Review: Chicago Skyway – Fall Down (Machine Dreams)

There is a line in ‘Johnny Mnemonic’, the short story by Sci-Fi writer Willian Gibson that has always been somewhere at the back of my mind when it comes to electronic music: “If they think you’re crude, go technical. If they think you’re technical, go crude.” Over the years this little quote could be used to sum up a lot of House and Techno. Countless artists move between the two extremes, but there is often a feeling that they’re playing at it. For a handful of producers, though, this duality of thought is a hallmark of their sound.

Sean Hernandez has often combined the two approaches under his Chicago Skyway guise, mixing the raw grunt of heavy machine rhythms with floating synths that recall the feel of the early pioneers. As a producer he’s seems to be just at home with snarling Acid tunes as he does with deeper, angelic strains of House. His last but one release, the I Don’t Give A Fuck Ep (Which was a split with Isoke) was a barking, nihilistic take on the genre that didn’t seem to garner the attention it probably deserved. Partly one of the reasons that EP was such a rich experience was the way in which it seemed to be at odds with the vast majority of the Lo-Fi House that surrounded it. It seemed the real deal; properly angry street music that rode home on its own rage.

The Fall Down EP is less angry sounding but still punchy in places, especially when compared to a lot of other records coming out just now. It has the tone of classic Chicago machine built jacking music hitched to a more modern nous. Most of the tracks actually keep the pace down. They’re lean too, all the fat trimmed off, reduced down to the bare minimum. The opener, Fall Down, is a brutally functional drum track with hounds the listener with thuggish toms and snares, and bursts of static that envelop the higher frequencies. It does nothing more than roll from the start to the finish, and wouldn’t have been out-of-place on that split EP with Isoke, but it spits fury as it moves which is something that is strangely rare in modern electronic music.

The other two tracks on the A-side are less kicking, more playful and laid back, but not as successful. Both Ride and Ride 3 try to bring more than machine work outs to their game. Ride is a slow bouncer. Nagging rather than insistent but still fun, although it suffers if the aural blast of the first track is still lingering in the ears. Ride3 is better, if only for the winding lead that recalls the ‘Alternative’ mix of Lil Louis’ classic Music Takes U Away. It needs a bit more urgency, though. Pitching it up coalesces its disparate parts, drying out the wash of sound that occasionally threatens to drown everything else beneath it, and kicking it up into a truer jacker.

The B-side is a more interesting proposition, mixing the crude and the technical to better effect. Leaf is far more certain than either of the Rides, a strident grooves latching onto a wiggling lead and some wildly pitched frequencies, it takes the blueprint of the A-side and runs with it before passing the baton to Mosquito which builds quickly into a gleefully atonal pounder that’s thick with Armani-esque qualities. It’s old school in the best possible way; a surefire rocker that grows and throbs with insouciant energy. Best track on the EP, though, is Praying Mantis where the mix of rough-hewn rhythms and golden, woozy pads come perfectly together. It’s a sultry creature; mournful yet life affirming. Potent enough to work a dance floor, especially when the grimy bass claws its way to the surface, and lazy enough to withstand repeated listens on an early morning walk home.

Friday Night Tune: Wincent Kunth – Trickle

As much as I love the underground, I’m suspicious of the way the word is often used. There has been an explosion of records over the last few years thus described that aren’t really underground in any particular way. It’s a handy term; pre loaded with connotations it can be dropped into press blurb to give the instant cred many producers or tunes would otherwise lack. It’s usually easy enough to spot any chronic misuse, but there are some situations where we enter a grey area.

The Techno behemoth of Berghain is one such place. The Berlin club and collective, headed up by Ben Klock and Marcel Dettmann, is not what I would think of as particularly underground. As a club its well-known outside of Techno circles for things not directly related to the sounds, and the music created by the various DJ’s, although often interesting, sometimes seems too big, designed for huge systems and bigger dance-floors than those commonly found in the tiny sweat-box clubs that define a purer underground ethos. Having said that, one of the things that has always been apparent, both in the acts Berghain book and the bands the DJ’s sign to their various labels, is that they don’t seem to be the sort of people who champion producers because of any desire to latch onto anyone else status. They genuinely don’t seem to differentiate between the true underground and larger acts. It almost seems as if – gasp – they simply love the music regardless of where it comes from.

