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Hyperspecific: The Best Electronic Music Of 2017
Christian Eede , December 13th, 2017 11:33

Christian Eede looks back on a year in electronic music, placing the focus on some of 2017’s best record labels.

The artwork for PAN's Mono No Aware compilation

I must admit that I find the task of summarising 2017 in electronic music somewhat daunting, given the sheer volume of excellent music that has found its way online or into record shops over the course of the year. But, while each edition of this column aims to round-up the month’s best music, it’s only natural that I’ll also miss some excellent releases and mixes, or that, with the finite space afforded to me in putting together Hyperspecific, there simply isn’t enough room to give attention to absolutely everything I would want to.

So you could consider this final edition of Hyperspecific for 2017 a chance to correct any past misdemeanours, and give due attention to the people whose contributions to the electronic music scene really pushed things forward this year. I wouldn’t like to consider the below round-up a definitive report on where the wider scene was at in 2017 though - it’s merely a reflection of my own tastes and I’ve never been one for ranking and list-making. For that reason, the below round-up is in no particular order.

This is also a corner of music that you can’t simply pin down to a mere list of the best releases, given that so much of its advancement is rooted in physical spaces, particularly in the shared experience of spending time in clubs and music venues - it’s in these spaces that smaller scenes are created and incubated, and that people find something that they can truly connect with.

But in touching on some of my favourite labels from the last 12 months, I hope that you might find something new that you missed this year or at least get a warm, smug feeling from seeing some of your own favourites featured. Thanks for reading the column this year, and see you in 2018.

Hyperdub

With a number of new and more established names making their debut on the label this year, as well as some of the best of its roster making their return, it’s safe to say that 2017 was a strong year for Hyperdub. Kicking off the year with a record of video game-referencing, sugary synths from Quarta 303, the label swiftly followed with a 12” of serene, abstract pieces by Jesse Kanda (as Doon Kanda), which recalled the heartaching melodies of regular collaborator Arca. Hyperdub also continued to fly the flag for footwork and juke via a crushing five-tracker from Teklife’s DJ Tre.

Notable highlights for the year arrived in the form of Klein’s disorienting sound collages on Tommy; Laurel Halo’s jazz-tinged experimentations on Dust, featuring a wide cast of collaborators including Eli Keszler, Klein, Max D, Lafawndah, Julia Holter and more; Mnestic Pressure, Lee Gamble’s Hyperdub debut, with its sparse, embodied take on UK hardcore and jungle; and a compilation entitled Diggin In The Carts, compiled by label head Kode9 and Nick Dwyer, presenter of RBMA Radio’s show of the same name, which assembled an extensive collection of early 8-bit and 16-bit Japanese video game music.

PAN

Perhaps it’s no surprise to see Bill Kouligas’ label featured in a list of the year’s best, given the consistency it has maintained since its first release in 2008. This was particularly good year for PAN: they released six of the year’s best long-players, tied together only by their commitment to pushing at the boundaries of electronic music.

Pan Daijing’s Lack was a haunting clash of noise and drone music, while Konrad Sprenger’s Stack Music brought baroque-infused minimalism to the table, aligning itself with the musique concrète material that made up much of the label’s earliest releases. Mono No Aware, a 16-track compilation, was an engrossing collection of ambient music featuring some new and familiar faces to the label - highlights from that came in the form of AYYA’s ‘Second Mistake (coming off like an updated take on MssingNo’s ‘XE2’) and Yves Tumor’s ‘Limerence’.

Rounding off the year, STILL’s I was a riotous collision of dancehall and hard drums, while M.E.S.H.’s Hesaitix saw the producer strip away the theory that surrounded previous full-length Piteous Gate in exchange for a record which veered between angular club bangers and doom-laden ambience. Perhaps PAN’s best release of 2017 was Errorsmith’s Superlative Fatigue, carried along by the producer’s ever-colourful sound design and playful android-like vocals.

Hemlock

Having taken a break since the release of Brood Ma’s P O P U L O U S in May 2015, Hemlock returned in a big way earlier this year. A considerably more restrained, yet characteristically beguiling three-tracker from Bruce was the first of six records from the label in 2017. Parris later made his debut with three leftfield, experimental club cuts centred around his love of sub-bass, while label head Untold swiftly followed that with two of his sparsest works to date in ‘Tear Up The Club’ and ‘Watton Res’.

Hodge and Airhead also made their returns to the label, with the latter sharing his most rave-ready production to date in ‘Shaded’. Rounding out the year, Ploy’s debut with Hemlock was a head-spinning affair, not least thanks to the driving, merciless rush of ‘Garys’, which is surely in contention for track title of the year.

Freedom To Spend

Relaunching this year as a sub-imprint of the always on-point RVNG Intl, Pete Swanson and Jed Bindeman’s Freedom To Spend wasted no time in making its mark on 2017 via four excellent, and much-needed, reissues, each record linked by capturing their respective producers’ early experimentations with electronic music gear and home studios.The label started its year in February with a pair of reissues of Seattle-based Michele Mercure’s Eye Chant, a colourful, almost kitsch collection of voice and synthesizer pieces, and Marc Barreca’s Music Works For Industry, a minimalist, more abstract set of tracks originally released on K Leimer’s Palace Of Lights label in 1983.

