Blowing Up The Workshop (the column formerly known as The Modern Library, the name changed for various unexciting reasons) is an attempt to chart the various odysseys and oddities in House, Techno and the bits that skirt between it, relatively irrespective of timescale. Running parallel will be an on-going mixtape series built to promote artists I enjoy, and who are picked based on their ability to instil a distinct personality to the concept, providing a unique insight into their mind and their sound.
Breaking The Frame.
In 2009 the perfect dance record was pressed by Sex Tags Mania.
Maybe that’s a slightly reductive statement, but it’s hard to explain the compelling urge I felt to pay over the odds on Discogs for a single locked groove late last year, and why it felt like a recognisably important moment in my engagement with Dance. There’s a lot of history poured into that drum beat, a lot of weight on its shoulders, and as the 135-ish BPM drum kicks away to itself (potentially until the needle slices through the wax) there’s forever a tension of expectation for a hundred different tracks to suddenly burst out into rhythm, the ghosts of a thousand Techno records I've listened to in the past. I still listen to the stuff constantly, but since Bass Drum the rigid mechanics have become a little plainer to the eye. I’m finding myself often reaching outward for something a little slipperier in the hands, messier. More complex in some way that detaches me from a feeling of inertia.
The sudden surge of appreciation for guys like Jan Svensson of Frak, Hieroglyphic Being or DJ Sotofett (who runs the aforementioned Sex Tags label cluster) gives me the impression that listeners and artists are feeling something similar- all of the above mould the framework into strange new territories that feel difficult to pin down exactly, though there's certainly no lack of people trying. Maybe it’s just the effects of dealing with the hype machine and it’s ceaseless mining for the new by journalists and diggers that leads me to reject this ‘outsider dance’ tag projected upon it in an effort to comprehend and subsequently shelve, but the music of the above seems such an obvious construct of voracious appetites and deep appreciation of the rich history of House and Techno music to be as unaware as the imposed name suggests. The roughshod and rule-dissolving fabric of the music which leads to the dubious terminology comes from the restriction of hardware (self-imposed or due to as a budget constraint), fluidity of process and a cheery will to experiment.
If you've ever listened to one of Jamal Moss’s mixes as Hieroglyphic Being then you’ll know how slippy they can be, occasionally abrasive (as I'm writing this I have a tape of his set at Club 4 Reel on in the background and it’s one of the few instances I can think of where a mix is willfully trainwrecked now and then- all momentum grinds to a halt as a smashed fragment of Donna Summer is brought out of time into the fray, then slowly each peripheral segment is realigned). But even the most crushed moments are the ancestry of something like the intense live sets of House and Disco hero Ron Hardy- music edited gruffly on the fly to keep dancers on their toes and away from complacency. It’s joyous. Challenging. Occasionally it all goes wrong. Forms are taken apart brick and brick and rebuilt with edges sticking out and cracks running through. It feels like through the process as a listener I’m gaining more insight into what exactly House is, and why I dig it.
That sense of music being built up into strange new shapes, and of a possibility to potentially concentrate and wrap around each fragment in these complex networks of sound is one of the overriding joys I get from Chris Madek’s work as Bee Mask, perhaps someone who could be summed up as an ‘outsider’ from the dance scene though he gives every impression of being intensely knowledgeable and deeply intelligent. His works are oddly infatuating and ever so easy to slip in amongst- never boggy or overly repetitious like some drone and experimentalism can be. Despite that, I’d never have guessed a couple of months ago (and from the tapes I own of his) that Resident Advisor would be excitedly interviewing him about a new LP on Spectrum Spools, or even that I’d find a way to be able to vent my own enthusiasm for his work in a column purportedly based around Techno. But as that interview makes plain it’s hard even for Madek himself to deny the influence the medium has had on the way he creates and gauges his work and an audiences reaction to it, particularly in reference to working live with a layout similar to the video above. The new album When We Were Eating Unripe Pears and aperitif Vaporware/Scanops are obvious artefacts of this turning point- Madek’s mention in the liner notes that much of the work was forged from a framework assembled during live sets in dancefloor DJ booths at the Bunker and the forward thinking Labyrinth festival in Japan couldn’t be more pivotal in identifying how his avant soundscapes have begun to coil themselves loosely around rhythm, and how there’s a subtle but purveying sense of the music being built to react with the body. I can see why Donato Dozzy is reportedly such a fan. The video I picked out above sounds like it’s a live take on the B-side of the wonderfully titled (take a deep breath): From A Will-Less Gigolo Of A Divinity To The Gore-Spattered Lion On His Own Hearth, Odysseus Becomes "Odysseus" cassette, my personal introduction to Bee Mask some time late last year, and revisiting it again it’s evident just how well the stuff slides into something like a ‘techno’ schemata; those little flecks from a drum machine that Madek begins to bounce off the top could so easily build into something approximating a Jeff Mills-esque 909 solo.
