I’ve never been the most organised of people, and as the years have gone past it seems to get worse. Every year I have plans to devise a system where I log every musical purchase, every promo received, and whether or not I reviewed it, or liked it, or simply kept a note that it existed. Every year I get to about April and realised I’ve bloody forgotten to do it again.
It has been even more complicated by the fact that while I probably bought less music in 2017 than I’ve done in a while, the quality of the records I did buy was ridiculously high. There were areas into which I did not really venture. The amount of straight up house stuff I bought was tiny, for instance, and while I don’t for a minute doubt that this is one of those classic ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ situations, I just felt that the genre was entering one of those occasional treading water phases it sometimes wallows in. There was still good house music of course, but the stuff I did get behind tended to fall into two camps: either music which was rich in a certain amount of old school flavour, be it acidic or infused by the spirit of Dance Mania or Relief, or records which simply took house music as a starting point before pushing off to other parts of a glistening cosmos of their own creation.
Techno, on the other hand, finally felt as if it had doggy-paddled to dry land after spending an eternity flumping around in the shallows. It wasn’t that all the cold and soulless tunes of the last few years had suddenly vanished – there were still plenty willing to trade funk and groove for bland, overused histrionics, a sixth-form vision of ‘darkness’, and those kick drums that sound as if you were pulling a suction cup off a window. Once you got past all of that it turned out that 2017 was the year techno remembered it wasn’t the only game in town, and began to reincorporate some of it back into its DNA. There were breakbeats of various sorts, a return to melody as something intrinsic to the fabric of the music as opposed to a bolted on after-thought, and a slow return to the idea that even harder techno could balance its heft and brutality with soul. It wasn’t all perfect – it never is – but there was enough to suggest that techno’s future might be a little less one-dimensional that it had recently seemed.
As for electro. Well. Electro had never gone away and had never come back. It has always been there, bubbling under the electronic mainstream and kicking up ideas that egg-stealers from other genres were always willing to lift without giving much back. But even though it had never, really, been away, you’d have to be pretty churlish to claim that 2017 wasn’t a watershed year for the genre. I’m aware that I wrote something similar last year, and the year before (and probably the year before that) but it wasn’t until now that – to steal a line from Noel Gallagher – the squares got onboard. There is something discordant and weird about a genre you love only getting the attention it really deserves when people from electronica’s other houses suddenly claim to have always been into it.
Still, this is the nature of the game, I guess. So many great records. So many. What was heartening was the way that just as the mainstream was finally taking a closer look, electro began to morph. While we still had a lot of the deep stuff which has permeated the scene over the last couple of years (and played a major role in bringing new listeners in. Let’s not pretend otherwise) there was a resurgence of a harder sound, some of it pleasingly shaped by techno bass. Even better was the way in which some producers were beginning to kick off into fresh terrain, opening up the very idea of what electro is and could be. Given all that, it’s almost funny that just as the major publications began to see past the end of their noses, the records began to dry up. Whether the media generated bubble has burst, or whether something else is happening, I don’t know. In all honesty it’s probably both. For those of us who love electro it will be fun finding out.
There was also a lot of ambient, apparently.
I’m not going to do my usual hundred odd shout outs this time. Instead I’ll just focus on a couple more records than normal. As ever these are all here because I like them. It really doesn’t get any more complicated than that. I haven’t spent weeks on a committee trying to fulfil archaic and esoteric criteria, and even if I had it wouldn’t be as honest as the only thing that matters – how the record makes you feel. At the end of the day, when the shadows lengthen and the sun dips beyond the hills, if we don’t like the music why bother with the rest? Here we go. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.
Chase Smith – Sending You Some Lungs (Apartment Records)
For some reason I’ve never really kept a close eye on Chase Smith. Which is weird because Mala Jaksa from his great 2013 release on WT records is a tune I’ve played a lot. And I mean a lot. It’s difficult to explain what makes Sending You Some Lungs such a class record, but I think it has something to do with the way it lets house music off the leash and creates an environment where it pulls debased acid house logic, shimmering grooves, and dirty, unhinged beats into a place where they goad each other on. Sending You Some Lungs itself is a helluva tune – so radically different to the rest of the EP, it floats above it all with its wide-eyed cosmic disco.
Helena Hauff – Have You Been There, Have You Seen It (Ninja Tune)
While Hauff’s DJing has blossomed over the last couple of years to the point where although she’s pretty much one of the best DJs currently working the circuit, her own music has never quite felt as complete. It’s not that the ideas haven’t been there, but more that, for all the influences and concepts she has tried to embrace, it has come at the expense of space and a little bit of soul. Have You Been There, Have You Seen It though, goes some way to convincing it’s all there and ready to be brought together. The whole thing is looser than previously; the grooves fluid and potent, the acid biting, and the moods dank and effective. Falling somewhere between new electro and skanking Dutch squatter-acid, the whole thing felt deliciously nasty, and pulsed with dirty, fecund, life.
JMS Kosah – Still Human (Apron)
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Kosah’s full début. My only experience of him was from the tapes he did with Brassfoot on NCA last year, and as good as those were, it was difficult to know exactly how it would translate. There was no reason to worry. Still Human carries with it a bit of the sound that is still a mark of lo-fi house, but that’s literally a surface thing. In fact, its mix of wonky grooves, soulful, cheeky, bass and general love of hazy headed funk pushes it into the orbit of some of the Detroit young guns like Jay Daniel. But what keeps Still Human separate, what gives it its own weird centre of gravity, is the skewed atmosphere and desire to take all of its influences and rip them apart before taking only what it needs. Ragged and experimental, and occasionally detached, but also at times beautiful in the way it found harmony in the most unlikely places.