Wincent Kunth’s EP for Dettmann’s MDR label is a good case in point. It’s an awkward record that defies easy categorisation. Yes the various tracks would do good work in a club but there are other elements at work across it’s four tracks that are suggestive of a producer who isn’t looking first and foremost at how the dance-floor reacts. There is a deep, trippy experimentalism at work that echoes the sort of thing Peter Van Hoesen of Cio D’or have done across much of their respective careers: a lightness of touch and firmness of philosophy that generally creates a deeply atmospheric air not entirely at home with today’s conservative and homogenized scenes. Had Kunth’s record been released on a smaller, ‘cooler’ label I think it would have garnered more kudos but vanished sooner. And this would have been a great pity. It’s one of the better known ‘forgotten’ gems to come out of the Berlin scene the last decade. A charming yet deceptive records that simply does its own thing.

Trickle, tonight’s tune, is both the most accessible track on the EP and the most contrary. There is no messing around. It glides into life with a perfectly formed and drowsy grooves that slowly carries the listener into the main body of the tune where the clank of a minuscule piano sample rolls and merges with the clipped vocal to form a lazy and sultry motif that draws energy from the insistence of the hi-hats, surrounded at all times by a vacuum of tainted noise that sounds like a breeze threatening to mature into a storm. and then just as the groove hits its stride it is gone, over, chopped off dead in its tracks, leaving only questions in the sudden stillness. It’s contrariness stems not from what it does but what it doesn’t. It never rushes into the build – although in many ways the whole tune is nothing but a climb to the peak with all the extraneous movement cut out – and the odd feeling of disconnection and stubbornness of vision never wavers. It’s ocean deep, determinedly central European yet of no place in particular.

Sometimes the underground, for all the goodness the scene delivers, fails to see the woods for the trees and it’s sometimes handy to have mates standing just beyond the tangle who can see the path a bit more clearly. I wonder how many records as good as this are still blindly stumbling around in that particular forest?

Review: Herva – Instant Broadast (Delsin)

The way things are going just now 2014 will perhaps be remembered as the year of the album, and not just because a certain Cornish producer has decided to grace us with his presence for the first time in many years. Frankly there have been too many for me to count. Some have been great, some not so great. Regardless, it has been interesting to see the re-emergence of the Long Player into the land of the 12″.

Herva’s d├ębut LP for Dutch label Delsin manages to be fairly faithful to the LP format whilst screwing with the concept slightly. Really it feels like two different albums that have been mashed into the same sleeve. Traditionally this should mean we get a couple of decent tracks, a couple of concept pieces and a lot of filler but Herva has managed the rare trick of getting each half feeling as important as the other.

I’ve been talking about this album to whoever will listen for a couple of weeks. I’ve been through it a few times and although the wow factor that always impresses you on a first listen has faded slightly, the sense of an artist trying to do something a little bit different remains. I can’t pretend to liking it quite as much as I first thought but there is plenty across the 12 tracks that resonates with me, and enough to make me believe Herva’s stated intention of doing something other than simply work within the established paradigms that Chicago and Detroit music provide. In truth there is plenty of music out there these days that’s moved on from those blueprints; What is more difficult, I think, is to write what is essentially House music that comes at the genre from a truly fresh angle.

Instant Broadcast, as I said, can be broadly viewed as being in two parts. The first is a collection of musical vignettes that are rich with aquatic textures and liquid, warped beats. The grooves in these pieces are slight, no more than additional fibres for the sonic tapestry. Tracks like 01(Edit) are closer to My Bloody Valentine and that sort of early nineties experimental Sound Rock than any contemporary Electronica. Others, Spotlight (Music at Subway) for example, have the feel of field recordings squashed until they achieve a pleasing shape. As examples of experimentia they’re mostly successful, very much anti-House, but sometimes suffering from a feeling of being a little bit too knowing.

The second half is far closer to House music as we know it, except that instead of any traditional take on the genre he shares common ground with some of the rougher and more out-there members of the gang. And the Crunch Goes On is a skipping groove that echoes the skewed take on the genre the likes of Michael Ferragosto or Studio Barnhus’ Lukas Nystrand Von Unge tend to work in – corking, lunging music and warm yet twisted samples that take you to nowhere you really recognise. Others like No Way Out or Pitch Business have the demented fairground glee of Rave coming together with early ambient house, like a chilled Altern8 recording in a fish tank. Best of all is Slam The Laptop, a pounding, cheeky number thick with dissolving bass and not a hell of a lot else except a huge kick drum and a drizzle of percussion plus a little huffing vocal at the tail. It’s a belter of a tune. One of my favourites of the year so far.

