Best Of 2011: Top 20 albums
We’ll save you the usual rhetoric that surrounds these lists – that of it being hard to translate electronic music into the traditional long player format – and we won’t bother dissecting the argument that the modern consumption of music lessens the importance of albums; for our money there’s still nothing more rewarding that settling in and listening to an LP in its glorious entirety.
What we have done, however, is hand pick our 20 favourite albums from the past 12 months. Those of you who traverse these pages on a regular basis will see a liberal sprinkling of the artists and labels we’ve supported all year (and hopefully a couple of surprises too).
We have endeavored only to select albums that have truly moved us, ones that we find ourselves returning to again and again. In our minds 2011 was a vintage year for albums – the wondrous breadth of style and substance in our top 20 testifies to that – and we’ve included detailed descriptions of each release in our list for your reading pleasure.
Luke Slater is a survivor. Not in the physical sense, even though he has lived enough for three people, but because two decades after the UK producer started putting out music, his latest album featured moments where the listener was forced to admit it follows a path that few others have dared to venture down. Admittedly, there was nothing here that had the same cranium-shaking, head-shredding, apocalypse-baiting intensity as his X-Tront series, but played alongside the current output of his early 90s peers, or the releases by those new school techno producers Slater has so clearly inspired, The Messenger sounded like Hades unleashing its three-headed dog to wreak havoc on humanity.
The main reason for Slater’s ongoing artistic relevance is down to him opting for a new approach. Whereas during the golden age of UK techno he was writing his own rules as he went, in his modern-day incarnation he has learned invaluable insights from the output of those he influenced, absorbing their nuances as a starting point. However, he then applies his own wonderfully skewed thinking, which explains the panning, whiplash rhythm of “Bell Blocker”, a track that sounds both familiar and utterly alien. Invariably, comparisons will be made to other Ostgut artists, but it’s hard to imagine any of them daring to even imagine a track like “Rip The Cut”. The Messenger also documents Slater’s progress since Temporary Suspension, with “Cold Bolster” and “Call From The East” moving from the digital rush of his previous album to ore analogue, chain-mail rhythmic repetition.
But it also succeeds in looking further back in time to 7th Plain on the glorious, tripped out chords and jazzy ambient stylings of “The Railer (Further Exploration)” and the Amber-era Autechre angularity of “Movement 12”. Just when you may have been convinced that Slater may be revisiting familiar ground, he delivered the coup de grace: like night descending over a snowy forest, eerie synths were combined with freakish percussive ticks and a lumbering half-beat, and soon the true brilliance of “Beauty In The Fear” became audible and Slater’s genius was confirmed once again.
Omar S has always been something of a maverick, but even by his own high standards, his surprise second album It Can Be Done, But Only I Can Do It was something else. For starters, it was largely unexpected, gloriously unencumbered by pre-hype (stores were given little over a week’s notice of its release) and little indication that he was prepping a new full-length (his last album was released back in 2005). Given his usual secrecy and forthright attitude towards music industry protocol, that shouldn’t have come as a total shock. Even so, it represented a bold move that took his usual fanatical and clued-up fan base by surprise.
So what of the album itself? Like much of his work, it was riddled with acute contrasts: tough and aggressive on one hand, soft, calming and blissful on the other. This bi-polar approach was obvious from the very start, when bubbling acid opener “Solely Supported” makes way for the hissing, melodic futurism of “Supported Solely”. It’s like the rest of the album in microcosm. One of the Detroitian’s greatest gifts is his refusal to stick to one particular groove, or for that matter carve his own distinct niche within a trusted genre. Here, he used that to his advantage, successfully touching on a number of his usual musical staples. The results veer from the merely impressive to the utterly mindblowing.
And so it goes on, fusing the past, present and future with cautious glee. The title track offers any icy, bleep-laden analogue/digital message to his doubters; arrogance turned into unfussy electronic blues. Towering over the album’s closing moments is previous single “Here’s Your Trance, Now Dance”, a near-faultless chunk of genius-like Detroit simplicity that has rightly become an underground anthem. Very few have succeeded in making genuinely brilliant house and techno albums, but here, Omar S has. The clue is in the title.
