A Quietus Review: Excerpts by John T. Gast (March 18th, 2015)

Make a cursory search on the Internet for John T. Gast (presumably not his real name) and it won’t be long before the words Hype Williams pop up. Gast worked as a co-producer with Inga Copeland and Dean Blunt on their Black Is Beautiful album and appeared on Blunt’s solo effort The Redeemer and with Copeland on UKMerge. It’s little surprise, therefore, that Excerpts shares some of the duo’s oblique, genre-contorting aesthetic. It’s advisable to focus on that, before retracting to view the intrinsic differences which ensure Gast never comes across as a lesser light riding on the coat-tails of more illustrious and talented pals.

The similarities certainly abound: a lot of Excerpts is woozy and layered in ectoplasmic murk that slides into the orbit of hauntology but, like Hype Williams, a sly sense of humour lurking beneath the surface means his music rarely comes across as nostalgic or retro. The lines between past and current influences and reference points, from TV to music to film to video games, are blurred, often quite literally. Gast slathers electronic gunk all over his tracks until their structures become impenetrable, or twists and distorts vocal snippets, in a manner DJ Screw would have baulked at, to the point that actual words are transformed into slabs of inchoate moaning. It’s altogether more overtly moody and austere than recent broadcasts from the Hype Williams world, harking back to their untitled debut over Black Is Beautiful’s playful aesthetic. Like Untitled, Excerpts is slow-paced (for the most part), grainy and sombre, with crumbling synth textures clustered around skeletal rhythmic shuffles and most human interjections rendered opaque, like ghostly shades mewling in the dark.

While Hype Williams seemed resolutely anchored in a phantomatic Gotham-styled urban setting, the liminal universe on Excerpts is harder to pinpoint. At times, the analogue synths deployed on ‘Sedna’ and ‘White Noise/Dys’ definitely evoke the tradition of the Ghost Box stable and Moon Wiring Club more than Hype Williams’ dubstep heritage, whilst titles like ‘Shanti-ites’ and ‘Green’ have a distinctly pastoral vibe that resurges in the music (the former features a dramatic gloomy choir like something out of the Eyes Wide Shut soundtrack, whilst the latter is dominated by woozy organ drones). A wander through Gast’s website throws up all manner of weird artefacts, from photo collages of war and terrorism, to pictures of Northern Irish murals, to abstract imagery seemingly beamed out of the mind of a madman, via YouTube videos of Neil Young’s ‘Will To Love’ (the wooziest love song ever) and martial arts tournaments. I’m sure someone smarter than me could come up with some profound overriding message, but I’m not sure that’s even the point. Like early Hype Williams, John T. Gast cultivates a sense of mystery, and even his droll flourishes, like the 45 seconds of vocal deconstruction that is ‘£’ are part of that enigmatic nature.

Where Excerpts really gets interesting, in fact, is when Gast hits the accelerator and plows headlong into dancefloor-oriented material. ‘Infection’ and ‘Congress’ form a sharp one-two punch at the start of the album, all infectious repetitive beats, smooth synth lines and elusive vocal loops, in the grand style of Kassem Mosse or Drexciya (or even The Field), but with a few industrial edges thrown in for good measure. He peaks magnificently on ‘Claim Your Limbs’, on which a dark, brooding atmosphere dominated by crashing snares is undercut by the sheer catchiness of the track’s relentless forward motion. To return to that vague world that is hauntology, on these tracks I’m ultimately reminded of the fantastical flights of dance fancy of Umberto’s Confrontations album or Pye Corner Audio’s Sleep Games.

At times, John T. Gast seems to play the mystery card a bit too intently, but that seems an increasingly common conceit in a lot of electronic music these days. Maybe he’ll one day follow Blunt and Copeland into a brighter limelight, but for now he appears to be focusing on defining his own style, one that hurdles a multitude of styles, not always coherently, but with singular verve and commitment.

