Reviews – Automatic Tasty – Propaganda (Vortex Traks); Shawn Rudiman/Naeem/Hits Only – PGH Electro Volume 1 (Is/Was)

Towards the end of last year I started to suspect that electro’s latest resurgence had reached its high water mark, that it was finally beginning to roll back, taking with it not only the great swell of new artists and music, but the usual flotsam of chancers and bandwagon jumpers who usually float to the surface just as the tsunami begins to break. It’s a funny genre for that. I can’t think of many others which are so inextricably linked with a cycle of flood or drout. I was beginning to worry how long it would be before the next wave started its inexorable roll towards the beach head.

Automatic Tasty – Propaganda (Vortex Traks)

As it turned out, I was a little, tiny, bit premature. Now that the dark hump of the year has passed, things are beginning to get going again. There has been a real explosion of great electro in the last few weeks – much of it from expected locations, some from out of the blue. Particularly fun has been the way the newer music has been chaperoned by a great little run of interesting reissues (chief amongst them, personally speaking, Tresor’s re-release of the Scopex back catalogue.)

As good as the represses are, it’s been even more heartening to see a host of young labels going from strength to strength. Vortex Traks first appeared back in 2015 just as the scene began to climb and have pretty much been up at the front all through this revival. It seems not entirely believable, then, that the new release, Automatic Tasty’s Propaganda , is only their eighth.

It’s a delicate collection of tunes, is Propaganda, and one that rarely tries to work up a sweat when it can follow an ambling groove all the way through a pastel sunset. It’s a warm record; frazzly bursts of Heinrich Mueller-esque melody spiral over your head, occasionally tinting themselves with the slightest hint of italo, before falling languidly over the rhythms crisp hurry. While you can occasionally be forgiven for wondering if Automatic Tasty’s love for a particular era and style of electro is pushing things a little close to homage, you can’t knock the silvery, laid back energy which powers it. Particular stand outs are Man & His Value’s, joyfully soulful slo-mo bump where it pulses through endless depths of light, colour,and shadow, and Prying Eyes (See No Evil) with its shimmying, workshop altered, Drexcxiyan bop.

It took me a little while to get my head adjusted to it, having done little but listen to ultra fast techno bass over the last few months, but the change of pace and Propaganda’s determination to find its own path and speed quickly warmed me to it. It’s the perfect burst of subliminal heat and light for this weird, on-going winter.

Shawn Rudiman/Naeem/Hits Only – PGH Electro Volume 1 (Is/Was)

Shawn Rudiman’s place as hero of the Pittsburgh scene has been won over the last decade and a half with the help of some seriously class house and techno which rivals the best to emerge from the two big Mid West incubators. It’s interesting to see him push into electro – a genre in to which (as far as I know) he has dipped his toe a few times over his career without ever becoming fully immersed.

That changes here, along side relative newcomers Naeem and Hits Only, as he brings a pair of sinuous and lithe fast-movers to the record. Both tunes have a core of snapping techno powering the beats; Derelict evokes the static flecked growl of I-F’s bleak funk and winds it up with a paired down, ravey melody which flickers across the crunching beats with a flash of neon. Asimolar ties the clipped, tight, beats into a 303 speckled sound-scape that’s part old-school acid anthem and part Detroit. There’s something in its energy reminiscent of Black Dog at their more playful, or even LFO at their most expansive. It’s a seriously good tune.

Excellently, both Hits Only and Naeem pick up the gauntlet, both acts turning in quality grooves which easily rise to Rudiman’s challenge. Hits Only’s Trion 4 takes a more minimal route, pairing back on any frippery for a tune built from stamping breaks, a massive chord stab, and some razor sharpened 303 work. Naeem’s Facing Forward unspools right off into deep space. Both achingly subtle and actually demented, it fluctuates between those two extremes as it flares out beyond the edge of the heliosphere. It might actually be the pick of a ridiculously strong EP. I know it’s been out a little while, but I’ve been selfish in keeping it to myself. Go and make that right, right now.

