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Separate Mind: E Is For Exploitation

The eternal conundrum of taking an established idea and adding a fresh perspective is grappled with as Richard Brophy discusses new and forthcoming music from Omar-S, The Exaltics, Function, VernoN and more.

Recently, there was a discussion on Twitter about the fact that a Berlin-based producer who works as Marquis Hawkes had released a record in 2012 called Cabrini Green for the Dixon Avenue Basement Jams label. The exchange mainly involved US-based Twitter users and included the editor of Little White Earbuds. They contended that the artist, who takes inspiration from Chicago house music, was acting in an exploitative and insensitive manner by naming his record after one of the city’s worst and most notorious public housing projects. According to its Wikipedia entry, Cabrini Green, which was demolished in 2011, “became synonymous with the problems associated with public housing in the United States”. Instead of engaging with his critics, Hawkes – or whatever his/her real name is – quickly retreated and deleted his/her Twitter account. Sadly, the issue of exploitation is nothing new. It has underpinned popular music for the past 100 years and has existed since the earliest days of contemporary electronic music – just ask anyone who released on Trax Records during the advent of house music. And as the Hawkes example shows, it hasn’t gone away.

In an excellent, eye-opening essay, Fascism and Colonialism In the Work of Cut Hands, journalist and occasional Juno Plus writer Josh Hall looked at the manner in which William Bennett’s Cut Hands project has plundered black artistic traditions for his own purposes. On the other side of the Atlantic, former Drexciya member Gerald Donald has used the name Heinrich Mueller (which was also the name of the head of the Gestapo during World War Two) as an artistic pseudonym. Maybe it was a coincidence? Yes, but this is the same artist whose Dopplereffekt project releases tracks with titles like “Sterilization”. As Hall notes, in the past Bennett has tried to shrug off criticism that he released an album called Buchenwald with the explanation that “it’s just a name”.

Of course naming your album after a concentration camp that was home to some of the world’s worst horrors cannot be excused with such a pithy response. Nor can Hawkes’ deeply insensitive referencing of Chicago slums be excused. Donald, who rarely if ever gives interviews, has failed to explain why he has seen fit to flirt with Nazism in his work. Any attempt to dilute criticism or absolve Donald because he is a genius – something this writer believes – an eccentric, or happens to come from Detroit should be given short shrift. Even if you have a particularly dark sense of humour, using such imagery is unacceptable.

Maybe it’s a question of recognising boundaries. Some people will argue that borrowing from an existing style also constitutes a form of exploitation and as evidence present the seemingly never-ending flow of acid/jack tracks a la Marquis Hawkes. It’s a fair point – after all, does anyone really want to hear yet another lame Detroit techno or Chicago house pastiche? However, if an artist takes influence from existing styles and builds on this source material to deliver a fresh perspective and a new sound, then surely this is an entirely different matter and a legitimate practice?

Taking inspiration from others is an intrinsic part of human nature. The guy ordering ahead of me in the queue for the deli today influenced me to go for a toasted bagel (not really) and ’80s disco bod Fred Ventura was most likely one of the reasons why Machinegewehr decided to make music in the first place. Abhinanda is apparently the act’s debut record and it towers above all the other recent releases on Bordello A Parigi, whch in itself is no mean feat. That it is such a vastly impressive first outing arouses this writer’s suspicions about who is really behind it. Indeed, the title track has everything – electronic disco pulses; synths that swell majestically as the frosty female vocalist, the brilliantly named Gees Voorhees, raises her tones above the standard monotone to remark that ‘the alcohol is burning’. It’s a wonderfully tacky but instantly loveable piece of music and even the EBM-ish version from Elitechnique fails to hold a candle to it.

In a smart move, Bordello A Parigi has included a new collaboration between Ventura and Alden Tyrrell (working as A Visitor from Another Meaning) on the flip side. “Neon Lights” is a reminder of why Ventura remains such a influential figure in electronic music, thanks to the combination of his dry vocals and trite lyrics with Tyrrell’s insistent groove, new wavey bass and on the border of cheese melodies. The track is redolent of a sound that dates back over 30 years, but packs some added, streamlined oomph thanks to Tyrell’s modern production. Like all great comebacks, Ventura may have physcially aged, but “Neon Lights” proves that he can still sparkle.

