The Month in Electronic Music: Club Sounds & Toxic Dread
, September 23rd, 2011 08:16
Rory Gibb takes a look at some of the best club music coming out of the UK this month, alongside the stark industrial experiments of Ekoplekz and Roly Porter
We’re mostly traveling around the UK’s club confines for this month’s edition, a nice bookend to a summer where DJs from across the bass spectrum have been tearing up festivals at home and abroad. The music that's emerged in the wake of dubstep, as well as some of its closest relatives, is gaining dancefloor momentum as quickly as it's gaining column inches - opening newspaper listings over the last new months, it's not been unusual to see the top picks for each weekend dominated by Hessle Audio, Numbers and Hyperdub acts. While there's a lot of sterile and predictable bass music turning up at the moment, everyone featured in this month's edition has been carving out a distinct avenue for themselves.
Also in this column we find abrasive mechanical experiments from Roly Porter and Ekoplekz, as well as the new EP from Stateside lo-fi auteur James Ferraro, Condo Pets, which sees him move away from the murky, cassette-recorded confines of his previous work into blazing high resolution.
Commodo - Saracen EP [Deep Medi]
Kahn - Illy/Tehran [Punch Drunk]
All hail the weight of 140bpm! It's definitely been getting more difficult to find forward thinking tracks at typical dubstep tempo, with the prevailing climate in 2011 seeing house and techno exert an irresistible gravitational pull upon most 'UK bass' producers. But there's something about the form's sheer density that can't be replicated as pace drops. That's partially down to its half-time/double-time dichotomy; as a fast dance music made to feel slow, it exerts a strange force on the body that seems to demand action at two speeds at once. While it can't help but recall the darkened days of 2005-6, and the intensity of early Loefah, Commodo's debut for Deep Medi is an reminder of just how fucking destructive dubstep can be when it's done well. The crunch of heavy machinery cuts through 'Saracen's featureless expanse; it's like the last two years of shimmering melodic fireworks never happened. 'Uprising' is another rarity these days, a roller without the slightest glimmer of two-step in sight. Its drive instead comes from the constant roll of congas, pushing the track incessantly forward.
Bristol's Kahn is another one holding the flag high, as the scene directly around him melts into house; his second 12" for Punch Drunk this year recalls Gemmy's videogame R'n'B, but with the edges smudged slightly. There's a dose of Shackletonian mysticism in the harder-edged 'Tehran', but 'Illy' is pillowy soft stuff - all towering melodies and vocodered chatter, its rushes through the body in a soothing wash. Again, it offers conclusive proof there's untold tensile power still coiled within dubstep's lean form.
Blawan - What You Do With What You Have/Vibe Decorium [R&S]
Untold - Bones (Joe & Rockwell Remixes) [SSSSS]
Randomer - Obtuse EP [Super]
That said, although the Hessle Audio crew have dissolved tempo rigidity within dubstep (their April compilation 116 & Rising, as its name suggests, showcased tracks everywhere from 116 to 140 beats per minute), they’ve done a better job than most of keeping its almost pathological sense of tension intact. Their recent excursions have been a taking a great deal of inspiration from older Chicago and New York house, as well as slower analogue gear of the Kassem Mosse/Omar S school, a crossover region Blawan’s new 12” for R&S explores to the fullest extent. ‘Vibe Decorium’ is anxious acid, looping short slivers of vocal until they wheeze like a double-ballooned NOS trip. His music’s getting exponentially grittier; the Moodymann-sampling ‘What You Do With What You Have’ has been doing the rounds in Hessle sets for a few months now, and it’s the filthiest thing he’s produced so far, its surfaces caked in muck. Lacking the polish and clarity that so many current producers aim for, Blawan delights in jamming his fingers into his music’s structure and smearing everything around, creating a wonderful, gooey mess of a dancefloor track.
As one of the first records released on his Hemlock label, Untold’s ‘Bones’ has been around for years. So it’s nice to hear it coming around again – in such a fast moving environment, for a track to have a second wind is quite a rarity at the moment (save perpetual stalwarts like Mala’s ‘Anti War Dub’ and ‘Bury Da Bwoy’, or Ramadanman’s ‘Blimey’). Joe’s remix is a chilly shudder of a reinterpretation, doing little except ramping up the original’s skippy shuffle to new, jazz-infused heights, pockmarked by staccato diminished chords. Skeletal minimalist Rockwell’s take forsakes his usual d’n’b tempo for something around the 130bpm mark, but remains fixated on percussion. Like Shackleton, the only melodies are wispy things that blow across its surface like wind whipping through a tunnel. It’s unnerving, exhilarating and intriguing, boding well for future Rockwell excursions away from drum ‘n’ bass. He’s swiftly turning into one of the most versatile producers in the UK.
