In the wider world, 2014 has been somewhat of a shitstorm – ISIS, Ebola, Ukraine, Future Islands on Letterman - and certainly won’t be looked back upon as a vintage year for humanity. Whilst the species at large continues to disappoint however, the fringes of electronic music have proved to be as fertile as ever, and in our little bubble we’ve enjoyed some real treats over the past twelve months. Like last year, our end of year summary isn’t a list or rundown of the year’s best releases, but is instead a collection of a few choice things that have defined 2014 for us. It is by no means meant to be exhaustive, rather a snapshot of our year in music. Enjoy.
It feels almost perverse having people like Regis and Surgeon play in somewhere like Autumn Street Studios now. Even the geography of Autumn Street itself feels as though it should be the home to emerging (rather than renowned) talent, centred in the in-between-y bit of an Industrial complex in Hackney Wick. Surgeon in particular has emerged as an even bigger celebrity DJ in the last year thanks to that performance supporting Lady GaGa… And yet, as a venue, Autumn Street’s booking policy has of late been refreshingly purist in its selection of techno, with a clear set of principles in mind, peeling all of techno’s unnecessary layers off to reveal its humble core: the drum machine. That night, Regis and Surgeon stripped the sound back - rarely if ever looping more than three elements at any one time - such that even the most subtle of changes gave way to roars of euphoric cheers. The will power it must take to hold the tension with such few components must be extraordinary, and it’s a joy to witness it.
It should be noted that this most recent gig is just one instance of Bloc excelling with meticulously programmed events, throughout the year having brought the likes of Green Velvet, Model 500, Scion & Tikiman - names which scarcely if ever appear on UK billings. Further to this the promoters announced both the reinstatement of their yearly festival since and their return to Minehead Butlins, a venue which served them well until 2012’s disastrous attempted expansion to the only partially completed development. If you’d asked me around the time, I would have imagined recovering from an incident of such magnitude impossible, yet with sheer determination, Bloc have recovered lost ground with incredible grace, and with names like Autechre, Jeff Mills & The Moritz Von Oswald Trio already included on the festival lineup, and attending feels like something of an obligation.
George McVicar, Theo Darton-Moore
I did question whether to include the late DJ Rashad - who tragically died at the age of 34 in April - in a collection of our highlights of the year, but his passing should be taken as an opportunity to celebrate his work, and I found myself returning to his ecstatic, mind-twisting music in the wake of his death. It is a little jarring that outside of Chicago Rashad, an ambassador for a style of music not typically listened to in the LP format, will in a large part be remembered by his exceptional run of three albums that began with 2011’s ‘Just A Taste Vol. One’, through 2012’s ‘Teklife Volume 1’, and concluded with 2013’s ‘Double Cup’. However across these records (and elsewhere of course) Rashad showcased some of the most vital dance music I’ve heard in recent years, and displayed a virtuosity across a range of productions styles unmatched by his contemporaries. He sounded just as comfortable programming brittle, hyperactive snares, as he did making the lush, heady sounds on later records, which drew influence from US hip-hop and from another bonkers dance that originated across the Atlantic – jungle. Rashad was one of the most talented musicians in an electronic music scene that is in many ways international, and he made music that was paradoxically location specific but also outwards looking, peering through a shroud of swirling intoxication.
It’s amazing what you can pack into five days. Having flown out to meet SonuoS founder & DJ Finn Albertsson on one of his frequent trips to perform at Culture Box, (this time billed alongside Luke Slater and dub-techno pioneer Fluxion) it quickly became apparent how vibrant the city’s music culture is as a whole. Through our contact online Albertsson has been something of a guiding light, exposing some of the darkest and most obscure recesses of electronic music. In person he is an equally good host, pointing out hotspots that might take weeks to discover otherwise. Visiting a city’s record stores can often provide a good barometer of where musical interests lie, and as the selections available from the likes of Dorma 21 or Sound Station reflected, listening tastes are incredibly open - Ukranian drone, doom metal or the more experimental corners of dub-techno for example not things I find a great deal of in the UK.
Without wanting to aggrandise the city too much, it is hard not to note the enthusiasm of those people I encounters on my travels, showing a genuine openness towards others expressing an interest in the same music scene. Maybe it comes as a byproduct of living in a place not so over-saturated with producer’s, DJs, journalists etc. as London. Regardless of the reasons though, the buzz it generates is hard not to be touched by, and probably the reason I was able to make it out to an event every night I was there, including before my Saturday morning flight back, Albertsson’s mantra - ‘you can sleep when you’re dead’ still rattling around my brain.
