Favourite Tune of 2018: Linkwood – Fresh Gildans (Firecracker)

2018 was for me a bit of a shitter, to put in bluntly, and I think my relationship with music – particularly electronic music – took a bit of a battering. If I’m honest it was mostly the circus which seems to now permanently orbit electronic music which really did it for me. Frauds, arseholes, and grifters are par for the course in all the arts, but something particular in electronica’s wide-ranging seems to have drawn them in. The gap between what I’m looking for, and what there seems to be, is growing. There were times I just couldn’t have cared less. And it’s led to an interesting re-education in the basics of what it is I want from electronic music, and the realisation at the heart of it all is that I’m not looking for authenticity, but honesty. And I’m happy to take it wherever it appears regardless of whether it’s the underground or somewhere more accessible.

This fed back in on itself, and when more personal issues raised themselves my fallback wasn’t into electronic music, but into soul, and punk, and all sorts of bit n pieces that were as far from techno or electro as you could get. Comfort music, I think. I probably listened to more soul last year than I have in a couple of decades. The unintended up-side to that is that it gradually came to colour almost everything else I listened to, and remind me of what it was I really loved about a lot of electronic music in the first place. I’m sure I have said it before, but you can parade all your disco icons, or Krautrock gods around as much as you want, but the real heat in-house, and in techno, comes from soul before anything else. Without soul music this is all just expensive sound boxes bleeping at each other.

One of the niggles I’d had with electro all through 2018 – that after the sugar high its mini-renaissance delivered in 2016 and 2017, and after it had once again settled down into relative isolation there would be a slow drift back into entropy; all the newly won energy and ideas boiling away into the cold-state of same-old same-old, with what was left further calcifying into the chilly fractals of IDM-ish academica – was probably related to this. There seemed a dearth of electro which offered something beyond either frigid introspection or gleeful abandon. It’s a wonderful genre, but it does have a certain taste for starkness at times, and a predilection for particular routes and directions which sometimes makes it look like a dog who can’t turn right.

There were a few tunes here and there which pushed out from these common boundaries. Mor Elian’s Xerik Zula started off with threats of large-scale stomping but became an endless fluctuation of mood and shade; glimmering light forever hanging on the edge of sharp transients. Posthuman’s Steal The Show, right at the end of the year, tied a prowling breabeat into a shuffle of bright rave stabs and set them to work in a cathedral of strobes. La4A’s Creased was almost the best thing I’d heard this year. A tune which remembered that one of the things about early IDM which made it so good was the optimism, the sense of wonder and escape, of machine minds looking out across the sun-dappled uplands towards a future-music. It was graceful, blissful, and majestic. These, and a handful like them, were tunes which dug a little beyond the obvious of the genre. Track 2 on the anonymous Keep Your Mouth Shut EP brought a sample from an Aphex Twin remix of Saint Etienne and created a daft, ambling, and deadly track that sounded like the best anthem baggy never had. It was as brilliant as it was stupid.

Fresh Gildans, though, was the one I listened to probably more than any other, and I think the reasons for that are probably quite simple. Something in its weight didn’t feel like anything else this year, and yet it felt entirely comfortable; It rode straight in there under the intellect, hitting up a connection on the emotional level. In some ways it reminded me of Theo Parrish’s 71st and Exchange Used To Be on Trilogy Tapes from a few years back. Not because of a similarity of music, but in the way the music flares out, working in the guts and the feet, but lingering a beat behind in the subconscious, rendering the whole thing instinctual.

And Fresh Gildans just strutted. So bright, so alive. So utterly captivating in the groove it required nothing more than to be allowed to do its job. The beats (particularly at the start) are pure Mad Mike. Taut, rolling. Perfectly marshalled. The rain of Detroit-esque strings, the throb of the bass. It felt liked submerging yourself in cold water on a hot day. It was a master class in the idea that music does not always have to challenge you on an obvious level to get a reaction, and that the best tunes sometimes work by simply showing you what they right from the start. There weren’t many tunes this year which made me want to laugh and cry at the same time, but this one did. There was honesty and soul here for sure. It was heavy with them, using them the fuel a vibe of warmth and life, and remind us of the simple joy of movement. 2018 didn’t deliver many treasures, but it delivered this. And that’s far, far, more than I had any right to expect.

