Digital/Divide: The Best Electronic Music Of January Headlined By Nightmares On Wax

On January 31st 2018 » By Gary Suarez

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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.

The legacy of electronic music often breaks down by subgenre. In techno, the legendary Belleville Three—Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson—provided the pyramid’s foundation. For the drum ‘n’ bass set, Goldie might take the prize for bringing the speedy amen break into the mainstream. The names of acts that impacted and innovated go on and on, big beat pioneers Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers, IDM revolutionaries Autechre and Squarepusher, house heroes Frankie Knuckles and Todd Terry, analog visionaries Suzanne Ciani and Wendy Carlos.

Where, then, does that leave a legacy artist like Nightmares On Wax? For nearly three decades now, George Evelyn’s diverse catalog of recordings, largely for Warp Records, under that moniker has eluded categorization. Recognized NoW classics Carboot Soul and Smokers Delight as well as less heralded ones like Mind Elevation have very little to do with subgenre or whatever happened to be en vogue at their time. While his longtime labelmate Aphex Twin deliberately flouted genre with a toothy grin and winking eye, Evelyn never appeared to crave the mantle of provocateur. Instead, he chose what sounded good to his ears, drawing inspiration and influence from The Bronx and Sheffield and Motown and Kingston and Ibiza and Jalisco. Sometimes he wanted you to sit and think; others he implored you to dance.

Where previous NoW records admittedly felt like excellent compilations rather than excellent albums, the cohesiveness of the essential Shape The Future [Warp] represents a gratifying reversal that culminates Evelyn’s years of unfettered artistry. The emphasis here is on soul, but never in a retrograde or exploitative manner and often with deliberately unique twists. By this point in his career, listeners should expect nothing less.

In keeping with his tradition of compelling intros, “Back To Nature” leads with a motivational chin scratch set to smooth jazz-hop presided over by guest shaman Kuauthli Vasquez. Evelyn’s sonic arsenal coupled with his refined producer’s ear means he’s doing whatever your fave does but better. On anyone else’s full-length, “Citizen Kane” would be a single, its grown folks neo-soul booming with bass and emotion. Fans of Childish Gambino’s funk soul odyssey Awaken, My Love will find a warm safe haven in inner space of “The Othership” and the subtleties of “Tell My Vision.” Evelyn acknowledges millennial UK pop with “Deep Shadows,” with vocals delivered by London’s Sadie Walker over the sort of beat Lily Allen once gravitated towards.

Dondadi: ATMWorld [Green House]

For many people, ambient music offers relaxation as its guiding principle, be it spiritual awakening or spa day. Yet some of the most inventive and epic sounds collected under this often vague categorization come from artists who seek to engage or even provoke rather than comfort. Too uneasy for mellowing, too active for meditation, ATMWorld is less for blissing out than for melting into the sofa. Coming from a former member of Brooklyn indie act the Drums, Dondadi’s compositions are beatless brain teasers, bending waveforms and tinkering with sonic architecture. Recalling Brian Eno’s generative Reflection more so than his Music For Airports, tracks like “No Conduit” and “Oh Yeah” constantly change shape without veering away from their apparent shared intent. The level of digital manipulation or mischief underway keeps the ears occupied, though one may dip in and out without fully realizing. “Kallene” shimmers and burbles over its eight minutes, while the even longer “P.T.E.E.” mines the dramatic.

Hanz: Plasty I [Tri Angle]

This underrated North Carolinian experimentalist rarely comes up when discussing the Tri Angle roster, dwarfed by the likes of Forest Swords and The Haxan Cloak. The first in what one hopes will be an ongoing series this year, Plasty I demonstrates precisely why he belongs at the fore of conversations around this pioneering label. A truly liberated creative with little incentive to compromise, Hanz minces genre for his recipes, luring dub into the dark bombast of “King Speed” and dragging rock n’ roll down into the paranormal action of “Your Local Shapeshifter.” A triumph of restraint, “Plasty” is industrial-strength techno compressed down to something minimal and unexpectedly tribal. That nihilistic hardcore sensibility carries over to “Root Words,” a Burroughs-esque cut-up of arpeggiated tension, crushing machinery, and digital disquiet. In such a short time, he accomplishes more in eighteen minutes than most electronic artists do over the course of a discography.

Johnny Jewel: Digital Rain [Italians Do It Better]

Reportedly so temperamental an artist that he destroyed all copies of an unreleased Chromatics album, the synthwave cinéaste returns following his game-changing Twin Peaks year and the ancillary release Windswept. Listening to his latest non-soundtrack, it’s safe to assume the origins of these nineteen tracks as filmic ideas, particularly since so many come in more or less at or under two minutes apiece. Yet as a professional curator of moods for your favorite indie directors, Johnny Jewel understands how to weave them together into an aural narrative, which he does effectively and beautifully with these fragments over the course of the engrossing Digital Rain. His sound still indebted to the futurist aesthetics of the past, it’s hard not to hear the ‘70s and ‘80s Tangerine Dream influence on “Magma” or “Pulsations.” Longer songs such as “Houston” satisfy with their slow linear progression, yet fleeting bits “Mirror” and “Liquid Lucite” captivate and leave the listener craving as they flow together and away.

Matthewdavid: Time Flying Beats [Leaving]

Though the Leaving Records label head has become celebrated for his recent contributions to our new age of new age, so to speak, his roots in the beat scene undoubtedly helped him get there. For this return to form, he collects onto cassette new, unreleased, and otherwise unknown productions from that part of his hard drive. From the Tears For Fears footwork interpolation “Time Flying” to the chopped-and-screwed “Better Way,” Matthewdavid is back on his own terms and perhaps more palatable than ever. Clocking in at very-special-episode sitcom length, his Time Flying Beats integrates like a live mixtape rather than the hard stops of a beatsmith’s demonstration. Hip-hop serves as the vaguely uniting thread, as evinced on “Contemporary” and “Flow With The Go,” yet his interpretations take things beyond its confines. A dextrous talent, he timestretches into classic junglism on “Ode To Low End” and “Secret Rooms Of Tokyo,” while magnificently mangling pop trap for “Diamond Ring Lit.”

Gary Suarez

Gary Suarez

Born, raised, and still living in New York City, Gary Suarez writes about music and culture for a variety of publications. Since 1999, his work has appeared in various outlets including Backstage, Billboard, Complex, Deadspin, Four Pins, High Times, Pitchfork, and Noisey, among others. His Digital/Divide column appears monthly on Vinyl Me, Please.

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