Review:Vortex Traks Volume 2 (Vortex Traks)

When the first volume of Vortex Traks series of samplers came out last winter, it just about beat the avalanche of compilation 12″s which had begun to roll down the steep slopes of Mount Electro. But while Vol 1 contained some interesting enough material, and featured some decent enough names, the overal feeling was that it tried a little too hard to keep fingers in different pies, as if it was perhaps worried that going full tilt for an EP built entirely on the abstract fun of electro might be a bit much for the label’s first time release. The result was a record which swung between that genre and music which leaned closer to deep, acidy, but straight up house and techno,. While nice enough, it wasn’t entirely what you wanted from a record billed as electro. Or, at least, not if you are a miserable old bastard like me.

Whether deliberately or otherwise, Vortex Traks Volume 2 is a tighter, more logical representation of a sound which has moved back into the public eye after a long period of lingering in the shadows, and there is less of a sense of deviation from the prime material into other areas of electronica (which suits me just nicely thank you very much). Even so, this isn’t a four tracker of light speed beats and growling noises, as each of the tunes works over different facets of a common sound. The four acts on offer range from up-and-comers, to underground stalwarts, to current crossover poster-boys. It’s an exemplary mix of talents which does a stand up job of revealing just how much scope exists within this one genre alone without having to break off into other areas of exploration.

32, by Morphology, and Caffeine Sleep by Mr Velcro Fastener are both just about what you might expect from them – which really isn’t a slight because both tracks are pretty special. 32, firstly, hovers in the claustrophobic, internalized space which Morphology have long since made their own. Many producers try to do dark and come off with material which is really little more than a cartoonish approximation. Morphology’s great gift is to understand that darkness can only exist with light, that it’s the gradation of shade which lends the music its bleak beauty. Here the pads ripple with loss and yearning, and accent the sunbursts of almost cheerful melodies which flare out from behind them. Mr Velcro Fastener head off in an utterly different direction with a tune which incorporates elements of far more classical electro to create something far wider, looser and cheekier. It positively drips with late night funk, diving gracefully with a verve that almost borders on pop but tempering it with little shards of almost IDM-ish Sheffield steel.

Kan3da’s Dancing Data is tighter and more introspective, heavy with pensive strings and flowing breakbeats, but the melody is upfront and intelligent, playing prettily off the thick, stepping bass. It rises here and there into huge washes of sound, before ebbing away and letting the emotion take control once again. And while its groove may not be the most electrifying of those on offer across the record, it haunts the higher registers, getting into your head with clever tones and shifts.

Moonglade Temal by the Guide Girls is possibly the standout track, possibly because I know nothing whatsoever about the act and therefore didn’t know what to expect. It’s head and feet are firmly rooted in the 90’s, recalling IDM and the refined experimentalism of artists like Autechre or Matthew Herbert. It’s a loose, bubbling tune, riding an ambling breakbeat towards dawn. It feels slight at first, as if it’s burned out its meaning in the first few bars, but it slowly warps through its length, letting sunlight in between the faint acid blips and endlessly shifting pads, until it rises out of itself as a subtle, ghostlike paean to a form of electro which isn’t often seen anymore, or a contemporary form of braindance where the ambient touches are the point.

As good as the first release in the series was, this is better in almost every way, not least because each of the tunes offer something striking and memorable from a genre which can, at times, be obtuse and mercurial. It’s a solid and very useful reminder of not only where electro is in 2016, but also where it’s been and where it’s going. Here’s to Volume 3.

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Review: John Heckle – Tributes To A Sun God (Bedouin Records)

Regardless of whether Heckle is recording under his Head Front Panel alias, as part of the Phantom Planet Outlaws trio with Mark Forshaw and Binny, or under his own name, he has often managed to bring a fresh perspective to classic feeling house and techno; even his hardest material, under his Head Front Panel guise, subverts expectations by weaving a potent psychedelia into the sound.

Tributes To A Sun God is apparently an homage of sorts to Jamal Moss – AKA Hieroglyphic Being – who has himself released a particular breed of far-seeing house music under the Sun God nom de plume. Even without this snippet of information, the influence certainly wouldn’t be hard to spot. That the two artists have a similar outlook on electronic music has always been obvious enough, and Moss’ label, Mathematics, has long felt a perfect home for the Liverpudlian producer.

