Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
Keith Rankin started Orange Milk Records with his friend Seth Graham at the end of 2010, with an aim to document the underground scene emerging across America at the time. "We had been aware of a harsh noise phenomenon, particularly in Ohio where we had been living," Rankin explains over email, "But that was evolving into something else. People were fetishizing synths and '70s German electronic music and experimenting with more free composition. I think we wanted to be a part of that evolution at that moment, whatever it was to become."
That movement made often wild and unprecitable transitions in style as it progressed over the years, and Orange Milk became a hub to capture some the divergent paths that individual artists connected to the scene were taking. There's no set sound to the label – you can have a lo-fi pop record by Jerry Paper released alongside Larry Wish's epic prog or EQ Why's hyperactive juke – but one thing that does bind all of Orange Milk's releases together is their striking artwork, created by Rankin himself. His collages and digital art are busy images, often depicting the familiar – sometimes even mundane – in surreal, dreamlike, and fantastical surroundings.
Rankin uses a basic setup – a laptop, a copy of Photoshop, the internet, "and sometimes a pen, paper and scanner" – to create his artwork, although despite these simple tools he admits that even a quick piece of artwork for the label can take "many, many hours" of his time. Rankin has several folders on his computer filled with images that he uses as inspiration. Culled from different online sources – Tumblr, Flickr, simple Google image searches – Rankin is attracted to those images that instantly align with, or challenge, his artistic values.
"Something occurred to me when I came across some early Picasso charcoal drawings I had saved, and the next image in my folder was a vaguely abstract screen shot from a '90s video game," Rankin explains, "Comparing those two images, I realized that my sense of scale had been practically erased, and the only spatial confine of the art was the frame of the computer screen. On the net, the Mona Lisa is presented on the same platform and scale as an animated GIF, a massive Matisse mural, or floating web browser window. When I see an old painting, I usually have no clue how large it is in person. In a sense, not only has scale been lost, but so have many spatial relationships themselves – and not just in viewing art, but in the creation as well."
"We're relating to art less and less through a horizon line, and more through an endless digital window," he continues, "I think most digital artists have been set free from the horizon line, and their blank canvas is that window, or a potentially endless void. That thought can be both liberating and terrifying, depending on your perspective."
As well as creating the artwork for all of Orange Milk's releases – and for releases on other online underground labels – Rankin also makes music himself on the label. Besides working with Orange Milk co-founder Seth Graham as Cream Juice, Rankin has released multiple albums as Giant Claw. His most recent, 'Dark Web', came out last week. For its artwork, Rankin worked with his partner, painter Ellen Thomas, using a mixture of Rankin's computer mediums and Thomas's oil paint to create something "that functions on several realities at once".
"People seem to view it through the URL lens, the IRL lens, or both at once," he says, "For those plugged into underground music blogs or sites like 4chan, the Roman statue imagery is a blatant nod to the Vaporwave movement, which appropriated those statues as a luxury symbol in modern culture. But the piece also functions as a meticulous oil painting, as a nod to early surrealist work, or even before that, a Romantic painting style far removed from the uncanny valley and CG fetishization. But what I found interesting was the massive cultural divide between the two realities represented in the cover. It makes me wonder how many works of art are out there that I think I'm interpreting fully, but am really missing an entire half of the picture, if not more."
'Dark Web' explores the idea that modes of composition can exist beyond the realms of melody, harmony, and rhythm. "I wanted to use the encoding of cultural data as a means of extra-musical composition, a technique that I hoped might enhance the more visceral emotive aspects of the music," Rankin says, "So I started by using highly edited samples from different genres and time periods. Obviously a lot of pop and R&B vocals are there, as well as '90s video game sounds, and loose – but hopefully identifiable – styles of classical composition. All these cultural ingredients were then arranged together in a meticulous way, so that the original cultural time-stamp of the samples remained, while also functioning in a traditional musical sense. Then on top of that, I added other layers of original musical phrases with varying sound palettes, so the perception of those original parts interacted closely with the samples."
"A lot of response to the record so far have discarded the conceptual aspects in favor of the purely musical ones, which I think is perfectly fine and justifiable – that musical reality is a deep part of the work and is by far the easiest entry point into it," Rankin says, "But the more I think about it, the more I realize that the album is dedicated to online music freaks, for lack of a better term. Those who are pre-disposed to rapid cultural assimilation, and who should be able to decode the album pretty rapidly."
Orange Milk/Noumenal Loom released 'Dark Web' on September 30th 2014 (buy).