The apocalypse, synthesized on ‘Happiness’ by Incentive

by Kyle Cochrun

Uniontown-based producer James Osborne uses synthesizers to forecast the end of the world. Think rutilant dust plains split by rift valleys gushing hellfire, bulbous purple clouds raining motor oil, shopping malls reconfigured to molten porridge. 

“I have a feeling we probably will see the end of civilization before we die,” says Osborne, “and think often on the ‘end of the world,’ so to speak. I would like to think my music is an expression of those thoughts and experiences.”

The synths transfigure their composer’s thought-dreams, one of which has something to do with gamma rays melting corrupt politicians down to scorched collagen. When all the serrated dissonance gives way to a reverberative harpsichord, the planet begins to rejuvenate. And that’s just the first song.

Osborne creates maximally layered electronic music using VST and MIDI controllers, a virtual analog synthesizer, and homemade field recordings (including appearances by a faucet and a 1980’s-model Schwinn exercise bike). His latest full-length record as Incentive, titled Happiness, is 55 minutes of gorgeously gnarled compositions that fall somewhere between industrial music and IDM, a genre crag Osborne terms “post-industrial.”

 “I’m pretty sure my introduction to electronic music was when I heard The Downward Spiral in elementary school, shortly followed by the Mortal Kombat film soundtrack in fifth grade,” Osborne says, explaining how his interest in electronic music developed over the years.

In eighth or ninth grade, a friend gave him the audio-editing software program ACID, which he used to splice sound snippets from films into rhythms. He later graduated to Fruity Loops (now called FL Studio) and started a synthpop/screamo-fusion band in high school. In college, Osborne began recording as Incentive, releasing his first CDR under the moniker in 2004. 

Osborne started programming Happiness in late 2017, and the album’s long gestation seems unsurprising considering its meticulous, fully-formed arrangements. Songs like “Trauma, Anxiety, & Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms” and “I Look to the Distance, and See the End of the World” are saturated in thick billows of synth melody scraping into anxious discord. “Time Flows Beyond You” is crammed with percussive blips and gashes reminiscent of Autechre at their most maximal. 

“I’m very interested in big sounds that can be produced by overdubbing, running unique effects through each track of sound,” Osborne says. 

“Let’s say there is a synth line that is simply adding texture and not doing anything too complicated. I might take that track and overdub it around three or four times, running different effects and manipulations on each track, then render it into a single track to be placed back into the main mix.”

The sonic territory is chaotic, unnerving, but brimming with beauty. “Lowdose” opens with a sinister low-end grumble and builds to a sunny peak with raucous synth tones resembling the sounds of Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, Infinite Body and Tim Hecker at his most distortion-happy. The album’s title track may be its darkest, but Osborne sneaks a layer of uplifting synth melody underneath the tumult and lets it swell, slowly overtaking the track. 

Like all experimental electronic music, Happiness succeeds on its vivid tone colors, so it deserves quality headphones and close attention from the listener. Fans of the stuff should be able to discern the high level James Osborne is working at here, as well as the warning embodied by the music. 

Kyle Cochrun is a writer from Akron, Ohio. Contact him at