The Month In Electronic Music: Degrees Of Separation
, April 26th, 2012 05:54
Care of new releases from Hessle Audio, Livity Sound, Szare, West Norwood Cassette Library, Vessel and Dream Continuum, Rory Gibb zooms in on some genre-mangling sounds in UK dance music.
This edition of Hyperspecific has ended up focusing on connections. It wasn't planned that way, but thanks to an interesting few weeks in British dance music, and some powerful links drawn in mixes and clubs, all the music featured in this month's column refuses to exist in any kind of easily identifiable space. Instead it hangs suspended in the in-between zones, highlighting the essential mutability of its source material. All of it makes for thrilling listening, and I suggest you seek these creatures out, post-haste.
Szare - Rochdale Principle [Krill Music]
Elgato - Zone/Luv Zombie [Hessle Audio]
Kowton - More Games/Jam 1 [Livity Sound]
West Norwood Cassette Library - Coming On Strong/Pangaea Remix [WNCL]
On UK dancefloors at the moment it's often tough to isolate patterns and narrative strands, such is the skewed signal/noise ratio on the 'bass music' side of things. Instead convergences tend to develop out of sight then loom, unexpected, out of the background. However, one in particular has made itself felt over the last few months, as channels of communication have ferried ideas between outposts in Manchester, London and Bristol: between people like the Hessle Audio extended family, Idle Hands and Livity Sound, and those surrounding the Frozen Border/Horizontal Ground labels. As house and techno have started to interact with dubstep at club level, so they've shared party, festival and deck space with one another. Accordingly, their music has started to drift into common zones of interest.
The results, from people like Peverelist, Asusu, Kowton, October, Szare, Pangaea, Objekt, Elgato, AnD and Alex Coulton, are some of the most vibrant and exploratory sub-bass heavy music since dubstep blew its top a couple of years ago. (I touched on this a couple of months ago, along tentative lines, in an edition of this column about new narratives in post dubstep club music. It's something that Philip Sherburne took further the other day in a blog post for Spin that's well worth reading, on the theme of 'enjoy it for now; we can name it later'.)
If you were to be slapdash about it, the space they all inhabit is closer to some very flexible, non-dogmatic concept of techno, than to the bass music masses that have drawn dubstep's legacy elsewhere. But for many Bristol producers and the Hessle Audio collective especially, UK genres - dubstep, garage, grime and jungle - still lie right at the roots of what they do. That's both in a metaphorical and a literal sense: listen to the chest-caving bass depth-charges that explode beneath Kowton's newly released 'More Games', for example, or the way the steppers' techno of Peverelist's slippery 'Erosion(s)' slides outward with the stately inevitability of Krust-style rolling drum & bass. But these distinctly 'UK' tropes are merely anchoring base points, and a whole range of other forms wrap around them: Berlin and Detroit techno; the dubbed-out NY house of DJ Qu, Levon Vincent and the Underground Quality gang; UK-borne industrial lineages that stretch from Throbbing Gristle to techno by Karl O'Connor and Surgeon.
Despite not sounding particularly alike, Elgato's new 12" for Hessle Audio, Szare's Rochdale Principle EP and Kowton's More Games 12" all feel cut from the same cloth. All swing their percussion until its motion feels as inevitable as clockwork, allowing the momentum from one run of drums to transfer effortlessly into the next. All practice a reductionist approach and prize economy of form, where the smallest possible amount of musical matter is used to give the greatest possible impact.
Most importantly, all are at heart soundsystem music. Their acres of space and physical weight loop them into a lineage that stretches further than dance music history, outward to dub and reggae and those genres' interactions with post-punk. Links to dubstep, and especially virtuosos like DMZ's Mala, are felt strongly in their use of dread as crowd control, heightening the intensity with sub-bass pressure and swing. But where Mala would often ratchet up the pressure before releasing it all in a great sigh of relief (listen to the second drop on ‘Miracles’ for a superb example) these three instead subsume any hint of the drop into an unending series of tension-release peaks. House and techno's influence is most audible in the way their music's narrative occurs on the micro rather than the macro level, its energy generated by very pregnant pauses between bass and percussion hits, and tracks' incremental changes in shape. These are fusions but they're inspired ones, very consciously dropping the baggage that big-room dubstep or techno tend to carry in favour of those genres' more subtle aspects.
The sub-bass on Elgato's 'Zone' is used to delimit the track's boundaries; so deep it's practically inaudible on small home speakers, it throbs around the edges of perception. Almost undetectable but still felt subconsciously (and, in a club, viscerally), the continuous pressure instills in listeners a non-specific tension. That's upped to near breaking point by a wordless downpitched voice, looped into a headache-inducing nervous stammer. A loping garage snare/hi-hat figure in the top end flows like El-B, albeit stripped of kicks, woodblocks and club intentions, occasionally paired with soft siren bleeps that trickle through the mix like ink through water. 'Zone' is an appropriate title: it carefully describes its own space, teasing audiences with the promise of dancefloor release but cruelly, brilliantly, never delivering the goods.