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Favourite Records of 2018

So, as usual, my policy is simple. Write about some records I liked over the year. That’s it. For a year in which I didn’t feel as if I bought very many, it turned out to have been a bumper crop. As you can guess, most of these are electro, so if that’s not your thing I can only apologise and get back to enjoying these crackers. Maybe next year will bring more house and techno records I liked. 2018 didn’t manage it very often, but I’m always hopeful. Extra big shout outs for the ones that I’ve run out of space to cover like Posthuman’s The Snake That Bites Twice (Craigie Knowes), Linkwood’s Fresh Gildans (Firecracker), Bass Junkie’s Low Frequency Fugitive (Bass Agenda), 214’s Exit 32 (Klakson), Svboda by Locked Club (Private Persons), Shadow Child and Mark Archer’s Non Stop (Super Rhythm Trax), Ludgate Squatter’s UK Steel (West End Communications), Binaural’s Mescla (Dream Ticket), Static by Contactless (Unknown To The Unknown) and a huge host of other bangers. It’s been an unexpectedly good year, music wise at least. Cheers to you all!

Ultradyne – Ocular Animus (Pi Gao Movement)

After the dissolution of Drexciya, there were very few electro acts who could claim to have been in possession of a similarly unique sound. There was Ectomorph, of course, (even with their links to Drexicya) and a tiny handful of others, but it was the Frank De Groodt led Ultradyne who looked the most likely to occupy the vacant throne. They’ve released some great music over the years, but something about them has always rubbed slightly against the accepted mores of the scene, keeping them locked, perhaps, in the strange purgatory of the open secret. No matter, Ocular Animus was their first release since 2015’s Return From The Abyss LP, and their first EP in 5 years. It was a belter of a record – as abrasive as it was pure, it delivered a hit of 100% thoroughbred Detroit electro of a sort you imagined was long gone from the earth. Suicude Relay, especially, was a tune in which to lose yourself. It was like being picked up by arms built from raw frequency and soul, and taken to another, very different, world.

Persona Non Grata – Mor Elian (Hypercolour)

Persona Non Grata was a record which emerged as if from nowhere and caught a few of us on the hop. At first I resisted because, AS WE ALL KNOW, if more than three people tell you a record is great they’re probably completely wrong and just saying it because everyone else is. It turned out they were right. This is a fine reworking of electro themes and motifs, one that takes a little from the genre’s varying sounds, and adds them into something billowing, warm, and alive. It’s a record which makes no pretensions about what it is, and draws a real sense of strength from that. Even better, it remains massively accessible without losing any of its foundational electro charms. Lovely and soulful in equal measure, with some killer grooves to seal the deal.

Historical Repeater – Scientific Calculator (Earwiggle)

A collaborative debut on Earwiggle for Solid Blake and CTRLS, Historical Repeater was one of the more interesting techno records released this year. Perhaps it was the blend of CTRL’s undeniable talent for twisting grooves out of scrap metal and bouncing electronics, and Solid Blake’s tastes for drawing strange lines out of broken, snapped, electro, that sent the release off in a very different direction than the one the bulk of techno chose to follow. There’s something about the way in which coaxes movement from disparate sounds which gives it a grubby, funky feel that feels very refreshing; At times hard, almost industrial, at others wiry and dementedly charming, it remembered that techno is dance music and pulled every trick in the book to make sure you remembered too.

ScanOne – E.Oneseven (Analogical Force)

For all the fierceness and complexity of its limb-snapping rhythms, for all the brutality lying just under the surface of the tunes, E.Oneseven has a surprisingly large amount in common with the producers cresting the current wave of heavily IDM indebted electro. There is a love of melody, and sharp, intuitive sound-scaping, which engulfs and enlarges the music, opening vistas not immediately apparent, that owes a debt to braindance and ambient. Even so,it’s the rhythms which really dominate, and provide movement, structure, and meaning. They shape everything else around them in an eruption of breaks, allowing the melodies to fall like ash over the ridges and furrows they form. Exhausting and euphoric.

