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.

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Quick Words On A Whole Big Mess Of Records.

I’ve got this stack of records I haven’t really got around to reviewing yet because it’s winter and I’m tired and in a mood. It’s a pretty big stack though, and looking at it is beginning to make me feel guilty. As a record junkie I keep buying more of them…and more, and more. There comes a point, usually when your knocking the damn things around every time you move your chair, or your chair is in fact a bunch of records, that you begin to wish you could have found a healthier obsession. Stamps would be good. They don’t take up much space or melt when you leave them near a radiator. Nice and quiet, stamps. Lovely things. Anyway, in a slight change to what I normally do I’m just going to sling through some of these and see what happens.

Albums first. I’ve laid off buying LPs a bit this year as I rarely give them the time the cost deserves, but I recently picked up Pangaea’s In Drum Play (Hessle Audio), and I’m glad I did because its pretty bloody good. I sometimes fear techno records from the gang who kicked across from dubstep and bass into techno because the techno sometimes feels a wee bit flat and by-the-numbers. Not that this is an issue here as Kevin McAuley digs deep into his bassy bag of tricks to furnish everything with a gleefully grubby sheen. While occasional tunes such as Rotor Soap are fine enough in a relatively conventional way, the album comes alive on the weaving experimentalism of DNA, More Is More To Burn’s oddball skank and the furious, constantly morphing, breakbeat sharpened brilliance of One By One. An excellent example of where modern British Electronica is going. Comes with a digi code as well, which is always, always welcome.

My second album purchase was Convextion’s 2845 (A.R.T.Less). Yeah, I know, even your mum was going on about it. Part of the hype was no doubt down to the fact that finding a copy was harder than winning the lottery. Eventually I got my dirty hands on one, which was great and all, but if you didn’t it looks like a wee repress is coming at the start of next month (if they aren’t already in the usual stores right now). Is it worth the trouble of landing a copy though? Well, yeah mostly. While it maybe doesn’t quite live up to the hype which emanated from all quarters, it’s a lovely slab of deep space techno which pushes its more drifting, cosmic tendencies into a slightly more muscular framework than you would perhaps expect and actually comes out sounding far less ethereal than some of Convextion’s stuff under his E.R.P alter ego. There are moments here and there (such as on Distant Transmission, for instance, or Saline Moon) where the influence of classic Detroit’s take on similar themes is as inescapable as the gravity of a neutron star, but that’s hardly a failing. Best album cover of the year too; if that isn’t a Cobra Mk3 from Elite I’m a Martian. Also comes with a (slightly more convoluted) DL code, and the digi is available from Bandcamp if that’s your laudable thing.

As for 12″s, there have been more than I would like to admit. A bunch of them are reissues of older electro stuff so we’ll just skip them for the time being and see what else there is. Zeta Reticula’s EP 5 got a buy largely because it’s on Billy Nasty’s brilliant Electrix label. Zeta Reticula is, of course, the more dub techno/electro-y alter ego of Slovenian DJ and producer Umek who, I find, usually elicits some sort of reaction from people. You either love his stuff or loathe it. This EP brings out a bit of both feelings in me. Side A is pretty good; a pair of pummelling electro tunes bordering on techno-bass, both of which howl out at the sort of velocities that’ll give you a nose bleed. The B side reverts to slower, dubby 4/4 tracks which are both weirdly clean sounding, lacking enough fogginess to cover up the fact that not very much is happening in a not very interesting way. But then, I’m not a dub fan so they might be brilliant. Worth it for the electro stuff, though. Puts me in mind of some of the stuff The Advent’s done for the same label.

Joy Orbison gets back together with his long-standing collaborator Boddika for another installment of their SunkLo series. SUNKLOFYV (SunkLo) is an interesting release, occasionally sounding as if it has simply been left to get on with inventing itself, it refracts several strands of electronica with a fine intensity. More Moan, for example, puts me in mind of a lighter, pleasingly off the wall, take on Ancient Methods trademarked morphic stomp – swapping out the heaving weightiness for a touch of humour and sunlight. My favourite here, though, is the opener, Severed Seven, which hits things up like a sentient AI tasked with remixing Beltram’s Energy Flash and doing so with the addition of much clattering noise, and emancipated 303s.

