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The Month's Electronic Music: Through The Looking Glass
Rory Gibb , November 8th, 2012 03:46

For this month's edition of Hyperspecific, Rory Gibb tours some of dance music's fringes, via improvised electronics, digital Triffids, disembodied grime and hall-of-mirrors house

There's no shortage of worthwhile dance music to cover this month. In fact, there's been far too much of it in the seven weeks or so since the last edition of this column (delayed due to Unsound Festival and a brief period of total musical overload) to compress everything down into a piece of writing that anyone would have the patience to read. So instead, this edition of Hyperspecific focuses mainly on artists operating around the fringes: making use of improvisation, live instrumentation and noise (Upperground Orchestra, Bee Mask), subtracting the forward drive normally required to move a dancefloor (Fatima Al Qadiri, pictured, above), or slowing and darkening their music until it's barely recognisable as club-friendly (Samuel Kerridge, Kassem Mosse & XDB, Area). Oh, and a fantastic new 12" from Swedish techno maestros Skudge, because it's been on near-constant rotation over the past few weeks.

Upperground Orchestra - The Eupen Takes

That techno mystic Rabih Beaini, aka Morphosis, should moonlight in an improvisational jazz ensemble seems fitting. Drawing influence equally from Middle Eastern musics, free jazz, Detroit and Chicago club lineages and noise/experimental electronics, his takes on techno and house are entirely based around live improvisation, and find him constructing music in real time both in the studio and live onstage. Similarly, the Upperground Orchestra are entirely a live concern, with each performance starting from scratch and unraveling in an entirely different manner to the last. The Eupen Takes is the first recorded document of an Upperground show to be officially released, and their first release full stop since 2008's Solaris Eremit, a 12" of studio improvised material again released through Beaini's label Morphine.

On the surface, there are a fair few similarities between Beaini's solo music and his work in ensemble. Both hang on a knife-edge between tight and muscular funk and total rhythmic disarray - often remaining in one mode while flirting ominously with the other - making them refreshingly fluid and unpredictable. Take any particular moment of either Morphosis' 2011 debut What Have We Learned or The Eupen Takes: both possess a nagging sense that the music could potentially launch off along any number of different trajectories from its current position. Throughout both, Beaini runs a similar line in Radiophonic squawks, Geiger counter grit and modal melodies that hint toward the music of his home country of Lebanon. But where Beaini's solo work is intended as club music, and thus remains locked within its specific parameters (while admittedly often pushing their boundaries almost to the limit), Upperground Orchestra are free to change tack at will.

This forty-minute recording shapeshifts a disorienting number of times: an opening segment ('Born Again') suggesting lounge jazz in a hotel lobby beset by malfunctioning Daleks and swarms of angry metal wasps, is dragged through a prolonged tempo escalation into 'Memory Shark's predatory techno jack. Later, it passes through sleazy funk, sun-baked desert ambient, gorgeous and meandering avant rock ('We Travel The Lands of Stars & Dust') to a closing section whose percussion is all chatter, wheeze and hum, and buzzes around like traders at a busy street market. The focal point here is some virtuosic and very intuitive drum and saxophone dialogue - the players appear psychically linked, signaling for group shifts in direction within a matter of mere seconds. He might be the group's most well-known member but Beaini is present as binding factor: his electronics provide enough consistency of tone and atmosphere to hold the entire performance together. Jazz and techno might be the two touchstones here, but between them they find a mutual language - parabolic rhythmic mania punctuated by interludes of blissful calm - that's an appreciable distance away from either.

Bee Mask - When We Were Eating Unripe Pears
(Spectrum Spools)
Bee Mask - 'Vaporware'/'Scanops'

Of all the neo-kosmische/post-noise explorers whose balmy currents have lapped at our shores over the past few years, Chris Madak is among the few who seem hellbent on mapping out genuinely new territory. 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. 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.

New full-length When We Were Eating Unripe Pears - his third for Spectrum Spools after the wonderfully sinister Canzoni Dal Laboratorio Del Silenzio Cosmico and a compilation of older material, Elegy For Beach Friday - is the most beautiful and enigmatic thing he's released to date. Propulsion and percussion are the order of the day here, made far more explicit than on much of his older material. 'The Story of Keys & Locks' is both spectacular and threatening, unfolding triffid-like into a writhing mass of tendrils that coil gracefully around its centre, and 'Pink Drinq' chuckles and burbles before erupting in a shower of static and screaming distortion.