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A Dusted Review: Modern Streets by Beat Spacek (February 10th, 2015)

We’re only in February, and the trend in British dance/electronic music of using beats and synths to map the psycho-geography of the country’s inner city life has been established. It’s hardly a new concept, but rather one that gathered ahead of steam as dubstep’s emerged in the early noughties. The trend culminated in 2014 with records like Islands by LV and Josh Idehen and Actress’ Ghettoville. Beat Spacek (aka Steve Spacek) has now thrown his hat into the ring with Modern Streets, its title a clear indication of the intentions on the album. But the 13 tracks that make up this particular slice of London existence are at once baffling and fractured, starting in the present before stretching back in time whilst simultaneously aiming to open a slender aperture into the distant-ish future.

From the sounds that emanate from Modern Streets, Spacek has been keeping his ear to wildly varied array of musical pulses percolating through the sound systems of the UK’s diverse and multicultural capital. He clearly has his roots in the whirlwind of colliding song forms that made up the early 1980s’ synth-pop/post-punk/neo-ska/industrial scene. If it’s hard to imagine what that would sound like, well it turns out it’s essentially pop music. Of course, I don’t mean pop in the sense of Taylor Swift or Charles and Eddie or Kylie Minogue, but by distilling his various influences past and present into crisp songs, Steve Spacek has, as Beat Spacek, come up with a rather unpredictable form of pop music.

This isn’t immediately apparent, as each one of these very individualistic tracks is defined by its difference to the others. “I Wanna Know” is driven by a minimalist drum machine beat not a million miles from Martin Rev’s similar pummeller on Suicide’s “Ghost Rider”, whilst “Tonight” is introduced by a slinky High life rhythm and jerky percussive eructations. Meanwhile, “I Want You” is coldly romantic in the manner of a Cut Copy track and Spacek ladles echo and reverb on his vocal in the manner of a Jamaican dub producer on “Stand Firm”. It all must sound garishly eclectic, but somehow he manages to keep a firm grip on the reins of these disparate sounds, something even more impressive when you learn that he worked mostly with iPad and iPhone apps, something which perhaps explains the brittle nature of some of these tracks. Spacek’s voice is a particular asset in maintaining this unexpected cohesion. He mostly employs an airy falsetto that is rich in emotion, but on the futuristic hyperactive love ballad “Inflight Wave” and the stark synth-pop of “Go Back to School”, for example, he switches to a low robotic croon that is somehow both more and less human than his more overtly emphatic vocal style elsewhere.

Coincidentally, whilst I was drinking in the heady cocktail of Modern Streets I was also delving back into early Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, perhaps (along with Japan and Associates) the most idiosyncratic of the UK’s synth-pop pioneers. Like Beat Spacek, OMD’s Andy McCluskey lurched between lush pop romanticism and awkward, imprecise commentary on the world around him. Of course, OMD’s palette was more restricted to post-Kraftwerk synth-worship and McCluskey was more outwardly focused than Spacek’s London-centric inward gaze, but, between the hypnotic repetitiveness of the rhythms deployed and the infectiously bright simplicity of their synth lines (analogue back in 1980, produced on a phone of all things in 2014), somehow OMD and Beat Spacek share a commonality, a refusal to let the harshness of these modern streets or global insecurity detract from forging a bloody good melody and heartfelt lyric.

For all the artificiality in how Modern Streets was made, it’s a starkly personal album, with Spacek really laying his soul to bear on certain tracks, especially “I Want You”, with it’s mantra-like chorus rivalling Dylan’s “I Want You” for persistence. Only the title track and one or two other songs overtly deal with mirroring London life, but then what is life if not personal, informed by one’s own emotions and desires? Time will tell if Steve Spacek has succeeded in anticipating the future of dance music by refracting the past through the prism of the post-dubstep world, or indeed whether Modern Streets lives up to its title. But as a portrait of a man in a city sharing his thoughts and feelings, it’s strikingly effective, all the more so for being so far-reaching.