Last but absolutely not least is Dez Williams with Ever Decreasing Circles (Earwiggle). Williams immediately deviates from his usual electro tastes for four tracks of massively dirty, crumbing and scary techno replete with bowel softening bass and enough distortion to take all the skin off your fingers. Occasionally driving downwards towards the sort of place which makes you wish for something lighter, like Bathoray or Hellbastard, here and there he eases back, opening the tunes up and allowing the beats to suddenly ripple off in different directions. while it’s not his best release of the year, it’ll probably scare enough memories of what else he’s done out of your skull that it really doesn’t matter. Nice, in a not very nice way. You know what I mean.

Alex Falk: GF – CGI

Alex Falk first appeared on the scene last year with his understated debut, Terse, on Proper Trax, the label he runs with Will Azeda. Well, I say understated. The music on it scampered across the various sounds of the Techno range with nods to the likes of Rob Hood and Jeff Mills (on BPR, a glorious take on faded Hoodian – Yeah, I’ve just coined that term – minimalism) and a discordant thumpingness which still puts me in mind of French producer Terence Fixmer in one of his slightly more unhinged periods. Its big moment in the sun was surely the appearance of one of the tracks , PTR, on Hessle Audio chief Pangaea’s entry into the Fabric mix CD series. It’s a great tune; a sparse beat hanging steady under great sweeps of filtered noise. It sounds like its trying to erase its own tracks. As a whole it was a deceptively heavy EP, sounding at times like a man asleep, but with his hand wrapped around the knife hidden under the pillow.

GF sees the Tennessee native moving south to Atlanta and signing up with CGI for this, his first release of the year. It’s always a good sign of strength in a producers work when they can turn in something that has little in common with whatever they’ve been up to previously. Of course, on the strength of a pair or records, it’s all but impossible to say whether the raw Techno of Terse was a good example of where his head is hat, or whether, it’s here amongst the deep funk of GF, his talents are better served.

If you follow such things, you are already aware that GF carries a sample from a tune by some well scrubbed child-scrote called Justin Beiber. Not that you would probably notice. From the sound of it, Beiber has been hacked apart and rebuilt using parts from a very, very knackered 1970’s era robot. It’s like Falk found Twiki from Buck Rodgers in a bin and stapled Beibers head to its yellowed plastic torso. As this is the sort of thing I tend to hope happens to most people who are richer, more beautiful and successful than me, I can only give it my full support and play it whenever I can. The rest of the track chugs along nicely, but it’s the sample that sets up the denouement.

The record doesn’t really come to life until Foam Party, though. A wispy, deeply groovy little mover, Foam Party swoops in on the back of a winged funk cherub and dives into soulful waters where fish with the faces of Carl Craig and Kenny Larkin wriggle through dapples of saturated light. More seriously, the track hangs at the interchange between House and Techno seemingly uncaring about which way it wants to go. I think it’s pure House. Others may disagree.

BF is coming up on that interchange as well. A feint vocal snippet fades in an out of the mix, nicely accenting the tight, regimented riff that calls to mind Chez Damier and, perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, echoing some of Anthony Naples recent work. It’s probably a purer form of House than Foam Party, a classic builder that’s probably at it’s happiest slightly out of the limelight and welcoming others to the mix.

Miley’s Plateau takes the lessons learned over the previous tracks and marries the House vibes to a tougher Techno groove. It’s probably closer in spirit to Falk’s first release, but the peels of synth that ring out give it a warmth that record did not have. It’s the rhythms here that are the most exciting; where previously they sometimes seemed slightly perfunctory under the roll and smile of the riffs, on Miley’s Plateau they are front and centre, scattering pockets of static into the corners of the speakers and pushing forwards without ever threatening the fun, whimsical atmosphere; a stomper with a heart of gold.