, November 1st, 2012 10:34
Wheeeee…. Footworking in space! Strike up the John Williams fanfare and set those intro credits rolling, because Young Smoke's Space Zone is a new contender in the battle for best 2012 Chicago footwork album. Until now the title would likely have gone to one of two veterans amid a scene that has surged in popularity in recent months, from specialist concern to something approaching an alternative mainstream. The year began with the sidelong kilter of Traxman's The Mind Of Traxman, an album which, if anything, went to show just how far the genre could be pushed and twisted into the most seemingly impossible shapes. This fine effort was subsequently power-slammed by scene originator DJ Rashad. Teklife Vol.1: Welcome to the Chi ushered in an inventive pop sensibility to his trademark erratic rhythms, before he went on to wow new ears on his European tour with long-time collaborator DJ Spinn.
These recent releases may feel like giant leaps for a scene that has laid relatively untainted for years in its concealed, localised bubble. But little could have prepared us for Space Zone. While Traxman and Rashad continue to break new ground in the field of mindbending rhythm/sample science, they rarely transport us to anywhere outside the dancefloor. These albums remain strictly functional, tied to the dance battle - a noise to move to, rather than music to be enjoyed on its own. Indeed it's a common complaint, even from dedicated followers of the style, that prolonged bouts of active listening can lead to a certain kind of madness. With an ever-growing number of producers (among them, Machinedrum and Sepalcure) from outside the original scene using footwork as a springboard for their own designs, Chicago artists are faced with the prospect of having to adapt to its newfound global audience or flounder among the competition.
Space Zone is the creation of one 18-year old Chicago footworker David Davis, aka Astronaut Boy, aka Young Smoke. It's the sound of Ripley running around a hazard-lit Nostromo as she flushes that pesky alien into the cold vacuum of space. It's the sound of Samus facing off against Mother Brain in her subterranean lair on Zebes. It's R2D2's subroutine as he guides Luke's X-wing through a sea of TIE fighters and on to destroy the Death Star's main reactor. It's music for anyone who ever dreamt of being an astronaut before finding out you didn't get to fly cool spacejets and shoot Martians all day.
In other words, Young Smoke's unorthodox intergalactic twist on the footwork format is, for once, transportive. Space Zone is therefore the very first footwork album to work as a front-to-back listening experience as opposed to a jumble of assorted cuts to dance to. Only one track (the back-to-basics 'High Den A Mother Fucka') doesn't reference space or sci-fi in any way. Given certain aesthetic commonalities with 70s albums like ELO's 'Out Of The Blue', could this be the first juke concept album?
A chorus of vocoders welcomes us to the Space Zone, as heat-seeking snares woosh left and right of the speakers while tiny arpeggiated lights blink merrily up and down the ship's deck console. This convivial intro is interrupted by 'Warning', a high-urgency panic of billowing air ducts and glitchy shipboard announcements. Later, 'Korrupted Star''s accelerated drum machine electro evokes techno grandmaster Juan Atkins' classic Cybotron project, while the brutal Robocop 2 menace of 'Destroy Him My Robot' marries autofired gates of noise with an insidious beat to replicate the slow-fast lurch of a futuristic mechanoid killer. It's a thrilling ride – one that works remarkably well in both dancefloor and home-listening contexts, which is more than one could say for a lot of footwork releases so far.
Space Zone sees Young Smoke moving away from the rough and ready production values that have come to define footwork. The tracks are fluid - polished even - with a consistent cosmic ambience throughout. That said, the structural template remains roughly the same. Most tracks clock in at around the three-minute mark, eschewing the longer intros, outros, build-ups and breakdowns external producers have been tempted to add in order to render the style for mainstream dancefloors. The album boasts a number of mellower mood-based moments among the big-sound bangers. 'Space Muzik 2' deploys a shuffling one-note sub-bass for that intense pressure-cooker vibe, akin to waiting to be blasted out of an airlock. 'Alien Pad' is all Geigeresque catacombs full of extraterrestrial spore cells, primed to explode and infect unsuspecting humanoids. Meanwhile, 'Traps In Space' negotiates the corridors of a gigantic foreign satellite replete with glistening elevators and undulating walkways.
Of course, electronic music has always had a strong affinity with all things futuristic, and Young Smoke could be accused of simply drawing directly from a long-line of sci-fi tropes spanning from Kraftwerk through Drexciya through Daft Punk's 'Intergalactic 5555'. But at this stage it's important to consider the maverick producer's relative youth. At just 18-years old, Davis would have been born around the time video games moved away from the arcadey 16-bit scrollers from which Space Zone appears to draw the bulk of its inspiration, towards more advanced games such as Goldeneye, Metal Gear and Halo. Similarly, the sci-fi genre is now more likely to involve time travel, dystopian futures or alternate realities than the heroic space-missions of yesteryear. The space-age, it seems, is no longer a frontier for the modern imagination, which is why Space Zone actually feels kind of fresh in its unabashed celebration of all things cosmic.
As a child of the eighties, I'm conscious of mapping my own references from Aliens, Metroid, Cybotron, Robocop et al onto this record, as these cultural touchstones would have been considered ancient history by the time Young Smoke came of age. The space exploration aesthetic in 2012 feels quaintly anachronistic coming from someone so young - the kind of celestial fantasy that would have appealed to someone born decades earlier. Perhaps Young Smoke grew up playing his older brothers' (or uncles'?) consoles, films and records; developing a taste for mid-80s action genres and early techno as a child. But it's just as likely that this unwitting combination - video game samples, old school tracker production and the US house lineage - just happens to have whipped-up a perfect storm of retro-futurist decadence that even Davis himself may not have consciously conceived.
Either way, Space Zone delivers a double sockdolager, putting unique twists on both the cartoon tropes of space-age sci-fi and the footwork genre. In one fell swoop Young Smoke has changed the footwork game. And while we would never expect past masters like Rashad and Traxman to follow suit with this level of conceptualism, Smoke has certainly raised the stakes for any aspiring Chicago producer in creating the most consolidated longform effort in the genre to date.