Favourite Records Of 2017

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.

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Favourite Albums of 2017

Albums! El Pees! Long Players! Electronica’s guilty secret! I never know quite what people want from an LP. Do they want a collection of tracks, each standing on their own as a complete piece of work? Do they want something more holistic where each track, as good as it is, is really a movement within a larger, over arching, narrative? I’ve been listening to albums for most of my life and I still can’t decide what I prefer.

Lucky, then, that 2017 provided a bugger-load of every sort of album you could ever want. From some great compilations, (Joy Orbison’s Selectors on Dekmantel, DJ Stingray’s choice cuts taken from his brilliant Kern 4 mix), and represses (Drexciya’s still amazing Grava 4, Helena Hauf’s A Tape, Ultradyne’s Antarctica, and The Mover’s Selected Classics), to all manner of brand new and excellent music, it was a good year for the electronic album.

Personally speaking, I enjoyed electro coming out of its shell a wee bit and beginning to embrace the larger format. It’s a genre which has always seemed a bit stand off-ish when it comes to the LP, but great strides were made this year, and a couple of them are covered later on in a bit more detail, but a special shout out goes to Binaural for their excellent Prisms (Undersound Recordings), a record which blends a freaky old school flavour with a far more modern nous.

Elsewhere there were some killer releases from unexpected directions. Cardopusher’s New Cult Fear (Boysnoize) took acid, electro, and techno and mixed it up to create something that lay far closer to post-punk than electronic music, rendering the differences not only between genres but entire musical kingdoms kind of moot. Umfang’s Symbolic Use Of Light (Technicolour) built shadowy worlds from the most stark of components, creating haunting, dusky soundscapes of melody and emptiness. It was not an easy record to give yourself over to, and stood repeated listens before its bleak wonder could be fully appreciated, but when it finally caught you, it didn’t let go. I’m expecting huge things from her over the next year. 1800haightstreet’s long player Endless (Lobster Theremin) played out in a similar void, but filled the space with some memorable rhythmic workouts. Far more traditionally techno it might have been, but it never once sounded anything less than utterly fresh.

One of the most interesting motifs of the year, though, were to be found in the records which took every influence they could find, and brought it all together. DJ Sports’ Modern Species (Firecracker) was an exemplar of this approach, as it deftly moved between the lines to furnish us with up front d&b, velvet ambience, and truly moving hands-in-the-air moments. Peverelist’s Tessellations (Livity) worked some similar magic, but came at it from a slightly different direction, creating an album which was by turns built from woozy and hazy electronic explorations, furnishing us with a crystal clear manifesto for techno-futurism which evoked ghosts of Detroit, Chicago, and Berlin before bringing them together with some on-point contemporary Bristolian ooft.

Anyway, let’s move on. Here are the five albums that I really took to this year. As ever none of them are ranked, they aren’t here because they sold well, or were representative of anything except being great music. They’re here because I liked them, and liked them a lot. How old-fashioned am I?

Radioactive Man – Luxury Sky Garden (Asking For Trouble)

Keith Tenniswood had a pretty damn good year, with a couple of great EPs appearing under various guises, but it’s Luxury Sky Garden which remains his stand out moment of 2017. Better known as Andrew Weatherall’s partner in crime in Two Lone Swordsmen, it really says something that Luxury Sky Garden is every bit as good as anything that brilliant duo have produced. What makes it such a treat is the breadth of Tenniswood’s vision; this isn’t an album of balls-to-the-walls electro killers, nor is it one of content to hover around the watery depths. Instead, it’s a record which shows a rare elegance in its use of melody, velocity, and tone, to create a sound scape which frequently enthrals and delights with Radioactive Man’s heady, playful tastes and sense of adventure.

Karen Gwyer – Rembo (Don’t Be Afraid)

Karen Gwyer’s third album marks a return to Don’t Be Afraid following last years Prophase Metaphase Anaphase Telophase EP, and is even better in every way. While elements of it chime well with techno’s heritage, with the spirit (rather – importantly – than the sound) of Detroit techno shining particularly brightly at various points, what really makes this such a fun listen is the way she brings her own loose grooves to bear on a sound which is both melodic and expansive. But what really makes it so, so good are the way the little details all come together to create something which can almost be described as timeless – little frills of melody, or the snap of lively percussion accent and strengthen the lithe wobble of the tunes, often taking you away to places you simply never expected to reach. It’s an album chalk full of moments of unexpected joy which come at you from impossible angles and leave you grinning at the shear audacity of it all. At it’s heart, though, is an understanding of all the things which made techno such an exciting and life affirming movement.