Of course, Heckle is too wise a producer to think that homage means to blindly ape – and with a producer like Jamal Moss that would probably be an insane thing to attempt anyway. In terms of style Heckle’s usual material comes closer than most to orbiting Moss’s bizarre homeworld, and any movement here towards a sort of full-bore Moss-ism is less pronounced than it might be with someone else. While the palette of sounds contains a smattering of exactly that – the crumpled, not quite regimented drums, the howls and hisses of raw frequency – it’s in the marshalling and movement of the music that things come together.

The two shorter pieces, Track 2 and Track 4, are bursts of emotion. Elsewhere these fill in as interlude, a cleanser between the main dishes. Here they both contain plenty to get your teeth into – brief as they are – Track 2 winds up like the intro to some long forgotten Detroit classic; calm but almost imperceptibly drawing energy from its swirling motion. Track 4 bumps out a loose, chaotic rhythm of distorted claps and crusty kicks where the interplay of the percussion forms a wild and snarling melody.

The longer works might well be built ‘in the style of’ but the DNA is Heckle all the way through. Alexandria holds the tempo low enough that the delicate threads of the melody come through nicely on the back of the fat foundation of the acid bass. It’s like cooling your feet in an alien ocean of liquid mercury. It lightens itself with something of Detroit’s hunger for the wonders of tomorrow, and curves it back with a fluidity of groove and warmth. On Mesopotamia those Sun God influences are more discernible. With Alexandria they were muffled by shared tastes. Here though they come forward to centre stage; the stampede of the drums and the random stabs of noise really do recall Moss at both his hypnotic and accessible best (and that second adjective is not something which is always applicable to his work). Even so, there is more to it than that, and the tune ripples with the vibe of older Chicago tunes, the sort of metallic underground stompers which took their time to cross the pond. it’s the sort of harder edged house music which is almost an endangered species nowadays.

Whether it hits up perfectly as an homage is debatable if you’re looking at it as a sound for sound, vibe for vibe match up. But in terms of shared influences and musical direction there is very much a common energy. Alexandria, for me, leans far closer to the sounds of Detroit which began to appear between the first and second waves when the confidence in the basic framework was strong enough to use it to reach for the stars. Mesopotamia certainly does make a landing on Planet Moss, but it gives as much as it takes. Perhaps even more. At the end it doesn’t really matter because Heckle delivers something which he has done before: taking classic forms and slanting them so that we can see them in new ways. The work of Jamal Moss is important but so is John Heckles’, increasingly so. Maybe it won’t be that long until we see some Chicago scruff releasing a record called Tributes to a Scouser. I’m counting the days.

Friday Night Tune: Pangaea – Won’t Hurt

I’d be talking balls if I said there was very much about Britain that I liked at the moment. The last few years has seen the place plumb the depths to the point it no longer particularly feels a pleasant place to be. Politics and mass culture especially have been on a race to see who can dig their way through the bottom of the barrel the quickest – a phenomenon egged on by the echo chamber of social media where the only rule for discourse is ‘shoot first and bugger the questions later’. But as British society crumbles into a sort of half-wit’s rewrite of Lord of The Flies, a place where we apparently care more for TV shows about fucking cakes than anything else, and we’re endlessly corralled into ever smaller, ever emptier futures, there are still things which resonate sweetly with all the promises we used to believe.

Even before the shit-storm hit us there was a contradiction to British music, particularly of the electronic sort. Regardless of where we are now, and how much worse things seems to be, British culture has always, when you strip away the myths, been quite an inward looking creature. Probably this is due to the fact we are all floating on an island in the pissing rain. It tends to make you want to stay indoors. Even the birth of the Empire and the commonwealth – an otherwise fairly outdoor looking pursuit – was really about showing how much better we were than Johnny Foreigner, thereby proving the correctness of remaining in Britain and refusing to listen to anything they had to say.

But our music has never been inward looking, and the days where it looked to embrace ‘British Values’ died with Elgar. In fact, the music has long been one of our few outlets which have embraced those myths I referred to above – that we are accepting of outside influences, that we are open to fresh ideas and alien ways of doing things. Part of that comes from the growth of cultural elements due to the commonwealth. The post war economy dictated Britain needed an influx of cheap labour from outside the home nations. First came people from the Caribbean, soon to be followed by those from the Indian sub-continent and latterly from everywhere else. Each of these groups brought their own culture with them. Food; clothes; language. Most important was music.

These histories have been written elsewhere by people far more knowledgeable on the subject than I am, suffice to say that without the stimulus these outside influences provided, British electronic music would be in a very different place. Of course, other countries have strong scenes too – Germany and the Netherlands have given much to electronic music over the years – but it’s perhaps difficult to imagine that something like Drum n Bass, for instance, could have flourished somewhere other than here.