LNS – Recons one (LNS)

Recons One is another example of a growing – and welcome – breed of electro producers who are creating a sound which takes influences from a wider range than we might have seen in the past. Above the crisp, playful, breaks you can sense everything from classic Detroit techno to Autechre to bleep, all helping to create a wide, shining, and expansive sound. In the ambient pieces, there is the same attention to detail, and a curious pragmatism which anchors the music under familiar stars. Occasionally a little more restrained than it needs to be, Recons One remains a beguiling and smart record.

LA-4A – Slackline (CPU)

I love CPU. One of the main movers in electro over the last couple of years, they have done more than most to keep it in the public consciousness, even though they seem to frequently wonder off into territory that’s a bit cold, clinical, or experimental for my basic tastes. And then they release an EP like Slackline and it all makes a weird kind of sense. As with the label itself, it’s not entirely accurate to describe Slackline as electro. It’s certainly there, rubbing its sweat all over the furniture, but it’s marshalled by rogue elements of garage, and the off-kilter freedom of the very early IDM movement. There’s also a vibe familiar from breeds of mid nineties techno which skirted between genres, often pushing between the walls as they felt like it. Creased is superb tune, rising and falling as it tries to hang onto an early morning trance.

Textasy – Dallas Gun Club (Craigie Knowes)

I could have filled a large part of this list with any number of Craigie Knowes releases. The records by Carl Finlow, Posthuman, and Derrick Car in particular were damn fine. But it was Dallas Gun Club, from the very start of the year, which gets the nod. Why? Because it’s insane. The recent trend for rave and breakbeat has had an impact of sorts, but without creating anything amazing. What’s great about Textasy’s approach to much the same with is that he de-emphasises some of the more outlandish, noddyish, elements and accents the breaks and the way they play off the sharp little touches and spikes of melody and mood which made up a lot of the underlying tension of rave. The results are torrents of vibrant colour and electric, peak time moments. A stand out record on a brilliant label.

D. Tiffany – Feel U (Planet Euphorique)

It’s not always easy to feel charmed by a record, but that’s exactly what Feel U manages. There is something about its chirpy nature that should irritate, should drive you into the stack to find something darker and fierce. It doesn’t though. It invites you in, occupying you with its wriggling little grooves and the nagging suspicion somebody forgot to tell D Tiffany that electro was supposed to be abstract and unapproachable, just like all those gonks with arm loads of dry,’moody’ techno told you it was. But while Feel U was one of the most joyous records of the year, that doesn’t detract from the fine emotional depths it also managed to create, tingeing the happiness with something wistful, half-remembered and – at times – almost mournful.

Kosh – Null 212 (Casa Voyager)

I hate using the term ‘break out’ because it all it usually means is ‘was too small for me to care about before.’ I’m happy to use it in Casa Voyager’s case, though, because they came out of nowhere with a bunch of great EPs, and I’m even more delighted to use it about Kosh because this one is going to be going places next year. I’ve no doubts about that whatsoever. Null 212 is a bit of an outlier in the way it evokes the sounds of genuinely classic electro: this is a record which takes pleasure in drawing its influences from much further back than Drexciya or Aux 88. You can hear Cybotron in this, and the Egyptian Lover. The beats are scratchy and strutting, the bass spiky and slippy, and the overall mood is of a record absolutely determined to deliver a particular breed of hazy, laid back electro funk of a sort we all need much, much more of. A gem of old school threads woven into brand new togs.

Bitstream – Switch Holo (Frustrated Funk)

It might have been a very quiet year for electro powerhouse Frustrated Funk, but they did still manage to deliver to great records. The first of those was a repress of ancient and fantastic material by Spesimen, the second was Bitstream’s Switch Holo, their first record in a decade. It’s a corker. Dark, cracking with malignant energy, it frequently feels as if everything is about to crumble around the disorienting grooves and abrupt changes of direction. But then you start paying attention to the odd, controlling, non-human intelligence that lies underneath at all, keeping it in check, and it all begins to make so much sense. Rampant, sketchy, alien funk that’s having a ball and simply doesn’t care whether you are too.

