Review: Konx Om Pax – Refresher (Planet Mu)

Konx Om Pax’s last release on Planet Mu, the album Caramel, was a kaleidoscope of fractured electronic dreams and one sharpened by shard-like memories of rave filtered through the static of ancient tapes. It was a quietly, thrillingly, disorienting experience which captured something of the essence of a long-lost scene without recourse to burned out samples or slavish homage. In doing so it came closer than most to evoking the hazy dissonance of rave’s undoubted impact.

It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to describe Refresher as a follow-up, although it certainly has that going for it in many senses. Musically its world’s apart; Where Caramel haunted the edges and fed flickering ideas into your mind Refresher pushes upwards and outwards, and is a far less spectral affair. At the same time it holds closely its predecessor’s ability to surprise and beguile, and it does so with a ready expansion of ideas and textures.

While the dreamlike memories of rave are still present, they are presented in what can almost be described as part of a wider history, and no longer form the music’s central core, except, perhaps, as a shifting and ethereal spirit at the very heart of the tunes. The two original tracks here, Cascada and Species With Amnesia, are shorn of much of Caramel’s smoky experimentalism, swapping it for tantalizing glimpses of an even more complete philosophy. Cascada is by far the most direct and accessible tune from either record, a rolling, 4/4 locked tune which pumps out day-glo melodies and thick, hefty, riffs constructed from strobes and smiles. It’s a real melting pot of influences, running from foundational Detroit to a slightly tongue-in-cheek moodiness which hovers somewhere just off Daft Punk’s flair for connecting the most radio friendly of sounds with grade-A grooves while pitching the whole towards a shifting acid house vibe. It’s probably the happiest tune you’ll hear this year, and its sense of sweat-drenched, hands-in-the-air abandonment is more authentic than a truckload of contemporary ‘rave’ with their carefully applied make up.

Species with Amnesia is less cheery. A very different beast, it’s slower, heavier, and moodier. It exchanges Cascada’s organic thrills for something more mechanical, the ghosts in the machine swapped for machine ghosts. It also rather wonderfully, evokes an even earlier time, and the electronica is of an ever more primitive era; beyond acid or rave, even before house in fact. There is a bluntness deep inside which feels rather 70’s. Not blandly disco either, or even italo, but the first steps of post-punk towards something larger. Wrapped up there, in the midst of its discordant yet subtle melodies and pulsing bass is a chip of which reminds me so heavily of Magazine’s bleak and beautifully daunting soundscapes I can’t listen without imagining Howard Devoto’s voice scowling and frowning somewhere in the background.

The remixes are a less complete experience than these two originals, but both bring different colours to the palette. U-ziq’s mix of Caramel captures a lot of the original’s haunting fragility, but adds a beguiling airiness to it while mounting it on a plinth set in clouds and drawing on previously undiscovered hues with which to paint fresh muscle on the rebuilt bones.

Huerco S’ reworking of Beatrice’s Visit is a long, misty ambient piece that swirls around the original’s wistful energy but never comes close enough to its playfulness. Where U-Ziq’s mix embraces and toys with Caramel’s rich ideas, this skirts the thinking. It’s pretty, certainly, but feels as if it’s holding the original at too great a distance.

So, not a follow-up, I don’t think. Rather, Refesher is an examination of the same themes from a different direction. Looser, more aware not only of those same themes but their place in a deeper context, it’s a smart addition and a bright companion to the original’s dusky grace.

Review: Solid Blake – Mario EP (Outer Zone)

There is, I think, a change slowly taking place within electro. It’s one that may not have been very obvious at first; alteration at a fundamental level is often invisible to start with, and it’s only later, as the variations have propagated throughout the environment, we really begin to pay attention. There is still a great deal of electro being made which is largely as it always was, but there is also a more nuanced understanding of mood and tone than previously. Much of the music has become increasingly influenced by IDM, or synthwave, which has introduced new themes to the mix. It has grown deeper, maybe even more mature, certainly more accessible and less ‘abstract’. It has also, possibly, become less fun.

But at the same time there has been another, largely unremarked, growth of electro which is more experimental and willing to delve into ever more shadowy places in search of those influences. We’ve seen it in releases on labels like Brokntoys, Trust, or Mechatronica amongst others, a willingness to push the sound beyond the old boundaries and into new worlds. Often the music feels much like electro always did, but there is a new looseness, and desire to twist the familiar shapes, and blend them with choice additions of fresh genetic material, until new and weird hybrids appear.

Which is how we come to this belter of an EP from Glasgow native and Copenhagen resident Solid Blake. It’s a record which appears to have largely flown in under the radar to deliver a take on the genre which is as far removed from all those expansive and slightly boring contemporary remakes of electro as you can get. Part of what makes the Mario EP so good is that it holds both electro’s past and present at arm’s length. Yes, the sounds are there, as well as little touches and motifs which have long earned their place in the genre’s lexicon, but a scalpel has been taken to them, sheering them away from their original meanings and remounting them on a very different feeling sound.

