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.