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Separate Mind: The Great Escape

Escapism is the theme explored in the latest Separate Mind column, with Richard Brophy covering current and forthcoming releases from Orphx, Frustrated Funk, M>O>S Deep, Forward Strategy Group and more. 

All art is a form of escapism and there is no form more escapist than electronic music. The whole basis for house and techno’s existence was to provide a means to escape from the reality of the environment in which the first wave of producers lived. In the case of Chicago artists, the aim was to provide a soundtrack for an alternative reality created within a club (or warehouse) space. The need for escapism was especially apposite in the UK at the end of the ’80s when acid house arrived. British society had been torn apart by Margaret Thatcher’s government, polarising the country between the have and have-nots.

The rest is history: electronic music spread across Europe and has since been exported back to the US. In so doing, the dance floor has facilitated one of the greatest forms of escapism, a chemically-saturated version of Hakim Bey’s ‘temporary autonomous zone’. However, changing times have also heralded new musical directions and the shift back towards purist techno has not always guaranteed a compelling escape. With the exception of Traversable Wormhole’s trips across the light fantastic or the cultural patchwork that Sandwell District’s former members developed, the swing towards harder techno has not guaranteed an interesting journey for its travellers.

Like Adam X, Canadian duo Orphx are an exception to this statement. The act came to the attention of techno audiences thanks to the New Yorker’s patronage of their work via his Sonic Groove label, and that support continues on their latest release for the label, Boundary Conditions. To Orphx’s credit, their restraint is more powerful than if they went for the jugular. “Outcast” sees a shower of bleeps led through a filter and placed atop a pulsing bass that builds and builds towards a black hole of bassy blasts and distorted stabs. Just when the track threatens to lead the listener to the point of no return, the bleeps push you back from the abyss.

“Vanishing Point” is more full on, its helicopter blade riffs pushed to distortion before a macabre bass leads into a percussive segue that could be Orphx’s titanium-plated take on the incessant rhythms of Plastikman’s “Spastik”. Just as things seem to get out of hand, they funnel the track back into a less intense bleepy sequence. The standout cut here is “Periphery”. It sees Orphx refusing to deploy obvious tricks and instead explore the ground they covered on Black Light. Like that release, “Periphery” is all about a menacing, predatory bass, percussive slivers that shift like quicksand through the arrangement and the meanest, reverberated drums this side of Adam X himself.

Forward Strategy Group are another act that have teased new directions from techno’s resurgent obsession with harder sounds, but they have rather wisely decided not to stretch themselves too thinly and have limited their output to a few EPs and their debut album, Labour Division. Like that 2012 long player, The New Formal, also on Perc Trax, shows that they have become masters at navigating their way through tough techno. “Clean Neckline” has subtle metallic hats and woozy sirens vying for attention over a lithe broken beat. Meanwhile, “Code 03” is more linear; hollow break beats come crashing in over pounding kicks and a grimy, acid-soaked bass provides a filtered climax. Both tracks are fine examples of Forward Strategy Group’s functional skills and their ability to tease new possibilities from influences like Regis. However, they are capable of more. They signalled their desire to flirt with soundscapes on the grainy ambience of “Ident” on their debut album and this latest release also sees them focus on a less predictable approach.

Over dense claps, driving percussion and a chattering vocal sample, they drop a welling synth melody so uplifting and life-affirming, it compares to the eye-scrunching, chest-pumping  emotion of ’90s breakbeat techno artists like Gerd and Yantra (in particular check the latter’s “Purple Strings”). These producers took inspiration from Detroit techno but added a distinctly European flavour – now Forward Strategy Group are bringing a modern interpretation to ’90s trancey techno. It’ll be interesting to hear where they’ll go next with it.

The middle ground between US and European electronic music is where the work of Hiver exists. This pair of Italian newcomers had put out a release last year on Vidab, and the follow up EP, Blue Aconite on Belgian imprint Curle, effortlessly straddles European and American sensibilities. It’s fitting that the artist name is the French word  for winter, as their music is as crisp and icy as a walk on a winter’s day through a snow covered forest. The title track is a breathless deep techno track, its subtle slivers of percussion and stop-start beats housing a frosty chord sequence. As the arrangement progresses, the most emotive organ sequence since Alan Abrahams’ Bodycode project fades in. “Egaltine” is more European sounding, its dubby groove revealing tantalising acid licks and a broadside of hi-hats as the filters build and drop.

