May 2010

It’s another good month, especially in podcasts—the toughest batch to trim yet. Not to mention that F, Ikonika, Vex’d, and Starkey have helped me realize how consistently, and how soon, dubstep has brought recognizably individual voices to the table—individual instrumental voices, no less. That’s a pretty remarkable achievement; it makes the music seem even more like an umbrella than a genre. It’s turning into lingua franca so fast in part because it seems designed to mutate—like the number of variations it’s spawned only enhances the style’s core, rather than seeming fragmented from it. 

FLEUR DE LIS. Energy Distortion (7even)—a disc of French dubstep from a DJ born Florent Aupetit, known professionally simply as F—has grown, almost imperceptibly, into my album of the month. It’s not a first-knockout kind of album, but one so beautifully crafted that I found myself throwing it on when I just wanted to hear some music. Aupetit doesn’t take your attention for granted: He keeps things moving, pushing his ideas rather than leaning on them; his frameworks don’t change even when everything inside them does, and things move linearly, not in a cut-up way. What may be boldest is that many tracks’ drums veer as much toward golden-age drum-and-bass as they do modern dubstep. Even the crystalline synths of “Another Place” recall the silky/milky/from-space sound of vintage 4 Hero and L.T.J. Bukem as much as they do peers like Martyn, Scuba, or Untold. To evoke a tired cliché about the French, it’s suave. But it can get dirty, too, as on the snarling “0907.” 

IKONOKLAST. Ikonika (Hyperdub) is the full debut of a London dubstep producer. I know what you’re thinking—oh great, another one? To which I answer: Another one, yes, and great—kind of, yeah. Born Sara Abdel-Hamid, Ikonika approaches her music in that very London way in which the sound of heavily messed-with home-videogame music holds a kind of hypnotic sway: Zomby’s One Foot Ahead Of The Other EP from last year is a prime example. That kind of 8-bit ultra-blip is just the starter here: Ikonika showcases dazzling timbral variety, as with the undulating ultra-low end of “R.e.s.o.l.” under pocket calculators, and the paranoid bell melody that dots “Video Delays” before shinier synths whirl in for the track’s hook. 

CITYSCAPES. Thomas Fehlmann’s got a c.v. as long as your arm. Late-’70s new waver, early adopter on ambient, techno pioneer, member of The Orb, Kompakt godfather, sometime DJ (see below), and now the man behind Gute Luft: Original Soundtrack From The “24H Berlin” TV Documentary (Kompakt), director Volker Heise’s massive project—80 camera crews following Berlin for a full 24 hours, resulting in a film as long. The disc works as a kind of summation of Fehlmann’s recent work: It’s luxurious but doesn’t sit still, expansive without being overbearing: seldom does music you can feasibly refer to as “minimal” sound so wide-open agog as “Wasser Im Fluss.” The gliding keyboards of “Schwerelos” pops up in two later tracks, and sound equally welcome everywhere. 

SAUERKRAUT. Prins Thomas (Full Pupp) is the solo debut of half of a justly lauded Norwegian team with Lindstrøm, and if the latter’s Where You Go I Go Too indicated where the duo’s taste for cosmic synthesizers came from, this disc proves that Thomas is its beating Krautrock heart. A motorik groove prevails on these seven leisurely cuts: “Ørkenvandring” and “Sauerkraut” update the motorik groove of Neu!’s “Hallogallo” into something softer, more undulating, and in the latter’s case, full of slow-mo guitar splinters, and “Uggebugg” has a similarly sunrise-on-the-beach feel. The lo-fi tribute cover photo is awful, but it does sort of get at Prins Thomas’s semi-homespun charm. 

REMAINS OF THE DAY. Dubstep has moved in so many directions over the last three years that it’s become easier to hear an album like Vex’d’s Cloud Seed (Planet Mu) as a marker of a time when the style’s parameters were narrower. It consists of tracks made in 2006 and 2007 for an unfinished second album, padded out with remixes (by Vex’d for others, and by others for Vex’d), and you can hear the duo, Jamie Teasdale and Roly Porter, were still finding their way toward a definitive sound: two tracks here, “Shinju Bridge” and the clanking, industrial percussion-heavy “Slug Trawl Depths,” are under-two-minute sketches. But there’s a dark, heaving heart to the material that’s still bracing, and if you like dubstep best when it snarls, this is for you. 

