Saturday, 7 May 2016

poststep lingers - 2015 overview + latest news


Time marches on and new music is made, but not music containing much that is actually “new”. From my perspective, this is where things have been heading the last couple of years, after approximately five years of endless wonder and invention, while from the perspective of other people, it's how things have continuously been since at least the nineties. For me, the big question is not why things are slowing down – if anything, it would be far more weird if they didn't – but rather, why the majority of people, including those who have dedicated their lives to actively investigating the cutting edge of new music, didn't experience the same future rush as I did, even when directly confronted with some of the most unique, strange and groundbreaking music ever made. And, perhaps even more puzzling, why did the people making that music rarely argue their cause? Almost as if they didn't really believe they could create anything new, they seemed unable to escape the retro-logical mindset themselves, even when their creations did. The answers to these questions are complex and I'm still in the process of thinking them through, so it'll still take some time before I’ll the be able to pull it all together comprehensively. In the meantime, even though I'm not driven by the same thrill of discovery as before, I'd still like to make some kind of overview of the state of posstep last year. There was nowhere as much good stuff as in 2014, but the creative momentum of the poststep peak years was still big enough to produce quite a few brilliant records, even if they were all more or less working from within categories established during the peak years, rather than inventing new ones.

Jlin: Dark Energy (Planet MU)
SIMPIG: Strangers (Argent Sale)
Darren Keen: He's Not Real (Orange Milk)
Ever since footwork became the new big thing among ghetto beat connoisseurs, there's been a lot of handwringing about the possible gentrification of the style. Even with Jlin, who I suppose is seen as an “authentic” member of the original scene, there's been some talk about how she's moving away from the raw radicalism of the original sound, which I think is pretty silly. She's allowing herself to experiment and use a broad palette of sounds and ideas, but the “authentic” rawness and jagged edges are certainly still there – it's just not something that is made with the endlessly repeating rap- and soul-loops of “traditional” footwork, and thank heavens for that. Those loops were already pretty lame to begin with, and have only become more and more annoying as they've been used over and over again for five years by anyone who wanted to sound “authentic”. Wonderfully free of that, Dark Energy is one of the best and most forward thinking “proper” footwork albums ever, second perhaps only to DJ Diamonds Flight Muzik, as well as one of the very best and most refreshingly strange albums of 2015. Which, sadly, doesn't mean that it's offering something completely new and unheard, it's just one of the best possible utilization of the still existing potential for the new and unheard in a style that is, in itself, not all that new any more.

Where Dark Energy remains raw, SIMPIGStrangers is archetypical dreamy-cosmic, almost chilled, footwork-through-an-IDM-lens, to the degree that you hardly even notice the footwork elements at first – it's mostly just rhythmic eccentricities seamlessly blending into a wider concoction of different well established poststep innovations, as well as various chill out/IDM-trappings in general. It was definitely the bitstep-remains that drew me in more than the footwork, but in the end it all just comes together in a way that simultaneously feels obviously right and perhaps a bit too obvious. On the one hand, Strangers refine and recombine stuff that already works, rather than invent anything new, and as such it's clearly exemplifying the halt that poststeps engine of invention has come to, but on the other hand, it's hard not to enjoy an album that manage to use a good deal of the innovations that has exited me so much the last five years in a rather original and convincing way. After all, I still wish there was more of this stuff, and SIMPIG delivers it.

If Dark Energy is “authentic” footwork at its best and most forward thinking, and SIMPIG is a brilliant example of the “inauthentic” cosmic/atmospheric approach to the style, Darren Keen's He's Not Real is a typical example of the more bizarre and silly end of “inauthentic footwork”, turning it into a hyperactive bricolage of IDM-tomfoolery and goofy samples. The result is pretty uneven, with several tracks being hard to stomach due to their lame sample sources (self consciously cheesy pop, ironic “ghetto” vocals), but there's also quite a few tracks (something like half of them, I'd say) that reaches a kind of absurdist, baroque charm that is quite unique, making the album worth seeking out.



