Rjyan Kidwell grew up in the most rural part of Baltimore County, the northern end, at the edge of Gunpowder State Park, and he attended St. John’s The Evangelist Church in Hydes, MD every Sunday. When he was in middle school, his parents bought one of the new personal computers that department stores began marketing aggressively towards middle-class families that had little use for them, promising higher grades for the kids, organized finances for the parents, a gateway to the nascent world of the internet, and mysterious intimations that “going on-line” would soon change so much more.
Those department store guys weren’t wrong. At the turn of the millenium, Rjyan (now known as Cex) & a group of musicians he met over the internet & joined forces around Kid606’s Tigerbeat6 label and revolutionized America’s relationship to electronic music. Without any publicists (although spins on John Peel’s legendary radio show were certainly a crucial assist) they used the internet in novel new ways (Rjyan’s verbose blog at rjyan.com predated Moby’s similar page, often pointed to as the first of the kind) to spread a gospel that linked laptop-based production and performance to the tradition of DIY punk. Beginning in the summer of 1999, they toured the way punk rock bands had toured--playing raves, record stores, rock venues, basements, coffee shops & everything in between, sleeping on floors and brazenly eschewing the stoic seriousness associated with their European forebearers. Sound techs at clubs were confused, the mash-up was invented, and the once-inescapable cries of “That’s not a real instrument” or “Monkeys can press a button to make computer music” were banished from this realm.
Rjyan’s unhinged approach to live performance earned him opening slots on many high-profile tours (Mogwai, Postal Service, Death Cab for Cutie, Dismemberment Plan, Super Furry Animals), as well as a proper publicist who got Rjyan’s face in Spin, Rolling Stone, most of the other music magazines, and at least one custom car racing rag. Cex, meanwhile, embarked on a wild trans-genre odyssey of a literally dizzying speed. Alone in his laboratory, Rjyan dissected & restitched musical styles, creating nightmare hybrid strains with an elegant sadism like some kind of audio Moreau.
In 2001, his second album for Tigerbeat6 wove emotional guitar shredding into frenetic synth & sampler beatscapes, while the follow-up dropping the following year was all out punchline packed old school party rap. In early 2003, the Temporary Residence label released the acclaimed double-LP BEING RIDDEN, a distinctive blend of introspective atmospherics and ambient lyrics. Before the year was even over the fifth Cex record, MARYLAND MANSIONS, was released on Jade Tree Records. Boom: Goth rap.
Over the following year, Rjyan retooled Cex as a live ensemble which featured musicians from some of his favorite bands. The first taste of the collaborative incarnation came with the KNOW DOUBT EP in 2005. In 2006, after extensive touring with the new line-up, Automation Records released ACTUAL FUCKING. It was a bombastic capsule of hardcore trip-hop, the cyber-tribal style presaged trends of which would eventually become de rigeur in indie rock. Anticipating another soon-to-be-omnipresent trend, that same year Rjyan started a cassette label called Must Finish in order to more quickly and personally release more solo instrumental work, as well as collaborations with other artists-- including a very political (and unfortunately fictional) Girl Talk album, an eerie reflection on media portrayals of the Columbine shooters, an impish exercise in straightforward porno-techno, and fan favorite DANNIBAL, an unforgivingly funky manifesto built out of heavily-manipulated samples from the works of Steely Dan that was later secretly reissued on vinyl.
Cex continued to crisscross formats, labels, and styles with the blinding speed and anarchic unpredictability of a quantum freak. In 2007, Temporary Residence put out SKETCHI, the most full-on ambient Cex album yet. In 2009, Must Finish issued BATAILLE ROYALE, a trippy tribute to Baltimore Club music. The cassettes continued to flow, as well: in 2010, Automation and the Baltimore-based Wtr Clr label released a pair of new Cex tapes that recalled the synth-centric style of his debut while showcasing the wealth of new machine-tweaking skills Rjyan had picked up in the decade since that record’s release. In 2011, Cex returned to Tigerbeat6 once again with TINY CREATURE, an electro-prog powerhouse that weaved together strands of Detroit techno, synthetic jazz and modern classical. A split with Jason Urick on Wtr Clr which won praise for its inventive reinterpretation of dub reggae came out that year, too.
The next year, Rjyan collaborated with writer EB Youle and illustrator Fin Simonetti on PRESUMED DEAD, a story about the final days of legendary explorer Henry Hudson, told through printed booklet and an accompanying double-cassette soundtrack full of vast frozen atmospheres and ambient anthems of isolation. Before the year was through, Tigerbeat6 released the first digital-only Cex release, an EP of original dub techno made on a four-track tape recorder called COBWEB & COLOSSUS. In 2013, Rjyan played with the hissy idiosyncrasies of tape again for his first album under his given name: PROSPERITY, which can only be described as an insidiously poisonous New Age record that washed up in the harbor after having been buried at sea long ago in an attempt to prevent it from destroying the last traces of hope left for the human soul.
Yes, this ridiculous list is too long to read in one sitting and probably begs the question, “Isn’t there a reason I haven’t heard of most of these albums?” The answer is simple: the ascetic lifestyle necessary to maintain such a frenzied prolificness mostly precludes the indulgent kind of self-promotion or commitment to networking with human beings that is usually necessary for buzz. But, as Rjyan said in a 2011 interview with SpliceToday, his purpose as a member of the music community (and human race in general) is “to make the world bigger, to make more things possible, to bring more ideas into play.”
WHICH brings us (yes, finally) to the present. Rjyan has something for you, another something that you’ve never seen before. SHAMANEATER is an album that contains a compressed universe hidden inside metafictional nesting dolls. With twelve tracks of smooth cyberpunk instrumentals and a brisk novella told in the style of a video game walkthrough, Rjyan relates the story of an obscure video game about video game addiction that reveals a terrifying ancient explanation for why digital technology is so seductive.
It’s Rjyan’s usual MO of demanding careful attention in exchange for a surprisingly satisfying payoff, but with all the stakes raised considerably. The music is a skilled blend of masterful editing and unchained improvisation on an array of obsolete digital synths and drum machines. SHAMANEATER’s soundtrack incorporates elements of classic techno, synthetic metal and lo-fi g-funk without ever being nostalgia-by-numbers (no chiptunes here, in case the phrase “video game” reflexively gives you that impression) or a survey of the latest fashionable microgenres. The story (the first ever told in the style of overlooked literary goldmine GameFAQs.com) builds on years of Rjyan’s highly-praised writing for print magazines like Arthur, Baltimore, and City Paper as well as a list of web publications that might double the length of this one-sheet. Written in an engaging style, no knowledge of or affection for video games past or present is necessary to be sucked into the twisting narrative. SHAMANEATER, as usual for this relentless producer, promises to pay long-term dividends to those who would invest the time to explore its spacious interior.
RIYL: Omar-S, Oneohtrix Point Never, Boards of Canada, Shangaan Electro