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White Noise: September 2013

Monday, 30 September 2013

Machinedrum - Vapor City

Label: Ninja Tune

If Travis Stewart is one thing, he’s prolific. A veteran of the New York and Berlin scenes, Stewart’s stream of strong releases is matched only by his collaborative material, both with Jimmy Edgar as JETS and with Braille as Sepalcure. Yet even considering his reputation as a restlessly talented producer, Stewart’s career remains an anomaly: how many artists are capable of both producing for a mainstream rapper and securing a hallowed 5/5 from dance authority Resident Advisor? The album in question, 2011’s superb Room(s) on Planet Mu, hints at the explanation. Here Stewart cemented his trademark sounds – urgent, jukey percussion and colourful melodies – in a work which fused countless styles into a dazzling hybrid. Here was a producer obviously forward-thinking but also impressively versatile, leaving a pair of enormous shoes to fill for follow-up LP Vapor City.

The album in question is a concept piece of sorts, each track a soundtrack to neighbourhoods of a city that Stewart frequently visits in his dreams. It bears many of the traits of Room(s), from the still-fresh fusion of juke and jungle to the blissed-out melodies which adroitly counterpoint the frantic rhythms. Obviously these sounds can’t be as captivating second time around, but Stewart does a good job of it, offering a worthy successor which perhaps only suffers from a narrowed focus compared to its predecessor.


As on the memorable She Died There, Vapor City opens with a compelling sense of desolation in the form of Gunshotta’s frosty junglism. Here throaty bass growls beneath roiling breaks, later adorned by a spitfire ragga vocal loop which brings the dread inna 90’s style. From here on out it’s largely a smoother journey, as Stewart offers softened breakbeats, liberally adorned with breathy vocals and emotive melodic movements. It’s an interesting approach, particularly given that the current hardcore revival tends to revel in the style’s toughness and menace, and at first proves refreshing. The technique is perfected on the heavenly Center Your Love, where delicate breaks tumble beneath sweetened guitar and lilting female vocals, before giving way to Stewart’s trademark frothing rave chords.

These softer numbers make for pretty listening, but the formula grows weary as the album progresses: the sweeter concoctions, from Infinite Us to Seesea via Don’t 1 2 Lose You, shine less brightly when placed next to their similar brethren. It’s unfortunate, because this is clearly the work of an eminently talented producer – the acrobatic vocal manipulations of Seesea are a case in point.


The mood may get a bit lost somewhere across the album’s midsection, but Stewart re-takes the reins for Vapor City’s outstanding final suite. U Still Lie is an insant winner, where echo-chamber futurism takes form with a slow trip hop swagger, as half-heard rocker’s croons (perhaps Stewart’s own?) are slowly submerged by a glistening 80s synthline. In an album which brings tropes of dance music past so determinedly into the future, it’s a gorgeous moment of retro fervour which warrants repeated spins.

This leads straight onto the straight-up album highlight Eyesdontlie, a killer fusion which twins pitch-bent vocal loops over steel-plated snares to intoxicating effect. These two tracks, along with Gunshotta, show just how brilliant Machinedrum sounds when he lets the darkness in, and many might wish he did so a little bit more. Any tourist will find something to love in Stewart’s well-realised dreamscape, and while it might not mark a huge departure from the sound of Room(s), it proves another welcome exploration of the mind of the restless artist.  Ultimately though, while the album's lovestruck compositions are undeniably attractive, they lack the weight and memorability of those vital trips to Vapor City’s roughest neighbourhoods.


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Friday, 27 September 2013

Huerco S. - Colonial Patterns

Label: Software

Up until now, the career of Kansas native Brian Leeds has followed much the same path as many other lofi electronic practitioners. A trio of releases on boutique labels Future Times, Opal Tapes and Wicked Bass allied the Huerco S. name with an experimental approach to house and techno, heavy on distortion and murky atmospherics. Yet with a signing to Daniel Lopatin’s Software label (a man many will know better as Oneohtrix Point Never), Leeds’ debut arrives with a lot more press than expected, alongside a clear academic slant explicit in the album’s title.

The sudden elevation of a cassette-releasing experimentalist to Pitchfork prominence may lead to some suspicion, asking whether the historical interrogation implied by track names likes Quivira are a solid base for intellectual exploration, or an obscure attempt to twin trendy post-colonial examination with trendy lofi house jams. Fittingly, we can look to Leeds’ past, as well as his present, for answers. The producer has more than proved his musical dexterity over his few releases to date: from the eternal, heartbroken ambience of Battery Tunnel to the mesmeric groove of career highlight Apheleia’s Theme. Colonial Patterns is an expansion of the Huerco S. sound, delivering a haunting musical landscape which is suggestive rather than didactic, beguiling through its ambiguous themes and textures.

The first thing listeners will notice about Colonial Patterns is its dedication to ambience. Unlike Leeds’ previous releases, much of the hour-long album is beatless, bringing to mind the introspective depths of recent albums from Vessel and Actress. Unexpected it may be, but the new focus on ambience does not disappoint: the album’s textures are magnificent, its decayed sounds evoking a timeless sense of loss. From the woozy strings of menacing opener Struck With Deer Lungs to the subtle hues of Monks Mound (Arcology), many of the piece’s highlights play out melodies buried under static and distortion, left for the listener to unearth and interpret.

