Sonic Router 027: Clouds Balance Nothing & Everything
, May 9th, 2013 12:18
Finnish duo Clouds have emerged from the dubstep diaspora with a unique sound hinged around balances: between organic and synthetic, between space and density. They speak to Sonic Router's Oli Marlow about their working process, plus listen to an exclusive mix below
To prefix the coming article: yes, dubstep did crumble. It buckled and morphed into something completely different. And yeah, there are a lot of people (like me) who are sick to death of reading and writing about it - people who will probably never really get over it. But there are also those artists who used the uniquely open playing field of that time to their advantage, making their own thing relevant (see Untold for blitzkrieg techno, Loefah for machine drums, Mount Kimbie for indie-scented nostalgia or even Mala,, for his own spiritually guided tempest). From here on out, all of this should be pretty common knowledge; but right there exists a real testament to the fact that if you pick a part in the music world and devote yourself to filling it, you can end up making things that have near-everlasting longevity. People can make things that still touch you in the same way years later. Sounds that take you right back to the smells and memories your subconscious tied to them years ago.
Helsinki-based Finnish duo Clouds (not the Scottish techno duo Clouds - that's probably an important distinction that I should make from the start) are emphatic proof of that. As a production team Tommi Liikka (aka Dead-O) and Samuli Tanner (aka Ponytail) weathered dubstep's exponential boom period with incredibly well received releases on labels like Noppa, Ramp Recordings and Deep Medi. Consistently making records that marked them out as something of a gentle and overlooked talent who were capable of fusing acoustic sensibilities with the punch of system-ready basslines, they've since opened up their remit a little wider with two recent mini albums: USB Islands on Ramp and Old Space on their own Channel Zero imprint.
Essentially still working within that same stripped back formula, Clouds' sound seems to have receded a little and internalised itself, with the duo often using their digitally corrupted, brittle instrumentals in a more emotive way. On Old Space tracks like 'Home Burning Party', 'Welcome Orange' and 'Google Earth' – especially - there's a tangible tenderness to the music, where an undercurrent of static rumbles under the surface like the constant threat of a bruised memory that always seem to pop up when you least want it to.
"We really can't help what kind of music comes out," Tanner, the more vocal of the two, offers when discussing the wayward directions of the Clouds project. "Even when we try to do something specific, it turns out to be something completely different in the end."
As a result of the freewheeling attitude that's channeled into their studio sessions, Clouds now sit as one of the most sonically experimental outfits that emerged out of that whole mess of Red Stripe, bassweight and self-imposed tinnitus that went before them. Elementally, their music isn't that wildly different now, nor in terms of its arrangement. They still make tracks with a low punch that use drum beats to punctuate and steer them, but - like on 'Wrong Font' - there's been a brazen flaunting of off-key composition lately that comes across as pointedly as Portishead did when they first unveiled 'Machine Gun' to a stunned and bewildered Guardian readership.
"When we started, the plan was to just do some dubstep," Tanner admits, "but for me personally, it was always more interesting to experiment and to try to make music within that genre's 'limits', because all my earlier electronic music projects have been quite experimental and free and that's just the way I've been used to working. I like it when the music just comes out without any pushing, and it's all ready to go without the need for 10 rounds of different mixdowns."
Unpredictable to a fault, the Clouds music that's been released this year definitely feels like it's a lot less confined - whether that be in terms of the tempo or the overall style of their output. Coincidentally, it's also something that's been reflected in the route to market they're using, having recently re-ignited their own fledgling Channel Zero imprint with a cassette version of their most recent album and another stylistically similar long player from World Bank - a decision made based on a wish to simply get the newer stuff out there quicker.
"It's not so conscious when we're making music," the two offer unanimously, distancing themselves from any notion that unpredictability is a key factor they seek in their song writing. "I just like to have something little happening all the time, even if the song is really just about repeating the same loop," Tanner continues. "It's kind of a bad thing when I get lost in all that, and notice that there is probably enough material for nine songs in one, but I look at it as a personal challenge to try to keep things in balance between nothing and everything at once."
And it's precisely there that their music teeters. Whilst it's often incredibly detailed and carefully constructed, it's also built to serve a larger purpose. That's why you'll continue to be able to hear tightly wound steppers like 'You Go To My Head' alongside the corrosive fragility of a song like 'Touching Diesel' jostling amongst their discography. It's also why you're likely to hear a cacophony of wind instruments blending together, all flowery and symphonic, as a prelude to a bitcrush-driven bass drop on a beat like 'Cannibal Generals'.
"I have way too many projects all the time," Tanner admits, "and living where I do, in Helsinki, is kind of bad in that sense, because most of the people I see are somehow all musicians and there are new ideas for new projects happening all the time - which is great. But sometimes I just need to get away from there to really concentrate on something specific. Like, right now I'm living in Sweden for two months, partly for that reason...
"I mean, in the beginning we were both living together as housemates and we worked together all the time," he continues. "But nowadays I also do things by myself and then we listen and discuss and finalise them together. For sure the move means there'll be a small break as far as us being together in the studio goes, but my plan is to concentrate on music here, and I'm sure there will be some new Clouds things coming up also. It's also not that far from here so we can easily go and do gigs if something comes up. Two months isn't that long a time actually…"
The fact that they've been sitting on some of this material for years ("the tracks on USB Islands are quite old, like from between 2008-2010 or something") probably says a whole lot more about their original and geographical distance from the boom points of dubstep, than it does the influence their association with that sound ever had on their music. Old Space is a little different, and more experimental than their latest Ramp material, but it's a frenetic, tender and incredibly warm collection of work that deviates from its opening theme a hundred times over, passing through various states of distortion and loop hypnosis as it goes.
Perhaps it's all, as Tanner suggests, a product of the close knit, fertile environment they live in, but Clouds' technical duality - this "balance between nothing and everything" - has been beautifully reflected over their last couple of album releases. Though more than anything else, it's their ability to master whatever sonic approaches they choose to adopt that really mark them out as such a sadly underrated and deeply enjoyable prospect.
DOWNLOAD: Clouds - Sonic Router Mix #160
Clouds & Left Leberra - 'Dark Days'
Inner - 'Distant Ship
OoOOo - 'Break Yr Heartt
Hunter Jaquard - 'Unfinished Track No.11
Corps Diplomatique - 'Puzzle Sheeps
Keyboard Kid - 'The Rapture
World Bank - 'Tekken 9
East City Management - 'Cram The Beat Raw Combineslap Edit
Clouds - 'Dark Prescription
Actress - 'Raven
Clouds - 'Google Earth
The-Drum - 'Gon
Absnt - 'Silent Kill'
Old Space and USB Islands are out now on Channel Zero and Ramp Recordings respectively.