on frills or begs for your attention—rather, Phrases is a go-to for creating a calm ambiance, the sort of meditative music that drifts between your conscious and unconscious mind. You’ll find yourself singing along to lyrics you hadn't realized you learned yet, because while TOPAZ may be subtle, it’s still tenacious.

Of the album’s six tracks, "Outside" is a particular gem (rest easy, that was the first and last pun we'll be indulging today). It has that Pacific-island feel, with ukulele-esque strumming punctuated by warbled, wah-wah beats and Johnson’ soft vocals promising airily, “I’ll never go outside again.” The song builds to a fuzzy, echoing apex, and then segues almost immediately into the album’s final track. It’s a quick, two-minute ditty, but one that's imbued with a sense of loneliness that piques your interest. It gives what would otherwise be a sweet, simple melody a touch of character.

Its foil, then, would be "Singa," the seven-minute cut that leans most towards the "contemporary electronic music" category—if we had to pick. Its first few seconds are dominated by the word “singa” filtered through various digital distortions, chanted over Johnson’s soulful and under-enunciated singing. It’s a track that I kept returning to, trying to get a handle on its free-form structure and intersecting sonic styles. It’s an auditory odyssey that blends bass, acoustic-sounding guitar accents, and various other elements for the discerning ear. Needless to say, for its lengthy running time, it doesn’t get stale. 

Then there’s "Take After You," a jazzy, reverb-lined number, whose percussive backbone is tinged with hi hats and a clapping rhythm. The half-thought “I don’t know why...” is repeated throughout, in that signature dreamy delivery, with Johnson occasionally filling in the ellipses: “I don’t know why / I don’t know why I try / I take after you."

While Phrases may operate on a low-key frequency, it certainly doesn't sacrifice intricacy. Johnson’s beats are tightly woven, and while each of the album’s six tracks are nuanced and unique, they coexist so cohesively beside one another that you don’t actively register where one ends and the other begins. Instead, you slip into a quasi-Caribbean-inspired fugue state, absorbing the music without being accosted by it. 

And, at the end of the day, who wants something obvious? TOPAZ knows how to play coy, pulling you in with slow-burning synths and (I like to think) a wink. With Phrases, he certainly seems to have demonstrated the virtues of the "slow and steady" ethos.