Ten Songs 9: All-Electronica Special
1. Balam Acab - 'See Birds' (unreleased)
One of the many things I find myself enjoying against my better judgement: Joe Stannard probably put the case best by describing so-called 'witch house' as "neo-goth for hipsters" - the fetishisation of a suffering, a Thanatic impulse, written in the codeined exhaustion and sonic darkness of early gangsta and chopped-and-screwed hip-hop, to which middle-class white kids can only ever have a distanced relationship, if not one of outright appropriation. They're like the moody kids in school who read Invisible Man because they felt it expressed their Sturm und Drang. But but but: Alec Koone, a.k.a. Balam Acab's, productions really get to me, especially 'See Birds'. The rudimentary nature of its structure - a central, lumbering snare beat and bass-drop woven with surges of vocal and smeared synths turning its cavernous air black, noxious green, streaked yellow, dropping out occasionally to small chinks of light in the form of what might be guitar-plinks - is precisely what makes it so compelling. To a certain extent its bedroom-made origins are still audible in the way the elements don't quite mesh up, the way it seems more intent on holding a mood than sculpting a full sonic trajectory. As with so many of the producers working on what Kev Kharas, in the new Loops, calls "post-genre" dance (Actress, FaltyDL, Joy Orbison, Zomby, etc.), you can hear the imprint of Burial's reworking of 2-step's vocal-slivers, the crucial point of production where rhythm becomes texture becomes text becomes signifier - the hopeless yearning of voices without bodies - and sometimes voices / That, if I then had waked after long sleep, / Will make me sleep again. Music for taking the phone off the hook.
2. DJ Sprinkles - 'Ball'r (Madonna-Free Zone)' (from Midtown 120 Blues (Mule Muziq))
I came across Terre Thaemlitz's house project through Jon Dale, who included this album in his 2008 end-of-year round-up. It's beautiful, sensuous deep house tempered by the rigours of minimal - the intro is just 2 syncopated clicks and languid synth chords, haunted as it crawls on by slivers of diva-vocal and party-shouts - that fearlessly seeks to reconnect with the political roots of house. "House is not universal, house is hyper-specific - East Jersey, lower East side, the West side of Brooklyn" - and the queer communities who populated the early house clubs. There's no disjunct between the bookending monologues and the undisturbed, enveloping passage of the sound: the sound is politics, the politics sound.
3. Autechre - 'd-sho qub' (from Oversteps (Warp))
In what sense Oversteps is a chill-out album, as Nick Richardson claims in the new Wire, I'm really not sure. Certainly, it seems to be the record where the (strange-)dynamic duo have shaken off the alleged curse of abstraction (which was only a curse from a very narrow perspective) - the dub and b-boy electro fun of their roots seems to have finally resurfaced after successive albums slathered with false hope. The heavily reverbed, overbright synth-notes that call to mind steel drums and dancehall riffs, relocated to the bottom of the sea, something the hot-stepping snares and mysterious buzzes and clangs, no stranger to dub mixes reinforce. The rhythmic disruptions that haters have barked on about for years work here as intensifiers, shaking the listener's frames of reference, forcing you to constantly catch at what's going on - as with wonky, which has proved abstraction to be the charm it really is, it's a marker of novelty, of the ability to constantly reinvent itself.
4. Kode9 - 'Black Sun' (from 'Black Sun/2 Far Gone' 12" (Hyperdub))
The farthest yet that Kode9 has gone from dubstep and his exquisite downtempo productions into funky and house, sounds stripped back to bone: the shearing-metal claps, jumping and juddering bass, and reedy, strained synth chord hovering like infinitely sustained melodica. Always trembling on the edge of the void.
5. Shackleton - 'Moon Over Joseph's Burial' (from Three EPs (Perlon))
Is it strange that now, even the Skull Disco 12"s that Shackleton put out, so far ahead of the dubstep pack in their meticulously balanced beat-arrangements and bass weight, seem almost primitive? But they were also prescient: the line that the label's last releases - 'The Rope Tightens', 'Death Is Not Final', with its T++ remix, Appleblim's 'Circling' and particularly the Ricardo Villalobos remix of 'Blood On My Hands' - trod between the space of dubstep and techno's uncanny machine-motion prefigured the fertile hybridity of current UK bass music. So it is that last year's Three EPs, in which Shackleton's techno-fixation found fullest expression, has been one of my listening constants throughout the year, and no more so than this 8 1/2 minute wonder, which summons up precisely what was most strange about those early releases. Beginning with a loop that recalls their sampled Arabic hand-percussion, clipped and multiplied to techno BPMs, it swarms with synth-bleeps decaying almost before they've begun, building up and dropping out with loops of metallic rattling, stray dry clicks and increasingly strong, cyclic bass, until around the 5 1/2 minute mark, it reaches an eerie plateau, its bedrock ghosted by keyboard drone that calls up the snaking Arabic melodies of the early productions. This drops out to stuttering hand percussion and builds up again, and the radiant timbres of sampled voices breaks out over the track, the contrast of textures leaving us in no doubt about the nature of its haunting.