In more recent years, the explosive impact of dubstep and grime have further pushed a musical form which is heavy with the concepts of mutated funk – do they exists purely because of Britain’s relationship with outside musical influences? Is it even correct to describe them as ‘outside influences’ anymore? More than likely not. The mishmash of styles and tastes, the absolute refusal to bury the sounds under such a moribund idea as ‘purity’ has been one of the distinguishing factors for so long now it has simply become the normal – very possibly the only place within British culture where this is indisputably true. It’s not really something you can say for literature, or television, film, or even art, which all remain heavily in the domain of a particular sort of person. Those who hail from different backgrounds or educations tend to be the exception who prove the rule.

House and techno arrived here early on and were quickly taken apart to see what made them tick. In the first instance I suspect we took them to our heart because of another national trait which the powers that be have long had a real problem with – our love of getting wankered and going dancing. It’s a trait which transcends class or race or any of the barriers – real or imagined – which are imposed on us by an establishment who would prefer it if we spent our Friday nights doing overtime. Looking back on it, of course dance music was going to do well here.

Even better, it fell into the great British musical tradition of stealing it from somewhere else before taking the number plate off and changing the paintwork. British techno might well have elements of the Detroit original, for instance, but it is its own thing – it was redesigned. British acid house is just not the same as what came out of Chicago. It’s cheekier, dafter, somehow more virulently Brit. It was fed into the mix, along with the reggae, and dub, and everything that grew out of the music of those early post-war arrivals, and became hardcore before just as quickly buggering off to become..well.. a million other things. Garage, techno, house, electro….none of them survived first contact in their original form. The music here seethes with invention and movement, and the understanding that everything contributes to it, everything makes it special. It makes you proud to be British, but it’s not the Britain the people who think we should have the Union Jack tattooed on our souls would recognize. It’s a Britain that exists on another level, an alternative idea of what makes us us. It’s one which is desperate to know what’s going on outside.

I went with Pangaea’s Won’t Hurt tonight. In truth I could have chosen from a million other tunes but I’ve been listening to this a lot recently, and it seems to sum up all that junk I’ve just written in a decent way. I’m sure Pangaea didn’t mean it, but there is close to six decade worth of British history in those wobbling, strangely beautiful bars and chords. And that says something far more important than all the pints of bitter, blue passport covers, and imperial fucking measurements ever could.

Review: Scenedrone – Fire Hazard (Acroplane Recordings)

As a label, Acroplane’s output can be a slightly difficult sell for those unfamiliar with the music they champion, and their sound – which draw from a mix of influences ranging from acid, hardcore, rugged, broken electronica, and harsh experimentalism – can seem unyielding and bleak to those unfamiliar with them. But once you get beyond the surface noise a far more complex picture emerges of a fiercely individual label pushing an ethos which has virtually nothing to do with current trends and everything to do with enabling a form of techno in which the need to invent and widen the borders takes centre stage.

Given that, Irish producer Scenedrone’s first record on the label, Fire Hazard, is perhaps Acroplane’s most accessible release since Posthuman’s Nebula from back in 2012. I use the word ‘Accessible’ advisedly here. We’re not talking about an EP of join-the-dots tech-house, nor are we discussing something in the strain of the usual beige, big room bangers which are so commonplace just now. It is a hard record, full of serrated beats, unsettling rhythms, and disorientating bursts of snarling energy. And that’s just Fire Hazard’s more obvious good points.

In a sense, its accessibility comes from the fact that it shares a psychic space with several other of the scene’s young turks. Elements of it recall Blawan, for instance. There is a similar noisy swagger to the tunes; a sandblast cleansing feel of hardware being subtly and not so subtly hurt. It internalizes the energy more than Blawan does, however, restraining and redirecting, orchestrating the sonic violence. It’s particularly noticeable on the raucous lash-out of Chicken House, for instance, where the welter of beats vies for space with the cavernous rumble of bass and taut percussion, or on Fire Hazard itself, a furious but focussed corkscrewing jab of energy like a drillbit made of frequency.

What it doesn’t do is fall back on easy techno archetypes, and in that both the record and the producer are good fits for Acroplane. Here and there it touches on the swirling electrification that label-mate Eomac has made his own. Rick and Morty holds back on the rawness and cleans up the beats, but there is a dissonance and creeping sense of unease that gradually claw their way to the surface, injecting the poisonously playful groove with a measured coldness. The record revisits the scene on Bang That Shit, although the effectiveness is hampered by the slight feel of it being too much of a reprise, and it lacks Rick and Morty’s depth, at least until the bastard huge slab of disturbed, distorted bass ports in from a broken dimension to tie everything together.