German producer Robert Witschakowski aka The Exaltics has also taken influence from electronic music sources on either side of the Atlantic, but he brings unique identifiers to distinguish himself. On his latest record, the forthcoming Some Other Place Volume 2 for Clone’s West Coast Series label, it’s all about the interplay between earthy and esoteric elements. These polar opposites are most audible on “Slip In”, where a visceral bass is detonated in parallel to mysterious pads. It’s testament to Witschakowski’s arranging skills that the low end’s sheer brute force does not engulf the musical elements.

On “Some Other Place”, there is greater ambiguity with waves of blurry noise occurring after what could be a collision between battered synths and twisted bass tones. The resultant, sprawling mess is tethered loosely by a rickety, skeletal rhythm. “The Way Out” sees Witschakowski play to the electro crowd, with a more conventional atmospheric but club-ready 808 workout, before ending on an unusual note. “The Way Out” sees a drop in tempo, and the groove is mushy and slurred, like the producer’s own relentless compositions have made him creatively punch drunk. It’s hard to imagine where and when “Way Out” could be played in a club, but it would be worth paying good money to hear someone even try to make sense of it.

In many ways, Omar-S represents the antithesis of producers who use exploitative words or images. Everything about the Detroit producer suggests that he has no interest in anything but his music. By default rather than by design he has no discernible image, apart from his irresistible crackling drum tracks. The most obvious examples of Omar-S’ anti-image are the unbelievably garish FXHE website and the artwork for his last album. Unsurprisingly, the latest Omar-S release, the Romancing the Stone double-pack for FXHE, is served up on nondescript vinyl with cheap purple lettering. Thankfully the music makes up for these shortcomings and it finds the Detroit producer in impressive form. The last Separate Mind column about Detroit house may have understated the pivotal role that Omar-S has played in its development. If it failed to do this, then Romancing the Stone will ensure there is no ambiguity about why he and his label have been such influential forces over the past decade. “Surpass” is an unfeasibly sassy and seductive groove, rich, black piano keys, warbling strings and a pulsing groove supported by staccato claps as Smith brings the listener to a musical climax.

On the flip, “Frogs” rides a funk rhythm and sees Smith weave in tweaky, freaky acid gurgles and belches. It’s an interesting experiment, but when played next to “Surpass” sounds unfinished and somewhat lacking. There can be no such reservations about the title track and “Leave”. Both are based on Smith’s unmistakable drum sound, raw and driving but spacious enough to leave room for soaring strings and stirring piano keys on “Romancing…” and serene but spacey synths on “Leave”, while the typical Omar-S thunder claps propel both tracks onwards and upwards. It’s no overstatement that records like Romancing the Stone mean that Omar-S is to the ’00s and beyond what Gemini was to the ’90s.

Jorge Velez has been making music since the mid-90s, but only came to the attention of house/techno audiences with the release of the MMT Tapes Series and subsequent compilation for Rush Hour in 2012. The New Jersey-based producer is back in the spotlight this year with a number of releases planned; first of all there was the Territories LP for L.I.E.S and now the Ausland 12″ for Rush Hour. The release for the Amsterdam label is notable in that it sees Velez focus directly on the dance floor. Tough tribal toms, crackling percussive volleys and dreamy synths are the title track’s key elements and position Velez in a grey area between the tougher end of Modern Love’s dub and classic Detroit techno. In the wrong hands, this could be a recipe for formulaic fodder that’s as interesting as spending a few hours watching a decorator go to town with some paint on a few walls. But this is Velez, so a smattering of abstract hiss combined with incessant sonic bleeping lends the track an added dimension. On “Lost Highway”, Velez goes further off-message. The same combination of feisty drums and ghostly textures prevails, but on this occasion there’s some demented piano keys adding to the structured chaos. It’s like Velez came across a scotch-soaked player on his way back from a speakeasy and roped him in for a studio session.

