From Warehouse To Web: Electronic/Dance Tracks Of 2012 & Mix
, December 28th, 2012 04:33
Rory Gibb takes you on a detailed trip through some of the year's defining tracks in electronic and dance music - from reductionist garage and construction-site ambient to junglist collage and quicklime grime - plus listen to a mix containing all 25 tracks
"This is a glorious muddle," said tQ's Luke Turner in his introduction to the Quietus' albums of 2012 list, referring to the current scattered state of popular music. Indeed it is, to the point that tracking any overarching narratives or strong trajectories in dance and electronic music this year felt exhausting and ultimately fruitless, and the explosion of EDM in the States seemed to signpost little but hedonism, arrogance, lazy performances and some truly sub-par music. (For an excellent round-up of developments in the EDM mainstream I'd direct you towards Philip Sherburne's Control Voltage 2012 digest in Spin.)
However, at least where the underground's been concerned it's felt like one of the better years for the stuff I can remember, with more money pouring from my bank account than ever before on both albums and an endless stream of 12"s, and all manner of strange forms from around dance music's fringes attracting attention far beyond what their makers are used to. While there have been few concrete trends, 2012 has instead been notable for a hugely varied diaspora of great quality music unhindered by genre or geography, leading my monthly Hyperspecific columns to cherry pick from an ever-increasing pool of worthy inclusions.
This end of year list and mix is designed to reflect that. Where the midterm list and mix (which you can still read about and listen to here) focused largely around house and techno-leaning material, this end of 2012 list picks 25 tracks from across the breadth of electronic and dance music - from screamingly abrasive electronic noise to aquatic techno, via reductionist UK garage and hauntological sample collage.
There's plenty more of equal quality I've left out - this is intended to be representative rather than comprehensive, and I've deliberately omitted most of the tracks that were included in my midterm mix. Consider it as one of many routes around electronic music from 2012 and, perhaps, a signpost to guide you in new directions. 2013 awaits, and there's vinyl to be bought and dancefloors to bother. Listen below, enjoy the year's final weeks, and see you in January.
Elgato - 'Zone'
Even for a label that's always been comfortable drawing from the exploratory frontiers of sub-driven UK dance music, 2012 has been a singular year for Hessle Audio. It's felt transformative: as DJs, co-heads Ben UFO, Pangaea and Pearson Sound might have been drawing for more four-to-the-floor material than ever before, but the label they run has separated into its own entity, still connected to their club sets but focused on extremes of rhythm (Object's convulsive 'Cactus'), stasis (the pendulum-swing beats of Pangaea's Release EP) and abrasion (Bandshell's charcoal rubbings of house and techno).
Elgato's 'Zone' is perhaps the best representation of that attitude. The most shockingly minimalist thing they've released to date - there's so little to it that it's surprising it even holds itself together - its clever use of El-B alike slurred snares nonetheless lends it an itchy and restless funk. When I interviewed William Bennett (of Cut Hands and Whitehouse) last year he spoke of wishing to refine his methodology in the manner of a Japanese watercolour painter, where a master artist could convey all the emotion they wished to in three strokes of a brush. It's hard not to draw for the same analogy here: 'Zone' captures all of UK garage's sultry fluidity and techno's momentum using nothing but a scattering of percussive elements, a single androgynous sigh and sub-bass so low it's practically inaudible on small speakers.
Kassem Mosse - 'Staat Aus Glas'
(Sounds of the Universe)
Perhaps a little unfair to include this, given that it was released on an extremely limited edition 12" that sold out almost instantly, but 'Staat Aus Glas' does crown another solid 12 months for Gunnar Wendel. Having operated for several years as an outlier on house music's fringes, this year has found Wendel shifting further into the centre of the frame. It's been a good time for wider listeners to take notice: as well as some superlative, raw and cantankerous music in collaboration with Mix Mup (the duo's MM/KM got to no. 11 in the Quietus' albums of the year), he's collaborated with FIT & Omar S and XDB, and turned his distinctive self-perpetuating drum machine grooves to the service of some blistering live sets. The full 12 minutes of 'Staat Aus Glas' are as stripped-back, slow-to-evolve and funky as the best minimal techno, but grounded by an earthiness that speaks to Jamal 'Hieroglyphic Being' Moss' declaration that "[music is] a representation of what life's supposed to be, and life's not that clean! Life is messy, life is dirty."
