A confession: Before purchasing the debut album by Berlin-based dance music producer SW. (née Stefan Wust) on the strongest of recommendations from a trusted source, I had never really bothered to investigate the SUED label he runs with fellow producer SVN (Sven Rieger). Despite being a fan of Rieger’s Dreesvn duo with Dynamo Dreesen (aka Andreas Krumm), having first encountered their oddball brand of groove-y and oblique house music on the fantastically varied Tall Stories EP, the SUED label’s tidy visual presence never really jumped out at me. The minimalist orange fruit logo seemed better suited for an Apple-aping tech start-up, suggesting a sanitized and safe approach to dance music that has been a hallmark of many of this decade’s most successful underground concerns, from the disgraced Dial disciples at the Giegling label to the tired 90s house tropes worn with pride by everyone from DJ Seinfeld and Ross From Friends to the recently re-hyped Octo Octa (who has long had her eyes set firmly on that decade’s sound palette dating back to her 100% Silk days).
Admittedly, this surface reading on my part was further confirmed after reading the fawning label write-up Sued received back in 2015 from Resident Advisor. In the rather droll piece--alas, producers aren't rock stars--writer Will Lynch situated the label’s players and sound alongside other play-it-safe weirdos like DJ’s Sotofett and Fett Burger of Sex Tags Mania and Vancouver’s placid Mood Hut label, all three trading in live-sounding percussion, lazily unfolding synth pads, and an omnivorous sound that absorbs the past forty years of dance music and avant-garde mutations.
While Mood Hut has its moments--my favorite release being the confounding stylistic grab bag that was Disco Mantras’ tasteful fourth world disco shuffle--I find both their and the Fetts’ tribalistic house mixture a bit too politely plodding for my taste. Electronic dance music ceased to be the sound of the future some time ago as a self-awareness regarding its own history rose right to the surface, each new line of flight sooner or later being funneled through the Gates of Argonath and hemmed in by the twin pillars of house and techno. Despite being released at the end of last year, The Album has taken its time getting into listeners’ and critics’ hands, RA reviewing it back in November of last year whereas Philip Sherburne at P4K didn’t review it until last July. The vinyl edition finally first hit the states around its August 24 release date, although a second pressing has seen it finally hitting the States in earnest, and the Discogs page states it came out August 24, 2017, a few weeks before two trusted heads reached out to me, knowing I’d likely be unaware of its existence, both proclaiming it to be the best techno album they’d heard in years.
Like Sotofett’s debut album on Honest Jon’s from 2015, the styles listed on The Album’s Discogs page cover a vast spectrum of electronic music, but retain a certainly gaseous, warm sensibility that rewards countless listens. Indeed, the title itself seems to be a wink-and-nod to the electronic music fans either returning to or entering to the world of SW. for the first time, so rare is the occasion when one can enthusiastically recommend a dance music full-length over an artist’s singles and EPs. But if the LP format is an albatross around the neck of so many producers, SW. wears his like a gold chain: confident and with style, like he was born into it.
In the RA feature, Lynch contrasts SVN’s penchant for live jams with SW’s polar opposite approach to making music. As Rieger puts it, "He needs his own space....Close the door, be alone, no explanations—that's what he's like. He's really, really deep into philosophy, always reading crazy books. He can fly very high with his thoughts. Last year he was really into Hegel and was always giving me lectures." And this quote really encapsulates everything that is wonderful about The Album; it’s a record that moves at its own pace while creating an atmosphere that is near-totalizing when given the proper attention as each track is ripe with ideas that might be counter-intuitive in the hands of a less seasoned producer. The music doubles as a treatise on the past, present, and future of dance music.
As familiar as I might be with the different forms and shapes that SW.’s music inhabits, he manages to craft each element in such a subtle, nuanced way that if one is not paying attention, the album can fly by in a seemingly same-y blur as if one were listening to a Lobster Theremin comp. But each time I went back to the start of the record, the heartwrenching descending four notes rendered via a crying patch, punchy sub and light-as-a-feather breaks, I seem to discover yet another new element and be lulled into the happy place. The last minute of the barely-four minute track sees a semi-dissonant lightning bolt in slow motion hit the front of the mix before we're left with a texturing of this bucolic pasture, Thing pick up in earnest on "A2" as a decidedly jazzy beat--the type I've heard a thousand times yet couldn't place an example no matter now hard I try--serves as the frenetic-yet-steady rhythmic backbone is adorned with a rainy day melody and soul-searching bass.