A Dusted Review: Circuitous by Afrikan Sciences (December 23rd, 2014)

I might be wrong, but I’m struggling to think of a major jazz artist who has had as much of an influence on 21st century music as Sun Ra, at least outside the mainstream. Unlike arguably more illustrious giants, from Miles Davis to Coltrane via Charles Mingus and Bill Evans, Ra’s importance is not constrained to jazz (ok, Davis was also an important figure for funk), reaching way beyond the genre’s confines to filter into modern composition, hip-hop and electronic music, the latter being the realm where Afrikan Sciences, aka Eric Douglas Porter, comes in. The music onCircuitous is based on immediately recognisable dancefloor-friendly electronic foundations, but ones that are quickly transformed by a production approach that defies categorisation and the constraints of genre. So, from the get-go Sun Ra’s musical philosophy, one that saw him release albums as wildly different as Strange Strings and The Magic City, is outlined in the very fabric of Douglas’ music.

At the heart of Sun Ra’s musical explorations was the idea of “Afro-futurism,” the concept that modern technology could unlock a bright future for the world’s long-oppressed black populations either beyond the stars or underneath the ocean. Combined with a fascination with the ancestral musical traditions of Africa, this unlocked a fertile sonic landscapes where new instruments were used to channel musical idioms stretching back and forwards in time, ones that would be unique to people of African descent. This has clearly resonated with many subsequent African-American artists, not least in electronica, where Drexciya, Shabazz Palaces and Flying Lotus have picked up the baton and run with it, possibly beyond anything Ra could have anticipated. Douglas’ approach is more opaque than those artists. His live sets deftly meld electronic and acoustic instrumentation (notably upright bass) based essentially on ever-evolving improvisations. As such, the tracks on Circuitous feel loose and unpredictable, driven by constantly shifting rhythmic bursts that never seem to settle.

These bursts of rhythmic dexterity are, to an extent, at the core of what makesCircuitous so enthralling.  They bewilder almost as much as they seduce. There is the skeleton of a dancefloor-aimed album here, but Douglas’ flights of fancy, taking in jerky polyrhythms and sudden temporal shifts, never allow the tracks to properly settle into anything that will get most clubbers shaking.

A classic case is “Reddin Off”, which starts off with organic-sounding kick drum pounds redolent of traditional African music before lurching into a more minimal synthetic groove driven by insistent snares. Melodically, meandering synth lines and warbly piano dominate, as warm and inviting and bolstered by seductive bass as a house track (“Evolved in Twists”, “Circuitous”) or stark and austere with ambient flourishes, as on the pulsating “Feel” and the positively retro-feeling (in the same way as Ralph Cumbers’ Some Truths project or the Ghost Box lot) “The Image”. The album stretches most resolutely into futuristic post-Drexciya (and post-Ra) territory on the jazz-inflected second disc, where tight, unflinching rhythms are buffeted by increasingly buzzing synth lines and mechanical sound effects.

Circuitous is, with its vague track titles, fractured melodies and twisted rhythmic patterns, an album that lives up to its name. This is abstract dance music that would sit remarkably comfortably between dancefloor and, say, art gallery space, although how much exponents of the former will take to it would be a matter worth checking out. Above all, Douglas resolutely avoids turning his references to African music into something clichéd or formulaic, a neat sidestep William Bennett should take note of for his next Cut Hands release. Circuitous is a subtle, endlessly detailed combination of cultures and styles, and an album that points more sturdily to the future than most electronic albums out there.

A Quietus Review: Flatland by Objekt (October 7th, 2014)

It might just be me, but it seems there are few musical genres more fractured and disparate than modern electronic dance music. I know, I know, rock has also become hugely diverse, especially in the wake of punk’s year zero and with the advent of cheaper recording equipment, and even more “niche” genres like noise and metal (especially the latter) have splintered into many sub-genres. Hell, even pop, supposedly just a simple vehicle for mass consumption, has seen itself transformed into an underground phenomenon produced on lo-fi gear by bedroom enthusiasts with wide-ranging influences that have fully distorted its original aim in wildly interesting and mysterious ways. And of course, dance music’s basis in electronica, with all its twists and permutations, from ambient to industrial via hip-hop and kosmische, and the prevalence of laptops making it so accessible, was always bound to be open to countless perspectives. But despite all this, the evolution in the last decade has been remarkable, and all over the world a wealth of different clubs are gearing their sound systems towards a bewildering array of niche styles, from murky dubstep to clinical minimal techno, high-octane grime to jerky footwork. It’s hard to know where to start, and I admit that sometimes I find myself lost amongst the wealth of breakbeats, synth lines and sub-bass that currently populate my iPod, much as I love it all.