And what a sound. It’ll take a while to adjust your expectations. Anyone looking for something that’ll remind you of ferocious Detroit technobass, or Warp inspired wobbliness will have to work harder to get what they want from the record. In a sense, the simplest way to explain it is that there is a similarity to the way in which the current crop of Bristol producers have built their own new forms of house and techno by smashing down what was originally there and recreating them with Dubstep’s thunder, polyrhythmic madness, and a thousand other little bursts of colour and excitement.

This is electro formed from heavy elements and thick clouds. As with the Bristol gang there are throwdowns to dubstep here, but also to dirty, cranky techno and an almost AFX style love of melancholy chaos. The result is a thick sound, breathlessly hazy in parts, as on the opener, Lens, with its ominous half-step rhythms thudding menacingly through the ground fog, and its pads lacerating the darkness with curled whips of lights. On Mario the music tightens up, coiling around the barks of bass, and the beats develop an urgency made all the stronger by the ricocheting perc and nerve fraying layers up high. In some ways this is music which lies closest to the potent moodiness of some old school D&B than it does to electro, or even techno, and it’s all the richer for it.

Even when a bona-fide electro legend is brought in for remix duties the music retains its ability to shock with its freshness. Stingray’s mix of Mario holds the original’s grimy heaviness close to its centre, but widens the vistas to include more of the wormhole. It’s a freefall, all gravity inverted; rogue smears of bass bounce and collide, creating a complex, almost alien, environment where the little emotive touches of the orginal are accented and allowed even more space to bury themselves into your brain.

Only Yagharek, right at the end, feels anything like a traditional electro tune. Even then it feels reflected through a similar mirror of madness as producers like Busen have long been working through – and there is a sense that the form the music takes is only one element of it. Yagharek is less willfully obtuse than anything Busen have done, though; it’s a slicing, focussed, stormer; sinewy and cold. But the structure is perhaps the least important element, nothing more than a conduit for the stark, anxious, energies at the tunes heart to conjure prowling, flickering ghosts into being.

Forget all the IDM stuff: this right here is real next generation electro – an EP cut away from a party on the edge of a tomorrow we might not have. Superb, and one of the most brutally fresh takes on the genre you’ll get right now.

Review: Casio Royale – The Beat Will Control: Dance Trax 4 (Unknown To The Unknown)

I’ve been a fan of Casio Royale’s dark, acidic, gutter house for a while now, and as most people who picked up his slew of releases on Dixon Avenue will attest, there is something in the mix of muggy old school vibes and very contemporary black humour which elevates the music far above the crowd of other producers digging their way through an otherwise similar seam. The track Save It (For Yourself Tory Scum) , released at a time when this septic land seemed in freefall, may not have been the anthem we wanted but, by God, It was the anthem we needed. In short, it’s proper nasty house music for a proper nasty era. What’s not to love?

While The Beat Will Control largely follows logically on from what Casio Royale has released previously, and captures much of the same glimmering, decadent, energy, there is a feeling of something else going on. It’s not that the sound is more mature – although that could be debated long into the night – but rather it has grown larger and more sure of itself, and it provides a wider glimpse of the same smeared background. It is even more acid house in mood even if it is perhaps musically less so. The scope has opened up to take in influences from beyond what we’ve come to expect, and the end result pays off, providing a fuller soundscape where the full on jackers mix with material of a deeper emotional core.

And that may be surprising on first listen given that A, the jackers provide the foundation for the EP, and B, the base formula remains very much a hybrid of Relief and Dance Mania brought together with a savage sense of aural playfulness and adventure. The Beat Will Control and Work That both lock down that vibe early on, and deliver gnarly thrusts of pure dance floor craziness that benefit further from a glint of polish that perhaps has not always been present in the past. This isn’t to suggest there was previously anything particularly rough, just that now the sound feels wider, more explosive, and contains a fresh vitality. This is particularly evident in The Beat Will Control with its deliciously infectious and slicing wild pitch leanings, and the way the leads wraps itself around a tight, rolling beat which never forces itself too far into the tune, but holds the centre ground, allowing the tune’s slick, kicking charms freedom to roam and grow.

J4m15 works a similar jam, but latches everything around the deep wobble of a gloriously understated acid bass which brings with it a suggestion of pugnacious darkside nastiness reminiscent of Armando and delivers a blast of white-hot, Radikal Fear style mayhem (now there’s a label I’d love to see some represses from). Radikal were always a much under appreciated label, and it seems entirely fitting something of their insane sound should be brought up to date.