Another act that appears to take inspiration from a mish-mash of sounds is Terriers. Certainly judging by their debut record House No 9 on fledgling label Major Problems, their range is as wide as it is deep. The funny thing about Terriers is that even within a tiny scene like Dublin, they are a new name for this writer and there is scant information about them online. Not that this really matters and the strength of their original material – along, presumably with the label’s powers of persuasion – has seen Tuff Sherm remix one of the tracks, “Stardragon”. It’s a fine reshape, with distorted kicks, steely drums and wire brush percussion underpinning swelling chords and the kind of euphorically doe-eyed tones that was a common feature on early ’90s UK techno. This combination of bleep’n’bass with modern bass-techno hybridism is also explored on the new Beneath release for PAN, so it’s not like Tuff Sherm is operating in a vacuum.

Back to Terriers: “Panama Jack” is also unusual in that it pairs heavy kicks and rolling claps filtered and put through waves of reverb with dubbed out sound scapes and a ghostly synth hook that sounds like it was borrowed from an obscure new wave record. “Bay Walker” offers a return of sorts to convention as its funk bass is littered with the aquatic feel of Drexciya, even though it is way too short – at about four minutes – and is underpinned by muffled kicks. On the title track, Terriers revisit the bizarre; it starts with a euphoric, trancey intro before settling on a bleary, shimmering groove that’s populated by a hypnotic combination of repetitive vocal sampling and waves of filtered melancholia. Once in a while, it’s great to hear a record that is coming from left of centre, a release divorced from the hype machine. House No. 9 is one such example.

VernoN isn’t a household name either, but he comes good on Watched By The Experts, a mini-album for Apartment Records. The run-out groove on the A-side states that “I wouldn’t recommend sex, drugs or insanity for everyone, but they’ve always worked for me” and it’s true that there is a deranged feeling throughout this release. It feels like the artist has immersed himself in electro, Chicago house and Detroit techno and from those influences has delivered twisted and tweaked interpretations that only bear a passing resemblance to the source material. “Oscid” is a mutant of electro pulses and acidic gurgles, an alliance that’s only held together temporarily by rickety percussion. Eventually, it descends into a noisy, fuzzy mess. “Plastic Illusion” is characterised by rickety, tinny drums and tranced-out synths. Like the more dance floor-friendly title track, whose death-cough percussive rattle underpins dark electro tones, “Illusion” gives off an uneasy, menacing vibe. No wonder there are drawings of creepy human-cyborg mutants on the inlay. VernoN shows a more sensitive side on “P Brane”, where woozy synths and spacey tones offset the wonky 808s and freaky acid lines, while “Infected” features the unusual combination of jagged percussion and chiming bells vying for attention over malevolent acid lines.

In stark contrast to VernoN’s grimy mini-album is the first release on the recently relaunched Infrastructure label, which was Dave Sumner’s imprint before he became part of the Sandwell District collective. If Odeon is anything to go by, it’ll see Sumner and his collaborator Ed Davenport (who is the Inland part of the Function/Inland equation) focus on the kind of introspective moods explored on releases like Ember and in places on Sumner’s Incubation album. It has been fascinating to watch Sumner’s progression from the Sahko/Sleeparchive-esque Isolation and Anticipation to the low tempo mood music of Incubation. While he has always excelled at subtlety and restraint when brute force would have been easier and produced instantaneous results, Odeon is understatement at its classiest.

It also sees the duo explore a fascinating intersection; the title track is a rework of Photek’s 2000 track “Under the Palms”. Despite being a cover version, it bears many of Sumner’s nuances, including the doubled up off beats and those ghostly voices that sound like they are being sucked backwards through a wind tunnel. Within this context, the chilling strings and cinematic, brooding synth of Photek’s original make perfect sense. On “Rhyl”, Function/Inalnd sound like they were locked in a room for a week with just Speedy J’s first two albums and The Black Dog’s Bytes for company. The result, a mid-tempo beatsy affair with Ginger-era bleeps and sombre synths, is dragged into the present courtesy of languid drums and the groaning bass that soars and soars as it passes through the arrangement. It’s no Cabrini Green, that’s for sure.

Richard Brophy