Friday Night Tune: CTRLS – Socket

These days we have a habit of chucking certain words around as if we are trying to ward off reality. We use the word ‘underground’ in its loosest sense, as if it feeds any amateurish, unlistenable bollocks or slick, mainstream blandness with the kudos it needs to transform it into something vital and edgy. We call stuff ‘analogue’ as if it imbues any old bunch of badly written wank with authenticity and artistic importance. And we torture the word ‘classic’ until it means nothing more than something we heard in a club two weeks running.

These misuses aren’t really new. The scene has being doing them for years, but it’s got worse as marketing and PR have made inroads into Our Thing. As electronica has become more and more commodified, the language used to polish turds has grown more and more strident, and reached the point where it happily co-opts original meanings for its own ends.

And it’s the meaning and the message which suffer. You are not longer being sold music, of course, but a dream and a lifestyle choice. Again, this is nothing new. The industry has been doing it since the very beginning. Even the blues, that by-word for irreproachable authenticity, was largely the creation of the early music industry, a dream dreamt to draw money from the sleepers.

Still. In techno, in much of electronica in fact, where all of these suspect words – and more – still carry a weight of meaning it’s hard to be too angry. That they no longer have the same importance they once did is true enough, but they still tend to echo something of the romanticism which was at the heart of everything when the music was young. And that’s warming, not because of the what they mean now, but because for all their abuse, it suggests that those original values still carry importance no matter how far everything has moved since then. It points to an innate sense that the music can and should be more than just an accompaniment to wearing the right trainers, or what listening to the right producers says about you. It might now lie in the subconscious more than anywhere else, but it’s still there. And that’s good.

The number of producers still kicking out music which hits up all these things might not seem as large as it once did, but that’s probably because the pond is bigger now. Even so, there are still producers out there doing special stuff, music which lights up the right part of the brain. I’ve always liked the techno of Troels Baunbæk-Knudsen because aside from his increasingly unique ear for the sounds, his music still feels unbelievably pure; created with little regard for what anyone else is doing. What is special about his techno is that it sounds the way techno should but rarely does. Often hard but never harsh, it’s melodic and funky in the way you always thought techno should be – alien and cyborg like, with the human elements not so much discarded but elevated and changed, incorporated into a larger, sharpened whole until the ghost becomes the machine.

Sockets was the first Ctrls tune I remember hearing, and something in my brain was stretched when it swung into life. It remains one of Baunbæk-Knudsen’s best moments, and epitomises, I think, one of the only real markers of a true classic – it sounds and feels familiar, like you’ve heard it before even though you really, completely haven’t. And it’s instantly recognizable; a rain dance belonging to a tribe of robots lost in a forest of metal shards, and powered by grooves tightened with strangely, impossibly, precise geometry.

A true underground classic, one of very few in the modern era. In the way it simply flows outwards from its own ideas of what techno is, it reminds you that the underground is about a feeling, a mood, and a sense of being. No matter how little language tells the truth any more, you can’t fake the music.

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Review: Mikron – Foresight EP (Zone)

Mikron – Foresight EP (Zone)

Someone should codify a law of electronic music which states just how much fracturing of a genre takes place in relation to its increasing popularity. You could write a thesis about it I suppose, so often does it seem to happen. Electronica doesn’t seem able to stand too much attention before it shifts and bursts away in a tangle of opposite directions. Electro is the genre which is currently going through one of these occasional growth spurts. It’s done it before, of course, back in the nineties when its more classical sounds exploded into electro-noir, technobass, the, err, less salubrious tones of Miami bass, and whatever the hell you want to call what Drexciya did.

Nowadays the picture is even more fuzzy. Some of it is increasingly hard, aping the velocities of older material. Other strains have slowed down, making space for all manner of deeper elements which emphasis space and beauty until they border on electronic breakbeat fed symphonies. There are even a few forms of the genre coming through now which are taking ideas from the frayed electronica common to the lo-fi house scene. How that one will work out in a genre so long known for sonic precision is anyone’s guess. We’ll see.

