Digital/Divide: January’s Electronic Music Reviewed

On January 31st 2019 » 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.

As arguably the purest strain of electronic dance music, the sometimes baffling endurance of techno is something to behold. From its Afrofuturist dawn in Detroit to its contemporary clubland ubiquity in Berlin, the often stodgy genre survives where so many of its sonic children and cousins faded away or fell into ruination and disrepair. Blame the drugs, perhaps, for making that four-on-the-floor thump and synthesizer throb sound so damn good. No matter the cause, techno thrives in the now, having firmly shifted from a vision of tomorrow to an almost timeless plane of existence.

Apart from production values and a few touchpoints here and there, the difference between a classic Plus 8 or Tresor banger with something uploaded to Beatport yesterday sounds imperceptible or otherwise negligible on the dancefloor, where that sweaty old warehouse spirit raves on in even the most polished of spaces. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that so many of its seminal practitioners remain in leading or otherwise influential positions, still drawing in the crowds in clubs all over the world. One glance at the recently-announced lineup for Detroit’s annual Movement festival presents loads of active familiars, including Richie Hawtin and Kenny Larkin, mixed in with a handful of curveballs.

Hardly a neophyte, Julian Jeweil has been banging out brooding openers and peak hour floorfillers for years, recording for renowned labels like Cocoon and Minus. In a scene that still lives and dies by the singles format, it seems almost quaint that the French producer only just released his full-length debut Transmission (Drumcode). From the fleeting acidic rush of “Hyoid” to the mission-oriented soar of “Mars,” he faithfully executes his technoid duties with a knowing DJ ear. The title track conveys urgency as it bleeps and bangs, while the comparatively more murky “Turbulence” hits unforgivingly hard in the chest. Jeweil may not be breaking a ton of new ground here, but his dedication to this music puts him deservedly in a position to go b2b with the greats.

Grey Code: Reprieve (Metalheadz)

While drum ’n’ bass may not have the same clubland cachet it once did, that’s largely because people simply aren’t paying close enough attention. Even as fickle tastes and trend-hopping keeps listeners from diving in, those who’ve stuck by the genre or otherwise turned on to it in recent years know how vibrant and forward-thinking it stays. The always reliably Metalheadz come through yet again with their first record by this Bristol-based artist, an absolutely breathtaking set of exemplary tunes. Imbued with epic drama, “Ethics” gives techstep a black mirrored shine, while “Pearl” warbles with a warmly enveloping synth lead. Grey Code demonstrates a mastery of mood, conjuring majesty for “King’s Rock” and navigating the twisty interstellar trip to “Saturn.” His labelmate Phase joins in for the collaborative “Head State,” buzzing and dazzling in equal measure as it reaches a sumptuous keys-led reprieve. Tenacious closer “Piece Of Me” with Think Twice races toward a fabulous finish.

Mira Calix: Utopia (Warp)

More than two decades have passed since the Durban-born, U.K.-based producer dropped her Warp Records debut. A core part of the second wave of IDM, that admittedly messy catch-all term for artists pushing electronic music past its genre-centric paradigm, she returns to the imprint after quite a few critically acclaimed years of scoring and composing for the theatrical performance arts. Calix’s homecoming manifests literally as well as aurally, revisiting her blend of voice and machine. Yet where seminal records like Pin Skeeling and Prickle treated her humanity as a malleable texture, here it sometimes takes on a decidedly more direct quality. Her sting and curt words on “Just Go Along” carry a weighty intimacy, cutting amid the spare percussive hits and squiggly tricks. Later, she lets us in on a joke, with the “Bite Me” reveal drawing smirks to complement the lumbering digital drama. Hip-hop stutters and gurgles for “Upper Ups,” a braindance throwback of sorts divulging that the form still has room in which to play.

Nkisi: 7 Directions (UIQ)

As a NON Worldwide co-founder and DJ, Melika Ngombe Kolongo has proven herself a keen curator, highly attuned to the ever-morphing modern sounds of dance music. Having retrospectively explored the realm of Belgian hardstyle and gabber on last year’s Arcola outing The Dark Orchestra, she tries a different tack for her first Nkisi album on Lee Gamble’s UIQ imprint. Instead of relentless, overdriven kick drums, the beguiling polyrhythms throughout 7 Directions draw from Congolese percussive traditions. Each of the numbered tracks takes considerable liberties with that premise, yielding more interesting results than oft non-native fusions like tribal house once did. The loop driving “IV” almost seems detached from the ebb and flow of its distorted droning counter-melody, but in reality it has more to do with putting rhythm at the fore. As such, Kolongo’s songs here showcase the beat, as a frenzied gallop on “V” or an Autechre-esque abstraction on “VII.”

Terror Jr, Unfortunately, Terror Jr (EFFESS / Atlantic)

The distance between 2016’s Bop City and the group’s designated album debut seems not unlike a vast ocean, albeit one chemically dyed purple and littered with the bodies of basics. Thankfully, the Kardashian-Jenner distractions that hyped and imperiled this project have abated over time, allowing Terror Jr to finally exist on its own merits. As was the case with the preceding mixtape sequels, Unfortunately Terror Jr brilliantly encapsulates our modern meme-ified pop moment, so well in fact that one can’t tell if it’s really just the perfect parody. If so, pay respect to perpetually on-brand influencer Lisa Vitale name-dropping Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, as she does with glossy groover “Maker.” Those marveling at Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next” flex will find tons of comparables, like the “Isolation” and lush kiss-off “Yamaguchi.” Trap gets a Fenty Beauty makeover on the self-aware “Pretty.” If Hollywood ever gets around to making Bret Easton Ellis’ Glamorama into a movie, “Heaven Wasn’t Made For Me” ought to play over the closing credits.

Electronic On Vinyl

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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