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.

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.

A Dusted Review: Shaking the Habitual by The Knife (April 4th, 2013)

The Knife have always been mysterious and unpredictable, and anyone drawn to the Swedish brother/sister duo of Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer solely by their 2003 hit “Heartbeats” and its pop-centered parent album Deep Cuts will have surely since been discombobulated and discomfited by the pair’s refusal to play the standard cards of electro-pop, from giving interviews in Venetian masks to performing clad in balaclavas. A recent interview in The Guardian highlights this malaise, with the interviewer expressing dismay at Olof’s use of the word “jam” (as in a musical jam, not the spread) and mocking the duo’s avowed political and philosophical stances. It’s a view born of ignorance, really, because as early as “Pass This On” (also from Deep Cuts), The Knife displayed their non-conformity, blurring the lines of gender and sexuality in the song’s remarkable video, proof that their elusively militant take on pop has always been a key element of their musical DNA.

Even with this in mind, Shaking the Habitual, their first album since 2006’s melancholic and minimalist Silent Shout, is a curveball. The mournful post-Soft Cell infectiousness of “Pass This On” and “Heartbeats” seems a world away, replaced with a rich and abrasive palette of sounds that takes in industrial, hardcore techno, minimal house and ambient across 13 jarring and unsettling tracks. Lead single “Full of Fire” is a case in point: nine minutes of crisp, juddering beats and drone-heavy electronic textures that evoke Halber Mensch-era Einstürzende Neubauten, with Karin’s heavily-processed voice ratcheting up the tension. “Full of Fire” is claustrophobic and oppressive, and is all the more brilliant for it. It’s a leftfield move to release it as a single (complete with an experimental and confusing video), one that shows that The Knife have become bolder than ever in the seven years since Silent Shout.

“Full of Fire” serves as a template for roughly two-thirds of the tracks on Shaking The Habitual. On “Without You My Life Would Be Boring,” Olof juggles hypnotic deep grooves with jerky polyrhythms played on an array of “real” drums and percussive instruments, and Karin’s keening, shifting vocals are surrounded by a panoply of effects and sounds, from multi-layered flute parts to strange samples of birds and what sound like baby cries. The closest comparison I can think of would be the Gang Gang Dance of “Glass Jar,” except that The Knife are a much more caustic proposition. “Wrap Your Arms Around Me,” meanwhile, progresses at a more sedate pace, with cavernous industrial percussion (again, Neubauten springs to mind, as Olof turns to sheet metal and other non-musical percussion to flesh out his beats) and somber synth patterns, in a style not dissimilar from Blackest Ever Black stalwarts like Raime and Regis. “Raging Lung” is warmer, a sort of disconnected funk-pop not entirely removed from mid-‘90s Portishead, only with more aggressive percussion. Dreijer Andersson’s voice is uniquely suited to these relentless shifts, as she rises from deep moans to hysterical screeches in one breath. It equally helps to convey the duo’s takes on matters both political and social. The lyrics are not always easy to follow amid the dense clusters of percussion and noises, but her vocals are pregnant with emotion and, much like Throbbing Gristle and SPK, the presence of so many unsettling sounds in The Knife’s compositions is in itself a statement (albeit an abstract one) and fully debunks the notion that a pop band (a term that could be seen as reductive in the case of The Knife) can’t be engaged or even militant. Just don’t expect the message to be delivered overtly. The Knife wrap their ideas in layers of mystique and sonic riddles.

The minimalist “Networking” and “Stay Out Here” continue the album’s trend of manipulating and colliding various electronic styles, the latter being an edgy 10-minute shuffle propelled by wispy snares and occasional breakbeats under throbbing bass and moody, Eastern-tinged drones. But the album’s centerpiece, the colossal 19-minute “Old Dreams Waiting to be Realized” is a complete about-turn: completely beatless, it’s a drifting slab of ambient drone similar to the likes of Lustmord or Thomas Köner, that ebbs and flows patiently, building in intensity, with wisps of textures and effects fluttering in and out. Even someone used to the vagaries of The Knife’s intricate vision will be surprised at this particular piece, perhaps all the more so because it is so troublingly beautiful, like the best of any dark ambient act you care to name.

