Eat Yr Idols: Rory Gibb On Powell’s Sport
, October 13th, 2016 09:37
In Oscar Powell's debut full-length, Rory Gibb finds confirmation of both the diagonal honcho's sense of humour and the curiously un-psychedelic quality of his music, as well as a new kind of inscrutability, rooted in detachment where previously it had been the product of anonymity
During that opening blast of weird, muddy 12” singles in 2011 and 2012, one of the most intriguing things about Powell was his effective anonymity. You could hear that there was a person behind these knackered-sounding, Frankenstein’s monster beats roughly stitched together from drum machine, synthesiser murk and hotwired vocal samples, but whoever that necromancer was, he remained essentially faceless. There’s something precious about that degree of distance: it was what lent records like Body Music, ‘Rider’ and ‘Oh No New York’ much of their eerie charge, as they seemed to stumble, grey-fleshed and volatile, straight out of the same parallel-universe urban interzone as sonic kin such as the Skull Disco crew, the brittle-boned dub mania of T++, and those early Regis 12”s that sounded like they’d been mastered inside a wheelie bin. The result was music that seemed to bridge worlds, summoning fragments of musics past to rip chunks out of current dancefloors drawing increasingly for heavily metallic, mechanical gear (L.I.E.S, the New Wave Of British Industrial Techno, et al). That their withdrawn character wasn’t so much intentional as circumstantial — as with any emerging musician, at first only a relative handful of people paid much attention — made little difference to its effect.
The mystique has faded since then, as Oscar Powell has become more visible as DJ, radio host and Diagonal label co-boss, meaning that his work has inevitably lost some of the atmosphere of spooky romance that made those early records compelling. But his music’s essential strangeness has stayed intact, even as Powell-the-artist has emerged as a sincere but pranksterish character with a sharp eye for arresting visual design and broad, exploratory music taste; both are in evidence in some of the remarkable records (NHK’Koyxen, Blood Music, Bronze Teeth, some of close ally Russell Haswell’s best work) released by Diagonal in the last few years. Since signing to XL for a pair of 12”s and now his debut album Sport, what has also come increasingly to light is a smart marketing sensibility, perhaps as a spillover from his former career in advertising: placing billboards in Shoreditch, puckishly making his terse email exchange with Steve Albini the focus of the video for his Albini-sampling track ‘Insomnia’, a peculiar fixation with melons, and now an online Sport shop flogging a range of POWELL-branded goods alongside a “cocaine-white horse” priced at £10,000.
Such sharply-honed ad-campaign aesthetics are enjoyably self-deprecating in the way they poke fun at the absurdly corporate flavour of current electronic music while still participating in the same damn game as everyone else. You certainly wouldn’t call them subversive — as with his older releases, Sport is distinctly apolitical — but there is still a particular streak of chaos running through the Diagonal aesthetic, and by osmosis into Powell’s own work, that grates against the slick, semi-branded surroundings its protagonists often find themselves performing within. (The unruly, speaker-rupturing noise of allies like Haswell and EVOL, for example, doesn’t exactly lend itself well to containment, sonic or otherwise.) The same slippery, unhinged sensibility is stamped like a stick of rock through Sport, from opener proper ‘Fuck You Oscar’’s channeling of ‘Eye Of The Tiger’, to the album’s ramshackle sound and frequent bizarre nods to electroclash, to its extended Skype conversation interlude between Chicago DJ Traxx and Powell (audibly giggling away in the background) about DJ ethics and aesthetics. It zig-zags between moods almost faster than you can follow: deftly funky drum passages abruptly hacked at by solar-flare bursts of staticky noise, dance tracks caked with muck, a couple of oddly anthemic pop songs voiced by HTRK’s Jonnine Standish, all cast in typically Powell-esque, spidery tones. Despite its boxfresh presentation, musically it’s about as far from a crisp, marketable product as you can imagine, especially for a big independent like XL.
This is all in keeping with the volatility of Powell’s music over the last couple of years, making Sport more a consolidation than a signal of major developments in his work. Yet the extended runtime, as well as highlighting its claustrophobic qualities (fittingly for its title, listening in one sitting is a pretty full-on workout), does hammer home just how distinctively un-psychedelic Powell’s music is — an unusual trait indeed for dance music operating, however obliquely, in a UK lineage. Texturally it's muffled, woody and desert-dry, as un-effected samples stab into the mix with little attempt to hide the seams, and even its acid-leaning lines are wracked and ragged, a far cry from the trippy, magic-eye splatter of the 303 in house music — indeed, tracks like 'Big Keith' and 'Her Face' sound like the dry bones left behind after the blissful acid ocean has receded. Its headwrecking character instead comes from its harsh, cannibalistic treatment of its source material, as scrawling sampled guitar lines, the voices of collaborators and influences, film samples, and live punk album ambience — a thrilling, heady stew invoking Suicide, Ike Yard, early Swans and Sonic Youth, Haswell, The Fall — are gobbled up, digested and barked back out in roughshod formation: consume yr idols. Despite casting its net further backwards in time, that wide-roaming collagist's sensibility also makes Powell's aesthetic as contemporary in its own way as a lot of the glassy-edged, hi-def deconstructive club music currently poised along dance music's mooted avant garde. For all its plundering of 1980s and 90s influences, there's certainly no wistfulness or nostalgia to be found here.
However, in a strange inversion of the distance of his early records, although Oscar Powell-as-artist is more present than ever in the album's presentation, for large portions of Sport he still remains inscrutable, his emotions rarely breaking the music's surface. As a result, the music's knowing, mischievous nature can feel rather arch and detached, as if the stakes are lower than its sonic urgency might otherwise suggest (a criticism that can also be levelled at Standish's monochrome chants to "accelerate culture" on 'Frankie'). This can be feel alienating even as the music is exhilarating: at a time of instability and inequality, what are the emotional consequences of art aesthetics that simply mirror back the current state of things, however playfully? Compare the puckishness of much of Sport to that of Zomby, for example, whose work (despite his ambivalent reputation among underground heads these days) contains something genuinely subversive in its simultaneous deep longing for dance music's promise of human connection and flat-out refusal to comply with contemporary electronic music's capitalist mechanics.
During the album's first half especially you therefore find yourself wishing for a more tangible emotional link to its maker. This arrives during Sport's last third, which closes the distance with the listener in a thrilling final run of tracks: the fantastically brusque and disorienting 'Do You Rotate', where Dale Cornish's voice is splintered into a salvo of sharp commands; the ghostly motorik thrill-ride of 'Her Face'; a surprise sun-shower of glistening, reverbed chords on 'Plastic'; and finally Loke Rahbek's singing on the gorgeous, haunting 'Mad Love'. These, which rank among his best work yet, begin to sketch the muscle and blood back onto his music's bones and sinew, and in doing so hint towards broader possibilities for Powell's music — avenues it would be exciting to hear him explore in future.