Tuesday, 3 January 2017

2016 In Music, Part One

Alessandro Adriani – We Drift In and Out (Krokodilo Tapes)

With the Blackest Ever Black sublabel Krokodilo Tapes drawing to a close in 2016, to be replaced by a new series known as ID_Mud, its penultimate cassette came in the form of this release from Alessandro Adriani. Adriani is known as an artist who inhabits the more martial side of electronic music and on We Drift In and Out he repurposed that most upbeat of genres, trance, to more sinister ends. Slowing upbeat club fodder down from 45 to 33rpm resulted in a thumping sludge of druggy EBM, the prominent slurred vocals on the tape (“the sound is fucking twisting my brain”, “overdose, overdose, overdose, overdose” etc etc) fitting the bill just right. One of the most brilliantly subversive translations in a long time.

Awesome Tapes From Africa - Resident Advisor Podcast, Live Showcase

Awesome Tapes have ridden the wave following the release of 2015's long-gestated Ata Kak LP into 2016 with aplomb. Label head Brian Shimkovitz stepped up to the plate with one of the year's best Resident Advisor podcasts, featuring a wealth of bouncy African house and pop. But the real highlight was the label showcase which toured around the UK and Europe in the summer. Shimkovitz himself began proceedings, mixing (naturally) using a pair of cassette decks and playing an incredibly broad spectrum of danceable African music. He was followed by the crowd pleasing DJ Katapila, a natural showman performing for the first time outside of West Africa. The most wonderful part of the evening came with Ata Kak, who performed live with a full band comprised predominantly of Brits of Ghanaian origin. For anyone who has heard the joyous Obaa Sima it should be easy to imagine the beaming faces and swinging hips that ensued.

Carla Dal Forno – Fast Moving Cars (Blackest Ever Black)

Carla Dal Forno's debut LP on Blackest Ever Black (following collaborations on the label as part of F Ingers, Tarcar, and others) made many end of year lists, though I'm afraid not mine. However, this 7-inch preceding the record displayed a promise that the album didn't quite live up to. An ethereal piece of ambient pop, the A-side beautifully expressed Dal Forno's wanderlust to a more reticent lover.

CC Dust – CC Dust (Night People)

One of the genre tags listed for CC Dust's debut EP on online music bible Discogs is “novelty”. I'm not really sure how that came about because what's actually contained on this slab of wax is five emotional synthpop and coldwave tracks which could have soundtracked dozens of great 80s teen movies. The highlight, with brilliantly androgenous vocals, is opener “Never Going To Die” which adds a punchy house beat to a mile-wide chorus.

David Bowie – Blackstar (Columbia)

There's little to be said about Blackstar that hasn't already been said in dozens of think-pieces, so I'll keep this brief: here is a record by a man who in the final weeks of his fruitful life still has the ability to confound, to question and to thrill. How many other artists have stage-managed their own death?

John Roberts – Six (Brunette Editions)

Preceding (and featured on) his album Plum, John Roberts slipped out Six on a clear flex-disc at the beginning of the summer. He couldn't have picked a better time. The jaunty little track was a perfect accompaniment to any summer garden party, bouncing along with a fantastically whispy melody offset by a surprisingly hefty syncopated kick.

Ólafur Arnalds & Nils Frahm – Trance Frendz (Erased Tapes)

Contemporary composers and pianists Ólafur Arnalds & Nils Frahm are long-time Erased Tapes labelmates and kindred spirits, working in the same electronic-acoustic sphere that Jon Hopkins' more ambient side also inhabits, so it's somewhat surprising that it took them until 2015 to collaborate on a full length release. The second disc to that year's Collaborative Works, written and recorded in a single evening with no overdubs, was pressed to vinyl this year as Trance Frendz. The first half is exclusively piano-based but the duo crack the synthesizers out for the second side of the LP to produce a series of haunting ambient soundscapes. Though it's clearly improvisational, and you can hear the muffled sounds of the players' movements in the background, it speaks to the talent of both artists that something created so quickly can sound so fully realised.

Objekt – Kern Vol. 3 (Tresor)

Whereas another mix highlight on this list (Ryan Elliott's Fabric 88) took a more straightforward approach, Objekt's debut commercial mix featured plenty of unexpected left-turns, which in a less skilled DJ's hands could have come across as jarring. Instead, the effect was mesmerising, and a true showcase of what it can mean to be a great DJ; drawing from many different styles of music to make a cohesive and fluid whole.

