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 Quietus Review: Four Track Mind by Ekoplekz (September 9th, 2014)

What a year it has been for Ekoplekz’s Nick Edwards. March saw the release of his most fully-realised album to date, Unfidelity, on which his surreal blend of motoric techno and ectoplasmic DIY hauntology reached its most direct, sinewy peak. To my mind, Edwards has surpassed all other similar artists in the way he has drawn a line between quasi-dancefloor friendly melodic electronica and an austere form of post-industrial kosmische rooted in English eccentricity, folklore and arcana. His move to Planet Mu for Unfidelity crystallised his various inspirations (“influences” is somehow inappropriate) into something more focused than before, and he’s elevated the vision on that album even higher with Four Track Mind.

Most of the tracks on Four Track Mind were recorded around the same time as those on Unfidelity, but the mood is notably different. For all its inherent queasiness and nods to the austere industrial electronica of Robert Rental, Unfidelity was an almost bright and upbeat album, the murk of previous releases replaced with driving techno beats and Harmonia-esque synth layers. On Four Track Mind, Edwards lingers over his tracks, with four of them stretching past the eight minute mark. An atmosphere of sombre contemplation looms over the album like a pall of smoke, an introspective yang to Unfidelity’s sardonic energy. If the album’s title suggests a collection of lo-fi afterthoughts tacked on to its predecessors coat-tails, nothing could be further from the truth. This is a fully fleshed-out work that evolves almost like a concept album, and it’s a journey that takes the listener into the murkier recesses of Nick Edwards’ psyche.

‘Return To The Annex’ is the track that best epitomises the central motif on Four Track Mind. Over languid, swirling synths, Edwards deploys a series of stark clatters and an eerie recording of himself as a child talking to his long-deceased father. There’s a lot of talk about how acts like Ekoplekz (Demdike Stare, Broadcast, the Ghost Box lot) play with themes of memory, but it’s for any of them to delve into such personal material. The track is evocative and unsettling, with Edwards expertly overlapping loops and and percussion, delicately creating a miniature suite that lingers long after its ten minutes have expired. ‘Ariel Grey’ is similarly ethereal, an intricate collage of looped vocal echoes, throbbing electronic lines and aquatic effects, whilst ‘Tantrikz’ edges along on an hypnotic krautrock-ish backbeat, perhaps the clearest nod towards influences like Harmonia and Cluster that Edwards allows himself on the album. Even the shorter, faster-paced tracks on Four Track Mind contain trace elements of taut emotions, such as the driving mutant techno of ‘Reflekzive’, which is propelled by twitching beats and a sweeping phantom choir, or the bouncy, echo-laden ‘Interstice’. Edwards’ liberal use of reverb and echo means each track, no matter how short, seems to stretch time, with the likes of ‘Reflekzive’ and ‘Dvectif’ sounding like horror movies soundtracks compressed into bite-sized form. Four Track Mind is, for all the occasional moments of snide levity and gallows humour, a grim and haunting listen.

A rather lazy shorthand has grown up when it comes to discussing a lot of this new British electronica (or hauntology, if you prefer), with consistent references to seventies TV shows like Doctor Who or The Owl Service and public information videos. Sure, Nick Edwards’ analogue synths have a few sounds you might hear on vintage sci-fi TV, but, on listening to Four Track Mind a rather different visual artefact from the seventies crept into my mind: Ian Merrick and Michael Armstrong’s horrifying 1977 low-budget thriller The Black Panther. The film tells the true story of serial killer Donald Neilson, who killed three village postmasters and kidnapped heiress Lesley Whittle in 1975. I don’t know if Edwards ever saw the film (an outraged press, probably trying to make up for their own role in the botched rescue attempt of Whittle which may have led to her death, accused the directors of exploitation and The Black Panther was effectively buried for decades), but the oppressive, austere nature of the music on Four Track Mind seems to hark back to that not-so-lost England of grim suburbia, crumbling industrial landscapes and sordid violence.

It’s hard not to regret that Four Track Mind won’t see a wider release than the few hundred vinyl copies Planet Mu are going to put out, but I can see why Unfidelity was given precedent: it’s the more open, “accessible” (not quite the right term when dealing with Ekoplekz) and concise work. But Four Track Mind is more than its predecessor’s morose cousin: it’s a triumphant work in its own right, more intimate and intense, and confirms Nick Edwards as one of the most exciting artists of the year.

A Quietus Review: My Love is a Bulldozer by Venetian Snares (July 10th, 2014)

The latest album from Aaron Funk starts off in the manner of the vehicle in its title, with ’10th Circle Of Winnipeg’, a truly superlative track in the Venetian Snares canon. The title makes clear what Funk thinks of Manitoba’s capital city, and the track is suitably moody, claustrophobic and bleak. As has been his wont of late, Funk melds electronics and breakbeats with strident string lines, creating a bizarre hybrid of high-octane dance music and modern classical, whilst a female voice (sounding remarkably similar to Billie Holiday, heard on 2005’s Rossz Csillag Alatt Született, Funk’s masterpiece) gloomily intones about snow, emptiness, hatred and the meaningless of life. Jazz-like percussion is deftly interchanged with breakcore thunder and wobbly bass, the track meandering expertly in the interstices between genres and styles. It’s a potent opener, and, much like the baroque, outlandish artwork, sets the tone for My Love Is A Bulldozer.