IN BRIEF. 2010 (Dial) is as uneven as you’d expect from a label compilation, even a label as often brilliant as Dial, Hamburg’s source for soft-focus house, which brought us Pantha Du Prince and Lawrence. But John Roberts’ “Lines,” Pantha’s “Fountain Drive,” and Carsten Jost’s “Days Gone By” are worth cherry picking. The Juan MacLean’s contribution to the DJ-Kicks series (!K7) is heavy on the vocal house typified by MacLean’s own “Happy House” (as “Feliz Casa,” it begins and ends the set), which means it’s terrific. Free the Robots’ Ctrl-Alt-Delete (Alpha Pup) extends the L.A. bass scene’s winning streak with a set of tracks that’s less woozy and more straightforward—even rocking—than the post-Flying Lotus norm. When your best track is nine minutes long (“Global Warming”), you’re onto something. I don’t recommend trip-hop albums lightly, but Bonobo’s Black Sands (Ninja Tune) is hop made with obvious care and a heightened sense of timbre. Producer Simon Green loves live instruments for how rich they sound, not how “real” they signify. Secret Cinema’s Welcome To My Club (Gem) is a zippy mix from the Netherlands vet born Jeroen Verheij, whose hypnotic, bubbling selections make a living room seem much larger and full of dancers, without resorting to blatantly obvious anthems. Starkey’s Ear Drums And Black Holes (Planet Mu) is dubstep from Philadelphia that’s equally at home with London grime MCs (P-Money, on the standout “Numb”), local rappers (Vortex and Leezle, on “Club Games”), wispy female singers (Anneka, on “Stars”), and by its own damn self, particularly when he breaks out the rubbery squiggles on “Pleasure Points” and “Fourth Dimension.” The Netherlands-based Conforce’s Machine Conspiracy (Meanwhile/Baked Goods) leans hard on warmly lived-in Detroit techno and the dream-house of Manchester label Modern Love, but has an auburn-tinted hue of its own. “Love-Hate” is so wispy you can’t even believe it. 

REISSUE OF THE MONTH. Much of the new stuff above has seemed positive and reflective, and those are qualities that apply as well to Virgo (Rush Hour), an exuberant Chicago house album by a group first known as Virgo Four. Virgo was really two men, Eric Lewis and Merwyn Sanders, who made a handful of singles that Radikal Records collected in 1989, which is reissued here. There’s not a lot of new ground broken—just the sound of kids building on a sound they know and love, directly and with spark. If the sound of the future as dance producers imagined it 20-plus years ago gives you goosebumps, you’ll want this. 

ON THE WEB. This gets harder and more fun every month. At one point the live DJ performances, podcasts, concept mixes, promo sets, and historical overviews that got in my ears over the past four weeks ran up to 25 serious contenders, not counting plenty of perfectly recommendable ones that don’t make the second pass. Maybe I’ll recycle some of it for June, though given how much good-looking shit I haven’t even gotten to yet, probably not, especially with summer upon us. Top ten:

Traxx, Live at Mister Saturday Night, January 23, 2010 (posted Feb. 28)

This two-hour, 19-minute set of raw, freewheeling underground house (recorded live at a renowned New York loft party) comes from a Chicago legend. Working with total assurance and a healthy sense of mischief, Traxx specializes in starkness, both in selection and song-to-song segues: Check the hard, barely adorned drum break hooked with a gruff “Ain’t it a groove,” about 57 minutes in, that’s mixed, roughly but with drive, into New Order’s “5-8-6.” The occasional fluffs just add to the hurtling ambience.

