Kode 9


The Hyperdub head honcho's first album in seven years is the soundtrack to an imaginary computer game about a space-faring imperial Scotland

Back in the late 90s and early 00s, I remember sitting in a dark living room with my brothers, watching the elder of the two playing horror games like Resident Evil 2 or Silent Hill 3 and sci-fi first-person shooters like Half-Life and Quake III Arena, always on the verge of shitting my pants. As a child, I did not realise how intensely the sound design in these games – the eerie atmospheres, acousmatic background noises, unsettling “save room” themes and the howling and screeching of various creatures – affected my whole being. Scottish-born, London-based artist Steve Goodman has been exploring the dreadful, fear-inducing uses of sound and how it can negatively affect people at least since his book Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear hit the shelves in 2009. I believe this is something that he is trying to emulate on his latest album Escapology.

A dubstep trailblazer who laid the foundations for forward-thinking UK club music in the twenty-first century on a series of co-releases with the late poet and MC The Spaceape. His curation at the helm of the Hyperdub label has consistently been at the cutting edge. Kode9 has also recently fully embraced his vocation as a multidisciplinary artist. In 2021, he set up an AV installation on the main floor of London’s Corsica Studios and was invited to Paris by the pioneering institution Groupe de Recherches Musicales to create a multi-channel diffusion on their fifty-speaker Acousmonium (which I had the opportunity to experience in Graz as part of Elevate Festival, and is really something else).

It has been seven years since his last LP Nothing, and about a year-and-a-half since his comeback EP The Jackpot / Rona City Blues, which foreshadowed the vibe of Escapology. Seemingly, everything he has been working on in the past two decades has led to his magnum opus in the making, Astro-Darien, a cross-platform ‘sonic fiction’ which presents political upheaval in a future Britain on the brink of collapse due to a resurgent Scottish independence movement, active both on Earth and in space. Conceptualised as Astro-Darien’s soundtrack, Escapology functions as one of the many-to-come entry points into Goodman’s universe.

While Astro-Darien may be set in the near future, the impression I get from its soundtrack is a sense of cyberpunk-ish retrofuturity. The decision to use an album cover that references late 90s videogame aesthetics speaks for itself. The ESRB/Rockstar Games logo mashup in the lower right corner (dubbed as Trancestar North) along with the re-appropriation of the Playstation logo into a Kode9 seal in the upper left corner trigger some profound nostalgia. The whole design (typeface, 3D landscape, an Ableton-like visual arrangement of sonic blocks on the right and left, the vertiginous perspective of a space rollercoaster) harkens back to a different era of futurist imagination at the turn of the millennium – worlds apart from the hyperpolished non-binary transhumanism of certain strains of contemporary futurist sonology from the realms of hyperpop and beyond (captured in the abstract and iridescent, often clichéd 3D digital renders found on album covers).

Being a concept album that functions as a portal to a parallel aural universe, I cannot listen to it as a classic record, picking my favourite tracks and skipping the fillers. It is much more like a POV virtual reality adventure to be experienced in a single take. The productions are rather short, four-and-a-half minutes tops. They are employed as themes for different levels (‘Freefall’, ‘Sim-Darien’, ‘Lagrange Point’, ‘Docking’) with varying ambience and intensity. Each track comes across like a new challenge, provoking unpredicted sonic affects. Artificially-induced anxiety, a sense of disorientation, the feeling of falling and staring into the abyss, uncanny and haunting thoughts, it is all there – just like back in the days when we would play the above-mentioned classics.

Musically, Kode9 dives deep into liminal sonic realms that are ostensibly isolated from the modern clubland. You can of course trace fragments of dubstep, grime, jungle, garage and footwork along with contemporary ampiano/gqom rhythmics in his productions (basically all the different styles that found their home on Hyperdub), though they give the impression of being relics from the past, intuitively recalibrated and rearranged in a way that suits the new timeframe of Astro-Darien.

The opener ‘Trancestar North’ with its machinic cicada-like buzzing, ominous spaceship sounds and talking AI-assistant functions like a main menu or loading interface. It makes you wait for action before ‘The Break Up’ takes you on a bumpy ride informed by jerky footwork arrangements, an uncanny quasi-melody, glitchy interstellar ambience and other unidentifiable rattling sounds. Its dissonant character arouses emotions of distress and sets the pace for things to come. The tracks are interwoven with videogame-inspired inserts (‘Orbex’) and atmospheric intermezzos – the distressing piece ‘Toxic Foam’, for instance, feels like a nod to the first part of Xenakis’ Metastasis, before it collapses into cosmic abstraction. It may be due to my recent discovery of this ear-opening documentary, but I can see parallels with Xenakis’ musical sensibilities and ambitions all over this record.

The most straightforward production found here is the nu jungle gem ‘Lagrange Point’, but most other tracks are way more out there. The inharmonic white noise of faux-wind chimes is juxtaposed with footwork-y syncopations in ‘Angle of Re-Entry’, while in ‘Close the Gap’ (one of my favourites) ampiano riddims meet the sci-fi ambience of 90s progressive techno acts like Higher Intelligence Agency and B12 – intriguing mutations that open up new possibilities. The droney glissandos and synthetic shrieking of transitional pieces like ‘Freefall’, ‘Astro-Darien’ and ‘Docking’ again bring to mind some of Xenakis’ innovations (especially the astounding AV piece ‘Polytope de Cluny’). With its final countdown and quasi-ambisonic digital thunderstorm moving from left to right and around your head, one of the most immersive pieces found on the record, ‘In The Shadow of Ben Hope’, evokes the image of a hopeless Ryan Gosling from the Blade Runner reboot. Every next track is a new manoeuvre, a new level, a new challenge. But as often mentioned, despite its futurist inclinations and trans-genre character, the album’s overall sound design and aesthetic, though crystalline and high-definition, is still quaintly retrofuturistic, full of 80s-inspired computer sounds, old school synthesised speech, transcendental junglist ambience and grainy electroacoustic patinas.

Escapology is eccentric, full of twists and turns, screechy, glitchy and ambitious – undoubtedly a rare breed. After you complete the final mission, you are finally immersed in the artificial soundscape of closer ‘T-Divine’. The closing credits roll in. You have managed to escape and survive. Ultimately though, the listening experience does not transport me into a hyperstitional future. I feel more catapulted into an alternative past, which was polluted with fragments and ideas from the future we are inhabiting at the moment.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today