Digital/Divide is a monthly column devoted to any and all genres and subgenres in the great big beautiful world of electronic and dance music.
Under guises like Lull, Quoit, and Scorn, Mick Harris was a compelling force in underground electronic music for roughly two decades. A former Napalm Death drummer and contagious collaborator for a bevy of avant-garde artists, his solo projects explored heaviness and darkness in equal measure, generally opposed to letting much light into his grim soundscapes and tensile rhythms.
A product of crippling self-doubt, Harris’ absence from composition and performance in recent years has had the unfortunate consequence of the pioneer missing out on the fruits of his obvious influence. The industrial techno scene he helped birth and nurture in Birmingham in the 1990s has since exploded into a global powerhouse, with longtime pals in the Downwards family like Regis and Surgeon enjoying success alongside contemporary purveyors of experimental bleakness for labels like Avian and Hospital Productions.
Fans of these labels and Harris’ work at the turn of the century for the criminally underrated Hymen Records have much to love with his unexpected return as Fret, a heretofore disused moniker he last employed for a defunct Downwards sublabel, which returns with Over Depth [Karlrecords].
Despite the lean years, Harris has lost none of his potency as a producer, still a masterful practitioner of bass manipulation and desolate resonance. A quintessential example of his production prowess in the genre, “Meadow Taken Back” takes a halfstep approach to the warehouse throb, effectively amplifying every kick while giving breathing room to utterly godless environs. “Etched Beaked Point” snaps and whirs around woofer-busting drops, while the foreboding ambience swirling over “No Rain” quakes with the hum and churn of relentless machinery.
His other passion happens to be fishing, and referential titles like “LO30” and “Stuck In the Track At Salford Priors” reflect his enduring sense of humor, affixing such hobbyist qualities to veritable horrorscapes. Such is the character of Harris’ creativity, making music so utterly dour yet imbuing it with secret joy.
New York bass producer Joni Judén hasn’t gone totally New Age on us. Still, there’s no denying he’s softened most of the hard, sharp edges of his earlier work under this moniker. The piston precision of last year’s From The Womb EP remains in places, as on the minimalist numbers “Godless” and “Youth.” Essentially a departure from any industrial grime sensibility, Nothing Is Real feels closer to what an artist called Celestial Trax should sound like, presented as a meditative monologue over the piano dirge of “Not In Control” or the series of gentle harp-like plucks populating “Reflection.” The tribal rhythms behind “100 Proof” brim with a fluid mysticism, a stark contrast to harsher dancefloor predecessors. Even with a holistically cleansed sound palette at his disposal, Judén still keeps up with his old tricks regarding the creative infusion of vocals. “Manifestation Of Delusion” warbles with echoed voices against its quasi-ambient backdrop, marking an evolution in style well worth following.
Stuffed with collaborations from like-minded footwork artists including an almost omnipresent DJ Taye, the breezy listening of this ten track affair contrasts with undeniably more ambitious genre efforts of late from Jlin and Jana Rush. Yet what DJ Manny lacks in leftfield intent he makes up for with a no nonsense dancefloor execution. Much like old-school Midwest ghettotech, his aggressive and effective approach wholly embraces sampled vocal repetition in the service of delivering a mighty good time. On the surface, titles like “I’ll Hurt You Baby” and “Life In This Bitch” may seem threatening, yet in practice they promote a decidedly consensual physicality. The intermittent call-and-response of skittering cut “You Looking Good” pairs well with the equally sexualized quips throughout “Like That,” the latter taking on a quasi-junglist vibe. Befitting its spooky sound, the horror carnival drops of “Ghost Out” become more shocking when they give way to a minimalist, straightforward rhythm.
As co-founder of the forward-thinking UK label Night Slugs, James Connolly actively helps push bass music to new heights both as a shrewd curator and, under the L-Vis 1990 name, a formidable producer in his own right. Curiously, this mixtape doesn’t arrive under that esteemed imprint, yet the reasons for doing so become clear upon listening. A celebration of urban pop, 12 Thousand Nights features about a dozen credited vocal collaborators from both sides of the pond, a by-product of the artist’s return from a stint living in New York. Representing Connolly’s home base, straight-ahead grime cut “No Threat” with Eddie Fiasco will satisfy those enamored with that local sound. But what sets 12 Thousand Nights apart is its international radio-ready savviness, embodied by Taliwhoah’s brash slang on “Flexin” and Mista Silva’s OVO-esque crooning on “Do My Ting.” The latter returns on the single “Sunlight”, a bubbly track predestined for Drake thievery that features an astounding Gaika feature. Another highlight, the sumptuous R&B of “Honey” drips with seductive hooks and aching auto-tune.
More frequently than we’d like to admit, singer-songwriter fare translates poorly to synth-heavy work. Buried under the weight of grandiose leads and thumping beats, meaningful lyrics and earnest performances tend to lose their gravity, coming across as lesser elements. To Rothman’s credit, the electronics on The Book Of Law are, more often than not, subtle to the point of incidental. Under their watchful eye, they take the shape of a warm embrace to take comfort in on the deeply moving “Geek” and the form of fleeting pads throughout soft rock standout “Wolves Still Cry.” If their production vision is elucidating, their voice is anything but gloss, with Rothman bringing a quiet storm of emotional heft and inventive character-driven storytelling. Flecked with druggy metaphor, “Stand By” soars as it describes an especially symbiotic brand of descent. For those who crave a bit of damage in their new romantic synthpop, “Your Kiss Takes Like Dope” swoons for a lover who may or may not be right for them.