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. Madak and Beaini also appear to share a mutual respect for the essential autonomy of their machines: they may be at hand to guide them in particular directions, but the individual characteristics and imperfections of the hardware are allowed to play an equal role in defining the music's nature.

Madak's recently released 12" 'Vaporware'/'Scanops' is a neat companion piece to the shorter-form compositions on Unripe Pairs - its two pieces sprawl outward across entire sides of vinyl. The space does them good. 'Vaporware' is a glorious near-fourteen minutes of music, all synthetic vocal chants, stringy harmonies and a rhythm tapped out on glass chimes. As its title - a pun, perhaps, on the recently emerged niche genre vaporwave, influenced strongly by James Ferraro's Far Side Virtual and recently explored in depth by Adam Harper in an essay on Dummy - might suggest, it marks a step into subtly new territory for Madak. Its near-uncanny perfection suggests a similarly soothing mood music for the artificial halls and corridors of the web, though lacking the obvious signifiers now characteristic of music that deals with notions of digital space (Windows 95 idents, glassy voices, clipped distortion), its intentions are pleasingly ambiguous.

Fatima Al Qadiri - Desert Strike
(Fade To Mind)

On new EP Desert Strike, Brooklyn resident Fatima Al Qadiri presents 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. 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.

Wiley's early eski riddims and Devil Mixes are clear compositional touchstones here - Al Qadiri's rubbery melody lines have a similar property of seeming both hi and lo fidelity at once, simultaneously futuristic and obselete - as is the work of contemporaries and fellow eski devotees like Nguzunguzu and Logos. But where Wiley's music remained solipsistically focused upon its own tight sphere of existence, Al Qadiri's tracks are like riddles, packed so full of reference points to other places, times and cultures that they're dizzying to try and unpick. Spiritual, religious and mystical undertones weave their way throughout. The organ trills on 'War Games' suggest worship - a less overt companion to 'Vatican Vibes', from last year's Genre-Specific Xperience, where a synthetic choir lent a devotional edge to rattling footwork. 'Hydra's squeaky clean textures and synthetic steel pans conjure a weightless digi-utopia equally familiar to both incense-burning New Agers and modern tech-evangelists who dream of one day reassembling minds in cyberspace. The EP's title and track names hint towards unpleasant truths of military intervention in the Middle East, even as its artwork - fire and a stealth bomber over a roiling CGI ocean, seen through the lens of an iPad-like viewfinder - connects with violence only at a remove.

Desert Strike presents these questions but doesn't, in and of itself, provide any concrete answers. By and large that's not a problem. Most tracks here are strong enough to exist by themselves, but lacking the drive of Genre-Specific Xperience, at times they feel frustratingly fragile, beautiful and absorbing miniatures that could be scattered to the wind within a fraction of a second.

Samuel Kerridge - Auris Interna
(Horizontal Ground)

The personnel behind Manchester's Frozen Border and Horizontal Ground label collectives might be less mysterious - only a little, mind you - since they started printing the names of artists on their record sleeves, but the music they release remains as enigmatic as ever. The latter has established itself as the more exploratory sister to Frozen Border's propulsive, coal-black techno, with earlier releases from the likes of Szare and Skirt finding a beguiling and rhythmically slippery middle ground between out-and-out UK industrial techno and the barren post-dance of Blackest Ever Black artists like Raime. It's into that kind of liminal zone that Berlin's Samuel Kerridge is tapping with his debut 12" Auris Interna - beats are sparse and unhurried, sub-bass is a hollow roar like hot wind whipping across open ground, the midrange is dominated by the clangs of metal upon metal.

Comparisons with Raime aren't inaccurate - for a first release, there's a similarly unusual level of skill to Kerridge's music not dissimilar to Raime's incredibly full-formed 2010 debut EP. However, where jungle is a major touchstone for the latter's sound, techno and house lie at the heart of the four tracks on Auris Interna, albeit bolstered by forays into doom metal and the post industrial meditations of artists like Current 93 and Coil. The kickdrums on opener 'inANDout' splat like sacks of wet cement hitting the pavement - a reminder that this is, however obliquely, dance music - but a soft piped melody that whistles across its surface suggests some decrepit folk form, long lost to the ravages of time and only resurrected as a shadow of its former self. 'Auditory System' and 'Membranous Labyrinth', a pair of sensual and serotonin-drained techno tracks, are the EP's highlights. Across the former's surface chuckle time-stretched breaks extended to the point where they rattle the senses - an utterly merciless comedown where the previous night's music still rings ceaselessly in the ears. The latter is the closest thing to a dancefloor track here, albeit one where metallic thuds emerge slowly and violently from a metallic sheen of abattoir ambience.

