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The Month's Electronic Music: Frayed Nerves & Fried Circuits
Rory Gibb , February 14th, 2013 08:28

In this month's electronic music column, Rory Gibb delves into fathomless darkness, paranoid sub-bass and circuitry gone haywire, from Cold War techno and alien mandibles to abstract grime and new forms of dark UK sound system music

Welcome to the first Hyperspecific of 2013! Once again, rather than being anything close to a comprehensive round-up of each month's best dance releases - there's simply too much worth mentioning to attempt to construct a readable-length column around - this column offers a purely personal perspective on recent developments in electronic music, via some of the artists that have been dominating my listening as of late.

Bandshell - Caustic View
(Liberation Technologies)
A Made Up Sound - 'Ahead'/'Endgame'

If Carsten Nicolai made grime, it might sound something like Caustic View. Like the Raster-Noton boss' music, here Bandshell sharpens everything to razor precision: stabbing snares, sword-fight percussive swishes, sub-bass that plunges into the gut. It's less techno-ish than his previous work for Hessle Audio and notably less murky - both 'Winton' and 'Nice Mullet' possess an ear for space that you'd normally associate with acts like Autechre, for example, but put to the service of beats that clatter and pound with the frankness and simplicity of 8-bar grime or some of Wiley's darker early instrumentals. Matching the EP's title, everything is rather more corrosive than those forebears - the former's melodies, fuzzy plinks that sound tapped out on one of Konono No. 1's electrified likembe thumb pianos, burn through their surroundings like quicklime.

As a result, none of this is exactly what you'd call 'club-friendly', but it's easy enough to tell that Bandshell is well-versed in the mechanics of dance music: 'Landfill' would likely fling dancers headlong into one another on a club floor, and the pulsating bioluminescence and muffled beats of 'Perc' - the most quiet and pretty thing here - recall the crumbling techno and UK funky of Werk Discs heads Actress and Lukid. An impressive salvo from an intriguing producer, and it's great to see that Mute - via their recently established Liberation Technologies sublabel - are supporting such strange and uncompromising electronic music.

Dave Huismans' new club cluster-bomb as A Made Up Sound has a similarly disconcerting effect upon those doomed souls attempting to dance to it. What makes Huismans (pictured, top) such a remarkable hand with rhythm - and what makes his work immediately discernable in the mix - is that the gaps and silences in his tracks are even more highly charged than the (comparatively little) sonic matter that they contain. There's so much space in 'Ahead', such yawning distances between individual hits of percussion and silvery synth, that the entire construction ought to simply fall apart. Like the rest of his work though, its awkwardness is carefully counterbalanced by a mean and predatory sense of swing that causes beats to bear down upon the listener, like birds of prey swooping to pluck their unsuspecting victims from the ground. It feels primed to stop a dancefloor in its tracks: an opening of clipped vocal phrases explodes as if a bomb's gone off, leaving a chasmic moment of silence in its wake. The track's core rhythm, such as it is, then self-assembles from the fragments of debris left drifting through the air, tracing an itchy groove that's all angles, negative space and treacherous sharp edges. It's terrifying, bizarre and utterly brilliant. 'Endgame', on the flip, is only marginally more straightforward. Its fat, squelching bassline recalls - of all things - the overdriven fuzz of Mr. Oizo and similar French contemporaries, but it's torn to shreds, moving in jittery fits and starts.

Metasplice - 'Decant'/'Churn'
V. Hold - Antagions

Lately Rabih Beaini's Morphine label seems to have been swept away in dreams of deep space. Hot on the heels of the demolition-ball funk of Hieroglyphic Being's The Lost Transmission 12" comes a second transmission from Philadelphia's Metasplice, who trade in a scrambled and paranoid strain of cosmic techno, as grainy as irradiated photographic film and speckled with the kind of pings and blips you'd associate with Cold War-era NASA technology. The duo - consisting of enigmatically-named operators Kenneth Lay and V. Hold - have roots in the US noise underground, and their approach relies heavily on improvisation, finding them constructing dance-flecked tracks on the fly using an array of hardware and effects units.

Last year's Topographical Interference EP, their first for Morphine, had a pleasingly raw and chaotic air - techno's rhythmic structures were present, but seemed to have emerged more as a result of spontaneous interactions between the various instruments in the duo's hardware network, rather than anything intentionally constructed by human volition. In that sense the duo's approach is aligned with UK noise artists like Helm, Hacker Farm and Ekoplekz - and indeed their live set at Unsound last year seemed intent on exploring as nerve-shredding a dynamic range as possible: treble-boosted squeals, beats that sparked like exposed electrical cables and floury low-end fuzz. Unlike the latter three, though, their tracks also hit hard in a club setting - Morphosis in particular has been using them to great effect in his DJ sets. (You can download a great hour of him mixing only Metasplice music here.)