Mesak – Kirot (Vortex Traks)

Mesak has been kicking around for a long while now, but I have to go ahead and admit that our paths haven’t crossed too often. I’m not sure why; checking out his back catalogue over on the Font Of All Knowledge (Discogs) shows a producer with an ear for the slightly off-on-a-tangent electro I tend to lap up. The occasional interface – a single track on the first Vortex Traks release, and the excellent Deep In My Mind split with Mono Junk on DUM – managed to show me differing shades of his work while holding on to something interesting and a little alien.

Kirot extends that feel, and does so by avoiding several of the major sonic themes so popular within the scene just now. The abyssal depths, IDM tinting and blood and thunder banging might well be noticeable by their absence, but they are replaced by something both older and more fluid.

That might not be your first reaction on hearing Kirot, and certainly the riot of colour with splashes out during the loose, scattered opener Spirit Ahoy is suggestive of a more deconstructed take on the genre, one that builds itself out of shards of Nintendo-esque sound and slow changes of tone where the tune travels from something upfront to a cooler, more muted approach. Such moves imbue the tune with depth rather than deepness, especially coupled with the flares of Two Lone Swordsmen style melodies and synths.

In fact, it’s in this that Kirot shows itself most clearly; a sort of remembrance of an era when electronic music was unabashedly, well, electronic, and was pushed to see how far it could go in splicing the artificial with the organic. Occasional this vibes gets a bit ahead of itself. Kiero, as an example, takes too long to establish some sense of itself amongst the vaguely random noises even if it does pull it out the bag somewhat towards the end as it begins to straighten itself out and make use of the multitude of wonkiness that almost buries it.

But this is a rare enough overstepping and shouldn’t detract from the generally pretty nice vibe the record sets out towards. Max Toisto, at the end, comes closest to setting its stall out as a burst of fairly conventional, contemporary, electro, but it avoids such a fate by means of its scruffy playfulness. Yes, you’ve certainly heard similar, but the way in which it evokes the flavour of dirty, crumbling, techno (and even the faintest tang of early Plastikman) locks down its energy to a different sphere entirely.

The standout here, though, is probably Vietti, a woozy, half-speed exploration of space and tone which starts out small and compressed, barely shining any light into the shadows in the corners, but slowly winds itself up into a ruffled and studied piece of porpoising weirdo-funk which shimmers with odd grandeur before diving out of sight.

I have a slight worry that Kirot stands a little too outside the gang to be picked up by the people who would benefit the most from hearing it, those who might find a little epiphany of sorts in Kirot’s wonderful asymmetry and joyful, playful, reworking of the genre’s basics. There is nothing here to scare off the legion of new electro fans; it’s not deliberately harsh (actually not harsh at all) or wilfully obtuse. What it is, though, is certain of its vision, displaying enough steel in its individualist streak that it won’t back down it its mission to expand upon electro’s themes.

Favourite Records of 2016: Featuring Umfang, Morphology, Lok 44 and More!

Best record? Naah, there aren’t any best records, just lots of good uns. I’ve heard a few people here and there saying it was a poor year for music. Well, I guess it depends where you look. There wasn’t a huge amount of house music that did it for me this year, I have to say. While the genre’s taste for nostalgia was fun enough to begin with, it’s now looking more and more like a chronic – and limiting – condition. There was some brilliant techno once you got past the hordes of records which assaulted you with matching beats, sounds, tones, and themes. And as for electro, well…although its true that electro never went away, it was certainly in a rather sleepy state until it began to get a head of steam again last year. The effort has been rewarded in 2016 with some astounding music. Even better, the electro renaissance looks like continuing into next year and beyond.

As ever though, the best option is to ignore genres and simply buy stuff that gives you pleasure. it’s a lesson some of us are slow to learn, and even slower to put into practice. There was a fair bit I liked this year, and less that I really loved. Here are the honourable mentions plus the five I wouldn’t part with for anything. As ever, no true favourites, no attempts to frame debates, or make a point. These are genuinely, simply, records I enjoyed because I enjoyed them. What else matters?

