A brave, dark strain of ethereal instrumental electronic music wafts from a former chicken breeding warehouse in the wee hours of the morning. Inside the downtown Bellingham, Washington compound, composer/producer Bryan Hughes labors over his latest works in a modest, uncluttered art studio space. He’s an artist who has hit that elusive creative milestone of garnering prime industry acclaim and accolades from a fiercely original music that defies genre classification.
Bryan’s journey begs the question: How did a long-haired guy with ripped clothes who liked everything loud and heavy become an award-winning artist who specializes in dramatic, long-form ambient compositions? The answer lies in a box of electronic music cassettes his grandparents gifted him many years ago, and the effect that music left on him.
“Periodic exposure to my grandparents nurtured a respect for environmental issues, the outdoors, science, and self-reliance habits that I didn’t really have at the time,” the artist shares. “I didn’t realize until much later that the mellow, pre-EDM electronic music they listened to – like Kitaro, Tangerine Dream, Tri Atma - was the soundtrack for those ideas, and offered a psychological counterbalance to the natural rebellion I was riding out.”
Since 2002, Bryan, under the AeTopus moniker, has released seven albums and two EPs. AeTopus’s artistic continuum stretches from a traditional new-age pop approach to the minor-key moodiness and elongated song structures characterized by his most recent work. The project has won a Zone Music Reporter Award for Best Electronic album, earned three ZMR Best Electronic album nominations, and garnered one nomination for the NAR Lifestyle Music Awards for Best Electronic album. Despite this acclaim in the new age marketplace, AeTopus music doesn’t conform to the radio-oriented format—a more apt description of its genre might be “electronic instrumental goth.”
AeTopus compositions feature the drama and overture of classical music and film soundtracks, the ambience and experimentation of pre-Ableton electronica, the aggression of hard rock, and the mystical majesty of world music. The tracks are shadowy, emotive, and rife with intrigue without being specifically thematic. The overall effect of AeTopus songs is disquieting, which puts it at odds with most of the meditative or relaxing music that populates the new age genre.
“I’ve always been attracted to the contrast of extremes – between calm and heavy, or between smooth and textured, for instance,” Bryan explains. “I feel like my music contains these contrasts, but there’s typically a preference for the darker and more dramatic that keeps it from being relaxation music. At the same time, one of my goals is to not just put a 4/4 beat to everything and try to produce dance music. I like it to have depth and meaning, as well as a certain intellectual or artistic gestalt.”
The non-musical has also been fodder for Bryan’s imaginative compositional style. He’s a visual artist, former tattoo artist, and wields college degrees in Fine Arts and Psychology. The project boasts a thoroughly cultivated aesthetic that manifests itself in its name and in AeTopus visuals. The “Ae” suggests time, and the “Topus” loosely means place. The exotic overtones of the word also lend it an unspecified ethnic feel.
Bryan’s recent pair of releases, the full-length VARIANT, and its bass-heavy companion EP, Deep Variants, signal a fresh era of intrepid creativity. The compositions here are akin to sonic essays that feature loose melodic narratives. These tracks breathe, and feature delicate dynamic shifts and, at times, ominous ethereal textures. “My goal was to apply my existing musical instincts to longer-format pieces, and to not feel confined by my long-standing bite-sized, radio-friendly style,” Bryan shares. The EP Deep Variants powerfully reimagines the VARIANT source songs with a haunting low-end quality.
Bryan grew up in a wonderfully imaginative self-curated fantastical world. As a teen, he enjoyed science fiction movies, graphic art and graphics-oriented literature, old-school video games, playing Dungeons and Dragons with his buddies, Heavy Metal magazine, classical music, and movie soundtracks from films such as the original Star Wars, The Dark Crystal and Blade Runner. “I hate to say I was on the ground floor of nerd culture,” he says with a good-natured laugh. “But, back then, there wasn’t the kind of appreciation for this stuff like there is now.”
He began his artistic journey at age 6, taking classical piano lessons. From these roots, his creativity blossomed to include visual arts and amateur filmmaking. Despite the introverted nature of teenage years and his love of sci-fi, comic books, and other brainy fantastical entertainment outlets, Bryan had a full social life and later played in a variety of bands as a bassist. To this day, he still bashes away in rock and punk bands, but, in the late 1990s, he decided to focus on an artful DIY solo music path. Before AeTopus, his first release was an industrial album under the name AnthroPile.
Post-AnthroPile, Bryan felt an urge to explore a more contemplative musical soundscape. This pull came from the collection of bootleg proto new age cassettes his grandparents passed along to him when he was younger. “They dabbled in spirituality and mediation, but they weren’t new age with tinfoil pyramids on their heads or anything,” he jokes. “When I listened to those tapes as a kid, I was struck with the wonder and independence of the music—how you could do your own thing without being in a band. I also liked the mellowness of it—that music was a nice, imaginative respite from the hard stuff I was listening to at the time.”
Today, Bryan plans to continue his musical voyage exploring more sublime and eccentric long-form compositions. “I think most serious creative people like to see evolution in their work. I've learned to let go of the expectations that come from being associated with a genre, or that come from having established a certain sound on past albums. When I give myself that permission to experiment, those darker and grittier influences find a way to sneak back into the mix.”
- Lorne Behrman