My good friend Greg, a freeform radio jock here in Asheville, recently asked me to participate in his program’s best-of-2011 blowout. I wound up lugging what felt like two tons of vinyl, CDs and cassettes into the Asheville Free Media studios, where we proceeded to have a blast. Greg and I spun five hours of music (a good portion of which you will read about over the next several thousand words). In addition to hanging out and cranking jams with a fellow record nerd, his show offered me an opportunity to reflect upon all the techno, house and post-dubstep diaspora I listened to over the last 12 months. Such an exercise was needed. The sonic terrain I traversed was considerable, not to mention I dropped a lot of clams. All I cared about was consuming and moving on, consuming and moving on, consuming and moving on…
This reflection generated a handful of realizations, the most important of which is this one: Andy Stott’s Passed Me By, on the Modern Love label, contains the most potently modern music of any album I obsessed over in 2011. I won’t call it the Record of the Year (that’s not a terribly interesting determination, in my opinion), yet it is the one title that has me believing music can still contain an artistic vanguard. Passed Me By feels like the creation of an artist who was single-minded in his drive to produce a sound that is wholly new — real innovation. It’s a thought I courted for most of the year, but getting to play my favorite track, “Dark Details,” on Greg’s show felt like a consummation of sorts. Played loudly enough, and on a stereo system with low-end that is both sturdy and nimble, Stott’s rhythms are so full-bodied and gargantuan they obliterate the space separating speaker and ear. Their electro-acoustic graininess and scrap-metal scrape are dense and imposing. If it weren’t for the murky atmosphere in which the rhythms are suspended, they would collapse. Being the lover of cross-pollination that I am, I would love to see Passed Me By creep its way into the world of underground rock, where I envision it re-invigorating what Joe Carducci in the Rock and the Pop Narcotic calls “groove exploration.” Enough with all this soggy-ass drone metal. I want to hear a new wave of doom acts concoct mutant forms of dub-drenched funk, the titanic lumber of Om meets Stott’s crushing syncopation.
From what I surmise, the only critical debate surrounding Stott is which of his two releases this year is the more mind-bending: Passed Me By or its successor We Stay Together. I go with the former. To back up my claim, I turn to The Kinks, oddly enough. The nexus of commonalities and differences surrounding the two albums mirror precisely that surrounding “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night.” Both singles were released the same year, both were cut from the same cloth in regards to texture (feedback, distortion) and both were radical advances in heaviness. But what separates the former from the latter can be found in their respective rhythms. “You Really Got Me” cuts and slashes across itself, an aggressive dance of point / counterpoint. “All Day and All of the Night,” while powerful, is nothing more than a well-oiled goosestep. An odd analogy, yes, but appropriate. Passed My By is just more creative in how it moves.
Andy Stott – “Dark Details”
I encountered only two releases that can keep up with Stott’s in terms of sheer sonic immensity. Shackleton, not surprisingly, is behind both. The producers share an interest in electro-acoustic grit, but where Passed Me By and We Stay Together are juggernauts of groove, the Fireworks double 12″ and Deadman single, both released on Honest Jon’s Records, derive their impact from a blend of vertically climbing tribal percussion and dark-matter mass. The tracks on these plates are monoliths, especially King Midas Sound’s Death Dub Remix of “Deadman,” which in a perfect world would be hailed as the future of electronic R&B. Shackleton and Pinch’s collaborative album, also on Honest Jon’s, should be mentioned as well. The music didn’t grab me right away, yet I eventually realized it mined similar turf. It’s definitely more milky than either Fireworks or Deadman. At the same time, the song structures are genuinely abstruse and fun to decode.
Shackleton and Stott are two of the most daring producers in what I call up above the post-dubstep diaspora. Yet their output in 2011, rooted as it is in varying intensities of future-primitive exoticism, closely parallels Honest Jon’s new series of techno and house remixes of tracks culled from the imprint’s Shangaan Electro: New Wave Dance Music From South Africa compilation. I guess what I detect is a similar interest in the electro-acoustic. I have gripped four of the 12″‘s in the series (there are over a half-dozen so far). They range from party-time club killers to abstract groovery perfect for home-bound heads. I really enjoy the Anthony Shake Shakir Meets BBC / Oni Ayhun Meets Shangaan Electro split, but the one I keep returning to is Mark Ernestus Meets BBC’s Version. Its two cuts are bony and propulsive. As for timbre, static-charged and crackling, but also reedy like bamboo, think vintage field recordings. Ernestus (co-founder of Basic Channel, by the way) sounds as if he’s filtering Jon Hassell’s Fourth World aesthetic, the Dream Theory In Malaya album in particular, through minimal techno.