DJ Qu - 'Out'
In an interview with the Quietus earlier this year, Levon Vincent described his Fabric mix CD as a chance to show off the "mysticism" of New York's current deep house community, a hugely respected group of DJs and producers including Vincent himself, Underground Quality's Jus-Ed, Fred P and the masterfully dark and strange sounds of DJ Qu. There's certainly an elusive common quality that binds those artists' musics together - space, darkness that never feels studied or melodramatic, a dubwise approach - which ran through some marvelous releases from Qu, Vincent and especially Joey Anderson this year. Any of them could have been included here - the zero-G funk of Anderson's '3200 BC House Dancer' or 'Earth Calls', Vincent's recently released 'Speck's Jam' (which reins in the clouds of reverb and digs out the upright bass for his most springy cut since 'Six Figures') or 'Together Forever' (which clangs, drangs and thrashes like an unearthed post-punk/avant-funk oddity). Qu's 'Out' made this list and mix, though, a typically unrelenting and unsettling jack through pitch dark alleys, where every sound hits your heightened nervous system like a weapon, flooding your system with adrenaline.
Kowton - 'Des Bisous'
Bristol-based Kowton was the deserved success story of UK club music this year. He started 2012 with a clutch of respected but comparatively little known 12"s for labels like Idle Hands, Keysound and [naked lunch] under his belt. He's ended it having released two of the most brutal and distinctive dancefloor crushers of the year (the Levon-Vincent-goes-Ruff-Sqwad squall of 'Des Bisous' and the (slightly) more svelte 'More Games'), having honed his group Livity Sound's live show to deadly dubbed-out precision, and with a pair of eagerly awaited dubplates (remember those?) doing the rounds care of a select few DJs: slamming Peverelist collaboration 'Raw Code' and industrial grime/techno hybrid 'TFB'. 2013 should be his for the taking, and hopefully will finally be the year when promoters outside Bristol start regularly booking him for peak time DJ sets rather than more sedate opening slots. 'Des Bisous' might well be my favourite club track of 2012, and somehow manages to touch on a number of different tendencies that have emerged across the course of this year: a sort of evil New York-via-Berlin deep house meets turn-of-the-millennium grime creature, liberally dusted with quicklime.
Kahn & Neek - 'Backchat'
Another Bristol banger, this. Kahn's an impressively versatile producer (another of his tracks appears further down the list), lent equally to genre exercises in dubstep, grime, electronic dub and two-step and - in this explosive collaboration with Neek - mutant beasts that meld all the above. A slowed down grime/bashment fusion powered by depth-charge kickdrums, it's accompanied by a fierce pitched-up vocal from Beenie Man warning dancers "badman nuh take backchat no day / if you diss badman you get shot". New label Hotline, who released it, took an appreciably old fashioned approach. It was issued on vinyl accompanied by a mobile phone number in the manner of old grime white labels, harking back to an earlier era of dance music distribution where a sense of exclusivity was accompanied by a feeling of direct connection to the producer in question. (It also takes the honour of 'best promo I've ever received', a white label 12" accompanied by a personally addressed ransom note, hand cut-and-pasted from tabloid newspaper.)
Champion - 'Speed'
Balistiq Beats feat. Jamakabi - 'Concrete Jungle (Beneath Remix)'
UK funky's potency as an entity in its own right continued to wane in 2012, but its presence was still felt everywhere, a shadow across the music of Champion, Pangaea, Joe and Beneath, among others. These artists work at house tempo but draw in definite hardcore/junglist sensibilities, inducing snares, cymbals and other sampled debris (woodsaws, in the case of Joe's 'Studio Power On') to flicker, yaw and wheel in ways that mirror jungle's ferocious Amen break assaults.
Stripped of jungle's higher tempo and mid-bar steppers' kink, though, they're used to induce prolonged sensations of stasis: these percussive patterns are like Moebius strips or Escher staircases, doubling back upon themselves and coiling around the beat, moving at high speed but always ending up back in the same place again. The overall effect is tantric, pulling away from the temptation of the drop in order to ratchet up tension to near-exhausting extents. (It was somewhat ironic that Pangaea's double EP this year was titled Release, given that its roiling, serpentine beats rarely did so.)
