When an artist evolves over time, it can often lead some fans of their early work feeling left behind. With over 15 years of time release music, specifically in the instrumental, drum and bass, and nerdcore hip hop categories, Karl “UltraKlystron” Olson is not for lack of evolution. His newest release is Variable Undefined and is a far cry and journey from albums like Revision4920 and Opensource Lyricist. However, where as other musical acts shift genre fully, or lose their spark, this new album is an example of a strengthening of foundations that were always present in his music, evolving with time and experience to become rock solid frameworks for synthetic, catchy, nerdy melodies blended with trap drums and grimy wave files.
My name is Steven Kelsey, and this is Nerd Music in Judgment, a Dying of Exposure Series.
Nerd Music in Judgement is a series where new releases from Nerdcore Hip Hop, Chiptune, Geek Rock, and other fandom/fringe musicians will be reviewed by me, a fellow dork. Our first episode features Variable Undefined, the newest album from Northwest Nerdcore Artist, Ultraklystron.
While I want to discuss the tracks of the album, the standout fact of the LP is the consistency of tone, presence, and feelings of the work. Ultraklystron produces, sings, and raps over his own tracks. This album has no features, no guest verses, and no production outside of him. It is short, at ten tracks over roughly 25 minutes, multiple of which come in just shy of 2 minutes long and no song breaking three-and-a-half minutes. Mechanically it appears to be short songs about specific aspects of a similar mental state: Moving forward.
This starts with the bluntly honest “Friends” where Ultraklystron describes escaping a place of false, commercial exchange friendship by crossing a river and getting out of the city. The stinger on this track is in the chorus with the “no new friends, and no old friends, in my feelings so alone cannot pretend” where the expression isn’t something simple as moving on to better people and better relationships, but escaping to solitary, even if that solitude isn’t desired. The upbeat and hopeful energy of the instrumentation further expresses that this is supposed to be a positive life choice, even while the lyrics reveal that it may remain a lonely choice, and a hard one to have made.
The follow up track, “Subtext” is a much darker instrumentation with a bright top end and a lot of rapid hats that layer on each other on top, and the deep grime low end that will appear repeatedly in this album. The song subject is about SSSS.Gridman but plays more like a relatable track about not being able to relate or recover with society. About the troubles of being a creative, or maybe just an introvert. It is starkly different from Friends, while holding onto the reflective nature of the whole piece. Bonus points, as well, for writing about a property and not simply acting as a book report on that property (a common issue within Nerdcore Hip Hop and geek music in general).
“Bell Del Fiend” the third track on the album, is a nice blend melodically of the first two tracks but the importance lies in the message. As the shortest song on the album it crystalizes both the initial reaction and the follow-up analysis of the Internet, and general for that matter, tendency to celebrate and pursue things on sexualized and fetishized levels and not as people. It both describes the result of what those who seek to stream and create and connect have to do to attract and audience, and how underwhelming and disappointing it is that the audience responds. This is hands down my second favorite track on the album for concisely delivering this judgment upon the world wide web going audience.
“Haunting Me” and “Laced Up” both pair as an evolution of missing those behind us, whether deliberately or not. Where as “Haunting Me” comes in with a grove that’s an easy rhythm to nod to, with a taste of major melodic turn in the chorus for a hint of positivity, “Laced Up” grinds down further. The pair of tracks should be listened to together, as they live in the same place both emotionally and in a listenability manner. The chorus of each song is the stand-out hook. It feels like Haunting Me is the recognition of loss, of absence, of those people we once were connected to and Laced Up is the wearing down of that feeling never leaving.
Like all good albums, it is time for a break in the emotions handed to you so far. “Rapid Eye” gives you that break while essentially remaining couched in the theme of moving on/moving away that the whole album embraces. It is the best song, in my opinion, on the album. The beat drives simple with grime on the snare/slaps, grime on the base, and big roomy synths. The delivery on the verse has a classic trap delivery and the chorus is top shelf. “Rapid Eye,” alone, would justify this whole album. Moving on from dreams and acknowledging what you have done and what you can do, rather than what you wanted, is the best reflection of memory.
“Outcomes” directly responds to “Rapid Eye,” acknowledging with the words in the chorus that “best of all the outcomes can leave you at the end still without one.” This understanding of recognizing the warm melancholy of the past as something that remains in the past is so bittersweet it honestly moves me as an audience to the personal journal of Ultraklystron. I knew him in the days of Lanyards and stale pocky, and I am glad to still be able to experience him now as a person with a past defined by choices made and released.