Bruce Smear: Chlorine (Orange Milk)
Oneothrix Point Never: Garden of Delete (Warp)
Co La: No No (Software)
The unhinged and at times almost disturbing weirdness of Giant Claw, Filter Dread (on Midi Space at least) and especially Felicita, was one of the most refreshing developments in 2014, but it wasn't developed much further in 2015 – actually, if that year produced anything even remotely as deranged as Felicitas Frenemies, I didn't hear it. The ultra sharp, bright and hyperactive sound of Bruce Smear's Chlorine came close, but also seemed, to some degree, like a bit-too-obvious mixture of PC music, cryo-grime and electro-tinged IDM, and as such it eventually did feel like a slight step backwards despite it's exciting syntheticness.

If anyone actually seemed to take a step forward in this direction, it was Oneothrix Point Never. On Garden of Delete he all but completely abandoned the retro-synth sound of his early records, in favour of a strange concoction of abrasive digital textures, and an opulent, baroque-yet-inorganic approach to composition, sometimes resulting in something like an absurdist take on EDM-”song writing”, complete with grotesquely autotuned vocals. Like a self consciously weird and arty cousin to Hudson Mohawkes kitchy Butter, not everything on Garden of Delete worked equally well, but it was definitely one of the most unique and alien records of 2015.

Slightly in the same area – though nowhere as loudly twisted and fractured – was Co La's NO NO, which finally felt like a proper follow up to 2013s Moody Coup (2014's uneven Hegemony of Delete seemed more like a one-off diversion). Using the same strange AI-dream-logic that made Moody Coup such an inexhaustibly fascinating record, but taken in a more febrile and rhythmically angular direction, NO NO was in many ways as artificial and post-organic as OPN, yet at the same time deceptively straightforward and well rounded, and as such perhaps the better album.


Holly Herndon: Platform (4AD)
Aisha Devi: Of Matter and Spirit (Houndstooth)
Visionist: Safe (Pan)
As one of the most talked about and anticipated albums of 2015, Holly Herndon's Platform seemed to disappoint some, but with me it was the other way round – I liked it so much more exactly because she abandoned the familiar IDM/industrial-ambient structures that made Movement a rather predictable, almost traditional album, and went all the way into twitchy, labyrinthine voicescapes. Sure, abstract voicescapes is not something new, and you could argue that especially within poststep it's pretty much its own tradition, but it's nevertheless still something with a lot of potential, and that potential was brilliantly realised on Platform, which simultaneously managed to avoid the glitchy-dreampop comfyness that these voicescapes far too often regress to, yet sounded almost like pop on some tracks, making abrasive avant garde structures surprisingly catchy.

If Herndon avoided the well-established use of voice manipulations to create dreamy, floating soundscapes, that approach was a big part of Aisha Devi's Of Matter and Spirit, but with none of the usual comforting pleasantness. Instead, the overall sound was icy synthetic and inhuman, as ominous and foreboding as Devis mangled voice, which sounded like the wailing of digital spirits forever caught inside forgotten data networks, or the mysticism of Dead Can Dance remade by an alien AI left to its own devices for millennia.

Herndon and Aisha Devi seem to represent two different takes on how manipulated voices can be used to explore the ever disintegrating border between artificial unreality and the organic, but the most radical of 2015's voice-alchemists was perhaps Visionist, who I guess should technically be classified as “weightless grime”, though the use of disembodied, half dissolved voices was pretty much the only defining characteristic of Safe, which otherwise was more or less unclassifiable. Drenched in an overwhelming sadness, the album was sort of related to Burial in spirit, but without using any of the well-established Burial-tricks so familiar by now – no broken 2step beats, engulfing crackle or ghostly submerged rave sounds here, just a half-fractured mosaic of abandoned voice fragments lost in an icy void. Unable to connect while blindly calling into an endless indifferent nothingness, isolated words and phonemes glittered like distant stars in ever changing constellations, creating patterns of stark beauty and hopeless longing.  At the same time moving and weirdly terrifying, Safe among the absolute best of the year.


