A Dusted Review: Exai by Autechre (February 28th, 2013)

In the 21 years since Warp Records released its Artificial Intelligence compilation and presented Autechre to the wider world, it’s still hard to know where the British duo of Sean Booth and Rob Brown fits into the wider spectrum of modern electronic music. Are they the pioneers of rhythm-heavy, slightly minimal, yet danceable, techno of the sort that’s made Germany’s current scene so exciting, or are they experimental glitch artists operating in the same zone as Ryoji Ikeda or alva noto? Or are they both? Their aesthetic is clean and slightly forbidding, yet their hip-hop and b-boy heritage constantly crops up in their music, notably on the sprawling two discs of Exai, their 11th album. With a hefty running time of about two hours, dissecting Exai is a trial, and ultimately throws up more questions about what Autechre is aiming for than it does answers.

If it’s tempting to look at Autechre as being just a less abrasive, British answer to Pan Sonic, all icy formalism and intellectual sound manipulation, Exai rather comfortably puts such theories to bed, because this is an album centered on rhythm. OK, so it might not be the most organic of rhythmic thrusts, instead relying on constantly flitting pads and fuzzily-treated snares, but Exai provides perhaps the most overt alliance of hip-hop micro-rhythms and industrial electronica of Booth and Brown’s career, even ahead of more cohesive overall statements like Tri Repetae. At times I’m reminded of the skeletal-yet-sweeping backing tracks that Clams Casino has provided over the years for MCs like Lil B, at others a kind of hyper-automated Detroit techno. Fresh from a performance I witnessed by Anthony “Shake” Shakir at a festival in Brussels, the connection is even more apparent … except that the rhythms on Exai are more tortuous and disjointed than anything I heard that night, from “FLeure”’s scattered, skittish breakbeats that sound like a drum machine vomiting forth every programm at once, to the loping, glitch-frazzled clangs on closer “YJY UX,” via the hypnotic, stomping post-industrial clang on “bladelores” and “nodezsh”’s echo-laden, muted, dubstep-like shuffle. The electronics are also a mix of the jarring, the propulsive and the sensuous, with blasts of glacial synths flowing in and out of graceful, liquid melodic lines. Although Autechre still revel in textures that border on the harsh, and flourishes of glitch that reiterate their position among IDM’s vanguard, there’s also a clever, unhinged playfulness running across these 17 tracks. Exai might be Autechre’s most fun album in quite some time.

Of course, it is two hours long, and one can’t escape that. And, for all the impressive rhythmic patterns, Exai is not an album that will have you moving much. Their consistency of vision is laudable, especially as Booth and Brown have been making music together since 1987, but I couldn’t shake the sense that I wasn’t sure I needed two full hours of Autechre, and often yearned for the more compact work of previous albums. Of course, no one needs any music, if you think about it, but Exai doesn’t feel very useful, as an entire package. Maybe a bit more editing could have given it more coherence. At the same time, there are no duff tracks, and a lot of fascinating moments — it’s just that Autechre is such a stand-offish proposition that trying to absorb them all in one or even multiple settings is borderline impossible. Even at their most playful, it seems, they keep their audience at arm’s length.

So, is Exai a modern techno album, an exercise in genre cross-pollination, or a sort of Autechre album per se that takes in most facets of their craft? I’ve listened several times, and I’m not sure. Exai is worth hearing, but it will get no less mysterious the more you do.

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A Quietus Review: Kneel Before Religious Icons by Vatican Shadow (April 3rd, 2012)

Dominick Fernow’s music has entered a phase of rapid and exciting evolution as of late. Of course, the man best known as Prurient has long had more strings to his bow than many commentators give him credit for. Indeed, albums like Arrowhead and Pleasure Ground, with their long, exploratory tracks, differed greatly from the rapid-fire bursts of noise on Cocaine Death or The History of AIDS. If anything, Prurient’s approach to noise and power electronics is magpie-like, plucking at various strands of harsh expression, the one constant being his absolute dedication to extremity.

