Review: CEM 3340 – Polaris 1° (Lunar Orbiter Program)

OK, here’s a thing, had you asked me to describe my perfect electro I would have instinctively babbled on about dirty, nasty, beats, about darkside vocals, and the still potent thrill of techno-bass. For all the delicate, studied, tonality inherent in a lot of modern electro, I remain disappointed there isn’t more thunder and fire. It’s not that I don’t like a lot of it, it’s just I find myself lamenting the way the grooves have often become subsumed by a more patient and intellectualised approach.

Which is probably not a complaint you could level at Polaris 1° and its rough-housing blast of old school techno-bass and twisted electro. What we have here on this double debut (both the producer and the label are, to the best of my knowledge, brand new to the scene, although I suspect the producer may well turn out to be a well kent name) is the sort of electro which was once very common and now not so much. Beyond the obvious similarities to certain Direct Beat material, and peak period UR, it shares DNA with certain snarlers like Valve, Sole Tech or, at perhaps a bit more of a distance, Erotek and DJ Di’j’tal. There is even something of I-F and Murder Capital here.

A year ago I think this would have very much been an outlier, a record haunting the edge of what everyone else was doing. More recently though, there has been the beginnings of a resurgence of these stronger shapes and textures, and a renaissance for several of the above names as older material has slowly been rediscovered by a scene perhaps, like me, hungering for something a little bit more visceral.

All of this makes it sound as if Polaris 1° is dumb, route one music designed to be played fast, to floor it during a particular time of night. Well, yes, there is an element of that I suppose, especially on the first two tracks, Sedna and Salacya 2004, and it takes a couple of listens before the original image fades. Even still, the record hits all those same markers which made the first crop so thrilling back in the 90s.

But still, but still….Digging deeper reveals new layers. Beyond the heavy beats, the winding, lithe bass lines, there is something else at play here, something far more modern. I think this extra factor makes its presence felt most obviously in a couple of ways. Firstly, the over all sound is a world away from the sonic perfection of a lot of contemporary electro. It’s rough, harsh even; serrated by electronics and cut up more in the mix until it almost engenders an aural vibe not entirely dissimilar to what we’ve heard in lo-fi house. This sense is further amplified when the synths drop in. Sharp, often woozy, and always seemingly on the verge of splitting apart into shrapnel they add a strangely spectral energy to the music. Salacya 2004 in particular makes great use of them, and the way they roll out over the top of the barked, sore-throated, sawtooth riff simultaneously adds a gossamer grandeur to the track while leaving the meat free to really knock you down. Their use on Sedna is less centre stage, but still accents and shapes the fury. On the last track, Hygiea, they whisper and evoke memories of early, dirty, Dutch electro.

There is an argument that perhaps Polaris 1° is a little too perfectly ‘my sort of electro’, that the whole thing hits too many buttons to be anything other than cunningly studied, almost an homage to a whole bunch of memories. I’ll be honest, I can’t entirely be dissuaded from that. It also makes me wonder whether one of the reasons I like it so, so, much is because of a very real emotional connection to all the influences which went into it. Do I like it because I’m an old bastard and it does a job on me? Is this me turning into the old guy at work who likes modern bands because they sound like classic rock?

I think the answer is ‘yes, a bit’ but that isn’t the whole story. The music on Polaris 1° doesn’t entirely work those ageing synapses into a fugue state of memento mori. In reality, it’s a very modern take on an older sound, one which takes admirable liberties and augments it all with a sharp panache which leaves you knackered and happy. The fact that a lot of records used to sound like this doesn’t really detract from the fact that very few modern records do, and I quite like that about it. And if, at the end of the day, the worst thing you can say is that it’s a bit knowing, perhaps the best response is to admit that you know too, and then keep dancing. That’s the best response of all.