I don’t know if it was his intention, but on Flatland, Berlin-based producer/DJ Objekt, aka TJ Hertz, appears to have embarked on the unenviable mission of trying to draw together and consolidate all these various approaches to dancefloor music. At times, it even seems like he’s spent hours poring over the entire back catalogues of forward-thinking labels like Hyperdub, Kompakt, Keysound and Werkdiscs, and somehow attempted to join the dots between them. It’s no wonder, really, that Flatland is being put out by PAN, a label about as audacious and on-the-pulse as any. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his main wells are the London and Berlin scenes of the last decade or two, but there are even hints of Drexciya, Detroit techno and Chicago house in here as well: an infectious beat here, a smooth synth melody or distorted voice there. Indeed, in contrast to some of the more rugged, shifting and gritty productions you might find on the post-dubstep scene in the UK’s capital, such as Actress, Burial, LV or early Hype Williams, Hertz’s production is crisp and clear, not quite in the line of ambient techno producers such as The Field or Porter Ricks, but nonetheless imbued with a hypnotic melodic focus. On his first album, Objekt seems to be imagining himself delivering a live set, complete with formless drone interludes.

And yet, there is some of dubstep’s midnight vibe on Flatland, with heaps of echo amplifying certain sounds to coat some tracks in a certain melancholic aura. It’s possible that Hertz is taking his cues more from funky (or is it wonky? See, lost again!) producers over here such as Zomby, Joy Orbison or Ikonika, and there is an element of the latter’s crisp formalism on tracks like ‘Dogma’, although without the widescreen synth overloads. Like a lot of modern Berlin-based producers, Objekt’s strength lies in his ability to churn out beats, and most tracks on Flatland are wondrously infectious, with repeated snares and kick drums locking into a sort of perpetual repeated motion. Tracks like ‘One Fell Swoop’, ‘Ratchet’ and ‘Strays’ (what a superb opening salvo, by the way: 15-odd minutes of body-shaking bliss) canter forwards like trains, locking into unbreakable grooves that remain untroubled by the synthetic noises and swoops of synth that Hertz layers on top of them. Objekt is an intriguing character, very much in tune with PAN’s experimental credentials, but this album also hints at a potential future as a room-filler in any club he chooses, were that what he wanted. Even the slower tracks are traversed with rhythmic potency.

Despite all the above comparisons, Flatland somehow exists in what feels like an hermetically sealed world of its own, an ethos espoused by the title and the austerity of Objekt’s approach, even at his most melodic. A lot of the recent electronic music I’ve heard, especially in the UK, has dealt expressly with the socio-political unease of our times, be it Actress’ Ghettoville or Vessel’s recentPunish, Honey. Objekt dodges such considerations altogether, and perhaps offers Flatland up as a slice of escapism. After all, that’s what dancing the night away in a sweaty club is really all about, isn’t it? Flatland feels perfectly formed out of the clay of a multitude of styles, and, with rhythms this tight, it’s something of a triumph, even if it reflects nothing back but strobe lights.

A Dusted Review: Punish, Honey (September 16th, 2014)

Vessel’s Seb Gainsborough is part of Bristol, England’s Young Echo collective, but his solo material differs considerably from that of his peers. While the other Young Echo producers mostly play with the familiar, albeit frayed, contours of minimalist dubstep, grime and techno, Gainsborough has, with Punish, Honey, pushed those tropes into esoteric new realms. There’s still a hint of techno running through the backbone of the album’s tracks, his novel approach and formal structures sound like very little else coming out of the UK’s club culture. It’s small wonder Gainsborough has made a home for himself on Tri-Angle Records, a label that has previously given us superlatively spooky beat-based salvoes by The Haxan Cloak, Holy Other and Balam Acab. Tri-Angle had already released the previous Vessel album, Order of Noise, a more straightforward ambient/electro/dubstep work the title of which might have been more suited for this release. On Punish, Honey, Gainsborough deploys a series of homemade instruments such as metal sheets for percussion and flutes made out of dismantled bicycles.  Consequently, while the album retains an echo of the reverb-heavy post-dubstep of its predecessor, it’s also a more abrasive, unsettling listen, touching on a heritage that stretches back to the early days of industrial music. Indeed, even the synth passages have a lo-fi edginess to them that would not sound out of place played by Chris Carter circa 1980. On “Red Sex,” see-sawing synth lines stretch back and forth like muffled dub sirens over a crunching metallic shuffle and buzzing synthetic gristle. It’s part dub, part industrial clamour and instantly evokes the dilapidated factories and wind-whipped parking lots that still dot much of what used to be England’s industrial heartland. Vessel’s greatest connection to vintage dubstep lies in this cold, unflinching liminal vision of modern urbanity.