Plenty of people elsewhere have remarked on Organa and the fact that even on an EP as complete as this one, it stands out. They’re right of course, and Organa is perhaps the best thing that Casio Royale has done. The reasons for this are simple. The tune itself is a departure, and possibly shouldn’t work so well as it does considering the feel of the other tracks. But it does. It’s a huge track, both in sound and scope, and is a departure from all the previous influences. It’s a slice of gorgeous, peak time, acid; swirling and effervescent, it takes real pleasure not only in its long, weaving 303 lines, and the tumultuous pads and synths, but also in the simplicity of its fun – it’s a no holds barred hands in the air killer that feels like a distillation not of Chicago, or New York, but all those nights in below-the-ground dives in Glasgow, or Liverpool or Sheffield or Manchester. It’s a tune built from our sweat and adrenaline and excitement, the last moment of heat before the garbled, too-loud conversations in the freezing, damp autumn air as you await the taxi home. Evocative of house music’s past? maybe. But it’s our house music’s past, and it’s a treasure. What a keeper, and one of the stand out moments of the year so far.

Review: Snow Bone – Live Elements, Ben R Brown – Play Politics (White Metallic)

I’m beginning to suspect that, like Cockroaches and Keith Richard, tapes will survive the coming apocalypse. There is something in their below-the-radar simplicity and cheapness that not only seem to evokes a simpler, less artifice obsessed time, but positively resonates with a certain punk chic. And beyond even that, their lo-fi, work-in-progress feel has a connection with techno that in some ways even supersedes the ubiquitous black wax. You can download all the carefully curated podcasts you want because nothing – nothing – will beat the scabby thrill of a hissing mix tape knocked out from your favourite deejay’s set at a local club and bought in a Sunday market for pennies.

White Metallic is a new label from Rob Hare, better known for his series of EPs on Lobster Theremin as Snow Bone. Amongst the seemingly endless vistas of Lobster’s roster Snow Bone’s work always stood out – a sort of fierce, frayed maelstrom of techno of the type which sometimes seems in danger of dying out with its nods not only to Mills, but to that generation of searing electronica which included Surgeon, Regis, and Luke Slater. While it’s certainly a brave move debuting with tapes rather than vinyl or even a digital release, it’s a decision that works pretty well. And, even better, in the context of the music on offer, it’s one that makes a particular sort of twisted sense.

The Snow Bone tape is comprised from material culled from live sets and studio work, and walks a line between a proper album and a mix tape. It’s an intriguing move, not least because it delivers an energy which entirely studio base productions lack – a randomness of tone and noise. Well, not quite randomness, but a sense of unlocking, of movements outside carefully controlled parameters.

Musically, any fans of Snow Bone’s previous work will be well served. This is techno of the sort which has little in common with the considered, overly academic approach to the genre which has been in accession over the last few years. The A side in particular is home to bursts of raw, visceral noise. Tracks such as Reply All, or Element 3 pulse with barely contained fury, locking sledgehammer beats down under crawling, almost spectral non-melodies and leads reminiscent of mid 90s techno at its most strident. It’s lazy to compare modern techno producers to Mills – Lazy but often undeniable, and parts of the A side are dominated by a similar alien jack to which Mills made his own; Occasionally discordant, but often sublimely pummeling, The first 30 odd minutes keep you climbing upwards before the tone subtly, but quickly changes with the last track, Redshift, where a great deal of the pounding furore is replaced by something more focussed, and quietly and effectively sets up the B side.

It’s here, on the flip, Snow Bone really impresses. Freed from the stridency of the A side, the outpouring and freed up energy is redirected into something different. It’s more experimental perhaps, and tunes such as Ferrous Type, XOX, and Antigravity, both slow things down and open up new directions for the music to explore. Ferrous Type, in particular, is a highlight of the tape, a buckling tune which pushes as far as it can from the more obvious techno influences, cradling the build with the feel of Jamal Moss’s weaving, growling, grooves. And even though final track, Steel Version reinstates some of the earlier swagger, it’s shot through with a housey, almost ravey potency which lightens the load while twisting in the funk.

Ben R Brown’s tape, Play Politics, is very much a departure. Gone are almost all the early techno influences and they’re replaced by a welter of ideas and sounds which have formed the bedrock for an often overlooked side of the current US underground. While techno is still part of the equation, so too are the sort of textures native to the output of labels like Nation, or even LIES. It’s a heady brew, part jackbeat and EBM, part seedy, gutter level house, and it’s all bound together with the faintest strands of de-constructed, broken, acid. Where the Snow Bone’s Live Elements rose quickly and brutally, Play Politics stalks the listener, playing with rough tones and weird angles, and letting you fall along dead ends before being guided by shadows back towards the path.

There is a similarity of tastes here between Brown and other figures of modern American techno. Tunes like Duo, or the phenomenal Waves inhabit a similar head space to the work of artists like Svengalisghost of Beau Wanzer, and the playful yet unsettling Palaces rolls with a sense of fractured melody which evokes thoughts of where lo-fi house could have gone if it hadn’t so quickly become infatuated with its own press. Closing track, Night, is also a proper keeper; lopsided, bleak and dark, it’s also grown from the most subtle of grooves on which it hangs billowing shades of acid drenched drama.

