Review: V/A – Mechatronica 5 (Mecahtronica)

OK, let’s not waste any time on small talk.

Various Artists – Mechatronica 5 (Mechatronica)

I’m always happy to admit that I really like Mechatronica. For a label which is still very much an embryonic project, each release has been a delight in the way it adds another clue to where this Berlin based outfit are going. Whether they really have a grand plan for all of this I don’t know. What I do know is that their slender output has been pretty impressive so far, and their love of the Various Artist mini compilation has provided us with a far broader body of work that one could ordinarily expect from such a young project.

So far we’ve seen the likes of Dez Williams, Privacy, Luke Eargoggle, and a host of others dropping cuts on the label which both reinforce and take apart our idea of what electro is. And here at the outset of 2018 they’ve provided us with a snap shot of the genre’s health as we head into what I suspect might well become a very strange year for electro, what with the increasing ‘I’ve always been into it’ jabber of chancers from other ends of the electronic spectrum who don’t seem to have ever played an electro track in anger before.

That aside, one of the things I like most about Mechatronica is the way they’ve never been content to propagate a single idea of what electro is, preferring an approach which helps to cast its light over a wide section of what is increasingly a very broad church. While the names here – Norwell, DJ Nephil, Gestalt, and Innerspace – may well, with the exception of Innerspace, be less immediately familiar to anyone except the truest heads, the comp more than holds its own with four choice tunes that do a bang up job of getting over something of the strange invention and scruffy majesty that has defined some of the best electro over the last couple of years.

Innershade kicks it off with the shoulders-out electro-pop stylings of Aalst To Charlois, a rakish charmer roughed up by clawing acid lines and a profoundly stompy sense of urgency before it gives way to Tranzs by Norwell where a gentler and more playful mood emerges from beneath the stern beats to elevate the tune up into the starlight.

Gestalt’s Mndfck and DJ Nephil’s White Dwarf roll out from a similar starting point but quickly slide off into very different places. Mndfck keeps the heartbeat high with a wobbly, wonky grooves tied together by a honk of bass and the infinite warble of a hungry 303, circling above White Dwarf’s looser, grittier, and down right more ornery take on the same themes. The acid here is plucked of its warmth and left to curl around the scattered beats for heat.

You know what: you should know by now. Mechatronica have done some pretty bang up work so far and this is another example of their ability to choose some of the best work in the genre. They deserve to be spoken about along side CPU and Brokntoys. This is great electro that never falls into the trap of doing what it’s expected to do. And the way things are going just now, that’s a quality you can’t put a price on.

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.

Review: Dez Williams – Forlorn Figures in Godforsaken Places EP (Mechatronica)

Even after the best part of two decades Dez Williams remains an outlier in the electro scene. There is something in his work – a feel for the darkened end of the electro spectrum perhaps, or his use of other genres heavy elements – which separates him from his peers. This has become more obvious over the last couple of years as the genre has begun to envelop more and more of the silvery and rarefied tastes of IDM, or the ongoing investigations into just how deep you can go. As those trends have grown a large part of electro’s current fashions seems to have receded from Williams. Or, perhaps more appropriately, Williams has receded from them.

As if in retort Williams’ has made potent use of a host of sounds that seem to have drifted out of fashion elsewhere; acidic elements retain, in Williams’ hands, a power to sear and knock you sideways instead of rendering them into a sort of vaguely cool hat-tip they appear to have become with other producers; his breaks, thundering in a middle space between the deceptive fragility of European electro-noir, and Detroit’s looser, technobass funk, rides fast, the percussion barbed and cutting. His forays into techno, frequent and very much on a par with his electro, contain not only a dose of the spiky rawness of FUSE and early Surgeon, but the energy of furiously debauched and hungry rave, all tied together with post-punk’s dirty skank.

Forlorn Figures in Godforsaken Places taps into much of this prevailing energy. While it is very much an electro EP in the most modern sense, it rarely allows itself the luxury of staying on that one path. At times it fluctuates, resonating on some unheard and innate frequency, until fragments are shaken away to reveal the new and underlying structure. It’s also a record which takes delight in revoking electro’s unfair reputation as a medium too abstract for dancing to. That such a claim still exists is weird, but Williams’s brings with him a bag of tricks and touches which emphasise the funk and grooves even while it sounds as if the four horsemen are on the loose.

This is not to say Forlorn Figures is particularly heavy. Perhaps in relation to a lot of contemporary electro is weighs in at the heftier end, but it’s less abrasive than some of his recent techno work, bringing a certain amount of light which dials up the contrast. Generally the harsher tones serve to scour away extraneous tissue, removing bulk and limbering the tunes up. The results are lean and dangerous.

From the off, Williams’ taste for the shadowy side of electronica’s past is at work. Opener Xen sparks into life and builds a focus on bleak billows of bass extracted from the most prowling forms of techstep. It brings a gravity to the track which leans hard on the breaks, capturing them and pressing them into a scattered orbit where they clatter and pop. Troom, right at the end, slips the whole tune into a slower circuit, and evokes flickering images of Le Car’s Detroit born, synth pop tinged experimentalism, and late 80s hiphop jams. It’s a confident, brash number, the track smacking beats and bass of an off-kilter half-melody as it grows more and more fiery.

