Inside Hardvapour, an Aggressive, Wry Rebellion Against Vaporwave
The internet's new microgenre uses ecstatic machine sounds as a punk rejection of millenial ambivalence.
The cover of DJ Vlad's scene-defining compilation Hardvapour.
It's been years now since vaporwave's slowed, looped sound collages started their stretch out toward a hazy horizon. Famous for warping 80s muzak and fuzzy VHS nostalgia into blissed-out assemblages, the short-lived movement, per music critic Adam Harper, sought to "[perform] the next step in techno-capitalism's disturbing and disturbingly logical sequence." As the internet reduced music to an ever-more transient commodity, Harper has argued, music needed a new language for responding to the dizzying, accelerationist pace of its production and consumption online. Flipping the music of the communal shopping center—or virtual shopping center—into a digital form, vaporwave "performed" this next step, stringing out the corporate mood music that played there into a sensuous sheen. It was the sound of music critiquing its own historical situation by virtue of its sheer ambivalence.
Thanks to a number of theoretical trendpieces about its larger critique of capitalism—and most notably those by Harper himself—the genre quickly rose to popularity around the turn of the last decade, inspiring myriad producers to create their own takes on the sample-laden genre. The flickering patchwork construction of albums like Internet Club's Underwater Mirage and Macintosh Plus' infamous Floral Shoppe—along other, equally innovative releases from the producer known as Vektroid—brought the genre to the forefront of internet-bound electronic music circles across the world.
But like most things on the internet, vaporwave was ripe for ridicule and doomed to be misunderstood. Perhaps owing to the its theatrical "refusal to be 'original,'" there was a lack of general consensus as to what "good" vaporwave even sounded like. Online writing often willfully or ignorantly misrepresented the aims of the genre; its Know Your Meme entry summarizes vaporwave as "a satire of corporate and consumerist culture and modern capitalism, specifically as a critique of mainstream EDM," even when nothing in formative releases ever seemed to gesture towards EDM sounds or structures. With media and fans alike unsure what to make of it, vaporwave eventually ate its own tail, and was swiftly declared "dead" by bloggers and commercial media outlets alike.
In the years since, though, vaporwave's offshoots have remained vibrant, including stylistic cousins like future funk, which riffs on the disco-house elements of the genre, and mallsoft, which plays up the "muzak" fixations and suggestions of postmodern space. Subgenres with names like "vaportrap," "vaporgoth," and "vapornoise" have soared to subcultural popularity, only to rapidly twist into new forms that are further removed from the style's original features. This rapid proliferation of subgenres has itself become part of the "vaporwave" punchline, gesturing at the absurdity of the genre itself even as it sees artists using it as a springboard for innovation.
But a strange new iteration of the genre—built around Slavic visual imagery and more aggressive sounds—has recently emerged to rally against vaporwave's soft, sluggish malaise. Sandtimer, an anonymous producer associated with the netlabel Antifur, laid the groundwork for the sound last December with the release of Vaporwave Is Dead, a 38-minute rush of industrial sounds that rattled with a force that felt unprecedented for the genre. On a track called "Welcome to Hardvapour," he layered menacing bass over chords reminiscent of the decades-old acid house and big beat. With its darker blend of racing tempos and heavier synths, hardvapour seemed to channel vaporwave's ethos into something more radical and frankly more "punk," shifting the older genre's bliss into a thick, guttural fury.
Tracks like Berkut '88's "Steel Talon" and DJ Alina's "Bloodline" (from pioneering labels Antifur and Dream Catalogue) roar with a frenzy of hardcore kicks and angular synth stabs that soar with the rush of fervent tempos. Chrononautz' "Coarse Grain Carbide" and Roy Batty's "The Finger" lean in on grating industrial sounds akin to Blawan or maybe Aphex Twin's AFX project, while other tracks, like Biosysthesis' "бездна" or C Money Burns' "Flesh Castle," opt for slower, acid-induced sounds and broken beat production.
These sonics mark a strong shift away from vaporwave's flattened beginnings. Where vaporwave releases like Internet Club's Redefining the Workplace left sounds from their corporate mood music sources practically unaltered, hardvapour returns to the programmed drums and VSTs of early aughts hardstyle and drum 'n' bass. Paired with a dense cocktail of conspicuous Eastern European imagery, hardvapour juggles these once-futurist sounds to point to the rapidity with which the "new" and "forward-thinking" becomes obsolete.
A wink of self-awareness feels necessary in all art-making communities as indebted to internet culture as this, and hardvapour's reliance on sardonic self-reference seems almost without end. Where artists like James Ferraro built vibrant imagery into tracks titles like "Global Lunch" and "Palm Trees, Wi-Fi, and Dream Sushi," hardvapour only offers self-congratulatory insights like "Long Live Hardvapour" or "Welcome to Hardvapour"—either directly referencing the movement itself or obliquely mocking how the sound will be interpreted online (or eventually declared "over") though an endless proliferation bizarre .gifs and nihilistic photos and videos. Where vaporwave imagined a utopian Virtual Plaza, one that took synthetic mall music and stretched it into a new digital world, hardvapour eradicates this optimism into a soupy, nihilistic aggression.
