Favourite Records of 2016: Featuring Umfang, Morphology, Lok 44 and More!

Best record? Naah, there aren’t any best records, just lots of good uns. I’ve heard a few people here and there saying it was a poor year for music. Well, I guess it depends where you look. There wasn’t a huge amount of house music that did it for me this year, I have to say. While the genre’s taste for nostalgia was fun enough to begin with, it’s now looking more and more like a chronic – and limiting – condition. There was some brilliant techno once you got past the hordes of records which assaulted you with matching beats, sounds, tones, and themes. And as for electro, well…although its true that electro never went away, it was certainly in a rather sleepy state until it began to get a head of steam again last year. The effort has been rewarded in 2016 with some astounding music. Even better, the electro renaissance looks like continuing into next year and beyond.

As ever though, the best option is to ignore genres and simply buy stuff that gives you pleasure. it’s a lesson some of us are slow to learn, and even slower to put into practice. There was a fair bit I liked this year, and less that I really loved. Here are the honourable mentions plus the five I wouldn’t part with for anything. As ever, no true favourites, no attempts to frame debates, or make a point. These are genuinely, simply, records I enjoyed because I enjoyed them. What else matters?

Bruce brought his A-game on three releases this year, but it was the filthy technoid skank of I’m Alright Mate (Timedance) which was still on my decks at the end. Likewise, Randomer was a busy lad throughout 2016, and he left the biggest impression with the strange, polyrhythmic charmer Running Dry on Dekmantel. Michael E kicked us into a time loop with the stripped down, direct-to-jack acid of Child Of God, with Give Me Vision particularly invoking memories of wobbly bangers long departed. Jared Wilson also went down acid house lane with Communicating With Ghosts (Dixon Avenue Basement Jams), but the stark, pared down approach was swapped out and replaced with a more muscular and techno vibe. LnrdCroy also brough acid house to the fore with Ooze City (Mood Hut) and soaked the floor with sludgy, swampy grooves. And if you thought acid was the only game in town this year, DJ Overdose’s Don’t Get Burned (Computer Controlled) pushed back with a record flavoured by the stomping house of Dance Mania (and, yes, a little bit of acid).

It was a mental year for electro, and I could have done this entire list ten times over with nothing but the electro records. Jeez, I don’t even know where to begin. How about with 214, who continues to get better with every release. This time it was Fuel Cells on CPU which best showed his box of tricks as he gave us a record as quirky as it was jagged. London Modular Alliance’s Out Of Sync (Brokntoys) brought some full throttle electro and mixed it up with warped, abstracts, and Annie Hall’s Tenured Position (CPU) dived into deep pools of light to create some of the most joyful and shining takes on the genre this year. Special shouts to Carl Finlow, Silicon Scally, Plant43, and Dez Williams who all added their unique voices to electro’s new awakening.

There are too many names to list. Far too many. I’m sure there will be some later I remember and kick myself for forgetting but that’s life. Here are five of my absolute favourites from 2016. I’m sure you will all join with me in wishing that 2016 gets tae fuck and in hoping that 2017 is, at the very least, a tiny bit less stupid. I’m going for a long drink. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Umfang – Riffs (1080p)

There are always records kicking around here which get lost in the general messiness of my unordered mind. Often times I stumble over them months later when I’m looking for something else and curiosity finally reasserts itself. I wasn’t familiar that much with Emma Olsen’s slender body of work, and the little I had about her was mostly related to DJing, but this EP on Vancouver’s 1080p simply blew me away. Described in one review I read as ‘minimal’ the reality is that record is a juxtaposition of empty space and the sharp, potent sounds which gradually flow in to fill them. Some of the hardest techno I’ve heard this year, it infuses it all with a spiky, acidic energy before muting it with a worn world weariness. Listen to Ecstatic_Layer‘s hammer-blow of industrialized, focussed, mood and see what I mean. Essential for anyone made despondent by techno’s current production line sounds.