Champion's 'Speed' amplifies those tendencies to cartoonish extents: forsaking kickdrums entirely, its terse conga rolls and belching bass tease dancers by repeatedly marching right up to the edge of the precipice before abruptly falling back into line each time. Jamakabi's ragga/grime chatter injects Beneath's 'Concrete Jungle Refix' with extra forward drive, making for an extraordinarily visceral track whose hollowed-out snare hits and toxic sub-bass gloop take firm hold somewhere around the pit of your stomach.
Morphosis - 'Exposure'
He might have released his excellent What Have We Learned album last year, but Rabih Beaini's presence seemed to make even more sense in 2012's techno climate, where there's been a swell of interest in idiosyncratic voices operating at a remove from prevailing dancefloor currents. Morphosis and his label Morphine have been ploughing their own furrow for years now, but at a time when music released through PAN, L.I.E.S and Spectrum Spools is turning up in clubs, Beaini's improv-based compositional approach and meandering live/DJ sets feel prophetic. His TEPCO Report EP was a meditation on Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster, and 'Exposure' sounds like a field report from the area, capturing whipping coastal wind and screaming hazard alarms on tape distorted by high radiation exposure.
Vessel - 'Lache'
Techno is a presence in Seb Gainsborough's music as Vessel, but it's too simplistic to say that he makes techno. On his debut album he turned up the heat beneath its rigid structures and melted everything off the beat grid, creating a sensual, murky form of dance-not-dance that seamlessly slipped from shape to shape and occasionally - as on 'Lache' - settled on slinky four-to-the-floor.
"Its defining sonic characteristics and DIY spirit have been expressed repeatedly throughout Bristol's post-70s musical history," I said when it was released, "drawing Order Of Noise into a lineage that runs from The Pop Group's Y through Portishead, the rolling drum & bass of Krust & Die and, more recently, exploratory dubstep LPs by Pinch and Peverelist. So dub and sound system methods lie at its heart - bass gloops and puddles like crude oil, raw samples are processed to the point that they become smudged and indistinct - but they're utilised in a raw and punkish manner, as weapons with which to aggressively hack apart the genres Gainsborough uses as base material." See also: the music being made by Vessel's fellow members of the Young Echo collective, with exciting things to come in 2013.
Madteo - 'Bugged in Gaza'
Another idiosyncratic operator working right along the borders of house, hip-hop and drone, New Yorker Madteo's had a productive year. Second album Noi No has been a late 2012 hit - I described it as "feeling sonically concerned with decay, loss and the unreliability of memory. Intricate details emerge briefly from sludgy ambience before being lost: 'Bugged In Gaza's anxious string swoops are pure spaghetti western, thanks to Morricone-esque whistles and birdsong."
Heatsick - 'C'etait Un Rendez-Vous'
"It might be a summer night in Heatsick's world," I said around the time Berlin-based Steven Warwick's Deviation EP was released, "but the humidity and pollution is still thick enough to press in upon the senses." 'C'etait Un Rendez-Vous' pulses and muses like the Pet Shop Boys relocated to a tropical storm-lashed Hanoi, as Warwick relates a tale of cheeky city trysts and midnight taxi rides. The whole thing is as surreal and intoxicating as Warwick's live sets which - contrary to an amusingly self-important bit of trolling by one journalist - are virtuosic affairs, whipping up lo-fidelity house heaven from what's essentially a one-man Casio jam band set up. If he carries on in this form, 2013 should be his for the taking. (A Heatsick-related footnote: Mark Fell has just released a 12" of Sensate Focus interpretations of Deviation that imagine its tracks as extended, slippery digital funk, very different texturally but equally marvelous and disorienting).
Violetshaped - 'The Lord Won't Forget (Roly Porter Remix)'
Emptyset - 'Collapse'
Bristol's Subtext label - Emptyset, Paul Jebanasam and Roly Porter - coalesced into a formidable unit this year, following the relative success of Porter's debut album Aftertime at the end of 2011 and Emptyset's astonishing Medium EP this year, which found them channeling sound through the walls and staircases of an unfinished Gothic mansion. Where Porter has retained the scorched-earth dynamics and mood of his contributions to crushing dubstep duo Vex'd (now sadly disbanded), but stripped them of the last vestiges of dancefloor friendly funk - as in this bleak remix of Violetshaped - Emptyset have retained an iron-plated club sensibility that found their Collapsed EP smashing through limbs and bodies like an earthquake.