Differ-Ent – It’s Good To Be Differ-Ent (Don’t Be Afraid)

Yep, a second long player from Don’t Be Afraid makes the final cut, and that really shouldn’t be a surprise if you’ve been paying any attention this year. DJ Bone has found a new home on DBA, and It’s Good To Be Differ-Ent was the record which brought this superlative DJ and producer to a new crowd, gaining him fresh and much deserved kudos. Bone has been responsible for some of the very best tunes to come out of Detroit, and this album can almost be seen as a bridge between his past and his future. In fact, it’s the dual nature of the LP which powers it, lending it an emotional depth and maturity which is flecked with flickering memories of his own past work even as it informs this newer and perhaps deeper sound. In places minimal, cold, and introspective, in others boiling over with moods and colours, It’s Good To Be Differ-Ent is an album which is always moving, never content to settle for a single idea of itself. It is a very modern take on the ages-old Detroit concept of high-tech soul, and nothing else this year sounded anything like it.

John Heckle – Tone To Voice (Tabernacle)

For some reason, John Heckle remains an artist who seems to all too frequently fly under the radar. Sure, his sterling work with the ferocious Head Front Panel rightly drew out much deserved praise from a new quarter, but so much of his other, less banging, work still hasn’t been properly picked up on. None of that takes anything away from Tone To Voice, though, an album which displays Heckle at his best. This is a record with its feet in the streets and its head in the heavens, and is remarkable for the fluidity of a vision in which melody and soulfulness are locked together. From the richness of its occasional ambient moments to the crisp drive of its weaving grooves, Tone To Voice thrills with its capacity to take techno into a realm of cloud and light where all you can do is marvel at the romance between man and machine. But what really powers its rich potency is its love of a heady, celestial, sonic beauty almost unheard since Rhythim Is Rhythim fell into shadow. This is music which understands that melody can be at the heart of the movement just as much as the funk.

Special Request – Belief System (Houndstooth)

In an era where flat, boring techno, chunky disco-tinged house, and all manner of bland, watery deepness soaked into the very fabric of Our Thing, it really shouldn’t have come as a surprise that electronica – once again – proved the old adage that forever action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Even so, it remains a little shocking that the restorative we needed came from the earliest days of the UK scene in the form of a resurgence of rave, D&B, and breakbeat fuelled hardcore. Paul Woolford’s Special Request project has been kicking around for a little while now, and 2015’s mammoth triple Modern Warfare release marked a coming of age for the hardcore revival. But if Modern Warfare was the coming of age, Belief System is the record which pushes it all on to new and exciting territory. It’s like an entire club night in one package, running from chilled half-skanks to dark, wall-crawling, techno and everything in between. It is Woolford’s love of hardcore which shines through, though, and his obviously deep knowledge of the scene empowers the music which in other hands has often been a one trick pony of impotent rage as its various modern proponents have simply fallen into the old trap of focussing on the superficial. In Special Request’s hands though, the hardcore and the drum n Bass which form Belief System’s dark heart become explosive, less simple sonic work outs than three-dimensional expressions of mood and atmosphere, forces of nature come alive, and the way they range from compressed, furious, dance floor bombs to rushes of unadulterated, euphoric, transcendence will have you wondering why we ever wanted to move on.

Favourite Labels of 2017

There was a time when record labels were shadowy things which lay in the background and occasionally spat out music. Back then we knew little about them; they seemed the domain of strange and slightly evil men who saw little value in what they were gifting the world beside the fact that their charges could help pay for a fat life of yachts and cigars and donkey jackets.

Nowadays labels are front and centre in this weird thing of ours, and increasingly they’re a way for people otherwise closed out by the traditional models to do something for themselves, from simply providing an outlet for their own tunes to actually helping a scene grow and blossom. Of course, electronic music has pretty much always been a paragon of the indy label approach, and there are now so sodding many of them it almost seems as if you’ve landed in bandit country. A label might chuck out a genuine genre defining 12″ and then vanish forever, or it might last the course, pumping away with its soggy tech-house at the great production line of diminishing returns, worming its way into the culture by dubious virtue of simply being too dumb to stop annoying everyone. More likely, though, in the increasingly crowded market place, a label will furnish us with a few downloads or 12″s before vanishing into the ether. It’s so painfully Darwinian in nature a Trump education secretary nominee will come along soon to try to disprove it.