For Mikron, the question of where they are now, and where they are going is perhaps a little less set in stone. It has been a couple of years since 2015’s Sleep Paralysis on CPU. That record mixed a fairly straightforward approach to electro with some truly wonderful touches; little moments of beauty which tightened and sharpened the movement of the machines until everything stood out in high-definition drama. Foresight, however, is quite a different beast.

The most noticeable thing about it is how much darker everything has got. While it’s not quite techno-goth it’s a release which has swapped the qualified optimism of the previous record for billowing clouds of mood, and it feels like quite a profound change. In fact, sonically it lies somewhere closer to the carefully constructed, darkened tones of techno acts like Forward Strategy Group and it explores a similar world where the heaviness and weight of the music comes not from distortion, or speed, but from the way the emptiness is filled with forms designed to capture the shadows the music creates.

Virtually every track is primed with an energy that doesn’t so much groove as prowl. While this may actually sound like a drawback, and does indeed require a slight rethink of what it’s all about, the fact is the music is well suited for such a rugged and glowering dynamic. Ulterior and Vanguard in particular make good with this approach. Ulterior spraying the almost industrialised qualities of the breaks and percussion with a strong dose of acid and a stretch out, tortured bleepiness which hold the drama right on the cusp of boiling over. Even the tune’s remix by Exaltics – which accents the sharp tang of the acidic elements – pulses with a similar meanness so deep is it worked into the DNA of the track. Vanguard eschews any of its predecessors pandering to form and convention, instead lengthening the shadows and washing everything over with groaning pads. The breaks here are purely functional; designed less for dancing, they instead hammer out the sheet steel the track wears to reflect warmth and light.

Title track Foresight is a darkside odyssey, grown in the depths, and corkscrewing out from nowhere with prime intent. Its looser, almost funky, but brutally so. And it heaves with repressed rage. It’s both terrifying and addictive, and finds the spot between techno and electro where both genres can deliver on their promises. At the same time, the pressure is alleviated with little breaks of light. A bleak record, yes, but one which refuses to fit easily with the rest, and brings with it more evidence of just how diffuse the genre is getting.

Friday Night Tune: Santos Rodriguez – Road To Rio

Although it may have become fashionable in the later years of the 21st century’s opening decade to slate Richie Hawtin’s trilogy of mix CDs, the Decks & Effects series, anyone not suffering from virulent Cool-Kid syndrome would have to admit that, for all their supposed faults, they provided an interesting and useful snapshot of electronic music over the course of a decade, showing where it had been and where it was going, and indicating the massive changes that were beginning to alter how we perceive DJing.

Although none of the three can really be thought of as a ‘live experience’ that really shouldn’t be used as a complaint. Mix CDs have often attempted to provide something different to what we find in a club on a Friday or Saturday night. From the easily forgotten details such as licensing of tracks which can have a profound influence over the DJ choices and the overall flow of the mix, to the use of studio equipment and editing, to a simple desire to explore a different facet of the music, mix CDs are an end-point of sorts, a genre of their own almost, where the DJ is given the room to create an ideal vision of what the music is and how it works.

Even so, of the three Hawtin mixes, my favourite remains the very first one, the original Decks, EFX & 909 which first came out in 1999 and felt less separated from the common DJ experience than the other two did. While both Transitions and Closer To The Edit are ear opening from a technical perspective, essentially using fragments and elements of the original music to create a new whole, neither have the immediacy and vitality that the first one has. Where the second to are very much ‘listening’ records, the first still retained something of the physicality and immediacy of the club. You could stick it on an Ipod, go to the gym and sweat to it. The others may move you, but the first got you moving.

It isn’t just that which keeps it in my top spot, it’s the music as well. The later additions to the series increasingly documented the changes which were filtering out from minimal techno’s ground zero in Berlin, mixed in with bits of dub and the harder edge of the European scene, but the first remained more recognizable to those of us kicking around in the nineties: lots of Jeff Mills, some Surgeon, Pacou, and Baby Ford. It wasn’t in fact, a million miles away from the standard playlists of countless residents back then who were banging out the tunes every weekend.

