I first encountered Manchester’s Henrietta Smith-Rolla, aka Afrodeutsche, DJing at London’s Somerset House. She was playing at an event themed around algorithmic parties, virtual dancefloors and the interplay between London and Manchester’s nightlife. Her set delivered an amphetamine-charged hour of thudding breaks and heady, space-station psychedelia, playful, yet well in tune with the gig’s future-focused approach.
Since then, it appears she has been rather busy. Her debut album, Break Before Make, saw its release at the end of last month on Skam, an enterprise which has been similarly forward-looking, ever since its establishment in 1990. Releasing works by a young Sean Booth and Rob Brown, now better known together as Autechre, as well as the likes of Boards of Canada, Freeform and Jega, Skam have championed artists with an ear for the unconventional.
This latest release features an inebriated mix of low-slung electro-futurism and distant melodic abstractions. At times, the album recalls the unsettled synthesiser compositions of Wendy Carlos, reminding us of her soundtracks for films like A Clockwork Orange and Tron. The yearning arpeggios and majestic crescendos of ‘And!’ are case in point, as are those of ‘The Middle Middle’, which builds to a sickly-sweet climax atop stuttered drum sequences.
At other points, Break Before Make feels better referenced among SEGA Mega Drive classics in terms of its melodic qualities, tracks like ‘OD’ or ‘You Heard Me The First Time’ evoking early-90s console nostalgia. ‘Now What’ is another favourite in this regard, pointed melodies and machine-funk basslines working into a muscular groove.
For the most part however, the album is engineered for the dancefloor. There is the drexciyan motorik of ‘Work It’, while ‘Day Tuner’ is a glacial 909 half-stepper, tumbling melodics and spattered snares working together in hypnagogic sway. ‘Start Again Part Four’ on the other hand is well aligned to Skam’s lengthy back-catalogue of Gescom releases, modulated arpeggios and squelching reverberations working into a small-hours antarctic mindbender, packed with brooding intensity.
The Afrodeutsche project grew from a search for Smith-Rolla’s biological father, in which she discovered her Ghanaian roots also included German and Russian heritage. As far as I can tell, Break Before Make marks her first dispatch from the alias, yet it’s clear the album was born from years of honing her craft – that point where technical nous becomes mere intuition. She performs live regularly, and this album could equally be one of those sessions, unpacking ideas carefully and exploring their range with unrestricted imagination.