Anyway, 2017 was a weird enough year for me when it came to simply buying and listening to records, but when it came to try to actually focus on the labels that really did it for me I had to pretty much throw my hands in the air and look confused. The simple fact is that there were few labels which really stood out for me over the whole 12 months. Thrills came from odd angles, the excitement and delight heightened by the unexpectedness of the direction. It’s probably a terrible thing for me to say, but the larger a label felt this year, the less visible they appeared to be, as if their ubiquitousness acted as some sort of camouflage. I don’t say this to sound cool (as if that could ever be possible) but I think that over familiarity brings its own set of unique problems.

It also wasn’t always true. CPU, for example, has become synonymous with the electro revival – received wisdom I’ve always been a bit funny about embracing, not because they don’t do good work, but more because so little of it is really what I think of as electro. They’re actually orbiting something far more encompassing, and electro is only a tiny bit of their modus operandi. By my count they released 861 records this year, and some of them were very, very good, especially their last release of the year, Neil Landstrumm’s ace A Death A Mexican And A Mormon (more of that one in a few days), and Pip Williams’ excellent acid/breakbeat infused Outer Limits, and the wonderful melodic electro of the much missed Microlith’s Subtle Variance.

Ilian Tape were another label who impressed. They’re a label who stride that territory between the proper underground and below-the-line Resident Adivsor comments section fundamentalism, and they haven’t always had me running to get my wallet out. But credit where credit is due, they had a few belters this year, not least from their in-house genius Skee Mask, who released two great EPs on the label with ISS02 being a particular treat. Beyond Mr Mask, though, there were plenty of others: The Bongoman Archive by DJ Plant Texture and Dona smashed through the glass walls between genres and was probably one of my most unexpected pleasures of the year. Best of the lot though was Stenny’s Old Bad Habits which was, and I’m going to use a technical term here, fucking brilliant. I’ve listened to it a lot over the last few weeks and it just gets better.

Lobster Theremin were another of the big players who bucked the ubiquity drawbacks in some style. They’re a label who throw out so much stuff it’s almost impossible to keep up. But looking back over all the invoices I’ve been sent by various people confirms they got almost as much of my earnings this year as my mortgage provider. ITDPWIP, ASOK, Ross From Friends and others all had pretty great releases, but 1800Haightstreet’s album, Endless, and DDans balls-out old school tinged shenanigans on The Danger Zone were almost the best things the label have put their mark on.

We’d better move on. First, though, a shout out to Cultivated Electronics, Hemlock Recordings, Tabernacle, Brokntoys, Klasse Wrecks, Shipwrec, Lower Parts, Dixon Avenue Basement Jams,Vortex Traks and a bunch of others who were all responsible for keeping this strange and shimmering thing of ours so entertaining.

Here are the five labels who did it for me this year. In no particular order.

Berceuse Heroique

I think BH are the only label to have been in every one of these end of year round ups. Although they had a quieter year (by some measures, anyways) there was still enough there to have you seriously contemplating where and when your taste in music went so off on a weird tangent, while simultaneously luxuriating in the whole damn insanity of it all. One of a very select handful of labels whose output still feels both truly left-field and underground, they are sometimes victims of their own particularly singular vision. But the way their releases can veer between what can only be described as tribal disco (Mori-Ra’s Brasserie Heroique Edits), deconstructed post-dubstep rave (Ossia’s Gridlock) and the compressed malevolence of DJ Spider and Franklin De Costa’s F Planet should remind you that remaining true to your ethos brings rewards far greater than those you get from playing the game.

Don’t Be Afraid

In some ways, DBA are the polar opposite of Berceuse Heroique. The music is largely far more approachable and unlikely to have you figuring out what just happened. Even so, Semtek’s label grew in both stature and confidence over the course of 2017, and the music on offer ranged from precise blasts of groove-laden techno and house to something less easy to define. While there were some cracking 12″s from the likes of Jayson Wynters, TR1, Jason Fine, and Semtek himself, it is the two LPs the label put out which will stick in the memory. DJ Bone’s It’s Good To Be Diff-erent under his Diff-erent guise was the best work the Detroit native has done for quite a long while, and Karen Gwyer’s Rembo album was simply superb in every way; a pure-bred blast of carefully crafted tunage which had little interest in sticking to the one path through the techno forest.

