The Desert of the Real(ly Depressing)
I learned very early on to fear August in NYC like the plague--not that I ever have actually gotten out of the city during the wretched month. My first summer working in the city was during that halcyon moment in 2007 right before everything went to complete shit and all rational beliefs about capitalism were rendered, well, wrong. Having spent the preceding months basically indulging in every fantasy I could seemingly imagine after growing up in Ohio and going to school in rural Iowa, following which I immediately hightailed it to the city I've wanted to live in since I was twelve, once August hit, things started to go south. The honeymoon was over. I broke up with my girlfriend from college in a super not-fun way and soon found my novel job of delivering buttons and trim to the likes of Anna Sui and other fashion people I was supposed to pretend to care about, well, not so novel.
Having spent my first two two months in awe of this city where you truly could do whatever you wanted whenever you so desired--and you could hole up inside for weeks as well!--things soon started to go south in a way I would eventually find most August's do. Between the post-break-up bummies, the truly oppressive heat, and the gradual realization that anyone with half a brain had peaced out to the beach in some other part of the world, I was not a happy camper. Oh, and quaint as this may sound, the whole turning-your-head-to-look-at-a-woman's-ass thing was totally new to me; I just recall looking up in a daze one day and exclaiming to myself, "Oh shit. I've moved to a giant phallus." However, I soon discovered the bass-as-catharsis of early dubstep, such as DMZ, Peverelist, Pinch, and many others to be just what my twenty-three-year-old angst-filled self needed when stomping around the garment district, buttons in tow.
And while no August has been quite as scarring as that first, it's never a month I look forward to, and with multiple precedents, like this classic. Eleven days after I turned thirty years of age in 2014--you guessed it, on August, 1st--I found myself closing my eyes at my desk only to awaken on the ground, and then in the elevator, and ultimately an ambulance. It turns out I had one doozy of a seizure for no apparent reason, which took most of the month to recover from as I was fatigued and just...slower. Not Dougie Jones slow, but lost a few milliseconds off my 100 meter dash So yeah, not a fan of August's.
Between Game of Thrones' winter in the summer and actual, serious climate change, August came early this summer, in more way than one. The August blues were played by July this year for reasons I for once don't really want to share--though I'm just hoping there's not a duet. It's been motherfucker, and you don't know.
Hot Singles: July 2017
But hey, what about this heat? One of the many things I don't miss about having a car is having to get inside after it's baked in the sun for hours, skin adhering instantly to any supple surface while even the car seat cushions seem to be full of hot massage rocks. And having had a month of pretend-August to get ready for real August, I found the tracks that I've really responded to in the past week or so to have condensation forming and just as quickly dissipating on the surface, fire tracks they are. And I don't know if you've ever had the pleasure of having a wart frozen off, but ice can be just as hot as fire and shit is about to get icy.
Hodge - No Single Thing
I mean, just look at the cover of Bristol-based producer Hodge's No Single Thing record on Livity Sound from back in April? It looks like two red hots got to humping, only to birth a child that they had no choice but to abandon, probably prom night too. I recently saw a term used to refer to the bulk of UK bass-focused dance music from about 2012 on as "post-Livity" and it can seem like the impact that the label founder Peverelist's brand of serpentine bass pressure has had is so great that it has yet to truly be assessed or even fully understood, especially stateside. I tried to do just that in a piece last fall, and didn't succeed, though I've been doing my homework since them.
Hodge's career since he first started releasing under the moniker provides a pretty handy roadmap of how his generation of producers seem to be less than catholic about genre tropes and the idea that there is some continuum linking all underground UK dance music back to early 90s hardcore. Having released competent house music on his debut, he also has the distinction of co-authoring the penultimate release on Peverlist's Punch Drunk label, the beguiling Bells credited to himself and Pev alongside the "Resolve" b/w "Prototype" twelve for the label in 2013 that saw him turn his hands to a cavernous, minimal-not-minimal style of techno that succeeded most in creating a atmosphere that embraced both the grimy realities of diurnal living while also transcending them. It also saw him start to toy with the syncopated pretzel techno (as I affectionately call) that takes the rollage of UKG and bass pressure of Bristolian sound systems and stretches and constricts time in the process, creating a möbius strip of pure groove.
His breakthrough track, arguably, came in 2014 on the always on-it Ytivil Dnous label, which has been an incubating chamber of sorts for the artists currently redefining the very parameters of dance music, giving such rising luminaries as Batu, Bruce, and Simo Cell a serious spotlight. Since that EP, he's released on almost every relevant UK dance label, from the obnoxious Berceuse Heroique--on which he released the scorching rave-up "Burned Into Memory"--to Hotline Recordings, No Corner, Wisdom Teeth, Hemlock, and even the still-kicking Tempa imprint, all the while honing his hybridized and off-kilter percussive/tribal brand of techno.