Favourite Labels Of 2018

I sort of feel I’ve ignored the output of a lot of individual labels this year in favour of picking up music from an ever-widening range of sources. This, I think, is probably a good thing, and it certainly has the the tang of the underground’s do-it-yourself ethos, which is always important whenever things are looking a little bit more safe and corporate than they did even a year or two before. I also like the fact they bring new and different voices to the table, ones that deliver something missing from everywhere else.

I’ve also been aware that I’ve paid scant attention to non-electro labels over the last 12 months. I can’t remember a year where the bulk of my buying went on a particular genre over others to the extent this one has, and it took a special record or label to snap me out of the habit. There were some: Hessle, Super Rhythm Trax, Unknown To The Unknown, Don’t Be Afraid, and a handful of others all provided a break from the, uhh, breakbeats (well, not entirely because a couple of electro bangers turned up on those labels too). There were also, of course, a number of great début releases from labels I suspect may mostly vanish as quickly as they first appeared.

Electro wise, shout out to some of the usual suspects: CPU are startling with the amount of material they release. It might increasingly be misleading to describe them as an electro label, but they’ve managed to keep their standards incredibly high considering their output. Mechatronica continue to impress, particularly in the way they’re beginning to find a true place for themselves in the scheme of things. And Brokntoys, who found that niche a while ago, and continued to put our branches in differing directions. Also, Null+Void, Trust, and a host of other noise-bringers, provided a massive amount of fun as the year got darker.

Biggest shout, though, is for the huge number of set-ups managing to get even one record out, against all the odds. Brave or daft, I don’t know, but these folk are the ones who created some of the biggest thrills of the year, and some of the standards of music were incredible. Anyway, here are a couple of labels who stood out for me in 2018. None of this is based on sales, or branding, or readers polls. They’re here because I listened to their stuff more than anyone else’s. What else matters?

Craigie Knowes

Craigie Knowes are a ridiculous label, and I’m not just saying that because they’re from Glasgow. I mean, I’m usually impressed if a label puts out one or two really good releases in a single year, but Craigie Knowes managed to hit a stride where pretty much everything they released was utterly fantastic. That’s 10 releases running from the annual brilliance of their War Child fund-raiser EPs, to ending the year with a pair of stupidly good records by Carl Finlow and Posthuman. Everything was pretty much ‘must buy’. What made them so special, I think, was the way they seemed to judge a release on its quality rather than what genre it was, or who it was by. The results were a crazy weave of records which were often linked together by nothing more than how damn good they were. Surely this is what every label on the planet should be aspiring to do, especially when so many others seem to be going for the ‘throw everything at the wall and see what sticks’ approach.

Berceuse Heroique

BH remain the only label to have made every one of these lists that I’ve done over the past five years. The reason for that is simple. There are virtually no other labels – not in Britain, not on the continent, not the US – who are doing anything quite like this. Just as with Craigie Knowes there is a disregard for everything bar the actual quality of the music that’s always refreshing, and BH remains one of the few more well-known labels who can consistently surprise me with their choice of artists or styles. I won’t claim that everything BH released this year did it for me, but there was more here – from the rerelease of the storming Morella material and a pair of superb Hodge EPs, to Black Merlin’s iridescent half-light – to provide a means of waking you from your torpor than most other labels manage. There is a suggestion from some critics that there is a sense of ‘adolescent rebellion’ at the heart of BH’s project, but I suspect there’s a certain amount of ignorance based on time, place and context informing some of those views, and I think one of the reasons I love BH so much is that they feel like a throwback to the sort of punk records I’d get when I was young which were a very much a pre internet lifeline and tenuous foothold into a far larger, and less isolated, universe. If you don’t get that, that’s cool. Just don’t be a wank about it, alright? Alright.

Casa Voyager

When checking up on what I bought this year I noticed that a lot of it came from small labels who appeared out of nowhere to release a single record before vanishing back into the shadows. Casa Voyager, a young Morrocan label based in France (I think), looked like doing the same when I first became aware of them at the end of last year, but they managed to reappear with several other great records as 2018 went on. There is a house-sound, I think, a predeliction for a strain of swish electronic funk that seems to infuse every one of those releases, from the two VA samplers (the Casa Sports volumes) to the pair of single artist EPs from OCB, and Kosh. Not that it ever dominated, though. It was always a starting point for some fine electro which dumped the usual standards of grime or deepness in favour of music which moved with some fluid grooves, slick bass, and sparkling melodies. In an electro scene which seems to be getting all doey-eyed about IDM’s cold pretensions, there’s something deeply heroic about that. A genuine curiosity about what 2019 is going to bring from them is one of the main reasons I haven’t armed that doomsday bomb I’ve got hidden in the attic. Sorry, I should have said Haven’t Yet.