A lot of people quite happily dismiss Hype Williams as the latest act in a long line of musical jokers, presenting a deliberately degraded sound that some ears find far too contrite – yet the impression we get is Hype Williams could care less. Comparisons can be made with artists such as Actress and patten, not musically – though there’s a thrilling challenge to listen to the disjointed sounds of all three – but their uncompromising approach to the endless circle jerk of how people are force fed music.
With a back catalogue bathed in the fuzzy glow of knackered VHS tape which stretches deep into the unknown, the Hype Williams myth careered in ever more thrilling directions in 2011, arising on revered labels such as Hyperdub and Rush Hour in one shape or form as the year progressed. It was however One Nation, their album for Hippos In Tanks that provided perhaps the most cogent example of the singularly unique Hype Williams sound.
It’s an utterly captivating approach to smudged out music, focusing on a saturated, detuned treatment of synthesizers that will make those without musical genes stay up late into the night pondering how the sounds were captured. Even the shorter tracks are lifted above accusations of being mere sketches of ideas thanks to the subtle details that quickly unfurl before disappearing. “Dragon Stout” for instance arises from the dystopian mist of distant rusted klaxons, introduces rich layers of colour and texture before slipping into “Homegrown” where these ideas are expanded and weaved with new dreamlike sounds. In an age where the straight, easily digestible and unadventurous becomes ever more popular within the once steadfastly hard to swallow electronic realm, acts such as Hype Williams will always remain welcome.
Alongside 936 from Peaking Lights, Maria Minerva’s second album Cabaret Cixous provided for us the most consistently enjoyable material to surface on Amanda Brown’s Not Not Fun imprint. It was something of a swift follow up to Minerva’s debut album, the cassette only Tallinn At Dawn released back in March, but as the year marched on it became apparent the Estonian merely works at a prodigious rate.
Whilst there was no shortage of backwards glancing synth music steeped in degradation and off point mixing, few other releases in 2011 were as much fun as this. Cabaret Cixous as a whole has a clear narrative, even when the style shifts to something bordering on uptempo, as at the mid point track “Laulan Paikse Kaes” demonstrates with a filtered electro break battling and losing against its processing whilst ravey sun-kissed chords reverberate around the corners of your senses. Minerva’s own near indecipherable vocals further portray the impression this was indeed as fun to record as it is to listen.
Album closer “Ruff Trade” is the one concession to Cabaret Cixous’ disregard for sonic clarity, and where the true power of her voice is displayed with intoxicating results. Shifted towards your attentions atop a ramshackle sea shanty swagger formed from delay and echo, Minerva’s breathlessly demure vocal captivates. It is however a mark of her talent as a musician that Cabaret Cixous works as an album precisely because it doesn’t rely on her voice.
Stroboscopic Artefacts label chief Lucy has always adopted a deeply cerebral outlook on running a label, music production and mastering, and Wordplay For Working Bees indulged his experimental influences; many of the sounds used are composed of field recordings from Berlin’s parks and streets as well as from within the producer’s own apartment. Indeed the track titles – which on their own could easily be mistaken for the nonsensical words so loved by IDM producers, actually add up to a famous piece of Greek philosophy: “The art of being a slave is to rule one’s master”. The sum, therefore, is greater than the parts: a poignant clue that hints at the broad approach taken here.
The recoiling, menacing bassline and ominous feeling on “Thear” and the pounding yet eerie “Bein” sounded like they could have formed part of the label’s digital-only Monad series, while the dreamy breaks and half-heard vocals of “Eis” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the label’s spin-off. The rest of the album saw more experimental outcomes from the production approach Lucy applied. Armed with a digital recorder, he recorded every noise and sound he encountered in his everyday life.
The sound of water dripping was audible on “Mas”, while indistinct snippets of a conversation emerged on “Gas”. More important though was Lucy’s ability to reconstitute these elements and transform them into the spellbinding clicks and whirrs of “Tof”, the gloriously dreamy textures of “Ter” and the shifting metallic abstractions of “Lav”. Wordplay For Working Bees is steeped in techno’s culture of advancement and proves that after three decades of electronic music, it is still possible to challenge convention.