Lets shift gears.
I am first and foremost a devotee of hard, minimal techno, in which there is still much to cover before this column winds down. But lets talk house, for 2011 is the year Rush Hour Recordings dowsed my soul with gasoline and set it ablaze. I purchased more titles on the Dutch imprint than any other (Delsin / Ann Aimee, also based in Amsterdam, is a close second). Not only that, BNJMN’s Plastic World, a majestic double LP the label dropped in February, is the record I listened to the most (Morphosis’ What Have We Learned is runner up). Some of my obsession can be attributed to the fact that I’m nowadays more understanding of what the genre has to offer. (Longtime house fans reading this are asking, “What took you so long?”) The sumptuous vocals, the glimmering synths, the sinewy melodies, the strangely proggy changes — if done to my liking, touch me in ways techno’s exultation of strength, repetition and regimentation doesn’t. Really killer house has this remarkable ability to balance rich, swirling emotion and slyly cerebral notions about pulse and throb. It can be so endearing, loving, joyous and, of course, erotic, while at the same time mind-bending and out there. Plus, there’s the funk aspect. Much of this Rush Hour stuff is hard: intense spiritual-sexual excitation transmuted into perpetually up-on-the-beat tension.
As I hear things, the label’s roster can be split it into two camps: the fuzzy, elemental stuff and the big-time dance floor fun.
First camp: the three releases that instantly come to mind are Recloose’s Saturday Night Manifesto E.P. (“Tecumsuh” is dirty and relentless, while “Electric Sunshine” shimmers in its own off-kilter way), Tevo Howard’s excellent Pandora’s Box double album (released via the Hour House Is Your Rush Records subsidiary) and the aforementioned Plastic World. BNJMN, born Ben Thomas, has developed a striking take on house and synth-pop reminiscence. It’s simple and direct, as if the producer has done nothing more than strip O.M.D.’s Dazzle Ships to its barest architectural components, yet that’s what makes the music. His use of space and structure is exquisite and clean. Beyond that, there’s something magical about Plastic World. Its beauty seeps through my skin and into my nervous system. It’s definitely my most personal album of 2011.
BNJMN – “Tunnel Flight”
Second camp: I fell hard for Tom Trago’s Iris album. Now, the first release of his I snagged, 2010′s Voyage Direct 12″, featuring remixes from FS Green, belongs to the first camp. But the full-length is big, electric and lushly produced. Much of it is thudding dance pop with R&B vocals and glitz galore. But it also contains several tracks — “Rootstopia,” “Soon In a Cinema,” “Joys Of Choice” — that are as idiosyncratic as they are catchy. Trago also appears on Rush Hour Presents Amsterdam All Stars MMXI. Released in November, the compilation is a thrilling overview of what the second camp is all about. It opens with San Proper’s “Caught On You,” a nugget of electro-cosmic funk: echoing voices, haunting reverberations and ping-pong percussion all packed so tight their boundaries blur. The only means I have of conveying my love of this jam requires mentioning an old Boston pal, Tom. He’s older, a fantastic chef and way cool. We would get stoned and rap about classic concerts he attended in the 1970s. On a few occasions he brought up Parliament at the old Garden. As he recalled the interstellar funk flowing uninterrupted for hours and hours, his eyes would close and head begin to sway back and forth. That’s just how I feel about “Caught On You.” Other stand-outs on the compilation are Awanto3′s “Crappy Joyride” (another P-Funk-type joint), Steve Rachmad’s “Boogie Moogie” and Dexter’s driving “Zamba.”
I close my love letter to Rush Hour with an unusual admission. Regardless of camp, when I play most of the label’s output, I begin to imagine, in real time, some super suave dude funking-out on an old Hammond organ, the polished-wood variety with double-deck keys and those plastic tabs that activate different beats. Basically, some kind of Timmy-Thomas-meets-Kraftwerk romance. Surely, this is the rockist in me making sense of the abstract sounds I’m hearing by grounding them in concrete human action. After all, those vintage Hammond organs lack the technology required to generate most of this music. On the other hand, I feel as though this strange daydream accurately reflects the definitive quality common to all great house. Regardless of the technology employed, it’s impact ultimately derives from a direct and immediate relationship between mensch and maschine, wherein the physical and mechanical wrap around one another to create one delicious feedback loop. The Rush Hour scene understands this.
Time to return to the heavy techno stuff.