Slackk: Backwards Light (R&S)
Acre: Better Strangers (Tectonic)
Acre+Filter Dread: Interference (Codes)
While Visionist made abstract grime so weightless that it became something else entirely, there were still plenty of experimental grime producers pushing the style forward in 2015 without leaving it behind altogether. One of the best was Slackk – a bit of a veteran in the field by now – who never seemed interested in the pure and bleak abstractions pursued by so many of his colleagues. Continuing down his own path, further refining a highly personal take on “emo-grime”, it was hardly surprising that his Backwards Light ep was much in the same style as 2014’s Palm Tree Fire lp – an abundance of complex-yet-straightforward melodic arrangements and bittersweet, melancholic moods. At the same time, it also felt like an even more focused distillation of that sound, with each of the six hollow funeral marches a brilliant and self-contained gem in its own right, making it perhaps his best release yet.

Melancholic moods were also present on Acre's Better Strangers, though only as one element in an overall extremely dark and grim sound world – sort of how the most brutally ugly and inorganic tracks from the first Rephlex Grime-compilation would have ended up if they'd been left to disintegrate and deteriorate in a cold concrete basement for ten years. This didn't work all the way through Better Strangers though, some tracks were simply too minimal and monochrome to be interesting, which was extra frustrating because the best tracks were just incredibly good – at the same time genuinely futuristic and hauntologically ghostly, oppressively dystopic and strangely touching, vulnerable and beautiful in all their icy, crumbling hopelessness. Trimmed down three or four tracks, Better Strangers could have been the album of the year, but then, Interference, Acre's collaboration with Filter Dread, was arguably the ep of the year – a much more sharp, focused and upbeat affair, but still every bit as strange and inorganically alien as you could wish for, a sonic landscape inhabited by odd machine creatures moving in high speed patterns completely incomprehensible to us.



Brood Ma: Populous (Hemlock)
Arca: Mutant (Mute)
Kuedo: Assertion of a Surrounding Presence (Knives)
Related to the abstract grime contingent, the biggest “movement” in experimental electronics in 2015 was probably all those producers inhabiting the interzone between the kind of abstract grime that had become so abstract that it contained no actual traces of grime anymore, vaporwave-turned-neo-IDM, and what I used to call “entropica” – disintegrating soundscapes updating dark ambient and avant-industrial techno for post dubstep sensibilities. Adam Harper territory, on other words. As with a lot of the first generation entropica (Actress, Hype Williams, Lukid), a lot of this stuff didn't completely convince me; a bit too often it was also a bit too close to standard dark/industrial-tinged ambient, or Autechre-ish IDM, and while both kinds of music can be great, it also feels pretty regressive going on making that kind of stuff. So I never really got into M.E.S.H., J.G.Biberkopf or Rabit's Communion – the latter did seem fresh and invigorating at first and in small doses, but it simply lacked the focus and variety to be convincing as Whole LP. Only a few from this camp really worked for me; Brood Ma's Populous had enough structural power and momentum to make the gritty, noisy aesthetic fascinating, even if it didn't exactly feel forward-thinking, and Arca's Mutant, while a bit too reminiscent of traditional glitchy IDM to be a revolutionary work, still had an undeniable originality and personality to its compositions, slowly unfolding the more you'd listen. I'm still in the process, but as with Xen, more and more of it is getting into focus and suddenly making sense. I doubt it'll stop being too long, though, but who knows?

Eventually, the best of this bunch in my opinion was Kuedo's ep Assertion of a Surrounding Presence, which moved away from the pioneering “cosmic footwork” of Severant in favour of a much more cold and ominous sound. There was still a slight element of synth “classicism” here and there, but the overall feel was as bleak and post-organic as anything by Rabit or Brood Ma, just delivered in a much more immediate and straightforwardly structured way, and not held back by attempts to be as formless and constantly shifting as possible.


Turnsteak: Digitale Pourpre (With Us)
Debruit: Outside the Line (ICI)
I have never really been into the “clubby” end of poststep, but it does deliver some good stuff now and then, and surprisingly, two if the most original albums of 2015 was actually from this end of things – as well as from France. The duo Turnsteak, previously completely unknown to me, worked with the well-known formula of twitchy UK funky/2step-beats and a neon lit emotionalism somewhere between euphoria and melancholia – i.e. where we also finds artists like Damu, Walton and Sully (around Carrier at least). Some tracks on Digital Pourpre didn't do much more than continue this tradition, but big parts of the album also showed that there was still plenty of opportunities for new twists within the formula – enough potential for further development to make an album that was both a well-rounded whole and a completely personal take on the sound, full of odd and original touches.