"If you see [the four-to-the-floor rhythm] as a square, almost, as soon as you think 'What happens if I push down on the top of the square and the sides start curving in, to the point where it literally snaps?', you suddenly realise there's this huge terrain of sounds and structures that we've maybe only started to play around with," said James Ginzburg when I interviewed Emptyset around the time of that EP's release. "It's exciting to discover that there's a door in your house that you hadn't noticed before, and there's a basement full of boxes that you could look in."
Powell - 'Search'
Of all the new artists mining early industrial for inspiration and source material, Powell is one of the most singular and idiosyncratic. He emerged at the end of 2011 with a debut 12" that included a remix by techno figurehead Regis - no mean feat in itself - and this year's follow-up Body Music was equally freakishly fully-formed for such a new musician. He's about to release a new 12" via Death Of Rave, which you should be picking up post-haste. Another new name to watch out for is Berlin's Samuel Kerridge, whose debut 12" came out recently via Horizontal Ground and which slowed techno down to an exhausted, doom and drone indebted death rattle.
"Powell's materials are fleshy," I said at the time, "corroded copper, rotting wood and hunks of human body. They're bolted together into ramshackle, Frankenstein's monster post-punk tracks - the caustically funky bass guitar of the title track sounds as though it was picked up by a mic accidentally left running in the corridor outside a practice session, and the tapes lobbed into a filing cabinet and untouched for the following 30 years or so. These mummified recordings have the dust blown out of their bones by punishing sub-bass muck that could have been dredged straight from the nearest canal, studded with shopping trolleys, body-part-containing bin bags and all manner of seedy detritus.
Skudge - 'Vessel'
(Skudge / Nonplus)
Swedish duo Skudge take a fairly classic template - driving and minimalist techno in a lineage running from Robert Hood and Basic Channel - and imbue it with an new shot of vitality and energy. By being slightly slower in tempo than their forebears it's allowed more space to swing, creating astonishingly elastic machine funk that's compulsively listenable, on headphones and club floors alike, despite being loopy in the extreme. "This essentially minimalist approach freeing them from the baggage of excess material," I said, "the elastic interactions between the few ingredients that are present take complete prevalence, lending both tracks here a dark garage flex worthy of early Artwork or Oris Jay."
Blawan - 'Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage?'
It had to be in here really, didn't it? Blawan's got a mean ear for a pop hook and knows when to deploy it to devastating effect (see last year's Brandy refix 'Getting Me Down'), but he excelled himself with this malignant, thrashy, punk-as-fuck banger of a warehouse techno track. Nicking a snippet of the Fugees' 'How Many Mics' and beating it black and blue, he paired it with bass that didn't so much play as churn like a cement mixer and drums that rattled as if trapped inside a tiny wooden box. And that was it - an appreciably utilitarian approach and one of the catchiest tracks of the year (in any genre).
There have been plenty more notable developments in UK techno this year that delivered it back into industrial claws - new material from Regis and his rebooted British Murder Boys (as BMB) with Surgeon; the Perc Trax, Horizontal Ground and Frozen Border labels; Blawan and Pariah's even grubbier Karenn project; a ferocious Boiler Room session that gave Karenn, Surgeon and Regis free reign to wreck a club space only minutes down the same street from Throbbing Gristle's 70s studio The Death Factory - but nothing else quite this savagely addictive. Join in the chant.
Diamond Version - 'Forever New Frontiers'
Raster-Noton label bosses Alva Noto and Byetone teamed up for the first time as a duo this year (they've previously made music as Signal together in a trio alongside Frank Bretschneider; track down the excellent Robotron album, trust me, it's worth it) to form Diamond Version. Their signing to Mute for a series of five EPs - the first two have already been released, the rest are still to come - made sense, especially given the project's commitment to using corporate slogans as pop iconography, tapping into a much longer popular art tradition. The music matched its titles and typically minimalist and elegant artwork, all stinging blasts of carefully controlled digital distortion, strobing beats and gorgeous, glassy surfaces. In a similar vein there's been excellent music from other Raster-Noton-affiliated and influenced artists this year, in particularly Kangding Ray and inhabitants of the Stroboscopic Artefacts label such as Lucy and Dscrd, who tread a similarly taut line in exquisitely detailed, unholy fusions of metal, flesh and static.