After such an imposing start, the rest of My Love Is A Bulldozer was bound to struggle to keep the standards up, but even with this in mind, it’s a confusing and muddled album. On Wikipedia, that ever-reliable bastion of authoritative information, Funk’s music is described as both breakcore and, more surprisingly, modern classical, and at various -brief- instances on My Love Is A Bulldozer he seems to be trying to live up to this description as he strips away beats and synths altogether in favour of more orchestral instrumentation. Rarely, however, do moments like ‘Deleted Poems’ and ‘8am Union Station’ go beyond being mere ambient sketches using classical instruments as opposed to actual compositions with much depth, and next to the full-throttle breakcore of later tracks, they sound quite incongruous.

To compound matters, Funk’s use of strings in overtly techno/breakcore tracks, from the crude title track (“Only you can make my dick feel like this”, Funk croons. Really, Aaron?) to even more successful pieces such as ‘Shaky Sometimes’ is a long way from possessing the focus and sensitivity displayed on Rossz Csillag Alatt Született. I know that Venetian Snares has always been a hyperactive entity, but at times My Love Is A Bulldozer feels like it was made by an acute ADHD sufferer after a seven-day coke and Pro Plus bender.

A lot has been discussed about Funk’s singing, often negatively, but, whilst he doesn’t have the best of voices, it’s hardly terrible. Mostly he deploys a sort of early-80s gothic moan, but there are some more varied moments, such as a descent into black metal-ish primal screaming on ‘1000 Years’ or the slightly unsettled yelping on ‘Your Smiling Face’, on which Funk sounds a bit like a less talented David Bowie circa Hours (at a push, I’ll admit). His lyrics are always as bleak and intense as the female voice on ’10th Circle Of Winnipeg’ suggested from the get-go, although rarely with much depth or revelatory contemplations.

Basically, My Love Is A Bulldozer is best when Aaron Funk does what we’ve always known he excels at: distilling bludgeoning, frantically-paced breakbeats in jazzy clusters, supported by his unique ability to blend in other textures, be they strings, voices, samples or electronics. Ambition is hardly a fault, but it’s clear that on this latest salvo, Funk tends to overreach himself.

A Dusted Review: Unfidelity by Ekoplekz (March 14th, 2014)

Ekoplekz’s music is the equivalent of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, a weird and quintessentially Limey concoction that could have only been spawned on these islands of tea and crumpets. This isn’t to say a non-Brit wouldn’t find anything to enjoy on Unfidelity, far from it, especially with clear Kraftwerk and Brian Eno influences bubbling under the surface, but it’s fair to say that a few signposts are liable to get lost in musical translation.

Mentioning Kraftwerk and Eno is a good place to start, though, because essentially Ekoplekz’s music boils down to a subtle melding of old and new. Nick Edwards’ analog set-up has a warm and seductive feel to it, with swirling drones and driving synth “riffs” that could have been samples taken from On Land or Düsseldorf’s finest’s “Neon Lights” popping up across the album. Equally, Edwards’ use of terse, minimalist beats hark back to the early days of British synth-pop, notably Mix-Up-era Cabaret Voltaire and The Human League of Reproduction. A heady mix, I’m sure all will agree.

Ekoplekz is never content to explore accepted and successful formulas. Instead,Unfidelity overflows with bleeps, bloops and gargles that throw up a multi-directional signpost, with arrows pointing towards, amongst others, oddball UK children’s TV shows from the 70s such as Children of the Stones and The Owl Service, the seminal sci-fi textures of vintage Doctor Who (the one with the icy synth lines and arcane sound effects, not the modern version driven by orchestrally lush scores that has belatedly made its way across the Atlantic), the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, the dream-like sounds of Warp Records weirdos Aphex Twin and Broadcast, and the more subdued synth music of minimal waver Robert Rental, immortalised here in the title of one of the tracks. For all that, Unfidelity never feels derivative or retro, Edwards displaying an alchemist’s touch as he drags all these influences into a potent melting pot. In Planet Mu, it looks like he may have found a natural home, where he has honed his ectoplasmic touch into something that feels modern and perhaps even geared for the club scene.

Nick Edwards is unbelievably prolific, with a number of projects to his name (his alliance with Baron Mordant as eMMplekz was a recent triumph, and showed how well vocals — especially ones as deadpan as Mordant’s — could work with Edwards’ music), but with Unfidelity he has delivered his most assertive statement as Ekoplekz to date.