Autechre: Elseq 1-5
Warp Records (2016)
Autechre release an epic 4 hours worth of new music and all the Heads can do is complain about Elseq 1-5 being a digital only release. Who wants to listen to Autechre on vinyl anyway? The very idea goes against everything that Rob Brown and Sean Booth represent.
Autechre are the sound of machines taking over the world and Artificial Intelligence consuming analogue humans into obsolescence, cleaning their cyborg teeth with our bones. The buzz of neon sunsets setting the air alight with static. Data wars between malfunctioning cyber systems desperate for consciousness but damned by right wing optical fibre hardware with silver spoons for mouths. This is the sound of capitalism feasting on its own carcass, and eating 180 gram vinyl reissues for breakfast in a shower of sparks and smouldering wires. This is the soundtrack to every William Gibson novel ever. Privacy is over and your life is the property of some giant, faceless conglomerate that can’t even explain what its own purpose is.
But don’t spend too much time teasing these post-apocalyptic themes out of Elseq 1-5; you’ll drive yourself mad. Come to think of it, sitting through all four hours of Elseq 1-5 in a single sitting would likely push you over the deep end too. However, if you have the patience to gradually explore its digital terroir you’ll find moments of clarity within the malfunctioning madness. The possibility that perhaps the world could be a better place if it actually were ruled by machines.
Roly Porter: Third Law
Tri Angle (2016)
Thick blackness and stars. No sound. A sliver of light splits space and reveals the rippling circumference of a large planet. Not Earth. White rays and prisms shoot off into the void, and the sliver becomes a half moon. Noxious gasses unfurl from the planet like tentacles. Shadows peel back back from craters that scar its surface like acne.
You watch this alien environment from outer space in some modular, hulking ship all smeared with the dusty residue of atmospheres past travelled. There’s a gaping wound where the fuselage used to be. Tubes and wires stream gently out into the void without caring that you might not ever get back home. The rest of the crew float silently amongst the cabin’s debris. Occasionally they bump into something – a wall, a chair, another person – and change trajectory without registering. They’re not going to wake up again. Something liquid passes by your face in a mouthwatering splash held together by the absence of gravity.
You think to yourself, ‘Where the fuck is Sandra Bullock when you need her?’ while remembering a Hollywood blockbuster you once saw. Calmly you climb into and pressurise your suit. You peer out into space and admire the stars one last time before jumping out of the wreckage with no idea how you’re going to get out of this mess.
This is the sound of Roly Porter’s Third Law.
The instrumental Grime scene is on fire at the moment with the likes of Slackk, Logos, M.E.S.H, and Kode9 blowing shit up. No longer tied solely to basement clubs and beefs between MCs, this second generation of Grime artists, if that scene is indeed what they’re part of, explore moodier territory and take listeners into far flung experimental places.
The man behind Visionist, Louis Carnell speaks of his battle with anxiety issues as the inspiration behind Safe which has caused numerous reviews to refer to the record as ‘dark’. This is completely unfair. Safe is a dreamlike experience bursting with disembodied voices cut and pasted into shimmering patterns. Illogical rhythms lope along the horizon of a landscape that is mind-meltingly surreal. All’s calm on the outside but things are unstable within.
Visionist’s point of difference is his uncanny ability to sample the human voice, dismember it and spice it with up with FX to create cryptic melodies. He sources these voices from YouTube clips and late night TV which makes things sound familiar and strange at the same time.
A track like Sin-cere boils this concept down to the barest of bones. Carnell dispenses with rhythm and spends four minutes constructing an alien refrain based on voices that intone ‘oh’ ‘e’ and ‘ah’. The samples are pitch shifted into an otherworldly presence, rife with reverb and ghosts. Not creepy, just mournful. Ghosts from a future filled with stainless steel and dying stars.
