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Hyperspecific: Dance Music For November Reviewed By Jaša Bužinel
Jaša Bužinel , November 26th, 2021 08:09

Jaša Bužinel shares his impressions from the recent Volta x Boiler Room event in Zagreb, and reviews some of the best music released in November, by the likes of Blawan, Ploy, Batu and Akiko Haruna

Akiko Haruna by KT Allen, with direction by An Nguyen

It is true that the list of my rave excursions in 2021 is not worth mentioning (a single hand provides more than enough fingers), but – boy, oh, boy! – at least I got my share of euphoria last weekend right before we all returned back to our caves for the season finale (?) of this global crisis.

I headed to the Croatian capital Zagreb where my dear friends from the Volta crew organised their first official homeland set as part of Boiler Room's Eastern European Tour. We could of course discuss all the implications of cultural post-colonialism in the (North) Eastern European region here. (Why did Boiler Rooom only "discover" the Croatian scene, bar some UK-financed festivals, during the second year of a global pandemic?) We could also address the whole shit show around the grants given to this brand by the UK Arts Council's Culture Recovery Fund, but there will definitely be another time and place for that.

The reason I am writing about it is that the Volta Boiler Room happened in the middle of a quasi-lockdown in Slovenia, that has been punctuated by social unrest and overshadowed by ongoing political turmoil fuelled by our illiberal (read fascist) government. Here, clubs reopened for barely a month before closing again in mid-November for an indeterminate period. Nobody is actually even discussing the fate of clubs and event organisers here; even bourgeois culture is having a hard time right now, to be honest.

Though the current situation in Croatia is roughly comparable to Slovenia, this event basically symbolised to me an escape route into a parallel dimension where people still dance and celebrate music together. To cut a long story short, I drove to Zagreb on my own and experienced one of the most fulfilling clubbing highlights of my life, dancing my ass off for five hours straight on a single Nikšićko beer and minuscule spliff. But the most surreal part was that at a quarter past nine the club was bursting with the energy of a 4am rooftop-tearing peak-time set. My love for club culture was rekindled, and my hope in Balkan music futurism restored.

There were four Croatian DJs on the bill: the eclectic selector and former head of ZEZ Festival Babilonska, Low Income $quad co-founder and Croatian underground mainstay SZCH, the Volta crew co-founders and arguably the best DJs in the region and beyond N/OBE and Kornet, and, on closing duties, the Slovenian ambassadors of avant-garde club music, founders of Grounded Festival and LGBTIQ+ activists Warrego Valles. These are all names you should immediately write down as you will definitely be hearing more from them. Driving home from Zagreb on a deserted highway through heavy mist, I realised how important this event was for me as a music writer, but also as a raver. Like my pre-pandemic experience at Elevate Festival, which fuelled my imagination for a large part of 2020, the performances of the aforementioned DJs, all masterclasses in their own right, will definitely drive me through the coming darkest hour in Europe and beyond.

Quelling the need to delve into details, as their upcoming BR mixes will speak for themselves, I wanted to point your attention to this relatively underrepresented European region that is also my home. It may lack a lot of the music industry's essential infrastructure for now, but it surely lacks no talent. There are great things on the horizon and I will be surely covering future releases here. But for today's column, I am unleashing upon you all the international bassbin pressure I could find in the past month.

Imed Alibi feat. Khalil EPI – Frigya

Renowned Tunisian percussionist and composer Imed Alibi won acclaim through his involvement with the French oriental fusion band Les Boukakes, but some of you may be more familiar with his film scores and projects involving acclaimed musicians, such as Rachid Taha, Safy Boutella and Emel Mathlouthi. Following his solo effort Safar and collaborative album Salhi, the Montpellier-based artist became interested in contemporary percussion-driven electronic music. He recently came together with his compatriot Khalil EPI, a Shouka-affiliate from the Tunisian alternative scene, to produce the exciting LP Frigya, and the duo's album belongs to a growing movement of percussive electronic dance music from the North African region, popularised by the likes of Deena Abdelwahed, Nuri and AMMAR 808 (Tunisia); 3Phaz, ZULI and ABADIR (Egypt); and the online culture zine Ma3azef. This post-colonial cultural feedback loop has given rise to new exciting rhythmic and melodic modes at the outer edges of modern club genres. Building their palette from Mezwed and Bedouin archival material, using propulsive darbouka polyrhythms and trance-inducing mizwad (a North African "bagpipe") melodies, and interpolating them in their live/programmed percussion, the tracks function both as a live performance repertoire as well as a pack of club tools. It is all out vigorous dance music connecting the dots between ancient Tunisian traditions and the 21st century global club circuit. The energy that defines the heavy belters 'Analog Bedoui' and 'Dajkovo' is akin to releases by DJ Plead and Anunaku while tracks like 'Ghajar' (with Zied Zouari) and 'Hattaya' could arguably hit a homerun at future WOMEX festivals.