In a sense, it is these atmospheric sections which draw the purest parallel to Leeds’ colonial commentary. A proud Midwesterner, he talked engagingly in a recent interview about his homeland’s colonial context. Some of these ideas do come across in Colonial Patterns: by subjecting contemporary house and techno to the decay of music’s past, he provokes a convincing discourse on history’s susceptibility to manipulation. This is most clear on standout track Prinzif, where a veil of meditative ambience is abruptly parted, revealing the robust, colourful terrain buried – and far from dormant – beneath the surface.  

Yet for all of this theoretical interpretation, some of the album’s ambient pieces still slip through the gaps, lost between stronger compositions and lacking the memorability of Leeds’ more beat-driven compositions. As a result, the likes of ‘Iińzhiid and Ragtime U.S.A. (Warning), providing not only clear beat patterns but transparent melody and vocals, constitute the album’s most focused, engaging moments. It’s a murky, sometimes alien trip through inversions of the dance music we know, yet Colonial Patterns excels in its ambiguity; genuinely thought-provoking and – when the clouds part – nakedly beautiful.


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Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Etch - Old School Methods

Label: Keysound

Of the groups piecing together the shards of dubstep’s remains, Dusk and Blackdown’s Keysound imprint aren’t just leading the way – they’ve practically lapped the competition. As discussed in last month’s Visionist review, the stable have rejected the steady onslaught of the 4/4 on the UK scene, pushing forward vital new blends of grime, garage and dubstep under the loose banner of ‘dark 130'. After lending a platform to shining new talents Beneath, Wen and Visionist, Keysound offer up another strong debut courtesy of Etch, who brings a distinct junglist edge to his tough compositions.


The EP kicks off with its strongest player in the form of Hybrid, a heady blend of choppy melodics, thundering bass hits and classic vocal cuts. The pace is frenetic and the rhythm is rude as they come, but Etch handles the disparate elements with a masterful hand: the soundfield bristles with life without ever feeling cluttered. Next J-One joins the fray for Sounds, whose 2step woodblock pattern feels blissfully gentle by comparison, twinned with subtle melodies and drifting vocal snips.

On the B-side, Sphynx steps back into the darkness, as vocals straight out of an old ‘ardcore tape are stitched to another expert 2step rhythm, adorned by surgical break cuts and dreamy pads. Finally Lost Methods incorporates menacing DnB bass swipes, resulting in a potent concoction with as much emphasis on white space as on the sounds themselves. Sounds’ recurring vocal line, “whenever we hear sounds / we are changed, we are no longer the same,” could be viewed as nothing more than a truism, but for Etch it feels particularly apt. Here is a producer who has listened to the UK’s hardcore past, has been changed by it, who now revitalises those sounds to change others, perpetuating the cycle. Music that changes people that change music that changes.


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Monday, 23 September 2013

Innershades - Nina At The Boiler Room

Label: Crème Organization

Off the back of only one release, Belgian producer Innershades has already made quite the name for himself. Yet his debut wasn’t any old release – That Girl on Ukraine’s Wicked Bass imprint was lethal, revelling in lofi compression and Dancemania repetition. Now for his second outing Innershades takes to DJ TLR’s reliable Crème Organization with cover art reminiscent of Charles Burns, establishing a potent sound and proving that his debut was more promise than fluke.

Nina At The Boiler Room / No Stoppin / The Future

Here the fresh face comes up trumps with three different sonic flavours. Most attention will surely be drawn to the menacing title track, where a coiled acid line builds tension over an assault of compressed kicks and cowbells. It’s a robust, propulsive house track, its starkness emphasised by the siren which calls out dramatically into empty space. On No Stoppin Innershades goes for underwater dub, the kick cloaked in aquatic reverb and something like a guitar lick lurking beneath the surface. Finally the EP closes on a high with the bouncy tones of The Future. While the lingering melody may be indebted to That Girl, the tight drum mechanics and irresistible bassline reinvigorate the formula, capping off an impressively varied EP by a rising star who seems to nail every sound that he sets his sights on.


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Friday, 20 September 2013

Pev & Kowton - End Point / Vapours

Label: Livity Sound

Livity Sound are on a mission. The Bristol-based imprint, comprised of Pev, Kowton and Asusu are a label, a live show, and a dangerously talented set of DJs. The team’s streetwise techno mutations are critically aware of dance’s history, particularly the axis of jungle and grime, yet with each release they push indefatigably forward, their sounds unique and enthralling at each turn. Ahead of the release of a Livity Sound compilation in October (where many of these tunes will be available digitally for the first time), Pev & Kowton issue the final statement of Livity Sound’s first movement, a worthy follow-up to their superb Raw Code single which opened the year.

End Point / Vapours

As with both Pev’s solo productions and his collaborations, these are not straightforward bangers. Livity’s sound is subtle and dense, trading in spare, delicate arrangement, re-orientating the bass-wise meditations of early DMZ within techno structures. End Point is almost calm – a minimalist marvel comprised of high-frequency melodics, agitated hi-hats and emotive, scifi synthwork. The elements come together alchemically, sweeping the listener away to alien territories while retaining that pulsing club core. B-side Vapours is just as impressive, where a humid bed of eerie ambience builds to a showstopping conga rhythm. Once these drum patterns take hold they don’t relent, adorned only be laser stabs and menacing junglist atmospherics. The release comes as a victory lap for Livity Sound: stimulating both the mind and the body, a further mesmerising taste of two of the UK's boldest, most vital producers.


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