What is ambient music in 2018? In taking in last year's debut full-length from the artist Kailin for Beneath's Mistry Muzik label, I'm reminded of a beloved Kode9 quote he made when dubstep started to become a template, a formula to be mimicked, when he stated that it was his goal "to keep giving dubstep that which it has told itself it is not." In looking at the pool of producers and labels we've analyzed over the past two months, what has emerged as one of the principal grouping themes uniting labels like Timedance, Hessle, Hemlock, Wisdom Teeth, and Mistry Musik is their shared embracing of what Simon Reynolds, in discussing about the intensive vs. extensive musical developments in 00s vs. 90s UK dance music, described as "a quest for under-explored spaces and new hybrid possibilities." Writing that in 2010, Reynolds would seemingly distance himself from this positive characterization as he went about bemoaning the plague of Retromania--what he and others considered the creative cul de sac endemic of contemporary producers who are more interested in influence than innovation.
And as I've discussed before, looking to the UK in 2013, I was personally starting to lose faith in both those vanguard post-dubstep imprints like Hemlock or Hessle while being overwhelmed by the bass-heavy techno proffered by the likes of Hodge, Beneath, Facta, and Tessela. However, it was the latter's own imprint Polykicks, a rather clever and descriptive label that captured the polyhythmic and broken beat impulses that were not just present in the aforementioned producers, but soon became embraced by young guns like Bruce, Batu, Lurka, Laksa, Ploy, Gaunt, and so many others. In our interviews, we have seen disparate takes on what this current movement constitutes and if the concept of 'scenes' or 'genres' are even relevant anymore. Yet, even in speaking to producers like Beneath, whose Mistry Muzik imprint has proven itself to be one of the most trusted outposts for distinctively UK dance music that feels uncannily fresh, he cautions about the desire to demarcate the current crop as a new movement unto itself, saying:
There's new faces about but from my perspective, there's no new guard so to speak. Even though there is a bunch of new artists coming through, they still send their tunes to the big DJs first and release on the well-established labels from the scene that broke off from Dubstep towards the end of the 00’s. It's not like when Dubstep came about and it was a totally new scene unto its own that had its own infrastructure of DJs, core producers, anthems, club nights…it really had its own identity which is lacking a bit these days. I might be the only one who see’s things this way but whats going on now is really just a continuation of the scene that formed after a section of people involved in Dubstep broke off.
While I recall being a bit nonplussed at this comment when I first read it, I do believe that while sonically this new school of producers do not represent the kind of paradigm shift that dubstep initiated, there's an exciting and innovational new mentality at work that does signify a break from the type of stunted development that so many of the new electronic genres of the 90s and 00s--be it Hardcore, jungle, UKG, 2-Step, Grime, or Dubstep. As Martin Clark wrote in 2010, citing a quote from halfstep originator Loefah, "In 2006, the tipping point year for dubstep, Loefah said in a documentary one of the reasons dubstep needed to be built was because the genres near it had become 'formula-ed.' Four years later, large parts of dubstep are now fully "formula-ed." In my conversations with Oscar Henson (Facta) and Omar McCutcheon (Batu), they both discussed a desire to step outside of the tired genre formulas of techno and dubstep while expressing a reservation at the idea of reinventing the wheel. As McCutcheon puts it, "To me to be truly faithful is to reinvent the sounds, what has come before is the starting point. It's got to be open to move in different directions."
Despite having listened to all of Beneath's Mistry Muzik's twelves, it took me a solid year since its release last March to finally sit down and give the label's first LP, Kailin's Fracture. Over the course of its thirty haunting, restless moments, this unknown producer draws from across the genre spectrum to present one of the most exciting and forward-thinking ambient albums I've heard in a long time. Where Huerco S.' 2016 ambient opus For Those Of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have) gave new form to the producer's long-stated appreciation of such 90s ambient techno titans as Gas and Dettinger, creating ambient soundscapes that snaked and curved through recognizable and codified rhythmic forms while imbuing them with a dream-like quality where plots and characters morph into symbols of themselves in an endless sonic-semiotic Droste effect. But whereas that album's gaseously polite poetry remained firmly "commercial ambient" in nature, giving listeners the escapist fantasy that too often renders the genre as a caricature of itself, one that can be mocked by emitting soothing, billowing tones just like rockists lazily mock dance music's boom-boom-boom, Fracture offers no such remittance from reality. And if it does, it's not one of daytime Tolkien fantasies.
The album's central tension between cautious optimism and despondent hopelessness is conjured up in epic fashion on opener "Wake in Grey," which opens up on a dank, heavy series of glistening metalalic chords that gently but briskly moves from the spiritual confirmation of Arvo Pärt minimalist hymnals into a fear-soaked upper register. While I am unfamiliar with exactly where this album was made but, the grime-trap high-hats and marimba melody that snap into line on "Circling" signal evoke the street-born variance one encounters in a a city's street on what feels like the album's first real chapter after that mood-setting preface. A blown-out horn rambles about over the malevolent, broken downtempo beat like some unholy meeting of hotel lobby trip-hop and acid jazz imported from a wrecked future metropolis. The dreadnought vibes get ratcheted up through concrete ripples that pulsate throughout the debris-riddled "Chatter" before the blinds are pulled and the listener is struck by a ray of daylight before receding back into the shadow-filled dwelling from which Fracture seems to inhabit.
A sense of connected isolation permeates each of the album's eight chapters as we're plunged into the mind of an agoraphobic narrator who remains fixated on and obsessed with the outside world. Delayed, misplaced kicks and tom hits evoke the "Gimp" of the fourth track, subtle synth explosions accenting the errant melody that takes form. One of the few sonic qualities that connects the best ambient works is a feeling of eternal ineffability, that no matter how many times one enters the Königsforst or returns to the Intershop, you won't find yourself humming the funeral dirge of the title track's sticky, textured drums. Yet on each return, a layer flakes away and a new hue discovered; joy is found in pain and bereavement latent within an affirmation of life.
Entering into its final, extended third part, Fracture starts to gain a certain confidence as the organic, earthen shoetaps that lay the rhythmic framework for the disgusting digidub of "Voyeur" open up onto a greyscale-rendered vista, a repeating kick hit and piercing tone pushing the track's hungry bassline forward into the cruel sun where it is quickly and effectively fried. The sonic debris left to rot on the sidewalk, Kailin picks himself back up on with "Respite's" polywhirl percussion and insistent broken snare march. Where a sense of stubborn anonymity had existed, a conversation opens up in the form of a distinctly feminine vocal utterance around which the mutant cousin of a pop song assembles itself. Nothing ever quite clicks into place, yet the aslant groove that had first evolved into being on "Voyeur" once again is given the space to evolve. But catharsis is not the aim of this dialogue and its anxiety-riddled kicks keep the listener persistently in the defensive position until the ceiling cracks and the listener is wholly subsumed into the vaporous uprising on album closer "Disintegration." The directionless melodies, the insecure rhythms, the self-loathing pads--they're all here, somehow freed of their connotations and lifted upwards into an unknowing void. That Fracture represents a Joycean odyssey through the dreary diurnal engine that keeps the ants moving in tandem is all the more astounding given its scant thirty-minute run-time. Packed full of sonic and emotional detail, Kailin's debut album calls to mind the overwhelming-yet-pacifying bricollages of Elysia Crampton, but with an added dose of cynicism that promises little in the way of transcendence. And that's just fine. Sometimes simply making it through the day is enough for any second can bring life-changing consequences.