Even when the music contains the more recognizably straight up tones of electro, they are toyed with, and mutated. On The Verge latches the mood to noir-ish streets, slowly dousing the light levels under a shroud of Rother-esque leads before illuminating everything with gentle flares of melody and glowing rivulets of sultry strings which accent the rain-lashed and cinematic roll of the tune. Carkrash Vikdem in comparison, corkscrews through, industrializing the beats, straightening out the groove into what snarling, peak time nastiness, and weaving in machine soul by way of static bursts of bleeps.

Forlorn Figures… is a corrective of sorts for a scene which has the first, very slight, symptoms of playing a bit too readily for the gallery. It’s tautness comes not from a modern electro-minimalist approach to reduction, but from the simple understanding of how everything goes together, fits together, perfectly, and its fire and energy draws from a time when electro was first and foremost a mover of limbs and feet. It’s this which informs the music most: fast, sometimes heavy, and occasionally even brutal, it’s always done to power the grooves. Excellent, excellent electro that bites back.

Review: Various Artists – Mechatronica 002 (Mechatronica)

It might be another year but electro’s fascination with the various artist sampler format shows little interest in stopping. In the next few weeks we have VAs from the likes of Libertine, Stilleben, Brokntoys and Cultivated Electronics on their way, and you can put money on more of them appearing as the next 12 months progress. It’s a fine enough way of doing it, even more so when you consider that the burgeoning interest in the genre will probably benefit in the long term as more people with scant knowledge of the scene come onboard and find a pile of records offering a quick lesson in what’s out there. It’s not always the easiest genre to get into, remaining as it does rather more esoteric than either house or techno, so anything which allows new blood an inroad is to be welcomed.

Although this is only Berlin label Mechatronica’s second ever release, what is already becoming very clear is that they certainly have a taste and an ear for some fine electro. Their first record brought together some real scene veterans in the form of Luke Eargoggle, Sync 24, and UHU and this second collection carries a roster every bit as impressive with Dez Williams, Fleck E.S.C, and Umwelt signing on for all manner of breakbeaty shenanigans.

Where a noticeable amount of the new electro in 2016 was either trying to redefining deepness, or refracting the colder glare of synthwave or IDM into a more modern brightness, Mechatronica’s second release eschews such careful approaches for four tunes which operate on a far more joyfully instinctual level. Even though the beats rarely accelerate towards the light bending speed that is so common at the harder end of the genre, each piece brings a sense of disparate artists operating at the sharp edge of the current scene, and paying more attention to grooves and grunt than to carefully constructed atmospherics. And that’s pretty much how we like it around here.

First up are a pair of relative newcomers. It’s possible that I’ve heard work by either Dmitry Distant or Igors Vorobjovs without being aware of it, but their entry here, the tight, jacking thunder of Cold Scape stands on its own feet. It pulls at the same chunk of the brain as classic Metroplex does, and indeed mainlines a similar vibe to Model 500’s more militant moments. But rather than simply dump a pile of nostalgia on us, it pushes beyond the realm of homage. The sound is thicker than Model 500, and swarms with micro touches; the robotic, rolling hypnotism of the bassline vying for your attentions with washes of chilled pads which bind the machine grooves to something looser and iridescent. As debuts go this is a kicker. I can’t wait to hear a full release.

Dez Williams tune, the stalking, hacking Only Way I know is far calmer than much of the work he turned in towards the end of last year without losing touch of his trademark sense of compressed funk. The track pitches somewhere between hip hop and classic electro, but tears down much of the building work, only to work it back up into a slowly unfolding slice of industrialized moodiness which force feeds the machines with some malicious, darkside, rave energy. Nowhere near as bleeding ears hard as a lot of that recent work, it’s actually more effective for it. One to play when things are getting messy; a thought, in fact, which might sum up the record.

It might be particularly true of the other pair of tracks, Umwelt’s Mankind Origin and Fleck E.S.C’s Dimmer Set Up. I’m corralling them here together because they share a pulse with each other, particularly in the way they both trawl through electro’s more or less recent past to provide building blocks of sound and attitude. Although both tunes (and the Umwelt one in particular) owe a debt to Electro-noir, neither fixate on that approach. They are far too messy for a start, swapping cold and clinical tones for static bursts of percussion and condensed, repressed, sonic malice. On Mankind Origin this meanness accents the frosty top end, clawing it away from its precision engineering until it becomes bleaker, creepier, dragged in the dirt. On Dimmer Set Up Fleck E.S.C unleashes barely restrained acidic elements under the spectral, Rother-esque lead lines until it morphs into a jacking creature of the night, with its beats snapping at the future. As good a snapshot of contemporary electro as you could wish with Mechatronica pushing the madness into the new year. Excellent.