Gainsborough claims he set out to consider the meaning of “Britishness” (a tediously overused term by politicians and newspaper hacks). With track titles like “Black Leaves and Fallen Branches” and “Kin to Coal”, such ambition is clearly laid out, although any conclusions made are abstract and tinged with inchoate morosity. Be warned: there is none of dubstep’s hazy sensuality and end-of-party emotionality onPunish, Honey. In the two years since Order of Noise, Vessel’s music has edged into the shadowy realms of a new strain of underground techno, a nebulous demi-monde inhabited by the likes of Regis, Sandwell District, William Bennett’s Cut Hands and Vatican Shadow.

Vessel may be less jagged and brusque than those other acts, but by injecting his music with a bit of clatter and creak, he’s exploring similar territory and coming up with an equally austere sonic vista. It’s a subtly beautiful combination: when Gainsborough returns to techno beats on Punish, Honey, such as on album highlights “Anima”, “Kin To Coal” and “DPM” and meshes them with the darker, more industrial atmospheres that dominate the album, the results are truly thrilling, mechanized dance for a post-industrial age.

A Dusted Review: Chance of Rain by Laurel Halo (January 16th, 2014)

Confession time. Unlike many (most?), I failed to grasp the appeal of Laurel Halo’s highly-acclaimed Quarantine album last year. Which is not to say I disliked it, per se, it just left me nonplussed, which was all the more frustrating because I’d loved her earlier Hour Logic EP. I could definitely see the talent involved in Quarantine, but it just didn’t touch me the way it did others, which may be my own fault. Who knows?

All I can say with any certainty is that, with Chance of Rain, I am well and truly back in love with the music of Laurel Halo. Hell, I am dim enough that, if I didn’t “get” one of her works, it probably means I am lacking some neurological function that she and others happen to possess. If Chance of Rain confirms anything, it’s that Laurel Halo is almost certainly a step ahead of me, and always has been, which makes approaching her music that much more enriching.

I feel like an illiterate who’s just had Shakespeare explained to him (and no, I don’t always “get” The Bard, either): I’m aware I’m the stupid one, but still not sure why, although I’m happy to revel in my ignorance.

Chance of Rain casts me back to a gig Halo performed last year in London’s trendy Shoreditch. Inside a tiny room packed to the rafters, and bolstered by a righteous sound system, she had already cast Quarantine’s half-songs to the back of her mind, instead delivering a pulsating, angular set of jerky post-techno.  It’s this live presence that she encapsulates on her latest album. Tracks such as “Oneiroi”, “Serendip” and “Ainnome” are sharp, edgy and driven by a singular approach to rhythm that takes electronic conventions and tips them sideways. Beats are shortened until they become staccato hiccups or gently lingered upon in a trance-like haze. Unlike a lot of modern electronica that takes its cues from dubstep’s bass revival, Halo’s tracks are spindly. They’re dominated less by dropped bass lines than by the omnipresence of body-shifting rhythmic pulsations and crystalline synth patterns.

As in Quarantine, these tracks seem to constantly shift out of focus. They’re not quite pop, but neither are they perfectly tailored for the dance floor. Of course, they’ll make you shift your ass in a semblance of dance, but there remains a certain uneasy aloofness that just makes them more fascinating. Even when signposts to previous artists’ work seem to emerge (the jerking shuffle on “Oneiroi” occasionally evokes William Bennett’s brutalist Cut Hands project, the languid loping beats on “Serendip” and “Ainnome” call to mind a more minimal The Field, and there are hints of footwork at play on “Thrax”), they are quickly swallowed by the idiosyncrasies of Halo”s thoughtful personality. There is more at play here than just rhythm.