“Retiree” and “Gaming in Kyoto” in the same vein as the album as a whole, appear as each side of the coin of development and personal growth. A person ages past their first expressions and addictions to fandoms and interests and moves forward. Where “Retiree” bangs with big thumps of drum and synths with a lot of space, with dark tones throughout as a person walks away from the trappings while still caring for the things they loved, “Gaming in Kyoto” is a night of gaming set tonally in an evening metropolitan feel of instrumentation. The tone here is so important and the pairing of them shows that, while the whole of life is no longer defined by anime, manga, gaming and geeky exploits, the passion still lives there in the moments captured in adulthood of these interests that defined our younger selves.
The final track, “Shadows of My Heart,” is another personal expression told through the fandom of O Maidens in Your Savage Season. Here is where Ultraklystron leaves you with familiar higher synths, but the low grime here is with deliberate, wide key hits on a piano. The song is equally different and similar, and the subject is different. As the last track it feels like turning away from the past and introspection of the album as a whole and looking forward. How to move forward. This closes Variable Undefined perfectly.
So we have a deeply personal Nerdcore Hip Hop release from Ultraklystron more than 15 years past his first release. It plays start to finish like a confession of personal realization and in that, growth. The music has grown, the production has grown, the style has grown. And where Ultraklystron avoids attempting to match particular artists of the day, the influences of modern synth-wave, trap hip hop, sludge, and even a hint of mumble rap song structure, can’t be ignored. I hesitate to treat this album with the disrespect of a simple score or grade, but I recognize the need for an audience of listeners and readers to understand how it might rank, however different it is, in comparison to other Nerdcore Hip Hop of the day.
With that in mind, assuming you can accept an album that isn’t chalk full of fandom, but balances it more lightly against the heavy themes and emotions of an album, I give Variable Undefined a B+. The delivery on verses can come across a bit simplistic and similar track to track, but the tracks all feel of a piece and the song lengths reflect an awareness that this album is about flow tricks and schemes, it is about honesty.
Thank you Ultraklystron, for Variable Undefined, it was moving to listen to and has given my new favorites to listen to in my own personal Nerdcore Hip Hop Playlist.
You can listen to Ultraklystron's Music via their Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCLF-jUgczox9EXYv_cpZXIg
And you can purchase their music on their Bandcamp Page:
For Readers of this series, rather than listening to the Youtube review, you receive the bonus of interview questions with Ultraklystron. Enjoy.
Talk to me about the impetus for writing this album now? It feels like a lot of the tracks are about evolving/aging?
You got it right. It's something I started exploring on my self titled album in 2018. I did a lot of rumination about getting older when the media I enjoy most - rap and anime - tend to be ever youth-centric; I though about what did and didn't work in the past for me and why; and I meditated on what I've lost and gained over that time, especially in terms of people passing away who were close to me and/or to my friends. The last of those factors was probably key in taking stock on my past three vocal albums actually. I initially thought I talked through most of that on the self-titled record, but I still had more to think through.
Who/what is influencing the production of these tracks for you? Who are you listening to? Are you targeting any particular artist or sound style?
I've been listening to a lot of Brockhampton, Tierra Whack, Tyler The Creator, Kendrick Lamar, Lil Peep, Midnight Society Collective (Kamiyada, Yung Bambi, Original God,) Rico Nasty, JPEGMAFIA and Kenny Beats to name a few artists. Basically Art/Pop Rap, Cloud Rap/Emo Trap, Trap Metal with a bit of Bounce too. I don't so much aim directly for those artists and their styles so much as find interpolations and new combinations which work for me. I don't want to mimic specifics, but I do want to synthesize new angles that reflect what I like.
If anything, the style I thought I was gonna record many of the songs on "Variable Undefined" in switched up entirely. I originally didn't plan for "Variable Undefined" to be so sludgy and Trap-heavy like my self-titled album was; I thought it would be more Jump Up Drum n' Bass oriented like "Friends" is, but my Drum n' Bass stuff has stayed largely instrumental and written in parallel with my vocal albums for now.
Do you feel like a lot of music is finally catching up to a style you've been dancing with for the last several years?
