Friday Night Tune: Mgun – Shamen

I’ve said it before but when it comes to music I tend to be quite simple: I like my house music dirty, my electro fast and alien, and I like my techno hard and funky.

Perhaps we are all products of our environment when it comes to music, and slaves to our embryonic influences whether we want to be or not, whether we even think we are. I expect we’ve all known people – be they friends, family members, colleagues – who we slagged off for being stuck in the past when it came to music. There was a fella I worked with for years who had seen all the big acts back in the 60s. He still had the ticket stubs from gigs by the Beatles, the Stones, even Jimi Hendrix, and it was fun to listen to his stories of seeing these mythical figures in the flesh, but you gradually became aware that for all his pronouncements about loving music, he was completely oblivious to anything after 1973. For him, the decade of his youth was the be all and end all.

I used to think I was beyond that, and in many senses, I think I still am. I can reel off lists of pure hunnerds of producers and labels putting out music today that would silence all but the most socially damaged of trainspotters, and my purchases of contemporary music financially still lies somewhere between the sort of costs you would usually associate with buying a house and renewing Trident.

But while I still follow and support a multitude of producers, I sometimes wonder whether my likes and dislikes are governed less by what’s happening in music now and more by what happened back then. I get bored easily with deep house – no matter what the pedigree – and monotone techno. I always got bored with deep house and monotone techno. I learned that way back when I first started listening to electronic music. And I still have a punk fan’s slight disdain for disco, regardless of how ridiculous that is and knowing very well that genre’s place in the history of the music I love.

That’s just the stuff I can’t really be arsed with. It’s even more pronounced with the stuff I do. Are all the records I’ve bought over the last few years enjoyed because they remind me of stuff I listened to twenty years ago? Are my pronouncements about the state of techno and house less to do with how things actually are, and more because I’m trying to reconcile my own past with the here and now?

Well, Probably all of that. But I think at the end of the day worrying about it is mostly balls, particularly as so many producers around just now seem intent on returning to those sounds from long ago. It’s weird when you’re wired into a nostalgia trip. It’s even weirder when people who weren’t even around at the time are wired into it too. In fact, some of the worst contemporary music around tries to ape the past, all too often mistaking surface sounds for deeper meaning. It is an easy mistake to make.

It goes the other way too, though. Producers who hunt through past influences and discard everything which imprisons the music in its own heritage are very much in the minority yet they do exists. Look at Bass Clef, and the way he’s taken acid house in the past and refitted it according to his own tastes and needs, or the way the current Bristol crews have built music out of bits and pieces of techno, house and dubstep that feels entirely new and forward looking.

I think the reason I like the music of Mgun so much is that he plays to both sides of this neurotic worry of mine so well. A Detroit artist, deep in the musical heritage of the city due to his relationship with Underground Resistance, he’s always made techno which feels inspired by Detroit’s legacy but he has never sounded like it. Others do that too, of course, and from the same city. Both Jay Daniel and Kyle Hall have a similar relationship with the past. In their case though the music is easier to place, sounding less removed from the tastes which informed it. With Mgun, the connections are harder to make, and following the threads from one to the other takes a bit of effort. You are rewarded, though. And although it doesn’t happen all that often, when it does its best to stop worrying about why and just get stuck in.

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.

Review: MGUN – Gentium (Don’t Be Afraid)

Of all the elements within Manuel Gonzales’ musical output over the last few years perhaps one of the most important has been that it rarely conforms to whatever romanticized notion of Detroit techno is currently in vogue. There are, of course, plenty of nods and touches resplendent of his native city – as a former member of Underground Resistance’s live band and a sometimes collaborator with Kyle Hall how could there not be – but the overwhelming sense has often been of a producer at his happiest and at his best when he gives free reign to his own unique sound, shaped as it is by an understanding that perhaps the greatest gift a musical heritage can give you – should give you – is the springboard to go beyond it.

It’s also interesting that Mgun’s best work has been furnished across a number of British labels and UK-based partnerships that fit him like a glove. The Trilogy Tapes and Berceuse Heroique come to mind, but his longest and most successful home has been with Ben Semtek’s Don’t Be Afraid where he has formed one of the most exciting takes on modern techno in recent years. It’s a sound that has a strong camaraderie with a profoundly British form of electronic experimentalism, but one that seldom forgets Detroit techno’s greatest lesson is that without soul at the heart of the music, the grooves go nowhere.

Gentium, his first album, represents Mgun’s reemergence after a near two-year period of radio silence. Although many of his sonic fingerprints are apparent, particularly in the directness that comes from his favoured production method of jamming on hardware, there is a greater breadth to the music, and a subtlety that hasn’t always been obvious previously. This isn’t to suggest that he has followed a lot of the techno of recent times in trading snap and flare for something deeper. Gentium certainly does have those moments but even when they come to the fore, such as on the sleepy-eyed opener Pok, they unfurl as touches of grace and warmth hanging in purposeful space, lengthening and stretching out into fragments of gilded melody which recall Drexciya’s lighter and more playful moments. Don’t Hurt Yourself, in comparison, doesn’t so much deepen as submerge the music in a tidal flood of echo and grit where the rare touches of light that penetrate the depth take on an alien quality.

Both of those tracks are good examples of Gentium’s defining mood, which is largely downbeat in nature but with enough optimism to keep it floating in the right place. There is, in fact, a similarity here to the vibes of Hall and Jay Daniel, particularly in Half Past 3’s scratchy moonlit funk or Bed and Breakfast’s tight groove. They work the housier end of the sound, but hang their sense of rough fun on loose experimentalist touches knowing well that any attempt to siphon off the energy which comes from that vital collision would weaken the magic with over familiar conventions. When Mgun lets himself go completely though, such as on the fantastic Veyra, things move up to another level entirely. Veyra is that rarest of things: a slice of freakish, odd angled funk that warps and redefines itself endlessly without ever failing to do the job. It’s both snaked hipped and utterly robotic, an absolute treasure of a tune which will be turning up in a hundred and one mixes over the nest few months.

Veyra’s lunatic abandon aside there is a balancing act on Gentium between the experimental and a more straight ahead approach and it doesn’t always come off. Past Due sounds a collection of loosely linked ideas without common ground, and with too much prominence given to the sullen bass at the expense of the shimmering but overly fragile melody up top. Nobs simply kicks against itself, never allowing anything else to intrude into it’s closed off world. These occasional miss hits can be forgiven though because the album remains, above all, a brilliantly honest one and the blemishes serve to accent how good the rest of it remains. That it is this good is a testament to a musical vision that rarely tips its hat to the transience of faddish scenes and trends, and instead fiercely guards its creator’s deeply individualistic talents. And when you consider how rare that is becoming in modern techno, you realise quite how special Gentium might turn out to be.