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 Quietus Review: Engravings by Forest Swords (August 30th, 2013)

Three years ago, Matthew Barnes emerged from The Wirral with an almost album-length EP, Dagger Paths. It immediately caught the attention of the music press with its strange, blurry mixture of psychedelic pop and languid dubstep. Engravings follows the same vein, but with Dagger Paths‘ rougher edges honed into a series of enigmatic spectral half-songs that swirl and bite in successive layers of oblique, occasionally abstract, textures.

To record Engravings, Barnes made the audacious choice of mixing his tracks outdoors, immersing himself in the supposedly spiritually-charged environment of the Wirral peninsula. As such, even if his music descends from the tradition of dubstep and UK house, it is also imbued with a nebulous sense of mystery comparable to vintage English folk acts such as Forest and Mr Fox, as well as more recent weird psychedelic outfits like Hacker Farm, IX Tab and Eric Zann. Most of the tracks feel slightly windswept and spacious, even as they teem with little sonic details, as if Barnes is trying, in a slightly evasive way, to recreate a mind’s eye image of the shores and rocky outcrops of his home territory.

Having said that, the focus on Engravings isn’t narrow, and, as on Dagger Paths – a record adorned with an eerie image of a Japanese geisha – Barnes dots his tracks with flourishes that evoke a wider, perhaps dreamlike, world. On opener ‘Ljoss’, for example, a flurry of Spanish guitar segues into slaloming notes that appear to be performed on an electrified koto. Similar unexpected flourishes creep into pretty much every track, in the form of distended woodwinds on the gorgeous ‘Thor’s Stone’ (a reference to a stone slab local to Barnes that was supposedly used for Viking sacrifices) or bursts of sampled choir and orchestra on ‘Irby Tremor’, which are distorted in a manner redolent of The Caretaker, only with a focus outward rather than into the recesses of the mind.

Three years ago, critical consensus seemed to mostly draw parallels between Forest Swords and the American bedroom scenes rather stupidly dubbed chillwave and witch House, but, truth be told, Barnes’ music seems closer in spirit to the melancholic dubstep of Burial, occasionally even blurring into the bass-heavy lovers’ rock mutation that is King Midas Sound. Beats are heavy and slow, with none of the sort of scatter-gun immediacy of the post-dubstep scene.

Industrial textures that echo Liverpool’s maritime tradition abound, while the bass, which is admittedly more withdrawn than on pure dubstep, keeps everything ticking along like a steady heartbeat. Equally similar to Burial is the meticulous cohesion of these tracks, exemplified by the lush centrepiece ‘An Hour’. Over exotic, Eastern-sounding textures that could have been sampled from Tin Drum-era Japan, disembodied voices mesh and meld in a foggy lament that is both touching and hypnotic. Most of the tracks on Engravings feel like torch songs that have somehow drifted out of aural focus, like blurred photographs or smoky black and white film footage. But where acts like Grouper or Lee Noble seem to be deconstructing song altogether, Barnes seems to be engaged in a more subtle exercise, assembling strands of song formats into elliptical constructions with absolute precision.


A Dusted Review: Excavation by The Haxan Cloak (April 29th, 2013)

When I saw The Haxan Cloak’s Bobby Krlic perform in London recently, opening for Laurel Halo in an overcrowded club space, he did so in pitch darkness, illuminated only by looped footage of Andrei Tarkovsky’s seminal dystopian masterpiece Stalker. I had been expecting something dark, given the heathen electro-acoustic slab of gothic composition that was his excellent self-titled debut, all moody string scrapes and Current 93-esque percussion slams, but this was something else; the acoustic, organic textures of that album were stripped away and replaced by grim drum machine beats, sinister electronic atmospheres and morose sound effects. The atmosphere may have been similar, but the sonic style of Krlic’s debut seemed a world away, the man having descended to somewhere even more oppressive.

The spirit of that concert runs through Excavation. After a brief intro, “Consumed,” sets the tone with dry, glum synth ambience and menacing vocal samples seemingly beamed out of London’s post-industrial East End, the first part of the title track kicks in with cavernous bass drum kicks and shuffling brush stroke noises repeated erratically under a fog of icy synths and a forbidding bass hum. At times, Krlic kicks into something resembling a dubstep groove, but it’s a fractured one, deprived of all momentum as slices of jet-black textures surge in and out of the sound spectrum. Like dubstep, however, this music evokes the dank, cold vistas of the U.K.’s urban decay. Abandoned warehouses and quiet car parks loom into view, bathed in the indifferent glow of street lamps and car headlights. And, as mentioned, there is a hint of dubstep’s mercurial rhythmic pulse, a clear structure, to each of these tracks, but Krlic neatly dissolves these suggested grooves into a haze of abstraction. “Excavation (Part 2)” is shorter and more driving that its counterpart, but even its hypnotic bass and kick drum patterns are quickly swallowed and transformed by arch industrial textures that wouldn’t seem out of place on an early Cabaret Voltaire or SPK record.

As such, Excavation is not an easy listen, with some tracks dominated by crushing noise and caustic drones (“Mara,” “Consumed”), and again, the imagery of Stalker springs to mind. After all, Tarkovsky’s desolate “Zone” doesn’t look too far removed from the more abject outlying areas of East London or America’s decaying industrial zones. Hints of The Haxan Cloak’s earlier work, suggested by the ghostly looped vocal snippets on “Miste,” creep through the cracks of Krlic’s dense electronica, like ghosts of the long-buried Salem witches he’s mentioned in interviews. This connects The Haxan Cloak more to the phantomatic post-dance of Demdike Stare and Raime than to “standard” dubstep, without Krlic ever seeming derivative of these forbears (he’s less rhythmic than Raime and less overtly ghost-focused than the Demdike guys). His approach to rhythm is almost minimal, a case in point being when the dense beats on “Miste” dissolve into something approaching the dark ambient drones of Lustmord (the British producer who once provided an imaginary soundtrack to Stalker with Robert Rich).

These divergent, yet uniformly bleak, strands are all pulled together on the 13-minute closer “The Drop,” a cinematic epic that features clearer synth melodies and crisp drones (including violin textures and “real” drums that wouldn’t have been out of place on Krlic’s debut), as if, just maybe, the sun is rising after the dark, dark night of the rest of the album. It’s a fascinating piece, Krlic moving surreptitiously through a range of atmospheres and suggested vistas, bringing the album to a close on an ambiguous, yet strangely uplifting note. Excavation is a dark, ominous and sinister album, but Bobby Krlic is too smart to focus solely on scaring the shit out of his listeners, instead using electronics and beats to explore the haunted past and uncertain present in ways that build on his previous output without rehashing tired “hauntology” clichés.