The Dot Connector: Anemones By Xylitol Is Our Album of the Week

Catherine Backhouse is equal parts scientist and artist on her joyous DIY record of ‘gutter kosmische’ for Planet Mu, writes Skye Butchard

Picture credit: Fran Young

When the class got bored and rowdy one afternoon, our science teacher tried to engage us with the pictures from Kunstformen der Natur. These early twentieth-century lithographs of sea anemones, arachnids and box jellyfish were made to convey wonder at life just as much as they were to document or explain it. It was art and science combined, before it felt necessary to separate the disciplines. Look at the colours, shapes and patterns, he said. Isn’t it amazing just to be here? A kid had got hold of his spare Andromeda galaxy tie and was spinning it around his head. It didn’t quite get through. It was nearly summer and we wanted to be in the form room listening to tunes.

As Xylitol, Catherine Backhouse translates that wonder with looped breaks and hissing synth lines. Her music is gloriously DIY. She uses a limited range of samples and gear, as if scrambling to get her thoughts down in as few steps as possible. Pulling from early hardcore and jungle, her sense of urgency puts you in the room as she works.

While the sound is scrappy, the ideas are polished. Backhouse has been fascinated by connecting the dots between music cultures her whole life. She grew up on 90s pirate radio and KISS FM, catching the signal from the outskirts of London. She was blown away by the possibility of acid house, Detroit techno and Krautrock, and needed to know where it all came from. A mate’s dad had a vast record collection. He introduced her to Pierre Henry and musique concrète. A connection was made. Music felt like one organism bursting into various strands, in conversation with itself.

Her decades-long career as a DJ and producer can be viewed as one of connecting dots and getting listeners to do the same. Long conversations with her partner, who grew up in what was then Yugoslavia, got her interested in Yugo pop culture and its history. This led to her ongoing project, Slav to the Rhythm, which started as a club night and evolved into a radio show. In it, she uncovers lost music to highlight the cultural value of art created under communism behind the Iron Curtain, often under challenging circumstances. Her productions now blend breaks with Mitteleuropean melodies and references to Yugo literature. She explores these themes with reverence and avoids the trap of exoticised kitsch.

It’s apt that Anemones, her new record on Planet Mu, looks to the lithographs of early biologists to communicate its ideas. Those images contain both discovery and a sense of an ancient throughline. Opener ‘Rosi’ introduces this aquatic world with squiggly percussion, deep bass and spliced loops. It creates images of bustling colonies of fish, or time lapses of primordial organisms gradually growing features. ‘Jelena’ balances languid atmosphere and speedy rhythms, its breaks cut up over patient pads. Those pads glitch and squeak when they’re played solo at the end. Like much early jungle, its base elements are no less cosmic when cobbled together from what’s lying around. Crucially, though the record uses elements that have existed since the early 90s, it remains forward-looking rather than doggedly nostalgic, as “revivalist” jungle and hardcore can sometimes be.

There’s of course a focus on getting our bodies to move. if Kunstformen der Natur’s images were purely visual, Xylitol’s sounds are embodied and physical. ‘Okko’ and ‘Moebius’ especially function as killer dance tracks, where Backhouse’s sharp ear for rhythm as catharsis shines. ‘Okko’ is relentless, with what sounds like live manipulation of its breaks. Cymbals and snares buzz through layers of flange effects.

‘Moebius’ uses the same core elements, but conveys a more free and spacious atmosphere with its resonant synth lines. ‘Maplin Syrup’ finishes this suite of Think-break experiments with a chillout track of sorts. Here, the break becomes more of a supporting character for her keyboard melodies, which gently bob through an open sea.

The second half of Anemones pivots, with flashes of garage, grime, and deep house. ‘Dobro Jutro’ makes use of the bagoo flute (best known as the hook to Skepta’s ‘That’s Not Me’). In Xylitol’s hands, the sound is ideal for a 16-bit water level, as resonant seventh chords fill out the space with lush greenery.

‘Daša’ could pass for a cut from DJ Sports’ Fire Records hit Modern Species with its off-world harmonics and dense percussion, if it wasn’t for that signature Xylitol grit in how the sample is flipped in the second half. This track was named after writer Daša Drndic, a writer who laces her novels with rich archival materials such as photographs, drawings, interviews and testimonies. The result is a vivid picture of twentieth-century history. It’s easy to see how Backhouse could be inspired by this tapestry effect when making her rich multi-source tracks.

‘Iskria’ is the snarling peak of the record, a high-energy and high-speed reprise of the impulses that made it. There’s reflection and stillness in her simple and poised melody writing. ‘Monte Mare’ and ‘Empty Vessel’ are the cooldown, ending the record with those gentle melodic phrases, now played solo. These songs are perhaps the most unmoored to any particular style or era. They feel eternal as a result, like Xylitol is taking us back to the source of something. As you’d expect for a seasoned DJ, there’s careful attention paid to pace.

DJs and producers have always been good at pointing us towards a bigger picture. At raves and on record, the act of sampling, looping and resampling connects us to the world around us, and to a dizzying lineage of music. In her connection to jungle, garage, Krautrock, musique concrète and beyond, Xylitol captures the godfather of sampling Pierre Schaeffer‘s original intent: “The world changes materially. Science makes advances in technology and understanding. But the world of humanity doesn’t change”. My science teacher would be thrilled I got the point in the end.

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