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Homesick Albert Freeman , July 13th, 2015 10:01

The harder end of techno has had an excellent last 12 months, but few producers in the scene can match the upswing of Matrixxman, who went from nearly-unknown to ubiquitous in just over a year. A mid-2013 release on now defunct New York-based Fifth Wall Records was about the first non-subterranean sighting for Charles Duff, a quirky slab of house and techno that defined his early style before the kinks began getting smoothed out. By 2014, he was already on to Dekmantel and Spectral Sound, with numerous releases on other, smaller labels, and the sound of Berlin had slowly crept into his increasingly monolithic productions.

Duff is not a simple producer however, and if he has earned a reputation for rhythm tracks that bang hard, there's a subtext behind it that informs his music but hasn't always been as obvious as now. Initially a devotee of tech-step drum-and-bass, he found his way to techno around 2000, but this starkness remains evident in his music, as does the dystopian futurism that was the underlying theme of much of that era. In the intervening time, as he found the discipline to craft effective techno tracks, he continued to experiment in other genres, and it's this diversity that still informs his EPs, which can wildly swing from acid to electro to hard techno with little consideration for continuity. It's both an asset and a liability: at Matrixxman's most tossed-off moments, his music can be frustratingly fragmented and seemingly insubstantial, a byproduct of the fleeting, internet-obsessed, postmodernist ideas that earned him his moniker, while at its most full it takes in all of the various angles fluidly into one solid, seething matrix.

Given this obsession with context, sometimes at the expense of content, his debut album Homesick makes a clear move towards a visible centre. Its title alone alludes to his previously-nomadic life, an indication that things are more carefully considered than before. There's a suggestion of a narrative running through it and certainly a thematic core found in the track titles, which repeatedly reference desolation, mistaken information, and alienation, again likely referring back to the album title. Duff has audibly deepened his sound palette and sculpting here to match the loaded ideas he's handling. While his knack for propulsive rhythm tracks remains undiminished, the album never risks getting lost in endless cascades of 909 with his unconventional approach to ambience, atmosphere, and melodies evident throughout.  

The nearly ten minute opener 'Necronomicon' is an impressive entry point. The barely-audible hi-hat is lost in pulsing digital reverb that eats away at all of the other elements, with only a strobing, building acid line and intense, rhythmic phasing of white-noise providing a sense of forward motion through the murk. There's a techno track somewhere there and even an epic one, but the kick is so buried in fog and the focus so much shifted towards noise and sound design it's easy to get lost in the massive scope. Other mostly atmospheric efforts follow regularly – including closer 'Earth Like Conditions' – but they dodge the stereotype for such pieces on techno albums in varying ways. Placed between rhythm tracks, 'Dejected' is a battering minute of jarring noise, while the soft waves of 'Annika's Theme' are easily the prettiest thing here, acting more like an aside than a link between surrounding material.

At the intersection of these atmospheric and rhythmic ideas lies 'Packard Plant', an acid-electro jam with drum lines that are so reduced they are more suggested than heard. Individual hits slide agilely around flourishes of keys and reverb, the aggressively modern sound most evident in the minute-long ending passage at the exact midpoint between ambient and noise. 'Red Light District', another electro effort, is funky, twisted, and aggressive enough to actually merit comparisons to Drexciya. 'HMU (Hit Me Up)' featuring sometimes-collaborator Vin Sol, is more minimalist, but the drums and acid line twist around each other in tight circles, leaving little room for air. Even in the stamina-focused centre run of the album ('Network Failure', 'False Pattern Recognition', 'Opium Den') the tracks are stuffed with odd details, nervously twitching at times in their rhythm sections and showing clear compositional and sonic attention to detail that demands repeated listening to fully appreciate.    

With Homesick, Matrixxman has at last found a depth of exploration and expression that stands up to the ideas so visibly floating around the edges of his work. The throwaways aside, Duff has always been an interesting if difficult character, but there has rarely been enough of it in one place to get a thorough assessment. This album changes that and improves it for the better: if his roots in classic Detroit and modern Berlin techno remain obvious, he is now pushing these forms into mostly uncharted territory, with both confidence and character.