Bruce brought his A-game on three releases this year, but it was the filthy technoid skank of I’m Alright Mate (Timedance) which was still on my decks at the end. Likewise, Randomer was a busy lad throughout 2016, and he left the biggest impression with the strange, polyrhythmic charmer Running Dry on Dekmantel. Michael E kicked us into a time loop with the stripped down, direct-to-jack acid of Child Of God, with Give Me Vision particularly invoking memories of wobbly bangers long departed. Jared Wilson also went down acid house lane with Communicating With Ghosts (Dixon Avenue Basement Jams), but the stark, pared down approach was swapped out and replaced with a more muscular and techno vibe. LnrdCroy also brough acid house to the fore with Ooze City (Mood Hut) and soaked the floor with sludgy, swampy grooves. And if you thought acid was the only game in town this year, DJ Overdose’s Don’t Get Burned (Computer Controlled) pushed back with a record flavoured by the stomping house of Dance Mania (and, yes, a little bit of acid).

It was a mental year for electro, and I could have done this entire list ten times over with nothing but the electro records. Jeez, I don’t even know where to begin. How about with 214, who continues to get better with every release. This time it was Fuel Cells on CPU which best showed his box of tricks as he gave us a record as quirky as it was jagged. London Modular Alliance’s Out Of Sync (Brokntoys) brought some full throttle electro and mixed it up with warped, abstracts, and Annie Hall’s Tenured Position (CPU) dived into deep pools of light to create some of the most joyful and shining takes on the genre this year. Special shouts to Carl Finlow, Silicon Scally, Plant43, and Dez Williams who all added their unique voices to electro’s new awakening.

There are too many names to list. Far too many. I’m sure there will be some later I remember and kick myself for forgetting but that’s life. Here are five of my absolute favourites from 2016. I’m sure you will all join with me in wishing that 2016 gets tae fuck and in hoping that 2017 is, at the very least, a tiny bit less stupid. I’m going for a long drink. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Umfang – Riffs (1080p)

There are always records kicking around here which get lost in the general messiness of my unordered mind. Often times I stumble over them months later when I’m looking for something else and curiosity finally reasserts itself. I wasn’t familiar that much with Emma Olsen’s slender body of work, and the little I had about her was mostly related to DJing, but this EP on Vancouver’s 1080p simply blew me away. Described in one review I read as ‘minimal’ the reality is that record is a juxtaposition of empty space and the sharp, potent sounds which gradually flow in to fill them. Some of the hardest techno I’ve heard this year, it infuses it all with a spiky, acidic energy before muting it with a worn world weariness. Listen to Ecstatic_Layer‘s hammer-blow of industrialized, focussed, mood and see what I mean. Essential for anyone made despondent by techno’s current production line sounds.

E.R.P – Ancient Light (Solar One)

While Gerard Hanson’s 2845 album under his Convextion guise garnered most of the publicity, it was this release for Solar One which really shone. languid, spectral, and distant in the sort of way great art often is, Ancient Light brought all of its qualities to bear in a trip to the furtherest reaches of the universe and powered it all with a warp drive of the tightest, purest machine grooves. Whilst it recalled something of Detroit’s own aural deep space program, it refused to settle for too much homage, creating instead its own cosmic funk by way of some very modern electro. Deep doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Samo DJ Kicked Out Of Everywhere (TTT)

The Trilogy Tapes had another undoubted year of quality, with some great releases courtesy of Elmo Fudd, Bored Young Adults, and Rezzet, it was Samo DJ’s Kicked Out Of Everywhere which best symbolised the labels leaning towards a deceptive and subversive accessibility throughout the last 12 months. Too heavy for house, too hypnotic for rave and too lively for techno the record stalked a different course, rolling little bits of everything together and making the connections through kindred grooves until the music took on a lithe independence all of its own.

