Thanks largely to the first hints of summer bathing the country over the last couple of weeks, house music has suddenly become a whole lot more appealing again, its slower pace and analogue warmth heralding the arrival of lazily sun-blushed days. Well, that, and the fact that there seems to have been a heap of excellent house records released in recent weeks. This thirtieth edition of armchair dancefloor checks out some of the best, alongside a few other bits thrown in for good measure.
Kami-Sakunobe House Explosion (Terre Thaemlitz) – Routes Not Roots [Skylax]
Reviewing Terre Thaemlitz’s music is a slightly intimidating prospect: his albums are perfectly self-contained entities in themselves, and as such are difficult to discuss without detracting from that essential quality. Midtown 120 Blues, released under the DJ Sprinkles alias, remains one of this writer’s absolute favourite house albums, its sobering underlying message about music’s commodification complementing its overall mood. Elegiac but energetic, and moving with an easy grace, it drifts by like one of those lost nights out that exist only as fragments of memory come the following morning, but nonetheless leave an indelible imprint. This recent and excellent interview with him for mnml ssgs delves far deeper into the subject than I could hope to convey here, and comes highly recommended. The second part of three tackles music’s distribution and promotion, again a fascinating read from one of electronic music’s most vocal thinkers.
Slight digression aside, this reissue of 2006's Kami-Sakunobe House Explosion album is just as essential. Like Midtown 120 Blues, it explores similar themes to those he regularly writes and speaks on - in particular politics, culture and gender identity - but where that album was dreamlike and muted in tone, Routes Not Roots is rawer and harsher, dissonant chords and jacking rhythms reflecting the anxiety of its subject matter. Opener ‘Down Home Kami-Sakunobe’ is marked by jagged and jazzy violins that literally appear to carve their way through its structure, and the samples that make up album highlight ‘Double Secret’ audibly press against one another, creating an eerie, loping sense of tension. As a result, its darker and more direct take on deep house is far more dancefloor-friendly, though the densely packed scree of ‘Crosstown’ could well be too intense for all but the deepest and most attentive club crowds. On headphones, an entire album’s worth of music, it’s a very special record indeed, recognising and vocalising the oft-harsh realities that lie beneath romanticised notions of house music and its roots.
Rick Wilhite – Analog Aquarium [Still Music]
That Detroit old hand Rick Wilhite is only just releasing his debut album might seem a little strange for someone who’s been an integral part of the city’s house scene for so long, but when it’s this good it barely matters. Like Thaemlitz’s Routes Not Roots, Analog Aquarium moves beyond simply collating a set of similar tracks on a CD, instead shifting seamlessly between the glorious analogue soul of opener ‘Blame It On The Boogie’ and deep, smooth house workouts like ‘City Bar Dancing’ and ‘Deep Horizons’.
What marks out Analog Aquarium, however, is its fearlessness. Most of the music here isn’t designed for the floor, however easy it might have been for Wilhite to make an album of club workouts. Instead he’s focused on atmosphere. Billy Love and Theo Parrish’s collaborative turn on ‘Blame It On The Boogie’ follows directly onward from that duo’s Melloghettomental release from last year, decidedly scratchy low-end and abrasive filtering playing beautiful havoc with Love’s smooth soul vocals. It sets the tone for the whole record: nocturnal, considered and experimental. The diced funk of ‘In The Rain’ is reminiscent of Moody’s ‘Ol’ Dirty Vinyl’, the weighty ‘Cosmic Jungle’ paints city streets as full of danger, and ‘Deep Horizons’ is simply stunning, deep house as soundtrack to the Aurora Borealis. That it’s all bound together by a distinctly DIY feel – a hallmark of Detroit – simply adds to its charm. It’ll have been a very good year indeed if this isn’t near the top of armchair dancefloor’s list come the end of 2011.