The labels Sandwell District and Ostgut Ton were my biggest suppliers in 2010. They unleashed some prime stuff this year as well. Early on, Sandwell District released a string of plates — Feed Forward Versions, Feed Forward Versions (Part 2), Sandwell District Sampler 4 — that find the crew investigating different permutations of the track “Immolare,” each one more ambient, more expansive, more impressionistic than the last. To follow this evolution was exciting. They then dropped the exceptional Motormouth Variations double LP from Rrose and Bob Ostertag. With its rickety percussion, murky dub and woody timbres, the record could’ve appeared in my opening bit on the future-primitive (Andy Stott, Shackleton, Honest Jon’s). Ostgut Ton also dropped several stand out titles. Norman Nodge’s The Happenstance 12″ is, as always, ridiculously sharp and unyielding. Even more physical is The Messenger, courtesy of Luke Slater as Planetary Assault Systems. As with the Stott records, The Messenger is commanding electronic music that should appeal to fans of underground rock, especially those who dig the space jams: Hawkwind, Chrome, Ash Ra Tempel. I shouldn’t forget to mention Tobias Freund’s Leaning Over Backwards, yet another double album. The psychotic “Skippy” is the recipient of the Most Absurd Track of 2011.
So yeah, I’m still feeling Sandwell District and Ostgut Ton in 2011. But I have to admit, in terms of the I need everything that label puts out syndrome, they wound up taking a backseat to Delsin (plus its subsidiary Ann Aimee) and CLR. “Purity” is a tricky concept, best to avoid really, yet it applies to Delsin, I believe. What I find interesting about their overall aesthetic is how it’s not quite as ferocious and overtly virile as that of Ostgut Ton. It doesn’t boast the Teutonic Dick Swing that makes Marcel Dettmann, Norman Nodge and Ben Klock such badasses. This is because the label’s roster places less emphasis on techno’s roots in meaty European industrial. That quality is, of course, detectable at times. But ultimately, Delsin champions the no frills robo-funk at the heart of classic Detroit. The Inertia series, four 12″‘s released last autumn on Ann Aimee, is essential listening. It features many of the prime movers in the Delsin scene (Redshape, Delta Funktionen, Mike Dehnert), as well as top-shelf names who don’t regularly work with the label (Milton Bradley, Sigha, Skudge). Dehnert would make No Humans Allowed’s short list of nominees for Producer Of The Year (if such an award existed, obviously). In addition to Framework, a stylish and ambitious full-length foray into metallic crunch-n-decay, the German producer unleashed a slew of superb 12″‘s across several imprints, including Echocord, Clone and his own Fachwerk. Christopher Liebing’s CLR venture is significantly different from Delsin. Where the latter is workmanlike and sturdy, the former is audacious and bursting with bravado. Liebing will release something as infectious as Bryan Black Presents Black Asteroid’s The Engine EP, anthem-stained industrial dance at its most gloriously absurd. He’ll then turn around and unload Tommy Four Seven’s Primate, a challenging collection of foreboding technoid repetition (I’m talking über dystopian jams here). I have so far described several albums as possessing an electro-acoustic feel; Primate is another one. Its sources are field recordings of metal-based sounds — very old school industrial. As good as Primate is, I think I enjoyed the accompanying remix plates more. These featured the likes of Perc, Sigha, Robert Hood and Regis. All of these producers employ a similar approach: use Primate to build ever more complex rhythmic patterns without sacrificing the record’s keen sense of atmospheric dread.
Mike Dehnert – “Inversion”
I just mentioned Perc. That’s the alias of one Ali Wells. He’s responsible for the stunning Wicker & Steel album on his own Perc Trax, an imprint trafficking in hard techno that shares much in common with CLR. In terms of composition, it’s more intricate and even ornate than Primate. It’s a serious journey, actually, one with Dome-like stretches of left-field hypnotism: varying shades of Krautrock, dub and drone all saturated in gamma radiation. But again, and as that title implies, Wicker & Steel is another example of the whole electro-acoustic thing. Perc, like Tommy Four Seven, Andy Stott, Shackleton and numerous other producers this year, is concerned with cracking open the hermetically sealed sound of software-generated electronic music and letting in some dirty, stinking humanity. This might entail the borrowing of sonic ideas from post-punk, dub and even progressive and psychedelic rock music; or a re-embrace of hardware technology; or experimentation with field recordings and other earthy sound sources. It also might include the use of live instrumentation, an aspect I dive into in the following paragraph. But before I do that, here is a list of additional titles from the realm of hard, dark and intense techno that floored me. Save for the last two, all are 12″‘s:
Orphx — The Traces EP (Sonic Groove)
Ø [Phase] — Transantarctic (Token)
Natterjack — Shutter (HEM)
Miles — Facets (Modern Love)
Delta Funktionen — Setup Three: O/F/F (Ann Aimee)
DVS1 — Klockworks 08 (Klockworks)
Jeff Mills — Star Chronicles: Orion EP (Tomorrow)
Milton Bradley — A Sky Full Of Numbers (Do Not Resist The Beat!)