Lee Gamble - Diversions 1994-1996 (excerpt)
The PAN label has been on great form this year, but it's still been surprising to see the flurry of hype and excitement around two of its final 2012 releases, from Lee Gamble, who has been working in abrasive experimental computer music for many years now. His full-length Dutch Tvashar Plumes recalled by turns early Autechre material, the depth-charged house and techno of Workshop and Modern Love, and the freeform dance of Actress, but it was the Diversions 1994-1996 12" that seemed to really strike a nerve.
"[It] deals with British rave history in a manner similar, both in method and concept, to V/Vm's gargantuan The Death Of Rave or Mark Leckey's Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore," I said, "by using old dance records to construct a hazy stew of half-obscured samples through which recognisable motifs occasionally leer into earshot. Gamble built each of its two side-long tracks entirely out of samples from jungle cassette mixes, making Diversions a sort of mixtape of a mixtape, as well as an oblique love letter to pirate radio. Although largely beatless, the resulting music burbles and splashes, stained various colours by E'd up whoops and dessicated hardcore riffs."
Kahn - 'Dread'
A second entry for Kahn this year, by simple virtue of the fact that he's made one of the best straight-up dubstep tracks I've encountered for a very long time. It's been reasonable enough to ask, over the last couple of years, what happened to dubstep in its purest form. The genre in the mainstream has adopted a wobbly and exhaustingly maximalist approach to production, and its deeper and many underground heads have adopted a no less rigid approach that's become colloquially known as the 'dungeon' sound (based around extremely high production values and exquisitely shaped clouds of reverb, where the halfstep trudge rules as supreme despot). The rawness and spontaneity that characterised early dubstep - and, with its somewhat slapdash and pleasingly roughshod approach to effects, made the connection to dub forebears like King Tubby and Scientist extremely apparent - have all but vanished.
'Dread' however, hinged around a grumpy and aggressively chopped snippet from a reggae tune, is like jumping into a time machine, setting the clock back 7-odd years and landing slap bang in the middle of DMZ while Loefah and Mala are DJing back-to-back. It could perhaps be viewed as more a living fossil than a document of anything current, but it's mining a rich enough seam that it never feels anything less than vital (see also: one of Mala's career-best tracks, 'Stand Against War', finally getting a vinyl release last month, and ever-excellent material from Deep Medi signing VIVEK).
Bee Mask - 'Pink Drinq'
Chris Madak has been writing beautiful, intricate synth music and technoid ambient for a few years now, but with his releases this autumn - Vaporware and When We Were Eating Unripe Pears - his music fell more closely into techno's orbit. "Like contemporaries on labels like PAN and Broken20, there's a rhythmic axis that beats - often near imperceptibly - beneath the vast floodplains and wandering paths of his music, ensuring that Bee Mask tracks tend to throb and seethe rather than aimlessly drifting," I said in Hyperspecific. "That kinetic energy also percolates upwards and bubbles out at the music's surface, where everything is in state of harried and erratic motion, like a still body of water shaken by a heavy shower of rain ... Though untethered from either weighty 808 rhythms or the need to function in a club, the overall effect is not too dissimilar from Morphosis, or other techno hypnotists like Donato Dozzy: the same stately inevitability, the same muffled aggression that occasionally simmers over into attack mode, a similarly meditative impact upon the listener."
Fatima Al Qadiri - 'Oil Well'
(Fade To Mind)
Al Qadiri's Desert Strike EP was patchy but fascinating, and 'Oil Well' was its beautiful and mournful highlight. Inspired by a childhood growing up in Kuwait and the surreal experience of seeing the Gulf War she'd previously experienced immortalised as a video game, it found her piecing together "a form of digitally disembodied dance music that draws strongly from ghetto sounds like grime, footwork and G-funk, but strips them of the locality that's typically characteristic of those genres," I said. "The results are beguilingly strange and almost disturbingly placeless, finding themselves perpetual residents of some bizarre and crystalline fourth world departure lounge, an interzone between one place and the next. Desert Strike's first three tracks draw much of their energy from their essentially contradictory nature, placing signifiers of ghetto-ness - cocked firearms, bounding 808 toms, lurking sub-bass - within eerily translucent background ambience that suggests yoga music for an ashram in Second Life. It feels - intentionally - almost too perfect, with the threat of danger implied by its terse drum machine hits stripped of potency and left behind only as vague menace."
