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.