It may be seven years since The Knife last threw out a communiqué to the rest of the world, but Shaking The Habitual is quite simply a triumph, a bold and experimental statement. The duo is still shrouded in that omnipresent aura of theirs, and few “pop” acts have achieved such levels of mystique whilst producing music this good.

2012’s Noises In The Ether: A Rum Music Special (December 13th, 2012)

Ok, so the title of this piece is also a bit of a shameless nod to my radio show, Noise in the Ether, but it’s also a neat and relevant way of describing how noise music has evolved in recent years, culminating in some thoroughly fascinating releases in 2012 that have taken the genre by the scruff of the neck and hauled it into new areas, maybe even into a new era.

Only last year, when asked to select my top albums of the previous 12 months, I included two harsh noise works: Werewolf Jerusalem’s monolithic 4CD set Confessions of a Sex Maniac and Vomir’s Application À Aphistemi. This was par for the course as far as I was concerned: harsh noise rules!

This year – nada. Zilch. Not one. Which is not to say that there haven’t been any decent harsh noise releases (Kevin Drumm’s Relief may not match the potency of Sheer Hellish Miasma, but it’s still a wonderfully gnarly little bastard), but rather that what is being done in new ways to noise is much more fascinating. In 2012, these new strains have finally started to take precedence over their traditional alternatives. And just like that, I’m actually using the word “traditional” to describe noise. I didn’t see that one coming.

“New” is a relative term, it should be noted, and a lot of noise’s recent evolutions stem from a certain amount of rear-view mirror gazing. It’s sometimes hard to imagine it now, but noise’s origins lie not in the sweaty underground bars where its harshest variants now get an airing, but rather in the heady experimentalism of the avant-garde – something that’s still being explored today.


Helm

Take Londoner Luke Younger, aka Helm, for example. Younger takes sampled and found sounds, a technique familiar to anyone who has dabbled in the world of experimental music, filters them through effects and joins them to gritty electronics in order to create a sound world that reflects the environment of London’s urban jungle. In approach, it’s not a million miles away from the likes of John Cage, Pierre Schaeffer’s Groupe de Recherches Musicales or the Futurists, with their emphasis on and interest in “regular” and “non-musical” sounds for musical creation; whilst the ultimate outcome evokes the immersive, sensually evocative musics of “cosmic” minimalists and drone artists such as Cluster, LaMonte Young or Morton Feldman, whose pieces often suggest a sense of place as much as sound processes. Helm’s Cryptography from 2011 felt like sonic experiments conducted with household objects or sheets of metal, but this year’s Impossible Symmetry (PAN) took things a level higher, with urban field recordings providing a tangible backdrop to rough, rolling industrial drone.

This approach is mirrored by Ohio’s Mike Shiflet, whose Merciless album (Type) takes the age-old noise/avant-garde trope of manipulating and distorting pre-recorded tapes as well as conventional instruments such as guitar and synthesiser, transforming familiar sound sources into walls of incoherent, belligerent, saturated noise. Both these artists (I’m tempted to call them “composers”) join the likes of Joe Colley in pursuing noise as a form of acousmatic music and musique concrète in the French avant-garde tradition.

It’s therefore appropriate that this year has seen three excellent reissues on Editions Mego of seminal Groupe de Recherches Musicales recordings, where the likes of Bernard Parmegiani (sounds of trains, water, furniture) or Luc Ferrari (the human voice) transformed everyday noises into musical compositions, many of them so jarring in texture as to fall at times into noise territory. Coincidentally, Mego also released Hecker’s Chimerization, which took the principals of Luc Ferrari’s voice manipulation on Presque Rien (not to mention works like ‘I Am Sitting In A Room’ by Alvin Lucier and Cage’s ‘Indeterminacy’) to particularly abrasive and sonically mangled levels.