Despite this, last year’s critically-lauded Bermuda Drain, with its flurry of sequencers and propulsive techno beats, came as something of a surprise. This vinyl reissue of Fernow’s first tape under his Vatican Shadow moniker seems to be a continuation of his interest in electronic music. With a greater focus on atmosphere and texture than his works as Prurient, Kneel Before Religious Icons has been compared to such mutant dancefloor operators as Muslimgauze and Sandwell District. But on first hearing the opening few bars of ‘Chopper Crash Marines’ Names Released’ my mind casts further back to the murky early days of industrial music, particularly Australian sado-punks SPK – its scattered, staccato beats and rumbling bass evoke that band’s nightmarish ‘Post Mortem’, from their Leichenschrei album. Like many industrial bands, Vatican Shadow’s focus is on the dark and unpleasant sides to human actuality, namely the mythologising and propaganda that surround the US government’s military involvement in the Middle East. But beyond that the comparison with SPK fades somewhat. Fernow’s emphasis on drifting, near-ambient synth lines to counterbalance driving percussion makes the material on Kneel Before Religious Icons a more melancholic and almost wistful proposition, as if he’s at once alarmed by and despondent about the way these new wars are unfolding.

Both the concept behind Kneel Before Religious Icons and its emphasis on sounds that stretch beyond the scope of modern noise lend it potency. The muffled synth drones and hypnotic swirls on ‘Harbingers of Things to Come’ and ‘Gods Representative on Earth’, for example, clearly echo his involvement with synth-pop act Cold Cave. These outward connections allow Vatican Shadow’s music to transcend the influences of early industrial electronica and find a new voice. Rather than simply focusing on death, mutilation and sorrow – as he might have done when recording as Prurient – here the Wisconsinite looks at how information on grim events on the other side of the world is processed, reinterpreted and fed out to us, as we sit on our sofas drinking beer and gazing at the TV. The lengthy track titles are both instantly familiar and, in the manner of a news item, unspecific, mere words that don’t really evoke the reality of war, religious strife and death.

Likewise, Vatican Shadow’s music is relentless and repetitive, haunting in the sense that it gets under your skin and lingers, but without a tangible hook or melody to focus on. Even at its harshest, the music on Kneel Before Religious Icons feels elusive, its synth patterns and oblique sound effects or samples buried under a layer of haze, as if being broadcast from an isolated radio in the desert. The way we are fed reports from Iraq and Afghanistan contributes to the public’s indolence when confronted by hideous violence, something reflected perfectly in Kneel Before Religious Icons‘ oblique and restrained tone. Is Fernow angry? Disgusted? Or merely nonplussed and indifferent? Are we? There’s a comparison to be drawn between Kneel Before Religious Icons and the hauntological moodiness of a Demdike Stare or a Mordant Music, but where their take on bleak industrial electronica has tendrils that slide into the past, Fernow channels similar ghosts and intangible data from our very uncomfortable present. The results are both grim and strangely hard to hone in on.

Within that context, Vatican Shadow’s focus on beats and sub-bass-heavy techno dance archetypes is an adroit one. Modern techno, dubstep and electro are increasingly being used by artists such as Raime, Shackleton and Regis to process concrete and meaningful information and hurl it at listeners, even as they’re being drawn towards the dancefloor. Vatican Shadow’s tracks emerge from this tradition, and wouldn’t feel out of place if played to a packed crowd in a Hackney warehouse. This might be secondary to Fernow’s underlying and tense reflections on modern war propaganda, but it’s an astute vehicle for his message, and one that adds sonic potency to an already powerful artistic statement.

Kneel Before Religious Icons is another enthralling chapter in Fernow’s ongoing consideration of the nightmarish and the oppressive, perhaps his most intriguing one to date. It may not carry the brute ferocity and sheer angst of the best Prurient albums, but Vatican Shadow is a beautiful and intense addition to an ever-expanding vista of thoughtful, haunted electronica.

Liminal Live Review: Nightmare beats: Cut Hands, Regis, Raime and Surgeon at The Basing House (October 28th, 2011)

The deliberately underground approach of Blackest Ever Black to releasing and promoting the darker fringes of alternative culture have brought the likes of Raime, Tropic of Cancer and Regis to the fore, whilst their website and mixtapes plunder the funereal and the sinister with the kind of single-mindedness that hasn’t really been seen since the heyday of 80s Goth. At the Basing House, Blackest Ever Black assembled a lineup which showcased the best of bleak electronic music.

On this occasion, Blackest Ever Black had assembled some of the most exciting and forward-thinking electronic acts currently haunting the shadows of the UK scene. Raime are Joe Andrews and Tom Halstead and their unique approach to dubstep has been garnering huge praise in The Wire and on the Resident Advisor website. At the Basing House, they had the rather unenviable task of following the rather excellent and bold Blackest Ever Black DJs, but immediately seduced thanks to some wall-shaking dub beats allied to creepy sound effects apparently lifted from a wealth of horror movie soundtracks and then processed into dense clusters of synthetic melodic lines. The dubstep label is someone misleading, given their minimal take on bass music, with their distillation of uneasy ambience and grating harmonics owing as much to the organic industrial music of Coil as it does to, say, Burial. Call it dubstep for ruined cathedrals, haunted cemeteries and abandoned factories.

