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 any techno purist knows, the originators and innovative first movers of electronic music include a plurality of African-American artists. From the tape experiments of dub dons King Tubby and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry to the dancefloor movements of Afrika Bambaataa and Detroit’s Belleville Three (Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson), the history of this unwieldy and ever expansive musical grouping owes a deepening debt to pioneering black musicians.
One such groundbreaker is New York City’s ambient artisan Laraaji, who has logged roughly four decades in music both with and without the use of his trusty zither. Admittedly, the oft-repeated story of his “discovery” by ingenious producer Brian Eno in Washington Square Park feels a bit icky in retrospect. Though their partnering for 1980’s Ambient 3: Day Of Radiance provided Laraaji with a measurable boost in profile, his work immediately preceding and following its release stands on its own without the co-sign of the erstwhile Roxy Musician. Recent reissues and compilations on both All Saints and Leaving Records gave proof to this truth, exposing a new generation of listeners to a chapter in experimental music heretofore hidden by short runs and privately issued recordings.
Self-serious types should steer clear of Bring On The Sun [All Saints], a joyful set of new Laraaji tunes. The album comes bookended by two lengthy pieces, holding in place a handful of tracks that cross genres yet somehow stay within his aural temperament. Opener “Introspection” captures first light without the sting of heat, unhurriedly making its way towards a profound eye opening. The equally luminous treatments of the closing “Ocean Flow Zither” provide soothing relief, carefully folding echoes upon echoes.
Not strictly electronic, the album entertains organic elements as is his custom. The thoughtful folk boogie of “Change” may surprise some, while the playfulness of “Harmonica Drone” offers precisely what its title suggests. Fans of Aphex Twin’s piano mischief will delight in the sprawling and meditative “Laraajazzi.” A vocal presence, he details a tale of backwoods rejuvenation amid the swirl of “Reborn In Virginia,” subsequently sing-chanting around airy synth pads and chirps for “Open The Gift.”
Even as one actively hunts for fresh new sounds, it’s easy to be caught off guard by something truly unique. When such music emerges from the digital fog, the critical ear tries to deconstruct it as it would any other musical thing. In my notes, I’ve feebly attempted to categorize young Iglooghost as a mutagenic organism with the characteristics of Hudson Mohawke, Oneohtrix Point Never, and Venetian Snares. Even when removed from the squirmy spaceworm witch manga of the artist’s perplexing narrative, the astounding Neo Wax Bloom defies definition unlike anything else released this year. He takes a kitchen sink’s worth of modern styles and tosses them into the Large Hadron Collider, yielding grime-drenched nursery rhymes, unhinged dubstep jawns, and gluey trap. “Big Thief” and “God Grid” bear all the radical mania of aughts’ breakcore without any retro rave romanticism weighing it down. As is Brainfeeder’s wont, jazz plays a curious albeit fleeting role here, with “Super Ink Burst” hurriedly escorting fusion to demented ends.
As half of intercontinental duo TNGHT, this Montreal producer crafted bombastic club music that set a higher bar that trap EDM rarely, if ever, achieved in its wake. Early on his full-length solo debut, Lunice reminds listeners of his prowess in that amalgamated subgenre with the quaking “Tha Doorz” and the majestic “Mazerati.” Later, “O.N.O.” applies a certain John Carpenter horror to its ascetic yet diverse aesthetic. Kanye West cohort Mike Dean joins forces with him for “III (Costume),” a gripping exercise in empire building that harkens back to their prior “Blood On The Leaves” collab. At times, CCCLX feels like a rapper showcase, with King Mez arriving for the second half of “Elevated” and Denzel Curry coming through for clapback banger “Distrust.” With SOPHIE in tow, he one-ups the game further with appearances by Le1f on the machine gunnery of “Drop Down,” a pre-release single that deftly bridges Lunice with ball culture. Fellow Canuck CJ Flemings lands three separate placements, including the tangerine dreamin’ intro “CCCLX (Curtain).”
The curatorial brain behind Leaving Records cannot be contained by one label, including his own. Matthew David McQueen’s far-out pursuit of fresh frontiers has found him recording as well for Brainfeeder and now Vermont’s NNA Tapes. The Mindflight producer’s professed adoption of the New Age genre, with all its inherent spirituality kinks, may cause some to bristle prematurely. While McQueen regularly aims for higher planes, his subject matter here on Ophiuchus remains quite earthbound: the coming arrival of his newborn child on the titular A-side and a homage to experimental troubadour M. Geddes Gengras on the flip. Over the course of its twenty-four minutes, “Ophiuchus” scintillates and shudders with countervailing forces and warmth and cold. It resembles the sun peeking through venetian blinds on a winter morning, mingling piercingly bright synth tones with impossibly deep bass pulses. On the slightly shorter “Gengras,” a slow burning synth drone carries subtle improvisational flourishes and gentle distortion to its last ember.
When it comes to supporting female and non binary musicians, Lara Rix-Martin puts her money where her mouth is. Her Objects Limited imprint serves that underserved segment of the electronic music community well, providing both digital and physical releases to these innovative artists. Those coming to Rix-Martin’s own Meemo Comma moniker expecting something in the left-of-center yet accessible vein of her Heterotic project on Planet Mu should brace for squishy impact. Presented as an interpretation of her Auditory Processing Disorder diagnosis, Ghost On The Stairs focuses on process rather than genre. Through a baker’s dozen of relatively short cuts, the daunting record gives an abstruse glimpse into an otherwise invisible daily struggle. The ominous swells of “Depersonalization” set the stage for “Friday,” a dissonant blend of choral pads and bass-adjacent percussion. The moans of “Loveday,” the modem miasmas of “Dialup,” and the disembodied chatter of “Lake Besides” each present compelling challenges to the willing listener.
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.