This year has proven to be an even busier one for the producer as he released his first solo Livity Sound EP, a few months back. He also has a second EP forthcoming on Hemlock. And despite enjoying it upon release, its icy cold melodies paired with those filthy hot drums have been doing the trick as of late. Sounding like light-beamed alien transmissions encased in primordial icicles, the almost unhinged quality that Hodge has been hinting at in his productions for a while comes into full focus on opener "No Single Thing." Kicking things off in typically unruly style with an intricate polyrhythmic beat accented with hand drum patterns and shakers, the drum sequence get more intricate every four bars until the song's signature siren call makes a cameo at the minute mark, moaning and exclaiming over the next pass of the full phrase before the bass drops out, making for a key moment for a DJ to bring in the track at full blast. For while it takes a solid three minutes, once the melodic droplets begin to fall and the clipped banshee wail punctuates the end of each four bars, the drum pattern again takes over showing a considerable amount of restraint on Hodge's part and making for a delectable aperitif.
"Light Waves" is where all hell breaks loose. Circling around an opening bell pattern not unlike that found on JTC's "Bizarre Carvinal"--one of the most accomplished acid tracks of this century imho--things fall into a raucous holding pattern as the circuitous beat and elasticized bells undulate to a swirling, dizzying effect. At the halfway mark, things level up as Hodge teases the song's central rhythm-melody, soaked in reverb to create an effect not unlike the siren calls on the preceding track. Before you can even begin to acclimate, he slams the track into turbo with a taut arpeggiation orbiting around the rhythmic bedding. Proceeding with laser-like directness, this is bodily music of the highest order, fusing the mind and body into a nonstop corporeal blast.
Things get considerably more grime-y on closer "Joe Likes to Dance." Surely he's not talking about this Joe? Coming in at a lower tempo than the other two tracks, the snare-clap on the fourth beat gives this a funky quality of sorts as well, which is heightened by the menacing top line and siren wails. Once the hi-hats come in on the off-beat, we're in post-Croydon House territory as Hodge continues this decade's fusing of grime and house tropes into something that is not as easy to nail down as the Simon Reynolds of this world would likely prefer. And while Hodge's drum tracks don't grab me in the gut like, say, Lurka's or Ploy's, they are engineered to send asses airborne while plunging the psyche into a dystopian rendering of UK bass.
Parris - Your Kiss is Sour EP
I'm kinda shocked that there isn't an audio equivalent of gifs yet. Like right now, I would ideally start this paragraph w a tongue-in-cheek trumpet fanfare--at least a "Hail to the Chief"--but the internet is just giving me Kramer dancing instead. Weak.
But getting back to that fanfare, I believe I've found my favorite twelve of at least the first half of this year: Parris' melancholically stateside devastatingly frozen Your Kiss is Sour EP on Hemlock. And unlike a ton of other equally deserving releases, the UK press--oh, and Thump lol--have at least not been ignoring Parris, with write-ups in Fact, The Quietus, and ever The Wire! (Could they be inching back towards relevancy? Only time and the lack of boring-ass cover stars will tell. But the linked mix is a pretty great intro to much of the current vanguard of UK genre nomads.) Hell, Martin Clark did an interview with Parris back in 2013, back when his productions were more immaculate imitations of existing styles than all his own. Despite his rather shallow discography, the press line on the record has generally painted the producer as a child of the legendary club night FWD>>> at the famed Plastic People club as well as dubstep. He's also the founder of Soundman Chronicles, a label that has released records by artists like Facta, Wen, and Etch who are straddling the lines between grime, 2-Step, UKG, dubstep, d&b, broken beat, and much more. And sure Your Kiss is Sour at times sounds like a dubstep EP from an alternate timeline, one that could have also easily ended up on Punch Drunk, released alongside late dubstep classics like Bass Clef's "Ghost Kicks in the Spiral." But like so much else coming out of the UK right now, it's far more than the sum of its influences as Parris joins the likes of Batu, Lurka, Laksa, and many others who are seemingly done being confined to just one genre, intent on forging their own sound, content to be in a "weird no man's land" as Parris puts it.