E.R.P – Ancient Light (Solar One)

While Gerard Hanson’s 2845 album under his Convextion guise garnered most of the publicity, it was this release for Solar One which really shone. languid, spectral, and distant in the sort of way great art often is, Ancient Light brought all of its qualities to bear in a trip to the furtherest reaches of the universe and powered it all with a warp drive of the tightest, purest machine grooves. Whilst it recalled something of Detroit’s own aural deep space program, it refused to settle for too much homage, creating instead its own cosmic funk by way of some very modern electro. Deep doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Samo DJ Kicked Out Of Everywhere (TTT)

The Trilogy Tapes had another undoubted year of quality, with some great releases courtesy of Elmo Fudd, Bored Young Adults, and Rezzet, it was Samo DJ’s Kicked Out Of Everywhere which best symbolised the labels leaning towards a deceptive and subversive accessibility throughout the last 12 months. Too heavy for house, too hypnotic for rave and too lively for techno the record stalked a different course, rolling little bits of everything together and making the connections through kindred grooves until the music took on a lithe independence all of its own.

Lokk 44 – Bouse (Trust)

It took me a little time to adjust to Bouse; rightly or wrongly I expected something a little bit more comfortably electro, at least a little less obtuse. Eventually it all blossomed and I woke up the way Daniel Lodig plays with both the conventions of the genre and our own preconceptions to create a sound world strongly coloured by quiet drama and a flair for taking electro forms and reworking them into something wider and symphonic until each tune sounds like the soundtrack to a private and untold story. In a year when some electro went for the jugular, and some angled it downwards into the gloomy depths, Bouse’s subtle experimentation and clever structures made it an important – and timely – milestone.

Morphology – Frozen State (Vortex Traks)

Although Morphology’s first release of the year, Lack Of Light on Abstract Forms, was a superbly unnerving example of bleak, frozen, electro, this release on nascent Berlin label Vortex Traks takes everything from the first record and improves on it in every way. Well, not every way because Lack Of Light’s heart of ice has thawed by application of some furious, acid soaked grooves and a burgeoning sense of urgency which invades the structures of the music like a benevolent virus. In the moments when it isn’t building dancefloor-chewing future funk, it’s evoking the spirit of IDM to accent the tunes with a palpable sense of adventure and wonder. Of all the great electro records this year, this one comes closer than any other to summing up the genres new-found spirit of excitement and vitality.

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Favourite Albums of 2016: Featuring Mgun, Pangaea, Microlith and More!

I had a slightly strained relationship with albums in 2016. Aside from the fact I rarely had the time for listening to them enough to do them justice, I also began to suspect that some of the artists cooking up long players didn’t quite have the chops to provide enough interest across a larger format. There was also the fact that as the levels of self importance began to swell to a new high so did the pricing of many of the records. If I’m going to shell out 40 notes for an album it had damn well better wake me up in the morning with a cup of coffee and the weather forecast.

Even so, electronica’s burgeoning love for the fat format is beginning to move into new territory, taking the scene further and further away from its traditonal, comfortable 12″ homestead. While there are obviously going to be albums which are little more than greatest hits, or consist of a couple of good tracks and some filler linked together by nothing more important than their proximity to each other on the wax, there are more producers who are looking beyond the traditional more than ever before. Konx Om Pax and Dont DJ both took a hold of this; Konx Om Pax’s Caramel (Planet Mu) creating a tapestry of blurred images and strangely angled sounds held together with fractured memories of rave, and Don’t DJ’s Musique Acephale (Berceuse Heroique) building a world of shifting polyrhythms and ethereal eastern textures. Don’t DJ had a natural bedfellow of sorts in Eomac, whose Bedouin Trax LP (Bedouin Records) started with similar themes but darkened it with thunder and heavy skies.

