Dark Energy

Drive south from downtown Chicago on Interstate 90, and as the elevated Skyway curves around the edge of Lake Michigan you’ll find the vast steelworks of Gary, Indiana. Refineries, docks and factories stretch away to the flat Midwestern horizon, spouting chemical flames and thick clouds of smoke: Blake’s dark Satanic mills rebuilt for the demands of the American Century.

When I first listened to footwork a few years ago, I was reminded of watching Gary’s huge industrial vistas from the comfort of the freeway. This is a genre rooted firmly in Chicago’s local networks of dancers, crews and battles, framed by the city’s racial and economic inequalities: foreign listeners can inevitably only glimpse those realities fleetingly and from a distance.

And yet footwork’s increasing global audience clearly demonstrates that you don’t need to be from Chicago to appreciate its frenetic tempos and raucously futuristic sounds. Planet Mu, whose Bangs And Works compilations were instrumental in bringing the genre to wider international attention, embody this more than most: being based in the UK hasn’t stopped them from serving as a springboard for the global success of better-known crews like Teklife, or playing a crucial role in the development of newer artists from the Chicago underground.

Dark Energy, the Planet Mu-released debut album from Gary resident Jlin, captures this duality perfectly: it is intrinsically linked to footwork’s Chicago roots, refusing to smooth out its rough edges for the sake of universal appeal. At the same time, it’s a unique and self-contained piece of work: its creative depth and immaculate technical skill are impossible to ignore or resist, wherever you’re listening from.

This is partly because Jlin transcends so many of the genre’s established tropes, twisting those raw materials into daring new forms. This may in turn be a reflection of her own circumstances: living in Gary, close to Chicago but separate from it, and without direct experience of DJing at battles, her perspective is naturally a little different to that of her peers.

The most immediately recognisable track here is ‘Erotic Heat’, which featured on the second volume of Bangs And Works in 2011. Its triplet 808 kicks and aggressively chopped-up vocal loops may be familiar, but they’re deployed in striking and novel ways: the track (like all of Jlin’s output) eschews sampled hooks in favour of synthesised sound. Its vocals are not used as refrains but mangled and mulched to the point of incomprehensibility, there’s more texture than language, and a careful sense of poise throughout, as opposed to footwork’s usual chaotic overload. The track’s lineage is clear, but it also feels thrillingly new.

Even better is ‘Black Diamond’, where razor-sharp finger clicks and foot stomps merge with skittering synth-toms, 8-bit chiptune melodies and Street Fighter samples. It is a deliriously pleasurable burst of high-resolution sound, packing more ingenuity and ambition into its two minutes than many producers manage on entire albums.

These two tracks arrive a third of the way into the album’s 39 minutes, and are by some distance the most conventional things on it. The portentous string and piano arrangements of first track ‘Black Ballet’ certainly provide a more unexpected opening, with staccato orchestral motifs and operatic wails weaving around mechanical percussion to foreboding effect. Footwork may have begun as party music, but it’s hard to imagine something this sinister soundtracking anything other than a funeral.

‘Unknown Tongues’ is much more lithe but similarly un-nerving, its vocals snaking through a dense web of rhythm. It shifts restlessly from half-time to double-time and back again, equal parts propulsive and disorientating. Its closest companion might be Shackleton’s recent Deliverance Series, with its complex arrangements of interlocking rhythmic blocks and faint echoes of North Africa and the Middle East.

Jlin’s combination of the functional and expressionistic is most fully realised on ‘Guantanamo’: it’s easy to imagine this track doing gloriously unhinged things to a dancefloor, but it’s also a terrifying invocation of state violence, built on horrific screams and bruising synth textures. In its uncomfortable and ambiguous deployment of spoken-word samples ("You don’t want to hurt anyone" says an adult voice; a child replies "But I do… and I’m sorry") it’s a far more chilling response to the horrors of Guantanamo, or perhaps to the Chicago police department’s recently-uncovered torture facility (itself run by a former Guantanamo warden), than a straightforward polemic might be.

Later tracks ‘Ra’ and ‘Expand’ (a collaboration with San Francisco-based sound artist and producer Holly Herndon) are more abstract in their use of vocal material, but provoke just as much unease. ‘Ra’ bounces the single syllable of its title around the stereo field, surrounding it with fidgety drum programming and pounding bursts of electronic noise. ‘Expand’ is perhaps gentler in its treatment of the listener, but feels no less alien: its pitch-shifted vocals develop a deliciously uncomfortable plastic sheen, while lurid synths lurch into unfamiliar melodic shapes.

This feeling of otherness pervades Dark Energy: just as Jlin’s singular music floats free of footwork’s typical structures, its emotional impact remains fascinatingly open-ended. Existential unease blurs into dancefloor momentum, outright aggression and an austere, crystalline beauty, sometimes within the space of a few bars.

In its breadth of ambition and stunningly realised sounds, Dark Energy delivers more than just a new twist on an established style. Remaining tightly linked to the music of Jlin’s forebears and contemporaries, it nonetheless maps out an inspiring and tantalising glimpse of electronic music’s future.

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