With Debruit's Outside the Line, the most surprising thing is that it seemed like a “clubby” poststep record at all, rather than another instalment of his uniquely twisted ethno-wonky-funk. Sure, the ethno samples were still there, and there was none of the house/garage elements so common to the strains of poststep desperately trying to align itself with club/'nuum authenticity, but the use of four to the floor beats and much more straightforwardly flowing basslines also took it in the direction of – relatively – conventional dancefloor-oriented 21st century club music. And I'm not really sure how to feel about it, I must confess. On one hand, it's good that Debruit is trying completely new things – as great as his previous style is, he has also by now refined it to the point where some new input is clearly needed –, and there's still some wonderfully weird sounds and dreamy, dizzy moods on Outside the Line. On the other hand, though, working within a much simpler rhythmic structure is just not to his advantage: It has always been the sharp edges and far out syncopations that made his music really original and amazing, and without them it can at times feel a bit flat and featureless, especially with the heavy use of sampled “tribal” percussion, which just seems pointlessly tacked on when it isn't twisted into original shapes by larger, weirder rhythmic structures. As a result, Outside the Line was to some degree frustrating – sometimes it seemed strangely anonymous, and sometimes it sounded wonderfully strange and original – but in any case it's a good thing that Debruit isn't stuck. I just hope that he'll be able to develop further while regaining the rhythmic weirdness that made him so special to begin with.


Zomby: Let's Jam pt. 2 (XL)
Myth: Evaporate (Halc)
Ebbo Kraan: Aletta (Rwina)
As with the SIMPIG-album mentioned above, this is all records that feel a bit like guilty pleasures, in that they're immediately pleasurable for someone with my preferences in poststep, but at the same time they're not trying to push any envelope whatsoever. If anything, they sound great exactly because they're cultivating some of those elements that seemed so revolutionary and envelope-pushing in the beginning of poststep. I guess there's people who, like me, wish that there was simply more of this amazing, wonderful music, and hence they make more of it, ticking all the right boxes, rather than inventing new ones. While not straightforward bitstep – still my favourite poststep substyle – these records all use, to some extend, the spiralling arpeggios and 8-bit cascades so significant for that style, but mostly within a slightly more dreamy and melancholic frame, as pioneered by artists like Ikonika, Desto and not least Zomby. So in a way, you could say that Zomby is plagiarizing himself on part 2 of the two Let's Jam-ep's he released in 2015, doing what he does best, and pretty obviously still doing it brilliantly. Not that he's simply repeating classic Zomby-formulas without any development, there's some very slight twists, the tracks seem both more varied and looser, yet also more fully formed than most of the With Love-album, though it's not easy to really put a finger on why that is. In any case it's a great Zomby ep, still evolving his personal sound slowly and organically, his inspiration still far from exhausted. Though, to be fair, part 1 was pretty much run-of-the-mill minimal “acid”/techno-jams that contained nothing to distinguish them as Zomby-productions.
That the “classic” Zomby-sound still has fans should not be surprising, somehow the sad, longing hopelesness of post-Burial sadstep just seem to fit twinkling, super-simple arpeggio-melodies like a glove. Myth's Evaporate ep didn't bring anything new to that table, and yet, it's hard to resist that sound when it's made so pure and immediate. Which could also be said about Ebbo Kraan's Aletta ep, despite being a much more hard and heavy affair, based on the half-atmospheric, half-pompous avant-trap sound developed by artists like Starkey, Desto and Krampfhaft over the last three years. Again, there's nothing here really moving that sound forward, but when something works so well, it's obvious that there'll be people out there who think that it's unfair that it should be gone so soon, and wat to keep it alive. I can't really blame them.


