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Hyperspecific: Dance Music For August Reviewed By Jaša Bužinel
Jaša Bužinel , August 26th, 2021 06:49

Jaša Bužinel discusses the current trend of “abstract futurism” in the realm of (digital) artworks, while also reviewing releases from TSHA, Joy Orbison, Jana Rush, LMajor and more


Swimming among senior citizens at a Slovenian health resort during my recent holiday, I pondered on all the hundreds of pieces of digital art representing new releases that land in my mailbox daily, especially those that don't get a vinyl press, a format that still represents a kind of institutional approval to musicians and graphic designers alike. It's hard to argue, after all, that the qualitative difference between showing your mum your vinyl artwork and a digital artwork on your iPhone is obviously still being felt.

But not everybody has access to a pressing plant, and the required financial backing to cover production costs. When it comes to format fetishism, I think of all the countless hours invested in the development of new visual languages by young artists from all around the world, many of them probably still students, who don't get fair credit for their share in sculpting the modern-day visual landscape, mainly because their work gets lost among thousands of other small squares with captions on Bandcamp.

Since nobody seems to talk about artwork and release covers anymore, I've decided to dedicate this month's column to contemporary digital artworks, more precisely to a trend that I've not yet read about elsewhere, which I would describe as "abstract futurism." While I'm not looking to step in the shoes of art critics and theorists here, I believe this needs to be discussed more. The complementary quality of some artwork contributes immensely to the understanding of current trends vis-à-vis avant-garde electronic music. These artworks don't reflect the contemporary (post-)industrial world nor the technological advancements taking place right now. Instead, they open up new virtual spaces — purely artificial realms that function as world-building platforms without any predefined forms or concepts.

I think we've become so desensitised to album, EP and single artworks online due to the overabundance of visual stimuli in a hyper-visual world that we rarely take time off to really indulge in them. This is why I've consciously decided to pay more attention to contemporary artwork, especially when they accompany a trans-genre electronic music release, as they often excellently translate the hard-to-define and elusive sonic shapes into expressively amorphous forms, colours and textures. Sound and visual artists are discovering unknown forms and formats, building artificial spaces, and creating new visual and sonic languages hand in hand.

There are a few 2021 releases which prompted this. One such example is the cover of Maxwell Sterling’s album Turn Of Phrase by Nicola Tirabasso, which beautifully encapsulates the multidimensional complexity of the record. Then there's the artwork for Siete Catorce's Temperatura EP, which unites seemingly natural and artificial objects on a flat surface covered with a plastic sheet, or perhaps some kind of goo. The mixture of pseudo-organic and synthetic elements excellently reflects the Mexican producer's sonic palette. Another brilliant case study is Sam Lubicz's shimmering cover for Pause/Stutter/Uh/Repeat by Egyptian experimentalist ABADIR, which is as mind-altering, abstract and uncanny as the music itself. Finally, I must also mention the artworks of the recent albums by Maoupa Mazzocchetti, Iglooghost, Ziúr and Loraine James in this discussion, as well as the upcoming releases by Scratcha DVA and Lee Gamble on Hyperdub.

All these artworks manage to complement the abstract, form-finding and world-building nature of the separate musical expressions they try to embody. They're generally amorphous, genre-bending, mutant musical expressions that don't have a definite form; they grow, expand and shape-shift like amoebas, always adapting to their environment. I believe that's exactly what's going on in the sphere of much of the avant-garde electronic music that is currently being released, where we're witnessing an exciting search for new artificial forms and languages both in the visual and sonic realms.

TSHA – OnlyL
(Ninja Tune)

If you haven't yet heard of Teisha Matthews, I encourage you to lend an ear to her second EP for Ninja Tune. The young London producer belongs to the lineage of UK artists, such as Bonobo, Jamie xx, Floating Points and Four Tet, who have successfully managed to coalesce various strains of contemporary UK dance music into sensual electronic expressions with a pop sensibility that appeals both to mainstream and more discerning audiences. She's also a very talented DJ who knows how to please a crowd or two — her recent performance at Mixmag's The Lab LDN is proof of that.

On OnlyL, Matthews continues her exploration of radio-friendly dance music with a distinctively UK touch. The euphoric uptempo title track, which features vocals from dance-pop duo NIMMO, is a certified mood-lifter, suited to sunshine-soaked festival moments. On 'I Know' – an obvious nod to Bonobo marked by subtle piano, hand drum and string arrangements – TSHA dives into pensive downtempo atmospherics. My favourite, though, is 'Power', one of those soulful house rollers with a catchy sample that gets permanently stuck in your head.