Fire Hazard’s charms lie in the way that, for all the superficial familiarity (enough perhaps to almost be regarded as part of a scene), it walks its own road, and brings with it something that feels fresh. Often with the gritty, dirtier end of the new-techno, the effect it lessened by too much reliance on being a bit tongue in cheek. That’s not a criticism you can aim at Fire Hazard – it’s serious in its purpose, cuts out the more cartoonist elements and uses grooves and experimentalism to lighten what could have easily been a little too fearsomely stomping. Nicely brutal.

Review: Arnold Steiner – Mood Sequence (Metroplex)

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Metroplex’s quiet ‘relaunch’ over the last couple of years doesn’t seem to have caught the imagination of the Peanut Gallery in quite the way I thought it might. Even though there have been a gang of new releases on the label – running from last year’s Shifting Forward by new boy Plural to alleged retiree Terrance Dixon’s Population One, and including a forthcoming 12″ by Kimyon – most of the talk seems to have been about possible represses following the re-release of Model 500’s The Chase and Night Drive. You can’t really fault people for that: A label like Metroplex, with such a large and incredibly important back catalogue is always going to attract massive interest should it start revisiting the classics.

Power to Juan Atkins, though, for refusing to go down the easy route and simply stick out hunners of old stuff. Any label that does that quickly looses any vitality it once had, and Metroplex’s rare energy was always one of the most distinguished factors in its importance. It almost seems a bit cruel, therefore, to suggest that the new music hasn’t quite yet come up to those old standards. Not that there is anything wrong with what has been available so far – and on almost any other label they would all be regarded as Triple A belters. But this isn’t any other label: this is Metroplex.

Arnold Steiner’s Mood Sequence EP comes closer than either the Plural or Population One records in recalling all the thrills that made the older Metroplex material so damn good. In fact, it came close enough for one person I know, upon hearing a clip of the record, to exclaim ‘Yup. Sounds Like Metroplex.’ There is an understandable ring of truth in that statement. It does sound like Metroplex, more precisely the sort of tough, techno-bass styled electro the label did so well in the late nineties when the genre looked to be on an unstoppable upwards trajectory.

Mood Sequence isn’t just a simple homage to that era though. The music, although coming from a similar place, is less frenetic, less likely to fry your brain with burst of pure velocity and smash you with explosive beats, and while it remains as tough as always, it tends to go about it in a slightly different way.

Partly this is due to a widening of the traditional techno-bass remit, and elements of the record lean closer to a more European take on electro, even as far as incorporating an industrial, EBM-ish tinge here and there. The effect isn’t overpowering, more of a subtle re-weaving of the base fabric, but it adds a different heft to the music. It’s particularly evident on Inertia Collision , a tune which swaps out the swagger of the rest of the record for something altogether more prowling. In fact, it almost entirely moves away from it heartlands, incorporating motifs and moods which lie closer to the sort of thing Luke Eargoggle, Mr Velcro Fastener, and others of the new electro elite have been working with.

Even so, the real meat of the record still lies within a far more traditional Detroit-ish take on the genre. Opener In The End is a classy stab in the Model 500 vein. Sleek, dark, and utterly entrancing in the groove, and with lyrics which alternate between menacing and wistful, it fulfils that need all Metroplex’s fans have for some proper midnight funk. Steiner has done a great job of somehow giving it a far more contemporary feel. The shadows are deepened, the bass full and effective without confusing heaviness for impact. Mood Sequence itself glides along a similar but incrementally darker flight path. It lacks the machine soul of In The End’s vocals, but the colossal wobbling bass and howl of synths latch on to something primal, heightening atmospherics and blotting out the unnecessary. In its own growling way it’s probably the furthest from what you might expect – a claustrophobic, condensed, scouring blast of sound.

For anyone unused to or uninterested in Metroplex’s sound, there may not be much here to change minds: ‘Yep, it sounds like Metroplex’ is indeed the truth, and for many people, even way back, the mix of abstract expressions and thunderous, street level beats is in stark contrast to a lot of more contemporary sounds. But for the rest, that pat statement, and everything it represents can be taken as a battle cry of sorts. Arnold Steiner delivers a record which stands apart from much of what else is going on at the moment and stands as a worthy successor to a shining tradition. No sound clips for this one. Go and buy it.