Three Quick Bursts of Reviews

It’s lovely out. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and the park is full of drunk neds sans shirts who are slowly going a strange bright pink colour as the warm rays plough over their almost translucent Scottish skin. it is, in short, as summery as it ever gets around here and the fictional Joys Of Life are coming close to being a real thing. Conventional wisdom says that this is the time of year where we put away all of the loud grinders we were using to get us through the endless months of snow, rain, and darkness, and begin to unwind with some lighter, jazzy numbers. But conventional wisdom, my friends, is a dog; I’m no more likely to follow its fragile logic than I am to suggest to those taps-aff dafties in Kelvingrove park that they swap their bottles of Buckfast for something breezy and summery like a Beaujolais.

So, since I’ve been a lazy sod recently there’s been a bunch of stuff falling through the cracks, I thought we’d do a wee round-up of stuff that’s arrived in orbit over the last few months. Here’s three for starters.

West End Communications have made a place for themselves over the last few years with a slew of releases heavy with sticky, chewy, beats and a finely gnarly attitude. Their new record, the UK Steep EP by the brilliantly monikered Ludgate Squatter takes up the baton, points it straight forward like a lance, and runs like a bastard straight at your face. This is the sort of record you want to play to people who refer to monotonous, modern, slabs of boredom as ‘warehouse’. This collection of crumbling, brutal, yet oddly light-of-touch, tunery seems to be a heaving dose of cranky techno and electro when you first listen to it, but beyond the distortion and the huge beats, there are plenty of little trick, lots of misdirection to take you out of the shadows and into daylight. Every track comes with its own little world of dubious pleasures, but my pick is Believe which sounds like a broken bus engine starting an electro duo with a friendly chainsaw. The vinyl version comes with a free Bandcamp code, which is always appreciated. Always.

Luxus Varta’s Then We Fall on Brokntoys was a record I had high hopes for, but ultimately never entirely got it together with. A good artist on an increasingly interesting label, there just seemed to be too many moments on The We Fall which just lack enough escape velocity to become truly cosmic. There are plenty of interesting influences, mind you, and I could catch touches of Model 500 (and even Carl Craig sometimes); mostly a love of IDM seems to shine through which is a totally valid thing to bring to the party even if it sometimes leaves me a bit cold. Even so, there are still a couple of very class tunes on board – Lesis might take while to get itself going but once it does, it boils itself down to a thick swirl of shadow and glass. Understated and deceptively hard, it’s a great example of deepness done with mood instead of strings. Radion is light years away, a bopping burst of deep space disco forever riding the frequencies of a neutron star.

Ninja Scroll by RNXRX on Struments, on the otherhand, keeps the focus a little more towards electro’s primary heat sources – although maybe not as much as you might first expect. Harsh, fast, and pretty funky, Ninja Scroll is a decent bunch of jams, even if the use of Drexciya/Heinrich Mueller reverential track names started the alarm bells ringing a bit. Yeah fair enough, that stuff is definitely there but what keeps it from slipping towards anything like an homage is the way much of it is filtered through something tighter and more industrial, with the hard rolling beats providing a platform for some subtly wonky histrionics. Ninja Scroll itself has the warming daftness of the Young Gods in their Second Nature period (except with a better groove); High Rise wriggles down into the dirt, like some feral thing escaped from the Touchin’ Bass stable, and claws itself along, with a moody Boris Divider-esque energy. Despite what you would expect,And despite what you might presuppose, Drxcyan doesn’t float off towards Lardosa. It’s too whip-smart for that, propagating a dose of claustrophic, faintly eastern sounding, chaos. Yet another piece of the electro puzzle getting itself some moves from other places. Something is going on in the genre…..

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Best Of The Represses: May 2018

The increasingly ironically named Best Of The Represses comes to you from the far side of Record Store Day – the controversial annual event which at one time had the relatively good sense to shut you up with a handful of interesting re-releases. Nowadays the RSD schedules are mostly made up of the Big Label Crooks trying to convince you that yet another goddamned reissue of Pink Floyd’s widdly bollocks is a Good Thing. As far as our stuff goes, it increasingly feels like those sketches crapped out by shit comedy writers that know not even the most myopic of commissioning editors will allow them on normal TV, so they end up dumping them on Comic Relief instead because, y’know, it’s only charity and who really gives a fuck?