Lokk 44 – Bouse (Trust)

It took me a little time to adjust to Bouse; rightly or wrongly I expected something a little bit more comfortably electro, at least a little less obtuse. Eventually it all blossomed and I woke up the way Daniel Lodig plays with both the conventions of the genre and our own preconceptions to create a sound world strongly coloured by quiet drama and a flair for taking electro forms and reworking them into something wider and symphonic until each tune sounds like the soundtrack to a private and untold story. In a year when some electro went for the jugular, and some angled it downwards into the gloomy depths, Bouse’s subtle experimentation and clever structures made it an important – and timely – milestone.

Morphology – Frozen State (Vortex Traks)

Although Morphology’s first release of the year, Lack Of Light on Abstract Forms, was a superbly unnerving example of bleak, frozen, electro, this release on nascent Berlin label Vortex Traks takes everything from the first record and improves on it in every way. Well, not every way because Lack Of Light’s heart of ice has thawed by application of some furious, acid soaked grooves and a burgeoning sense of urgency which invades the structures of the music like a benevolent virus. In the moments when it isn’t building dancefloor-chewing future funk, it’s evoking the spirit of IDM to accent the tunes with a palpable sense of adventure and wonder. Of all the great electro records this year, this one comes closer than any other to summing up the genres new-found spirit of excitement and vitality.

Review: Morphology – Frozen State (Vortex Traks)

One of the very few things that has kept me relatively sane during 2016’s endlessly craptactular horror show is the way in which electro has begun, finally, to reassert itself on a scene increasingly dependant on the conventional. While it is true that electro ‘never went away’ and has always bubbled away under the well-sailed surface, you would have to be pretty disingenuous to pretend that the genre’s current popularity isn’t beginning to take it into new arenas. Personally speaking, as someone who has been very much into it for a very long time, I think 2016 has been at least as important, if not more so, than its previous mid nineties high water mark, particularly when you factor in the way that the music is now truly embracing new and differing facets of sound, textures, and themes which are allowing it to grow and evolve.

Morphology’s take on this evolution has frequently aimed itself towards a deepening and darkening of the genre. That in itself is nothing new, being a strand in the scene which runs back some 20+ years. But where Morphology perhaps differ is that their music hasn’t gone down a one way street. As internalized as some of their tunes feel, and as claustrophobic, there has always been a mix of competing emotions which help elevate the sound beyond the basic patterns. Frequently Morphology break away from pure electro, bringing the wider soundscapes and philosophies of IDM in to play, and making corrections in texture and meaning with the help of ambient flourishes. Cinematic is often a word bandied around with such music, but here is feels pretty fitting.

Frozen State itself is an interesting choice of title for the EP. While a certain iciness has often been central to Morphology’s sound, it is less prominent across this release. Where in the past there were blasts of winter, things have been warmed up. An acidic energy infuses the four tracks here, ratcheting up the grooves and providing a springboard into the swirling darkness. On occasions, such as in the depths of Linear Fractures the bubbling lines of the 303s entwine with the frigid crackle of the percussion, recalling for a moment the pulse of old material by The Martian. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the themes of space exploration encased in the track titles, this nod to alien techno informs a lot of music, and the way it kicks and buckles in zero gravity.

The A side in particular takes these themes and the music’s new-found heat to pack a lot of energy into the tunes. Frozen State draws on familiar vibes, a charging, slanted groove where bass twists in and out of the shadows below a tight, fast breakbeat. It’s thoroughly modern electro, using changes of energy and direction to foster an atmosphere of dance floor meanness without recourse to aural aggression. The best electro has always pulled similar tricks, using weaves of sound and tone to unsettle and build. Morphology nail it here. Polar Wander, in comparison, is heavier, a micron slower, and wrapped up with ghostly pads and thick with a juicy bass. Even so, it avoids an overt dark side vibe and gets its head down instead, morphing itself into a deadly plateaux of acid electro.