The most impressive track is “Teasel”; while “Blue Aconite” and “Egaltine” are skillfully constructed and executed, there is something more soulful about “Teasel”. Its central hook reminds this writer of the spacey, melodic textures from Sterac’s evergreen mid-90s Secret Life of Machines album, set to  housey backing, while the tone of the Tobias remix is more redolent of Rachmad’s Sterac Electronics side-project. The shuffling, metallic drums and ponderous bass on the German producer’s reshape play host to the original’s feather light melodies, encased in a humming atmospheric bass that’s as welcoming as the sun cutting through a cloudless sky at the start of a summer’s day.

Redshape is another artist who takes inspiration from US techno, but manages to make it sound his own. There are only a few occasions when he has strayed away from this classic sound, and in those cases – 2008’s Robot release on Music Man being a good example – he has sounded ill at ease with his surroundings. That said, there is something morose about Redshape’s music, as if it is designed to inculcate head nods of recognition among those ‘who know’. Thankfully, he seems to have shaken off this image for Red Pack 2 on Present/Delsin. By the German producer’s own estimate, this is the fiftieth release to bear his stage name, and he has marked the occasion by doing something different. “Path (Dub)” sees him opt for a scuffled, dubby groove full of razor sharp rim shots in the Chain Reaction vein, but fear not, he has not substituted one serious style for another.

There is liberal use of vocal samples, from what sounds like a deranged Japanese fan on “Bulp Head” to the terse movie narrative on “Daft Mode” and the sci-fi female sample on “The Source”. Meanwhile, the drums and percussion are looser throughout; a rattling tambourine is copper fastened to hammering beats and a tone-shifting squelchy bass on “The Source”, while “Disco Marauder” is a tracky, rolling affair. Even Redshape’s synths sound less serious. They warble infectiously on “Bulp Head” and are epic to the point of being tongue in cheek on “The Source”. Irrespective of whether it’s a one-off or not, there are still flashes of the typical Redshape sound on “Path (Original)”, where doubled up claps and drums underpin a searing bassline and the most austere synths since, well, the last Redshape record.

Aroy Dee’s M>O>S label has developed a new interpretation on classic US dance music, and Vacuum, the forthcoming release on its ‘Deep’ offshoot by R-A-G (Dee, G Strings and Ma Spaventi), manages to breathe new life into Chicago house.  This they achieve by making sure that their music sounds a world apart from the cookie cutter jacking house in circulation. “Vacuum” is raw  and unpredictable, crackling with the sound of dusty analogue gear. Even when the super group tries its hand at ambience on “Plenum (Outer Mix)”, it features metallic percussive elements clanking about nervously beneath the swooshing textures.

On “Plenum (Inner Mix)”, the kicks are the only constant, rock solid and sculpted from concrete as the threesome deliver a bassline that squelches, stomps and is gnarly and grainy at regular intervals. Due to this, the dreamy synths that come as standard with each MOS release sound almost inconsequential. They are needed on “Vacuum (Ignition Mix)” because it sounds like R-A-G have thrown everything into the mixing pot and most of it has stuck. Shards of abstract percussion, blasts of noise that materialise out of nowhere and once again a bass, fuzzy to begin with, but soon distorted and relentless, are to the fore. To alleviate this intensity, the dreamy synth sequence that precipitates a break down is indeed welcome.

Such full-on moments are in the minority on Field 10, the latest split release from the ever-consistent Dutch label Field which drops early next month. Delta Funktionen’s “Motor” is the only real dance floor track on offer, with Niels Luinenberg tweaking his 303s to the point of exhaustion over a frenetic rhythm track. Just as it begins to sound too repetitive, Luinenberg has the good sense to introduce a droning coda that would not sound out of place on a Surgeon track.