2562 – Fever [When In Doubt]
It was right in the middle of the dubstep/techno crossover explosion when Dave Huismans’ first album as 2562, Aerial, emerged, chiming perfectly with the propulsive greyscale material hitting floors at the time (as did his follow up, Unbalance, with neo-Detroit sounds in late 2009). His alter ego A Made Up Sound has been the more consistently interesting of his projects though, and some time down the line it’s evident that its broken, half-decayed take on house and techno predicted bass music’s current flux state by three years or more. So although it arrives under Huismans’ bass pseudonym, third long-player Fever is the natural conclusion of a process of convergence that’s been in development since he first arrived on the scene: the two sides of his musical personality have now essentially fused as one. With tempos dropped to the mid-120s and rhythms pared away until they rely simply upon the muted crunch of kick and snare, most tracks on Fever sound less like any notion of house, techno or dubstep. Rather, they’re closest to a militant form of broken beat. On ‘Closer’ that genre’s soulful expressiveness is plated in armour, lent a shot of techno’s emotional austerity, while ‘This Is Hardcore’ subverts it entirely, all jagged barbs jutting outward at odd angles.
Huismans’ albums, I’ve found, tend to take several months to fully sink in. One result of their intense functionality (these are tracks to slay dancefloors) is that their subtleties are revealed slowly. Fever is, to its credit, the most immediate of his records so far. A quick listen might attribute that entirely to the tools used for its construction, an entire album’s worth of chopped up disco samples lending it a grainy warmth lacking in the cold chrome sheen of Aerial – but in reality it’s far simpler: Huismans’ composition has become far more sophisticated. Many of his previous tracks were built vertically, progression created through stacking layer upon layer, a style that lent dubstep its vertiginous sense of depth. By way of contrast, tracks like ‘Intermission’ and the sublime ‘Aquatic Family Affair’ build horizontally, with a narrative drive and purpose lacking in a great deal of dance music. It’s that sense of development, rather than the source of its raw materials, that makes Fever such a joy to listen to.
Midland – Bring Joy [More Music]
On his debut solo 12” for Phonica last year, Play The Game, Midland tapped into the body rhythmic, occupying a middle ground between the intense sensory deprivation that characterised ambient jungle and the physical directness of what-u-call-it bass music. It appeared to accelerate exponentially despite remaining at fixed tempo, allowing the metabolism to drop into half time. FaltyDL has achieved a similar tension between speed and stasis on some of his recent material, particularly ‘Regret’ from Hotflush’s excellent new Back & 4th compilation.
New release ‘Bring Joy’ is cut from the same cloth, though slowed to a house friendlier tempo. While its sliced and pitchshifted vocals are practically de rigeur in the rapidly shifting post-‘Hyph’ bass world, its percussion has a rolling, breaksy feel far removed even from his closest contemporaries, the Hessle Audio crew. While the ocean of insipid dubstep/house copyists continues to swell, Midland’s music offers an alternative view – a skilful synthesis of influences, sure, but with personality to match. The remixes on the flip draw out the original’s concise shuffle: Radio Slave turn euphoria on its head for the appropriately titled ‘Joy & Pain Remix’, and Youandewan’s effervescent ‘Warehouse Dub’ sprawls for twelve-odd minutes before coming to an abrupt halt.
Appleblim & October – NY Fizzzzz [Schmorgasbord]
Schmorgasbord is a new and conceptual label which aims to foster collaboration (already unusually common within its Bristol home’s tight-knit scene) between likeminded producers. They’ve made good on that promise for the first release, an impressively well realised joint effort from Skull Disco/Apple Pips dub/tech man Appleblim and analogue head October. The pair’s quirks complement one another – the freedom and spontaneity within October’s own music is present and correct, as is Appleblim’s spacious, dubby sensibility. On ‘NY Fizzzzz’ they’re brought into the service of a tracky, disoriented house tune, powered by kick drums that explode like depth charges several times per bar. ‘Fountains Of Paradise’ on the flip is better still, a slice of astral dub underpinned by burbling pads that evoke entire galaxies drifting by.
Kevin McPhee – Get In With You [nakedlunch]
It’s probably safe to say we’ll be hearing an awful lot more from Kevin McPhee in the next year or so. With an excellent recent mix (largely of his own material) for Futureproofing among the best free things the internet’s thrown my way for a while, and a pair of low fidelity house tracks due for release on Bristol’s Idle Hands label, the Canadian producer’s profile deserves a serious boost. This debut release for [nakedlunch] offers further evidence why.