Raime – Tooth (Blackest Ever Black), DJ set for Sisters Uncut, Live at Unsound Festival

The Blackest Ever Black poster boys returned this year with their first release under the Raime moniker since 2012's Quarter Turns Over A Living Line. Tooth is an unsurprisingly gloomy record, but in place of the eerie choral samples and pads, the jungle and grime-inspired percussion is joined by paranoid, scratchy guitars. Although consisting of eight tracks, the LP feels like more of a suite, each piece a subtle variation on a theme, adding up to a muggy, claustrophobic whole. Live, the record translated to an unexpectedly danceable set at Unsound festival, a big hit with the black-clad crowd. Another Raime highlight from my musical year was the DJ set that they played in Hackney in aid of Sisters Uncut - encompassing everything from dub to rave, Ghanaian Tassu to jazz and post-punk, it felt like a special event for an extremely worthy cause.

Ryan Elliott – Fabric 88 (Fabric)

In a turbulent year for London's most famed superclub, it's Nina Kraviz's entry to their long running mix series which seems to have won the most accolades, but for me the highlight was Ryan Elliott's effort from earlier in the year that was the standout. For someone who has been so prominent on the international DJ circuit for a decade, it comes as a surprise that this is his first commercial mix (2014's free to download Panorama Bar mix notwithstanding). Fabric 88 is relentless in its energy levels, made up almost entirely of functional yet melodious tracks which toe the line between house and techno, similar to the Fabric entry by that other Berlin stalwart, Ben Klock. It's often said that a great mix derives its greatness from the twists and turns, peaks and troughs, but here Elliott proves that this can also be achieved by barrelling straight down the middle.

Surgeon – From Farthest Known Objects (Dynamic Tension Records)

Considering his near 30-year career, Surgeon is something of a more recent convert to the modular synthersizer, an addiction he picked up collaborating with one of techno's young leading lights, Blawan. But someone with the technical ability of Anthony Child wasn't going to be left in the dust for long. Following on from his simpler, more meditative collection of ambient works made in the Maui jungle, From Farthest Known Objects bolts out of the gate, all gnarled repitition and grotesque sounds twisting over one another. Whilst Surgeon was once famed as one of the world's most adept DJs, it would take a daring selector and a willing audience to make a success of any of these monsters on the dancefloor. He's always been innovative, but this is probably the most interesting left turn in the career of a singular artist.

Gqom, in general

The most exciting sub-genre of club music to emerge on the world scene in recent times, Gqom has been about since 2012, a product of South Africa's Durban Township, the second largest city in the nation. Whilst it has been compared to UK styles like grime or funky, few, if any, of its practitioners actually came across those sounds until they began touring internationally. Aptly and onomatopoeically named after the sound of a drum being struck, it is a more sinister cousin of house and Chicago footwork, all rattling percussion, sinister synthesizer drones, threatening, breathy vocal samples, and nary a 4/4 kickdrum in sight. Championed by Italian producer and DJ Nan Kolè, who set up the Gqom Oh! Label specifically to bring the genre into wider prominence, 2016's most obvious highlights have included a lively showcase at Poland's Unsound festival, a mixtape jointly released by Gqom Oh! And Crud Volta, and an excellent EP on Goon Club Allstars from DJ Lag. To look at the most obvious releases, however, is to do Gqom a disservice. This is a genre that, despite it's hyper-specific geographic origin, is very much borne of the internet age and it is the excitement that surrounds this strange new music which is the real highlight.

Melt Yourself Down (live)

The last occasion where I expected to be jumping around in a tiny basement club, drenched in the sweat of myself and many others, was the Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Thanks to Melt Yourself Down, however, this became the strange reality just hours after having being sat down for a set by legendary Ethiopian band leader, Mulatu Astatke. Live, Melt Yourself Down exude an exhilarating energy, which feels celebratory despite the angst present in much of their material. It's impossible to define their music by genre terms, but they sure do rock.

Various Artists – So-Low (The Vinyl Factory)

Thanks to DJs like Helena Hauff, Veronica Vasicka, and the man behind this comp, Optimo's JD Twitch, the kind of simple, dark electronic music on So-Low is very much de rigueur these days. It has been collected before, and recently, on releases such as The Minimal Wave Tapes and Trevor Jackson's Metal Dance compilations, but the quality and depth has never quite shone through as much as on this double LP set for the The Vinyl Factory. Expensive it may be, but it's an excellent resource for DJs, who would otherwise have to spend hundreds, if not thousands to obtain all the cuts on wax contained herein. Not only this but it also works well as a listening experience from front to back, and as an introduction to synthpop's darker cousins.

Various Artists - Underground Wave Volume 5 (Walhalla Records)

For six years now, Belgium's Walhalla Records have been bringing to vinyl nuggets from the country's phenomenal 80s synth scene which were only ever released on cassette at the time. On the fifth entry to their compilation series, founder Lieven De Ridder stretches his curatorial skills further, featuring for the first time on the label tracks recorded in contemporary times. Whilst modern music of this type can often sound kitsch that's certainly not the case here, and I have to admit that it was not until after several listens that I read about the more recent recordings featured here, otherwise I would have been none the wiser. No matter when the tracks were made, this record is another brilliant collection of squelchy synth anthems from Walhalla.