Akiko Haruna – Be Little Me

Sound designer, audiovisual artist and RBMA alumnus Akiko Haruna blew me away with last year's track 'Die & Retry' for the Timedance compilation Sharpen, Moving. Though vocals played an important role in it, I could never have imagined she would soon assume the producer/performer role in the vein of SOPHIE or, more recently, aya. Her debut EP, an exciting hybrid between post-club-via-hyper-R&B-techno sonics, sensual cyborgian vocals à la FKA twigs, and mind-boggling 8K sound design, comes as a big surprise. Its release on Numbers. makes total sense given that it represents one of the cradles of these contemporary new aesthetics. As it goes, vague references to aya and SOPHIE are interspersed, but never as hackneyed pastiche, for example in the ASMR-esque vocals of 'Hotspot' and the metallic techno clanking and revving engine synths of 'Big Boy'. Do some tracks sound a bit like a feature between Björk and the Timedance crew? Perhaps, yet the way she infuses all these sophisticated but twisted beats with saccharine R&B emotiveness, adding even some humour to the mix, makes it completely her own. Each track is a story in its own right. The spacious hyperballads 'Raw' and 'Athena' could be performed at Eurovision 2040, while there is also some erotic tension to be found in the dembow riddims and ethereal Japanese vocals of 'Yakusoku', which feel like a nod to Spanish popstar Rosalía. And the highlight? The title track, of course – a momentum-building techno pop gem centred on Haruna's processed voice. If you appreciate all the various tangents emerging from hyperpop aesthetics and you simultaneously dig the various strains of UK techno dominating clubs in recent years, this one is a must listen.

Blawan – Woke Up Right Handed

What to do when you're speeding down the techno highway of success, churning out top-notch EPs like Many Many Pings and Soft Waahls, and outdoing yourself every time? Pull the fucking handbrake and do a U-turn! Well, at least if you are an envelope-pushing producer-turned-farmer like Blawan. In the last decade, he has had a major role in breaking down the meme of modular dudes exchanging patch tips to produce humdrum techno; and nobody could have prepared us for his comeback to fiendish mid-tempo stompers, having spent recent years exploring high-velocity modular funk. The result is probably his most straightforwardly fun record in years. The gargantuanly granular melody of 'Under Belly' – I keep on associating it with a cha-cha/rumba theme played through a noise-filled TV screen – brings to mind the image of a group of Boston Dynamics' BigDogs hysterically guffawing at me. There are also massive yet pleasantly bubbly and clanky percussive timbres to be found in 'Close The Cycle'. Its synth line bends into serpentine coils while the subdued and dispassionate male voice hoovers along. Blawan apparently likes to play aural mind games, often with a humorous intent. Is 'No Rabbit No Life' a 188 BPM mutant techno roller or a half-speed slowburner? Whatever, it slaps big time. It pisses me off when boomers use that Lenin quote about the necessity of taking one step backward to take two steps forward. This is exactly the case with Woke Up Right Handed, though. More unabashedly catchy and weird stuff like this, please.

Batu – I Own Your Energy

Timedance founder and DJ extraordinaire Batu is back with a toolbox of four high-grade weapons engineered for high energetic consumption. It has been amazing to see Batu progress as a producer over the last few years, developing intricate percussive tricks, transfixing bass modulations and hauntingly mesmerising aural abstractions. On his first solo release since 2019, following the EP False Reeds, a superb Krust remix and a single with fellow Bristolian Lurka, he is in full beast mode on this new release. His crystalline sound image is simply jaw-dropping and the arrangements executed with scintillating wit. The bewitching title track punches you in the guts with its ominous bassline and deviant dembow syncopations – the kick drum is huge, the snare will flog your eardrums into pleasure, and the panned metallic percussion is just purely hypnotic. Things get even ruder on the muscular 'Inner Space', which is how I imagine astral projection feels like, and more cavernous still on 'Go Deeper', which opens with brooding syncopated drums and sound art feedback before the shuffling snare rolls and rhythmic synth motifs turn it into contemporary tap dance material. Closing with the hi-tek dub of 'Deep Breath', an ultramodernist take on the Smith & Mighty heritage, Batu takes a psychedelic turn, employing sophisticated acid bleeps, spectral choruses and epic synth crescendos. Swaggering, cerebral and remarkably singular, I Own Your Energy brilliantly encapsulates the vision of a producer on top of his game.