STOP PRESS: Just when I'd come to the conclusion that poststep is more or less over and done, a bunch of amazing new poststep records appears in a short time, almost recreating the feeling of a continuous eruption of brilliance that made the previous peak years such a wonder to live through. OK, to be fair, the element of constant surprise is still missing, none of these records are creating something utterly unheard and unexpected, they're all pretty much expanding the current abstract grime sound, but they're doing it on such a uniformly inventive and invigorating level that I'm still feeling an unmistakable future buzz – apparently this style has huge hidden reservoirs of unused potential for invention. The play- and colourful, almost downright cartoony side of grime is taken to the max with Darq E Freaker’s ADHD ep, Murlo's Odyssey lp, and Loom's European Heartache ep (or most of it, anyway) – sometimes wonderfully absurdist and quirky like toys designed to amuse a hyper-intelligent alien child, and sometimes creating a kind of hysteric grime version of the über-synthetic frenzy found in PC music. In the more harsh and dark department, Brood Ma takes a quantum leap forward from the already pretty good Popolous, and makes the kind of record that actually sounds like you imagine all those abstract electronic artists like MESH, Rabit or Lotic would sound, when reading Adam Harper-ish descriptions of their music. Daze uses a lot of the same tricks as everybody else in this scene, but here they really work, creating music that is every bit as ominously monumental and inorganically shapeshifting as you could wish for.

Equally heavy and doomy, but also much more cold and punishing, the Cellar ep from NA (half of Nguzunguzu) is like grime reinvented by Marc Acardipane, and at times reminiscent of NA’s former Future Brown-collaborator Fatima Al Qadiri, whose own second album Brute is the best of this brilliant bunch. It has been criticised for not bringing much new to Qadiris table, as well as for being too samey, but even though it's definitely closer to her “defining” sound from the Desert Strike ep and generally even more monochromatic than the already pretty samey Asiatisch, her insistence on refining what's already brilliant, ever so subtly investigating what can be done with it, turns out to be the right strategy. Qadiri is confident that her core aesthetic vision is strong enough to carry the album, and it is – rather than “samey” in any bad sense, Brute is first of all an integrated work of art, almost a meditation on the heart breaking hopelessness permeating our world as the end of history starts to crumble, the veneer of the neoliberal mummery dissolving. Not since Burials debut have I heard an album so drenched in sorrow, but Brute is a much more dark and threatening beast, like feebly trying to navigate in a world of endless fog, while a nervous violence is constantly brooding just below the surface, waiting to break through. Brute is one of the albums of the decade, but I'm afraid that it most likely will not be remembered as such. And why that is – why something as great as this isn't being recognised, but rather seen as just another slightly experimental electronic record of no real consequence, is also why poststep as whole hasn't been recognised I think. And that’s the question that I'll try and tackle next.

Monday, 21 September 2015

The End of PostStep

There's not much to write about in terms of new exciting post dubstep any more. As predicted the last time I posted here – and that's already a long time ago – 2014 produced quite a lot of good poststep + derived and associated music, but not with the same amount of trailblazing creativity as the four years before. There werw still some shockingly new stuff, but mostly it was a year of further refining ideas from the previous wonder years.


Best of all – in a league of its own, really – was Felicitas Frenemies ep, containing the most jaw-droppingly weird and alien music I've heard since, I dunno, Jameszoos Faaveelaa probably. Felicita is related to the PC-music camp, but where those people mostly use hyper-syntheticness as a kitsch enhancer, on Frenemies it's taken far beyond its breaking point and into utter abstraction, as creepy and terrifying as watching an artificially intelligent toy, designed to be overbearingly cute and cheerful, going completely insane, its thought processes disintegrating before our ears. In its own absurd way as radical as, say, early Swans or Einstürzende Neubauten, and the rest of the PC music camp is pretty much coming off as a cut rate Test Department by comparison, though the Lucky Me-label did released a couple of actually quite good EPs - Cashemere Cats Wedding Bells and Joseph Marinettis PDA - which, while still being a bit too pastiche-inflicted to be on Felicitas level, managed to share some aspects of the PC-aesthetic and yet be a bit more unreal and weird than the real PC deal. Closest to Felicitas level of alieness was probably Giant Claws Dark Web, which, despite being much more related to the Oneothrix Point Never/Software end of things, reached moments of the same inorganic weirdness and broken-machine-dream-logic.  


