2016 has unanimously been agreed to have been a bit of a stinker (at least by all the right people, the Nigels might beg to differ) with further unpleasantries around the corner. Given this it seems trite to give a rundown of all that has blighted this year and argue that solace can be found in music and musical communities. Of course music can provide an escape from the horrors of the times, but it ought to challenge them and visualise an alternative too.
Anyway, there are reasons to be cheerful. Two nefarious organisations that really stunk things up last year (both covered obsessively by Vice magazine) have had the wind taken out of their sails somewhat. PC Music and ISIS are both waning in influence. Meanwhile, although the consensus in clubland still seems to be that lo-fi house and Dixon are where the party is at — they really, really are not — there are encouraging signs that it’s once again becoming a bit less stale. So join us in examining the last 12 months of electronic music, and in 2017, remember to say it loud: we don’t need this fascist groove thang.
Autechre @ Concorde 2
I probably shouldn’t write about Autechre every year. Although more than likely I will anyway. This year at Brighton’s Concorde 2, the duo did what they do best, defying any expectations I’d built up previously. Following Russell Haswell’s clusterfuck of modular bravado, their performance felt a picture of serenity. Conjuring washing FM Synthesis, icy, digital abstractions and twitching granular melodies, Autechre’s set was nothing short of mesmeric. Of particular note was the sharp cut to baroque church organs: something which left me unsure whether to laugh, cry or go and baptise myself in the gents urinal.
Micachu & Tirzah, Taz and May Vids
This year, Micachu returned from scoring Pablo Larrain’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis biopic, Jackie, to release more of her back-to-basics bedroom oddities. It’s a little cheeky to be including this in a list of 2016: the lead single, ‘GO’, has been floating around the internet for over 5 years. But this EP comes as a cohesive whole, with a start, middle and a fidgety remix from Demdike Stare to end. Mica’s instrumentals are as claustrophobic and mangled as one should now expect. The pitches warble about like a damaged cassette, and everything is drenched in chorus. There are also vocal performances from Tirzah, who is herself something of a curiosity. There is only smattering of online material one can find under her name, yet the buzz around each has been deafening. This release in particular sold out faster than you can say ‘go’.
Jacob Kirkegaard’s Labyrinthitis Workshop
Lured by the promise that “attendees will have their ears recorded”, I went to Filthy Lucre’s Sounding Body workshop, where they were presenting Jacob Kirkegaard’s Labyrinthitis: an installation made by his “SOAE”. What now? “Your cochlea can produce pitches or tones, which are called Otoacoustic Emissions,” Kirkegaard explained, “and when they do so without any stimuli, they’re called Spontaneous OAE. So, as a result, your ears are making music without you telling it to.” To explore the musicality of our ears, Kirkegaard played us excerpts of Labyrinthitis; strikingly pure, firm tones started ringing… and I slowly realised that some were coming not from the speakers, but from inside my ears. I could tell which by turning my head slowly: the sounds from the speakers would feel closer or further according to the movement of my head, but my own OAE wouldn’t move at all, remaining totally central to my perception. It was jaw-dropping.
“Those OAEs were induced by external stimuli, in response to what was coming from the loudspeakers,” Kirkegaard said, “but about 3/4ths of the population also have SOAE. Who wants to have their ears recorded?” My hand shot up. He inserted a tiny microphone into my ears, and I breathed as quietly as I could for a minute. Despite Kirkegaard’s initial doubts (“even if there is anything, it’s very quiet”), he wrote me excitedly the next day: “I edited the recording, and found you have six pitches in your right ear, and two in your left!” The human body is an instrument indeed.
Having been first exposed to Ata Ebtekar aka Sote through the work he produced in the ’90s, such as the bone-grinding ‘Neuroenhancer’ or crunching breakbeat of ‘Subconscious’, it takes some reflection to understand how he has arrived at the razor-edged, computerized sound he currently touts. To an outside ear, his Hardcore Sounds of Tehran cassette or ‘Hyper Urban 20 30’ EP might sound like complete chaos, the last throes of a dying laptop firing oddball glitches out at random. Closer listening however reveals Ebtekar’s broadcasts rife with complex polyrhythms and intricate melodies, locking the listener in discordant, alien grooves.
Considering his discography dates back a good 15-20 years, I’m slightly ashamed to have only discovered Ebtekar this year. Yet with the consistently inspiring material he has released across 2016, I won’t be taking my eye off the ball again.
