Black Origami

Radio 4 listeners tuning into Desert Island Discs on the morning of Sunday January 15 2017 probably weren’t expecting to be hit with the nuclear-force rhythmical intensity of Jlin, a producer from Gary, Indiana, whose 2015 debut album Dark Energy flipped the footwork template into daring new forms that were both mind-bendingly frenzied in their pace and incredibly elegant in their execution.

And yet, there on the British institution of light music and chat, alongside work from George Michael, Franz Schubert and Jim Reeves, was Jlin’s ‘Unknown Tongues’, a Dark Energy track that combines fidgety drum machines with the incessant jab of a pitched up vocal and a throbbing bass drum, the selection courtesy of that week’s Desert Island castaway, choreographer Wayne McGregor.

For all the incongruous setting, it made perfect sense that a choreographer like McGregor would find a kindred spirit in Jlin, a producer whose music is based around incredibly detailed rhythmical invention, where sounds seem to be employed for their metrical, rather than melodic, qualities and rhythms pile on top of rhythms in great shifting eddies of sound, creating beats within beats within beats. Jlin even named one track on Dark Energy ‘Black Ballet’.

Dark Energy may have been a riot in rhythm. But this rhythmical frenzy is even more marked on Black Origami, Jlin’s second album and one that is well named: the producer has compared composing her music to origami and you can hear over these 12 tracks how sounds, effects, samples, drums and other instruments fold into and over each other to produce work of incredible sonic detail.

Around half of the tracks here are made up almost exclusively of drums, which might be a bit off-putting if you were dealing with the limited rhythmic palette of most electronic music producers. But Jlin really throws the door open, using percussive sounds that range from marching bands to gongs to tablas.

A prime example of this is ‘Challenge (To Be Continued)’, which sounds like precisely that – a challenge, as if someone dared Jlin to combine the strident, none-more-American sound of a marching band with the jittering percussive lines of footwork. And combine them she does, into the kind of über percussive bombast that feels like a party going on just behind your eyeballs, topped off – why not? – with the sound of an elephant trumpeting. It is loud, frenetic, hugely exciting and yet also immensely subtle, an incredible piece of percussive programming that sounds like someone solving a Rubik’s cube in 5D stereo sound. ‘Hatshepsut’, ‘Challenge’’s near cousin, also features the tight, rattling snares of a marching band, to which Jlin adds a fantastically unexpected wobbling rave Hoover noise, which is chopped into triplets and thrown into the percussive mix in a moment of jump-out-of-your-seat joy.

This global game of kiss chase, joining the dots between disparate percussive elements, is one of the keys to Black Origami. Much of the album draws its inspiration from Jlin’s ongoing collaborations with Indian dancer / movement artist Avril Stormy Unger – Jlin has said that the lithe and writhing ‘Carbon 7’ is directly inspired by the way Avril moves and dances – while tracks like ‘Enigma’ and ‘Kyanite’ feature what sounds like Indian percussion instruments and patterns. The latter track is a particular highlight, as Jlin cuts up a vocal sample into micro syllables, then throws them back together to create brilliant pop hooks, a trick she repeats on the almost hip hop of ‘Never Created, Never Destroyed’, which features vocals from Cape Town rapper Dope Saint Jude.

Elsewhere, ‘Nyakinyua Rise’ plays off the sound of a djembe against a pulsing drum machine bass drum, shakers and flickering hi hats, while album’s title track and opening song lulls the listener into a false sense of security by kicking off with the relaxing sounds of a digitalised Japanese harp before explodes like dirty percussive bomb, spraying radiated hi-hats all over the mix.

By themselves these new percussive elements would be enough to make Black Origami as a significant development in Jlin’s already hugely original sound. But she pairs these brilliant rhythmic puzzles with a couple of tracks which show yet another new string to her bow, without breaking up the album’s overall feel. ‘Holy Child’, a collaboration with minimalist composer William Basinski, opens up space in the Jlin sound to let the light shine briefly through, thanks to a celestial operatic vocal, while ‘Calcination’ is one of the most beautiful pieces of music that Jlin has put her name to, an almost ambient number where percussion takes a back seat to a gothic vocal line.

In April 2016 when Jlin first announced the existence of her coming second album she said it would be “very far left of footwork”. If anything, this was underplaying things: Dark Energy was already a significant left turn for footwork and Black Origami is a leap into the future from that, with probably only ‘1%’ (featuring Holly Herndon) from Black Origami sounding like anything on her first album.

More than footwork, then, Black Origami feels closer to the spirit of Photek, Squarepusher or Aphex Twin in the mid 90s, when these producers took the rhythmic intensity of drum and bass and squeezed and contorted it into fascinating new shapes and it is notable that Aphex played a couple of Jlin tracks at his recent US DJing comeback. That might make Black Origami sound like an academic success, the kind of record to be poured over in gear-obsessed websites and drum machine forums. But it really isn’t. Sure, you could spend hours obsessing over the rhythmic detail on Black Origami. But you could also dance, drink and be merry to it, much like the best work of Aphex et al.

Such a comparison, of course, puts Jlin up against some especially heavy competition, three of the most respected electronic music producers of all time. But on the evidence of Dark Energy – tQ’s album of the year for 2015 – and now Black Origami, an astounding orgy of global polyrhythm, she deserves it.

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