Some of the big names delivered too. Omar S brought us The Best!(FXHE), and while you couldn’t really say he broke any new ground, he punched up a collection of house and techno so thick with grooves you’d need to borrow an extra pair of legs to dance to it. Demdike Stare smashed our brains with Wonderland (Modern Love), as dense a slab of disorienting sound as you’d imagine, but one punctured by barely controlled beats, and powered by sinewy junglist limbs.

Finally, Convextion’s 2845 (A.R.T.Less) brought out the pack hunter feel in many techno heads after it appeared on a Discogs listing with no fanfare. While the record didn’t quite live up to the hunger it created it was still a masterclass in the sort of deep, crystalline cosmic funk that is slowly passing into history, particularly in the way it echoed long gone Detroitisms of Sci-fi and Soul. The fact that the space ship on the cover looked exactly like a Cobra Mk3 from Elite probably did a number on us too.

Without further ado, here are a bunch of album I particularly liked this year. No real order, no favourites. Have at them:

Mgun – Gentium (Don’t Be Afraid)

Even though Kyle Hall and Jay Daniel seem to hog all the limelight when discussion turns to Detroit young guns, it’s Mgun who continues to really impress with some of the most twisted and individual techno of the last few years. I don’t know why he has never quite picked up the praise he should be getting but Gentium should have sealed the deal. It’s an album in which Detroit’s post industrial future rubs shoulders with the town’ peerless musical heritage; tough and gritty, implosive, and yet lightened by graceful touches of melody and unexpected bursts of fun. Gentium kicked against Detroit’s currently signature house sound to provide an unexpected and welcome soundtrack to journeys through the back streets.

Steven Julien – Fallen (Apron)

While Steven Julien’s label Apron had a very good year, its crowning moment was still his own album Fallen. Beginning life as a concept album with the subject being a fallen angel, it sparked away from the stinging, low riding acid of his better known Funkineven work to create something that took in funk, jazz, house, techno and stuff that probably doesn’t have a name, and tempered it all with his unique swagger and tones. Very few albums this year blended ambitious experimentalism with precision functionality to this extent, and none did it better. Haunting, unsettling, beautiful and quite bluntly malicious.

Heinrich Mueller/The Exaltics – Project STS 31 Spiralgalaxie (Solar One)

Although electro continues to thrive on the 12″ format, there have been a few albums cropping up over the year. Project STS 31 Spiralgalaxie, a collaboration of sorts between electro legend Gerald Donald under his Heinrich Mueller (and other) guise and veterans The Exalted to create a sort of electro super group LP. The results are every bit as amazing as you would expect as it blasts away into deepest space to explore the very edge of what electro is. Although the out-and-out machine grooves are kept in check, it replaces them with glimpses of xeno-vistas which linger in the mind long after the music has finished. Not just a fine example of what modern electro can so, but a definition of everything that electronic music is supposed to mean.

Pangaea – In Drum Play (Hessle Audio)

Kevin McAuley has created some magical movement over the last ten years as he’s moved through the various genres which litter the British electronic landscape like sentient machines. He’s now reached that point where we can begin to think of him as a sort of elder statesman of the scene, and its entirely fitting he’s now delivered the record of his career so far with In Drum Play, an album that takes in everything that is good about Brit electronica while moulding it to Pangaea’s singular vision. Less obviously experimental than some of the other records on this list, it goes about its business with a fearsome dedication to its own sound and conjures up some of the sleekest, hardest funk around and colouring everything with the grainy light of daybreak raves.

Microlith – Dance With Me (CPU)

I’ll be up front about this: I didn’t go for Dance With Me when I first heard it. It seemed too wistful, too prone to a type of early 80’s synthiness that leaves me cold. The problem is that I am an idiot and I slowly found myself returning to it after I fell in love with the gorgeously wide-eyed title track. It is, in fact, a beautifully downbeat collection of playful, lazy and smiling grace which has made the clouds its playground. This is electro coupling with IDM to create something which represents the best of both. Anyone still sneering about electro’s abstract nature should buy this now and bask in its resolutely organic glow, and marvel at the way it creates grooves out of gossamer mists.

