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Revisitor’s “Reforestation” Is A Fascinating And Layered Sonic Journey From The Underground

Revisitor "Reforestation" album cover

Artist: Revisitor
Album / Label: Reforestation / self-released
Rating: 9.5/10

Oh yeah. This is the good stuff.

If you’ve talked to me about underground hip-hop for more than two minutes, I’ve undoubtedly (and enthusiastically) brought up Revisitor. Samuel J. Paterson – a Kent, OH native with a strikingly unique writing voice and delivery – is without a doubt the most interesting man in hip-hop music today. I’ve had the pleasure of sharing the stage with him several times, and there really is no one like him in regional, national or global hip-hop. His work has inspired my own forays into underground rap immensely, leading me down curious and recursive wormholes of discovery I’ve still not fully explored.

Revisitor’s excellent debut album Reënactment is a perfect intro to his sound and style, and the small but fascinating collection of freestyle clips, rare demos and unreleased tracks scattered across the Internet are worth a listen too. But his second LP, Reforestation, is something beyond that. Just over a year after its mid-quarantine release, the record remains as mystifying and compelling as it’s ever been. I can say unequivocally that it is my favorite content of the entire pandemic.

It’s hard to describe exactly what makes Revisitor such an enthralling listen for me. Maybe it’s his arcane and cryptic lyrics, which reference both familiar cultural touchstones and people and places I’ve never heard of before. Perhaps it’s his unique delivery, a spaced-out, internal-rhyme-heavy Northeast Ohio drawl with a curious, quiet intensity I’m still trying to replicate in my own work. Could it be the common themes that ground his writing, like his distaste for the private-prison system, or his creative spelling-out of certain keywords? Or is it the production of his self-made beats – rich, understated works of homespun musicianship and considerable craft on multiple instruments?

Whatever it is, his songs feel like alien objects transplanted from another universe: stone tablets containing dark prophecies and shadowy, Cassandra-like portents of what is to come – the ark of the covenant, the Ten Commandments and a Stonehenge user manual all in one.

Surely I exaggerate? Nope. Listen for yourself.

The first song on the album, Corporation, is a perfect introduction to the uninitiated listener, and a fantastic distillation of what I love about Revisitor’s work up to this point. The production is a warm patchwork of analog synthesis, warped notes dripping through the mix like stalactites from the ceiling of a cave. Paterson deploys a memorable earworm of a hook through a spartan vocoder, rendering his voice robotic yet fully human.

His lyrics aren’t so much a literal report of events as they are a patchwork of themes, motifs, symbols and ideas. There are individual memorable phrases and statements that still stick with me; sometimes I’ll catch myself mumbling “I buy products, I generate byproducts” or “Information exists, interpret it.” But overall, it’s much more about creating an experience where the whole is far, far greater than the sum of its parts.

The piece closes with some very tasteful electric guitar chords, adding a morose and introspective quality. The restraint Revisitor displays on this understated but powerful opener is absolutely the right call. Instead of wowing or overselling with an abundance of technique and lyricism, he simply and deliberately beckons you deeper into the mist.

Image credit: Revisitor

The tempo picks up a bit on Normal Mode, as synthesizers shift like tectonic plates under woozy mid-tempo drums. The lyrics on this one are fantastic. I’m always drawn to a synthesis of internal rhyming/wordplay and interesting ideas, so naturally I freak out a bit when Revisitor says things like: “Orders get packaged and shipped / Order collapses, then borders on maps are historical facts / More panic attacks for these corporate hacks / Unless tablets are warm in our laps.” (Believe me, it’s taking a lot of effort not to make this whole review just verbatim quotes of the many, many excellent lyrics in these songs.) His craft with words is a wonderful high-wire act, belying reservoirs of ideas without ever slipping into rambling or syllabic nonsense.

The beat switch halfway through the song is sudden but entirely logical, masterfully slipping into a much more hard-hitting halftime groove that will irradiate your boom-bap brain. Paterson’s wire-taut, tense phrasing and repeated refrain/invocation “When will these idiots learn?” decimates the unprepared listener. The slow but deliberate pace of his delivery makes each lyric hit harder and harder; this is music that rewards a deep and thoughtful listen with reservoirs of meaning and numerous paths of thought to follow.

Every Weekend is where things really start getting interesting. Out of nowhere, an instantly-groovy dance beat saunters into your sound system, evoking a sort of robotic disco or 8-bit club track. This machine-like feel is accentuated by the reappearance of vocoder vocals. Moments later, in a beautiful musical left turn, Paterson adds some high-energy vocals sure to get the listener nodding and moving. The lyrics are a beautiful word salad evoking classic video games, old TV characters, snippets and phrases in multiple languages, and the occasional contemporary reference to remind us he’s writing all this gold in real time. (“Decorate your mask if you wanna get lit” has become a pandemic-era catchphrase I use quite often.)