Livity Sound

Where to start? Peverelist’s Livity has been around long enough that it’s beginning to feel like a bit of an institution. Not only that, but in its own way it seems to have become an ideal of sorts for the type of beats which continue to spill out of Bristol – still the most unlikely candidate for Musical Capital City we’ve seen since The Shamen appeared out of Aberdeen. The danger of being an institution is that it becomes very easy to rest on your laurels. But Livity avoided such a lazy fate by simply upping their game. Almost every release had at least one moment on it which blew you away, chief amongst them was Pev’s own Tessellations album (more about this in a couple of days), and the fecund tribal work outs of Hodge’s No Single Thing. When you add in Kowton’s excellent Pea Soup, the sleazy grace of Forest Drive West’s Static, and Simo Cell’s brilliant Pour Le Club you can’t help but be convinced that Bristol deserves its place amongst the big towns.

Mechatronica

Still a young label, and one that maybe relies a little too much on the undoubted power of their multi-artist releases to get their belief in the potency of electro across, Mechatronica have nevertheless managed to slide out of obscurity this year to become one of the most impressive electro labels currently doing to business. And while there will come a point when they need to move on from the VA samplers, what sticks is the impressive roster of artists they’ve managed to attract: The Exaltics, DRVG Culture,and Umwelt are amongst those who have delivered killer tracks for the label, while the digital record of Fleck ESC’s Maniacs is one of those ones which absolutely deserves a vinyl release. But the big shout out for them was their release of Dez William’s Forlorn Figures in Godforaken Places – an electro record which combined elements of techno, jungle, and rave to devastating effect, creating some of the best breakbeat fuelled mayhem of the year.

Apron

Stephen Julien’s label wasn’t quite as visible or busy in 2017 as it was last year, perhaps, but that seems to have been it simply got down to the gritty job of putting out records which quietly and quickly cemented the label’s reputation as one of the most solid in the UK. Defining what makes Apron so good is a difficult task. It isn’t an imprint which seems at first glance to push itself into new territory or play fast and hard with genres and sounds – and yet it does so in a smart and unstated way, and has been responsible for some really great music over the last couple of years. While the over all feel is of a label which does something that has links to a certain old-school vibe, it remains one which has consistently championed some of the most eye-opening contemporary talent around. From SSJJ and Devin Dare’s wonky, treacle thick disco of Kim4Sw, to JSM Kosah’s discordant, Hypnagogic Still Human and on to Ashtre Jinkin’s frayed and dreamlike Fruit In Failure Apron has consistently proved itself to be a true home of the underground in its myriad of weird and wonderful forms, and one of these days they’re going to start getting the acclaim they really deserve.

The Maghreban – Pots and Pans (Zoot); 6D22 – Dragon’s Path (Midnight Shift)

The Maghreban – Pots and Pans (Zoot)

It’s been quite a while since I last reviewed anything by the Maghreban, but I’ve tried to keep an ear on whatever Ayman Rostom has been cooking up. The former hip hop producer’s track record with house has largely been a great education on what house music can sound like when it really does come from the left-field, instead of claiming to do so just because it uses tape saturation.

What has always made Rostom’s take on the genre so listenable is the way it barely seems connected to any academic concept of what house is supposed to be. Frequently revelling in strange and expansive moods, the music is often a tapestry of alien qualities which accent Rostom’s taste for oddball skank. What has always elevated it away from the hordes of cookie-cutter outsider house producers, though, is the way he brings with it a fuzzy humanism which tempers the esoteric vistas he creates.

Pots and Pans further enhances this reputation with three tracks which duck and drift through some warm sonic landscapes. In some ways the tunes on offer hold a similar vibe to Barry Adamson’s sonorous, post-modern, soundtracks to non-existent movies. This is particularly true of both Elka and Martha where the beats are shepherded by a fat bass you can imagine being thrummed out by some heavy 70’s dude replete with thick moustache and royal-blue polo neck. In actual fact, the grooves on both pieces work in a subtlety different manner than you might expect. It’s less about moving the body, but the imagination, and both rock with a heady air of drama, evoking a strange landscape where the deep fog is more of a physical presence than the ground it rolls across. Martha is perhaps the more effective of the two; a slow mover, it takes a good while to really get itself into place, building up a tight, claustrophobic atmosphere before the broken, maudlin, occasional, melody of a piano cuts a path back towards the fresh air.

Pots and Pans itself is more upbeat and less concerned with the minutiae of mood as it works up a lather with clipped polyrhythms and simple, unfettered joy. It does little more than circle itself, and offers no more than it has to give but it comes out the other side feeling like that is more than enough. A great, smiling, little tune which should help see you through the long, cold nights of turkey ahead.

6D22 – Dragon’s Path (Midnight Shift)

If I’m remembering correctly, I opened this year’s Pattern Burst with a review of Giorgio Luceri’s 6D22 project so it seems weirdly fitting that the last review of the year goes to him too. Back then, it was his Istar release on Zeinkalli we were discussing. This time he’s on Midnight Shift with a collection of tracks inspired by the far east.