Morphine's newly released follow-up to Topographical Interference is markedly less jarring than its predecessor, but similarly psychoactive. A hallucinatory aurora of high-pitched tones shimmers across 'Decant's surface, seeming to resolve into any number of different shapes during its opening minutes. The beat that emerges halfway through drags the track into an escalating upward trajectory, to the point that the whole assembly sounds ready to blast off into orbit, while jets of static spurt like high-pressure steam in all directions. 'Churn' opens like a full-scale instrument malfunction in a spacecraft cockpit, before its deafening cacophony of whirrs and alarm bleeps slowly assembles into a marching rhythmic formation.

There's much more going on here than the relatively reductive 'techno/noise' tag that's frequently assigned to Metasplice and their contemporaries might suggest. The Decant/Churn EP rarely coalesces into anything you'd consider to be conventional dancefloor fodder, but equally there's a definite sense of swing to the way its rhythms crunch roughly in and out of sync with one another. V. Hold's solo cassette from late last year, Antagions - which along with a recent moonraker 12" (another Philly duo featuring Kenneth Lay that ramps up the techno quotient - confused yet?) has kept my Metasplice appetite sated between Morphine hits - further explores that dichotomy. It's the most alien of the music to have emerged from the Metasplice diaspora to date: on the sinister 'Oxygen Loan', percussion slurps and clicks like arthropod mandibles, suggesting a colony of H.R. Giger xenomorphs pouring outward from their nest to wreak havoc upon an unsuspecting planet's surface. You couldn't dance to it, really - it'd likely pin a horrified club crowd in place - but you could flail wildly to 'Auto Internal', whose flickering bleep motif and pummeling forward drive suggests Jeff Mills' brutal early club tracks distorting horribly as they're sucked into a black hole. A few cassette copies are still kicking around, though don't expect them to last too long; in any case you can listen to the whole thing at the Further Records Bandcamp page.

Levon Vincent - NS08
(Novel Sound)

There's a blink-and-you'll-miss-'em property to Levon Vincent's releases - a pair of 12"s through his Novel Sound label arrived within quick succession of one another on either side of the new year, and both sold out within a matter of hours. Which speaks to both his reputation and the broadness of their appeal: Vincent's output since 2008 has been consistently excellent, but over that time period it's become more sharply defined, its melodic aspects picked out in brighter relief, its deepest and darkest chasms even more fathomless. It's the interplay between these two extremes that lends his music its unique character, where sternness overlaps with - and is often heightened by - an unabashed sense of romance and naivete. So on NS08's '???', an otherwise fluid and playful funk bassline is cast in hard and brittle tones, as if the track's entire low-end has been hewn from a block of graphite.

Like 2011's wonderful 'Pivotal Moments In Life', NS08 highlight 'Rainstorm II' draws deep from Kraftwerk and 80s synth-pop: across its surface skate yearning melodies picked out in translucent notes, which trigger equal sensations of nostalgia and hope for the future. In essence it's among the simplest things he's released to date - little but a straightforward four-to-the-floor house chug - but he's an understated master with echo, applying it to individual percussive elements in doses that range from miniscule to massive, turning the track into a disorienting and continually reshuffling hall of mirrors. The EP's other new track (it's rounded off with an inclusion of 2009's stormy 'Double Jointed Sex Freak Part II') finds him on harsher form: 'People' crunches, clangs and drangs itself into a dank and polluted stew reminiscent in tone of 80s NY no wave.

Kassem Mosse - 'Broken Patterns'

It might not be a particularly sporting thing to say, given that it's obviously a good thing that 'Broken Patterns' is out in the public domain at all, but I must admit to being a tad put out Kassem Mosse's new track appears on a 12" alongside a Boddika VIP version of Boddika & Joy Orbison's 'Mercy', meaning that you're essentially paying full whack for a single brand new track on wax. I mean, 'Mercy' is fine and everything, but the original has been, ahem, mercilessly caned over the last year or so, and this new version doesn't do a great deal different, save tweaking the knob marked 'aggro' up several notches. 'Broken Patterns', though, is a marvelous piece of work. Mosse is incredibly skilful at balancing tracks in a way that makes them feel teasingly unstable, as if they're constantly on the verge of collapsing into dust. Here, in typical form, 'Broken Patterns' appears to unravel of its own accord over six minutes: a waterfall-like cascade of notes pouring down across a bassline that shrugs back and forth like gravel shaken in a shallow tray. It's unusually fast-paced for Mosse, too, especially by comparison to his more recent work - everything runs along at a brisk clip reminiscent of older tracks like '578' or 'Tears Run Rings'.