Much like Bass Clef's infamous beatless dinner theater, Parris' title track, which takes up the entire A side, channels a similar open-hearted earnestness. "Your Kiss is Sour" reminds me of what those few minutes of when an airplane is able to obtain zero gravity must be like. I'd call the piece weightless, but the pulsating and colorfully layered staccatos provide both a rhythmic push-and-pull that moves the piece along while also supplying the track's central melodic motif, underpinned by a relentless sub bass note and snatches of vocals that gradually occupy the forefront of the mix. Without employing any of the tropes of Grime 2.0, Parris has managed to craft one of the most devastating releases in that genre's resurgence while also creating something wholly other . By the track's end, the listener isn't sure if the producer has ascended into the stratosphere or simply dissolved into a technicolor puddle. As the artist himself put it in discussion with Fact, "There’s barely anything going on in it. It’s about the space, innit. My music has always been sub heavy. It’s the influence of the dubstep sound, but I didn’t want to be dubstep." And if you're thinking, is he comparing himself to Miles Davis right now?--who famously said that it's not the notes you play, but the space in between--ask yourself this: shouldn't more musician be aspiring to channel Miles? Even on earlier releases like last year's Skeletal EP, while it employed a more conventional rhythmic framework, the tracks often felt like something was missing in the best sense possible, though not as realized as it does here.
Part of what makes this EP such a success is that in three meager tracks, Parris manages to tell a fully-realized story that many LPs fail to, collapsing under their own weight. Sure, he only has ten minutes, but the EP's narrative engine flows in such a way as to truly envelop the record in the producer's truly singular soundscape. "Flowering in Threes" is the closest the EP gets to familiar ground and even its raindrop melody and 3/4 time signature place it in foreign territory. A waltz seemingly written for androids, a meaty yet sparse woodblock-led beat gives the piece a much-needed heft as the sound of a broken Xerox machine cultivates the track's cosmic-machinic aesthetic. Owing much to its title, the melody gradually blossoms over the song's course, moving from a pensive motif to a muted esctasy before the machines finally succeed in discovering love, and overthrowing their human masters. Closing out the EP is the pensive "My Beautiful Fantasy," and it's missing the "dark" from its title for a reason. Recalling early Mr. Mitch is in its toy box-esque melody, this is a curious one, throbbing sub bass pairing with harmonics that wouldn't sound of a place on a certain Moleskin song. Soon a middle line enters the proceedings along with a delayed hi-hat hit, the producer achieving the most emotional heft with the least amount of elements. Barely clocking in at a total of ten minutes, I still am struggling to grasp just what I find so special about this EP, other than the fact that it feels unusually realized, the first real manifestation of Parris' "sound;" one we will be hearing more of this year with an EP planned for the esteemed Trilogy Tapes.
Untold - Tear Up the Club b/w Watton Res
Since we're already in the Hemlock district, it's only fitting to at least mention the latest Untold twelve released last month. It sees our fallen hero returning to the what-the-fuck-is-this sound upon which he made his career. Let me just get this out of the way: I was OBSESSED with Untold when he first appeared in 2008 through about the time he started making techno. I even picked up a cheap copy of his weirdly well-received full-length Black Light Spiral--critics, just because an album is difficult does not mean it is any good--and sold it in a matter of weeks, something I don't often do. But that's behind us now as Jack Dunning has released the utterly perplexing HEK29 featuring a track hilariously called "Tear the Club Up" on the A side as that's just what Dunning does, but not in the "Stop What You're Doing" way. No, much like the Parris EP, this is a two-tracker that is following its own internal logic, commencing with rhythmic gurgles like several classic Untold drum patterns thrown in a blender, a stinging synth note providing the sole steady element as percussive sounds bounce around the club, taking club deconstructions to a whole new stream. By the time the second-hand of a clock beat morphs into a loose framework, the listener can be forgiven for assuming that this song isn't going to be the straight-forward banger its name otherwise implied. Rather, it's the sound of a producer re-discovering his voice--engaging in much of the formless sound design found on his previous full-length, but this time with a sense of purpose that keeps the listener entranced throughout, if not a bit befuddled.
Seeing that this is his most substantial release in over five years, Untold almost tosses us a bone on the B-side track "Watton Res," a sumptuous pad greeting the listener as an almost New Age-derived melody hides in the background. Soon, the skipping drums are skittering about, at first forming an equally loose framework as on the A before a classy build guides us into the song's central portion with familiar bass stabs and a brief descending beat psyching out the listener into thinking Dunning was interested in revisiting old tricks. Rather, the song soon dissolves again into an almost melodramatic third section, plaintive keys competing with the still restless drums and bass when at the 3:47 minute things suddenly come together and we're treated to not a return to form, but a re-energized producer eager to not be not be constricted by expectations of what he should produce but rather chasing down a lot of the ideas not quite developed on Black Light, this time done with a true sense of purpose.