The disparate forms and tempos on Chance of Rain might easily have seemed distracting, but there is a singular vision at work here. On shorter, interlude-like, tracks such as “Dr. Echt” and “Melt”, Halo toys with elements of broken down ambient music, whilst tracks like “Thrax” and “Still/Dromos” are infused with slight hints of jazz, house and funk. In a world where electronic music is omnipresent, Laurel Halo succeeds on Chance of Rain in creating a distinctive voice, one that never allows the listener to settle into a sense of security.

A Dusted Review: Confrontations by Umberto (April 25th, 2013)

Matt Hill has made a name for himself as Umberto for his subtle exploration of the legacy of horror movie soundtracks via shifting melodic patterns that owe as much to pop as Goblin. This, of course, has led him to be conflated with the swelling ranks of “hypnagogic pop” acts, something exacerbated perhaps by his presence on that sub-genre’s flagship label, Not Not Fun. He returns to the label for Confrontations, a dramatic shift from both his breakout release, Prophecy of the Black Widow, and follow-up, Night Has a Thousand Screams.

Prophecy of the Black Widow was dominated by the spirit of vintage Italian horror, from Dario Argento’s Technicolor terror to the splattery gore of Lucio Fulci, but the synth heavy doom-prog of composers Fabio Frizzi and Claudio Simonetti was intercut with murky drum machine beats and woozy pop melodies. It led to a sort of schizophrenic musical strand: not quite film soundtrack, not quite pop, and, to these ears, it wasn’t an entirely successful exercise, especially when compared to the authentically unsettling music of Failing Lights or Nate Young’s Demons. On Confrontations, Hill has turned to the imagery of sci-fi horror, the cover art clearly echoing creepy alien invasion movies like Body Snatchers and They Live. Indeed, the latter film’s director John Carpenter is a clear influence, for his scores effectively pioneered the potential of lo-fi synths and electronic percussion creating evocative musical accompaniments to horror and sci-fi.

Confrontations, however, doesn’t feel like an actual soundtrack, or even a pastiche of one, as opposed Umberto’s previous albums. Instead, whilst there is a vague semi-narrative strain running throughout, Confrontations is best appreciated as a bloody good dance album. “Night Fantasy” opens the album in style, with loping bass synth rolling under glossy undulating synth patterns and minimalist electronic snare beats. The overall effect may be futuristic, but rather than merely echoing sci-fi soundtracks, instead what springs to mind are the best outfits from Germany’s Kompakt label, such as The Field and Wolfgang Voigt. There’s a warmth underneath the detached synth lines and nearly every track, especially the aforementioned “Night Fantasy” and its follow-up, the disco-tinted “Initial Revelation,” which is all swirling synths and monomaniacal beats, would function superbly in a club alongside those doyens of European tech-house. “Confrontation” sees Hill relax the pace somewhat, and drop in a ghostly sampled choir, bringing it closer to his earlier work, but it still overflows with sweeping synths and oscillating sequencers. Only the arrhythmic “Dead Silent Morning” and the tempo-shifting epic “The Summoning” feel like scores, in a Ballardian style Gary Numan and John Foxx would have loved back in 1981.

Umberto, like many a “hypnagogic pop/hauntology” act, seemed to me increasingly obsolete as the genre’s 2010 heyday receded further from view; even the Ghost Box crew struggle to garner the same enthusiasm as before. Confrontations throws that notion into the ditch, building expertly on Hill’s previous work as a soundtrack impersonator/jester (“The Summoning” is so evocative as to produce visions of soaring UFOs descending on the world’s population), but moves into new realms where these affectations collide with the dancefloor with so much confidence, it’s a wonder he didn’t try this before. I am usually loath to use words like “triumph”, but Confrontations is damn close: it’s atmospheric, infectious and enjoyable. I can’t really praise it higher than that.