Various Artists – Exo
There has been a steady murmur for some time now about a prevalence of exciting electronic music emanating out of Belgium. Forgetting the heady days of New Beat et al, there are times when the country’s most ambitious artists get overlooked in favour of foreign counterparts, but that murmur has started in recent times to turn into a rumble. From the well-established presence of Meakusma to the more recently noticeable Bepotel and Vlek, it’s a strong time for daring sounds emanating out of the centre of Europe, and Ekster has done plenty in the past couple of years to add to that notion.
A good deal of the Antwerp-based label’s output in the past two years has centred around local artists such as Hiele and most recently Ssaliva, although they have also been prepared to reach out to Norway’s TCF for a 10” release that turned heads for its striking packaging as much as its music. Now, just seven releases deep, a compilation has been collated to shape out a rough definition of what Ekster stands for. In the ever-densely populated field of ambient music, a sense of identity can be an elusive achievement, and of course the sweeping generalisation of the genre name itself leaves a pretty wide remit of interpretation.
Exo is certainly an eclectic affair in terms of the timbres that inhabit its 12 tracks, ranging from curious modular synth reverberations to lingering piano and even away from simple beatless arrangements into more gutsy productions but somehow it all makes sense as one compilation. It falls to the artists who have previously appeared on the label to try and deliver some kind of continuity of course. Hiele is on dazzling form with “Apax Pernod”, carrying the thread of cascading melodious rhythms from his last two releases. Jack N. Riot meanwhile lopes in an utterly beguiling form of deep house music without any of the drums but all of the groove, creating something like the ultimate un-dance record.
Elsewhere the sounds are new, but they sound natural on Ekster. Tito R creates a captivating lullaby of synth lines on “Minuit” while RHVR conjures up a dusky romance with a lazy drum machine gait on “Cactus Before Sundown”, and it becomes apparent that there is a certain olde worlde charm that lingers in the folds of Exo. While the music may be daring and challenging in some regards, more often than not the artists seem to be striving for a classic feel shaped out by winsome melodies played through reverb decays redolent with the musk of decades past. Polysick, more commonly known for bubbling acidic electronics on Planet Mu and the like, creates a wondrous swirl of languid lounge seduction full of shimmering cymbals, exotic bird call and voluptuous keys.
There are moments when the reverie is interrupted, as on the wonderfully strange “Tradewind” by Lieven Martens Moana with its unusual vocal samples and unsettling found sound placement. Bear Bones Lay Low also has a distinct full band dynamic that sounds at odds with many of the more personal, private excursions carried out elsewhere on the compilation, but that doesn’t stop the track “Vestida De Fuego” from being a joy of schlocky organ lines, loping ethnic percussion and dutiful mini pops drums.
In many ways these accented additions are the perfect icing on the cake for a compilation such as this. Each track has a rich character of its own, but in that aforementioned sepia-toned backwards gaze the odd dash of wild spice makes the listening experience so much more balanced. Both Lieven Martens Moana and Bear Bones Lay Low still have one foot in that adopted past with their own bizarre sounds anyway, and in many ways demonstrate the fact that Ekster is not some retro-fetishistic rehashing of old ideas. Rather, the assembled throng seem to revel in artistic ideas of antiquity and express these feelings in a multitude of unconventional ways. The end results are as musical and immediate as they are surprising, and they do credit to the label as it seeks to affirm its presence its purpose.
A1. Milan W. – Capella
A2. Hiele – Apax Pernod
A3. Bear Bones Lay Low – Vestida De Fuego
B1. Tito R. – Minuit
B2. RHVR – Cactus Before Sundown
B3. Mittland Och Leo – Trooper
B4. DSR Lines – Uitval
C1. Polysick – Egeria
C2. Lieven Martens Moana – Tradewind
D1. Jack N. Riot – Waking Up Volt
D2. Imdaud – Wentira Kakula
D3. Hantrax – Oh Dear