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Hyperspecific: Dance Music For September Reviewed By Jaša Bužinel
Jaša Bužinel , September 21st, 2021 09:20

Jaša Bužinel calls for new neologisms for describing avant-garde dance music, and reviews new albums and EPs from Air Max '97, Slikback, Simo Cell, DJ Stingray 313, Livity Sound and more

DJ Stingray 313, photo by Marie Staggat

Of all my columns for tQ, this month I had the hardest time deciding what made the cut. I had to drop dozens of great records (Please do check out new and recent releases from Hiro Kone, Aboutface, Lee Gamble, Call Super, Shackleton, Anastasia Kristensen, MSYLMA & ISMAEL, Delay Grounds, Les Pilotwings, Scratcha DVA, Coe, Cleveland, Sarah Davachi, Proc Fiskal, and the compilation Sounds Of Pamoja!), and I often feel like I am doing injustice to all the exceptional releases that do not make it into Hyperspecific as there is obviously no objective reason for one choice over the other.

I become even more woozy when I think of all the stuff that does not even make it into my inbox and bookmarks, and soon the impostor syndrome is back. I get the feeling that I do not have enough energy, nor time, to have a constant 360-degree panoramic overview over the so-called electronic dance music sphere (which was, at least theoretically, still possible in the '90s and early '00s), and that I am only covering a really small fraction of everything that is going on across a multitude of international scenes. This is because I am 100 percent sure that there is more exciting futuristic dance music coming out now than ever before. But, to be honest, I have noticed that it is becoming harder to access and contextualise this new music linguistically.

I recently listened to the latest episode of the podcast Interdependence, where, among other things, Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst discuss the need for new neologisms for the description of new media- and technology-based emotions and reflexes, such as the specific 'expectations meet anxiety' feeling stimulated by looking at the three dots while someone is drafting an online message. It made me realise that the current shapeshifting character of avant-garde club music, where decades of dance music tropes melt into completely new forms, calls for a similar initiative. The need for new neologisms for describing contemporary dance music has never been more dire.

With new aesthetics comes a need for new ways of listening and describing your sonic experiences. Yet, I often feel completely useless when it comes to the production of new concepts and words, feeling a need to try to improve and invest more thought in this field. Honestly though, I have not observed any such tendencies in dance music writing in the past half decade or so. Too often, I feel that we are still stuck with late '90s terminology, references and futurist aspirations, popularised by Reynolds, Eshun, Fisher et al, when it comes to the description of the most avant-garde movements in contemporary dance music. But it is obvious that new sonic languages call for a new language with which to access, deconstruct and contextualise the former.

Kit Mackintosh's recent book Neon Screams (I'm only halfway through it) could be considered one such example, although it misses some theoretical and conceptual vigour, as well as a more concise historical overview when it comes to mapping new genres like mumble rap, Brooklyn drill, UK drill and trap dancehall, and contextualising the influence of autotune as a tool for futurist vocal psychedelia (I think Laurie Anderson's use of digital vocoder on Big Science should be at least mentioned here). I hope this is just the beginning. There is a new generation of music writers with a completely different, internet-informed, stylistically panoptical, post-subculture and post-genre experience of dance music culture, and I think we are only at the dawn of new gen dance music thought.

The fact is that the music of the future is already here (with many such examples below). We just need to find new linguistic tools with which to access and dissect it.

RDL Shellah - Showcase
(Bokeh Versions)

The Bokeh-Duppy Gun-Roolingz Musik alliance has always championed the dissolution and reconfiguration of dancehall DNA. One of its disciples is RDL Shellah, the Portmore, Jamaica-based vocalist previously known as Providence, who first appeared on my radar as a guest on I Jahbar's superb debut Inna Duppy SKRS Soundclash (2019). His track 'RichMiProud' (also included here) featured the sizzling bass dabs of Canadian production unit Seekersinternational, a driving force of progressive digidub expressiveness. The follow-up, Streets, produced by Mexican riddim maestro Smurphy, further cemented his position as a vital force of forward-leaning pop-adjacent dancehall. Now he is back with the first solo EP on which he again employs the technology of ragga scientists SKRS to great effect.

There are moments on Showcase, such as the LA beat scene-influenced slo-mo roller 'BadWine', where you can easily imagine Rihanna's ad libs and hooks not sounding out of place. The bong-bubbled vibraphone-driven jam 'ComeOut' is a marriage between roots pressure and natty nu-dancehall, while the celebratory paean 'PartyNice' comes off like Sean Paul on hallucinogens. As one of the most accessible Bokeh outings to date, the EP has the potential to attract non-specialised audiences looking for sun-drenched riddims. This is mostly due to SKRS' inventive approach to dancehall and lovers' rock tropes. Their seductive productions, spiked with colourful FX, retain their ganja-smoke headiness without being as open-ended and jerky as their previous efforts. As newfound producers-for-hire, they have toned down their experimentalism and pushed RDL's autotune-fuelled flow to the fore. The first release produced in Duppy collective's newly established, fan-financed studio in Dam Head, Showcase is an exquisite example of chimeric outernational dancehall, ideal for idling away the afternoon.