Mats Gustafsson

Perhaps not surprisingly, another “out-there” realm where noise elements (saturation, dissonance, atonality) are still de rigueur is free jazz and improv, and for anyone who feels that need to have his or her ears given a right old kicking, you generally don’t have to look much further than saxophonists Peter Brötzmann or Mats Gustafsson, both of whom have released some wonderfully skronking stuff in 2012 – and I say that in full knowledge that both are much more sensitive and complex players than their reputations might have you believe.

Gustafsson is often the more overtly abrasive of the two, as demonstrated on the collaborative album between his band Fire! and Australian drummer/guitarist Oren Ambarchi, In The Mouth – A Hand (Rune Grammofon), where Ambarchi’s seething, feedback-drenched guitar noise is slammed into a squalling torrent of notes from Gustafsson, underlined by raucous, all-over-the-place drumming from Fire!’s Andreas Werliin. Gustafsson is more restrained on Baro 101 (Term), recorded with Ethiopian krar player Mesele Asmamaw and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, but still finds time to pepper the air with some wonderfully saturated notes whilst Asmamaw cranks the strings of his krar like someone stretching out a washing line to breaking point.

Brötzmann, meanwhile, delighted with two fantastic live releases this year, the jazz-heavy, exquisitely-performed Yatagarasu (Not Two Records) featuring Masahiko Satoh warping his piano and Takeo Moriyama on drums; and …The Worse The Better (Oto Roku) with Steve Noble and John Edwards. Both saw Brötzmann unfurling an arsenal of sax assault, from elegant jazz lines to barnstorming free blowing, with …The Worse The Better being particularly hard-hitting.

In a different style somewhat, Rhodri Davies blew the doors off any preconceptions anyone might have when it comes to harp music with his ear-shattering Wound Response (alt. vinyl) album, transforming his elegant instrument into a wall of crunching distortion. Improv and free jazz are too often seen as being too highbrow for noise fans, but if you really want to get a fix of full-on saturation, any of the above would easily satisfy your needs.

For listeners wanting a more traditional approach to noise, you can’t really go wrong with the Midwest scene that swirls around Wolf Eyes, but even those guys have started transforming the way they approach sound, with the forbidding atonality of Human Animal very much a thing of the past. Former member Aaron Dilloway released one of the year’s best noise records in the form of Modern Jester (Hanson), a titanic adventure taking in tape distortion and faltering percussion. Where previous Dilloway albums such as Bad Dreams were potent sonic assaults, Modern Jester is more nuanced, with a sly sense of humour, woozy harmonics and welcome experimental forays.

Mike Connelly, another Wolf Eyes alumnus, has meanwhile continued to explore the darkest recesses of the human psyche via his Failing Lights project, with Dawn Undefeated (Dekorder) a triumphant follow-up to last year’s self-titled debut and a world away from his more gnarly works as part of Hair Police. Eschewing harshness almost completely, Connelly’s tableaux are haunted by the atmospheres of horror films and sinister folklore, like more brittle, sickened takes on the hauntological explorations of Demdike Stare or The Eccentronic Research Council.

Nate Young’s solo music also functions on a more liminal level than what he’s done with Wolf Eyes, as he demonstrated during a concert at Dalston’s Victoria pub in the Summer, all murky synths, propulsive half-rhythms and bursts of unexpected static. All three of these artists seem to share an interest in the haunted textures and ectoplasmic sounds that lie dormant in the interstices between defined sounds. The results of their attempts to conjure them up – acting as musical mediums – are often fascinating, and always as troubling as anything emerging from the harsh noise scene they used to (perhaps reluctantly) represent.