As an album it’s uneven but even in its less certain moments there is plenty to get excited about. Music that is more experimental in nature tends not to be so easy on the ear – that’s its nature – but when Herva brings together that nous with a bit more purpose the whole thing suddenly makes much more sense and even when it doesn’t it’s still a hell of a lot of fun. Get this instead of Syro.

Lost In The Sound

Waveforms

Sometimes I feel like I’m searching for a sound that doesn’t seem to exist. I can hear it clearly in my mind, but I’ve never heard it realised in any particular piece of music. Over the years there have been various things that have come close but as I zero in on them they seem to vanish, replaced by something that doesn’t fulfil the criteria.

I have been told on many occasions, and it’s occasionally a theory I subscribe too, that electronic music should represent a forward-looking and quite futurist mindset where pure sound and tone should always be pushed, never allowed to stand still. I like that but I’ve never been sure that it is a particularly realistic thing to aim for. One of the problems in reducing music down to its basic parts is that no matter how pure they are, they don’t tend to represent what music means to us. It’s akin to rock, where I’ve often suspected there are many people who will take the technical proficiency of a particular guitarist over the ability of the music to actually move us, to matter on an emotional level.

One of the things I’ve been wondering about is whether sound – or sound design – matters quite as much as some people tell me it does. Techno is a good case study for this sort of thing. Does spending hundreds of hours tirelessly working on an individual sound really matter? Would that time be better spent learning the art of song writing? Do people actually care if the kick drum has been built out of three or four different sources and layered into a single tone? There is no doubt that certain sounds do have an emotional effect on us. The bark and snarl of a bassy 303 is one of those things that just hits me in the gut. I’ve heard that trick repeated in countless tunes, though, and it has begun to reach the point where I’m not sure I ever want to hear a 303 – or one of its many clones – ever again.

Now, some might say that is the perfect example of why sound design is of paramount importance. It’s difficult to argue when you’ve just listened to the 15th record in an evening where the little silver box squawks into life and niggles its way into your ear. But I’m not sure it is the actual sound that is the problem. The vast majority of records that utilise that 303 do so in exactly the same way. It seems to be a failure of imagination when it comes to song writing – of how the rest of the music frames the 303, influencing how it rises or falls – that causes the problem. Too many tunes are built around what the 303 does rather than use the 303 to accentuate the music and respond to what else is happening. The tune, essentially, becomes a pedestal upon which the 303 sits.

In truth I think the problem is this: Techno, like almost all music that isn’t part of an overtly experimentalist vanguard, should be about structure and form as much as pure sound. The structure is important for the way it frames the sounds into an order which pleases the mind, body and soul. In fact, I would go further. As with classical music – a field that shares some stark similarities with electronic music in general and Techno specifically – the structure becomes even more vital given the way the structure, the arrangement, allows us to make sense of the largely instrumental nature of the music. Without vocals, the sounds of the instruments must be given the space to create the emotional response that the missing human element would otherwise provide.

Perhaps the reason that the sound I’ve been searching for doesn’t exist is that it can’t exist. Not on its own. And what I’m looking for is not about the sound at all but how the rest of the music responds to the sound, and through that, how it moves me. And it’s that, that emotional response, I am really hunting for. That’s what keeps us listening. That’s what keeps us travelling even though we know the destination isn’t real. I hope we never stop searching.

A Special Scottish Independence Referendum Friday Night Tune: Underground Resistance – Riot

We lost.

In the end we didn’t lose by a huge margin, but it was enough, and it has felt crushing. Already, within 24 hours of the vote, the Labour party has reneged on its promises to the Scottish electorate of more powers in the event of a No vote in order to win more support amongst right-wing southern voters, and David Cameron, a man for whom morality and honesty are foreign concepts when it comes to wooing the rich, has told the SNP leader that any timescale for change is ‘Meaningless’.