The Hessle crew’s sonic approach has been something of a self-perpetuating feedback loop for most of its existence. Each new influence – the elastic grime stabs of Untold circa ‘Anaconda’; the clatter of Chicago house in Ramadanman’s ‘Work Them’ - has entered its comparatively small group of producers, then spread throughout, a process which gradually led to the development of its distinctive, dry, percussive sound. So it’s interesting to see a growing number of producers being directly influenced by their earlier incarnations, in much the same way as Ramadanman and Pangaea’s early productions were strongly indebted to dubstep and grime. Though he’s been become a part of their extended family (his track ‘Brunk’ was included on 116 & Rising), Randomer’s tracks feel very much of that ilk. That said, although of a piece with the likes of Blawan and Joe, they’re something distinct again – his Obtuse EP for Super offers obscenely funky techno (‘Lost Everything’), frantic broken acid (‘Dope’) and the acute, jutting angles of the title track and its VIP. With their short, clipped synth bursts and woodblocky percussion, they’re most reminiscent of Untold’s Gonna Work Out Fine material, though shorn of its grimey low-end aggression they’re slightly less invasive. Excellent nonetheless, and the sort of tracks that make limbs attempt to fly in several directions at once.
Champion - Lighter EP
Funkystepz - Trouble EP [Hyperdub]
Mosca - Done Me Wrong/Bax [Numbers]
These three sets of dancefloor bangers, from London producers loosely associated with the regions around UK funky, are a technicolour kick in the gut next to the washed out austerity of someone like Rockwell. Champion and Funkystepz both offer conclusive, rave-friendly proof that funky, which of late has taken something of a back seat to your common or garden house-leaning ‘bass music’, is still capable of sending limbs and lighters flying into the air. That’s largely down to their continued engagement with grime; where a lot of producers who’ve taken immediate influence from funky have smoothed the edges, what made funky's earliest releases (‘Buss It’; ‘Feeline’; ‘Do You Mind‘) so viscerally thrilling was their scratchy, grimey utilitarianism. Funkystepz’s second 12” for Hyperdub this year continues to hone the crew’s sound. Essentially grime at 130bpm, the rolling snares of lead track ‘Trouble’ usher it from broken riddim to straight four-to-the-floor and back again, while the serrated synth line of ‘John Wayne’ buzzes like a swarm of angry bees. Champion’s Lighter EP has a softer, almost lilting, percussive flow, but loses none of the aggression – the title track and its VIP both ride off ultra-flexible, pitchbent bass, and the wickedy named ‘Bongoshot’ is as catchy as anything funky’s produced in a while. Deadly club music.
As is Mosca’s new 12” for Numbers. Since ‘Square One’ and ‘Nike’ emerged in 2009, ushering in a total melting of boundaries between house, dubstep and funky (both tracks were none and all of the above at the same time), the London producer has been one of the most consistently brilliant people working within that hazy liminal region. With his DJ sets packed with garage, two-step, bassline and all manner of nuum musics, his tracks have become true mutants, but keep their attention intensely focused on the needs of a club floor. ‘Done Me Wrong’ shows off his usual knack for tearing vocals into catchy, wordless refrains, but the real gem here is ‘Bax’, which has been demolishing dancefloors since it emerged on dubplate earlier this year. A rapid-fire, hideously catchy hybrid of bassline and speed garage (check out its bulbous descending melody and MC chatter) given a modern twist, it’s been one of the year’s anthems so far, and shows little sign of abating as the summer rush gives in to cooler climes. As ever for such a scene-wide anthem, it’s hard to tell how well it’ll weather being battered into submission by every DJ with a copy, but for the moment it’s probably best just to shut up and dance.
Hodge - The Fall/Crush [Immerse]
Outboxx - Blueberry Lemon EP [Well Rounded Housing Project]
Bristol's Jacob Martin has had a prolific year so far, with releases as solo producer Hodge and as half of Outboxx, alongside Matt Lambert. A key player in Bristol's emergent grassroots house scene, Martin's tracks have improved in leaps and bounds over the course of the last year, shapeshifting from sparse, Shackleton-influenced broken house into something far deeper, softer and more sensuous. Admittedly, that's something his Outboxx material never struggled for; the duo's debut, 'Kate Libby', had a certain suaveness a million miles from the pent-up anxiety that's defined most UK dance music since the dissolution of dubstep. Their follow-up is similarly cocky, but a little more expansive, and a hell of a lot of fun. 'Blueberry Lemon' is an acid-flecked strut whose percussion and loose, syncopated keys recall broken beat at its jazziest, while 'Brighten My Day' is effervescent late afternoon slo-mo house, rounded off with Naomi Jeremy's silken vocals. While most of their home city's current output continues to travel under the cover of night, it's lovely to hear the duo shedding a little sunlight on proceedings.
Martin's first vinyl release as Hodge, for the ever-excellent Immerse imprint, is far darker, but no less slinky. Both 'Crush' and 'The Fall' take the traits that defined his music from the off - sliced 'n' diced vocals, a freewheeling, fits and starts approach to rhythm - and utilise them more successfully than ever before. Everything is beautifully integrated, jagged synths standing out in sharp relief against delicately swung percussion - these two tracks are simultaneously his most welcoming and most ruthlessly efficient so far. A fitting addition to the Immerse label's impeccable run of 2011 releases.
