After another one of those hiatuses – in typical style, a case of life imitating art and hitting the wonky flex – Short Circuitry returns, and it’s hit the magic Bond number. As seems to have been the case an awful lot lately, it’s proving to be a consistently exciting time to be a follower of electronic music. There have been a whole raft of releases in recent weeks setting the bar high for the dancefloor, not to mention a couple of upcoming ones looking to kick down the walls of the mainstream entirely.
I refer of course to the three-headed London-based beast consisting of Mount Kimbie and James Blake. While there was originally a physical connection between the two – Blake played in an earlier live incarnation of the band, alongside the core Kimbie duo of Kai Campos and Dominic Maker – at this point the two have parted ways to focus on their own material. In both cases it’s swiftly paying dividends. A year ago, if you’d told me someone making music as defiantly off-the-wall as Blake’s would be gaining glowing coverage from all corners of the music press, or that the same Mount Kimbie who wrote the spectral lullaby ‘Maybes’ would be remixing Foals, my eyebrow would probably have hit the ceiling. That both have achieved that and more may be testament to a greater open-mindedness amongst ‘indie’ fans than before – or perhaps it’s simply that both are making music that’s too special to stay confined to a narrow spectrum of listeners.
Following on swiftly from my glowing review of Blake’s The Bells Sketch EP in the last Short Circuitry (and I quote: “[The entire EP is] slowed to half-tempo and delicately strung out, as if he’s physically inserted fingers into the music’s core and gently teased apart each fibre. The title track is simply gorgeous, guided by a pair of interlocking vocals buried so deeply that they lose all nominative sense and reach some subconscious level where pure sonics matter more than words”), his new EP on R&S, CMYK, manages the feat of going one better. In fact, I’d probably stretch to saying it’s the finest 12” release of 2010 thus far. Entirely different in tone, its four tracks – though perhaps ‘songs’ would be a more appropriate word – operate at double the tempo, lending a sense of urgency quite opposed to the languid pace of something like ‘Buzzard & Kestrel’.
Where Blake really astonishes, both in his original tracks and his Harmonimix reworks of existing songs, is his ability to take sounds we’ve heard a thousand times before and make them extraordinary. The title track lands at a crossroads between the two: it takes an immediately recognisable sample from Kelis’ ‘Caught Out There’ and flips the context entirely. Shrouding her voice in stringy synth and wordless cries serves to effortlessly subvert the song’s sentiment, exposing the vulnerability and sadness beneath the original’s defiant roar. It’s quite spectacular, surprisingly affecting and quite possibly the best thing he’s written to date. The proviso is only there as closer ‘Postpone’ could quite easily give ‘CMYK’ a run for its money, its delicately harmonised melody running softly beneath delicate wisps of gospel song. In between, ‘Footnotes’ crafts muffled robotic soul out of a striking few elements, and the slow, sensuous groove of ‘I’ll Stay’ nods towards his former bandmates in Mount Kimbie.
For all their similarities in approach – in particular a welcome shift away from genre-isms toward music that encompasses a huge range of influences, from soul and R’n’B through dubstep, garage and Artificial Intelligence-era Warp – there are real differences between Blake’s music and the material that Mount Kimbie have put out this far. At the time it came out the Maybes EP was a real curveball for the Hotflush label, marking the beginning of a period of earthshaking releases, among them Joy Orbison’s ubiquitous ‘Hyph Mngo’ and label head Scuba’s frequently astonishing Triangulation album. ‘Maybes’ itself remains a triumph of understatement, exploiting a shockingly minimal set of elements for maxiumum emotional resonance. It’s the closest a ‘dubstep’ artist has come to writing a lullaby, and explores the cocooning, maternal properties of bass that are so often left by the wayside.