Air Max '97 - Psyllium / Eat The Rich

It is when records such as this one hit your inbox that you find a new purpose in spending hours and hours flicking through countless promos. Neither the Bristolian FWD-dance music institution Timedance, nor the producer and Decisions head honcho Oliver van der Lugt, require any introduction. A passionate purveyor of club futurism, van der Lugt made it clear long ago that he simply "wants to fuck people up on the dancefloor." His hard-to-describe style of "nightmare dance music," an amalgam of horizon-expanding sound design and clairvoyant club combinatorics, basically calls for fresh neologisms. Interestingly, his Bandcamp tags include highly evocative terms like 'lustral', 'figure-ground', 'nacreous' and 'polysemous'.

We could draw parallels with WULFFLUW XCIV, aya, object blue and TSVI, but van der Lugt has actually set up his very own assembly line for advanced club weapons of mass hypnosis. After the first few bars, depending on your personal references, 'Psyllium' transports you, a) circa ten years back when (then still minimal) techno moguls like Boris Brejcha and Umek produced tracks like 'I Am A Maschine' and 'Zagreb', or b) to a PCP-fuelled psytrance festival. It feels like you are listening to the aforementioned tracks on ambisonic headphones while coming up on a yet to be discovered drug that bends spacetime. Its tight sonic architecture morphs monstrous synth beams, spiralling Shepard tones, synthetic bleeps and kaleidoscopic drum-arp syncopations. Over on the B-side, the intricate introductory snare rolls of 'Eat The Rich' could draw comparisons to the work of UK producers like Ploy, but they're also pure Air Max extravagance, zigzagging between clanky kuduro percussion, thundering sub frequencies and menacing grime rudeness.

Simo Cell - YES.DJ
(TEMƎT Music)

It is really satisfying to witness the development of an artist from an anonymous newbie with a promising debut on Dnuos Ytivil into one of the most recognisable names of the bassbin-smashing techno scene. Since 2015, the Paris-based TEMƎT Music founder has left a mark on the more progressive ends of the dance music continuum with some massive EPs for labels like Livity Sound, Brothers From Different Mothers and Wisdom Teeth, some of them including collaborators such as Alex Coulton, Don't DJ, Peter Van Hoesen and, recently, Abdullah Miniawy. In the meantime, he managed to crystallise his own, often immediately recognisable aesthetic, without ever succumbing to a single tempo, vibe or genre.

His debut mini album, YES.DJ., which comes with a rather artsy fanzine that includes his photos of drink tokens from clubs around the world, is a rude bass affair that excellently reflects the Frenchman's eclectic and flexible approach to DJing. We could compare it to his recent stunning set recording from this year's Dekmantel Selectors, which offers a simultaneously gradual and intense progression from 90 to 160 BPM. Even though his productions are characteristically sophisticated, interwoven with ASMR-esque details and spectral voices, the emphasis is always on the body-shattering low-end soundwaves that make you rip off your shirt on a dancefloor, especially in the case of 'Cegetel' and 'Whispers'. Covering a wide range of club references, from mutant dancehall emulations, horror trap and Memphis hip hop to futuristic takes on juke, Jersey club and shiver-inducing dub, YES.DJ. is not particularly special in terms of novelty, since we have already experienced most of his tricks elsewhere. It is outstanding because it captures the essence of Simo Cell as a one-of-a-kind DJ/producer, caught in a cross-pollinating feedback loop between listener and creator.

Sputnik One - Love From Above
(Wisdom Teeth)

Dublin's Sputnik One has been on a roll since the release of the Kerosene EP on First Second Label, which gained exposure through mixes by Peach, re:ni and Ben UFO, among others. He further expanded his sonic vocabulary on the exceptional collection of mutant UK club sounds that made up last year's Warm Body on Well Street Records. It comes as no surprise then that he has now joined up with Facta and K-LONE's Wisdom Teeth family, a platform that has been pushing the leftfield strains of UK techno (in the broadest possible sense) since 2014.

His approach to arrangement is all about the transmutation of various rhythmic patterns and genre sensibilities, blending contemporary broken techno, synthetic psychedelia, footwork immediacy and post-dubstep fusionism. Even though the refined percussive workouts point to an organic quality, his drums are mostly covered with an artificial patina in the vein of Lurka, Laksa and Batu, suggesting a kind of cyberspatial ritualism for the age of surveillance capitalism. As on his previous EPs, he opts for tempo eclecticism, switching between 128 and 155 BPM on four completely different tracks marked by his polished sound design. My favourite here, the feverish neo-footwork psychedelia of 'Michael Cera', comes across like a cyborgian rendition of Mohammad Reza Mortazavi's "breakfinger" polyrhythms with plenty of raw cymbals and toms, high-pitched jibber-jabber and bouncy basslines. But the whole EP is just as impressive. Keep your eyes peeled on Sputnik One, there is surely plenty more fire to come (I dare to predict that he will soon also be collaborating with Timedance, Livity Sound and other similar outlets).