Other tracks pair scattered and bombastic bass rhythms with chipmunk voices akin to Jungle toons of the nineties. Snare drums shuffle and snap erratically, while the occasional jazz motif ups the mood a little. The album winds down with a watery track called Sleep Luxury, conjuring images of Carnell awake in the wee hours of the morning exhausted but struggling to sleep among thousands of anxious voices racing around his head. It’s a sound, and a vision that makes a lot of sense to me.
Laurel Halo: In Situ
Honest Jon’s Records (2015)
Remember back when Laurel Halo blew my mind with Quarantine after having my wisdom teeth removed under general anaesthetic? That record was so dreamy and weird, I was totally obsessed with it for a while. But her jazzed-out dance friendly follow up Chance of Rain didn’t excite me quite as much, so I approached In Situ with trepidation.
What a pleasant surprise to find Laurel reinvestigating the gloopy structures she’s so good at moulding. In Situ is another instrumental endeavour, and while its Nike Airmax are planted in the world of dance, its palette is built from the outer fringes of electronica and experimental music.
In Situ is stripped of all clutter, gone are the analogue samples, and despite being sparse its environment glows warm. The bulging bass line and anxious high hats on Situation scream Drum n’ Bass and Grime, but the track is pretty much un-danceable. Nebenkirkungen enters the fray on little more than a low-end throb and miscellaneous ambience before blossoming into a complex array of percussive ticks and damaged chimes that’s claustrophobic more than euphoric.
Readers may have read about the ‘altercation’ between Steve Albini and Powell this week, with the grumpy old master of guitar abrasion and offensiveness essentially calling dance and electronic music over-manufactured and inconsequential. I understood what Albini was getting at, but I also think the guy was showing his age a bit. Electronica, and even dance music has evolved so far beyond its original incarnation. Artists like Laurel Halo have a knack for making electronica that ‘feels’ while pushing way beyond the genre’s tropes.
In reality artists like Powell, Russell Haswell and Pete Swanson along with Halo (to name a few) are making music that’s way more experimental and in your face than most dudes with a guitar these days (ahem, Albini). Check out In Situ for a glimpse of what I mean.
M.E.S.H: Piteous Gate
In a world where information overload is rife and our interconnectedness highlights that humanity hasn’t evolved as far from medieval times as we like to think, Piteous Gate sounds like the future and the past at once. James Whipple, the guy behind M.E.S.H. has a background in fractured forms of dance and electronica. Piteous Gate isn’t in any way danceable but its roots are planted firmly in the most far out moments of Grime, Dub and Drum n’ Bass. Like Autechre before him, Whipple takes these inspirations and destroys them. But where Autechre sound like computers gone to decay, M.E.S.H attempts to make sense of our future.
Gigantic drum samples snap out of cavernous space. Organic sounds clash with stereo clutter. Sheets of synthesisers melt into the audio sphere and then slip out of your grasp again. These elements are disparate. They operate on their own planes and there is an enormous sense of space in each track, including plenty of near silence. Those empty seconds between sounds actually vibrate, the silence is electrified.
While listening to this record (countless times now!) it occurred to me how ‘real’ the elements of electronica sound nowadays. The time when music composed using digital devices sounded separate from ‘acoustic’ instruments is long gone. It’s normal now.
I have to remind myself that the flutes fluttering around Optimate, for example, aren’t ‘real’ flutes. More likely they’re a simulacra, appropriated from another source and chopped and screwed into digital oblivion. I get to thinking how more and more our reality is becoming an online, digital one. It’s like the Matrix, man. Towards the end of this record, Whipple titles a track The Black Pill, suggesting an alternative to the blue and red pills offered by Morpheous. A different reality. An unknown future.
It makes perfect sense that the album’s title, Piteous Gate references a cult Science-Fantasy novel written by Gene Wolf in the 80s. This is the sound of future generations remembering the beginning of the Deep Web.
