Review: Nocow – Zathdax (Roots United Records)

One of these days when – if – I have the free time, I might go back through all the reviews I’ve done and work out how many of those records were released on small, first time labels as compared to more established imprints. I think it might make for an interesting analysis. Of course, we all know that the true underground torch of house and techno has pretty much been carried by small and independent set ups, often releasing a handful of records before vanishing. I get a feeling though that this approach is in the ascendancy again. This is the second release this week by a small start-up label I’ve covered; Roots United are a St. Petersburg based collective of musicians and DJs, the label apparently sprouting out of the parties they run back home. To me that sounds just about as grass-roots as you can get.

Nocow, AKA Russian producer Aleksei Nikitin, isn’t so much of a newcomer, although the name might not be overly familiar. Over the course of the last few years he’s put out a number of records across a bunch of labels that have taken in many points of the electronic spectrum from ambient and down tempo to more upfront genres. What ties the material together, though, is Nocow’s awareness of the experimental nature of electronic music that often lies just below the surface. Anyone interested in checking out more of his work should track down a copy of his ‘Solus’ album of German label Fauxpas Musik or his ‘Yule’ EP on Styrax. They’re a good starting point and have plenty in common with this one.

‘Zathdax’ also shares much with the current trend for dusty analogue work outs that have come to dominate much of the underground, and there are a few little touches here and there reminiscent of the work of producers like Florian Kupfer. Not that this is simply a facsimile of a currently fashionable sound; one of the pleasures of ‘Zathdax’ is the way it manages to rework a left-field sound to feel even more left field with Nocow drawing on a set of influences that add a freshness to the formula. Whilst the bulk of the 6 tracks are composed of four to the floor techno, they’re refracted through a hazy murk of electronica and lit up with flares of garage, dubstep and even punk. Take the title track itself: Zathdax is carried along on a clipping beat with the weird, fun insouciance that water marks a lot of Studio Barnhus releases, but there is something in the way the stuttered vocal sample interplays with the drums that puts you in mind of a sort of slightly melancholy Blawan. Its understated feel almost disguises the tunes potency until it’s too late to stop yourself moving.

Elsewhere the heady warp of classic IDM figures to a greater or lesser degree. The sultry synths and pads on Solstice, for instance, push the atmospherics of mid nineties ambient techno into a shimmering and housey frame, adding a proper resolve and focus to the mood. Other tracks, like Ayenward or Levee, are more straight forward, predicating the grooves on muddy drums and grunts of bass with subtle melodies and motifs left free to work on the mood.

My favourite though is Round Dax, which is built around a welter of popping post punk bass, a chopped vocal and a squirty, playful melody that’s so cheeky it’ll be figuring in my own mixes for a few months yet.

Largely club ready techno, the real joy of ‘Zathdax’ is to be found in the way it seems to take delight in subtly playing with the formula. Although I’d be hard pushed to claim that it is as experimental as some of genres it references there is little doubt that it works best in its more off-the-wall moments. A solid record of feet grabbing grooves, there’s more than enough here to elevate it beyond the mass of join-the-dots ‘analogue’ work outs currently doing the rounds. It’s limited to 300 copies so you’d better be quick.

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