Their debut full-length Crooks & Lovers is out later this month and does a neat job of both encapsulating the ideas contained within their earlier EPs and expanding them further. Over the course of its eleven tracks it becomes obvious that what Mount Kimbie share with Blake is a willingness to throw everything at their music, with a healthy disregard for what it ‘should’ sound like. Both its slightly lopsided, ‘wonky’ feel and its use of vocals are key here, bringing the music’s human properties to the fore in a way that makes their rising popularity among wider circles an understandable phenomenon. So in a slightly odd development, the fizz and pop of ‘Carbonated’ reminds me of Puretone’s ‘Addicted To Bass’ as digital voices chatter about “basslines”, and ‘Mayor’, with its pitchshifted vocals and soft organ backing, thrashes around like the electroshocked cousin of ‘Maybes’.
What James Blake has done with CMYK, and Mount Kimbie have done with Crooks & Lovers, is to take their ostensibly dubstep-related sounds further back towards the genre’s original spirit. The earliest releases from artists like Kode9 and Digital Mystikz in the first half of the noughties were recklessly and restlessly experimental, often cutting out many elements considered crucial to dance music. Several years later, these two newer artists have brought the genre around full-circle, exploring in wide circles around its framework and in doing so making something that is no longer ‘dubstep’ in the traditional sense, but maintains the same essence that made it such a vital force.
Actress – Splazsh [Honest Jon’s]
Darren Cunningham’s second Actress full-length comes first in this list by virtue of being one of the finest albums of 2010 thus far. Cunningham’s music has always successfully managed to tread the fine line between densely impenetrable and moodily evocative, and Splazsh is a further refinement of the sound he began to piece together with his excellent Hazyville debut. Everything here is more fully realised, and further ramps up the sense of skunked-out claustrophobia – ‘Lost’ is the best techno(ish) tune I’ve heard in a long time, oppressively dense until a downpitched female vocal lifts it higher, and ‘Get Ohn (Fairlight Mix)’ finds a bleak beauty among rattling percussion. More so even than his earlier music Splazsh feels inhabited by phantoms, from the coldwave darkness of ‘Maze’ to the Radiophonic fuzz of the fantastically titled ‘Supreme Cunnilingus’. The result is an album that’s coherent despite its sheer scale, and a poignant vision of modern British techno/house/whatever-you-want-to-call-it.
Late – Losing You EP [Immerse]
Sepalcure – Love Pressure EP [Hotflush]
Ever since Burial reanimated the form with a blast of dusty electricity, I’ve been trying to work out exactly why garage beats have the ability to sound so haunting. I mean, it’s difficult to imagine that tracks like ‘Archangel’ or ‘Near Dark’ would have achieved anywhere near the same hazy, spectral beauty if they’d been powered by four-to-the-floor house beats. After their general resurgence over the last couple of years, both in dancefloor contexts and the sort of spaced out zones that both Immerse Records’ Late and new Hotflush signing Sepalcure operate within, I’ve come to the gradual conclusion that it’s down to their skeletal nature. Stripped of excess flesh and possessed of tiny snags and slippages in rhythm, two-step beats are already ghost forms of rave musics past. Placed alongside tiny snatches of vocal and ambient crackle they constitute a resurrection of sorts, a memory of a memory of a memory seen through the backward telescope of time.
Late’s upcoming double-pack for Immerse Records is undoubtedly in debt to Burial, but also shows a certain dubby, Berlin-inspired spaciousness that aligns it closely with other artists on the label. Lead track ‘Losing You’ offers immediate beauty, but it’s the delicate keyboard figures that drift through ‘Under These Conditions’ and the ultra-percussive burst of ‘Bittersweet’ that hold most water; the latter sounds like a Hessle track drowning beneath a sea of deep blue synth.
Sepalcure’s Love Pressure EP is tougher and more muscular than Late’s vision, but also feels less in thrall to the past, albeit without ever heading towards ‘future garage’ territory. Instead it’s one of those compelling crossover beasts that Hotflush do so well, adding elements of techno, slo-mo house and, on the purple-ish ‘Down’, the new school of psyched-out hip-hop. Scuba’s label has been on an impressive run of form recently, and shows little sign of letting up with upcoming releases from the man himself – the wispy Autonomic d’n’b stylings of ‘Eclipse’ – and George Fitzgerald’s eagerly awaited Weakness 12”. Count Sepalcure in there as well, then.