Anyways, what has this to do with the subject in hand? Probably nothing, but quite likely everything. The repress game is a dungeon of fairground mirrors where things are rarely quite as stupid or exciting as they look when you glance to the side. The only thing that still surprises me about any of it is my weird capacity to keep caring. And the only reason I keep caring is that, almost every month, some silent god picks me up and turns me around, pointing me in the direction of something of genuine worth. Mind you, if the mute omnipresent prick does that to me when the inevitable Sandwell District represses start appearing we’ll be having words. Let’s move it people; I’ve got places to be.

Textasy – Dallas Gun Club (Craigie Knowes)

Yeah, I know. It only came out for the first time in January or something, but it’s here for two reasons: 1, it got repressed (look at the title of the column. Sometimes it’s accurate); 2, I really like it.

Textasy haven’t been around that long, but even though there are less than half a dozen releases under the name, pretty much every one has been a corking example of Texan electro (which, personally speaking, is a genre name I can get behind). This one sets its stall out a bit of a ways from the rest, and uses the electro as a base for some sweaty, ravey, shenanigans. It’s genuinely great – a rough-housing blast of dirty great breaks, stinking huge rave stabs, and nasty piano rolls.

It’s magnificent. You can almost imagine it as the soundtrack behind one of those old photos of a light-house eyed scally giving it some big fish, little fish action while his mouth blows on an imaginary whistle as he not-so-gently unspools his sanity into a farmer’s field beyond the slowly massing ranks of the Old Bill come to murder the fun. It’s so good I don’t even know what that last sentence meant. It’s virtually impossible to pick a stand out track, but if you forced me, I’d suggest you start with the warped, piano led nonsense of Eternal Gurn (Manik Piano Edit) and work backwards until your brain dissolves.

Sonar Bass – Dark Matter (Deeptrax)

Like some sort of moody knobber I totally forgot to flag up the first of this very welcome and very overdue run of Frank De Groodt’s Sonar Bass represses when it arrived just before Christmas. It was a great thing – a new release of the eternally brilliant Sonar Bases 4 – 10. It was a brilliant mix of lithe, experimental, techno, and shimmering, warped, electro from a time when the phantom powers were beginning to set the rules in stone. Dark Matter, released nearly a decade after that first explosion, is smart enough to avoid major changes to the foundations even though it shifts everything around.

It’s the ways it plays fast and loose with elements of electro, Berlinny techno, and Detroit aesthetics that makes it such a blast. Occasionally it puts you in mind of De Groodt’s other project, the brilliant Fastgraph, at other moments you can hear the proto-molecules of a very modern strand of techno DNA being put into place, long before other less imaginative sound-smiths began to get it all wrong.

But what makes it so strong is that for all its experimental endeavours it remains a potent collection of grooves, even if they are sometimes so alien you might actually need half a dozen legs and some tentacles to really appreciate them. It’s an album that might seem dark, but that’s only because the intermittent bursts of light and gamma radiation have probably left you momentarily blinded. A proper trip through the wormhole, this one. Hopefully we’ll get some of those Fastgraph monsters coming this ways soon as well.

Reviews – Automatic Tasty – Propaganda (Vortex Traks); Shawn Rudiman/Naeem/Hits Only – PGH Electro Volume 1 (Is/Was)

Towards the end of last year I started to suspect that electro’s latest resurgence had reached its high water mark, that it was finally beginning to roll back, taking with it not only the great swell of new artists and music, but the usual flotsam of chancers and bandwagon jumpers who usually float to the surface just as the tsunami begins to break. It’s a funny genre for that. I can’t think of many others which are so inextricably linked with a cycle of flood or drout. I was beginning to worry how long it would be before the next wave started its inexorable roll towards the beach head.

Automatic Tasty – Propaganda (Vortex Traks)

As it turned out, I was a little, tiny, bit premature. Now that the dark hump of the year has passed, things are beginning to get going again. There has been a real explosion of great electro in the last few weeks – much of it from expected locations, some from out of the blue. Particularly fun has been the way the newer music has been chaperoned by a great little run of interesting reissues (chief amongst them, personally speaking, Tresor’s re-release of the Scopex back catalogue.)

As good as the represses are, it’s been even more heartening to see a host of young labels going from strength to strength. Vortex Traks first appeared back in 2015 just as the scene began to climb and have pretty much been up at the front all through this revival. It seems not entirely believable, then, that the new release, Automatic Tasty’s Propaganda , is only their eighth.