Feloneezy – Axis To Axis
(Baroque Sunburst)

At the dawn of the 2010s, Žarko Komar was one of the early ambassadors of the Chicago footwork/juke movement in the Balkans. Releasing on respected music outlets like Hyperdub, Opal Tapes and Teklife, the Serbian producer soon became a household name on the progressive Belgrade electronic music scene, one of the most unjustly overlooked hubs of contemporary European electronic creativity in recent years. He spent the following years refining his aesthetic, absorbing new strains of global club sounds, and in 2020 he surprised us with the introspective hi-tech D&B stomper 'Ebb Tide Lock', released via Kepasaparadoks, the epicentre of forward-looking dance music in the Balkans.

Feloneezy's debut EP for the London imprint Sunburst Baroque – a showcase of his personal approach to modern sampledelia and the art of field recording through a dance music lens – represents a bold step forward, both in stylistic terms and production value. With its cinematic pads and aqueous synths, opener '4200' exists on the outer edges of contemporary dancehall-inflected electronica, typical of emerging labels like Pressure Dome. The most explorative, dare I say hauntological, track here, 'Now I'm Gonna Miss Another One', comes across as a hectic combination of The Caretaker and the Teklife crew. A similarly soporific, even more otherworldly vibe defines the closer 'Celia', a composition I truly believe the late Mark Fisher would have approved of as it reminds me of the audio-essay On Vanishing Land, which he created with Justin Barton. If you long for LTJ Bukem and Photek-inspired new-gen drum & bass, though, the dramatic atmosphere of 'Rain' should tickle your fancy.

Klara Lewis & Peder Mannerfelt – KLMNOPQ
(The Trilogy Tapes)

Even though many millennial kids (me included) learnt about Swedish music via melodic death metal acts from Gothenburg, the country's contemporary electronic music scene has since had an even more meaningful impact on my generation. Some have been obsessing over the gloomy trap of the Drain Gang and business techno of Drumcode, while more in-the-know buffs have been following the trend-setting psychedelic techno of Northern Electronics and experimental composers like the Editions Mego-affiliate Klara Lewis, who recently teamed up with her compatriot Peder Mannerfelt, a powerhouse of Swedish techno (if you missed it, be sure to check out his latest outstanding release on VOAM).

Out on Will Bankhead's The Trilogy Tapes label, the tape is packed with corrosive and abrasive sounds, sitting at the intersection between dark ambient, power electronics, field recording and ritualistic greyscale soundscapes fit for a dying world. It's a partnership that has produced some of the most chokingly caustic and simultaneously celestial music of the year. Their compositions weigh on you like decaying cadavers in horrific Great War trenches, but there are also sudden glimpses of beauty that cut through the ghostly textures like a lonely sunbeam over a muddy wasteland. When I listen to them, I see the grotesque humanoid creatures that are found in the paintings of the Montenegrin-born artist Miodrag Đurić (Dado), which makes me uncomfortable and excited at the same time; surely one of the purposes of great art.

Luke Sanger – Languid Gongue

It was this soothing collection of music that I returned to again and again over the past month when things got a bit too hectic. Released on the Catalan imprint BALMAT, a new venture by Albert Salinas and Philip Sherburne, Languid Gongue is the sixth album by Norwich-based artist Luke Sanger, an experienced music maker whose catalogue includes a wide range of ambient sonics, silky drones, absorbing soundscapes and microtonal adventures. I truly love this record, firstly because it represents a slap in the face of those who say new (space) age idealism is boring, and secondly, because it simply feels like walking through the blooming gardens of a future eco-socialist utopia where humans, AIs and nature exist in harmony.

I know it's a cheesy association, but isn't it exactly what most of us need right now with all the impending ecological and political catastrophe? It would be offensive to describe it as just an ambient album as there is so much going on in Sanger's intricately layered production that transports the listener into various meditative states of reverie. It all comes together to create something akin to Terry Riley and Robert Turman soundtracking a BBC documentary film on birds of paradise by Alejandro Jodorowsky.

Various Artists – KIKOMMANDO
(PAN x Hakuna Kulala)

I've been covering Nyege Nyege Tapes and Hakuna Kulala releases extensively in the past year, but they just keep on giving. Named after a popular Ugandan street dish of flat bread and beans, their latest interdisciplinary project, with Berlin institution PAN, sheds light on the importance of intercontinental cross-pollination as a source of cultural innovation. Comprising a mixtape, video series and book, KIKOMMANDO was born out of a two-month residency at the Nyege Nyege villa in Uganda where Italy's STILL (AKA Simone Trabucchi), digital dancehall innovator and Hundebiss label head honcho, set up a makeshift studio in which he joined forces with eight Kampala-based rappers and poets, a who's who of the East African experimental music scene.