Hodge And Peder – All My Love (Peder Mannerfelt)
Hodge was a busy boy this year, with some great material released on Clone, Livity, and Hemlock. But as good as all of that stuff was, it was this three tracker with Peder Mannerfelt that made it feel as if techno might still actually have a few tricks up its sleeve. And like the best of this year’s techno it kept the genres heavy tropes at arms length whilst reminding you of a time when there were far less divisions between the genres. Title track All My Love was one of the tunes of the year – taking off from somewhere in Blawan’s back garden it quickly asserts itself as future-rave of the highest order. Pitch black humour, heavy, collapsing, beats, and a vocal snap straight out of the darkest part of your mind, All my Love proved that being dank, dirty, and insidious, can create a proper, peak-time banger of the highest order.
Solid Blake – Mario (Outer Zone)
If there was a complaint to be made of electro’s new popularity, it was the amount of records which were ploughing the same, deep, furrow, often swapping something of the genre’s velocity and fluidity for something more cerebral. And yet, at the same time, there were the beginnings of something new, and the appearance of a handful of producers who were looking beyond the traditional frameworks, and creating electro which learned from itself. Emma Blake’s début came out on a new label, Outerzone, and was shocking in the way it encapsulated so many ideas and directions you had never really considered in connection with electro before. There were nods to the sophisticated techno of the likes of Forward Strategy Group, and to the wide-scream funk of DJ Stingray (who weighs in here with a storming remix) but really it was Blake’s stark, deceptively heavy, soundscapes, and the compressed and ice-cold grooves which really sealed the deal.
CEM3440 – Polaris 1° (Lunar Orbiter Program
When I first heard Polaris 1° I loved it but wondered whether that was because it seemed like such a perfect replication of the techno bass which had loomed large in my life at a particular place and time. On repeated listens, though, you begin to notice the subtle difference. It’s rougher, perhaps harder, like a one time prize-fighter fallen on hard times who has returned and swapped the showmanship of his pomp for lean cunning. Raw, furious, quirky, and one of the funkiest records of the year, it absolutely took no prisoners. The one thing 2017 seemed to be lacking was some kick-ass techno bass, but CEM3440 appeared out of nowhere and fixed that right up.
The Resonance Committee – The Curvepuhser Sessions Vol 1 (Cultivated Electronics)
A proper electro supergroup, featuring Radioactive Man, Dexorcist, Bass Junkie, and Signal Type, The Resonance Committee actually seemed to appear on the outskirts of the contemporary scene with an EP that stuck one on you and didn’t let up. Similar in some ways to the CEM2440 release, it dragged the harder electro of the 90s into the here and now, accelerating a rich old-school acid electro mood to the point it began to break apart into new and weird forms. One moment tight, the next freeewheeling and loose, The Curvepusher Sessions put everything it had into some punishing grooves, handing the reins to the twin ghosts of Detroit and New York. Such a compressed amount of funk on a single 12″ should be against the law. Yes, I know. I’m trying to write about something other than electro but it isn’t working.
Dez Williams – Forlorn Figures in Godforsaken Places (Mechatronica)
A long-standing doyen of British electro, Dez Williams’ take on the genre was one that paid respect to the music of the past, but was far more concerned with creating something new. From within Forlorn Figures rough grasp it was just about possible to glimpse the silvery vapour trails which lead back to the likes of Cybotron and Kraftwerk. These traces were to be found in the flash of melody that hung for moments over the weight and thunder of the beats. But it was the way he evoked other shadowy forms that really worked the magic; the way rough, broken machine grooves give way to the tight roar of tech-step inspired basslines, or the way he can create a track out of nothing more than a breakbeat under the terrified chirpings of a runaway droid all helped to propel a fierce movement which took you from the abyss to the top of the clouds in a heartbeat.
Your Planet Is Next – Down (Klasse Wrecks)
Luca Lozano’s label, Klasse Wrecks, has built a reputation on putting out some serious music which blurs the line between house, acid, garage and nonsense. But even by their standards, Down was out there, beyond the Kuiper Belt, singing mad wee songs to itself. What made it such a joy is that it really didn’t try to sound like acid house, whilst accidentally sounding like the most fun acid house record you’ve heard in an age. The demented energy fed into something which peeled away at the seriousness of a lot of the modern genre, and pumped up the tunes until they were huge, wobbling, larger than life creations which stomped around looking well pleased with themselves. Whether it’s evoking the memory of Speedy J when he used to still be fun, as on Down itself, getting all serious in the strobed up heat of the expansive, trancy, Rave2 Da Grave, or splitting your mind apart with the jabbering brilliance of Thunderdrome, this was an EP which simply did not care. More of this, please.
Simo Cell – Pour Le Club! (Livity)
Livity were very possibly the stand out label of the year, and almost every one of their releases contained more moments of excitement than some producers manage in a career. Of course the best was saved to last, with Simo Cell’s Pour Le Club! only appearing a couple of weeks back. If anyone still needs any proof of exactly how well the music of the Bristol scene is developing and maturing, it’s to be found here on a record which swaps between technoid growls, d&b rage, and something indefinable which was once the preserve of the Aphex Twin when he was still an alien, outsider, presence. It surges along on a collapsing wave of xeno-funk, ducking itself between moods and thoughts, dripping with colour and light. Most importantly, the grooves; smart, heavy, and liquid, they took the rider deep into an underworld carved out of pure drama before leaving you, happy and lost, to find your own way home.
Right, that’s your lot. Happy Christmas and all that. There will be a favourite tune thing along some time. Whether it’ll be before new year depends in how drunk I get.