My experience going to Norberg as a volunteer began with an 11 hour coach journey from Copenhagen to the small Swedish town of Norberg. Almost everyone else on the coach had been working at the 100% volunteer run festival several years in a row, no small feat considering that this is at least a 7 day commitment. I soon found out why. With only minor exceptions, this was one of the most horizontal teams I’ve ever worked in, where all participants had the opportunity to use both their existing skills and learn new ones. This all took place amidst long northern nights, an endless Swedish forest, and Mimer: the decommissioned iron mine and processing plant that serves as the festival’s main venue. This is a structure unlike any other, and really has to be seen to be understood. Over the weekend Mimer played host to some of the best experimental acts around at the moment, alongside a variety of forward thinking club music at the Norberg’s other two stages, Kraftwerk and 303.
Peder Mannerfelt @ Cafe OTO
Peder Mannerfelt has taken the idea ‘less is more’ to almost absurdist extremes recently. This year he has been an undeniably powerful force in electronic music, creating reductionist rave tracks which strip anything superfluous. It’s a brave approach, and one which takes real conviction to pull off. Earlier this year he performed at Cafe OTO to somniferous effect. It’s hard not to get lost in thought watching Mannerfelt gyrate back and forth in his long, flowing straw mask, listening to the boomeranging electronics. Computerized sounds zoom past as if circling a racetrack, synthetic vocal samples gently morphing alongside formidable modular experiments. His rippling technicolour visuals may have been somewhat lost in the gloom of Cafe OTO, but in the end, ogling Mannerfelt’s choice of footwear was enough. And I never need see a pair of crocodile brogues again.
Izzi Pettis & Theo Darton-Moore
Beatrice Dillon, ‘Can I Change My Mind’
Within the first few minutes of ‘Can I Change My Mind’, Beatrice Dillon begins to answer her own question. Though initially set within deep grooves and pattern development, Dillon does not hold steadfast to traditional structure for long. The transitions stutter and halt. The track flickers from place to place, inserting rhythmic flourishes within the spaces in-between. She draws from a myriad of rhythmic, percussive and instrumental influences. It’s like a piece of improvised reggae: let’s go here, let’s go there and who cares how you get there.
SIREN Warehouse Party
A warehouse in Haringey, a sound system, a consortium of women spinning techno to a crowd of gender-variant twenty-somethings. In a climate that seems increasingly hostile to underground venues, and in light of recent discussions about women in electronic music and of harassment in clubs, I’m acutely aware that what I’m looking at might offer a glimpse of the future of London’s underground music scene: makeshift, a little bit less than legal, and increasingly female.
It’s a trend that seems to have resonated across borders, with nights from female:pressure in Berlin or Apeiron in Copenhagen attracting similar turnouts—a testament to the demand for inclusive events—and one I’m happy to see. I’ll leave it the organisers of Butlins festivals to contemplate the irony of their quasi-anti-establishment rants against safe-spaces.
group A @ CTM
In the sweaty main room of the renowned Berghain, group A out-poured to stunned on-lookers. Typically home to cold, hyper-engineered techno, the duo re-appropriated the venue for their own devices. group A eliminated the monotonous kicks and brooding bass synths in favour of metallic spring delays, screeching violas and deafening screams. 2016 marked for the band a meteoric rise in the wake of their brilliant 70 + a = LP the year before. During this tour, it became clear that the music of group A is in some sense uncontainable. Not even the steely walls of Berghain could constrict them.
The Fall and Rise of Fabric, 1999-2016
When Fabric opened in 1999, UK nightlife had already begun its transition from free parties and raves to a more normalized entertainment industry. In 2016, Fabric was forced to shut its doors because its licence was repealed following drug related deaths on the premises. Thus, the model of the mega club had shown its limits. Following the council’s decision, the club owners and a series of personalities in the now powerful industry set up a campaign to “save our culture” and reopen the club. Eventually, the campaign was proved successful and Fabric’s licence was granted. The conditions of reopening enforced by the council choked me at first, but also appeared in clear continuation of hyper-regulation and conservative values plaguing modern clubs.
In particular, Fabric will now permit undercover police officers to roam the dancefloor to monitor drug use. This mirrors the UK Government’s own history of strict and irresponsible zero-tolerance drug legislation; one that refuses to work with information and prevention. Fabric have permitted committed members of an institution that has historically harassed and beaten minorities on the dance floor, encouraging club owners to criminalise their own users for the sake of saving a so-called “culture”. But what or whose culture has been saved? The one born out of social groups and minorities targeted and harassed by the police, or the one born out of the industrial financialisation of every existing form of art and leisure? Fabric has transformed the party into a hybrid of big capital and bigoted authoritarian politics. It is also likely to be but the first domino to fall: We can now expect to see more clubs to close across the country, only to rise again under similar legislation. 2016 brought us a club full of cops. Merry Christmas.