I’m thrilled too that this new engagement hasn't diluted any of the ’oddness’ or sense of abstract that first attracted my attention to his work either- there’s still strange bubbling and popping synths bridging the gap sonically between nostalgia-inducing children’s TV favourite 50/50 sound effects and bubble wrap being popped. Possibly the best eardrum-ripping EDM breakdown I’ve ever heard in 'Pinq Drinq', or that section on 'Vaporware' that sounds a little like a contact mic being repeatedly dropped onto the floor and dragged back up again. Really can’t recommend everything Bee Mask highly enough, get stuck in to this strange new expression of music if you haven’t already- who knows it might twist club music into something odder through its influence.
Elsewhere on Spectrum Spools (and really in its father figure Editions Mego too) others are dabbling in the dance too, just a quick look at the releases of the roster this year and picking out a couple of names that have received a fair amount of attention shows- Container, Three Legged Race, Russell Haswell, Fennesz. The diversity of what that bunch brings to the table is obvious enough but across the board a conspicuous shift to more consciously rhythmic work is evident. It feels like from so many angles the construct that is ‘dance music’ is being used as a base language to experiment with. In some cases it’s wonderful, worthy of much celebration from techno-heads and the tape scene alike, but as ever with fads it feels detrimental in some cases- for one thing the Mark Fell remix on the B-side of Fennesz's re-release of 'Fa' really really shouldn’t have that mercilessly overused Martin Luther King sample clunk into play no matter the intent, whilst Haswell’s more overt Techno reference on Factual in songs are enjoyable, and probably the easiest gateway yet into his complex and destructive world, but I find myself craving instead the recent collection of 5” pieces for Downwards instead whenever I’ve given it a listen.
Talking of Haswell, the name choice for Kiran Sande’s disgustingly well curated label continues to seem more and more apt as further projects begin to step out of the shadows. The continued synaesthesia in theme should be obvious enough, everything from Tropic of Cancer to the reissues of Black Rain and Flaming Tunes has been approximate shades of jet black, but the sharp academic nose behind Florian Hecker and Haswell’s Blackest Ever Black (as the instated mouthpiece of the scene Boomkat said of it at the time: ‘This is the sound of telecommunication devices gone wrong, technology dismantling itself. If all that sounds rather cold and austere, well frankly, it's supposed to’) seems to align ever closer with the labels core. Raime, the point around which BEB first focused itself, have slowly grown their music to be dexterous and fully formed- as overwhelmingly totalitarian as possible, sharpened to a point. Hennail last year already felt filled with the assuredness more common within a full length project, and the duos professed deep love of sub-laden, dread-filled Jungle finally made total sense as those little manic Jungle tics and vocal stabs fluttered into the primary build of 'You Will Lift Your Frame Clear'. The two tracks perfectly encapsulated the sound of the project as a whole and therefore it was difficult to see where they could go next without becoming derivative- so it was with a certain amount of trepidation (and excitement) that I processed the news that a full length was on the way earlier this year.