The result is a daring and refreshing collection of contemporary club experimentalism that couldn't have been produced anywhere else. STILL's effervescent sonic palette and playful take on modern dancehall tropes comes together to create a simultaneously brainy and visceral dancefloor experience. Each of the guests, among which we find Ecko Bazz, Florence, Swordman Kitala and Biga Yut, brings a distinct flavour to the table, ranging from hyperkinetic rhyme-spitting ('Tukoona Nalo') and reggae patois ('Njagala Kubela Nawe') to captivating siren chants ('Bae Tasanze') and spoken word passages ('Ahlam Wa Ish دحلا يه ءامسلا'). This is definitely one of those releases you can bring up the next time someone asks you to show them something authentic and original in current dance music.

Jana Rush – Painful Enlightenment
(Planet Mu)

Following last month's masterpiece by DJ Manny, Planet Mu delivers yet another album that boldly expands on the tradition of footwork and goes down the rabbit hole into uncharted sonic territory. The second LP by veteran Chicago DJ/producer Jana Rush is a deeply intimate and self-revealing affair. Reflecting on her struggles with the darkest thoughts, Rush opted for a singer-songwriter approach to experimental electronic music as a source of spiritual cleansing that helped her go through the lowest points of her life. You don't often come across this level of sincerity in dance music these days, which makes Painful Enlightenment even more special. The vibe is mostly sombre, even fear-inducing at times, but there are also brief moments of joy interspersed through the record, for example in the beautifully tense 'G-Spot' – with its particularly passionate samples – and the more straightforward hip-shaker 'Disturbed'.

Elsewhere, tracks are characterised by freewheeling beats, fractured vocals, bizarre sample manipulations and sinister atmospherics that give the album an almost free jazz element, in part thanks to Rush's extended use of twisted saxophone, guitar and piano motifs. It's apparent that her approach to production is very impulsive and hands-on; the tracks are lively, almost like a band freely improvising. Rush once again proves that it pays off to follow your instincts and freely experiment, rather than simply relying on well-worn formulas.

LMajor – Can't Do It

It's safe to say jungle and UK garage have been a constant on the UK underground music circuit since their inception in the '90s, but there's no doubt that there has been a resurgence of interest in both sounds over the past two or three years – summarised in the work of labels like Dr Banana, Time Is Now, MYOR, Hooversound and Lobster Theremin – especially among the younger generations. Indeed, many of the recent throwbacks fail to outdo their predecessors and succumb to pure pastiche. But that's not the case with the latest EP by London producer LMajor, for Astrophonica, a crucial platform for drum & bass creativity run by Fracture and Neptune since 2009.

The record's title track sounds like something out of the bag of Da Intalex or DJ Pooch circa 1994, while 'Hush' could be mistaken for a lost gem from the back catalogue of the late Foul Play, but the two tracks crucially don't get too bogged down in nostalgia and simple revivalism. Instead, they connect past and present sounds to great effect, creating a record that is loaded with breakneck syncopation, soothing string arrangements and earworm hooks. On the two garage tracks, 'Spinnin' and 'Feeling' (the latter of which features Fracture), LMajor's knack for subtle percussion programming and infectious grooves comes to the fore. While you can't currently move for releases that draw on, and even combine, UK garage and jungle, LMajor's punchy production makes this record stand out from others. 100 percent backspin material.

Joy Orbison – still slipping vol. 1

Twelve years since his breakthrough single 'Hyph Mngo' forever marked its place in the annals of UK dance music history (how incredibly fresh it sounds even in 2021!), one of the most treasured UK producers finally presents his long-awaited full-length debut on still slipping vol. 1. Conceptualised as a personal mixtape – a sort of diaristic electronic poem that includes various voice messages from, and conversations with, his family, that are both witty and sincere – it takes in 14 tracks, and sees the producer link up with a number of upcoming vocalists, such as TYSON, Goya Gumbani and Léa Sen.

It’s a deeply emotive listen that draws on sounds from the past decade of the producer's discography, as well as newer elements of UK drill productions. Over the course of the record, the producer, real name Peter O'Grady, also weaves through 2-step UK garage ('swag w/ kav'), Herbert-esque microhouse ('better') and subtly Autonomic D&B ('layer 6'). Listening through the mixtape prompted me to indulge in a late night Discogs session, going through his catalogue and revisiting some gorgeous tracks that I'd almost forgotten about, from early track 'Ladywell' to his collaborations with Boddika, like 'Dun Dun' and 'TMTT'. They all possess a distinct Peter O'Grady flair, encapsulated in his radiant use of melody, and it's fair to say that his music, just like that of electronic music luminaries such as Larry Heard or LFO, has got soul.

It comes as no surprise that the producer himself describes still slipping vol. 1 as a "soul record" at heart. While there are a few dancefloor-friendly moments here and there, as well as more abstract intermezzos, the overall impression is that of a pensive electronic pop record that lets you indulge in daydream fantasies during your daily commute or night bus ride home. Blending 2-step UKG, R&B, post-dubstep, UK drill and house music, still slipping vol. 1 is a testament to O'Grady's ability to morph and mould the rich heritage of UK electronic music into something that is both highly sophisticated and musically accessible.