Favourite Labels of 2016: Featuring CPU, Brokntoys, Apron, and Many More!

One of the real joys of being into something like electronica and its various composite parts is that even though it has been more than 30 years since the sounds coming out of Chicago, Detroit, and elsewhere began to have an impact beyond their immediate environs, it can still feel like we’re playing on the edge of the frontier. This isn’t only true of electronic music, but Our Thing retains a pioneer spirit regardless of what is thrown at it. Yep, there are some truly huge electronic labels, labels such as Warp whose reach now extends far beyond their relatively humble beginnings in Sheffield, but the big boys influence remains weighted, balanced, by the mass of small, bedroom, or backroom based outfits who continue to put out music because they love it. Some of them will go on to something bigger. Most won’t. It doesn’t really matter because they all have a role in shaping the music we care about.

There were many of these smaller labels who provided much joy round my way. Some only produced a couple of records, many not even that, but every one was a treasured blast of sonic goodness. Young Berlin based electro label Vortex Traks may not be the most prolific label in the cosmos, but when you’re putting out records as good as their samplers, or the quite frankly brilliant Frozen States by Morphology you don’t really care. Northern Irish stars Computer Controlled also provided quality over quantity with a career best (so far) release from TX Connect and an absolutely stonking DJ Overdose record. Timedance, an outfit out of Bristol (and how many times this year has that town cropped up, more than rivalling the output of the big names?) may have only released a sliver more, but each one was an encapsulation of a special blend of dancefloor electronica and hard-edged experimentalism with a couple of stunning releases from Bruce, and Ploy sealing the deal.

At the other end of the scale, Lobster Theremin continue to vie with L.I.E.S for world domination, both labels pushing release schedules that have probably reduced the world vinyl reserves to historically low levels. For Lobster, both Raw MT and Snow Bone continue to impress, the latter in particular with a take on techno which has few rivals. L.I.E.S might increasingly be a label which rewards careful picking of the wax, but those I did end up with, Greg Beato and NGLY in particular, continued to furnish us with fine, dirty funk which nods its head to punk as much as techno.

Jeez, there are a lot of labels I loved this year. Special shout outs go to Don’t Be Afraid who delivered one of the albums of the year with MGun’s Gentium, and a belter from Karen Gwyer, to Super Rhythm Trax’s brilliantly fresh take on stomping, classic house and techno, to Unknown To The Unknown who get better, madder, and ruder with every release, to Idle Hands who continue to future proof house, techno, and everything else that takes their fancy, to Frustrated Funk and DUM for doing the same with electro, and Mathematics who simply continue to astound as they follow their own flight path into unexplored territory. So many labels, so little space. Anyway, here are some favourites of favourites for 2016.

Berceuse Heroique

BH continue to muck up the lines between genres, moods and basic good sense with a gleeful abandon, and it provided the label with perhaps their most important year yet. Kicking off with DJ Overdose and OB Ignett slapping us about with some deceptively low slung electro funk, they gathered speed as the months past with a volley of memorable releases from the likes of Koehler, Morah and Jorge Velez before ending the year with the superb Caves Of Steel by Interstellar Funk. Many labels have attempted to swing between genres, very few have done it with such conviction and flare.

Dixon Avenue Basement Jams

A quiet 2015 was replaced with a banging 2016 as the Glasgow label brought some of their best releases so far to our ears. Starting early doors with a pair of twisted, scuttling, acid twinged house monsters from Casio Royale before they furnished us with additions to their own DABJ Allstars samplers, a cracking acid record from Jared Wilson and closing the year with Fear-E’s full rave stained début. DABJ are now without a doubt a vital stop for anyone wanting to get an idea of what stuff does it to us up here on rain-soaked Clydeside.