Various Artists - Molten Mirrors: A Decade Of Livity Sound
(Livity Sound)

At some point during my formative years as a fan of dance music, Livity Sound not only represented a reference point for forward-leaning, stripped-back UK techno, but also became synonymous with the Bristol sound. Its releases were inventive, daring and one step ahead of the competition. Established by Peverelist, Kowton and Asusu back in 2011, and followed by the sister label Dnuos Ytivil in 2012, the label's catalogue captures the essence of the aesthetic evolution we have witnessed in the past decade – the post-dubstep transition to fractured soundsystem techno, the concentration of global club trends in UK dance music, and the rise of sophisticated sound design in the context of functional club music. Its immense influence cannot be fully pinpointed, but the various labels promoting a similar sound that came after speak volumes. From 2015 on, it really became a stronghold for emerging artists from Bristol and beyond, who would later turn out as some of the most important creative voices of their generation.

Featuring 19 artists, from seasoned veterans (label founders and early-discovered mavericks like Bruce, Hodge, Simo Cell and Batu), to more recent Livity affiliates (Forest Drive West, Facta, Toma Kami) and the latest roster additions (Azu Tiwaline, Lack, Bakongo, Surgeons Girl), Molten Mirrors is a celebration of Livity's roots as well as the shape of the Livity sound to come. It is a communal, cross-generational artistic statement by a group of producers from the UK, Australia and Tunisia with different personal trajectories and stylistic approaches when it comes to production, but a shared sense for groove synthesis and introspective dancefloor epiphanies. Do not ask me for a favourite pick, because there are no fillers here, just thrills. Cheers to another ten years!

DJ Stingray 313 - Molecular Level Solutions
(Micron Audio)

Micron Audio is an imprint run by Detroit electro veteran Sherard Ingram, founder of Urban Tribe, Underground Resistance co-conspirator and one of the most prominent producers pushing the envelope of electro in the 21st century. Following the release of a digital-only compilation that has been lost in cyberspace, Stingray 313's Electronic Countermeasures EP hit the shelves in 2011, with the label laying dormant since. In 2021, the label has found a new purpose, however, with a mission statement to promote rising artists and colonise the future even more aggressively.

Molecular Level Solutions is a perfect example of Stingray 313's futurist inclinations, as well as his distinct electro sound which is typified by hi-tek language, sci-fi aspirations, otherworldly visions and an obsession with velocity. It is inspiring to see how an artist of his calibre continues to grow artistically, even 30 years after the inception of the Urban Tribe project. The original electro template has remained largely unchanged since the early '80s, yet his incessant forays into uncharted sonic territory suggest there are always new horizons to be explored. It is almost as if he can directly translate the laws of robot mechanics into sound. His massive warped laser synths are as mind-bending and immersive as ever and his hyperkinetic metallic beats batter your body like a pneumatic hammer the size of an Antonov. It may sound alienating, like the uncanny feeling of observing Boston Dynamics' robots doing backflips, but ultimately it is all about the (synthetic) funk.

Slikback - MELT

Known for his uniquely harsh take on experimental club sonics, Slikback has established himself as one of the most visible representatives of the contemporary avant-garde electronic scene both on and beyond the African continent. In recent years, he has featured on a split 12" for PAN with Soda Plains, and the Unsound Intermission compilation, while self-releasing various EPs and albums, including the 60-track strong collection III, and a sample pack on his Bandcamp page. The hyperproductive sonic explorer returns with his second full length on MELT, which brings forth 16 collaborative tracks from a wide array of trailblazing producers from literally all around the globe, including both international stars like Objekt, Brodinski and Tzusing, as well as up-and-coming talents.

Slikback is unforgiving when it comes to forging the meanest, most abrasive and face-melting textures, and conjuring the most anxious, panic-inducing atmospheres. MELT could almost be described as an unintentional follow-up to The Bug's recent masterpiece Fire, both in terms of rage and sandpaper aesthetic. But instead of unrelentless soundsystem pressure and mesmerising vocals, the focus is on undulating polyrhythms and grimy, dissonant and abrasive metal sonics with a quality not dissimilar to sludge metal, next gen African grindcore in the vein of Duma (especially the opener 'TOKETA'), French gabber, Nazar's rough kuduro and industrial hip hop acts, such as Death Grips and clipping..

The album is interspersed with war-machine sounds, horror-esque vocal modulations and violent sub frequencies ('DISSOCIATION'). Until the closing triplet 'ATMOS', 'THIRD DAWN' and 'PROTEAN GEM' allows us to come up for air, we are immersed in a melting pot of maximalist, ear-shattering dystopian club music for a world in perpetual turmoil. MELT, an album on which Slikback opens the door to solace through intoxicating noise, is a gargantuan effort both in terms of collaborating with 16 different artists as well as providing listeners and future generations with an overview of cutting-edge electronic creativity in 2021.