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The Month in Electronic Music: Knackered House
Rory Gibb , August 18th, 2011 07:45

Rory Gibb takes a look at this month's notable releases in (mostly) UK house

Well over halfway through the summer now; shit's getting darker as minds have swung past the solstice, with dilapidated house from Bristol in the shape of Kowton, El Kid and Vessel, and from across the UK (and a little further afield) from John Osborn, Kevin McPhee, West Norwood Cassette Library and more.

Kowton – Keep Walking/Show Me [nakedlunch]
El Kid – 112/Le Corbusier [Immerse]
John Osborn – Epoch 4 [TANSTAAFL]
Vessel & Zhou – Tremble/Release Me [Astro:Dynamics]
Kevin McPhee – House 44/Sleep [Idle Hands]

At the moment, it feels as though barely a week goes by without more essential new West Country house music (perhaps it would be better to call this column 'Bristolspecific', given its track record so far). The nascent scene there for angular, bass-heavy variants on the genre is swiftly developing into one of the most exciting pockets of musical activity in the UK, and this month's pickings are particularly rich. Almost everyone who's involved in this feverish wave of creativity is releasing something of note: a long awaited pair of tracks from Kowton on [nakedlunch], EPs from rising newcomers El Kid and Vessel, and the launch of October's new TANSTAAFL label.

Something of a city institution by this point, having tracked a gradual trajectory from austere, techy dubstep through more colourful takes on the genre, Kidkut's Immerse label has now turned its attention wholly to supporting the development of a new generation of Bristol producers. So following the laid-back boogie of Outboxx's 'Kate Libby' earlier this year, its latest comes from El Kid. His recent split cassette with Vessel (reviewed in the first edition of this column) was interesting because it betrayed the pair's musical interests as ranging far beyond your typical dancefloor-leaning standards. Both producers' contributions were half-obscured in turbid analogue murk, betraying the influence of US noise artists like The Skaters and Oneohtrix Point Never. Both tracks on his Immerse 12” continue along similar lines – both are slower than your regular house tempo, allowing seemingly incidental background details greater space to breathe – though in keeping with the label's club origins carry far more physical weight. '112' in particular comes across as a slower cousin to the rolling house/garage grooves of George FitzGerald, drenched in lush, heavily effected chords that engage and disengage with the rest of the track according to some enigmatic internal logic. 'Le Corbusier' toys with a similarly randomized approach to structure, but is moodier and more introspective: a dense web of percussive and melodic elements and found sound, underpinned by the metronomic boom of a kick drum. And the long-awaited 'hello hi-hats' moment arrives about twenty seconds before the track ends, teasing with the promise of dancefloor bliss but tearing it away at the last second. It is, for want of a better word, stunning.

El Kid - Le Corbusier by immerserecords

Vessel's new release on Astro:Dynamics, a collaboration with Zhou, is similar in its wading-through-quicksand tempo and approach to track construction. Given the range of his influences, it's unsurprising that his music has a similarly British, 70s-science-documentary feel as Leyland Kirby or Ghost Box artists like The Focus Group. What distinguishes these tracks is their latent connection to the dancefloor (something they share with Boards Of Canada): both are underpinned by almost painfully slow four-to-the-floor rhythms, but coated in static and muck, a little like Andy Stott's recent self-described 'knackered house' tracks. 'Tremble' in particular feels in thrall to a memory of house music, but it's less nostalgia for the club than for its presence through headphones, overlaid onto the fabric of mundane daily life.

Kowton spearheaded the Bristolian emergence of this unsettlingly slow, swung house sound last year with the excellent Basic Music Knowledge EP on Idle Hands; everything he's released since has been just as essential. His new EP on [nakedlunch] is his best yet, a pair of beautiful tracks that carry themselves with a very deliberate, predatory grace. 'Keep Walking's dead-eyed sub-bass and scissor-swipe hi-hats are suggestive of featureless wasteland, but the huge, billowing synth harmonies that occasionally blow across its surface offer slight flickers of redemption. 'Show Me', meanwhile, is half-decayed like Kassem Mosse, but hits with about twice much force. At a time when tempos are dropping across the board, Kowton's music is slow house done properly; there's nothing remotely faddy about it. By their very nature, the mood and rhythms of his tracks necessitate a considered approach, and it's to his credit that they remain destructive on a dancefloor. His more recent unreleased tracks further confirm that fact – they're pared away almost to nothing, applying the hyper-reductive, negative-space centred approach of early DMZ (and especially Loefah) to house music. It's a mark of his music's genuinely alien quality that it feels increasingly necessary to develop a different vocabulary with which to approach it (excitingly, the same is true of a lot of music coming out of Bristol at the moment).

