It could just be me, but 2013 seems to have shaped up as a particularly good year for electronic music. Between the resurgence of brilliantly dark and moody beats being pedalled by labels like Keysound, the ongoing instrumental grime renaissance, and the continued rise of experimental dancefloor imprints like L.I.E.S and Pan (to name but a handful of things), it just seems like there's a lot of really interesting records being released at the moment.
Below, in The Playlist, you'll find a round up of a handful of forthcoming and recently released favourites - although I've barely scratched the surface of all the excellent stuff that's kicking about at the moment. I'll save most of the misty-eyed summing up of the year for the inevitably list-heavy next edition of this column. Before that, a catch-up with one of contemporary electronic music's most talented producers...
Room(s), the 2011 album from American producer Travis Stewart (aka Machinedrum) is easily one of finest electronic full-lengths to have been released in the last few years. It was one of those rare beasts: an electronic album that managed to bridge the gap between danceability and headphone-friendly intrigue whilst still feeling coherent and conceptually complete. Meanwhile, its blend of juke-inspired rhythms, reimagined jungle breaks and utterly gorgeous atmospherics seemed to set the tone for many of the dance music trends that have arisen in the couple of years that followed it. Although Stewart was several albums into an already-impressive career at the time of the LP's release, it still felt like a significant step forward.
At the end of last month Stewart released the follow up, Vapor City, an album which builds upon the stylistic ideas of Room(s) whilst delving into deeper, higher concept territory. Pitched as a journey through an imagine city, apparently inspired by Stewart's own dreams, the record might just be the most intricate and subtly crafted thing that Stewart has released to date.
As he continues to take his new live show around the world, I took the opportunity to put a few questions to Stewart about the album, his collaborative work and his new live show.
There are a number of nostalgic reference points on Vapor City, in the way it touches on vintage jungle and drum & bass, classic atmospheric electronic music etc. Are these pretty indicative of your own early roots listening to and connecting with dance music?
"Yeah definitely, though when I was younger I was more drawn to the more experimental and crazier drum programming and sound design aspects of stuff on Warp records and other dare I say IDM labels. I've recently been revisiting a lot of the stuff I kind of dismissed in the '90s as being 'not crazy enough"' and it's been very influential. It's good to connect to your roots and also discover things you missed as a result."
How far into the process of composing Vapor City did the concept of moving between different districts of an imagined place come about? Do you have certain visual images in your head when you sit down to start a track, or do they take shape after the music has started to come together?
"The concept came later, with more fleshed out ideas of what the city actually looked like. Then I decided what kind of districts went with each song. The actual recurring dreams were happening concurrently with the creation of the songs so I'd like to think that the dreams were subtly influencing the songs."
Certain stylistic traits of juke and footwork have played a fairly prominent part in your releases over the past few years. How and when did you first come across footwork, and how quickly did you come to the conclusion that it’s a style you’d like to incorporate into your own productions?
"I discovered juke and ghetto house years ago through friends and various sources, hearing it in clubs etc. Footwork was a bit more random of a discovery. I stumbled on DJ Nate's MySpace page in 2008 or so through a recommendation of a friend. I started finding a lot of other footwork artists through DJ Nate and by watching the Wala Cam videos on YouTube.
"It's influence worked its way into my music just like anything I'm interested does. Even though people seem to focus on footwork as my main influence in the past few years maybe because of its trend factor, I find that theres a lot more going on in the tracks than just footwork."
Out of interest, do you tend to use headphones a lot when writing music? There’s something about Vapor City that feels quite insular and personal - like you’re taking sounds designed for large-scale raves and parties and transforming them into something that feels designed as quite a solitary experience. Was this intentional?
"I travel quite a lot and I start tracks on headphones quite a bit, but everything is properly mixed down at home on Adam A7x Monitors. I have no intentions really when writing tracks. I guess I'm not good at writing songs for the club, if that's what you're getting at."
Am I right in thinking you lived in both New York and Berlin during the time between this album and Room(s), in what way, if at all, do you think each place has impacted the sound of the album?
"I had just turned in the premasters for Room(s) a few months before moving to Berlin. I had already started working on new tracks naturally. Moving from NYC to Berlin definitely had some sort of influence on the recurring Vapor City dreams. Once I was settled living in Berlin I started writing a large amount of music, probably the largest quantity in one year I've ever written. I think this has to do a lot with the laid back nature of Berlin and without a doubt the dramatically lower living expenses were a factor."
Between Sepalcure, Jets and Dream Continuum you seem to have spent a lot the time since Room(s) working in collaboration. Do you think this has had an influence on the way you’ve approached your solo work this time around?
"Yes, as through collaboration I discover new approaches to writing music. I've even learned new technical things about the software that I didn't realise were there before collaborating."
The tracks on Vapor City all feel quite fluid and humanised in their composition, are you a particularly hands-on producer, in terms of using hardware and real instruments rather than just a computer?
