The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


Adam X
Irreformable Albert Freeman , October 28th, 2014 23:08

One of the difficulties in commenting on an artist whose work is quite as foundational or influential as that of Adam X is to techno, is assessing what 'new' the artist is bringing to a genre that he helped found. After over 20 years producing and even more DJing, Adam Mitchell is nothing if not resilient, much more so than many of his peers, but rather than take a Bowie-esque tactic of slyly jumping between sounds ahead of the curve, he has, similar to his experience exploring abandoned and disused tunnels in New York's subway system, burrowed ever deeper into the sound he helped to create. Mitchell emerged alongside his brother Frankie Bones in the heady rave days in NYC making strong contributions to that era, but he quickly made himself known for something bleaker and more minimalistic, indebted to the legacy of 70s & 80s industrial music and EBM and a reflection of his grim surroundings in late-80s and early 90s New York. Like his DJing, it's intentionally unadorned, but in singleminded intent and dedication to its purpose, its legacy has proven uncannily influential.

While the body of loopy, hard and often vestigially-rave influenced dancefloor techno from the late 90s has not necessarily worn the test of time well, 15 years later Mitchell finds himself in the midst of a career resurgence that proves his work cuts deeper than most. Even his initially-secret Traversable Wormhole project was more of a slight re-organisation than a drastic change and characteristically was created by simply stripping things back even more, resulting in high-impact techno tracks that, with the ruse dropped, sound very characteristically like his work. His label Sonic Groove has followed a familiar path, releasing music that, while short on gimmicks, sounds unabashedly like itself and little else and bores a deep, narrow swath through dancefloors from 1995 until now. Combining brutal functionality and lack of flashiness with a refusal to pander to trends, Adam X's and Sonic Groove's catalogue spent long years mostly gathering dust in a fad-saturated market before being dragged out again only recently. Resistance to trends in dance music rarely garners friends, and in re-appraisal the strength both of his music and the label becomes quickly evident.

Although commendable for his stoicism and perseverance, artists of Mitchell's persuasion who chose to scientifically focus their avenues of creative expression into laser-like precision often find themselves with many admirers in principle but few true fans. The fact of the matter is that his deeply-lived and learned synthesis of ambient, industrial, hard techno, noise, and related genres is not something that can be easily arrived upon, and this is nowhere better compared than with the work of the artists on his Sonic Groove label – Henning Baer, Northern Structures, Orphx, and others – who, while sharing his love for functional, hard and no-nonsense techno all take it in subtly new and different directions that remain recognisably the work of newer practitioners. Compared directly against Adam X, it becomes clearly evident how much Mitchell has remained defiantly himself mostly since he began, and how, in the company of few others, his music is in little need for updates, even in 2014.

All of this would not stand for much if the producer had not recently been making some of the strongest music of his career. With a autobiographical title like Irreformable, this album suggests Adam X is fully aware of being back on top of the scene. The glut of greyscale techno currently emerging from newly-minted hardware studios around the world isn't going to threaten this album at all, much in the same manner a new producer with a 909 and an array of similar synthesisers is still no match for Jeff Mills. A close listen shows that the album arises clearly from software sources, but this is immaterial in hands like these. The music here shows not only that Mitchell is the progenitor of many current techno trends, but that he is also for the most part immune to them and has processed his outspoken love for his influences into something quite his own.

If few producers can manage an EBM homage like 'Binary Possession' – a single listen to the sample that provides the hook and the typically busy, snapping drum patterning should give away his debt to early '80s proto-dance – the track has a lived-in feel that only comes from being someone who has been at it for nearly two decades, and it noticeably lacks any element of pastiche. From there, the album traces an upward arc through 'On The Verge Of Decimation', 'Sheer Insanity', and the title track, each one bearing clear hints of his illustrious past and elements of old-school sampling ethos, but all combined with a production design that couldn't be anything but his and is audibly contemporary. While retaining the density of atmospheres from current techno, there is are considerably more musical elements switching off than current artists attempting the same ideas, again a reference to his own history in hardcore techno where tracks took perverse glee in rubbing contrasting sections against one another. For all of the past-referencing elements here, only the title track fails to avoid sounding dated, with a bit of ill-advised digital 'scratching' included in its midsection, and even with that moment of silliness it's still a much more twisted, engagingly visceral take on this sound than the rebooted version manages.

Mitchell is too experienced to fall for standard techno clichés like littering an album with ambient filler to pad its length; likewise, the record is notably lacking in slow moments and sets a hard, grinding tempo over its duration that refuses to let up. This is one of its strengths as well as its weaknesses since there's little variation in tone, but over eight tracks of densely-constructed techno he easily reveals the dearth of ideas that plagues most modern attempts at something similar. Music like this proves the irony in the new vogue for old sounds made with new analogue gear and the effort to recreate a past that innovators like Mitchell were never content with. Starting from his clearly-articulated roots in the 80s, he launched techno two decades into the future, and in the intervening time others spent catching up he honed his craft. It may not be flashy and is refreshingly lacking in hype and pretension, and it may reiterate similar themes Adam X has deeply developed over his long career, but Irreformable again proves that it means something to be there first.