Firstly, it’s easy to see why Luceri has been a bit of a fixture on Jamal Moss’ Mathematics Recordings over the years. Dragon’s Path combines a resolutely old school techno flavour with something a little more detached and cerebral, and a lot of the time it evokes a sense of that point when balearic beats began to give way to something that would eventually become trance.

But just as there is an old school techno feel, it works a similar trick with those trancey moves. It’s closer to Jam and Spoon in execution – a sense of house music which has gone off on a tangent, drawing in a heavy mood of strobes ‘n’ ice, and building towards a vast heaven through simple melodies and rhythms built upon each other.

The three original tracks are bigger tunes than you might at first expect. Tianlong and Huanglong on the A side are a pair of shimmering climbers, both of which lock down their moods and movements early on and rise upwards relentlessly. Tianlong bleeds away excess energy towards the end, swapping it for a more delicate sense of tone and texture. Huanglong really pushes the early 90s big room vibe towards a logical conclusion. It’s all thunder and whispers; coaxing one moment, the next pushing you forward with both hands towards a bleary, hyper-real sunrise.

Longwang is from a similar place, but slower and more content to blur the motion with a feel of mysticism and some profoundly trancey 303s which bubble away seductively behind the veil of the melody. Once again the mixing of house like movement and techno rhythms provides a foundation for Luceri to build some tight complex sounds on top off, and the pulsing strength of the combination pushes towards some very old school hands-in-the-air moments.

Longwang’s remix comes from the fertile mind of the one and only Heinrich Mueller. Yep, That Heinrich Mueller. And, as you’d expect, it’s just about as far a deviation as you’d be able to get. Heinrich Mueller has created bit of a thing over the last few years from creating tunes that aren’t really tunes, where their obtuseness, their de-constructed qualities, have begun to drag the music of in strange, sometimes awkward, but often exciting directions. And he does that again here, transforming Longwangs effervescent brightness into a minimal, internalized stab of serrated, compact madness as if he’s taken the original’s nervous system and mounted it outside its skin. As most of you probably know, I’m not that fussy for remixes unless it something new or unexpected. This is a pretty good example of the art. Borderline terrifying and bleak, it’s as if the ghost in Longwang’s machine has crawled out of its mouth and gone on a rampage. Truly demented, excellent stuff.

Pseudopolis – Pseudopolis EP (Redstone Press)

A new label, from my neck of the woods in the Scottish highlands, and therefore I’ve an idea of the way the hunger for new music and the wonkiness of relative isolation can feed into the mindset. In my day, it was mostly metal which was the music of choice for Highland youth, morphing slowly over the years into happy hardcore and the more straight up forms of bangy techno. Not that this debut EP is either, and I admit to be being pleasantly surprised by the tunes here. I’ll go ahead and say it – this is great stuff.

What leaps out of the music straight away is that it refuses to limit itself to a particular direction. Instead it veers closest to the sort of wild invention and killer jams which Bristol folks have been slamming out for a while now, and there is a similar disregard for hard genre limits on show. Pseudopolis exhibit a profound sense on adventure across the three tracks, taking in bits of house and techno and using them to colour the bones of something which really lies closer to dubstep, jungle, and even a wee bit of dance hall, in vibe. The result is a strong release which has a gleeful sense of doing something right by doing it wrong. Really, it shouldn’t work as well as it does, but it ends up tight and brilliantly alive. The grooves flourish under a procession of chunky, occasionally day-glo moods and energies which ramp up both the sense of fun and seriousness. At Last bubbles with a seductive cheekiness, mainlining all those dry ice and strobe moments which are burnt into your subconsciousness. We Can All Groove slows everything right down and wraps up the movement with thick darkness.

Tracer is the definite standout; a joyous, rhythmic, burst of bright colour which hits up all the spots suggested by the other two tunes, but takes it further and makes more of a particular tribal heft which was only hinted at elsewhere. There is a kindred vibe to The sort of stuff Randomer has been working out his system over the last few years – nods to garage and dark, crunchy, house are filtered through a palpable sense of drama, and encapsulates a lot of what’s good in current UK electronica away from the big room beats.

It’s always interesting when a new label or a new act come out of the gates without doffing their caps to what everyone else it doing. And while there might be more Bristolly influenced stuff kicking around than there used to be, that’s still got to be better than yet another collection of tunes making their pilgrimage to Detroit, Chicago or New York. Check it out.