Laurel Halo’s rise to prominence this year has been one of music’s most interesting and deserving stories, and in Hour Logic the New York based musician delivered perhaps her most captivating body of work to date. Released via the ever impressive Hippos In Tanks label, Hour Logic occupies that space between EP and album – filled with too many ideas and wondrous moments to be relegated to the former category, yet lacking in the number of tracks required by anally retentive types to be classed as the latter. Given that the six tracks on Hour Logic have wedged themselves comfortably into our collective affections since it dropped over the summer months, any qualms over including it here were quickly dismissed. It’s a release that swiftly grabs you; the obscure cascading tones that filter down through the opening bars of “Aquifer” sound quite unlike anything else you are likely to hear this year and the subsequent productions continue in this vein.
Hour Logic perfectly captures Halo’s talent for adapting some of the rhythmic concepts of Detroit techno to her own innate desire to create shapes and gently blur the idioms of music, perhaps to most stunning effect on the constantly fluctuating nine minute title track itself. It’s a richly rewarding listen from a producer whose rapid rise from the more discerning corners of the internet known risibly as blogland to stand alongside some of the USA’s most lauded talents in Lopatin and Ferarro is a true mark of captivating talent, and we cannot wait to see what the future brings for her.
In the world of Detroit techno, one man’s name isn’t quite the household name it should be despite his purported influence: Martin Bonds. Better known as Reel by Real, Bonds was responsible for the Surkit EP, released in 1991. Filled with hard, yet fluid drum programming, raw basslines and the kind of retro-futuristic sheen that characterises so much of the genre, it’s spoken about in hushed enough tones by his fans to have scored itself a reissue through a.r.t.less last year.
It was followed this year by the surprise release of Surkit Chamber: The Melding, the first original material from Bonds in 20 years. It works on two levels: first and foremost it’s a superb example of Detroit techno, seemingly pulled out of a time capsule, with the underlying political subtext of “Freedom From Want” married with a positively caustic 303 line, “Switchback” combining a funky gurgling bassline with glass textures and a mechanoid melody, and “Stow Away” having all the syncopation and acrid tones of the best Drexciyan techno. However, it’s also an oddly personal take on the genre, full of optimism yet with an air of oblique introspection; it’s not hard to imagine the album’s cover, depicting the fusion between man and machine, as an impression of Bonds’ potentially difficult relationship to the music making process.
It’s hard not to feel a sense of regret in this album in terms of lost time on the part of Bonds, who took 20 years to follow up his debut, but he has done the best thing he could do: pick up where he left off.
Not enough albums come accompanied by a vitriolic rant from an artist directed at their peers. Thank you then Legowelt, real name Danny Wolfers, for his highly amusing (and pretty much spot-on) written preface to The TEAC Life, which was, at our count, the Dutchman’s 26th album. The other important fact about this album, of course, is that Wolfers gave it away for free digitally. (it will soon be getting a richly deserved vinyl pressing through Wolfers’ own, newly minted label.)
On his website, he described the 14-track opus as “deep, tape saturated forest-techno”, as adroit a summation of his sound as any scribe has ever managed. He further clarified that by saying: “And when I say techno I don’t mean that boring contemporary shit they call techno nowadays” – a withering assessment of what he calls “pretentious douchebag” producers. It’s clear that Wolfers, an analogue fetishist with a passion for Chicago house, Detroit techno, throbbing EBM, Italo and the vintage electro sound of The Hague with which he is synonymous, has no time for those who prefer style over substance, reserving his ire for those making dispensable, rudderless music lacking in character and class – qualities that Legowelt’s own productions never lack.
Given this context, The TEAC Life exudes something of an exotic charm; perhaps Wolfers’ lively choice of knitted sweaters, or the cheesy nature posters of far flung locations that adorn his home studio – the kind you’d find in the waiting room in a doctor’s surgery – seep into his productions. The title is an obvious nod to the equipment made to construct the album, an admission which, rather than spoiling the mystique, only adds to it. The 14 tracks paint incredibly vivid images, from the audible tape hiss and raw drums on opener “The Night Wind”, which leads to the windswept landscape of “Half Moon 106″ and the slightly more polished Chicagoan jack of “The Soul of a City”. The Virgo-esque string led romanticism of “Metro Airport” is one of many high points on the best free album we’ve heard in a long time.