"My background is a mix of instrumental and electronic. I played piano and guitar early on and around 12 years started learning how to write electronic music. During that same time I started getting into percussion and bass guitar as well.
"I guess you can say I was learning how to write music from two different ends of the spectrum, but I didn't really see it like that. I've always looked at computers as instruments of sorts. When I write music these days it's definitely very computer involved as I don't have loads of synthesizers or gear, but I at least try to play in ideas, or even beatbox and sing in ideas and recreate them later."
How quickly did your new live show come together? Did you have an idea of how you'd like to translate the album live when you were writing it?
"The new live show has taken a bit of effort, quite a lot more than my older 'live' shows. Playing instruments live and working with other musicians is definitely much more difficult and time consuming than slapping together some tracks in Ableton and mashing up a club. The concept of how I would perform the album live happened well after writing the songs, but it all worked out in the end."
Vapor City is out now via Ninja Tune.
The playlist: new and forthcoming releases
Fis - Preparations [Tri Angle] Fis - Homologous [Void Coms]
Rising producer Oliver Peryman (aka Fis) is nominally referred to as a drum & bass producer, due to the rough tempo of his tunes and the local scene he's associated with in his native New Zealand. Realistically though, his experimental and occasionally near-beatless tracks have as much in common with drone and the more ambitious ends of techno as they do d&b. He's two excellent EPs out during November: a three-part composition named Homologous on Void Coms, and the four track Preperations on Tri Angle, both of which are fantastically produced, brimming with genuinely interesting sounds and come highly recommended.
Hodge - Resolve/Prototype Fear [Punch Drunk]
Following a summer that saw him focussing (in terms of releases, at least) heavily on his work with house duo Outboxx, Bristol producer Jacob Martin returns to his darker and more bass-focused Hodge alias for this pair of dancefloor friendly tracks on Punch Drunk. Both tracks here feel pretty well suited to Punch Drunk, each being built around a concoction of looming sub bass and dub-inclined techno beats that slots in neatly alongside the work of label boss (and recent Hodge collaborator) Peverelist.
IVVVO - Light Moving [Fourth Wave]
Over the past couple of years Ramp Recordings offshoot Fourth Wave has shaped-up as one of the UK's most consistently interesting house labels, thanks to a steady stream of brilliantly weird dancefloor cuts from the likes of Gerry Read and Felix Lenferink. Portuguese producer IVVVO (pronounced 'evo') is a new addition to the label's roster, who keeps up the tradition of creating fuzzy, sample-heavy house whilst stepping into slightly more hard-hitting, rave-friendly territory than the label has ventured into previously. There's still a melodic and nicely human undertone to his tracks though, making this five-track EP a very worthwhile listen, even away from the dancefloor.
Jam City - Bells [Night Slugs/free download]
Jam City has remained relatively quiet since the release of his excellent debut LP Classical Curves last year, so this freebie track - which arrives via Night Slugs - is something of an unexpected treat. As was the case with that album, "Bells" is an exquisitely well produced track, packed with razor sharp drum hits and silky-as-anything synths. It twinkles in the precise way its title would suggest, but packs a sneaky low-end punch too.
Joe - Slope/Maximum Busy Muscle [Hessle Audio]
Joe - Punters Step Out/Club Scared [Hemlock]
Limelight-shy producer Joe has been shaping up as the jewel in the Hessle Audio crown for a couple of years now, and this latest 12" sees him living up to that potential and then some. A-side "Slope" is a masterclass in how to tease a dancefloor. There's an utterly irresistible bassline and a minimal 4x4 house beat that spend the bulk of the tune dancing around each other, threatening to intertwine without ever really coming together in the way you expect them to, whilst a top layer of gritty, simplistic synths build toward a release that never quite reveals itself. In a lesser producer's hands it could all feel anticlimactic, but Joe judges it perfectly and ultimately the restraint just leaves "Slope" feeling all the more satisfying. B-side "Maximum Busy Muscle", meanwhile, is an energetic concoction of drum samples and horn stabs that owes as much of a debut to post-punk as it does classic house.
He's a follow-up release due out at the start of next month too, this time on Hemlock. Both "Punters Step Out" and "Club Scared" are slightly more oddball affairs than their Hessle predecessors, but they're no less high quality. The a-side sees Joe pairing a wonky-as-hell organ line with pounding sub-heavy kick to create something that sounds like a dancehall banger played at half speed. "Club Scared", on the other hand, is energetic and brilliantly all over the place. Check out previews of both here. It might be a little early to call it officially, but it's looking like 2013 belongs to Joe.