Yes and no. I think there's been instances where I accidentally guessed ahead at where the zeitgeist might be, but on the other hand, it took years for some elements of today's music to click for me, and there's lyrics in older songs of mine that underline that. I didn't expect some of the referential material I lean on such as anime and manga to bleed into the mainstream so much, but in retrospect it makes a lot of sense - entire generations have been raised on Toonami and anime generally now, and the biggest selling comics for years have been manga, and I'm happy to see it. It's also weird to see things like "music video in Akihabara" become a trope; it's something I'm going to speak on a little on my next album, but I still enjoy seeing it every time. All in all, I'm sure a lot of it is just me trying so many different things, and being open enough to new sounds that inevitably I stumbled on similar approaches as other folks. It's fun in songs to claim that as "being ahead of the curve", but there's many dead ends in my discography too, and I know none of those folks know who I am.
What makes you create the music you do?
A lot of it is that it's just a habit at this point. I didn't grow up playing video games, but I did grow up writing music, so it's natural for me to spend my free time that way, and it's where my my idle mind will drift to. It's therapeutic and relaxing. I think I'm lucky that I don't have anything compelling me to meet a certain deadline or aesthetic either. I'm pretty free to just jump into any style I'm connecting with in the moment, then release it when I feel it's done. It's a terrible approach for building a proper career out of music, but it's fun, and it's relatively easy to stay active. If there's some new sound I want to try, I'll just do it.
Do you ever see yourself performing/setting up live shows for this material? What would be your dream performance for this material if so? What would it look like?
I know how I could do it reasonably do it. I'd probably edit or commission Anime Music Videos that fit the set list to project in the background, either cough-up for a live pitch correction pedal or really practice the vocal runs hard, and then just perform "Variable Undefined" in order, or maybe pick my 3-4 faves off the last 3 vocal albums, plus maybe a couple picks from as far back as "Animatic" which have similar vibes. I'd like to think that the aesthetic for those songs is strong enough that I could do that without it needing to be at a nerdy venue, but in practice, it'd probably have to be at a con or something similar. That said, I can't imagine getting to it any time soon.
Were these just the ten newest songs? Were there older songs?
I had about 20 songs finished lyrically on deck that were all written after I'd finished the previous record, "Kintsugi". I just recorded the ones that were working best, in as much as they fit the instrumentals was writing at the time. I took a lot of care in sequencing "Variable Undefined" so it flowed well despite not being written with a strong theme from the start.
Have you actually moved away from Manga and Anime as you imply in Retiree (still keeping it low key)?
I certainly don't go to cons much any more (even the ones local to me) unless friends are going to be there, but at the same time, I keep up with a lot the latest anime and manga, I'm subscribed to Crunchyroll, many of my friends online and IRL still tie back to that interest, and I still guest on my friend's anime podcast. I think that's why I put "Retiree" and "Gaming in Kyoto" back-to-back: I may feel out of step sometimes these days, but when the right opportunity arises, I'll be there having a blast. But yeah, there's absolutely new anime and manga that I totally enjoy. I wouldn't be writing 5000 word blog posts about the FLCL sequels otherwise; I just don't blow money fast on boxsets and figurines like I used to.
Are there any other nerd musicians or artists you like right now?
I like all of the people who are active in the scene these days, as it's a lot friendlier and more productive, but I don't listen that regularly to much of it because I don't want to bite anything from anyone. I'll almost always give feedback when some one DM's me, but I think I've grown faster as I listen to more music outside of the area I immediately work in. I do think it's very cool these days is that if you hear any Nerdcore artist, odds are it's solid at a minimum if not great, and I think it's cool to see the nerdy side of more mainstream musicians these days, which is probably as close to the scene as I feel comfortably regularly listening to.
Do you feel like this is a "nerdcore" album or do you feel disconnected from that label at this point?
I think enough of this album's content hinges on some level of otaku/nerd/meme knowledge that while my themes aren't always nerdy, my lens is still one informed by a specific subset of pop culture. Whole songs like "Subtext" and "Shadow of My Heart" probably lose a layer of meaning without it, so it's still Nerdcore in that sense. However, I don't worry much about whether every track actually hits those notes. The stakes for me are so low that I'm very free to just let everything hit what ever it'd hit naturally. Sometimes that will be still nerdy be to the point of being "cornball" and "cringe", at which point I might even dial it back, and other times, the whole song might not particularly hit those notes at all which I've been okay with for a while now.
I don't ever see myself doing the whole "disown" the label thing, but I get why some do if it helps their professional goals and their creative process though. For me, it's fits, and if it ever doesn't, it won't.