Wicker & Steel
, July 4th, 2011 13:10
And the award for most accurate album title of the year so far goes to… Perc, for his savagely evocative Wicker & Steel. But it would be easy to go one step further, and say that everything about Ali Wells' debut full-length is perfectly integrated into a wider musical, visual and conceptual whole. Take its greyscale artwork, which picks out a crucifix in short wicker strands. Or the track titles, which pre-empt how each is going to sound before it even starts: 'My Head Is Slowly Exploding', 'Start Chopping', 'London, We Have You Surrounded'. Or the creeping dread of opening monologue 'Choice' (apparently sampled from an interview with Louise Wener of Sleeper), which discusses the pressure to conform to social norms during a "crap suburban" teenhood.
And, of course, the music itself, whose balance of mechanistic and organic couldn't fit its given title better. Over the course of the last eight years or so, Wells has honed a form of stripped-back, monochrome techno that refuses to remain dogmatically fixed to its parent genre, dragging in influences from early industrial, coldwave, ambient and drone, amongst others. In the past it's often been strikingly abrasive, in line with contemporaries like Ancient Methods, whose own take on similar influences has resulted in a sound palette that's downright unnerving, more death than disco. But it's never been unforgiving; while the latter occasionally push their sound to unnerving extremes, Perc tracks always retain an inviting affinity with body rhythm, their clouds of static and dust used to immerse rather than immolate a club audience. The difference between the two approaches, incidentally, is neatly highlighted on the album's advance single 'My Head Is Slowly Exploding'. Where Perc's deliciously sparing original, constructed from little other than staggered kickdrums and the odd clash of heavy machinery, unfolds slowly and with deliberate grace, Ancient Methods' bracingly brilliant remix imagines the same elements as half-disintegrated in the roar of some monstrous furnace.
Of late there has been no shortage of excellent techno operating along similar lines, harking back especially to industrial and noise, as well as to the Birmingham lineage that stretched forward from there. As one of the originators, both solo and as half of British Murder Boys, Surgeon has continued to be impressively productive, this year's Breaking The Frame album finding him on typically uncompromising (but never amelodic) form. The Sandwell District collective, taking in Regis and Silent Servant amongst others, are always prolific, and their recent debut album Feed Forward was a thrilling, soot-caked listen. Those influences are also encoded in the barebones abstracted functionalism of the Horizontal Ground and Frozen Border labels (and particularly in Szare's music, a sublime and supple strain of funky techno whose limbs jut outward at skewed, slightly sickening angles). And while they move still further from techno purism, Goth-tinged transmissions from Raime, Demdike Stare and Shackleton take a great deal of their influence and majesty from very similar approaches.
As with the rest of this group, Perc offers a distinctly British take on a sound that originated in Detroit and Berlin. That's one reason why Wicker & Steel is such a perfectly-pitched title, calling to mind as it does the creeping, slow-burning dread of classic British horror movies, as well as the stereotyped greys and blacks of post-Industrial Revolution mining towns. Paired especially with the album's most atmospheric tracks – 'Choice'; the five-minute long machine drone of 'Pre-Steel'; 'Gonkle', flecked with hot blasts of sub-bass like the grind of gigantic gears – the overall impression is faintly autobiographical, Wells reflecting the identikit frustration of suburban childhood through harsh and faceless factory textures.
But despite being tough and uncompromising it's far from a forgiving listen. In fact, what's so compelling about Wicker & Steel is that while its sound palette might be initially seem challenging, its construction is often anything but. Melody and restraint are still present throughout, but often buried just beneath the surface. The airy warehouse stomp of 'Start Chopping' occasionally parts to allow sustained chords to float to the surface, transferring the track's forward momentum into something altogether more soothing. Album highlight 'London, We Have You Surrounded' is stark and pummeling, all metallic percussion, but four minutes through finds its mood suddenly lightens with the arrival of soft, reedy tones in the background. And penultimate track 'Snow Chain' could almost be described as pretty, its slow rhythmic churn and flickering melodies bringing to mind the dubbier moments of Demdike Stare's Voices Of Dust. Its presumed status as interlude matters little in the context of the album; rather than remaining a collection of dancefloor tracks interspersed with mood pieces, Wicker & Steel's success is that it convincingly blurs the boundaries between the two. The result is an involving and addictive album-length statement.