Revisitor pulls out some really good puns and wordplay even for him – it took me more than a few listens to understand the gravity of him saying “Riddles on the back of a cereal box with no back.” And I cheered when I heard him say “Let’s make ‘em play like Konami and Tonka / You be soft (Ubisoft), you know I ran Contra.” He even mentions The Phantom of the Opera and, right on cue, a goofy synth line evoking the musical drops in. In short, this is a party jam of the highest order. It’s an undeniably fun and surprisingly layered song that’s rapidly become one of my favorites in the Revisitor catalog.

Side two (or what would be side two) of the album takes the sound in a completely different, yet entirely welcome and intuitive, direction. Those who have met Paterson know that his musical talents go far beyond hip-hop; his work with rock bands like Infinity Girls and thin maze projector shows poise, range and depth. Thus, I was delighted to hear him blend his rock songwriting experiences into his work on this album. On the track Yes, he goes for the from-the-hip approach, resulting in a straightforward but disarmingly catchy machine-punk tune. Blending electric guitar and twinkle-in-the-eye singing, Revisitor once again uses his words and music to paint a stylized, vivid picture: “They say that justice is blind / Cameras on every street but no one’s watching.”

We pivot into half-time rock at the halfway point as Paterson creates a call-and-response chorus: “Are you a masochist? / Yes! Yes!” He returns to this hook like an invocation, using it as a waypoint to explore ideas like political division, drug abuse, alienation, consumption of culture and police brutality.

For any other band, it would be astonishing to cram all these concepts into a three-minute pop song – it’s a wonder that Revisitor can distill these ideas so efficiently and effectively. This song is perhaps better appreciated when taking the context of other Revisitor works into account (as a longtime fan, it’s extremely gratifying to hear him bring his rock writing into the studio material). On its own, however, it’s still a highly welcome and interesting counterpoint to what’s come before on the record.

Image credit: Revisitor

The singing continues on You Want To, as the mood takes on a slightly sinister air. Over a syncopated synthetic bounce, Revisitor turns another cracked-pop musical premise into a shadowy yet playful ground for musical ideas; you can practically see his long shadow on the wall and hear him tiptoeing around corners. Maybe it’s my fondness for retro video games, but the 8-bit synthesis scratches a very particular sonic itch for me, especially when it strikes in the middle of a perfectly-timed pause in vocals. Paterson brings the vocoder back in the chorus as a mournful accompaniment to his unprocessed singing, creating a mournful yet menacing counterpoint.

The sense of creeping terror grows at the piece’s expert halfway-point switch, as soft synthesizers creep in and Revisitor’s vocals become a raspy whisper. When both his voice and the beat increase in volume and intensity (including an equally amusing and frightening sequence where he names drugs, medications and abstract concepts), he’s got you right in the palm of his hand. More than once while listening in headphones, I caught myself glancing nervously behind me, half-expecting to see a figure just around the corner, out of sight.

The album closes with Ammonium Night, an instrumental piece that evokes growth and the wildness of nature (perhaps owed to the use of ammonium as a fertilizer). It’s very telling that this piece has the distinct feel of Revisitor’s work without the appearance of his voice; it’s not just the instrumentation, but the feeling of the keyboards and synth tones that suggests his steady hand in production. As synthetic tones pop up left and right, the running theme of the piece is slow, steady growth, a thesis explored further in the music video (see below).

About halfway through, the piece switches from a slow but steady beat to a synthetic waltz-time groove, becoming more meditative as a result. You can almost hear the plants growing, the signs of life popping up all around you; if you listen very closely, you can hear Paterson’s undeniable artistic and creative growth too. So ends the record – though, if you’re like me, it’s a cue to press play and begin it all over again.

In summation, you need to hear this; to me, it’s as good as the underground gets. “Reforestation” is a fascinating, layered record that seems to grow new roots and fathoms of meaning the more I listen to it. Maybe you won’t hear the same things in it that I do, and that’s okay; your perspective on the record will undoubtedly be shaped by your own preferences and experiences that you bring into your own listening and evaluation.

But whatever you take away from this record, you can’t deny that this is an experience you can only get by listening to underground music – and regional underground music at that, which has been very important to me (and Music In Motion) for a long time. This is music that only Sam Paterson could make, and thank goodness he did. There is no substitute.

This record kicks ass. Go listen to it.

Revisitor – Ammonium Night

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