William Bennett as Cut Hands

But the biggest transformation noise has been through of late has been its unexpected integration with dance music, as espoused by two of its most iconic figures. William Bennett needs no introduction as one half of power electronics pioneers Whitehouse, but his solo work as Cut Hands has taken his work in interesting new directions, integrating polyrhythmic percussion with excoriating electronic noise textures. This year, he followed up on his 2011 debut Afro Noise Vol. 1 with a more fleshed-out sequel named Black Mamba (Susan Lawly). Bennett’s approach is intensely physical, with fiercely metallic and jarring beats layered over mesmerising synth melodies. Live, he thrashes from side to side, eyes closed and mouth open, as disturbing footage of colonial-era Africa plays out behind him. In the best techno tradition, the highly rhythmic nature of Cut Hands’ music speaks to legs and arses as much as to the ears. It’s is nowhere near as brutally aggressive as Whitehouse, but Bennett’s unnerving performances and the troubling ambiguity surrounding the project’s imagery trace a line straight back to the provocation and belligerence with which one associates power electronics.

The same applies to Vatican Shadow, aka Dominic Fernow of Prurient fame, who has unleashed several releases this year, including a reissue on Type of his amazing Kneel Before Religious Icons tape and several albums and cassettes of new material, including Ornamented Walls (Modern Love) and Ghosts of Chechnya (Hospital Productions). Again, Vatican Shadow can’t hold a candle to Prurient when it comes to sheer aural assault, but that doesn’t mean that Fernow’s history in noise doesn’t seethe away beneath the surface rhythms. Vatican Shadow’s music (which could be seen as an extension of Fernow’s most recent Prurient album, Bermuda Drain) is centred on looped, repetitive drum machine beats in the tradition of Muslimgauze, British industrial techno artists like Surgeon and Regis and even Berliners like Porter Ricks and Basic Channel. These rhythms are overlaid with moody synth lines and – like Cut Hands – accompanied by dark, ambiguous imagery, in this case military iconography and jargon.

With both Cut Hands and Vatican Shadow, the short, punchy tracks seem well tailored for the dancefloor, but repeated exposure, especially live, highlights how much this new music owes to what both artists have done before, even if they now perform in clubs rather than warehouses or pub backrooms. The beats and melodies are monomaniacally repetitive, beyond anything most techno producers would deem conceivable, and what tunes one can detect are icy and bleak, dragged towards the shadows by sudden bursts of fuzz or metallic clangs, with none of the warmth one tends to associate with dancefloor-oriented music.

Instead, Cut Hands and Vatican Shadow (and, I hasten to add, Raime, whose debut album Quarter Turns Over a Living Line on Blackest Ever Black was less fierce than the other two, but still channeled some of the same spirit in marvelous ways), can be seen to be evolving noise in a semi-circular fashion, twisting it back towards the industrial aesthetics of the eighties while simultaneously dragging it forwards via techno and house. It perhaps a weird way to evolve, but damned effective. And let us not forget former Yellow Swan Pete Swanson, whose Pro Style EP (Type) has continued in the direction he hinted at on last year’s Man With Potential album, with jittering, seductive beats drowning under tidal waves of angry, glitchy electronic noise.

Taking all the above into account, it’s hard not to marvel at the journey noise has taken as it edges closer and closer towards something resembling mass public awareness. It’s not even unusual to hear traces of noise filtering into rock, pop, dubstep, hip-hop or dance: Ital’s Dream On has a definite noisy aspect to its ultra-bright synth explosions, Death Grips’ overdriven punk-rap occasionally evokes Lightning Bolt, and Holly Herndon’s Movement, another of the year’s top releases, is perched between noisy avant-garde explorations and full-on dance-pop. Even my own music as Frayed has been “tainted”, moving away from the monolithic harshness I initially embraced (and considered par for the course) on my first album in January in favour of more open, measured sounds and ideas by my fourth.