FIT ft. Gunnar Wendel & Omar-S - 'Enter The Fog'/'Roll Out'
XDB & Kassem Mosse - 'Ekatem'/'Omrish'
(Diamonds & Pearls)
Area - Not Waiting Anymore
(Until My Heart Stops)

Gunnar Wendel, aka Kassem Mosse, creates grooves with such endless flexibility and momentum that they could conceivably continue to slowly unspool forever. His presence as beatmaker is immediately distinguishable on this collaborative 12" for Omar-S's label FXHE - both 'Enter The Fog' and 'Roll Out' are underpinned by his distinctive chesty kicks and clustered handclaps. They're an ideal match for Aaron 'FIT' Siegel's piano and synth work, which leaves behind the austerity of Wendel's solo material (he typically focuses in on one or two basic motifs and twists, stretches and otherwise distorts them across a track's entire length) in favour of a freewheeling compositional language equally rooted in jazz, soul and Detroit techno. The results are, as to be expected, pretty spectacular. The meandering pianos and wriggly-worm funk licks of 'Enter The Fog' recall classic Theo Parrish as experienced at 9am in a packed Panoramabar, driving urgently forward with all the spaced-out obsessiveness of an entire night spent timelocked to four-to-the-floor. 'Roll Out' is even more addled, triangulating a tipping point between funk, European house and a woozily romantic, very Kraftwerkian core melody.

2012 seems to have been a sociable year for Wendel, whose other releases and remixes in the last twelve months have been written in conjunction with fellow drum machine voyager Mix Mup. He crops up again this month in collaboration with XDB on the fiendish 'Omrish', a mood-altering hall-of-mirrors of a track whose entire psychic space is filled with fragmentary synth shivers that track and reflect one another's movements. As they repeatedly flip the track's kinetic energy inwards, it gradually spins deeper into a confused and increasingly self-referential vortex, a dark pool whose near infinite depth is hinted at by the slivers of light that glance playfully across its surface. A whole new meaning for the idea of 'deep' house, perhaps.

On the subject of deeper-than-deep house - it's been a rather good month for the stuff - the second release through the recently established Until My Heart Stops comes from enigmatic and practically un-Googleable Chicago-based producer Area (even "Area + Chicago + house + music" doesn't work that well). Like the label's first release from Joey Anderson, neither track is going anywhere in a hurry. 'Munged' couldn't be better named, given that it's caked head-to-toe in warehouse party muck and just about equalised enough by a cocktail of uppers and downers that it's able to stagger around drunkenly to its own tune. And the lone voice that chants wordlessly throughout 'Not Waiting Anymore' is practically its sole feature, save a great aurora of shimmering intergalactic dust that accumulates around the track's middle. Perhaps surprisingly, fans of Burial will probably find a lot to appreciate here; the latter track in particular stirs up a similar cocktail of nostalgia, comedown blues and derelicts scattered with post-party detritus.

Skudge - 'Fingers'/'Vessel'

In exactly the same manner as their own house/techno hybrid tracks, my own love affair with Skudge has taken its sweet time to reach full fruition - how appropriate! Operating at a remove from both the hollowed-out booms typically associated with the Berghain and the abrasive recent resurgence in UK industrial techno, the Swedish duo's music is a delight because it breathes fresh air into a fairly classic and established set of compositional tropes. Rather than being explicitly warehouse-y or power station-y, their releases on their own label and now through Nonplus+ are crisper and clubbier. Self-contained, fat-free and pinpoint accurate, they work by quickly setting up tessellated arrangements of dubby pads, brittle percussion and swooning ornamentation, then allowing the entire array to escalate in potency through force of repetition. Both 'Fingers' and 'Vessel' demonstrate just how infectiously funky that basic cocktail allows the results to be. This essentially minimalist approach freeing them from the baggage of excess material, 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. The latter is the most melodic thing the duo have released to date, a beautiful and keening neo-Detroit creature led by an loopy, electric-blue melodic flourish in line with Shed's WAX material or early Peverelist.