Lebanese producer Rabih Beaini successfully imbued his utterly hypnotic album What Have We Learned with a common narrative, despite flirting with a range of tempos and arrangements. That unifying bond was a sombre, atmospheric mood. It’s tempting to posit that Beaini was influenced by his residency in Venice – but many of his previous releases have also had a similarly somnambulant quality. Irrespective of its origins, this gloominess was audible from the opening track, “Silent Screamer”, where a resonating bassline underpinned an arrangement that skirted loosely around the edges of conventional house music. It also played a central role on album highlight “Too Far”. Featuring freaked out Gothic vocals and tumbling keys, its grungy, primal rhythm makes the connection between modern techno grime and industrial gloom.
“Dirty Matter” and “Gates of Night” told similar tales; the former’s cacophony of foreboding drums and the latter’s hypnotic gamelan-style percussion suggested that Beaini was somehow in tune with a netherworld that his peers are not party to. Despite this, What Have We Learned wan never a depressing or demanding listen and although his music is pitched at the outer limits of dancefloor centric electronic music, its ethereal tendencies drew listeners in rather than repelling them.
Coming completely out of nowhere through Honest Jon’s in November, this collaborative album between two of dubstep’s most revered producers is not only one of this year’s best examples of the genre, but some of the best dubstep to emerge since the demise of Shackleton and Appleblim’s Skull Disco label in 2008. In a landscape increasingly dominated by the sounds of genre hopping post-dubstep, this album is a timely reminder of the dark spaces dubstep once inhabited; “Jellybones” for instance, utilises eastern percussion held precariously aloft like spinning plates and manipulated to increasing degrees of mind-warping confusion, “Levitation” weaves furious African rhythms around sample stretching weirdness, and “Monks On The Rum” is a gripping exercise in tension, contrasting cut-glass percussion with a hesitant bass.
This isn’t to say that the tracks are mere exercises in formalism; they’re also dramatically affecting, nowhere more so than on “Rooms Within A Room”. Following a brooding string intro, it weaves tight hi-hats around a sampled choir; the transition is initially quite jarring, but by the time the track has traversed its desert of bass, and the opening intro reprises itself at the end, you feel like you’ve experienced an event. Although at times it may feel like Shackleton’s influence looms larger than that of Pinch, their mutual love of musical scales outside of the Western tuning system that has been present in both of their solo careers makes this collaboration an obvious and natural and fit, both in theory and in practice.
Garage has been a strong influence on the sound of dubstep since its inception, but only as a rhythmic echo, devoid of the bright melody that originally made it what it was. Gradually, producers working on the fringes of dubstep have come to reassemble the dismembered corpse of garage into a more literal form; the derided genre term “future-garage” has been spawned to try to understand it, and Sully is one artist who you could easily associate with the term, but to dismiss him for that reason would be an error.
Contrary to what you might think, Sully has been making steady movements for a slew of quality labels for some four years now, emitting a distinct brand of refigured 2-step styles laced with creative ingenuity. His debut long-player, Carrier flexes effortlessly through a number of styles; “It’s Your Love” kicks things off on a decidedly sparse tip, as a gently rolling swing dances with sparse globules of melody. Without so much as a segue or an intro, “2Hearts” abruptly switches the vibe up to a much more uptempo kind of funk, replete with organ pads, metallic beats and junglist dial tones. “Let You Know” meanwhile, has echoes of the very early dubstep tracks from the likes of Mark One and Plasticman, on a darkcore stance that carried the torch from ’93.
Interestingly, the last section of the album serves as something of a juke workout, but Sully chooses to place degraded, VHS quality samples of detuned pianos and warbling synths amidst the drum machine madness for a convoluted but addictive melee It would be easy for a producer to get lost along the way tackling so many kinds of beats, but there is still an underlying consistency. In the end, Sully’s unique character, manifested in his penchant for rich melodies, reigns supreme.