Of all the tracks though, only the wistful, playful and haunting Europa opens itself fully to those older IDM influences. It makes a symphony out of clanking noises, a party out of gentle machines doing their own thing. It slightness shouldn’t mark it out as lightweight however. Once you get down into its circuits there is a beautiful, other-worldly sense of drama here, which, in actual fact, is true for the rest of the EP as well. More evidence that Morphology are leading the genre by example. A great ending to their year.

Review:Vortex Traks Volume 2 (Vortex Traks)

When the first volume of Vortex Traks series of samplers came out last winter, it just about beat the avalanche of compilation 12″s which had begun to roll down the steep slopes of Mount Electro. But while Vol 1 contained some interesting enough material, and featured some decent enough names, the overal feeling was that it tried a little too hard to keep fingers in different pies, as if it was perhaps worried that going full tilt for an EP built entirely on the abstract fun of electro might be a bit much for the label’s first time release. The result was a record which swung between that genre and music which leaned closer to deep, acidy, but straight up house and techno,. While nice enough, it wasn’t entirely what you wanted from a record billed as electro. Or, at least, not if you are a miserable old bastard like me.

Whether deliberately or otherwise, Vortex Traks Volume 2 is a tighter, more logical representation of a sound which has moved back into the public eye after a long period of lingering in the shadows, and there is less of a sense of deviation from the prime material into other areas of electronica (which suits me just nicely thank you very much). Even so, this isn’t a four tracker of light speed beats and growling noises, as each of the tunes works over different facets of a common sound. The four acts on offer range from up-and-comers, to underground stalwarts, to current crossover poster-boys. It’s an exemplary mix of talents which does a stand up job of revealing just how much scope exists within this one genre alone without having to break off into other areas of exploration.

32, by Morphology, and Caffeine Sleep by Mr Velcro Fastener are both just about what you might expect from them – which really isn’t a slight because both tracks are pretty special. 32, firstly, hovers in the claustrophobic, internalized space which Morphology have long since made their own. Many producers try to do dark and come off with material which is really little more than a cartoonish approximation. Morphology’s great gift is to understand that darkness can only exist with light, that it’s the gradation of shade which lends the music its bleak beauty. Here the pads ripple with loss and yearning, and accent the sunbursts of almost cheerful melodies which flare out from behind them. Mr Velcro Fastener head off in an utterly different direction with a tune which incorporates elements of far more classical electro to create something far wider, looser and cheekier. It positively drips with late night funk, diving gracefully with a verve that almost borders on pop but tempering it with little shards of almost IDM-ish Sheffield steel.

Kan3da’s Dancing Data is tighter and more introspective, heavy with pensive strings and flowing breakbeats, but the melody is upfront and intelligent, playing prettily off the thick, stepping bass. It rises here and there into huge washes of sound, before ebbing away and letting the emotion take control once again. And while its groove may not be the most electrifying of those on offer across the record, it haunts the higher registers, getting into your head with clever tones and shifts.

Moonglade Temal by the Guide Girls is possibly the standout track, possibly because I know nothing whatsoever about the act and therefore didn’t know what to expect. It’s head and feet are firmly rooted in the 90’s, recalling IDM and the refined experimentalism of artists like Autechre or Matthew Herbert. It’s a loose, bubbling tune, riding an ambling breakbeat towards dawn. It feels slight at first, as if it’s burned out its meaning in the first few bars, but it slowly warps through its length, letting sunlight in between the faint acid blips and endlessly shifting pads, until it rises out of itself as a subtle, ghostlike paean to a form of electro which isn’t often seen anymore, or a contemporary form of braindance where the ambient touches are the point.

As good as the first release in the series was, this is better in almost every way, not least because each of the tunes offer something striking and memorable from a genre which can, at times, be obtuse and mercurial. It’s a solid and very useful reminder of not only where electro is in 2016, but also where it’s been and where it’s going. Here’s to Volume 3.