As for something approaching an actual leading movement in poststep in 2014, rather than PC music, the most obvious suggestion is what could collectively be called “abstract grime”, spanning a whole heap of different approaches, and culminating in an enormous amount of releases last year. Many were only “grime” in the most tangential sense, and many certainly weren’t all that great, but a pretty good amount of highly original, forward-thinking stuff still came out if this department. The icy, hyper angular anti-grooves of the “cryo grime” subgenre had pretty much already culminated in 2013 with Logos' Cold Mission, and not much has been added since, but a couple of brilliant EPs – Air Max '97s Progress and Memory, Blooms Hydraulicsdid managed to take it into even more abstract extremes in 2014. Related in its quest for inorganic groovelessness, a much more interesting development was what could be called entropic grime, where the clinical, sharp and shiny angles of cryo grime were taken over by stumbling, dysfunctional zombie-rhythms, and buried in layers of sonic dirt, dead sounds in a state of perpetual decomposition. SD Laikas awesome That's Harakiri-album was more or less the definitive release in this respect, though Filter Dreads Midi Space ep was perhaps even better. While his Space Loops lp - released on tape in 2013 and re-released on vinyl in 2014 - offered a slightly more polished and coherent version of the SD Laika aesthetic, Midi Space infused the style with a bizarre playfulness - there's synthetic colours and rubbery syncopations worthy of the best bitstep, yet it all come off as strangely faded, washed out, hazy: Yesterdays amazing cybertoys twisted and broken, their operating systems overtaken by depression.


Among the most characteristic subgenres of grime in 2014, “new age grime” or perhaps “emo-grime” took the clean, delicate structures of cryo grime and made them, if not exactly “warm”, then at least soft and bright, inviting. Some seemed to think that this approach was somehow wrong by definition (because grime should be “raw” and “road” and “authentic”), and while I do consider that puritan mindset pretty ridiculous, I must admit that I didn't get much into this stuff. Perhaps I'd been won over if Yamanekos Pixel Wave Embrace – seen by many as a key work – had been released on vinyl and not just tape, but another potential key work, Mr. Mitchs Parallel Memories, didn't really do anything for me either, too wistfully emotional and uniformally pretty for my taste. Rather, I think the best suggestion in this area is probably Fatima al Qadiri’s Asiatisch, which is certainly clean, lithe, bright and soft, and at the same time emotional in a wonderfully synthetic, hyper real fashion. Like with SD Laika and Filter Dread, Asiatisch has only a faint, superficial relationship with grime, with just a few artificially inseminated stylistic elements audible, and I do find it kinda silly that these records are being placed under the abstract grime umbrella, but that doesn't mean that they’re not some of the greatest releases of 2014. 




Cryo- emo- and entropic grime was only a small part of 2014s huge abstract grime wave, and some of the best of the rest managed to be simultaneously emotional, atmospheric and highly experimental, while still clearly recognisable as – at least a kind of – actual grime descendants. Sure, they were still clearly not doing grime (or more generally, 'nuum music) “right”, taking it in a deliberately cerebral and arty direction that is far from how the genre was originally supposed to be, but that is exactly why they were actually doing something new and unheard, and why records like Slackk’s moody, melancholic Palm Tree Fire-album or Inkke’s Crystal Children ep were among the best records of 2014. This stuff is to the original grime sound what Ultravox, Japan or Soft Cell were to glam: A clearly new and contemporary take on some related ideas, free of the rock'n'roll/'nuum residue still present in the predecessors. Abstract grime is not 'nuum music, but why should it have to be to be good?