6. Actress - 'Hubble' (from Splaszh (Honest Jons))
I fell down a hole into the future.
7. Zomby - 'Spliff Dub (Rustie mix)'/Joker & Ginz - 'Stash' (from Five: 5 Years of Hyperdub (Hyperdub))
Yes, another latecomer. (Although I didn't learn of it from the Guardian.) I was one of the ones who didn't and couldn't scout this shit out, as no-one wished to offer a guide (Plan B, no doubt, would have managed it, but The Wire were certainly working at chocolate-fireguard levels of helpfulness), and you can't trust Boomkat mail-outs further than you can throw them, and you can't afford 12"s on a student loan. And, uh, yes, it's wonderful in the way that all unexpected pleasures are, but even more so, in operating precisely through an excess that sets the individual elements gloriously skewiff - the way, in particular, that wonky synths bend pitches from the expected, like their generators were dissolving in the heat (cf. dirty south's extrapolation of G-Funk's synth-fetish). Thus, contemporaneous with the stunning splurge of last year's 'Purple City', the first electronic strains of 'Stash', stretched over minimal hi-hats, halfway between Space Invader melodies and theremins, until the drop. Echoing half-step snares provide the architecture for stuttering, malfunctioning bass synth, that, after a minor drop-out, builds up again to swarming blurts of treble, like being caught in a cloud of gelatinous bees. And thus, at the other pole of wonky, the opening moments of 'Spliff Dub', in the dub-abstracted rasta vocal of the original severed and edited into a Burroughsian cut-up muezzin call. Caught up into an interlocking rhythm of fragmentary bleeps, hollow snares, muted kicks and a synth bass slithering like a snake under a rug. It grasps the primitive thrill of arcade game electronics, the ascending note-clusters spattering the backdrop like the perspectival shards of a Picasso. It's that sense of jarring, of multi-directional pulls - something that also crops up in Astral Social Club's best productions - in part a multiple and simultaneous focus on texture and rhythm, of each melting and moulding to the other - the bristling, unnaturally warm timbre of the rhythm synths, like someone briskly brushing your face - that gives it such a stirring, modernist thrill.
8. Belbury Poly & Moon Wiring Club - 'The Young People' (from 'Youth and Recreation' 7" (Ghost Box))
That deliberate stiffness, as if the beat-box were spluttering into motion, the loops not always lining up, the resurrected traces of sounds that have graced earlier records - the overtweaked, fruity analogue bloops, the shimmering metallic ring, backmasking and synths that could be the 'harpsichord' preset. The elements that marked Ghost Box's sonic signature are reprised on the first 7"s of their new 'Study Series', and although the novelty has, to a certain extent, worn off, and it lacks some of the litheness and spring of the early Belbury Poly material, it makes up for it in creepiness and veiled threat - a sense of menace evident in the likes of 'Pan's Garden' and Ian Hodgson's own solo work as Moon Wiring Club. Time is rearranged, through samples, backward tapes and rattling dub echo, to the point where, underscored by sour synths, it seems as if we might be swallowed into darkness.
9. Pantha Du Prince - 'Es Schneit' (from Black Noise (Rough Trade))
Perhaps the lushest, most sumptuous electronic record to come out this year, even more so than the newly tightened and slightly claustrophobic Emeralds album - and the closer as the pinnacle, a wonderful inverse to the intro of 'Behind The Stars', where Pole static and dungeon rattles give way to enervated, menacing funk. Here the rhythm is dependent on nothing more than metallic chimes at a 2-step BPM, wreathed in a halo of light, and the occasional fizzing spark from this anvil collision, bells and trickling chains dancing across a rising synth in the background. The entry of hi-hat and muted kicks after 2 minutes is almost unnoticed, but sets up the whole logic of the track, their syncopation bolstering its trajectory, curving vertiginously as Tatlin's tower. Dissipating into synth-clouds at 4 minutes only confirms the exquisite plateau-state it's reached, regaining momentum, until it bursts into a snow-fall of ambient sound. Summer light scores sound.
10. Downliners Sekt - 'Dirty Meinz' (from 'Hello Lonely, Hold The Nation' EP (Disboot))
Quite possibly the strangest rhythmical construction I've heard all year, and there's been some weird shit come out recently (see Autechre above), found on a recommendation from my friend M. Over nearly seven minutes, the track unfolds - beginning in media res, with digital claps puncturing the air, giving way, with some difficulty, to an awkwardly jumping bass - and systematically deconstructs itself, always holding its elements in suspension and flux, as if afraid to pin down a single note. It feels like the very definition of artificial life, a misty atmosphere where every surface and texture is grey and glinting, synthetic and disturbing to the touch. Different sections of the track - the grey-white bursts of trebly static, the slowly ebbing digital skank underneath and, somewhere distant, the persistent dry clicks of the kick - have, as in Holger Czukay's Canaxis songs, or Lee Perry's dub productions, different textures, as if captured via a variety of media. It extracts and reintroduces not just individual rhythmic elements - making an already lopsided bop squelch, dissolve and frequently mutate - but whole atmospheres, mists of synth and shifts of production that seem to change the shape of the whole landscape.