Favourite Labels of 2017

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.

Berceuse Heroique

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.

Livity Sound

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.

Mechatronica

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.

Apron

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.

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.

Reviews: Differ-Ent – M.O.M (Don’t Be Afraid); Shanti Celeste and FunkinEven – SSS (Apron)

Differ-Ent – M.O.M (Don’t Be Afraid)

Don’t Be Afraid have had a pretty strong year, with some great releases from the likes of Pattern Burst favourite Herva, Mr Beatnick, and a brilliantly off-centre sampler featuring man of the moment Max McFerrin shoring up the label’s well won reputation as the home of some seriously strong left-field floor shakers, whilst disproving the notion that house and techno doesn’t have to pander to over-familiar conventions to get things moving. Given this reputation DJ Bones’ straighter (but no less funky) approach to techno seemed a slightly outside choice for the imprint but with two releases now under his Differ-Ent guise, the logic is a lot clearer.

Dedicated to his mother who passed away in the spring M.O.M is a track that builds on powerful, atonal noise to deliver feelings of anger and helplessness before transforming into something altogether brighter where the almost overwhelming sense of rage is channelled into providing the back bone for a lilting, fragile odyssey which builds towards a crescendo where the anger gives way to a celebration of a life lived. Deeply personal, and potent in its emotional core, it’s one of the finest tunes Bone has done in quite a while. Final Driver on the flip delivers a low rolling slice of classic motor city funk that bristles with fiery groove and bubbles with torrents of psychotropic energy. A classy note for the label to end the year on, and a reminder, if one is needed that, techno thrives when soul and emotion are allowed to shine through the machinery.

Shanti Celeste and FunkinEven – SSS (Apron)

Like Don’t Be Afraid, Apron is another label that has built a reputation on kicking against expectations and conventions to the point where your never sure whether the next record will be some old school boogie, disco weaver, gnarly acid soaked house or something even more experimental. Having been a total stranger to the work of Bristol’s Shanti Celeste, I was even more uncertain with what to expect of this split with Apron head FunkinEven.

The FunkinEven cut, first of all, is a deep, gliding creature; infused with warmth and jazz it glows with a 70s technicolor that occasionally feels a little too over exposed, the percussion a little to quick to fully compliment the haziness of the melody. It’s pretty, and an eye opener for anyone who only knows FunkinEven from his throbbing analogue sounds, especially in the way that it works something of Theo Parrish’s swing into the proceedings.

The standout, though, is Celeste’s paean to Detroit. Whether it was meant to be this, I don’t know, but it’s a perfect encapsulation of the marriage of soul and drive that makes the best Detroit techno so timeless. Propelled by an almost weightless breakbeat which floats above the clouds, little rivulets of melody flow here and there while crooked stabs of bass add grit and earthiness. The tones and the textures are reminiscent of Mad Mike at his most whimsical and playful, and of originators like Carl Craig and Kenny Larkin in the way they toy with the subtleties of emotion. 8 captivating minutes that bring a pulsing groove to the airiness, this is one of the finest tracks I’ve heard this year. I know I often gush a little too freely about the tunes I really like, but this is genuine high-tech soul by way of Bristol. It’s immense. Buy on sight.

Review: Greg Beato – When Monkeys Attack (Apron)

Greg Beato – When Monkeys Attack (Apron)

I had begun to wonder where Greg Beato had got to. Fair enough, there have been a number of remixes, and his work on Forbidden Planet under his Breaker 1 2 guise to keep us going since that last heaving, messy roar of acid madness on Apron but it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t nearly enough.

Out of all the bods who appeared almost out of nowhere two or three years back, with nothing to their names but some semi knackered tape machines and a taste for serrated bass lines and chewed up beats, Beato was the one you could tell wasn’t playing at it, even when his music didn’t always seem as serious as the technorati demanded. Dirty, grimy, gutteral music yes, but music with a smile (even if that smile seemed to be of the Chelsea sort) that was partly borne out of the thrill of his raggedy take on acid and techno, and partly because you suspected he was the genuine article, someone with an authentic feel for the grooves and rawness rather than another techno academic with a frigid, clinical interest in the sounds.

When Monkeys…, isn’t just a facsimile of hise two previous releases on Apron though, and its less in a hurry to get to the point than either of them. In fact in some ways he’s learned more from his work on PMA, the release on LIES from a couple of years back; tunes seem happier taking more exploratory paths, the sounds are deeper and less thick, and it feels as if influences have been taken from sources other than the most virile of acid. The title track is a case in point. It has the feel of Jeff Mills’ furious techno-rave banger The Sun in the way it snaps at you with the rim shots, and snares, and percussion so dirty and sharp you wouldn’t touch it for fear of blood poisoning. The chattering synths combine with the wondering, deep-lying bass to create something strangely sunny and optimistic, and convinces you that this is what disco could sound like if the scene had allowed it to develop and evolve instead of keeping it locked in a box so it could milk nostalgia-juice from at far too regular intervals.

It also points to a new maturity in Beato’s sound, as if he’s become more comfortable letting the music find its own way along without having to be directed straight for the jugular. The energy has been re-purposed, in fact. El Dinero Falla, which starts off in much the same manner as When Monkeys… ended, quickly wrong foots you into a surprisingly downbeat number that makes its mark through its busted, whimsical melodies. The beats are as crunchy as ever, the tune as playful as anything on the earlier Apron releases, but it draws itself together with the help of much tighter inner logic, calming itself at the right moments and letting the grooves shuttle the mood around nicely.

While his talent has not always been quite matched by his releases – the record on LIES, for instance, while perhaps closer to this one in spirit, seemed to lack the energy and focus of the two heavy Apron hitters that book-ended it – the ideas have always been there. What made the Apron records so special is that they simply delivered at first time of asking. You got an immediate sense what it was all about. When Monkeys Attack is now his third solo release on Stephen Julien’s excellent label, and once again it’s been a mutually beneficial relationship. Beato always saves his best for FunkinEven.