Following up last year’s Returnal was never going to be easy for Daniel Lopatin; it felt very much like a focused encapsulation of the sound that he had been developing over his early career rather than a significant step forward. Heavily reliant on arpeggios and synth drones emanating from his Roland Juno-60, his sound then was one that, although distinctive and utterly engrossing, was already perilously close to the edge of self-parody, something not helped by the waves of imitators that have followed in his wake. Replica wasn’t a total reinvention, but it was a reinvention of the way Lopatin created his music. Using his Juno-60 as the backdrop for much of the tracks, he utilised audio culled from television advertisement compilations as the textural focus of many of the tracks, recomposing what would otherwise be quaint oddities as sweeping statements of emotion. It wasn’t totally different from his earlier work, but somehow, with that extra layer to filter his sound through, Lopatin’s emotionally ambiguous music was given an entirely new dimension.
The undoubted centrepiece was “Replica”; much like the track at the core of his last LP, “Returnal”, which also gave the album its name, it stopped you dead in your tracks. This synchronicity doesn’t seem like a coincidence; Lopatin is a master at punctuating his music with moments of drama. Coming out of the comparatively neutral “Remember” and going into the weightlessness of “Nassau”, its haunting piano sticks out like a sore thumb, but as much as infinity is central to his music, its relative scale is difficult to comprehend, and “Replica” offered an anchor point which broke the album’s spell long enough to create an emotional wormhole into to his engrossing, complex sound.
Zomby’s decision to release his first material since 2009 on the 4AD label was one likely to have surprised many. It’s hard to imagine the glorious throwback jungle revivalism of Where Were You In ’92 on the same label that in the 80s gave us the Cocteau Twins and Bauhaus, but within the first few seconds of the album’s opener, “Witch Hunt”, the connection becomes clear, as its skittering organic tones showcased an altogether more gothic sound, even if it was one in which the relative serenity was interrupted by gunshot samples. The second track, “Natalia’s Song”, with its shuffling two-step rhythm, built on this understated introduction, initially suggesting a Burial style change of tone, but this track was pretty much a one off in the context of the album. The Russian vocal sample gave the track a curiously folky quality which offered something refreshingly different from the standard pitched up R&B vocal template.
The one criticism that could be leveled at the album was that many of the tracks felt like little more than sketches. However, the flow from one to another was so smooth, with tracks often leading into one another, meaning that this was rarely an issue, and despite some wildly different textures and styles being employed, none of the shifts were ever jarring. What was brilliant about Zomby’s early productions was what he achieved with such a limited palette of sounds; what made Dedication so incredible was that Zomby had made such a huge stylistic jump by retaining essentially the same elements, and bringing such unusual new ones into the fold that complemented his style perfectly. Whatever your preconceived notions of his sound, this album proved he should not be underestimated.
Romanian producer Cosmin Nicolae has been on an epic journey over the past few years, but as Simulat so ably demonstrated, it has not yet reached its conclusion. Cosmin’s path, from drum and bass and dubstep into techno has been well documented on Juno Plus. But the love affair that officially began with “Liebe Suende” on Rush Hour was afforded the opportunity to blossom on his debut album, released by the increasingly important 50 Weapons. Apart from his ability to mix and match from a broad range of influences, Cosmin’s other main strength lies in his ability to bring that most secretive and elusive of elixirs, funk, to his productions.
Simulat had this quality in spades and was audible on “Less of Me, More of You”, where minor keys reverebed to infinity and beyond, riding a brooding bass and a typical Cosmin shuffle. The end result had a swing that few producers can emulate, and a similar approach was evident on the jazz-tinged, mournful rhythms of “Amor Y Otros’ and the woozy chords of “Ritmat”. However, Cosmin’s conversion to techno was only part of this story. The eerie abstractions of “Infinite Helsinki” and the deep space ambience of the grandly titled “Interstellar Inflight Entertainment” showed a producer trying and succeeding to take his work beyond the confines of the dancefloor. The dubby groove of “Want You To Be” also saw him flirting with a more subtle form of techno and “Lillasyster” sounded like his own interpretation of early 90s bleep’n’bass. Let’s hope Cosmin’s journey never ends.