On the flipside, there’s always the lingering concern that if noise is completely removed from the grimy underbelly it has made its home, and set up for good in art centres and clubs, it’ll end up watered down to something aseptic and harmless, or elitist and high-minded. Noise is meant to be visceral and unsettling. But that’s a question for another day. Right now, as 2012 closes as a landmark year for the genre, noise is branching out, its feet still embedded in the backrooms of smelly pubs but with its eyes casting around for new ideas and new horizons.

A Quietus Review: Black Mamba by Cut Hands (November 19th, 2012)

Black Mamba seems to almost be defying those people who find William Bennett’s Cut Hands project unpalatable to say he’s only interested in provocation and discomfort through sound. If anything, Bennett sounds almost sensitive across these twelve tracks. If you’re a noise fan, this may not be a good thing, but this is Cut Hands, and there’s always more to Bennett’s music than first impressions. It just depends on how those first impressions percolate through the experience of listening to Black Mamba.

The title of Cut Hands’ last album, Afro Noise Vol.1 highlighted Bennett’s background as much as it did the new directions he was forging. The abrasive percussion was certainly inspired by African and Haitian rhythms, but they were saturated to the extreme, transformed into a brutal form of techno that had its roots in Whitehouse’s power electronics assault. Not to mention the visuals he deploys at concerts: unsettling footage of colonial times and rituals, all designed to play on his audience’s preconceptions and (dare I say it?) prejudices by remaining resolutely ambiguous. Smart but unflinching, Cut Hands seemed to prolong, rather than divert from, Whitehouse’s equally blunt explorations of themes of rape and murder, albeit more subtly.

Black Mamba, on the other hand, takes its name from a poisonous snake, and, like a snake, this second album is coiled, ready to strike, full of tension, but without the release of violence that characterised Afro Noise. In fact, certain tracks are positively mellow, and, from the brief opener ‘Witness The Spread of the Dream’, with its Vangelis-esque synth and robotic spoken-word lyrics, there is an element of sci-fi sensitivity about this album, the same sort that dominated the best eighties synth-based music, from Cabaret Voltaire to the early Human League albums. The more acute presence of synths opens up Cut Hands’ music, creating a futuristic canvas that widens the scope of Bennett’s beats, pulses and thunders. In fact, come the dreamy, hazy ‘El Palo Mayombe’ and ’54 Needles’, the stretched ambience starts to feel a lot closer to the atmospheres of actual African music than any of the rough and tumble of his abrasive percussive salvos, suggesting wide-open vistas and beautifully wild landscapes. Elsewhere, such as on ‘Brown-Brown’, his percussion is more minimal and stripped down than expected, the connection to mysterious pre-European rites and rituals more openly courted. It’s an intriguing direction for Bennett to take, but I’m not sure it’s one many of his hardcore fans will appreciate.

Rest assured, noise fans, however, because this coiled reptile of a record does still strike, albeit less frequently than Afro Noise Vol. 1. The title track is possibly Bennett’s finest achievement to date under the Cut Hands guise, a throbbing, angry, pulsating mass of brittle rhythm that shifts in velocity with belligerent force, with similar metallic stridency to ‘Stabbers Conspiracy’ off his last record, only with greater, and more exciting, variation in the tempos. ‘No Spare No Soul’, meanwhile, features lurching, scratch-like synth that wouldn’t feel out of place on a drum & bass or jungle record. Bennett has slowed down the pace across Black Mamba, but when he goes for the attack, he’s definitely aiming for the jugular.

Black Mamba in many ways suffers in comparison to its exalted predecessor. It’s less abrasive, more considered, and that’s bound to rankle with more than a few power electronics fans, this writer included. Maybe it’s Bennett shying away from the – in my opinion overstated – “controversy” of his debut, although I doubt it. More likely it’s just a case of expanding the horizons of what Cut Hands means and represents, and for that I salute him. It would be great to see these tracks fleshed out in a live setting (one that’s not a club, it must be said). Until then, whilst there’s loads to enjoy on Black Mamba (seriously, the title track is a fucking killer), I currently find myself returning to Afro Noise with more enthusiasm.