King Felix - 'Armstrong Limit'
This year Laurel Halo drew vague distinctions between the sickened vocal pop of her Quarantine album and recent single 'Sunlight On The Faded', and her more club-oriented material, which came out under the King Felix name. They seem like pretty permeable boundaries, though: 'Sunlight's dub version rattles along at adrenalising tempo, and her live performances later this year found her scattering the vocal motifs of her album like vapour trails through burbling, aquamarine techno. 'Armstrong Limit' is the most clubby track she's put out in 2012, but still travels within the same border region where human bodies and emotions meet datastreams and digital technology. Like others working within similar synthetic spaces - among them Al Qadiri, Oneohtrix Point Never and Holly Herndon - it's pleasingly ambiguous in intent: its digital bubblestreams and muffled drums can seem either isolating or womb-like, depending on your mood at time of listening. At time of writing it feels pleasingly dissociative, like plunging your head underwater in a hot bath and hearing your body's rhythms begin to intermesh with the metallic thrum of pipes and plumbing.
Jam City - 'How We Relate To The Body (12" Mix)'
As ever, there's been a lot of talk of the unpredictabilities of analogue equipment, spontaneity and so forth with reference to this year's electronic music (especially material further up the list from people like Morphosis, PAN, Bee Mask, et cetera), but what was so glorious about Jam City's Classical Curves album was that it matched the exploratory tendencies of those artists while picking everything out in incredibly high-powered, crystal-clear digital gloss. "The trajectories of individual lines throughout Classical Curves are picked out in sharp definition against relatively spare backgrounds," I said when reviewing the LP, "leaving the inner working of its tracks laid bare, like a running motor encased within a glass box." Stylistically it was all over the place, but held together by a comparatively limited sound palette and a seemingly instinctive understanding of dynamics. The 12" of club mixes that arrived recently transformed the album's tracks more explicitly for dancefloor play.
'Sensate Focus 2.5 X'
The five 12"s Mark Fell released this year under the name Sensate Focus, and his Sentielle Objectif Actualite LP, initially seem dancefloor friendly; the beats land regularly enough, and there are few of the overt glitches and shudders that have defined his recent work with SND. Listen closer though, and the rhythm occasionally slips just enough to perturb both listener and dancer alike, turning these most glittering and texturally delicate of house tracks into beautiful-but-deadly whirls of razor-edged glass. That said, I explained in my review of the first Sensate 12", "there's something almost yogic about the careful flow of energies and overall balance of these takes on club music. Indeed, the project's name feels like both summary and conceptual basis, perfectly matching the music's tactile and teasing nature - sensate focus being a practice of sexual restraint that purports to heighten sensation by spreading concentration outward across the entire body's surface. Turn up loud, breathe slowly and deeply, and try to track a single element as it bobs and weaves around your field of hearing."
Young Smoke - 'Space Zone'
In terms of listening continuity, it seems rather odd to shoehorn a rapid-fire 160bpm footwork track into a mix mostly consisting of music that runs from 120-130bpm (which is why it's here, at the mix's end), but equally it would seem criminal to overlook Chicago's output this year. From the perspective of a listener from the other side of the globe, footwork's made some of its strongest statements in 2012, especially in terms of full-length albums: Traxman's Da Mind Of Traxman and DJ Rashad's Teklife Vol. 1 were expansive and ambitious, and honed to deadly (and very fun) precision, respectively. But Young Smoke's Space Zone, a delightful space opera of an album drawing equally from the star-and-sea gazing atmospheres of Detroit electro and techno, ghetto house, soul, P-funk and the entire Afrofuturist canon, just edged it for me. The work of a precociously skilled 18 year old producer, it's quite unlike any other juke or footwork to have found it way across the pond to date.