Jack Peoples - Laptop Cafe
It might not be especially entertaining for you, the reader, but being a one-person operation doing this because I want to, I don't usually see the point for a negative review. There are plenty of publications with lots of underpaid writers out there that can (maybe) afford to do that. I'd rather highlight the truly insane amount of music they over overlook. But unless something truly bums me out--like this year's atrocious Whitney Biennial--what's the point in kvetching? Especially if you follow me on social media where I talk tons of shit. The one nice thing about a bad review is that at least you saw something that evoked enough of a response in you to actively dislike it when we're mostly used to just tuning things out and listening to Linda in HR's shitty playlist every damn day. Most of the day we merely tolerate art; to actually be moved to joy or anger is a rare sensation.
In case you haven't noticed in the past, I fucking adore Drexciya. Like top six acts of all time? Real talk? Talking Heads. Omar-S. Can/Neu (sorry, can't choose). Don Caballero. Eliane Radique. Drexciya. I got into Drexciya sometime around 2007, having recently done a serious binge of AFX's Analord series. Now if you don't know about Drexciya, just go here and get educated. All caught up? OK.
I don't remember which record of theirs that I heard first other then it was one of the initial eight, but I recall not just being blown away by the compositional sophistication, the still-too-relevant mythology, and the fact that I had somehow never heard of these guys before. My opinion of Richard D. James dropped a solid notch that day. For while I had spent years marveling at how singular his music was and how he developed so many of his styles apart from what was being created in cities around the world, when I heard the duo of James Stinson and Gerald Donald, it was like getting the footnotes to his listening habits. And I have no idea how much influence Drexciya exerted on James early on his career, but there is no doubt that from 1992 on, he was listening and he was listening closely.
Then again, to listen to Drexcya is to listen closely due to the sheer commanding force of the music itself. Generally speaking, the group's ten years in existence was marked by two periods: 1992-1997 and 1999-2002. The eight EPs released during that first phase were later collected on the compilation The Quest--Clone Classic Cuts also collected all eight EPs plus unreleased and non-EP material on the four volume Journey of the Deep Sea Dweller-- followed by the majestic Neptune's Lair in 1999 and then the Seven Storms. These "storms" contained both albums made by the duo and a series of spectacular solo items.
I've noticed that most diehard Drexciya fans can be split between which period they like best. A much as I love the first phase, the Seven Storms is where they truly pushed themselves, both together and alone until Stinson's untimely death in 2002--a fact he may have been aware of but that is purely speculative, though his last radio interview is beyond illuminating. Also, as was revealed in the recent RBMA article on the group, Stinson was likely married in 2001 and Donald recorded the romantically cosmic electro of the Shifted Phases album as a wedding present (I know this might not sound mind-blowing, but my mind is blown so just trust.) And while Drexciya were never about the people behind the music, with the fifteen anniversary of Stinson's death coming up this September 3rd, there's definitely been some new developments to coincide with this momentous anniversary.
Which brings us to perhaps the most important of them all: the release of the first "new" James Stinson material since following his death. The story is that Clone recently found some long-lost DAT tapes of a project Stinson was working on in 2002 under the new alias Jack Peoples--damn, they were so good at coming up with names. Anyways, the fact that the collection of six song/sketches is called Laptop Cafe was a clear signal that the material contained on this record followed the first two releases from Stinson's revolutionary Other People Place project that showed the artist at his most soulful, vulnerable, and inventive. To this day, "Sorrow and a Cup of Joe" is my absolute favorite Stinson track, from the Sunday Night at the Laptop Cafe twelve, which along with the OPP full-length Lifestyles of the Laptop Cafe got a much hyped (and much needed) reissue this year. So not only is the promise of unreleased Stinson material a buy-on-sight proposition, but unreleased tracks from those 2002 sessions? I couldn't buy this record fast enough.
Featuring cover art made by one of his daughters, Laptop Cafe is not an essential release for anyone who isn't a diehard Drexciya or Other People Place fan, simply put. Is it nice? Sure. Do I enjoy listening to it? You bet. Is it going to get as much play as my thirty or forty other Drexciya-related records? Doubtful. And don't get me wrong: I am glad this album exists, even if it was the most cynical of cash grabs on the part of Clone--though I'm not getting that vibe and hope that's not the case. But this is.a collection of demos, make no doubt about it. From the loose lounge jazz chords and indistinct chatter animating the otherwise staid opener "Song 06" to the tepid "Song 04," much included on this release feels half-baked. That said, even at his most incomplete, Stinson had a way with chords, structure, and drum programming that makes this record an invaluable lesson for the studious nerd. And while repeat listens will turn up gems like the quixotic chords and classic melody of "Song 2" whose counter-melodies and electronic ambience make it one of the most fully-realized tracks on this collection, it takes more than a few listens to start to get into this record. Sure, this is a great work record in that it's thirty minutes of a steady beat and lush chords that requires very little attention, but unlike Lifestyles of the Laptop Cafe each song isn't a minor masterpiece in and of itself. They range from rough drafts to solid outlines, capturing the form and soul of Stinson's sound but lacking the magic that clearly comes later in his process.