In a 2015 Resident Advisor feature called "The Online Underground: A New Kind of Punk," Harper suggests that "vaporwave is indeed punk in its crude and minimal quality," noting that its "threshold of participation is dramatically lower than punk rock's was—all you need is some very basic sound software (many use Audacity), some decent source material, a few clicks, and you're there." Vaporwave's "punk-ness" lies in its commitment to a DIY ethos that, with possibly the lowest bar to entry of any genre to date, allows users everywhere to replicate the genre on their own terms with just a few simple (and often free) digital tools. While embracing this DIY, "punk" ethos in its radical democracy, hardvapour flips vaporwave's sluggish, placid bliss into a frenzy of beats now closer to traditional formulations of punk as a loud, rebellious style. Trend's "Humanoid Sound (гуманоид звук)" races with the roaring intensity of the the genre's three-chord origins, while DJ Alina's "Immortal" buzzes with some massive low-end distortion that could easily come from a Circle Jerks' or Dead Kennedys' bassline thirty years ago.
This idea lines up with the professed aims of the hardvapour community itself. As the anonymous founder of label HVRF Central Command recently noted, hardvapour is "inspired by GABBER, HARD TEKNO [sic], NOISE, DISTORTED BEATS, SCHIZOPHRENIA," while remaining rooted in a "conceptual projected framework" similar to vaporwave's. The group locates a link between vaporwave and gabber—with its adrenaline rush of quick kicks and garish, disorienting synths—in their shared "punk" origins. Describing hardvapour's conception, the labelhead remarks in the same note, "In the Fall of 2015 WOLFENSTEIN envisioned these Eastern European thug kids becoming inspired by how 'punk' putting your music on Bandcamp could be—especially all these imaginary vaporwave aliases—except these kids hated all the slowed down shit and thought it was 'for pussies'—so they launched HARDVAPOUR."
Indeed, Hardvapour hits with a raging ecstasy unheard in vaporwave circles to date—albeit one present in the early music of Fatima Al Qadiri, Gatekeeper, and other artists associated with distroid, another, related microgenre Harper discussed in the second installment of his Virtual Plaza piece. If distroid, as Harper suggested, was "hi-fi to the point of actively fetishizing the hi-frequency hisses and twinkles that lo-fi was unable to produce," hardvapour sat somewhere in between distroid and vaporwave, hi-fi without fetishing hi-fi tools (laptops, DAWs, VST synths). With vaporwave, most acts relied on simple edits and effects—namely reverb, delay, and frequency band-pass filters—native to digital software. Hardvapour uses these tools not out of any special fixation with them, but simply because they're now the cheapest and most accessible tools around.
The literary and cinematic movement known as cyberpunk, which was marked by "science fiction dealing with future urban societies dominated by computer technology," feels particularly relevant to hardvapour's fascination with Gabber/hardcore sounds, Slavic imagery, and hacker aesthetics. Flash's Hacking for Freedom, for example, channels clear iconography from The Matrix, a film widely cited as a "cyberpunk triumph," while other hardvapour releases—like Chinese Hackers' Visions and Bannik Krew's Жорсткий щойно випав сніг—embrace grainy security footage and imagery of digital surveillance, another common cyberpunk theme.
Hardvapour's Eastern Europe fascination is a bit hard to parse. Japanese text was an inescapable attribute of vaporwave's visual identity, but most producers were often young white men in the West, channeling a language they, troublingly, associated with 80s tech affluence. With hardvapour, a small minority of producers do seem to actually be based in Eastern Europe; the J-card included with Antifur's Hardvapour compilation, for example, marks each track contribution with the respective flag of the DJ's country of residence, linking about a quarter of the compilation from Russia, Ukraine and Croatia, even if the overwhelming majority of the tracks stem from the US, the UK, and Western Europe. Producers on the compilation like wosX and HKE are based in Canada and the UK, while others—like Flash, DJ Alina, and Krokodil Hunter are all labeled as Russian and Ukrainian. With so many unrecognized names surfacing at all once, of course, it's difficult to determine the legitimacy of these designations. But then again, is geographical legitimacy really all that that meaningful in the post-internet era, a time where where "place" seems to matter so little anyway? Could hardvapour's Eastern European roots be something of a hoax?
Keep digging and you'll find that there are no objective answers—just a lot of producers online churning out album after album of some of the strangest, most exhilarating music happening right now. And in a climate already as unfathomably fractured and convoluted as this one, the uncertainty may speak to our times more than we realize.