'Luv Zombie' - apparently an older track from around the time of Elgato's first tracks for the label (released in late 2010) - moves with more purpose but still eschews the standard fall back of a kickdrum. Its nervous shuffle is instead lent propulsion by the slightest tickle of cymbals and big, bulbous sub-bass hits. That most over-used of current bass music tropes, the R'n'B vocal, is thrown into the mix - but it's done so to unusually sinister effect, with repeated moans of being "aaaaa-ddicted to you": love the psychoactive drug, Luv Zombie an addled addict jonesing for her next hit.
On the surface of things, the music on Rochdale Principle hasn't changed a great deal since Szare's earlier anonymous techno 12"s on the Horizontal Ground label: techno still beats at its heart, and its sound palette is still one of grinding gears and soot-caked machinery. But it's become impressively intuitive, fluid and searching in tone, lending a tangible warmth and humanity to textures that could otherwise be rather alienating. In 'Nell Lane' what begins as an exploration of straight four-to-the-floor repeatedly breaks apart, with kickdrums clustering in salvoes of five; the scorched machine screams in the background of 'Red Desert' are paired with tense, asymmetric polyrhythms, which mould themselves into seemingly every possible configuration over its seven minute length.
Kowton's new 12" for the Livity Sound label that he and Peverelist co-curate drops grime into the depths of warehouse hell. Slowing the tempo to a slurred swagger, 'More Games' positively bristles with pent-up rage, pushing razor handclaps and angular synthetic strings right to the forefront of the mix to frazzle the eardrums. But with the pace dropped it's very spacious, and periodically across its length it drops into a slightly more malleable groove a tad reminiscent of Levon Vincent's apocalyptically heavy 'Six Figures'. House track 'Jam 1' on the flipside is closer to some of his previous releases for Idle Hands, which ruminated on Loefah-style, none-denser bass pressure, generating the same sense of otherworldliness through tectonic slow motion. For all that it's driven by warm, lithe rhythms, there's something undeniably extreme about most of Kowton's music, an aesthetic commitment in and of itself, and something that marks him out as quite a unique prospect. It's highlighted further still on a couple of his recent unreleased cuts, especially 'Des Bisous' (dropped by Pearson Sound on Rinse FM a few weeks ago), whose plunging subs and grimey strings are as ice cold as anything Wiley ever cooked up.
These very UK-sounding hybrid forms don't exist in a vacuum. They're all held suspended by a tangled web of reference points, connections and affiliations. More so than, say, many early dubstep and grime producers, many of these producers have a deep knowledge of music stretching far beyond their immediate surrounds. But with so many people currently delving deep into the past, resulting in a dismaying volume of retro-leaning music, what's exciting about people like Kowton, Elgato and Peverelist is that they still evoke the rushy, future-shocked sensations of jungle or grime. Their music gradually slipping within mixable range of each other has opened up the floodgates for other possibilities, with tracks reaching far and wide for influence while eschewing the tempting vortex of straight four-to-the-floor, or simple deep house revivalism.
These developments aren't entirely unprecedented, though. There were traces - well, more than traces actually, precursors - in the likes of Dave Huismans and Rene Pawlowitz. Some time before many of this current crowd were flirting with techno, Huismans was taking equal strides into the worlds of dubstep and techno as 2562 and A Made Up Sound respectively. When they converged in his music a couple of years ago, it became difficult to define where the hell the difference lay anyway. 2562's third album Fever was a dense and humid listen, any nominal traces of dubstep absorbed into a bounding, predatory techno whose drums landed perpetually just off the beat and in clouds of dust, thrown up to shade its inner workings. Meanwhile, Berlin resident Pawlowitz’s music as Shed has always engaged head-on with UK soundsystem musics, and his debut Shedding The Past made a bold and provocative statement about how hybridisation could be an escape route to rescue techno from the clutches of predictability and monotony. In a similar vein, from the outset Peverelist's take on dubstep has always had an anti-drop sensibility, prioritising maintenance of mood over peaks and troughs; his current music simply applies the same ideas to lower tempos.
Another producer who excels at the creation of 130bpm house rollers is Hessle Audio co-boss Pangaea. His last 12" for Hemlock featured the devastating 'Fatalist', a shuffling monster only pinned in place by a metronomic off-beat hi-hat, which supported the track's momentum while all hell broke loose in its surroundings. Pangaea's is a pirate radio techno, steeped in the weight of hardcore continuum history and even making quite literal sonic references in the form of fragmented MC chatter and blurts of static interference.