Roly Porter – Aftertime [Subtext]
It’s a funny quirk of timing that this month sees the release of albums by both ex-members of volcanic dubstep duo Vex’d, after a lengthy hiatus. But where Kuedo’s Severant brims with light – an openly expressive, synth-led creature that incorporates elements of footwork and hip-hop into fluid headphone tracks – Roly Porter’s Aftertime appears to have a monopoly on the darkness that defined his previous project. Not that he’s any stranger to the bleak stuff; Vex’d infused dubstep with the harsh, metallic textures of industrial and techstep drum 'n' bass, the duo's Degenerate album in particular forsaking the genre’s subby warmth for something colder and entirely more alien. His tremendous solo debut works with similar moods and textures, but is almost entirely beatless; the result evokes the wasteland left after Vex’d scorched the earth. Largely featureless, save gales of (acoustic, recorded) violin that blow across its surface, it’s stark and underpinned by the rumble of infernal machinery. In its ambivalent attitude towards technology and industry, it fits neatly alongside Roll The Dice’s recent In Dust album, but forsakes forward momentum for tense, perpetual stasis. What makes it such a thrilling listen, though, is its changeability. Like Ben Frost’s By The Throat, there are elemental forces at work here: album highlight ‘Geidi Prime’ begins as a soothing lullaby before descending into a hellish maelstrom of cracked electronics and depth charge kickdrums, and ‘Corrin’ ascends into a glorious, towering harmonised drone, even as sub-bass roils away just beneath. A brilliant, bracing record.
Ekoplekz - Intrusive Incidentalz Vol. 1 [Punch Drunk]
It's tempting to imagine that, as the press release of Ekoplekz's first full-length for Punch Drunk suggests, electronic music retreats to darker and harsher recesses as a response to the havoc wreaked by disgustingly regressive government agendas, though it'd be tough to establish a definite causal link. There's certainly a great deal of shadowy music being made at the moment though, with Blackest Ever Black's none-more-maudlin aesthetic and the likes of Sandwell District and Shackleton crafting soundtracks to all-too-real modern dystopias. Raime and Ekoplekz himself occupy similar niches post-punk in the eighties, in terms of approach ('plezkz, with his array of home-customised electronics and analogue noise generators, is equally in thrall to dub and Cabaret Voltaire), monochrome aesthetic and staunch insistence on remaining individual. Intrusive Incidentalz Vol. 1, Ekoplekz's full-length follow up to the excellent Memowrekz, is by far his most forbidding set of tracks yet - a real curveball for Punch Drunk, who usually remain locked to the laws of the dancefloor.
There’s little melody here, lacking the disarmingly pretty flourishes that occasionally emerge and light his music up; instead the track titles give some idea of what to expect – ‘Stahlman Gas’; ‘Soviet Drum Brain Attack’; ‘Mangler Fish’. A great deal of Ekoplekz’s appeal lies in the same mix of humour and deadly seriousness that informs such po-facedly silly titles – it shines through, audibly. On opener ‘Neutronik II’, you can hear the original signal being sent careering through a host of battered circuits, resulting in an aquatic tryst that brings to mind black & white sci-fi films. ‘Terror Danger’ (presumably a cheeky reference to the grime producer) is starker still, like dub co-opting the reverberant properties of an empty aircraft hangar. Our daily dread indeed.
James Ferraro - Condo Pets EP [Hippos In Tanks]
Before now it would have been a stretch to describe the music James Ferraro makes as ‘electronic’, even though his approach to his source material is as wonderfully irreverent as any leftfield producer. But the arrival of his new album Far Side Virtual and this preceding EP heralds a hitherto unforeseen side of the former Skater, whose prolific CDR releases over the last few years have been instrumental in inspiring the current boom in all things bottom-of-a-swimming-pool. Over the last nine months or so he’s been uncharacteristically quiet. Now the reason for his silence has become clear: it turns out he’s bought himself a laptop and transferred his handcrafted, meditative tape loop approach into almost painfully glossy fidelity. Condo Pets’ seven tracks are beat driven, sort of – percussion is provided by the click of a home computer mouse, and each track’s spiraling melody lines are occasionally punctuated by the recognisable ‘whoosh!’ of a Windows audio ident.
It’s a genuinely strange listen: Ferraro, the analogue specialist, whose output is normally so murky it’s nigh on impossible to detect quite what’s going on, casting his music in super sharp relief. But it’s also incredibly involving, its rubbery arpeggios reminiscent of some unhinged digital-age take on Philip Glass’ soundtrack to Koyaaniqatsi (something Far Side Virtual takes even further, calling to mind images of rolling conveyor belts, carrying computer products around a limitless factory floor). And like that film, which confronted the beauty of Glass’ minimalist score – and the modern world’s utopian promise – with the harsh, destructive reality of globalization and commercialism, there’s something sinister lurking just beneath its bright, glossy, oh-so-convenient façade. It’s like the audio equivalent of the computer woman from the AOL adverts: friendly, but very creepy indeed.