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.
Surgeon devotees notwithstanding, few predicted that industrial techno would end up taking such a prominent place in electronic music. The caustic rhythms and drab atmospheres put forward on releases by labels like Counterbalance and Hands in the 2000’s didn’t exactly jibe with the commercial lean of club culture. Looking back at the serotonin glee of trance or the pseudo-intellectual asceticism of minimal techno, it almost seems far fetched that people would ultimately choose to soundtrack the dystopia of modern life with dystopian music rather than flee from it. Nonetheless, here we are.
One interesting bright side to this willful immersion into darkness has been the involvement of some of the industrial old guard in the mix. Godflesh mastermind Justin Broadrick, now in his umpteenth year of making groundbreaking music, revived his JK Flesh moniker to record for Downwards and Hospital Productions, two of the sound’s leading imprints. Similarly, Anthony DiFranco boasts a few decades of noise as a member of Ramleh and Skullflower. A lesser known part of his roots in power electronics, his solo project JFK that originated in the mid-to-late 1980s came roaring back right on time for the current revival.
Following last year’s Nganga for Chondritic Sound, DiFranco issues the latest JFK album for his own label. A pummeling affair, Weapon Design [Entropy] leverages his discography to craft uncompromising squalls of sound very much in line with the contemporary works of younger artists operating on clubland’s brutalist edge. This ain’t no disco, full disclosure. A two part suite named for the album’s title (or perhaps vice-versa) throbs and jolts rhythmically but remain otherwise removed from conventional danceability. Certainly not noise for noise’s sake; a relentless discipline drives “Interference” and “Nameless” through all the buzz and hiss. The only track suitable enough for DJ use, “DMZ,” crowds its thump with bleating bass and screeching feedback drone. But that’s the point of this music, cruel to be kind at a time when cruelty appears the new normal.
Matthewdavid and his Leaving imprint continues to make the contrarian case for new age cool, and judging by the state of our world, it’s a compelling escapist argument. Whether or not meditation and transcendence happen to be your thing, the joy and tranquility emitting from Sean Hellfritsch’s second release for the label as Cool Maritime provide a respite from the daily outrages and outright horrors. With the knowledge that the artist recorded much of the material on Sharing Waves outdoors, in no doubt idyllic settings, the album benefits greatly from its brightness, present on loping stretches of busy beauty as well as relatively brief passages like “Mossage” and the plink-plonking “Secret Caves.” Ambient remains a poor adjective to describe the active combination of cherubic pads and dripping modular synths on “Forest Bathing” or the hauntingly hectic melange of elements on “Dropping In.” Lush closer “A Restful Place” blurs the lines between artificial and natural, fixing our third eye gaze on something distant yet hopeful.
Back before the confectionery faced killa stumbled his way onto the Billboard charts and into the studio with pop singers, Marshmello dropped maximalist dance bangers for molly-addled post-millennials. And while we have little reason to care anymore about the identity of the man behind the mask, there’s plenty to love about his glide back into the hedonistic style with which he made his gelatinous bones. Joytime II presents as a sequel, one unapologetically made with both sonic and thematic globs from its predecessor. Opener “Stars” dispenses with pretense of that fact, leaping promptly into the fragrant pink slurry of kawaii trap. The euro-trance echoes of “Flashbacks” and “Power” hint at the producer’s influences and roots. On the other hand, a handful of vocal cuts veer into pop punk’s lunatic fringe, with “Paralyzed” reaching beyond mere hooks. The set’s highlight comes at the very end, as “Imagine” captures summer haze in a bottle and showers the dancefloor with it from atop the DJ booth.
Apart from persistent Dilla worship, the beat scene conversation rarely leaves the confines of sunny Los Angeles. Yet with the long-running club night Low End Theory scheduled to end later this summer, now seems as good a time as any to look beyond those borders. Hardly new to this world, this U.K.-based producer picked a fine time to return with a oddly named set of concise tunes. With track titles straight outta IMDB, Beats To Talk Crud To focuses Jon Phonics’ hip-hop vision on a not-so-distant past. Laden with juicy samples for eager crate diggers, his instrumental tracks recall Dipset and G-Unit, State Property and Terror Squad, and so on in that vein. One could imagine Jadakiss hopping on “King Of New York,” Fabolous killing it over “Trainspotting,” Noreaga just crowding the booth for “Bullet Boy.” Even without a stacked fantasy league lineup of spitters, throwback thrillers like “Dead Presidents” and “Paid In Full” burst with boom bap promise.
The critical coronation of PC Music a few years back never quite sat right in the gut, its acclaimed rise seeming as manufactured as its artists. Yet that time in the spotlight has done wonders for the Scottish native SOPHIE, as evidenced by the extremist dance-pop of her proper full-length album. With recent credits with Charli XCX under her belt, she comes correct with a manic menagerie informed by the past two or three decades of unconventional radio hits. Admittedly, nobody would expect the aggressive “Ponyboy” or the howling drag of “Pretending” to top any charts, despite their obvious pedigree. Still, there’s an overt appreciation for the Neptunes tucked into the sociopolitical theses of “Faceshopping,” a PBR&B glow nestled in the notes of “Infatuation.” Whether a Madonna homage or vicious rebuke, “Immaterial” simply dazzles. Not altogether unlike Oneohtrix Point Never’s latest genre jumble, SOPHIE’s microcosmic world proves multifaceted, insistent upon repeat listening in order to attempt to grasp the character of its content.
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 Forbes, High Times, Rolling Stone, Vice and Vulture, among others. In 2020, he founded the independent hip-hop newsletter and podcast, Cabbages.