Rush Hour’s Direct Current series has probably been the Amsterdam emporium’s most impressive endeavour this year, and one of the undoubted highlights for us was the debut album from BNJMN. The latest alias of Ben Thomas, a young UK producer whose work has featured under a variety of names and labels, Plastic World was an astounding statement of intent. From the opening bars of “Blocks”, your senses are flushed with a certain urge to connect physically and mentally.
Comparisons were borne between this and Emerald Fantasy Tracks, Lone’s impressive not quite an album, as both drew influences from the same fertile period of UK experimentalism within electronica and techno whilst sounding totally contemporary. However, whereas Lone’s release felt like there was something lacking at times – perhaps the thematic continuity of an album that Cutler himself admitted was missing – Plastic World captivated throughout. It was an album covered in a glistening sheen of utopian futurism; veering between tempos and sensations, from grinding amphibian machine funk to more upwardly mobile jacking acid melodies via multi layered beatdown pressure, BNJMN seems to posses an innate and auspicious talent for creating music that’s just as suited for the floor as your headphones.
That talent was to be demonstrated further as the year progressed, with BNJMN slipping out excellent EPs for Svetlana and the fledgling Stolen Kisses label replete with a typically excellent Stott remix, whilst returning to Rush Hour DC with a second album Black Square. However, for us Plastic World remained his most enduring and richly rewarding release.
For a producer who earns a living patrolling the moody sonic terrain between dubstep and techno, the third album from Dutchman Dave Huismans under the 2562 alias was his most raucous yet. A notable progression has been made from the dense atmospherics and subterranean bass that characterised 2008’s Aerials and the dark textures of 2009’s Unbalance. Fever – released via Huismans’ own When In Doubt label – had a more insouciant slant, albeit buried beneath several layers of robust drum programming and hanging synths.
This development was in part the result of Husimans’ concept for Fever: every sound used was sampled from 1970s and 80s disco records, with the producer’s year of birth (1979) used as a centrepoint. Although the LP’s artwork was a beautiful illustration of this fact, were it not publicised when the album was announced no one would have picked it – it’s the most un-disco disco record you’re ever likely to hear, with the stuttering rhythms and disorientating panning of “Winamp Melodrama” leading to the whirring effects and muffled vocal loops of “Cheaters”.
The chaotic drum programming on “Juxtaposed” brought to work the mind of fellow genre ignorer FaltyDL, before “Intermission” marked the album’s halfway point and paved the way for Huismans’ most outlandish moment, the unrelenting party techno stomp of “This Is Hardcore”. God only knows which disco records he sampled for this one – but it was enamoured with bucket loads of groove and swing. The gloopy bass and odd yelps of “Wasteland” and strangely evocative shuffle of the album’s title track provided yet more evidence that this is a producer who possesses both exciting ideas and the nous to make them happen in the studio.
You remember that episode of Family Guy where Peter and Lois decide to relive their youth by entering a local talent contest as a folk singing duo? Turning up incredibly baked, they think they’ve won it but in fact shock the audience with a narcosis induced barrage of indecipherable drawling. Well Peaking Lights come across in reality how Peter and Lois thought they came across through the purple haze. The unassuming Madison, Wisconsin husband and wife duo dropped their second album, the imperious 936, on Amanda Brown’s Not Not Fun imprint back in February and in the subsequent period it has grown to become one of the year’s albums with the widest appeal, becoming undoubtedly one of this 2011’s success stories.
The mood throughout is delightful with eight tracks of sun-speckled dub pop psychedelia sticking to a simple yet wondrous musical premise: deep repetitive bass, catchy drum loops, extended grooves, and ethereal vocals dipped in intoxicating repetition and cavernous echo, which is executed with the most heart rendering effect on “Hey Sparrow”.
In a year where Not Not Fun and sister label 100% Silk have sneaked into the hearts of many a critic and fan, 936 is quite likely to prove most enduring release. This fact is underlined that Domino Records offshoot Weird World Records swooped in to reissue 936, giving the album a proper release in Europe, and offering Peaking Lights the kind of exposure that was quite naturally out of the grasp of the heavily DIY NNF.