Bass Agenda Recordings

Even if you only know them from the superb podcast series they curate, Bass Agenda are one of the most important electro labels around. Given that, it’s curious that their name is not brought up more often. I wonder whether that’s because there is a certain taste for old-school or harsher, more industrial, tones on show across the label’s releases which is a little out-of-sync with current genre interests. If that’s really the case, then it’s a shame because they’re a label who have consistently shown themselves to understand electro down to the smallest detail. 2018 was a great year for them. There was a magnificent album by Dez Williams, a gloriously brash EP from genuine electro legend Bass Junkie, some insane future-rave from Nexus 23, and small late-in-the-year deluge of magically snarling material by W1b0 to top off an impressive year-long run. This is a serious label which is still largely operating from the edge of the shadows, and one with a love of the sort of music more concerned with what noises machines wanted to create rather than what we could force them to make. Old-school as hell. Excellent.

Favourite Albums of 2018

I don’t know about you, but to me it feels as if there were roughly 100,0000 albums released in 2018. A good album is something that sticks with you for months, a great one might be there for the rest of your life, but I don’t think I ever remember a time when you had to dig through so many candidates to find them. I think part of this deluge is down to a particular generation of producers reaching a point of either stability or establishment in the Great Musical Scheme Of Things, and finding themselves in a position to stretch themselves in various ways. The album is a pretty good way of doing that, as well as allowing for new paths to be pegged out, and perceptions to be challenged. It wasn’t just the younger team, though. There were plenty of veterans at it too, all of which meant a sizeable portion of the postman’s time was spent hufting massive packages containing 8 sides of 180g vinyl in heavy gate fold sleeves up and down stairs like it was the Second Summer of prog rock.

Even so, all of this is probably healthy, and on the whole there were some pretty good LPs released this year. And while I certainly found that the increasing cost of a bog-standard vinyl album isn’t really sitting well against my decreasing time or willingness to sit through the many, many, many, sides of vinyl that now seems to be standard, There were still a good few which made it through into my consciousness. As ever with these lists, they’re no one’s opinions but mine. I’m not sure they’re even really opinions. What they really are are some thoughts about a few records I liked in particular over the last year. Cheers.

CEM3340 – Perfect Stranger (Lunar Orbiter Program)

CEM3340’s debut album is a continuation of sorts from the two EPs of distorted, guttural, electro he had already released on Lunar Orbiter Program. At least in part. Although all the crunching, driving beats and serrated basslines are still very much in place, and the breaks as potent as ever, there’s a wider focus evident across the album. Tracks like Platform Discovery with its Kraftwerk flow and italo touches, or the lopsided carnival ride of Mr Blattman, display an ear for different tones not always obvious in the first two records. Even on the more fully wrought electro bombs, Shadow of the Blondie or Story Of An Egyptian Man, more depth feels given to the tunes, allowing grooves to settle and grow. Best track on the album, I Can’t Get Wrong locks a heavy, grimy, beat down from the start and brings a dirtier sound than anything else you’ve heard this year. A belter of a tune, and a pretty good album.

Blawan – Wet Will Always Dry (Ternesc)

There was always this thing about Blawan – the way he used to rub some proper techno types up the wrong way – that I always liked about him even when I wasn’t entirely sold on everything he’d done, and it pleases me a little that the fact he’s now released one of the best straight-up techno albums of the last few years probably narks at them a little bit. Wet Will always Dry is a class album even if it might not be a true classic. There’s something of the Token Records sound to it, sort of harking back to an era of true machine techno that didn’t need to bother with silly attempts at darkness or deepness because it recognized both of those were a natural by-product of a job done properly. It’s a functional record in the sense that it’s created to shift you, and there are plenty of touches to it which accent that. Vented injects the claustrophobic funk of prime period Mills into something wild and prowling; Nims works itself into a true old-school peak-timer before exploding above our heads in a shower of wires and electrical tape. All through the album the sound design exists to service the rhythms and the grooves. And at its best, as on the heavy, tranced out, stalker, Careless, all of those moody elements other aim to emulate come to the surface with an ease that looks sublime.