Show Me (Nakedlunch) by Kowton

While John Osborn might be based in Berlin, the fact that his Epoch4 12” is released on his new collaborative label with October and features Appleblim on keys is enough to cement the Bristol association. It also helps that it's excellent, a close cousin to October's own grinding analogue house – the title track's drums are thick and tough, providing an appropriately rigid backbone for the lazy melody that drifts into view halfway through. 'Epoch4 [Version]' is even better, a driving jack track propelled by springy pulses of bass, freaked-out voices and strung-out synth drones – despite being unmistakeably a house track, there's more than a hint of Shackleton's modern dystopian dread encoded in there.

John Osborn - Epoch4 [TANS001] by TANSTAAFL RECORDS

Similarly, Kevin McPhee most certainly isn't Bristolian in origin – he's Canadian – but his music is tied to the city's house-tinted output thanks to his previous release on [nakedlunch] and this latest 12” for Bristol label Idle Hands. Both tracks here sound utterly spent; like Vessel & Zhou's collaborative tunes, each individual element appears to be collapsing in on all the others, resulting in beats that rush from beginning to end like a single long exhalation. Where 'House 44' is a soft sigh of a track, all breathy synths and percussion that rustles like autumn leaves, 'Sleep' appears to have resolved to drag itself from its self-imposed stupor, all stuttering vocals and start-stop percussion. That it never quite achieves its goal simply adds to its languid appeal, and makes it a lovely complement to its lazier companion.

Gerry Read – Untitled/Legs [Fourth Wave]
Nochexxx – Savage Herald/Charro [Ramp]
West Norwood Cassette Library – Get Lifted [WNCL]
Seltene Erden - Northern Rae [Mule Electronic]

More knackered house, this time from outside of Bristol – further proof that, while that city seems to be something of an epicentre, there's a healthy upwelling of activity going on elsewhere. What's interesting is that many producers have shifted towards this sound after working with dubstep-influenced bass music. Gerry Read's earlier EPs on Dark Arx were clearly influenced by two-step, but his new 12” on Fourth Wave is significantly different, and significantly better. The two tracks here are coated in fuzz, but unlike the generic vinyl crackle/raindrops stuff that's been thoroughly rinsed since Burial pretty much patented it, it's not overlaid onto them after they've been constructed. Instead it's generated by the interplay of elements within each track – on 'Legs', an indistinct blur of bass and tinny hi-hats; on the excellent, frustratingly short 'Untitled', a fragment of male vocal and metallic percussion that sounds like it's being played by Konono No. 1.

4TH002 / GERRY READ by Fourth Wave

Cambridge producer Nochexxx released one of last year's most underrated little records in 'Timepiece', a veritable ghost train of a track, all spooked ballroom pianos and harsh stabs of sub-bass. His new 12” for Ramp picks up where it left off, but has a jammier, more improvised feel: all written on analogue gear, the electro groove of 'Charro' sounds as though it's been set up and allowed to run to infinity, while individual elements are tweaked to disorienting effect. 'Savage Herald' is closer to the sound of his last EP, acidic brushes of synth drifting evilly above mechanical low-end grind. Both tracks have an air of carnivalesque menace, which works as a perfect complement to their sound palette, all browns, greys and the odd flash of colour.

West Norwood Cassette Library's name might suggest he's the sort of act who'd appear on the Ghost Box label, but in fact he's another who's moved from dubsteppy confines to make lovely low fidelity house. There are still phantoms in this machine though – 'Get Lifted's brisk clip is frequently interrupted by random bursts of noise or breaks in the rhythm, while a delayed voice occasionally reminds the listener to 'get high'. Karenn's remix is a stunning piece of work – the combined work of better-knowns Blawan and Pariah, it's marked out by the former's distinctive way with drums, which hit with such intensity that they threaten to stun the track into inaction. The latter's presence is harder to make out in the fray, which is perhaps a good thing; while his previous releases on R&S sounded more like clever syntheses of existing sounds than unique entities in their own right, here his role tempers Blawan's more manic tendencies, resulting in a terse, atmospheric dancefloor piece.

WNCL006A: WEST NORWOOD CASSETTE LIBRARY_Get Lifted (Original Mix) by WNCL Recordings

And although it was released a couple of months ago, Seltene Erden's Northern Rae certainly bears more than a cursory mention, as it was almost entirely ignored in the press. An alter ego of Leipzig's Kassem Mosse - something of a poster boy for this worn-out analogue take on deep house, and a bit of a darling in the UK scene thanks to associations with Joy Orbison and Instra:mental - it finds him shifting further away from his dancefloor-ish material into a form so decrepit that it's surprising it can support its own weight. Here, the relative rigidity of each track's structure has begun to crumble away at the edges, resulting in a baggy approach to rhythm that's consistently slipping in and out of coherent ability. It'd likely confuse most clubs, but the beauty of these tracks is in their ability to self-organise independently of their creators' hands: listening to the title track is akin to watching a rush hour street from above, seeing eddying patterns form and solidify out of a seething mass of commuter bodies.