Max Cooper explores consciousness, anthropology and more on debut album ‘Human’ [Review]
Max Cooper has been making music for nearly ten years now, yet today marks the release of his debut album Human. The Northern Ireland native has a Ph.D. in Computational Biology, dabbles in 4D music soundscapes, and has a penchant for mind-bending electronica. His brand new 11-track LP is an avant-garde concept album integrating elements of his studies and his one-of-a-kind artistic vision.
Max says of the endeavor: “It’s an attempt to tell a story in music about the human condition, spanning different ideas about how people are formed — different emotional ideas.”
Max began his career as a DJ. Much of his early career as a producer was spent shaping his work around the club aesthetic. Human offered him the chance to break away from the club mold, however, and indulge in his more radical tastes: “The album was always my opportunity to drop the rules. There’s so many rules and boxes you have to tick to make a club track: mixable intro, mixable outro, it needs to be this long, with this time signature. All these boxes you gotta tick — if you want to make music that DJs will play that is. The album was my opportunity to forget about all that and I do what I wanted.”
Having lived with Human for a few weeks now, I can safely say it’s like no other album I’ve reviewed in the past couple years. It’s bold, it’s abstract, it’s eccentric, but most of all, it inspires you to think. It’s more than a complex arrangement of piano chords, synth pads and industrial percussion; it’s intelligent electronica.
Max Cooper takes the idea of a concept album and truly runs with it. Human is a sonic investigation of phenomenology: each song on the album explores a unique aspect of the human experience. “There’s a track called ‘Awakening,’” Max says, “which is about waking up in the morning and the sun shining and coming in. There’s a song called ‘Seething’ which is angry and powerful sounding. There’s a track called ‘Automaton’ which is about how people are machines: how we’re deterministic to some extent but don’t like that fact.” You’d be hard pressed to find another producer investing this kind of philosophical significance into every single track on an album, yet that’s what makes Human so compelling. The extent to which Max has gone to program his songs is truly remarkable.
The journey begins with “Woven Ancestry,” a track with mythic intentions. Max describes the song as “commentary on how people are the product of their ancestry, both in terms of their ideas and their genetics. I represented that musically by taking these ancient instruments and having them playing different melodies and rhythms which then combine to form a coherent whole.” The ultimate effect of Max’s technique is quite brilliant as the strings, reverberating with their natural, semi-dissonant timbre, coalesce into a raw splendor.
Having ushered us into Human by way of this epic approach, Cooper segues into familiar territory with “Adrift.” Featuring vocalist Kathrin deBoer, the album’s lead single serves as one of the more readily relatable cuts on the album due to the combination of deBoer’s jazzy vocals with Cooper’s reserved melancholic approach.
The album then proceeds through “Automaton,” “Supine,” “Seething,” “Numb,” and “Impacts” — five tracks that make up Human’s industrial core. Seeping with variegated percussion and acute distortion, these tracks demonstrate Max’s penchant for glitchy, mechanical sound design. “Supine” and “Numb” are the two most club oriented productions on the album, evoking Max’s reputation for alluring industrial techno.
“Impacts” is easily one of the most experimental tracks on the album, featuring a bombardment of drums and an intentional lack of melody. “It’s an artistic way of representing impacts with literally mechanical impact sounds,” Max says. “This is the impact of life that everyone has to put up with. They’re not necessarily pleasant things, but hopefully you get through them and they make you stronger.”
Max’s explanation underscores a broader theme of the album: the contrast of soothing, harmonious pieces with darker, mechanized compositions. Tracks like “Impacts,” “Seething” and “Potency” are not always pleasant in a traditional melodic sense; they’re designed to capture the complexity of the human experience. “I was going to represent humans in any honest manner,” Max says. “There’s going to be negatives and positives to some extent.”
The final portion of the album is arguably its most beautiful. Following the thunderous “Impacts,” the classical brilliance of “Empyrean” slowly unfolds, absorbing the listener with its delightful strings and twinkling piano work. Next is “Apparitions,” a track as ethereal as its name implies. Deep, enveloping pads bellow like ghastly spirits on what Max told me is his favorite track on the album: “It keeps me interested because it’s a bit unusual,” he says.
Finally, there is “Awakening,” a stunning ambient piece with the elegance and sophistication of an Emerson poem. Glistening with harmonically rich pads and sporadic blips that evoke neurons firing, Cooper perfectly captures the understated magnificence of coming into consciousness.
More than any other album I’ve reviewed in recent time, Human feels like a verified attempt to intertwine the disciplines of music, philosophy, and anthropology. If electronic music had the kind of canon so heavily studied in literature, Human would be a worthy addition, if not for its startling unconventionality, but for its sophisticated and thought-provoking aspirations.