I’ve heard Bohren & Der Club of Gore, a German group composed of members of various Doom Metal groups, described as ‘ambient jazz’, which is to an extent quite accurate but also makes it sound like you might find them performing live on an episode of The Culture Show on BBC2. However despite having some of the smooth edges and gorgeous, gentle textures you’d expect from an ‘ambient jazz’ album, Piano Nights is an extremely intense and deeply sad record, and not the sort of thing you’d find on breezy late night chat show. It can be soothing, it can be uncomfortable, and this is because it all moves along very, very slowly. I spent a lot of time listening to frantic, hyperactive music this year (see DJ Rashad above), and this record acted as a beautiful, melancholic counterpoint.
It’s hard to confess but ‘Visa’ was my first taste of Sasu Ripatti under the guise of the Vladislav project. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, just a cursory glimpse at the track listing makes it look like a Sunn 0))) record - 22-minute opener? What is this? - and the record itself is no less puzzling. Visa guides you cautiously through a rich banquet of bizarre sonic experiments, each sounding at once meticulously crafted and yet wholly improvised. What’s so nice about the album is that it’s such a ‘warm’ sounding record and yet distinctly mechanical. It’s how I imagine music would sound if computers capable of making it for their own enjoyment. Indeed, I get the feeling that my computer even ‘enjoys’ playing Visa… who says androids don’t dream of electric sheep anyway?
I have to admit I’m including London-based improviser Adam Bohman for not just strictly musical reasons. Bohman had his first public exhibition of his visual art his year, at Café Oto’s Project Space in the autumn, and I thoroughly enjoyed browsing his wonderfully detailed and lurid collages, which he has been making privately for decades. To keep it musical, some of these collages were gig posters he had designed for the London Improvisers Orchestra, and I saw him perform as part of the trio Secluded Bronte with his brother Jonathan and Richard Thomas at Café Oto in June, performing live scores for the films of Walerian Borowczyk as part of a wonderful evening dedicated to the late Polish director. He also put out some great releases too, including the entertaining ‘Music and Words 2’, so it was a triumphant year.
You can never quite be sure what to expect seeing Queens based Matteo Ruzzon, aka Madteo DJ. His ‘Street Wax’ mix series illustrate the point well, darting between all manner of genres, from funk and disco, to breakbeat, hip-hop and techno as if there were no difference between them. During the Italian born producer’s visit to London’s Dance Tunnel however, a turbo charged mix of rough-edged house & techno was the only thing on the agenda.
The capital sometimes feels like it’s lost something in terms of its nightlife, smaller often being overpowered by wealthy promoters and large capacity venues. ‘Way Back Here’s night at the Dalston based venue proved that the simplest of formulas is often the most satisfying; a Funktion One coupled with solid mixing and selections begged no additional frills or gimmicks. The intimacy of the venue proved another factor adding rather than detracting from the event, making Ruzzon’s contagiously energetic DJing style inescapable.
Since 2013’s phenomenal Virgins, Hecker’s sound has centred around building endless layers of scattered and fragmented components. In the live setting, Hecker orchestrates hundreds of splintered pianos, organs and static to slam into one another, as if constructing a towering block of Jenga pieces before crashing them to the ground. In Atonal’s colossal ‘Kraftwerk’, this effect is magnified tenfold, as the titanic concrete walls resonant the frequencies into every iota of space of the venue. As the building creaked and rumbled, Hecker’s set seemed to turn the already ghostly space into something of a haunted house, and gave audience members a very special headspace in which to reflect on the festival.
Tesla Tapes, run by the group Gnod as an outlet for group members’ various individual projects, fills my quota this year for noisy and droney electronic music dragged out of (or through) the gutter. Tesla Tapes occupy similar musical territory to Irish label Trensmat, who I included in this feature last year, and I actually lauded Trensmat in particular for releasing a record from Gnod. Clearly I’m a creature of habit, much as like to laud myself for having an interest in the experimental. To my shame I don’t yet own a single Tesla Tapes cassette - although I’ve perused their catalogue extensively on Bandcamp - so buying one of their tapes can be a nice easily achievable 2015 resolution for me. In particular this year I enjoyed Sister / Body’s ‘Lucifer Efekt’.
Downliners Sekt seem to be one of the few remaining outfits able to bring me to childish levels of excitement through their releases. The Spanish duo have managed to rationalise an incredibly wide spectrum of influences in the past - from breakbeat and hip-hop to shoegaze rock, yet their April released LP Silent Ascent felt like the most gracefully finesse’d release yet.
In short, anything that sounds like it’d fit in amongst the legendary Chain Reaction back-catalogue is going to earn decent marks from me - ‘Silent Ascent’s pulsating, vapourous atmospheres and hypnotic, off-beat percussion fitting the bill perfectly. The use of sample manipulation and found sounds have been a staple of the pair’s work up till now, however the interplay between this and more organic, live elements such as their opulent washes of synthesiser or use of live drumming put Silent Ascent in a different league altogether.