Central Processing Unit

I’d be fibbing if I said that I loved everything CPU released this year, but while I might not have been quite as keen on some of their more synthy releases, this was a label which pushed electro’s new assurance beyond its traditional ghetto, and brought us some genuine future classics in the forms of records by B12, Annie Hall, Mikron, Microlith, and Blixaboy. Make absolutely no mistake, CPU were responsible for some of the finest electro this year (or any year, in fact,) with the astoundingly good Fuel Cells by 214 and Weightless In The Void by Plant43 emerging as shining examples of the genre’s ongoing rehabilitation.

Brokntoys

Now heading into their 4th year of existence, London based Brokntoys continue to push electro’s boundaries. Less classically inclined than CPU, the music they champion seldom stays as close to the genre’s gravity, and the unifying factors tend more towards philosophies and vibes, an ethos which is clearly shown in their excellent series of samplers which have taken in work from producers as diverse as Syncom Data, Microthol, Luke Eargoggle and Junq. Away from the VA stuff, EPs from London Modular Alliance and Dan White provided tunes which ranged from ocean deep to battled hardened electro veterans, while Versalife delivered a masterclass in classic electro-noir as enthralling and malicious as anything Anthony Rother used to make.

Apron

In 2016 Apron finally morphed from being an interesting and sometimes exciting label to becoming one which could do very little wrong. Starting of the year with Stephen Julien’s album, Fallen, they somehow found a consistency and level of excellence which put them up their as genuine contenders. EPs from Brassfoot, Bastien Carrara, and Adam Feingold all played marvellously fast and loose with house, techno, funk, hip hop and just about everything else. Particular highlights were Max Graef’s fizzing label début and Shamos’ Games And Dreams which sounded like Omar S had moved somewhere Down South and gone native. Brilliant.

Friday Night Favourite Tune of 2016 Special: Microthol – mod_electro_mix4 (Borkntoys)

It feels a strange thing to admit, but I’m not sure I really listened to as much music this year as I either would have liked or should have. I certainly heard a lot, but most of it went in one ear and out the other. This, I expect, is true for most of us. The sheer amount of new music these days, available in an almost unbroken stream from when we wake up to when we fall asleep means that it is almost inevitable that a lot of what we hear is relegated to filler, to noise. No matter how good some stuff is, it gets filtered out.

What makes this slightly weird is that I probably bought more records this year than ever before, so I must have paid attention at some point. Between first becoming aware of them, though, and those bits of wax ending up on my decks I seem to have mislaid the important knowledge of why they excited me enough to buy them in the first place. Even so I find there are some real crackers which have lodged themselves in my brain.

The reason for this is simple. When it comes to a favourite tune there should be only one criteria which matters. It’s not whether it ticked a pre-set amount of correct boxes. It’s not even how much you listened to it. It is purely this: How much did you want to listen to it? And the answer for almost all these tracks is: a lot.

As anyone who reads this blogs on more than a random basis might imagine, a lot of these tracks were electro in sound, spirit, or both. It was an ass kicking year for my beloved genre (even though, interestingly, the more I wrote about electro, the more I lost readers..hmmm…) and some of the music which filtered through to me was up there with the very best I’ve heard. 214 was an ever present this year, with the scatter-gun robot funk of Programs On The Move (North Cascades EP,Frustrated Funk) and the neutron star compression of Keep Right (Fuel Cells EP, CPU) making my toes all wriggly. Less explosively groove laden, but just as magical were Morphology who just get better and better. Luminescent Organism (Lack Of Light, Abstract Forms) has never failed to chill, excite and electrify me every time I heard it, and it only took me a couple of listens to their Frozen States EP on Vortex Tracks to fall in love with every track on that too. Such an amazing way with mood. I expect huge things from both sets of producers next year. What else? Microlith’s beautiful and playful Dance With Me (Dance With Me, CPU) caught me unaware and wouldn’t let go, and In The End from Arnold Steiner (Mood Sequence, Metroplex) was a mnemonic blast designed to remind me of why I fell in love with electro in the first place.