However, they were somewhat let down by the acoustics and layout of the Basing House. It would appear that the venue doubles as a club, so many punters seemed rather uninterested in what was happening onstage, preferring to talk loudly whilst Raime were playing. Such is the design of the Basing House, with its stage located in front of a narrow dancefloor just off the main bar area, that even the deepest of Raime’s bass lines couldn’t drown out the hubbub. Meanwhile, between sets you had to queue to be able to get into the tiny smoking area, with a bouncer (!) on hand to observe a one-out, one-in policy. All rather disorganised.

Karl O’Connor, aka Regis, was on next, and was equally dark, although in a more abrasive, almost punk style. Nicely contrarian, O’Connor blazed up a cigarette on stage, and his chattering beats, overloaded synth patterns and angry bass felt like a chaotic collision of modern techno and the noisy, primitive electronica of Suicide or the UK’s Power Electronics scene. Which was fitting, given that William Bennett was on next. Industrial techno at its finest and most melodic, Regis’ music would almost fit in nicely at Fabric, although it would be amusing to see what the Farringdon venue’s regular punters would make of O’Connor’s brutalist approach.

If Raime and Regis were good, what came next took things to a whole other level. Is there anything more left to be said about William Bennett’s Cut Hands project? It’s possibly, probably, better than Whitehouse. Cut Hands vol.1 is the most radical album of the year. The percussion. The harsh electronics. The way Bennett juxtaposes them. The use of African imagery in thought-provoking -even provocative- ways. It was all on show at The Basing House.

Bennett completely drowned out the noise from the bar from the very first track, as his furious polyrhythms and angry electronic patterns clattered around the room, harsh and beautiful at once. The dancefloor became a heaving mass of shuddering dances and bouncing heads, whilst Bennett himself jittered and convulsed, mouth agape, seeming as enraptured by his sounds as the audience. The tracks from Cut Hands vol.1 were extended and enhanced, the beats becoming an avalanche of harsh percussive noise whilst the melodies contorted and sailed across the mix.

I have often wondered, when it comes to electronic music played live, how artists choose -or not- to enhance the “live” aspect of the performance. Most, apparently, don’t, preferring to sit or stand and work on their sounds in the same way they would in the studio. Now, I’ve seen enough noise, drone, experimental and electro acts to not be bothered by this, and certainly am not expecting Springsteen-esque pyrotechnics when attending an event like the Blackest Ever Black showcase. Indeed, you often have more time to concentrate on the music in such circumstances, which was a definite plus in the case of noiseniks Werewolf Jerusalem and Voltigeurs, for example. But, nonetheless, it must be a challenge for a lot of electronic acts, most of whom, such as Raime and Regis on this occasion, compensate with much head-bobbing as they fiddle with mixing desks and sequencers. Not William Bennett, although he also had his trusty headphones and mixers close to hand. His intermittent, jerky, aggressive dancing was very much part of the spectacle and appeal, adding to the dichotomous tribal and white boy punk aspects of his music. Allied to the unsettling film footage of African rituals and colonial exploitation that was projected on the walls, this mesmeric non-dancing elevated Cut Hands as a live entity above both the usual electronic show and the high camp of Whitehouse and other Power Electronics acts. A triumph, no less, and I was quick to tell him so.

Blackest Ever Black weren’t finished there, and next up was special secret guest Surgeon, quite a “star” on the alternative techno/electro scene. After the brittle sounds of Regis and Cut Hands, Surgeon’s driving yet smooth pulsations brought the night to a pleasingly groovy close, and had the audience dancing with relish. I detected hints of popular electro acts like Martyn, Vex’d and even the Chemical Brothers in Anthony Child’s hypnotic beats and elegant melodies, which is not to suggest he was lightweight in comparison to his forbears. Indeed, he and Regis united at the end to resurrect their British Murder Boys duo, which as its name suggests, was a darkly humourous play on both techno and Power Electronics. Even in this context, Surgeon’s slinky aesthetic dominated over Regis’ abrasion, for an utterly thrilling climax to a wonderful showcase of all that is exciting and forward-thinking in modern electronic music.