His new remix of West Norwood Cassette Library's 'Coming On Strong' is similarly virtuosic, setting up a fairly repetitive - albeit fiendishly busy - rhythmic framework and layering muted melody thick over the top like icing: stammered bleeps, long quivering drones, harmonies that rattle at the edge of earshot. There are traces of Baltimore club and Chicago footwork in its multi-limbed drum machine dialogue - the latter especially, in the way it occasionally gives the illusion of grinding to a sudden stop. But like his labelmates, Pangaea's view of these sounds is mediated by his own experience and previous music; in the context, this is something different, and something well worth keeping an ear tuned to. (On the A-side, West Norwood Cassette Library's original is the best thing he's released to date too, a saxophone riddled house track that travels through a beautiful parabolic arc, zooming into space before slowly floating back to earth again.) You can listen to clips of both tracks here.
Vessel - Standard EP [Left_Blank]
Panther Modern - 'Howl'/'Pentimento' [Immerse]
Another genre-bending Bristol-based collective engaged in a close dialogue with Livity Sound and Idle Hands is the six-strong Young Echo crew, whose six-weekly radio transmissions are hubs for a particularly open-minded way of presenting music. The freeform approach to sound Young Echo show off in their radio shows is reflected in, and by extension directly inspires, the music they make individually. YE member Vessel has fast been gaining momentum both in terms of exposure (he's signed to Tri Angle for an album release later this year) and ambition: his newer material is taking him further down exploratory paths, away from his earlier house-rooted tracks. The Standard EP still audibly riffs on club music, but the title track feels as though Gainsborough's set up a complete track as a target in a shooting range, before taking pot shots at it and blasting chunks off at random. What remains is a sort of Frankenstein's monster of a boogie tune, with all odds and ends only left hanging onto its chassis by a thread. But its metabolic rhythm continues to circulate through its battered corpus (just), with the odd blast of electricity sending it strutting across the floor. The dried out husk of 'Zero' feels like 'Standard' at some even more advanced stage of decomposition, the suggestion of bubbling tar deep in the mix the only liquid left intact.
Gainsborough has also just released a pair of slightly older tracks through Immerse under his Neuromancer-referencing Panther Modern alias (set up to differentiate between the newer stuff he's doing as Vessel and more clubby material). Though his newer explorations have been taking him further from the dancefloor, these are proof of his impressive abilities as a producer of body music. Released on hand-stamped white label - in the manner of Livity Sound and Immerse-related imprint BRSTL - they feel like hidden gems. 'Howl' in particular is superb, a springy beast that abruptly launches into space halfway through its length, carried aloft on a raft of wriggling, pitchbent melody lines. With its stargazing mentality, it tickles the skin in much the same way as Floating Points' now classic 'Vacuum Boogie'. 'Pentimento' is more downbeat, though still significantly fatter than Vessel's more dilapidated excursions, slowly unwinding around stringy chords and a slightly surprising addition: a cock-er-nee vocal sample from the Guy Richie school of east end mob movies.
Dream Continuum - Reworkz EP [Planet Mu]
It's easy to spot the aesthetic and textural similarities between the accelerated rush of jungle and footwork's channel hops between hyper-stasis and rushy release. Both apply the same sort of deconstructionist techniques to a limited palette, literally tearing their source material to shreds, stretching and collaging it, and distorting normal notions of time and space in the process. Both elevate sample manipulation beyond art form and into the realms of rhythm science, flipping and reversing, slicing with surgical precision (or clubbing with all the tenderness and delicacy of a sledgehammer), reassembling into different syntax, interfacing directly with the bodies of dancers. They might target different regions of the mix - jungle based around the vivisection of a single drum break, footwork keeping percussion as notional anchor while ripping everything around it to pieces - but it's easy to imagine a potential nexus point where the two collide head on in a glorious screech of burning rubber, windscreen shrapnel and crumpling metal snares.
Dream Continuum - the transatlantic alliance of Machinedrum and Om Unit (though the former is admittedly based in Berlin these days) - target that sweet spot with unerring accuracy. The Reworkz EP does such a convincing job of uniting the two, in fact, that it feels churlish and pointless to try and pick apart the divides where London meets Chicago. Throughout EP highlight 'Set It', clinically crisp drum machine hits coil around dissected whorls of Amen break like DNA strands, all orbiting a three note motif straight out of the hardcore textbook. Pitched-up voices familiar from rave and jungle are chucked into the footwork washing machine and ricocheted through the mix (trainspotters more skilled than I will doubtless be able to track the provenance of many of them): two minutes in, the easy toasting of a ragga MC suddenly skids to a timelocked halt, sending the track's loping momentum into temporal disarray. Fifty seconds later it just as abruptly breaks free of its body bind and explodes outward at full force. 'Giv A Lil Luv' and 'B Free' on the flip are just as boldly referential and equally irreverent, carrying themselves with a rudeness and swagger that Machinedrum's otherwise thoroughly enjoyable Room(s) LP largely lacked. All of which serves to confirm that Dream Continuum's naughty cross-genre tryst is something that ought to happen far more often.
Header image: Livity Sound by Tape Echo