Traversable Wormhole — Traversable Wormhole Vol.8 (Traversable Wormhole)
Lucy — Wordplay For Working Bees (Stroboscopic Artefacts)
Robert Hood — Omega: Alive (M-Plant)
I’m kicking off talk of the techno-rock interface with a record that a lot of my pals and colleagues also flipped for: Morphosis’ What Have We learned, released jointly on Delsin, M>O>S Recordings and Morphine Records. If you’re familiar, then you might think it odd I’m mentioning it in this paragraph. After all, the record contains no live instrumentation. Outside of KAE’s ghostly voice on “Too Far” and “Europa,” it’s thoroughly electronic. On the flipside, What Have We Learned is so damn prog it’s quite unbelievable. Krautrock / Kosmische Musik and Italian disco (itself inspired by progressive rock) haunt this album. The grooves and keyboards contain pungent whiffs of Ashra, Faust and Goblin. Structure is even more telling. While Morphosis (born Rabih Beaini) employs sequencing and loops, he’s way into non-repetition, erecting as he does sweeping tracks that contain multiple movements. It’s all really quite Baroque. Another impressive sprawler is Moritz von Oswald Trio’s Horizontal Structures (Honest Jon’s Records). The double album isn’t as deeply psychedelic as 2010′s Live In New York, yet it’s languid fusion of dub techno, jazz fusion and rippling motorik is deeply arresting. (It served as my go-to soundtrack while wandering the desert surrounding Palm Springs in April). The way von Oswald merges the live (bass, percussion, guitar) and the electronic reminds me, albeit in an abstract sort of way, of the silky ambient stretches of Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock. As a matter of fact, Mark Hollis’ voice would sound immaculate floating over a couple of the tracks. Vladislav Delay, who plays percussion in Moritz von Oswald Trio, achieved a similar degree of synthesis on his quartet’s self-titled debut (also released on Honest Jon’s Records). But where Horizontal Structures is lush and dreamy, Vladislav Delay Quartet is sinister and unsettling. In all fairness, VDQ’s gnarled wreckage of European free improv and industrial noise is closer to Borbetomagus than it is anything in the avant-rock zone. But because physicality is such a fundamental aspect of the music, it made sense to include the album here. Sitting at the other end of the techno-rock interface is the exhilarating Austrian outfit Elektro Guzzi. A Krautfunk trio (bass + drums + guitar + electronics) filtered through minimal techno production, they are the true descendants of post-punk: ESG, The Pop Group, Liquid Liquid, 23 Skidoo, etc. But what’s key to understand is this: they’re not retro; they’re of the NOW, and irrevocably so. I didn’t think the group could top their 2010 album Live P.A., a total motherfucker, yet Parquet does exactly that. In addition to its fierce ensemble interplay, often spontaneous in nature, the record boasts some wildly progressive compositions. Elektro Guzzi are the best underground rock band fans of underground rock have never heard of.
Elektro Guzzi – “Pentagonia”
It only makes sense that immediately following talk of Moritz von Oswald, I touch on the very sub-genre he helped pioneer: dub techno. Ever since I read an enough is enough take down of dub techno in an Other Music update a few year’s back, I feel as if I should defend it every now and them. Granted, there isn’t much room left in the sub-genre for radical innovation. These days, it’s more about subtle interpretation and fine craftsmanship. On top of that, there’s the comfort food issue. Dub techno, even when it’s somewhat pedestrian, just feels good. But having said all that, the sub-genre coughed up some meaningful records this year. On the 12″ front, Echocord’s Colour series, which I briefly mention up above, produced several aces, including titles from the Swedish duo Skudge and Mike Dehnert, respectively. These two aren’t necessarily regarded as practitioners of dub techno, but that’s why Echocord Colour is such an interesting endeavor. It invites producers working outside the sub-genre to come in and shake things up. Another high quality plate is Wandler’s La Petite Mort — very sleek and streamline. As for full-lengths, four impressed me: (1) DeepChord’s Hash-Bar Loops (that title is appropriate: pure stoned bliss), (2) Deadbeat’s Drawn And Quartered (this one sucked me right under, microscopic phantom-crackle and an East Of The River Nile vibe to boot), (3) John Daly’s First Water (monochromatic, understated and secretly propelling), and (4) Inward Content’s self-titled double LP. This last one is just massive sounding, easily the most visceral of the lot. Inward Content is the duo of Niels Luinenburg (a.k.a. Delta Funktionen) and Samuel van Dijk (a.k.a. Mohlao). I really hope they collaborate again.