I return to my high praise for Blackest Ever Black. Despite the venue’s limitations, they put on a high-quality, and varied, show, and lasting as it did from 10pm to 4am, you got your money’s worth. Vomited back into East London’s darkened streets, surrounded by railway bridges, darkened bars and quiet office blocks, I drank in the cold air, and felt the thunder of Cut Hands’ vicious beats rumble away in my head, aware that I had witnessed the kind of show that no major label would ever had the guts or ambition to put on. For which, maybe, we should be grateful, because the music at the Basing House was as coldly arresting as that East London night air, and something to be savoured in the dark.

Photos by Jimmy Mould

You can also read this article here: http://www.theliminal.co.uk/2011/10/nightmare-beats-cut-hands-regis-raime-and-surgeon-at-the-basing-house/

A Liminal Review: univrs by Alva Noto (October 17th, 2011)

Raster-Noton continues to explore the outer limits of electronic music on this latest offering by the label’s co-owner, Carsten Nicolai, aka Alva Noto. In 2008, his unitxt album turned heads with its radical juxtaposition of heavily processed percussive techno with excoriating white noise, as he took computer data files, such as Excel, Word or Powerpoint documents and converted them into sound. The results were often astonishing, abrasive and sonically extreme.

univrs follows on from the concept behind untixt, expanding the scope to explore the association of rhythmic patterns and melodic units with the universality of language. The Internet and the concordant proliferation of digital information has had a notable effect on how individuals communicate, as associations, friendships, even romances, are conducted without people having to meet; whilst the written word has (d)evolved with the multiplication of technological terms and text speak. This is most overtly explored on ‘uni acronym’, on which frequent Alva Noto collaborator Anne-James Chaton recites 208 three-letter acronyms (“TGV”, “BBC”, “IBM”, etc) in a crisp deadpan, his every enunciation punctuated by Nicolai’s motorik techno beats and shuffling synth loops. Each acronym is both meaningless and loaded with associated thoughts, creating an indistinct narrative simply by virtue of the letters’ associations in the head of the listener.

Musically, like its predecessor, univrs is a dense and slightly forbidding listen, dominated by sharp high frequencies and aggressive rhythmic patterns. As the album evolves, it becomes a hard-hitting wall of highly-processed electronic noise that stretches on and on for 14 tracks and over an hour. It certainly, like a lot of Raster-Noton albums, takes some getting used to. But where unitxt’s use of pure computerised data rendered it pretty much impossible to relate to on anything but a purely conceptual level (“Cool idea…”), there is a lot more going on in the swirling explorations contained on univrs.

Perhaps a key factor is that all 14 tracks were developed from live recordings, which would account for the greater use of fast-paced beats and the dense, homogeneous sound of the album. Tracks like ‘uni c’, ‘uni dia’ and ‘uni deform’ are propelled by thumping rhythm patterns and frenetic melodies that wouldn’t seem too out of place on a mainstream techno release. On ‘uni rec’ and the hefty ‘uni iso’, Nicolai explores subtle temporal and textural shifts, layering glimmers of clear ambient drones over off-kilter pulsations before breaking up the uneasy calm with rampaging buzz-saw effects and uneasy high-frequency keens. Nicolai’s mastery of electronic textures, and the way in which he carves exquisitely-produced pieces out of such a harsh swirl of noises, is second to none.

It can be easy to only approach Alva Noto’s work as a series of intellectual works, or as coldly impressive sonic exercises, but on univrs at least, his abrasive form of abstract techno feels almost perfectly tailored for the dancefloor. Ok, perhaps not in a mainstream club, but still… (minimal techno nights are multiplying in cities like London and Berlin, aftre all). Music is a form of language, after all, a means to bring people together in universal appreciation of sound, and the hard-hitting beats and elastic synth and sequencer wizardry on display here would barely sound out of place sailing out of a DJ’s booth in a club. A special edition of the album will come with a bonus DVD of live footage and a video, as well as a detailed booklet; whilst Nicolai has put on performances and installations around the album’s themes. All of this interactivity enhances the universality of the album’s ambition.

If the music of Alva Noto is centred on the recreation of digital data into musical form, then univrs feels like the moment that data starts interacting with the unpredictability of the human heart and mind. univrs is harsh, powerful and cold, but also intensely rhythmic and elating. Above all, even when ranked alongside other albums on the Raster-Noton roster, it stands out as being boldly adventurous and unique.