Other highlights include Closer "Song 05" featuring a live MC announcing Jack Peoples and indistinguishable vocals, but the real highlight is the sampled applause that greets certain key changes and the start of beats, reminding the listener that while we never got a live Drexciya show and most fans are accustomed to listening to the discography at home or on headphones, the OPP project in particular had a live sensibility that it seems like Stinson was attempting to heighten in these recordings. "Song 01" features 8-bit-sounding arpeggiations layered over a sumptuous bed of chords and a dainty, charming melody.
I guess ultimately my main quibble with this release is that I have a hard time believing Stinson would ever have wanted it released. Now, does that mean it shouldn't be heard, that it couldn't provide some crucial context or key to understanding his and Drexciya's legacy? I honestly don't know and that's not a debate I care to engage in. But, am I happy to have these recordings and get a glimpse into where Stinson was heading before his untimely death. You sure as hell bet I am. Just if you don't own every other Drexciya release, make sure your bases are covered before getting this record as that would be like getting a Bob Dylan bootleg before listening to Freewheelin' or those other records white people like (not a Dylan fan). And for those fellow fanatics out there, here's a recent seventeen-minute video from NTS of Arpanet performing at Milan's Terraforma festival and holler at me if you want to celebrate the genius of Stinson on this momentous anniversary.
Laksa - Camo
But wait, there's one more! With SO many good records having come out from the UK in the past two months alone--Batu's Marius and Ploy's Intrigued by the Drum will be discussed in a future piece, for sure, along with the many other records not mentioned here today--I have to close out this round-up by showing some love for a producer I've only recently become familiar with but whom I'm already deeply fond of: Laksa. Picking up his Contrasts EP on Timedance a few months back, I was blown away by the title track that plays out like a techno odyssey in five or six minutes, taking a very simple idea and squeezing more new ideas from it that I would ever think possible.
Born Callum Laksa, the producer got his start on Beneath's excellent Mistry label, putting out two twelves on the imprint that were solid, but lacked the grit and ingenuity that Contrasts and now the four-tracker Camo EP on Ilian Tape have in spades. First hearing the opening track on Batu's appearance on the Hessle Audio Rinse show, this sounded almost like a wholly new producer. Gone were the post-Livity mining of the Mistry releases as well as the more sci-fi, epic quality present on the Timedance twelve. Every time I put this record own, I get a distinctly autumnal feeling, the drums and texture crackling like stepped-on leaves. To be honest, I thought that the producer was moving into the more knackered house territory of a producer like the equally unpredictable Bruce. But beneath the textural emotionality of "Hallyah" rests the type of circular, syncopated rhythm and breakbeat accents that have been the producer's rhythmic weapon of choice, though containing a depth unlike many other takes on the sound. A woman's voice paired with a high noise in between a whistle and a theremin help to add color to what would be an otherwise staid house number. But in Laksa's increasingly able hands, he's constructed something truly his own in the track.
Admittedly, the rest of the EP doesn't quite have the "wow" quality of "Hallyah," but there are certainly no slouchers on this record. "Camo Trousers" finds the producer back in Timedance/Livity territory with a full-out, 130bpm rhythmic assault centered around a three-note vamp that continues to ratchet up the pressure. Gone is the haziness, the feeling that the track could float away, replaced with a steely-eyed directness. Still, there's a grittiness, a distorted quality that makes it stand out from a lot of the more cleaner-sounding material--at the moment I'm listening back to a blend I did with it and Pev's "Under Clearing Skies" in a practice mix last night and it's truly like going from night to day, in the best sense. "Like It's 99" is drawn from the rave throwback playbook replete with forward-driving breakbeats and laser-shot high ends. Though as the track enters its final third, a series of cavernous chords yawn and sigh, giving the song a much-needed dose emotional climax that brings back the misty-eyed, sepia-toned sonics. Closing the affair is the decidedly lowkey "Rest With My Blues," a driving down-tempo number that begs to be compared to Boards of Canada, but frankly is far more textured and nuanced than a lot of their hallmark productions. While Camo might not be the most consistent EP in the world, it's a strong follow-up to Contrasts and both twelves have drastically expanded Laksa's repertoire of styles and vibes.
The best part? I get the strong sense that this is only the beginning.