Atomic Houdini weaves music and painting for ‘synergy’

Reporting and writing by Kyle Cochrun

The music and visual art of Chelan Riebe, aka Atomic Houdini, poses questions about the complex and seemingly ineffable latticework separating avant-garde boundary conditions and pop song accessibility, as well as slightly less interesting questions about influence and art as stylistic mélange meticulously crafted until genre tropes mutate beyond distinguishability, like an extra thick stew that’s been stirred so long you can barely recognize the ingredients. 

I met Chelan on the second floor of the Jenks building on Front Street in Cuyahoga Falls to discuss Dandelion Fireworks, his multimedia project consisting of an album’s worth of recorded music and a gallery-showing’s worth of oil paintings that correspond to each song, pushing forward and compounding on the themes and ideas embedded within each densely-layered track. 

“[Dandelion Fireworks] is the music that I was working on colliding with the interest that I had in painting, and then trying to create some sort of synergy between the two,” Chelan says. “[The album] came from me feeling that there were a lot of beautiful things in my life that were dying. Instead of taking this dead thing that was beautiful and letting go of it, [I wanted to] create a possibility for new things. [It’s about] the rebirth of relationships, creating new things with people, places, art.”

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Chelan’s original idea for the project was to set up gallery showings where he would play part of the album live while patrons walked from painting to painting. Each painting would have a QR code that viewers could scan with their phones, which would open a Bandcamp page containing the corresponding song and lyrics. 

“I finished drafting these songs quite awhile back and tried to figure out how I’d go about releasing them. I was thinking, ‘I want to paint more this upcoming winter,’ and I had already made the track artwork for each of the songs. I thought, ‘What if I use the digital artwork I already have as a reference point and try turning these into oil paintings?’”

Chelan completed a trial run of the show at the Negative Space art gallery in Cleveland. However, the COVID-19 pandemic brought tour plans to a halt. 

“I think it was a good idea,” Chelan says. “It just landed at the wrong time.”

Musically, Dandelion Fireworks consists of 12 vividly textured indietronic pop songs in the same vein as Animal Collective (Chelan’s primary musical inspiration), Passion Pit (but a touch looser) and Phoenix (but a lot weirder). The melodies are catchy. The tone color is consistently remarkable. Sounds bubble, spurt, scrape, snap, gush and blast through headphones, the ideal way to listen. As sonic experience, Dandelion Fireworks is rich to the point of superabundance, at times sounding like a lustrous pop-forward successor to Brian Eno’s studio-as-compositional-tool approach.    

“Dandelion Fireworks is completely software-based outside of vocals and field recordings gathered for sampling,” Chelan says. “I tend to move from one thing to the next very quickly. I want to explore new ideas and play around with different sounds.”

Chelan’s exploratory instinct is evident in the playful sonic flourishes spattered throughout Dandelion Fireworks. Album opener “Static Hymn” includes eight-bit melody blocks reminiscent of primitive Super Mario games. “Laughter Like” cakes reverberant sheen all over the inimitable Roland TR 808 cowbell. The vocals on “Water Rising” project from a tidepool of sound effects that layer electronic ripples over Chelan’s voice, making it sound as if the lyrics are gurgling up from a fountain jet. Listeners who seek out music with a variety of rich tone colors will be ecstatic. 

Dandelion Flowers is clearly an album that was meticulously crafted, and the result is a listening experience that leaves you feeling full after Chelan’s vocoder glob thins out and trickles off at the end of album closer “Dead Webs.”

The songs are as dense lyrically and thematically as they are sonically. In fact, listening to Dandelion Fireworks feels a lot like listening to Chelan discuss his thoughts on art and life, minus the opportunity for meticulous revision. He flits from discussing suit of swords tarot cards to conceptual blending to Russian abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky. 

Every seemingly disparate thought connects back to art. His mode of conversation is thoughtful and associative, and though you may have to work to fit some pieces together, it’s clear that Chelan mulls over his ideas. 

The original display notes for the Dandelion Fireworks exhibit exemplify this nicely. For example, this is the description for “Static Hymn:” 

Song – “Paintings in cave walls, echo now, in bathroom stalls…”                                                  

History, much like our personal memories, is a collection of biased retellings. Moments from a past that can never be fully known. For me, my impulses and motivations highlight the illusory nature of change. It seems our inner workings have remained relatively static since we started painting on cave walls thousands of years ago. 

Painting – A handprint is the most basic “I was here” of our species. Melding the characteristics of a fingerprint and a computer scan, this depiction implies a static identity cast in the light of shifting externalities. The background features an interpretation of a cave painting from 5000 BC that prominently features handprints.

Each song-painting combination explores a different concept. To walk through a gallery of Chelan’s oil paintings while listening to the songs on Dandelion Fireworks and reading these little notes makes for an immersive experience in the mind of Chelan Riebe. 

Despite the meticulous nature of his art – Chelan claims this project took half a decade to complete –  and the abundance of ideas, Dandelion Fireworks is memoir at its core. When I ask Chelan to summarize what the project is about, he paraphrases a song by Noah Gundersen: “Am I giving all that I can give? / Am I earning the right to live? / By looking in a mirror / There’s nothing more sincere than selfish art.”

“Unless you’re cracking the ribs and digging something out of yourself,” Chelan says, “I’m not sure if it’s real.”

When I ask Chelan whether he plans to tour Dandelion Fireworks in its original format once live venues open back up, his answer is tellingly ambivalent.

“As of right now, I am working on a display/show of some sort for August or September. To answer your question, I guess I’m putting it behind me, but also there doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut line in certain ways. I’ll probably still perform a few of those songs, and with paintings I feel like you try to get them displayed until they’re sold. But creatively it’s behind me.” 

So Chelan will take pieces from this immersive art project, which represents him during a bygone time, and display them in the future but in a slightly different context, because creatively he has moved on. 

If art mirrors life, then Chelan has described what it’s like to grow as a person. 

If art mirrors life, Chelan is on to something. 

Learn more about Atomic Houdini and stream his music at atomichoudini.bandcamp.com.

Kyle Cochrun is a writer from Akron, Ohio. Contact him at kylecochrun@gmail.com.

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