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.
To many listeners, gqom still remains a difficult genre to pin down. With its seemingly myriad influences and the diversity of sound presented by its practitioners, this South African musical movement can come across as vague and even impenetrable to some. Most electronic styles that originate in the West have far more overt rhythmic or stylistic characteristics compared to the subtleties inherent in the compelling work coming out of Durban.
Gqom is a genre understandably still exploring its boundaries and promises, and those coming to it from outside its regional home will simply have to respect the process. Fortunately, artists like Dominowe make the waiting worthwhile. A 19 year old producer from the Newlands East township, he appeared on last year’s helpful primer Gqom Oh! The Sound Of Durban Vol. 1. With SiyaThakatha [Gqom Oh!], he continues with the imprint as its first artist deserving of a standalone release.
For those familiar with Dominowe’s “Africa’s Cry,” new cuts like “Umzabalazo” and “Tribute To Gqom Oh!” fall in line with that better known track. Yet there’s more to his sonic palette than darkness. Perhaps it would be foolish to point out similarities between Dominowe and techno pioneers like Juan Atkins or Jeff Mills, given the unlikelihood that any direct correlation exists. But in the throes of the determined “Bhenga Nezinja” their patrimony pervades, even as he veers in directions neither of these aforementioned predecessors would consider. As direct a song title as any, “Club Killer” betrays trope by withholding the generic thump one expects and blessing the track with melodic earworms and a spiritual nod to house music’s past. Another twist, “City Rise” builds to a cinematic peak using surprisingly little material.
Both Fade To Mind and its existential sibling label Night Slugs have proven bastions of the exciting opportunities presented by bass music and harbingers of things to come. Kingdom's contributions in particular have often mirrored the aesthetic of forthcoming pop movements, which is why this vocal-heavy full-length project deserves greater attention in kind. The assembled participants include familiar names like TDE's SZA and Odd Future's Syd, the latter in full-blown 2017 breakout mode. Her breathy contributions to "Nothin" match the mood of contemporary R&B, though Kingdom subversively opts to surround her with percussive explosions and eerie synths. It's less a case of self-destruction than of artistic temperament. On "Each & Every Day," he splices Najee Daniels' voice into a twerkworthy hook, maintaining a staunch asceticism all the while. Kingdom's self-restraint and low-end fixations make Tears In The Club a far more satisfying listen than the execrable excess indulged in on recent album releases by big dumb EDM types.
This Californian producer made a name for himself with delightfully 80s-referencing prior releases, including 2012’s 8-bit ode Feel Me. He presses on here with some more modern applications of throwback vibes, progressing beyond that specific period in music and further into the succeeding decades. Rather adept at wrangling melody, Groundislava changes lanes with apparent ease, from the slightly unsettling lounge of the title track or the New Romantic grandiosity of "Light Breaker." Traces of trance come and go, a dubstep-addled version of which buoys opener "Nova" and closer "Dark Planet," the latter of these setting him up for future sci-fi soundtrack work. That epic quality seeps into the lush, ambient interlude "In This Moment" and its magnificent Orbital-esque follow-up "Pressure." Returning collaborator Jake Weary's improbably high pitched vocals on "Until Tomorrow" reach Neil Tennant at his most vulnerable, almost alien in tone.
For quite a few years now, producer Dave Henson has released some of the most underrated and subversive electronic music. Records like 2014’s Thrusters and 2015’s Plot Defender sounded like something Rephlex or Skam might have put out back in the day, or even today for that matter. His latest utilizing the Nochexxx name remains committed to the acidic techno noise of its predecessors. 303 squelches and piston percussion make “Metawitch” a horrorshow to behold, the chilling sound of a warehouse rave under the command of a poltergeist. Though one surely could dance to it, that almost seems beside the point. “Stick Shift” rumbles to a start before a tick-tock rhythm plays, leading into an echo chamber of synth and disturbance. The one true banger here, “Overhound” reveals its queasy-making, mutated electro form in short order, coming across like “Planet Rock” transmitting from an abandoned space station.
Now that synthwave has broken out of its niche European scenes and exploded into the wider world of Stranger Things fans, electronic music has yet another opportunity to touch the masses and make a few new converts. But all the flash and bluster of this particular ‘80s-indebted revival requires a counterpoint, something to come down with after the scorching neon does its work. The duo of Danilo Plessow and Marcus Worgull provide exactly that on their second album under the pastoral-sounding moniker. Vermont blend the synthetic with the organic in ways that make it hard to decipher which sounds fall into the former or latter camps, as on the soothing “Hallo Von Der Anderen Seite.” The legacy of kosmische musik looms large over these essentially beatless instrumentals, though labeling busy tracks like “Gebirge” or “Wenik” as ambient seems inappropriate. Instead, II delivers something that genre albums rarely can, an unpredictable listening experience that benefits from repeat listening.
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.