Demdike Stare – Passion (Modern Love)

I like Demdike Stare; They’re like an earthier Autechre who exist somewhere more connected with the rest of us instead of in a world entirely built of tonal pulses and impossible geometry. Part of this greater connection has been a long time eagerness to experiment with more mortal forms of dance music, albeit in ways we probably wouldn’t recognize. In some ways they’re quite an old school outfit, and Passion has that same feel of imaginations being left unattended that was such a hallmark of earlier ambient producers. This isn’t about a beam of sound a light-year long and a millimetre wide that seems such a cause for a lot of the new school. This is about width, and texture, and strangely crooked stories being whispered under flickering street lights, or belted out over the sound of too-loud bass in a bar. It’s a record in such constant tidal flux, with scurrying ideas and unfolding directions, it’s impossible to work out its centre of gravity. Hard breaks flicker momentarily into existence here, a thrumm of Reece bass erupts over there. You won’t keep your footing on such uneven ground, but you’d probably not be that bothered as long as you could keep watching the strange shapes the landscape made. A wonderful, deliriously alive record which tears apart everything it touches just to see what happens.

Bruce – Sonder Somatic (Hessle)

British electronic music has been in a great state (more or less) for the last while; It feels like it’s in a more inventive place than it’s been for a little while, and the generation of artists who had already been making some great music for the last five years are beginning to break out in different directions. Bruce’s début album is the both the brashest and most sophisticated thing he’s done so far. In some ways, it shares a large part of the mischievous streak from the Demdike album above, but here it’s utilized in a different way. Tracks like What and Serotonin Levels Low delight in the melodies of rhythm, leading everything else astray, and they point to a use of the sounds in strangely off-kilter ways, building up from unexpected angles or twisting some rogue aspect of mood or atmosphere into a new light. That means we get an album which runs from St Pim’s fractured orbit to Elo’s gorgeous belt of endlessly collapsing Martian house to Meek’s shambling electronic war-dance without any one part sounding out-of-place. You need a sense of sharp musical purpose in there to keep it all together. Bruce brings that, and so much else, to one of British techno’s defining statements of the year.

Helena Hauff – Qualm (Ninja Tune)

I’ve tended to prefer Hauff’s DJing over her productions. There’s no doubt she’s been somewhere near the top of her game on the decks over the last couple of years, and her love of electro has been pushed out there to a different audience through appearances at festivals and on radio.But when it comes to her own music something about it just kind of felt off, like it was a collection of influences which lacked the spark of autonomy that would make it indelibly hers. While I’d be lying if I said that I thought Qualm finally sealed the deal, it provides plenty of evidence that Hauff is moving forward and up. I think part of the reason I liked Qualm so much is that much of it is reminiscent of that Neil Lanstrumm/Djax style sound from the nineties – rabies infected beats, and wild slides in temperature and tone. It wears its heart on its sleeve regardless of whether it’s a strutting, acid-stripped piece of madness like Barrow Boot Boys or the rainy, quietly happy, sheen of Entropy Created Me and You, and that warms the record so much you’ll forgive the way over familiarity with some of the sounds occasionally raises its head.

And that’s almost it. Shout out to some other great albums though: Posthuman’s Mutant City Acid (Balkan vinyl) reworked the little silver box’s spirit into something wide-open and truly cybernetic; Forest Drive West took techno through the looking-glass with Apparitions (Livity) and delivered it into a shimmering, kaleidoscopic zone of shadow and machines; DJ Bone delivered two hits of genuine Motor City goodness with A Piece of Beyond, and Beyond (both Subject Detroit); and Neville Watson’s The Midnight Orchard (Don’t Be Afraid) was a symphony of frequency and mood.

Nice one all. More next year, please. But maybe on a few less sides of vinyl. Sweet.