E.m.m.a - Rainbow Dust EP
(Wavey Tones)

And finally, a bit of a curveball to end this month's edition: a dig back to something released in the early part of 2012 that I completely missed at the time, but which has come to my attention only recently and which I've become rather enamoured with: the Rainbow Dust Part II 12", by London-based producer Emma.

As yet I haven't decided whether or not this segment will end up being a regular fixture in Hyperspecific, though I rather like the idea. Because of the brief shelf-life of club tracks and the sheer frequency of new 12"s released in whatever niche you choose to follow, there's a tendency for dance music heads to remain strongly focused on what's coming out right now, in any given week/month. Equally, there's serious DJ currency to be had by unearthing overlooked old records for dancefloor secret weapons - something that's become more popular recently, with a wholescale shift towards house tempos across the breadth of UK club music - but by its very nature that approach tends to favour tracks upwards of five years old. As a result it's fairly rare to find DJs or writers taking stock of - still fairly new - releases that have come out within the past year or two, and it's all too easy for great music to slip by near-unnoticed, especially if it inhabits a genre-space not currently in the limelight.

So it is with Rainbow Dust Part II, whose Lego-block chiptune melodies and sparse steppers' bounce channel the swooping strings of Ruff Sqwad or Ikonika's rawer early material, albeit pared back further still to leave the least material required to make bodies shuffle. The title track's melody closely resembles Peverelist's heavy-lidded 'Roll With The Punches', but with the weed haze blown away, casting its contours in sharper relief. Like Darkstar's pre-song material, there's something deliciously sticky and sour about 'Dream Phone'; its synth melodies are like Refreshers, orange Panda Pop, Irn-Bru bars or any of those other ridiculously unhealthy childhood sweets - entirely synthetic and perfectly comfortable with that fact. Its kick-snare syncopations swagger like UK funky, but are arranged in 3/4, lending the whole arrangement a lopsided, runaway-fairground-ride feel that's both queasy and exhilarating.

I came across Emma's music during the Christmas special edition of Dusk & Blackdown's (pictured) Keysound radio show on Rinse FM, when she mixed a full 20 minutes of her own new tracks. Dusk & Blackdown's interests are rooted in garage, dubstep and grime, with the early releases on their Keysound label tending to explore that sort of area. More recently, however, they've been turning their attention more specifically to currently-neglected zones of the post-grime and post-funky spectrum of London-centric club music. The aesthetic - epitomised last year by people like Beneath and Visionist - is anchored at that tantalisingly (frustratingly) brief moment in around 2008 when dubstep, grime and funky were blurring together into moody, broken hybrids that kept the essence of all three parent genres intact. Dusk & Blackdown aren't bothering themselves too much with attempting to categorise quite where this music actually fits into the continuum it's derived from, aside from a shared tempo of around 130bpm or thereabouts.

Their Rinse Christmas special - click here to download - was a particularly strong distillation of that zone of operation, and is well worth a good listen (I've had it on repeat for the last month). Five affiliated producers - Logos, Gerv from LV, Visionist, Emma and Wen - each took to the decks for 20 minutes or so, largely to play their own productions. The overall effect was similar to Hyperdub's formidable showcase for Mary Anne Hobbs back in 2008 (you can still listen to that here, and it hasn't dulled with age), which showcased the then-nascent likes of Zomby, Darkstar and Ikonika in an impressively focused way, highlighting both their differences and shared traits.

Similarly, this Keysound session reveals the similarities between all five producers - a love of grime, a rooting in sound system culture, and a knack for swung rhythms that touch on techno, garage and dubstep without quite landing in any camp - while highlighting each one's idiosyncrasies. Expect to hear far more from this camp in coming months: there's already a great debut 12" from Wen on the horizon (the Commotion EP on Keysound) and Beneath has just released a punchy and paranoid salvo on Tectonic ('Duty'/'Texers'). Keysound have also just announced a compilation - This Is How We Roll - featuring tracks from all the above producers plus a few more, including Gremino and LHF's Double Helix, that includes some of the best tracks from the Rinse showcase (including Mumdance & Logos' static-addled 'In Reverse'). Watch this space for more to come.