Beyond electro there were also plenty of bangers, chillers, and belters which rode my neural net for days. It was a particularly great year for the team of young, British, producers who seemed hell bent on building a new future even as the country at large tried to dig a shit lined trench back to 1933. Bruce must surely be on his way to being considered one of the most important of this new breed, and I lost it completely over The Trouble With Wilderness (The Trouble With Wilderness, Idle Hands) and the way it constantly reconfigured both its tone and meaning as the track unfolded. That it was strangely haunting and disorienting added to its charm. Pangaea’s album In Drum Play (Hessle Audio) had more crackers than Christmas dinner at your Gran’s, but it was the sleek, roaring, hunter-killer of DNS which won out. It wasn’t just the young team who were winning though, a few British electronic vets were doing the business too. Casio Royale caught the anger a lot of us are feeling in this year of bastardry with the genius old school acid shuffle of Save It (For Yourself, You Tory Scum) (In Basements Volume 2, DABJ) and John Heckle continues to push for national treasure status under his own name with Alexandria’s wonky, grinning, charms (Tributes To A Sun God, Bedouin Trax) and as Head Front Panel with the brilliant and furious stomp of the last track in HFP #12 (Head Front Panel) which thundered along like Santos Rodriguez’s Road To Rio rebuilt for the modern age Except harder, and with less fucks given.

Lumigraphs’s Bulletproof Holiday EP (Major Problems) snuck in under the radar, but delivered the industrialized breakbeat fueled monster of Spectacular Times, a grouchy, viscous tune with I fell in love with at first listen and tried to get into every DJ mix I did no matter how little it fitted, and Jared Wilson took time out of what appears to have been an otherwise quiet year to deliver a master class in jacking acid mayhem with Communicating With Ghosts (Communicating With Ghosts, DABJ). Koehler also continues to impress, this time with Rotating Rupees on Contra-Blood (Berceuse Heroique) which sounds like the theme tune to that brilliant European art house flick you saw late at night through beer and tears on Channel 4 and can’t remember the name of. Finally, I could have chosen a cubic tonne of DJ Overdose tuneage, but it was the DJ Deeon/ Dance Mania channelling smash of Blue Flame from Don’t Get Burned on Computer Controlled Records which came out top. I say Deeon/DM channelling but it was really much more than that, its techoid, acidy, house cross-breed bringing something missing from a lot of music this year – fun.

My favourite tune though was the suavely named mod_electro_mix4 by Austrian electro duo Microthol. Often to be found of DJ Glow’s brilliant Trust label, here they appeared on one of Brokntoys samplers, Perfect Language. I had already gone mad for it before I was even really aware of who it was by, having heard it at the start of a mix by Marco Bernardi and when I got my hands on it, I played it so heavily I fell asleep every night for weeks with it in my head. I must have played it a dozen times a day at first, and even now I listen to it several times a week in one form or another (if anyone wants to hear it mixed well, check out the Bernardi mix, if you want to hear it done badly, it’s one of the tunes on my mix for Semtek radio show).

Why do I love it so much? I’m still not sure why. It starts out as a tight, slinky little number but grows into something dark and expansive, the beats clipped and urgent, the percussion nervy and the bass ringing like church bells at dusk. What really sends the chill down my spine is its way with the melody; so focussed, so bleak, like the first ice of winter chasing in behind the lengthening shadows. In some ways it’s a direct descendant of that cold electro-noir sound which grew up in Europe in the mid nineties and found a natural home in the various Scandinavian scenes. It drips with visuals, builds itself with a hidden narrative, knocks you down with its grainy sweep. It sounds pared down, stripped of the unimportant. But that’s not because its chasing some minimalistic ideal; simply, every note, every sound, is perfectly placed. It’s a corker and absolutely my favourite of 2016.