Joker - Sega Joker Drive [self-released]
You'd be forgiven for not having kept up with Bristolian purple-monger Joker's output of late. Despite releasing an initial run of genuinely fresh and unique tracks like "Snake Eater" and "Digidesign" a few years back, since the release of his muddled debut LP back in 2011 he's understandably dropped off the cultural radar a little. This self-released mini-album, which he quietly dropped onto Dubstep Forum back in September, is easily the best thing he's done in ages, however. It's an all-out bitcrushed homage to '90s video games (which, admittedly, isn't exactly a completely original idea.) The whole thing is produced with an obvious genuine affection for the source material though, and Joker manages to inject the unrelentingly retro sound-palette with a surprising amount of funk and subtly infectious melody. In grand scheme of the post-purple scene (*thankfully not actually a thing) it's not a patch on Guido's thoroughly enjoyable second album, but it's free and certainly worth some attention.
Livity Sound - Livity Sound [Livity Sound]
Batu - Spooked/Clarity (Dismantled) [duonS ytiviL]
Bristol-based trio Livity Sound - comprised of producers Peverelist, Kowton and Asusu - are one of the most consistently exciting electronic outfits in the UK right now. This double LP compiles all of the limited 12"s the outfit have released on their label over the past couple of years. It's not a group album as such, rather a compilation of solo and collaborative cuts from the three artists (although they do perform as a trio for their excellent live sets.) The 18 tracks are tied together by a shared rough-edged, hardware-driven aesthetic, however; an almost jam-session approach to creating skeletal, bare-bones house and techno. The album makes for a very enjoyable listen, although realistically it's still in club environments that their music shines brightest - if you get a chance, be sure to catch a Livity Sound live set.
Meanwhile, there's an excellent new double-header from rising UK producer Batu arriving on Livity Sound offshoot label sduonS ytiviL at the start of next month. Both "Spooked" and "Clarity (Dismantled)" are finely crafted works of moody, yet richly detailed dance music; each built around unstable drum loops and precisely timed bursts of percussive synth.
Objekt - Objekt #3 [Objekt]
Following a relatively quiet year, Berlin-based Brit Objekt returns with this third release on his own eponymously titled label. Both tracks here are precisely deployed works of dancefloor ready techno, built with rugged precision but underpinned by plenty of the gritty sonic weirdness that Objekt has made his calling card. A-side "Agnes Demise" is a thumping piece of dark techno that builds towards a brilliantly drawn-out and tension packed breakdown. Flipside cut "Fishbone", meanwhile, is more laid-back, combining groove-laden drum loops, delicate synths and spartan snatches of vocal sample. Yet another excellent release to add to Objekt's impressively consistent discography.
Randomer - Bring/Curtains [Hemlock]
I'm being a bit late on this one, seeing as this 12" from London-based Randomer, has been out for over a month already. It's worth including here though as, put simply, "Bring" is one of the finest house tracks that's been released all year. It's one of those tracks that manages to take a bunch of elements that we've heard countless times before - shuffled garage snares, pulsing synths, pitched-up vocals - and turn them into something that feels fresh and exciting. It doesn't really go anywhere, only building and dropping a negligible amount across its five-minute duration, but the swung drum groove and rumbling sub bass are so infectious that you wouldn't really want it to anyway.
Slackk - Failed Gods EP [Local Action]
Between running pirate radio archive Grimetapes and his involvement in the ever-on-point London club night Boxed, Slackk (aka producer Paul Lynch - who also works as Patrice & Friends) has proved to be one of the most proactive proponents of the current instrumental grime resurgence. This second release for Local Action (which follows 2012's Raw Missions) is easily the most ambitious and essential thing he's done to date, however. Over the course of the six tracks here he touches on classic Eski-style synths ("Algiers"), Ruff Sqwad-eque emotion ("Empty Bottles"), world music rhythms ("Room Made Vague") and full-blown grime bombast ("Shogun Assassin") but draws everything together into a satisfying and coherent whole thanks to his deft production skill. Very impressive stuff.
Torus - Feeel EP [Sonic Router]
Sonic Router's expansion from on-point blog into on-point label continues apace with this latest EP, which sees the return of Torus - the artist who provided their first release some 18 months ago. As with that previous EP, Feeel is built around a combination of crisp, hip hop-inspired beats and delicately compiled atmospherics. Torus' production feels decidedly more confident this time around though, and whilst the restraint of his earlier tracks is still evident, there are moments - particularly in the EP's later tunes - that he reveals a pleasantly surprising harder edge hidden beneath the layers of crackle and ambiance.
West Norwood Cassette Library - 8 Track Cartridge [Hypercolour]
London-based producer Bob Bhamra (aka West Norwood Cassette Library) digs back into his stash of unreleased dubplates and production offcuts for this double-EP for Hypercoluor, which is due for release next month. The eight tracks that make up the release are brilliantly rough-edged and all over the place; veering between percussive, acid-laced house, downbeat funk grooves and the occasional burst of full-on hardcore. Everything is beautifully textured though, and there are countless unexpected twists and turns throughout 45-minute run time, which makes the whole thing a highly rewarding listen.
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