Disco Nihilst – Journey to the End of the Night
A couple of months back, this writer found himself in a dark, dingy cellar in Bristol, alongside no more than 60 others, dancing like crazy to the first ever live set on UK soil by Mike Taylor, better known as Portland, Maine-based analogue fetishist Disco Nihilist. By the light of a solitary lamp, he tapped away on his MPC, teasing the crowd into a wild frenzy by triggering relentless handclaps, hypnotic riffs and warm, fuzzy basslines. Sat there behind on stage, clad in a sensible plaid shirt and smiling throughout, Taylor didn’t look like your average drum machine enthusiast; in fact, he looked like he’d just wandered in off the street, without a care in the world, like some American tourist sampling the delights of Bristol’s now-famous nightlife.
Appearances can be deceptive. Before meeting Taylor on that memorable night, I’d always assumed he’d be quite militant in his approach. Before finding wider acclaim thanks to two stellar EPs on Running Back – the murky, acid-tinged Running (Far Away) and the more rounded, but no less in-your-face Moving Forward – he built his reputation on his devotion to a compositional method that eschewed modern recording techniques in favour of the wonky swing of vintage drum machines, fuzzy old synthesizers and simple tape recorders. His releases on Construction Paper, recorded direct to tape with all manner of machines running at the same time, became the stuff of legend, and marked him out as someone capable of creating raw but warm electronic music in the same way as Chicago and Detroit’s earliest pioneers.
Taylor’s militancy towards the music-making process was probably a figment of my imagination, based on his analogue-only stance and experimental streak. Certainly, in person he’s warm, friendly and talkative, with a keen sense of the history of electronic music – something that has always shone through in his music and interviews – and a neat sideline in particularly dry humour. In terms of a narrative, this side of his personality doesn’t easily fit into the “militant analogue obsessive” angle. His music can be deep, occasionally highly melodic and more often than not emotion-rich, but remains raw, robust and hard-edged.
That night in Bristol, there were signs that his core sound was shifting somewhat. He jammed a range of tracks that dripped with fuzzy, feelgood warmth, placing tactile chords and quietly soulful basslines where ragging acid lines and 303-tweakery used to be. It turns out that those tracks, unannounced and unheralded, were a sneak preview of his latest EP, Journey To The End of The Night (titled, apparently, in tribute to Louis-Ferdinand Cecile’s nihilistic 1932 novel of the same name). It’s his first for Semtek’s consistently on-point Don’t Be Afraid stable, and launches the label’s latest offshoot: DBA Special Editions offshoot. Semtek has designed the new imprint as a vehicle for “classic dancefloor cuts from the most sought-after producers on the underground house circuit”. Taylor’s particular brand of timeless house music fits this remit perfectly.
The most instantly striking of the four cuts is arguably opener “Money Don’t Matter Tonight”. While it bears all his hallmarks – the prominent drum machine handclaps, hissing cymbals, tough drums and even a whisper of acid tweakery – it seems baggier, looser and more keenly melodic than many of his previous releases, thanks in no small part to a looped, chiming melody that rises and falls in tandem with a warm, speaker-bothering bassline. It’s heady, intoxicating and uplifting, but incredibly simple. Taylor instinctively knows that creating ageless dance music – and this is worthy of that kind of praise, given that it sounds like it could have been recorded at any point in the last 25 years – is just a matter of arranging a small handful of stand-out elements into an attractive, addictive whole.
There’s the same classic feel to “Late Nights”, where synthesized steel drums and chiming melodies, underpinned by the hookiest bassline you’ll hear this year, ride an unfussy, bongo-laden rhythm. Despite its melodic attractions (and I’d include the bassline in that), it’s still relatively sparse, with a swinging rhythm carrying the track towards its inevitable conclusion. There’s a cute innocence to it, in truth, but there’s little child-like or infantile about Taylor’s superb drum programming, which retains a steely dancefloor focus.
More of this dancefloor determination can be found on “Midnight to St John’s”, arguably the EP’s strongest moment. Driven forward by incessant, jacking drums – think repetitive handclap builds, thunderous kicks, restless cymbals and snappy, Chi-town snares – it seems designed to create carnage. It’s retro-futurist bassline, alien melodies and tipsy electronics recall vintage Detroit techno, but the rhythm track – included in its own right as a brilliant bonus track – is pure Chicago. If only DJ Pierre could still make tracks like this – not that he ever could, given the nod to Detroit present – the world would be a better place.
In many ways, Journey to the End of the Night is Taylor’s most accessible work as Disco Nihilist. This is in no way a criticism. It’s just as raw and powerful as his previous outings, but there’s a classic, melodic feel that increases its attractiveness. It’s arguably his most rounded work yet, and offers another glimpse of the real man behind the MPC. He might be an analogue fetishist, but he sure as hell ain’t po-faced.
A1. Money Don’t Matter 2 Night
A2. Late Nights
B1. Midnight To St. John
B2. St. John’s Drums