McPhee’s music fits squarely into a post dubstep (as opposed to post-dubstep, genre fans) world – there are definite echoes of James Blake and Burial in his R’n’B vocal deconstructions and slight, unstable synth work. But where so much recent music of that ilk feels calculated to the point of sterility (manipulated vocals as automatic signifiers of emotion; static and vinyl crackle for distance, alienation, nostalgia), these tracks are made unique by their imperfections. ‘Get In With You’ is raw and gritty, its sub-bass ill-defined and dissipating around the edges like a hot breeze. ‘Bridges’ sits along a house backbone, but one so atrophied and calcium deficient it almost crumbles away as it plays. The chalky dust falling from each element lends the track a pale, slightly sickly complexion, but in that vulnerability lies humanity.
Maurice Donovan – Babeh/Satisfied [SSSSS]
With the way things are currently developing, by 2015 David Kennedy will be using a new pseudonym for each new release. Maurice Donovan is his latest, the name an obvious reference to the Chicago house inspired tracks he’s been producing recently. Both tunes carry certain hallmarks of his own sound, the rounded, pulsing sub and repeated vocal sample in ‘Babeh’ reminiscent of his recent Night Slugs white label – not to mention the requisite synth-laden breakdown, which he really ought to consider trademarking by now. Both move with the same driving weight as Chicago rhythm tracks, but in keeping with his other output are noticeably less gritty. They’re saved from being too slickly produced by a vaguely chaotic edge that sees the snare on ‘Babeh’ cut through at abrasive volume and ‘Satisfied’ hit the ground running at fast, ravey pace. The latter places Kennedy alongside Braiden as the most convincing current producer to mine classic Chicago for influence, and meld it seamlessly into the modern bass continuum.
Maria Minerva – Noble Savage EP [100% Silk]
Maria Minerva – Tallinn At Dawn [Not Not Fun]
Bit late on these ones; it’s quite easy to miss out on individual things emerging from the conveyor belt of interesting sounds that is Not Not Fun. Maria Minerva makes dance music in no way subject to the selection pressures that restrict most tracks headed for the floor: functionality, mixability, fidelity. The results are preoccupied with the physical sensuality (both individual and interpersonal) of the club experience, as well as the loss of a finite sense of self it has the potential to induce. While both are intrinsically linked to drug-induced altered states, neither are any less rooted in reality. Her 12” for 100% Silk evokes bodily motion, but cloaked by dense production it’s as if remembered rather than directly experienced.
In the foreground of ‘Disko Bliss’ a spurned Minerva flirts with herself in a way that seems intentionally exhibitionist, calculated to draw as much attention as physically possible. Its backing track is suitably voyeuristic, resembling an eighties Chicago jack track played from a piece of vinyl so rinsed you can hear the needle struggling to catch the groove. As it plays it decays, like one of Basinski’s Disintegration Loops. But unlike much of the music released by Not Not Fun, despite their rough edges these tracks could in no way be described as lo-fi - they’re beautifully produced. It’s more that we’re unused to hearing dance music sound so unconcerned with physical punch.
The same is true of the music on Tallinn At Dawn, her full-length cassette release – this one actually for Not Not Fun directly – but in this case the club is implied rather than explicit. Her vocals – fragile, shrouded in reverb – are still reminiscent of an underwater disco diva, but the beats have been absorbed into the backdrop, making for a closer, more intimate listen. The gorgeous ‘Hip Hop Gone In Spring’ is focused on texture in a similar way to some of her labelmates, as is the keening ‘Sad Serenade (Bedroom Rock ‘n’ Roll)’, and elsewhere ‘Unchain My Heart’ is a hazy new age synth exploration in the vein of Oneohtrix Point Never, but with a potent undercurrent of malice. It’s one of the best full-lengths NNF have released so far this year.
Hyetal – Diamond Islands [Black Acre] – Bristol’s Hyetal has shifted gradually from making stargazing synth-driven dubstep to stargazing synth-driven electronica of a more cinematic bent. This first single from his upcoming album Broadcast (to be featured in more detail on these pages soon) is a beautiful, fragile thing, with vocals that appear and fade like wisps of smoke.
Lone – Echolocations EP [R&S] – Lone has spent the last couple of years honing a sound that’s both retrospective and forward looking, thanks to its seamless blend of ol’ skool hardcore melody and the body moving thud of UK bass music. This new EP for R&S follows up his excellent Emerald Fantasy Tracks with more of the same atmosphere, though a great deal more subtlety in places, making for an addictive listen.
Rory Gibb co-edits Always Everything, a zine dedicated to the hazy regions where borders between sounds dissolve.