XRA – XRA001

Another Bristolian favourite, Bruce, already pampered us this year with his collaborative EP Final Conference with French techno don Bambounou. Banding together this time with the aforementioned Lurka during lockdown, the Bristolian power duo now present their new music project and label XRA, bringing to the table three head-banging cybertechno tekkers and a dramatic prelude that sets the pace. Bruce, real name Larry McCarthy, says of XRA that the two plan to eventually transition towards the new alias, gradually dissociating it from their images with the potential of future collaborations with different artists. Their aesthetic sensibilities match perfectly in the opener 'Lines Of Light', a free floating piece with bursts of static, shimmering drones, sounds akin to a rumbling V8 engine noise, and a stretched and deformed vocal hook that fades in and out of the audio range. They again prove their mastery of the whole frequency spectrum in the hyperdubby cut 'Bee Track', a masterclass in the craft of tension-release with sounds so crisp and hyperreal they may crack the fabric of air. 'It Lives' is a surgically enhanced take on ruff junglist science, while 'DOINK!' steers into quasi-Balearic dancehall territory with its earth shattering bass bombs and arguably schmaltzy yet utterly emotive melody in the tradition of glittery synth pop. The record is a majestic joint effort that foreshadows the new shapes of futurist UK techno.

Fraxinus – Position [Displacement]

British producer Fraxinus only recently began to gain traction on the international electronic music scene, despite debuting on the UK imprint Her Records in 2014. In 2017, a remix of 'Damaged Merc' by M.E.S.H. was a headturner, but he went on creative hiatus soon afterwards. Now, four years later, he returns with a newfound label and an EP that continues from where he left off. Position [Displacement] is focused on straightforwardly functional dancefloor tools designed to propel the listener into mania. Operating at the crossroads between funky techno and forward-thinking hard drum, the productions are marked by serious bassbin pressure and big boned kicks, snares, toms and claps that support gleaming melodies that are inspired equally by dub techno, UK funky and grime. The dark hues and spiralling beats of 'Source Code' and 'Pass One' make for great peak-time dark room artillery, while the more funked-up '115 (Kondo)' and 'Larch' offer a look into the producer's more playful side. It is the cantankerous nervous stomping of the closer 'Laced' that seals the deal for me, though. Position [Displacement] provides DJs with six energy-controlling devices with instantly effective grooves for any occasion.

Ploy – Rayhana
(Deaf Test)

On the inaugural EP for his imprint Deaf Test, London producer Ploy departs from the noise-infused, metallic-sounding, IDM-ish post-rave explorations of his debut album for L.I.E.S., Unlit Signals, diving deep into various global diasporic club sounds. Of course you will all remember the evergreen drum rolls of 2018 club hit 'Ramos', which granted him the status of certified banger maker. Last year's 'Molotov' has had a similar fate, firing up dancefloors wherever it's been deployed. On Rayhana, Ploy is armed with three more rave-ready gems that are sure to make you lose your shit whenever and wherever you hear them. The energising vocals of the amped up, UK-powered, Baile funk-ish title track will get stuck in your head for months to come, while 'Dark Lavis', an ideal mid-set tension-builder, is Ploy's inspired emulation of dabke-infused techno. The closer, '5 Bats', is a lethal slow stomper that employs a jerky vocal hook in Portuguese, pitting it against surgical bursts of snare, world-shattering sub-frequencies and razor-sharp triangle waves. How such a large chunk of contemporary UK techno luminaries (besides him, Batu, Lurka, Bruce, Parris and Rhyw) can deliver so many outstanding tracks in a single month remains a mystery to me.

Nick Malkin – Nothing Blues

Like many of you I find languorous Sunday afternoons the most significant part of the week – a time for recovery, self-discovery and therapeutic listening sessions – so I'm regularly on the lookout for the "ideal Sunday soundtrack," meaning immersive music with the power to take me places without asking for all of my attention. I am glad to inform you that I finally discovered my 2021 highlight, which is probably also my ambient AOTY. Nothing Blues is the fourth album by LA-based composer/DJ Nick Malkin whom we know for his "urban nocturnes" released on Geographic North and Soda Gang, and soothing sonic tapestries that make up his NTS show Post-Geography. Nothing Blues is a homespun, silky-smooth and rather short record comprising seven pieces that are informed by spiritual-jazz-meets-ambient atmospherics, electroacoustic tingles, environmental recordings, drones, echoing piano chords and tenderly meandering saxophone motifs. If you liked Aboutface's recent output or long for the aqueous vibe of Arthur Russell, this too should work for you even if it is more low-key. As much as Malkin's tracks make me feel isolated like a Mars-bound Dr. Manhattan, they also trigger intimate images associated with warmth like my girlfriend transplanting Swiss cheese plants or my mom baking apfelstrudel. Each track feels like an attempt to capture a specific image or emotion that evaporates into thin air just before you manage to pinpoint it, lulling you into a hypnagogic state of mind. With a subtle approach to arrangement that does not stray too far from familiar ambient tropes, Malkin provides the perfect antidote to Sunday blues.