The jewels of the label’s four releases this year followed, in the form of reissued material by Pep Llops and Richard Horowitz. The former’s Poiemusia La Nau Dels Argonautes originally came together in 1986, written specially for a theatre performance based on Salvador Jàfer’s poem La nau dels Argonautes. Emerging from the fertile Spanish new age scene of the 1980s, which also gave us excellent music from the likes of Suso Sáiz and Eugenio Muñoz, its five pieces paint a picture of Mediterranean paradise, flutes, marimbas and all manner of other instruments colliding into one glorious union. Richard Horowitz’ Eros In Arabia carries over a similar sound palette exploring what has come to be termed fourth world music (via Jon Hassell’s coining of the term) in twinkling, meandering flutes and hand drums. While each Freedom To Spend release thus far has put pricey rarities into the hands of record lovers today, the label has importantly kept its sights on exposing music from that era in which musicians were really getting to grips with electronic instrumentation leading to beautiful results.

Livity Sound

Continuing to push forward with their distinctly UK brand of techno, Livity Sound has had perhaps its strongest year to date. A steely two-tracker from Kowton back in April, led by the alien sounds of ‘Pea Soup’, soon gave way to a new album from label head Peverelist, entitled Tesselations. Featuring one of the year’s standout club tracks in the eery, arpeggiated swirl of ‘Still Early’, it captured in full the progress his sound has made in the eight years since his previous album.

Brooding dancefloor-centred records from Hodge and Mosca followed with the latter’s ‘Don’t Take This The Wrong Way’ underpinned by throbbing sub-bass and darting, scattershot samples. A debut from the mysterious I-iii pushed the Livity sound into deeper reaches, gunning less for outright club impact than other outings from the label this year, employing sparse percussion and a carefully considered sound palette on 12” highlight ‘Bun So Nude’. Rounding out the year, Forest Drive West, who’s had a particularly strong run of form in 2017, drew on sinister chord progressions with the murky ‘Static’, while Simo Cell’s ’Pour Le Club!’ EP saw him continue to experiment with higher tempos on standout ‘Feel Di Kouala Vybz’. While Livity Sound’s name might be associated with a very particular style of 4x4 techno, the label proved in 2017 that you can still experiment within these boundaries.

Samurai Music Group

The Berlin-based distributor and label which has given rise to a number of offshoots in recent years - such as Samurai Red Seal, Samurai Horo and Shiro - has grown into one of the most respected outlets for modern drum and bass, pushing a sound that is heavy on dark atmospherics and pummelling drums. A remixes EP of tracks lifted from Homemade Weapons’ murky 2016 debut album Negative Space saw label mainstays Ancestral Voices, The Untouchables and Sam KDC deliver a trio of crushing alongside an updated take on ‘Tidal Track’ from the producer himself. The producer also turned in a further four tracks of amen-referencing heavy hitters on the Heiress EP to round out a year which marked a decade of existence.

Last Life’s Nootka EP pushed the label’s sound into deeper depths - all halftime drums and screwface-inducing basslines - while Theme’s Passages LP folded ambient and dub techno excursions into the mix, parts of the record coming off like a 170 BPM interpretation of Prince Of Denmark’s submerged techno. The Horo wing of Samurai Music Group also kept very busy through the year with 13 releases. Lemna’s Urge Theory, ASC’s Point Of Origin and Feardom from Sam KDC made for particular highlights in their release schedule.

Lullabies For Insomniacs

Over the course of eight releases in 2017, Izabel Caligiore’s Lullabies For Insomniacs continued to establish itself as a fruitful source of gorgeous, spacey ambient music. A various artists compilation, entitled Turn On, Tune In, released earlier this year saw a number of producers return to the label while introducing a cast of new names. Highlights from Sugar Ken on ‘Bantotenmoku’ and Georgia on ‘Mist ∞ Skat’ centred around mischievous bell chimes and soothing melodies. Elsewhere, releases from Million Brazilians (Red Rose And Obsidian) and Life Garden (Songs From The Other Side Of Emptiness) took in more experimental, tribal influences casting the label’s net further beyond the tranquility of much of the material that had come before.

Standout reissues from László Hortobágyi (Transreplica Meccano) and Yasuo Sugibayashi (The Mask Of The Imperial Family) also saw the label mining the past for further high quality releases. The former was originally recorded in 1988, its roots in Hortobágyi’s part in the Gáyan Uttejak Orchestra immediately clear as strings sweep through a series of majestic compositions. The latter record has its roots in the early ‘80s, taking a more abstract tack, centred around peculiar machine experimentations and heavily manipulated, buried vocals. The release schedule has showed no signs of slowing down in recent months, so expect even more treasures to come from the label in the new year.

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