It’s a delicate collection of tunes, is Propaganda, and one that rarely tries to work up a sweat when it can follow an ambling groove all the way through a pastel sunset. It’s a warm record; frazzly bursts of Heinrich Mueller-esque melody spiral over your head, occasionally tinting themselves with the slightest hint of italo, before falling languidly over the rhythms crisp hurry. While you can occasionally be forgiven for wondering if Automatic Tasty’s love for a particular era and style of electro is pushing things a little close to homage, you can’t knock the silvery, laid back energy which powers it. Particular stand outs are Man & His Value’s, joyfully soulful slo-mo bump where it pulses through endless depths of light, colour,and shadow, and Prying Eyes (See No Evil) with its shimmying, workshop altered, Drexcxiyan bop.

It took me a little while to get my head adjusted to it, having done little but listen to ultra fast techno bass over the last few months, but the change of pace and Propaganda’s determination to find its own path and speed quickly warmed me to it. It’s the perfect burst of subliminal heat and light for this weird, on-going winter.

Shawn Rudiman/Naeem/Hits Only – PGH Electro Volume 1 (Is/Was)

Shawn Rudiman’s place as hero of the Pittsburgh scene has been won over the last decade and a half with the help of some seriously class house and techno which rivals the best to emerge from the two big Mid West incubators. It’s interesting to see him push into electro – a genre in to which (as far as I know) he has dipped his toe a few times over his career without ever becoming fully immersed.

That changes here, along side relative newcomers Naeem and Hits Only, as he brings a pair of sinuous and lithe fast-movers to the record. Both tunes have a core of snapping techno powering the beats; Derelict evokes the static flecked growl of I-F’s bleak funk and winds it up with a paired down, ravey melody which flickers across the crunching beats with a flash of neon. Asimolar ties the clipped, tight, beats into a 303 speckled sound-scape that’s part old-school acid anthem and part Detroit. There’s something in its energy reminiscent of Black Dog at their more playful, or even LFO at their most expansive. It’s a seriously good tune.

Excellently, both Hits Only and Naeem pick up the gauntlet, both acts turning in quality grooves which easily rise to Rudiman’s challenge. Hits Only’s Trion 4 takes a more minimal route, pairing back on any frippery for a tune built from stamping breaks, a massive chord stab, and some razor sharpened 303 work. Naeem’s Facing Forward unspools right off into deep space. Both achingly subtle and actually demented, it fluctuates between those two extremes as it flares out beyond the edge of the heliosphere. It might actually be the pick of a ridiculously strong EP. I know it’s been out a little while, but I’ve been selfish in keeping it to myself. Go and make that right, right now.

Carl Finlow – A Selection Of Works Part 1 (For Those That Knoe)

Whether the strangely fertile nature of UK electronic music helped to crowd it out, or the deeper, harder, louder sounds of the genre emanating from the states or the continent were more in vogue, or whether it was simply a little bit out of phase with what else was going on I don’t know, but British electro always seemed to have a harder time convincing the wider world of its merits than it should have. Where other home-grown takes on particular genres shone, UK electro languished in the shadows, getting plenty of kudos from those who gave serious consideration to the real thing, but remaining a curiosity to most.

The climate has changed though. The last couple of years have obviously been good ones for electro, and while a lot of the newly lit limelight has tended to fall mostly on the newer members of the gang, there has been a quiet revaluation of the old team, and a sense of energies surging. Perhaps, then, it’s the right time to re-evaluate the work of the producers who built the scene and helped shape a sound which in its own way is as important to the history and growth of modern electro as techno bass or European noir.

Which brings us to Carl Finlow, an artist who has been right at the hard edge of the genre for nearly a quarter of a century. Along side the likes of Ed Upton, Phil Bolland, Dez Williams, and a small handful of others, Finlow has helped to define an electro sound that’s both incredibly potent in its own right, but remains subtly different from the sounds emanating from elsewhere. And given the fact his career has covered so much ground,from the initial bang in the 90s right up to now, the concept of a retrospective of his work is an intriguing proposition. The reality of A Selection Of Works Part 1 is just as intriguing. Much of the focus falls on his work as Silicon Scally – the guise he remains best known for – and is largely drawn from releases hailing from the early of the Millennium, including tunes which only ever appeared as extras on CDs.

This is electro of a particular sort. In some ways it’s a forerunner of the deeper shades which have been so prevalent recently, but where a lot of contemporary electro makes it point by travelling through a heavy atmosphere of thick, symphonic, and patiently curated moods, Finlow creates horizons in the sound, and builds the means to reach them through a sonic world where the accent is on the grooves and a sparse, locked down, cerebral energy. A lot of UK electro in the 90’s felt as if it was reaching back a little bit, still in love with the moves of an older school. This isn’t the case here; this is forward-looking music, accelerating onwards and drawing on a greater wealth of influences. The stunning, empty, and evocative Pace, for example, doesn’t even feel like electro so much as a blend of darkly billowing trip-hop and noirish story telling. It’s as modern as anything you’d find on a Brokntoys record.