Aphex twin: Computer Controlled Acoustic Music Pt. 2
Warp Records (2015)
The internet went into meltdown when a blimp appeared over London bearing the Aphex Twin logo……blah blah blah. Well, here’s the follow up to his first album in 14 years. Computer Controlled Acoustic Music Pt. 2 might not be a proper ‘follow up’ – in fact it’s a collection of odds, ends and experiments also collected over the previous fourteen years – but that doesn’t make it any less cohesive.
It may not be as musical as Syro. In fact it sounds completely different to its predecessor. It may not have the downright creepy weirdness of his earlier works, but what it doesn’t lack is funk. Yes, funk. You might never have associated the word ‘funk’ with Apex Twin, but it’s here. Clear as day. It’s in the head-nodding, old-school hip-hop rhythms. It’s in the bouncy, acoustic bass lines. It’s in the percussive clunk of the live instruments all of this is based on.
Those percussive vibes are what separates Computer Controlled Acoustic Music Pt. 2 from all the other ‘funky’ instrumental music that exists in the 2014. The instruments might be acoustic but they sound ‘prepared’ in a subtle nod to the sonic world of John Cage and his ilk. The pianos are clunky and stunted. The snares are all fucked up and tinny. The beats are sprinkled with tings, plonks and random off-shoots of sound. I’m not naive enough to think that Richard D James actually interfered with all thee acoustic instruments before recording them. I know full well that he’s a studio boffin who must have spent weeks twiddling knobs to get this recording sounding as it does. But that’s the intrigue; like the 30 second interludes of super-speed piano lines that sound ‘real’ even though they could only be played by a robot. And if you can accept Computer Controlled Acoustic Music Pt. 2 on its own, outside of the all baggage that comes with the second Apex Twin record in 14 years, it’s fucking fun.
Slackk: Palm Tree Fire
Local Action (2014)
Imagine a vast future, where humans and Cyborgs live together in harmony. Where androids really do dream of electric sheep, and we’ve rebuilt a colourful metallic world after mass destruction. The soundtrack to this utopia might be Palm Tree Fire.
The Grime scene has eluded me for the most part. I love the spiked psychosis of Dizzee Rascal’s first record, and I’ve flirted with Wiley (did someone say mainstream?) but overall the genre’s focus on shouty and gruff MCs hasn’t really appealed to me. Especially when shaken up over 8-bit melodies and tinny beats.
However, Slackk does away with pretty much everything I know about Grime. He emphasises instrumental toons, atmosphere and experimentation. Rhythm is suggested through sub-vibrations, percussive melodies, and skittering snare patterns rather than pounding bass drums. He generates the jerky and sputtering momentum of military parades, South American dance, and musique concrete. Think Logos, but brighter. Atmospheric, but uplifting.
While listening to Palm Tree Fire I’m consistently reminded of Radiohead’s Airbag, the oddly structured opener to OK Computer. Like that song, many of Slackk’s compositions compile clashing elements to create something whole. Millipede does this particularly well using erratic high-hats and hand claps, which barely support a staccato bass line playing tag-team with a just-out-of-key melody. As the track progresses a synth chimes in with semi-tones un-synced from everything else, before eventually catching up with the main rhythm. As he introduces further electronic flourishes the piece begins propelling itself into a groove not present when the track kicks off.
The vibe of Palm Tree Fire says party but the compositions are too abstract for conventional DJ mixes. Tracks end and begin abruptly, but somehow segue into each with enough precision to keep you onboard the journey. The effect is dreamlike. Slackk’s music swirls around in endless reams of repetition, spiralling towards Zen. But nothing is organic in his world, every sound is pure electronica, or a crisp imitation of reality (like the bamboo flute on Three Kingdoms). This gives Palm Tree Fire an oddly futuristic edge, like the sound track to a bright future, perhaps in some other solar system, where the machines haven’t taken over and we all smile happily at each other after teleporting to the dance floor at Slackk’s London club night, Boxed. Nice, inn’it?