Sigha – Shake EP [Hotflush Two]
Oh, and another gem from Paul Rose’s stable. Sigha is one of the label’s less well-recognised talents, operating in a grey zone that seems to be quite easily ignored. Which is a damn shame, as his previous releases were seriously underrated gems, especially the Berlin-infused spaces of the Rawww EP. Hopefully the Shake EP should go some way towards righting that balance: the title track’s pulsing house and the broken techno stylings of ‘Shapes’ are both among the best things he’s put to tape, and he throws an entirely different style into the mix with the electric blue ambience of closer ‘Light Swells (In A Distant Space)’.
Kush Arora – Voodoo Sessions EP [Kush Arora Productions]
Hackman – More Than Ever EP [Pattern]
First up: heavy, sped-up soca and dancehall stylings from Kush Arora. This one kinda crept onto the radar rather than screaming its presence be known, but Arora’s Orientalist modal melodies on ‘Humidifier’ are madly addictive, somehow managing to infuse a hyperspeed funky-styled beat with a strangely calming atmosphere. That ability places him alongside Hackman in pushing a slightly jazzy, broken-beat feel onto modern bass music. For what seems like his hundredth release this year (hey, these ears ain’t complaining) Hackman brings out both his most manic – the title track’s wild bounce – and most relaxed material yet: check out the meditative house of ‘Nobody Minds’ for a little evidence of the guy’s versatility. Considering he’s only really emerged in the last year, it looks like there’ll be far exciting material to come from that camp. In both cases, certain quarters are beginning to throw around the buzzword ‘tropical’ – just don’t go there.
Baobinga – Wine Up EP [Steak House]
Bristolian boy Baobinga heads up the esteemed bassmusicblog, and alongside that undertaking has still found a fair amount of time to throw together some killer tracks in the last couple of years. Most recent is his upcoming 12” for Steak House, which moves further towards the funky/bashment crossover stuff that label heads Monkey Steak have been pushing recently. ‘Wine Up’ and ‘Raggipahop’ are both heavy as hell chunks of digi-dancehall, and Ghislain Poirier’s remix of ‘Criss Like HD’ adds abrasive electro-house synths into the mix to intense effect. Pretty unrelenting stuff, and lacking the same variety of styles as Monkey Steak’s excellent last release for the label, but it’s a heady dancefloor cocktail nonetheless.
Lorn – Nothing Else [Brainfeeder]
As the first full-length album on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label, it seems initially surprising that Lorn is from nowhere near their typical stomping ground of Los Angeles. But then again, after a couple of listens, it becomes obvious that Lorn’s music lacks the playful sense of sleaze, that distinctly LA-ish combination of humidity and hormones that permeates the rest of the collective’s music. Instead Lorn’s view of the world is bleak and aggressive, perhaps more introspective even than the mind-charting expanses of FlyLo’s Cosmogramma opus. It’s by turns beautiful – the mournful violin melodies of ‘Army Of Fear’ send shivers down the spine – and earsplittingly harsh, but never a less than entirely immersive listen. There’s a lot to be unearthed on Nothing Else, even if it takes a few listens to fully absorb its intricacies.
Also on the Short Circuitry playlist this month…
Emeralds – Does It Look Like I’m Here? [Editions Mego]
Cult US synth-abusers put together their most immediate – and possibly best – album to date, all slow-building drones and epic kosmische workouts.
Ramadanman – Glut/Tempest [Hemlock]
David Kennedy’s new tunes for Hemlock are among the best he’s released, the lead track’s juke-inspired 808 clatter further refining his minimalist aesthetic and the swelling ‘Tempest’ an unexpectedly low-key synth workout.
Guido – Anidea [Punch Drunk]
Bristol’s Guido turns in an excellent album for the reliably great Punch Drunk label, fusing elements of US R’n’B, hip-hop and jazz to a dubstep framework, to electrifying effect.