There is apparently the possibility that some of the tunes from both releases may make it to vinyl in the future. I hope so, because some of the material on offer would be great freed up to continue their work in another setting. But even if they don’t it shouldn’t matter too much. Both tapes deliver more than just snap shots of different takes on electronica, they provide something different, space in which ideas can unfold in their own time, allowing them the room to push beyond the usual confines and deliver somethinng not only more alive, but also more vital.

Best Of The Represses – July 2017

Blake Baxter – When We Used To Play (Mint Condition)

Mint Condition have now officially ruined this repress malarky for every other label by actually making it interesting. Where, once upon a time, various outfits could chuck out endless re-releases of well-known hits from yesteryear, safe in the knowledge that they’d be lapped up again and again, Mint Condition have arrived on the scene and promptly spunked all that cynicism right up the nearest whatchamathingmy with the simple act of releasing a slew of interesting selections that seem all the more exciting because they aren’t really titles that you would have thought of if asked.

Anyways, This is one of two Blake Baxter represses appearing on Mint, and it’s a blinder. The other record, When The Thought Becomes You, essentially a re-release of his Prince Of Techno EP with a slightly different track listing, is probably up there with Sexuality as his most loved track – and that’s fair enough; it’s an eternal jam, as beautiful as it is groovy and a permanent reminder of just how intoxicating techno can be. But I’ve always loved When We Used To Play the most out of the three. I’m not sure why, only that I know it does something to the hairs on the back of my neck and drags me back through time to when I first heard Baxter’s music. It’s a great release, and every track is a corker, but it’s worth it for the breakbeat mix alone which is a true work of wonder. Buy now and try to work out why Baxter isn’t held in as much esteem as the Belleville three – if not more.

Keith Tucker – Detroit Saved My Soul(Mint Condition)

Look! It’s Mint Condition again, and they’re proving everything I wrote above! Gorblessem! While their release schedule is brilliantly off-to-one-side, this repress of Detroit Saved My Soul, first released on Glasgow label 7th Sign back in 2005, is a real treat for the electro heads. Seeing as Keith Tucker is better known for his work in Aux 88, Optic Nerve, Alien FM, DJ-K1, and a legion of other names, that aforementioned electrohead just happens to be me.

First thing to say here is that it’s a slightly curious feeling record. That’s not a bad thing – quite the opposite – but it’s not wall to wall technobass banging. In actual fact, this is an exploration of a slightly different side of Tucker’s musical personality. And although he brings an impressive, effortlessly cool slice of Detroit electro-futurism to the party in the form of Elektronik (and provides a snapshot of sorts of the musical links between Model 500 and Aux 88), the other two numbers are equally worthy of your time. The title track itself kicks on with a slick, laidback groove that’s part prowling, darkened house, and part pure Detroit techsperimentaion, all strung together with a shadowy energy which wouldn’t be out-of-place on either of the Baxter records I discussed earlier. My Metal State closes things down with a swirl of deeply introspective techno-soul which’ll climb through your mind like it’s looking for somewhere to hide from the world. A very different side of Keith Tucker. Get on it.

VA – Rhythms Of The Pacific (Pacific Rhythms)

This much more recent release (from 2014) seems to have got a wee bit of a much-needed repress recently, which is great because the original seemed to sell out pretty darn quickly all over the shop. I’ve never really bought into the whole Moodhutty/ Vancouver thing. I’ve tended to find a lot of the music either a little hazy and insipid, or a lot less fresh and new than some people claimed. Still, there’s no doubt of the scene’s popularity, and Pacific Rhythm’s little run of VA samplers was generally quite a good collection of tunes by an interesting bunch of artists.

LRNDCroy’s Time Zone, which sounds like Joey Betram’s Energy Flash shot full of tranks, and Hashman Deejay’s wonderfully scruffy and low-rent mix of Memory Man’s Memory Man are both great and ear opening additions to the canon, but it’s the other two tracks which do the real damage. Cloudface’s Panter Blue is acid house reduced down to the absolute minimum of drum track, a 303, and a weird springing noise. It needs nothing more to do its job as it wobbles around, always looking like it’s about to fall flat on its face. Cheeky and pretty damn funky.

The genuine highlight though is LNRDCroy’s opener, Sunrise Market, which is a tune so haunting and warm it should be considered worthy of that most overused sobriquet, ‘classic’. It really is. Not only a high point of LNRDCroy’s own work, but one of the real moments of the last few years of electronic music. An absolutely timeless piece of drifting, new-age funk which serves to prove that deepness needs soul in order to work its magic. Gorgeous.