While not as direct as the A side, "B1" is arguably where the album truly starts to find its own personal footing. A flute-like non-hook and bird calls pair with a jamband percussion section for a dilated intro that gains some bass momentum in the second half. The track's levitational aura makes you pine for a yoga studio that plays dope music, especially once laser-like darts join the birdcalls, the track suddenly vanishing into the ether from which it came. Pillowy soft pads and a laid-back brush-led snare rhythm give the listener a respite from the manic tranquility found in The Album's first quarter. Soon the seeming ambient fodder grows fangs, the harmonics going full-IMAX like a supercharged Dettinger. A figurative and literal lightness pervades over the eleven tracks on display, its distinctive voice highlighted by "B3," which is the sole 4x4 track. And while it quickly checks off the tasteful house boxes in its brief three minutes, it ends on a locked groove that can extend the track indefinitely--if you've been on autopilot up to this point, this is when SW. gives you a soft nudge as if to say, "Hey, seriously though, something special is going on here."
There's actually a second, slightly strong nudge waiting for the listener at the start of the second disc in the form of the deep disco-funk bass and wild congas of "C1," a single prolonged stab ebbing and flowing in volume to lull the listener into a walking disco nap. Less we forget that SW. and SUED thrive in the kookier end of the house pool, the staggered bass kicks and gaping synths of "C2" dig a hole for the listener in which to take an eternal nap, the pitter-patter of the dirt striking the Michelin Man avatar lying contently at the bottom of the funeral plot. Part of the reason The Album can take a hot minute for its familiar-yet-distinctive sonic palette to truly be appreciated is that the sequencing is not unlike a well-paced DJ set, the songs often feeling half their actual length as each one seems to be cannibalized by the next before a track ends (cue The Human Centipede metaphor). Having started his hole to China, SW. doubles down on the cushy atompherics with the pulsating, beatless "C3" vanishing the second it appears, leaving behind a three-minute-long vapor trail of skybound cotton candy.
Less the LP be considered too one-dimensional in tone, all billowing clouds of major key fluff, the sci-fi catcalls jumping about the mix on "D1" fills in yet another piece of the curious puzzle on hand. Detroit's never-ending future-present looms large, crashing upon a synthetic gossamer breakbeat and bowel-disrupting subs that enter a second half not far removed from the heavenly breakbeat techno explored at length by Shed on this year's The Final Experiment. Not content to stay in the clouds for too long, SW. beckons us into his maroon Tessela for a night drive on "D2," but not before first spinning his wheels as he scales the incline and a ripper acid line-as-fuel launches the automobile over the precipice. Hitting the brakes the whole way down, the breakneck stop-and-start beat calls forth the ghost of D&B's past, which sticks around for the stripped down closer "D3." Once again recalling the streamlined continuity of a perfectly-sequenced mix, we soon find ourselves back whee we started as the memorable chords that open The Album come tumbling down in the second half, the principle motif left to sparkle like a beacon that listeners old and new will likely find irresistible.
The isolationism described in the RA feature can be felt for the duration of the long player, but this is a different brand of the type of inward-looking ambient music renowned musician and critic David Toop was listening to when he first coined the isolationist concept. That SW. can be so freely referential while dutifully crafting a rich and comfortable sound world--The Album at times is like lounging in a well-work chair or sofa--got me thinking of other artists I've heard recently who are able to draw upon a rich pool of influences to create music that re-thinks that most post-modern of concepts: the pastiche. Long has the term been used pejoratively to describe work so indebted to what has come before it so as to lack any personality or identity of its own. But with artists like Actress and Burial pilfering not just genres but provincial scenes and lightning-in-the-bottle moments in such a way as to skirt that dualist judgment of being original or pastiche, rendering such a distinction mute, SW. has created a work that operates within a distinctively European framework, one that reimagines the American-bred house and techno through a different geographical landscape and mindset. Reverential rather than referential, The Album challenges outmoded modernist notions of "the new" and post-modern updates on that quasi-fascistic obsession like the Hardcore Continuum by indulging in ample borrowing from a whole range of sources while reconfiguring the root variables in a way that is wholly personal. After all, just because something is pastiche doesn't mean it doesn't have to lack heart and The Album has that in spades, an emotive work of electronic dance music that doesn't try to upend its influences rather than tweak them in such a way as to render them both alien and antique, both challenging and comforting.