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.
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.
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.
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.
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.