I had heard probably heard Road To Rio a few times in passing before I found it on DE9. It was that sort of tune, and a paragon of the sort of track which became later known – somewhat dismissively – as the loopy banger. Techno was full of it at that time. What made Road To Rio different though was that it was a beautifully pulsing number, rich with little tribal touches that accented the groove and propelled it outwards in a way most others of the type could barely aspire to. Far from dumping a few functional elements on you over and over again, it coloured them in, and mounted them cleverly, getting the maximum out of the tools available. It contained a similar energy to that which informed Robert Hood’s earliest Floorplan excursions, and for a while, catching it in clubs, I assumed it was possibly the same producer. It wasn’t.

The artist was a guy called Arthur Smith, somebody who deserves to be very well-known in the wider history of British techno but isn’t. He’s always seemed happier behind the scenes. His best known work as a creator of electronic music continues to be the Santos Rodriguez guise, and his Grain material (also appearing on the mix), but his output has always been limited. Despite that, he’s had a major role in modern music far beyond the confines of techno. He had a big hand in the creation of dubstep, has involved himself in garage, and has written for, and produced some of the biggest names in music. Seriously, go check out his Discogs page.

Anyway. I don’t have any clever way of bringing it all together here, nor do I have any major point to make. I kinda screwed that up, huh? I’m really tired and want to eat some food. So go and listen to the tune. Cheers.

Little Reviews: Including Sprawl, and Go Dam!

Sprawl – Time Tunnel (Art-Aud)

Andrea Benedetti’s Plasmek label was one of the finest underground imprints of the late 90’s, furnishing us with some truly excellent electro from both his home city of Rome and further afield. His own work, under the Sprawl, alias seems to have vanished at the start of the millenium, so the sudden spurt of interest in the genre seems an excellent time for this return on Art-Aud, who were responsible for the brilliant Secret Rave Eps.

Anyone worrying about that long, long gap between Sprawl releases can rest easy; Time Tunnel is a pretty special record. At first listen the stark breaks, and regimented samples feel profoundly old school as they go about their business. But that’s deceptive. What we have here are some cracking electro tunes; fiery, fierce, and utterly disinterested in playing the modern genre game. There are nods to classic techno-bass, but beyond that they’re happy to carve out their own singular vision of stripped down, storming electro and techno. Contact slaps out a wobbling slice of bruised hip hop replete with anxiety inducing sci-fi samples and cold as hell beats, while Electrome ramps up both the velocity and icy fear with a malicious shot of acidic tinged electro, doubly served with an expert remix courtesy of D’Arcangelo, who takes it to the edge and laughs into the void. It’s such a strong EP that the best track isn’t even electro – it’s the precise, slamming, techno jacker of Time, a tune so sure of its own ability to do the job it’s got rid of everything but the most necessary elements and rolls on through a mist formed from its own sweat. Dark, hard electro that’s all about the funk. Welcome back Sprawl, welcome back.

Go Dam – Alternate Dimensions EP (Braindance Records)

I’ll have to admit to knowing virtually nothing about Go Dam except that he hails from South Korea and has knocked it out the box on this first release on what might be his own label. What’s impressive here is that he’s hit the ground with a record which draws on a whole bunch of influences without becoming beholden to any of them. IDM, electro, and Detroit techno all add colour to the three tunes, but none of them drink too deeply at any one well. The result is an EP which sounds like future mutant disco written by strange, dancing, alien weirdoes. And that’s a good thing.

While the three tracks utilise electro for their base, their skeletons, the rest of the touches roam wider. Alternate Dimensions is the darkest of the three, and the most directly tied to the genre. But even then it rolls around, latching on little bits and pieces until it becomes a sort of breakbeat powered slice of cosmic funk. A similar feel is approached on Stone Age Internet, but it’s tempered by a deep wistfulness, and loosened up by the laidback nature of its groove before eventually bringing everything together into an internalized trip which drips with Detroit-esque strings and little sonic couplets of real warmth.

Dawn By The Fire is even more alive, dipping properly into a sort of early 80s electro-funk sound while rebooting it for tomorrows parties. It’s also the tune which comes closest to capturing the essence of what made early IDM such an exciting proposition before it became a lame excuse for jettisoning the grooves. While the synths and the beats marshal the tune with a proper sense of getting shit done, everything else coalesces around them in an endless wash of beauty. While good débuts are always exciting, this one is particularly impressive. God Damn, Go Dam is good.