R-A-G shift towards a deeper sound on “Siel”. Less intense than Vacuum, it features those unmistakably raw synth lines that M<O<S are known for, building over clanking percussion, and drums that unravel unhurriedly but at a far faster tempo compared to the other tracks. Indeed, the rest of the release is far more horizontal. Roswell Return’s “Probe 7” consists of not much more than a series of acid blips and tones and “Void” by Metropolis sees wide screen melodies integrated into a psychedelic kaleidoscope that speeds up and slows back down at will. A flirtation of sorts with the dance floor occurs on the stand out track, Artefakt’s “The Other Sun”. Over the course of twelve minutes, grandiose synths swirl in and out of the arrangement, at times detached and others deeply atmospheric. The fact that Artefakt manages to keep the listener’s attention and engage them for nine minutes before the jagged percussion drops and “Sun” shifts towards the dance floor speaks volumes about his production skills.

The third installment in DJ TLR’s R-Zone label sees the series retain its anonymous façade. Scratch beneath the surface however, and it’s clear that whoever is behind R-Zone 03 – this writer suspects that it’s an artist already mentioned in this month’s column – has invested a huge amount of emotion into the release. It’s easy to assign this quality to every second release with a Detroit-style chord sequence, but R-Zone 03 is different. “Pain” sounds inspired by long nights spent listening to old Larry Heard records, as crisp kettle drums are rolled out. Instead of the typical acid lines and maybe a breathy male vocal sample if you’re lucky, the listener is treated to the most eerie, inward-looking melody lines since the textured compositions of 154’s Strike album.

“Dead” stands in stark contrast to “Pain”; far more playful and dance floor-based, its bassline pulses and surges through the arrangement, while the tranced out chords are as shiny as a freshly steam-waxed Porsche. This sleek exterior means that “Dead”could be a more sublime, blissed out take on Aril Brikha’s “Groove La Chord”. Yet despite this, the author’s love of the mysterious is never too far away and those eerie synths are audible, albeit fleetingly, at regular intervals.

On the subject of mystery, there is no electronic music artist as enigmatic as Gerald Donald. The Detroit producer’s life’s work has focused on escaping from the real world or exploring fantasy, parallel dimensions, either with the now deceased James Stinson as Drexciya or under guises like Dopplereffket, Arpanet, Japanese Telecom, Der Zyklus and Abstract Thought. Vita is the alias for Victoria Lukas, Donald’s collaborator in the Zerkalo project and in places on her Infinity album for Frustrated Funk, his influence looms large. Of course, it would be incorrect to assume that Lukas herself is not in control here. “Lunar Eclipses” is crafted on dusty synths and is wonderfully mysterious and fragile in its beauty, just on the right side of kooky 70s electronics. The decade that good taste forgot is also audible on “On Screens”, where Lukas’ voice sounds as androgynous as Bowie, as she recites an indecipherable list of words – maybe it’s her shopping list? – over chiming bells.

Meanwhile, “The White Window I’m Closing” is more out there, her vocals freakier and Laurie Anderson-esque as deranged saxophones play out over a woozy bass. This kooky element is also audible on “Violet Voices”. Operatic falsettos flit about and ghostly vocal samples are sucked backwards through a wall of synths and Lukas could easily be mistaken for Kate Bush after a few double gins.  There are glimpses of Donald’s hand throughout as well; “Dream in 9 4” features a brooding bass and stripped back 808s supporting Lukas’ vocals amid swirling synths, while a similar tact is audible on the pared back, down tempo electro of “The Ultimate Collapsing”. That said, neither come close to emulating the title track; a similar mid-tempo, moody bass is in place, but it’s the one-note synth riff, subtle clap or two and Lukas’ vocal, this time sounding like a narcotically charged Siouxsie drawl, that makes this track irresistible.

Donald also turns in a fittingly pacey version of “The Ultimate Collapsing” as Heinrich Mueller with Lukas’s ‘nah nah nah’ vocal set to a pulsing bass, while the new school of Dutch electro are also represented on the remixes. Boris Bunnik’s version of “Collapsing” is darker and more abstract than his Versalife material, the chiming bells, Morse code bleeps and isolationist bass coming across like Biosphere trying his hand at electro.

The label’s designer Klen also chips in as Ovatow. Favouring an introspective approach, his take on “Collapsing” leads with a sonorous bass and metallic drums, as Lukas’s vocal hangs in the ether. But despite input from Donald and assorted remixers, this is really Lukas’ show. The original material shines brightest, none more so than the hyperactive blips, sombre bass and jittery keys of “Absolute Singularity”. The pattern is repeated and repeated until Lukas succeeds in transmitting this vision from her mind to ours.

Richard Brophy