Well, that’s about it. I’ll leave you with a smattering of insights that didn’t fit anywhere else.
Skudge: I struggled with finding a place for the Swedish duo in my column. But not because they didn’t blow me away this year — they did. As intensely as Mike Dehnert, in fact. There’s just something singular about Skudge (STL is the only thing that comes close). They have been astonishingly productive in 2011: a double album and five 12″‘s. Every one of these titles contains a form of skeletal, hardware-based techno that’s so well-balanced it feels as if the music has emerged from some archetypal ether all its own. The beats are never too heavy nor dubby nor rambunctious. Rather, they’re private and distant, even sober at times, mustering their strength from somewhere deep inside the body-electronic. The moody “Below,” released in February, is about as perfect as a techno track can get.
Mark E’s Stone Breaker: Before this, I hadn’t bought a release on Spectral Sound in some time. I’m glad I did. The entire album, from beginning to end, is riotous fun. But it’s the track “Belvide Beat” that pushes Stone Breaker over the top. The bass and drums are absolutely pulverizing, sounding like a Birthday Party break or something. Hell, maybe I should’ve tossed Mark E into the section on the techno-rock interface?
M>O>S Recordings: 2011 was a very solid year for M>O>S, a Dutch label distributed by Rush Hour Recordings. They co-released Morphosis’ What Have We Learned, as well as a pair of plates from American producer D’Marc Cantu. His “Set Free” / “Tonight” 10″, minimal art-funk synth house, finds its way on to my turntable with startling consistency.
Aardvarck’s Anti Concept: Where to begin with this platter? It arrived (via a Bent Crayon order) late in the year. Plus, I didn’t get it for the first dozen or so spins. Yet I kept coming back, as if I knew it would eventually open up. I now think it’s brilliant. Aardvarck (a.k.a Mike Kivits) has myriad interests: drone, ambient, post-dubstep diaspora, minimal techno. He somehow grafts all of them together on Anti Concept.
“Techno Is The New Noise”: I know I said No Humans Allowed isn’t covering any American noise / European techno crossover beats. But fuck, Container’s LP on Spectrum Spools is hands down one of the best and most enjoyable albums of 2011. (Shameless self-promotion: I wrote a feature on the producer for Resident Advisor.)
Cosmin TRG: Cosmin Nicolae released two double albums this year: A Universal Crush (Rush Hour Direct Current) and the more abstract Simulat (Fifty Weapons). Neither one dominated my turntable, but when I put them on in preparation for Greg’s show I realized just how intimately familiar I am with nearly every track. Surely, that means something, right? Note: the skittery pattern-logic of melody and rhythm on Simulat is genius.
Mixes: I downloaded a lot of free ones (listening to BNJMN’s sublime Louche Podcast 045 right now). But in terms of hard-copy releases, I bought very few. Of those I did, Marcel Fengler’s Berghain 05 and Marcel Dettmann’s Conducted are totally locked in.
Farben’s Xango: This Faitiche-released 12″ is a serious highlight of 2011. It’s also an entity unto itself: trippy and smeared in lo-fi haze. You have to love Farben’s unique ability to keep the weirdness swinging at all times.
EQD: So, Shed (Mr. René Pawlowitz) also records under the alias EQD? Wonderful. Where the hell have I been the last four years? I recently snagged the Equalized #005 12″, and it’s one tremendous slog through synth-fried techno paranoia.
Conforce’s Escapism: An imposing collection of no-nonsense techno that arrived the last week of December. Released on Delsin, it’s yet another reason why I love them this year. Don’t be surprised if this record makes an appearance in No Humans Allowed’s 2012 wrap-up.
Thanks for reading.
Skudge – “Below”
Six links for your exploration:
Modern Love: www.modern-love.co.uk
Rush Hour Recordings: rushhourmusic.com
Perc Trax: perctrax.bandcamp.com
Echocord Colour: echocord.com/echocordcolour