Passed Me By and follow-up We Stay Together are of course two separate EPs, but together they tell a more exciting and cohesive story than most albums could ever dream of. It was hard not to see Passed Me By as anything other than a stunning artistic reinvention for the British producer, whose obsessively refined style of moody dub techno was bolstered by the use of vocal snippets and raw, crackling atmospherics – the culmination of a gradual move away from his earlier productions which purveyed sparse, icy and clinical moods. Touching on the nourish electronica of Shackleton, Actress and Modern Love labelmates Demdike Stare, Stott channelled a sound that was perhaps best heard at a vibrational level, with the bubbling layers of sub bass capable shaking you to the bone; it was hypnotic, tribal and entirely visceral, the perfect soundtrack to a shamanistic ritual in the deepest, darkest recesses of the Amazon.
Coming less than six months later, second doublepack We Stay Together had much to prove. Arriving with less obviously provocative artwork, it is difficult to describe what makes We Stay Together so subtly different to its predecessor. Essentially, it was a less aggressive, but no less confrontational record; a record with the same creaking structure, but one that allowed you to sink into its cracks rather than be buoyed up by a tectonic sense of movement. Nobody could ever say that Passed Me By was exactly peak time, but the follow-up made its immediate predecessor’s sharp, syncopated rhythms look sprightly by comparison.
There have been many genre permutations to Travis Stewart’s decade long production stint as Machinedrum, veering IDM through hip-hop and ghetto house, but on Room(s) he took the 150BPM juke blueprint and ran with it to devastatingly good effect. Whilst, Stewart was not the only producer adapting the juke template, Room(s) differed from the more literal recreations, jerking out the backbone of juke and combining it with a multitude of other contemporary influences to create his most accomplished work as an artist to date.
There are so many impressive elements that make up Room(s) it remains an album that is very much equal to the sum of its parts. For example, you never approach sensual fatigue whilst listening, despite the constant 150bpm+ pace which retain the adrenalin rush feel throughout. This is primarily down to Stewart adopting the ethos but not the untreated rawness of juke, with a lack of hesitancy to take a more organic approach to rhythmic programming that proves illuminating. The exceptional grasp of colourful textures and melodic balance that Stewart weaves within the rhythmic urgency sees Room(s) deliver euphoria gut wrenching emotion and thrillingly nasty moments within the space of eleven tracks.
For someone whose production career includes hip-hop, the usage of samples is typically excellent too, with moments such as the distant vocal crying out far beneath the neon melodies of “Sacred Frequencies” creating an unseen darkness that adds incredible depth. Whilst the art of pitch bending has become an all too standard bearer of music in 2011, Travis manages to keep the liberal usage of it here fresh. Room(s) will likely remain an exhilarating joy to listen to in years to come and is undoubtedly the best release in an astonishing year for Planet Mu.
Ghost People was for us the finest example of boundary blurring in music this year; a US residing Dutch producer renowned for dubstep delivering one of techno’s finest long players on a label overseen by L.A. beat head Flying Lotus. The gradual shift towards a straighter rhythmic thrust by Martyn began with his contribution to Klock’s Berghain 04 mix, and it was executed fully with aplomb across the length of his second album.
Martyn freely admits that the backbone to the ideas explored on Ghost People was informed by his European DJ endeavours at Berlin’s legendary Berghain, though this is not simply an album of purist techno. Instead the 3024 boss uses techno as the mainframe upon which several directions are explored, serving as an impressive testament to Martyn’s supernatural production powers. For us there are so many standouts within the eleven tracks it was always clear Ghost People would sit near the top of the pile come the end of the year. The densely shuffling “Masks” and the ode to rave music’s hedonistic pulse of the title track remain the sort of music that grabs you as soon as your senses familiarise themselves with the opening bars.
The buccaneering rhythms that permeated “Popgun” and “Distortions” or the filtered rumble of “Horror Vacui” ensured Ghost People was never to settle into one groove and the album closed on a track that seemingly explored all the ideas portrayed before within the space of nine glistening utopian moments on the stunning “We Are You In The Future”. As a standalone Ghost People remains an impressive body of work, yet the chance to see Martyn incorporate the material as part of his live set in a densely packed basement as we did at the launch party earlier this year provided perhaps the most appropriate context to this year’s most brilliant album.