DJ Marky, Bodytonic Podcast 072 (posted March 3) 

Surprise! The Brazilian drum-and-bass DJ plays switcheroo and unveils nearly 49 minutes of juicy vintage disco with lots of strings and Moogs, that stands mostly at the cusp of yacht rock but has time for the soul power of Teddy Pendergrass’ “Just Can’t Get Enough” and Don Ray’s “Standing In The Rain.” 

DJ Canyon, Wild Jack Salt (posted March 4)

DJs are supposed to help us make sense of panoply of material, and few mixes I’ve heard this year take that as seriously as this one—or make such a hands-down party out of it. DJ Canyon lists 35 separate tracks, not including vocal drop-ins and other sampled-found-layered material, and like DJ /rupture and Matt Shadetek, whose remix of Gang Gang Dance’s “Bebey” closes this mix out, Canyon’s style encompasses a huge, international range of material (“cumbia, hip-hop, dubstep, funk caroica, salsa, drum & bass, kuduro, and glitch,” per the site’s description) while staying fleet and focused. 

Agnès, LWE Podcast 47 (posted March 29)

This Swiss DJ clearly cares about the technical end of things: The accompanying Q&A features the line, “Here are some links for the hard headed out there willing to finally get rid of their ‘click’ pitches.” That attention to detail is audibly evident in the hour of lush, seamless, shimmering house he contributed to  HYPERLINK "http://www.littlewhiteearbuds.com/" Little White Earbuds, the terrific Chicago-based dance site. 

James Lauer, Endless Summer Studio Mix (posted March 29)

Recorded with Ableton for the  HYPERLINK "http://deepchicago.net/?p=821" Deep Chicago website, so you know what you’ll be getting: jackin’ house with occasional techno touches, its many cuts neatly tucked in. The mix serves as a kind of bridge between the Traxx live mix above—trimmer but no less driving—and the Jackmaster one below, since it features the instant sunshine of Rob Mello’s “Happiness (Happy Club Mix),” from 1999. 

Jackmaster, Dummy Mix 29 (posted March 31)

Like DJ Marky (above), the Glasgow bass-music kingpin goes way against type here. For Dummy, he April Fools us with by riffling through super-obvious ’90s crossover house and club tracks, from Nomad’s “Devotion” (1990; one of the first house 12-inches I owned, and the first import) to “Music Sounds Better With You” by Daft Punk side project Stardust (1998) with drive-bys from Crystal Waters, Armand Van Helden, Modjo, and David Morales. Absolutely shameless, absolutely great, and if you hate Robin S’s “Show Me Love,” don’t talk to me, ever. 

Simbad, FACT Mix 137 (download) (posted April 2) 

This French-born London DJ spends 61 minutes summoning every iteration of dubstep imaginable, but the mix is neither wonky nor purist—just full of fresh approaches, ranging from the broken-beat percussion of Kyle Hall’s “Kaychunk” to the minimalist ice-capades techno of Marino Berardi’s “Best Intention (Christo Perspective),” to a style that hasn’t nearly worn itself out yet. 

Schlachthofbronx, XLR8R Podcast 131 (posted April 4)

More world-on-your-block tying-together, this time from Bavaria, with rhythms a little jumpier and narrower than the DJ Canyon mix above, and more obviously (and this is by no means an insult) commercial—just listen to Schlachthofbronx ft. MC Gringo & MC Nem’s "Foc Me Baby." 

Thomas Fehlmann, RA.202 (posted April 11)

The Swiss-born veteran celebrates his album (reviewed above) by unwinding with a snaky, aquatic, funky, and beautiful group of tracks from himself (alone and with The Orb) and comrades such as Moritz von Oswald & Carl Craig (remixed by Francois Kervorkian), Soulphiction, The Mole, and Omar-S. If those names seem obvious, one listen will remind you why. 

2562, RA.203 (posted April 19)

Techno-plus-dubstep is a cliché at this point, but not in the hands of Hague’s finest, Dave Huismans, whose work as A Made Up Sound is also represented plenty here. His contrasts are like artfully lit black-and-white noir, and his selections are like a percussion lover’s pizza.