My standout event of the year was Fort Process, a one day event of performances and installations of avant-garde music and sound art, in the sprawling passages and chambers of Newhaven Fort, a 19th Century fortification on the South coast of England. The event’s capacity was kept purposefully low so as to avoid overcrowding, and the programme was so extensive that it was impossible to see everything. Stumbling across performances and installations thus felt like a process of exploration, and for much of the day I chose not to consult the programme but instead just wander the site. John Butcher’s evening performance in an old weapons cache was a particular highlight, as was the closing performance from Peter Brotzmann and Steve Noble, which drew the biggest crowd of the day. Ex-Easter Island Head were fantastic as ever, and Ingrid Plum, Boldie, and Plurals were all new discoveries for me.
Seeing micro-house pioneer Jan Jelinek has been an ambition of mine for a good few years now, so when the opportunity to watch him perform live alongside vibraphonist Masayoshi Fujita arose in late November, there was little deliberation needed. Trips to Cafe Oto can feel a little too much like a long hard stare in the mirror at the best of times, being often quite indulgent for want of a better word. Yet as is also common with the venue, the quality and depth of the music being performed makes its admittedly rather artsy context hard to care about too much.
Taking to the stage after an amazingly creative supporting performance from Isnaj Dui (Katie English), Jelinek and Fujita blurred a dizzying array of influences into one cohesive soundscape. Musique Concréte and Krautrock influences felt as present as the micro-house and lo-fi electronic eccentricities that made Jelinek’s name in the first place. The duo’s improvisation’s were carried out with effortless precision; the performance could have been recorded straight to tape without any concessions made for the fact everything was happening on the fly. I guess at least in Jelinek’s case this is the level of skill that should come to be expected from an artist that has been pushing his craft for well over a decade, still it was something quite breathtaking to see in the flesh.
I’m probably not the best person to write a review of an Objekt tune. My admiration for his back catalogue is unmatched by almost anyone that I can think of, and my habits of listening back to his series of EPs is bordering on obsessive. Even my own productions feel as if they always end up sounding like Objekt rip-offs, so it’s difficult to really have an objective stance on his new material. Nevertheless, as I listen back to ‘Ganzfeld’ now, I still find myself with my hands on my temples, despairing - how is he doing that? - and a sense of righteousness about it too, thinking; ‘this is what electronic music should be about’. ‘Ganzfeld’, I think, is a culmination of everything Objekt is good for; the hyper-engineered glitches, the expansive strings, those bass synths… and it brought with it a resurrection of the 90’s Warp sound and ethos that got me into this stuff in the first place.
Having been a fan since turning to a friend and slurring “what’s this? It’s dope” I was as excited as anyone was about the release of Head High’s album this year. Expecting both nostalgic and unashamedly anthemesque techno, I wasn’t disappointed with the combination of drums and chords that can make even the staunchest of chin strokers whip off their shirt and hug anyone whose limbs fly into a three foot parameter. In a year with so many techno artists releasing albums I couldn’t say it’s the most adventurous release of the year but it is one which seems to undercut the moodiness and delivered a smile to the face and a fist to the air, making it a release which I enjoyed immensely this year.
So fervently had I been anticipating the return of Mica Levi (of Micachu & The Shapes) since her criminally underrated ‘Never’, that I completely missed her scoring of what was arguably one of the best films of the year, ‘Under the Skin’. Unlike most soundtracks, Levi’s comes out at you in bold swipes, never fully sitting comfortably within the film nor completely removed from it. The creaking glissandos and dry percussive thumps don’t meander in the background nor simply colour the mood of the film. Instead, the soundtrack is a character unto itself, a tangible component of the film with its own questionable motives and personality. The bizarre death scenes, for example, that happen throughout the film are populated not only by Scarlett Johansson and her various victims, but also by a spin-tingling violin motif that sounds like the grim reaper sharpening a scythe. Indeed, if this soundtrack is a character in the film, it’s Death itself, moving facelessly behind the screen before snatching another victim. Few pieces of music had the same staying power that this did for me in 2014.
At the end of every year I find myself reflecting on the music that has stuck with me over the last 12 months, and Stroboscopic are rarely, if ever, omitted from my memory, so continuously innovating is the labels output. But two ‘moments’ in particular from Stroboscopic strike me as pivotal in 2014; Sendai’s contribution to the legendary Monad Series, and the 5th anniversary party at Corsica Studios with Perc, Rrose and label owner Lucy. Both of these left me inspired for days but for different reasons. First, Sendai expanded the borders of what I thought was doable in electronic music, taking the staples of techno and ascending them to previously unimagined heigts. The party at Corsica by contrast surprised me by how precisely contained the sound was; for a line up renowned for their esoteric sonics experiments, they still somehow knew how to shake a dance floor to its foundations. This ability - to transcend the familiar and familiarise the transcendental - is something that I think will continue to rank Stroboscopic among the best for years to come.