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.
Apart from the Harlem Shake, there have been few greater cultural hijackings in recent memory than the taking of dubstep. Though hardly tantamount to actual terrorism, obviously, the aggressive shock-and-awe takeover of a once-promising nascent club genre by opportunistic arena grinches did irreparable damage to its credibility. Disposable teens gathered en masse to marvel at a sound stripped of meaning, substance, and subtlety. And while Skrillex has made more of a respectable name for himself since trading that desiccated husk of a genre for a broader pop-EDM remit, it left the scene's less commercially minded types and idealistic originators to either salvage from the wreckage--as drum n bass admirably did--or seek out new terrain.
The jury's out on whether dubstep will ever find its footing again, especially with the increased competition for dancefloor space. Yet one of its pioneers has at least found himself a way forward. Known to old school types as half of the Digital Mystikz, UK producer Mala parlays his DMZ skillset into something unencumbered by the trappings of genre on Mirrors [Brownswood]. His apparent romance for low-end rattle and crisp percussion has assuredly led him here, to this unmarked places of "Dedicated 365" and the frenetic "4 Elements."
There's nothing alien about the new Mala. His time spent in Latin America, documented well on his remarkable 2012 curveball Mala In Cuba, seeps into "The Calling" and the straight ahead balladic son of "Cunumicita." Hinting at the desert scene of Mirrors' album art, "Shadows" hums with a Middle Eastern undertone not entirely unlike selections from the Muslimgauze discography. He even populates a few of these aural landscapes with vocals here and there, perhaps exemplified best by the rapturous singing of Peruvian artist Sylvia Falcon on “Sound Of The River.” Though it will be hard for others feeling bereft in dubstep’s absence to follow in Mala’s footsteps, there’s certainly no harm in trying.
When Richard D. James made his grand return with 2014’s Syro, it was an event. Very few artists in electronic music wield the sort of power and influence to have their releases treated as such, and none more so than Aphex Twin. The unanticipated announcement of Cheetah, his latest EP-length effort following last year’s Pierre Bastien-like Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments pt2, also serves as a reminder that James was once one of music’s most prolific. And judging by the incestuous titles of these leftist dancefloor cuts, chances are he still is. Despite the strong likelihood that he’s got enough Cheetah variants and thematic siblings to fill an album or two, the seven interconnected selections here provide a substantial picture of his post-rave headspace. The haunted nighttime thump and grind of “CHEETAHT2 [Ld spectrum]” glides into the aerated acid house shuffle of “CHEETAHT7b.” With his album and track names here a nod and wink to synth geeks, James’ dancefloor sandboxing yields everything from the brief outbursts of “CHEETA1b ms800” and “CHEETA2 ms800” to the drippy dreams of “CIRKLON3 (Kolkhoznaya mix),” the latter harkening back to 1993’s immaculate On EP.
Those unfamiliar with la cumbia peruana or that country’s unique role in the genre’s flourishing need not worry themselves too much when approaching this Lima duo’s progressive reimagining and reappropriation of it. More broadly, Dengue Dengue Dengue exist comfortably in the grand scheme of contemporary electronic music, indisputably part of the same global network that links Durban to Lisbon to London and so on. When not overtly tweaking Latin tropes, their hybrid style cherrypicks liberally from Caribbean sounds to make for a gratifying worldly beat, be that the clipped dancehall cousin “Badman” or the nods to Lee Perry on “Dubcharaca.” Juxtaposed with dubwise traits, the furious tempos of “Murdah” infuse fresh blood into bass music, only briefly dropping midway into a halfstep refrain. The hypnotically shifting “R2” accomplishes more with polyrhythm and noise than it would with an over-the-top melody. All in all, there’s an impressive balance here between dark and light sonics, one that serves both dancefloors and headphones rather well.
James T. Cotton, Dabrye, Tadd Mullinix--these are just some of the monikers this producer has employed over the years when releasing his diverse electronic sounds for any number of labels. Abbreviating now to JTC, he presents a rewarding set of Detroit techno styles sure to satisfy those who’ve enjoyed his Spectral Sound output as well as devotees of his city's rich electronic music tradition. From the slightly caustic textures of “Caskadia” to the warm looping sequences of "Dusselmorph,” the eponymous record recalls what Atkins, May, and Saunderson first hatched decades ago. A duo of “Atmospheres” remixes imbue the tracks with somnambulist trancelike ambience and relentless hi-hats. Seasoned synth-ster DMX Krew keeps some of his more extravagant throwback tendencies in check on his bubbly "Infoline" remix, while JTC's own mix strips out the kick drums to coast along the edges of its melodies. While not a groundbreaking release, it’s a very well-executed set of tunes that invites repeat play.
As someone who spent an unhealthy amount of time and money consuming turn-of-the-century industrial dance and power noise records from German labels like Ant-Zen/Hymen and Hands, today’s burgeoning abrasive sounds coming from Avian, Perc Trax, Tri Angle, and others give me cause for celebration. Willingly or not, the techno and bass scenes have made room for unglamorous sounds that match the growing sense of downright dystopian dread in Western society. This Swedish duo taps right into the spine of that hulking technorganic beast. Loops and looped samples overflow from KABLAM’s rusted toolbox, coming together to yield ear-mangling electronics rife with sonic peril. There’s a sort of choral deviancy on “Intensia,” where a cherubic sounding vocal loop battles wits with a factory grind only to be burnt in the digital flames. The pure synthetic euphoria hidden behind the pounding pistons of “Nu Metall” eventually comes to the fore, only to be threatened, though not intimidated, by animalistic snarls and machine buzz.
Gary Suarez is a music writer born, raised, and based in New York City. He’s on Twitter.
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