And although the three different projects which the record draws from – there are a pair of tracks here under Finlow’s own name, and a single tune from his excellent Voice Stealer work – pitch and pull in differing directions, this mix of the physical and the mental, and of a deep sense of experimentalism informing the nature of the music rather than being its point, remains central to them all. The Silicon Scally material, however, perhaps benefits the most. Tunes such as moonax and Dark Matter are lithe, prowling creatures, but little bursts of light, fragments of melody and movement, temper the forward momentum with purpose and adventure. The one Voice Stealer track, the wonderfully downbeat yet optimistic Unintensional, reverses this, using the slow, skipping beats to add a sparkling warmth to the languid torpor.

It would have been nice to have had more Voice Stealer work on offer, but I’m sure the follow-up volume will rectify that. The track listing has been put together with an ear for music that means something to Finlow and For Those That Knoe label-head Ben and, as such, probably can’t be regarded as a definitive snap-shot of Finlow’s career. But given how much material there is in the archives, and over how years and styles it falls (way back to the straight up house he made with Ralph Lawson and Dominic Capello, and the Wulf-N-Bear work with Lawson, again, and Huggy) there are really few more sensible ways that this could have been done. I have a slight preference for some of the looser, heavier sounds from his releases on Device or Electrix for example, but that’s just me, and there is no doubt that A Selection Of Works Part 1 is an incredibly useful guide to the work of one of the outstanding pillars of the scene even if it doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. The nature of the tunes makes it as vital for those of us who think we’re entirely familiar with Finlow’s work just as much as it will be for those who are looking for a way in, not only to his own history, but to the wider past of British electro. Very much to seeing what volume 2 is going to bring.

Review: V/A – Mechatronica 5 (Mecahtronica)

OK, let’s not waste any time on small talk.

Various Artists – Mechatronica 5 (Mechatronica)

I’m always happy to admit that I really like Mechatronica. For a label which is still very much an embryonic project, each release has been a delight in the way it adds another clue to where this Berlin based outfit are going. Whether they really have a grand plan for all of this I don’t know. What I do know is that their slender output has been pretty impressive so far, and their love of the Various Artist mini compilation has provided us with a far broader body of work that one could ordinarily expect from such a young project.

So far we’ve seen the likes of Dez Williams, Privacy, Luke Eargoggle, and a host of others dropping cuts on the label which both reinforce and take apart our idea of what electro is. And here at the outset of 2018 they’ve provided us with a snap shot of the genre’s health as we head into what I suspect might well become a very strange year for electro, what with the increasing ‘I’ve always been into it’ jabber of chancers from other ends of the electronic spectrum who don’t seem to have ever played an electro track in anger before.

That aside, one of the things I like most about Mechatronica is the way they’ve never been content to propagate a single idea of what electro is, preferring an approach which helps to cast its light over a wide section of what is increasingly a very broad church. While the names here – Norwell, DJ Nephil, Gestalt, and Innerspace – may well, with the exception of Innerspace, be less immediately familiar to anyone except the truest heads, the comp more than holds its own with four choice tunes that do a bang up job of getting over something of the strange invention and scruffy majesty that has defined some of the best electro over the last couple of years.

Innershade kicks it off with the shoulders-out electro-pop stylings of Aalst To Charlois, a rakish charmer roughed up by clawing acid lines and a profoundly stompy sense of urgency before it gives way to Tranzs by Norwell where a gentler and more playful mood emerges from beneath the stern beats to elevate the tune up into the starlight.

Gestalt’s Mndfck and DJ Nephil’s White Dwarf roll out from a similar starting point but quickly slide off into very different places. Mndfck keeps the heartbeat high with a wobbly, wonky grooves tied together by a honk of bass and the infinite warble of a hungry 303, circling above White Dwarf’s looser, grittier, and down right more ornery take on the same themes. The acid here is plucked of its warmth and left to curl around the scattered beats for heat.

You know what: you should know by now. Mechatronica have done some pretty bang up work so far and this is another example of their ability to choose some of the best work in the genre. They deserve to be spoken about along side CPU and Brokntoys. This is great electro that never falls into the trap of doing what it’s expected to do. And the way things are going just now, that’s a quality you can’t put a price on.