I don’t know how shocked people are. Certainly the idea that the leaders of the three big parties would say whatever they needed to in order to continue to line their own pockets is no surprise what so ever. Politically, it will have an impact on the Labour Party who have traditionally seen Scotland as part of their home ground. We already knew that the Tories exist only to tear the soul out of Britain in order to feed it to their oligarchic buddies, their tax evading pals and their slum landlord mates, but many people still believed Labour represented something different, despite all the evidence that said otherwise. No longer. They are a party of liars; as corrupt as the Tories but worse in the way they have brutally betrayed their own heritage. The party of Nye Bevan, the party that helped birth the National Health Service, is now a party where their Scottish leader, the wretched Johann Lamont smiles and poses for a photo-shoot at the opening of a food bank in Aberdeen. Some of us will never forget that. It is therefore not surprising that their first instinct is to put the boot into Scotland in order to try to win votes back from the Tories and the foul, smirking, low rent fascist UKIP party. They know they will never win anything here ever again.

The media too, are culpable. I keep hearing people saying this was democracy in action, but how democratic is it when every single newspaper (barring, heroically the Sunday Herald,) and every TV station slavishly broadcast Westminster’s version of the news? How democratic is it when the press barons, seeking to line their own pockets, screw the truth? At a BBC organised event last week, for example, they tried to get people to pretend to be No supporters because their were ‘too many Yessers’ in the audience. They have tried time and time again to reframe the conversation into simplistic nationalist terms of Scots versus the English, that we hate the English. I don’t, WE don’t. It has been about governing ourselves and following our own destiny, not hating our closest neighbours who are living under the same second-rate, disconnected, privileged ‘elite’ that we are. This is the same media that, whilst claiming the indy movement was little more than Blood and Soil nationalism, turned a blind eye to the vile politics of hate and fear practised by UKIP. All it has revealed is the depth of their own collusion in making Britain, the whole island, a less tolerant and inclusive place, where whispers of ‘They get more than you. That’s not fair, you should hate them for it’ have gone from the unspeakable mutterings of the far right into standard vote winning political discourse. I have as much love and time for people from Yorkshire, or Northumberland, or Merseyside or anywhere else as I did before and always will. It’s the gang of elite, rich, selfish and aristocratic liars and cheats I hate, and I detest their belief that it is their god-given right to rule us.

As for the people of Scotland who voted No. Well, that is on their conscience. You lined up with the Tories, the banks, the BNP, UKIP, the National Front and the Orange Lodge. You lined up with people who loath you and think you are unfit to govern yourself. And you agreed with them. Whether you voted out of self-interest, self loathing or spite, it’s done with now. Good on you. How many people voted No because they refused to be robbed of the excuse of blaming other people for their misery and failings?

And in spite of it all….there are good things. That the media, the whole media and the powers that Westminster assembled failed to convince almost half the population of Scotland of their lies says so much. That the turnout, nationwide, was over 80% is unheralded. That the percentage of people under the age of 21 who voted Yes was around 71% is incredible. The fight is not over. In fact, the battle is only really beginning. Change is coming, change will come. The more Westminster attacks anyone that disagrees with them, the more people will stand against them. Best of all has been the sense of hope; all those people running stalls in the street and smiling with the belief that things can change. All the stickers and badges covering the country. None of that is going to go away and although we hurt now, we will feel better in time. Never forget, despite the lies, how close we came. Never let Cameron, Milliband and their cronies forget that either. Ever.

Sometimes the music is simply not enough. I know many of you have no horse in this race. But I speak because it needs to be said. This was the most important political event of my 40 years on earth. I couldn’t let it go without comment. Tonight’s tune is Riot by Underground Resistance, perhaps the most politically astute band in the history of Electronic music, perhaps any genre. Listen to the music and hold those feelings close. To steal the title of one of their albums, there will be, must be, a Revolution For Change. Now is not the time to give up. Now, more than ever, we need to stand up and be counted. Let’s get going: there is work to be done.

One last thing. I’ve said this several times now but I’ll say it again. I would much rather stand with the people I admire, trust, respect and love, and lose than stand with those who side with a failed and corrupt political system and win. To all those who spent their days and evenings trying to make people believe and foster hope that things could be different my love and respect for you is all encompassing. Thank you all for caring. It might not feel like it now, but you have made a difference. It has been an honour and it’s been a blast. Never forget that change begins with you. Take care and be ready for when it comes.