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Karen Gwyer
Rembo Bob Cluness , August 3rd, 2017 16:47

On her new album, Karen Gwyer produces her best material yet

When Karen Gwyer emerged from the primordial synth bleed back in 2013 with her first albums Needs Continuum and Kiki The Wormhole, alongside the EP ‘New Roof’, here was an artist whose chimeric sound and style triggered off various synaptic triggers and neural and physical affects. Like a newborn AI whose input was set to fully open, her music would crackle, spark and mutate at will, sometimes in a single track. What would begin as a long drawn, kosmiche-style workout, complete with single tone organ drones, wisps of female vocals and gurgling synths, would blossom into a guileless array of beats and pulsing rhythms. The layers upon layers of composite sound would ebb and flow in cycles and textures that were neither quite dance music, nor ambient or chill out; there was always an inbuilt tension to both move and listen intently.

Over the past few years, what was a hermetic, almost secretive sound would undergo tempered exposure to live performance and on-the-spot improvisation, resulting in music that became more dynamic and assured. On EPs such as her split with Beatrice Dillon on Alien Jams, ‘Bouloman’ on Nous, and ‘Prophase Metaphase Anaphase Telophase’ on Don’t Be Afraid, Gwyer’s head music becomes more entwined with the body; there would still be a heavenly mix of cloistered drones and ambient rave synths with flecks and cosmic stardust, but now they were combined with vicious stabs of acid, off-kilter beats and a sub bass that urged you to move and sway.

Gwyer is now ready to take this to the next stage of transformation, and with her latest album, Rembo, she has produced some of the best material yet. On first listening, Rembo seems like business as usual with many of the tracks displaying the mix of sustained drones, deep synth sounds and shifting rhythm loops that Gwyer has become recognised for. But with Rembo there is less noodling and meandering. Recorded in a week, there is a more concise and urgent approach to how the tracks are laid out. She seems to have found that sweet spot where dance music functionality and flourishes of experimentalism and live improvisation can coexist, even thrive.

The opening track ‘Why Is There A Long Line In Front Of The Factory’, with its slow thud and bass drone alongside constantly shifting shards of electronic sounds, acts as a brain cleanser before you're thrown the live wire shock of ‘Because The Workers Are On Strike’, with its garish arcade synths and kick-clap ghetto house beats. Despite stating that her approach to Rembo was more serious than earlier efforts, these tracks feel energetic, bright and lithe, lacking the stultifying demands of overproduction, emphasising instead the spur-of-the-moment, time-pressured environment of their production.

Unlike her previous releases, which hinted at being dancefloor fillers, Rembo casts aside any ambiguity and vagueness as to what kind of album it wants to be. The majority of the tracks on the album are put together in such a way as to make you want to dance as well as take you on a journey, and by the third listen in you really begin to find yourself immersed. ‘Why Does Your Father Look So Nervous’ has a gentle but steady build-up, a filigree of ticking drum effects and skittering synths that elides effortlessly into pulsing techno sound with a plunging bass. The affect of such change of pace is subtle but very noticeable and shows Gwyer’s increasing capabilities in inducing powerful changes in mood and energy on the dancefloor. Tracks like ‘He’s Been Teaching Me To Drive’ and ‘Did You Hear The Owls Last Night’ are more insistent in their techno sound, with an opening intensity already set to 'booming'. But even with the rough, heaving beat, there is still a flighty sense of air and space created by Gwyer as whooshing effects and glassy melodies and tones sail overhead.

In interviews she has given in the run-up to this release, Gwyer has expressed her frustration at the way promoters for events struggle with her live set-up and with live electronic music in general, often placing her in earlier time slots where she cannot play as intensely as her music demands. With the release of Rembo this situation surely has to change. Many of the tracks on this album simply demand to be heard being played live, late at night in a sweaty basement club, for while they have all the impulsiveness and directness that you desire on the dancefloor, Gwyer has still kept a sense of the mysterious hiding under the surface.