But Quarter Turns Over a Living Line is here now and sitting on my turntable, and I really needn’t have worried- the full length format suits them exceedingly well. The whole thing clocks in at just under 40 minutes, but by god the decadence of the gloom painted is unparalleled- if ever the listening to of an album might drive me to drink myself to death this is the one that could push me to it. It’s a finely chiselled thing, building on the excellent engineering behind Hennail and now quite a distance from the five-o-clock shadow their self-titled debut wore. A deeper focus on instrument jumps out too, the grainy drone of horsehair bowing cello strings, or ferric Americana guitar on ‘Your Cast Will Tire’. It brings to mind Jon Porras or Erik Skodvin’s more barbarous cello work in Deaf Center- there’s something in the sinews that solidifies doom and makes it flesh, a certain gravitas in the orchestration of the whole thing. It’s the Raime sound still; the distinctive and unsettlingly slow pulse remains intact, but it’s a definitive statement. I really can’t see where they can possibly go next this time.
Another one of these avant labels increasingly focused upon by dance media is Pan, run out of the Berlin by Bill Kouligas for the last couple of years. I’ve been a fan of the outfit for a long time, first led in through the outer-nebuli abstract of Keith Fullerton Whitman and the sumptuous reissue of Ghédalia Tazartès’ Repas Froid (if you really ever want to hear Techno without boundary give these strange beguiling loops a listen), and have been laugh-out-loud amazed at the trajectory (The guy behind Family Battle Snake doing a mix for the house-heads at Juno Plus!) over the last year or so, seeing this art label grow to be embraced by so many Techno-heads famed for a certain sense of conservatism in taste. The attention lavished upon it is understandable though, every release has been vital and without compromise- Heatsick’s strange explorations of theory on homosexuality in relation to House and Disco through late-night jams on a Casio, the splicing and shattering of existing dance music form into mosaic by NHK, or Lee Gamble setting himself on his collection of cassettes filled with snapshots of Jungle pirate radio in the 90s and engineering anew from dusty moments consigned to be forgotten. The latest, an incredibly dense musical build from visual artist and collagist Jar Moff continues the theme wonderfully and moves focus onto the nascent ‘beat’ scene- often focused in LA and around labels like Leaving Records and Brainfeeder. With Pan, as ever, the results served up are fascinatingly complex. In Commercial Mouth's case the complex structure of the work means little formal ‘beat’ remains amongst the huge hot blasts of colour and messy contours.
This ‘remodelling the past in order to create something new out of the modern detritus’ feels like a purveying theme for Pan recently, and could be loosely applied as a theme to much of the music highlighted this month. Returning for a moment to that idea of a music being slowly de-constructed brick by brick and recycled in a way that develops something contemporary, I’m reminded of the experience of seeing Simon Starling’s Shedboatshed in the Tate shortly before he won the Turner prize that year. The work was a ‘physical manifestation of a thought process’ apparently, and to stand there in front of it you could feel the very fabric of the wood had changed just as its identity warped when turned to another function, and despite meticulous rebuilding the form was not the same afterward- the process had fundamentally changed it and its function now became more complex. This experimental strain of music that uses dance as its base feels similarly charged, and similarly tricky to assimilate. At least forget the ‘outsider’ for its suggestion of dance music built to feed some central hub. No matter the angle the music is approached from in that process of disassembly it becomes something still new and other and exciting.
The mix series loosely connected to this column continues- though not in perfect time or sync with the publication I like to think of them as parallel entities that feed and inform one another. There’s now a nice neat little website compiling each of the series for download or stream, no more messy tumblr!
Blowing Up The Workshop #2 went up a couple of weeks ago, an awesome and deadly live piece from James Donadio aka. Prostitutes that dollops low-end on the listener. His album ‘Psychedelic Black’ this year is an intriguing slab of wax, seguing between killer electronics and a Techno mentality that pulls itself back and forth until it ultimately collapses.
Blowing Up The Workshop #3 is from Finnish artist Ukkonen- possibly my favourite discovery of this year and whose debut album has consistently blown me away. His music is idiosyncratic, taking a cool Techno palette not a million miles away from the lush synths of Carl Craig and bending them around increasingly complicated musical rules and numeracies. The results are consistently wonderful, at first the brain struggles to comprehend the complex patterns before simply allowing to be washed along with it. There’s really nothing else like it, and his mix here (custom built entirely of his own material) deserves your utmost attention- he’s explained the mechanics behind it much better than I ever could so head on over to the site to stream or download.