In addition to all the abstract-grime-and-related stuff, 2014 still had quite a few brilliant records scattered throughout different kinds of poststep, as well as some not really belonging there, but perhaps not really belonging anywhere else either. Evian Christs Waterfall-ep and Krampfhaft’s Before We Leave-album both had elements that perhaps could classify them as a kind of avant trap, and as such the closest we got to descendants of the wonky-wobble/ravey bitstep-lineage. On Waterfall, massive riff-blasts and brutal lurch-march rhythms are twisted into dysfunctionally weird shapes, the effect being somewhere between over the top silly, slightly creepy and genuinely intimidating, while Before We Leave tried to convert Krampfhafts idiosyncratic style into a more subtle and understated “big album”-sound, and as a result failed to be the masterpiece it could have been. The soft and polished overall sound made it a pretty big disappointment at first, but in the end that was only really a problem because of, as so often before, the inappropriate length. With repeated listening it eventually managed to show itself as one of the very best of the year, despite its shortcomings; On the first three fourths, Krampfhaft really succeeded in creating a kind of cosmic, slow motion version of his ultra-angular bleep-melodies and neurotic trap/bitstep beats, whether in the form of ravey-yet-sonambulist freak-step like “Superfluid”, “Spinner” and “Toekan”, or isolationist deep sea dreams like “Clip Point” and “Mostly Empty Space”. It's only with the last four tracks that it gets too much – here we're getting too close to cosy, pretty chill out music, completely unnecessary, and only making the album seem pointlessly drawn out. Which is a shame when the rest is so good.


Surprisingly, after some very slim years where the Californian “post hop”-scene more or less seemed to have regressed into standard down tempo dullness, it made a (slight) come back in 2014, with two pretty great albums. Mono/Poly is one of the scenes lesser known artists, even if he has been active almost from the start, and has released a couple of brilliant EPs. Where his tendency towards new age mysticism was a bit of an annoying element on 2010s digital-only Paramatma-album, on Golden Skies he dedicates himself completely to these elements, and surprisingly makes it work. The glittering bleep cascades is a perfect match for the drowsy, mystically sun-kissed sound – a genuinely contemporary, wide-eyed take on cosmic chill out music, where too much stoner down tempo is just safe and cosy. Much the same effect is to be found on the first half of Collapse, debut album by the hitherto unknown – to me at least – Repeated Measure. The sound here is perhaps more “spaced out” cosmic than warm and sunny, but we're still talking slowly drifting sci fi-music with plenty of fractured bleep patterns. What's really noteworthy, though, is the second half, where these bleep patterns are suddenly backed by a much more heavy and angular bottom, effectively turning the music into wobbly bitstep. Where 2013 actually had a surprising amount of amazing new bitstep, that sound practically disappeared since, and in 2014, and the only place it really made a noteworthy appearance was on the second half of Collapse – and brilliantly so!

Of the remaining 2014 highlights, Mesaks Howto Readme took skweee in new directions that made the style less uniquely its own, but also yielded some interesting hybrid forms. Equally eclectic, Jimmy Pés Insomnia bridged ravey wobble-trap and atmospheric, burialesque sadstep (with some nauseating vocals here and there, unfortunately), while Ital Teks Mega City Industry ep offered more of his trademark dreamy, floating footwork (“dreamwork”?), and the hitherto unknown Chainless made the best darkstep record of the year with Grey Veils, brilliantly building on the best parts of Lorn and early Nosaj Thing. Surprisingly, Inga Copelands Copeland, which on the surface really seemed too minimal for its own good, somehow managed to be better than anything else I've heard from Hype Williams, whether as Blunt and Copeland solo or together. Sort of entropic music reaching peak bleak emptiness. As opposite to this as imaginable, Disrupt offered colourful and catchy 8-bit hyper-dub on Dub Matric With Stereo Sound, while The Marvs combination of bouncy beats and ghostly bollywood samples on A King of Tunes was just as catchy - almost pop music.


Which sort of brings us to FKA Twigs' LP1, I guess, which, while not full blown poststep as such, nevertheless used a whole heap of poststep elements, and sort of demonstrated how they could be used as a base for pop music as odd and futuristic as poststep proper. So far, a much more durable and fascinating record than the much talked about XEN by her producer Arca, who goes all the way into the abstract, and is sort of closer to traditional glitch or IDM than Twigs is to traditional pop music. Not that you can't hear the contemporary elements and techniques – and a few tracks do sound genuinely and exhilaratingly new –, but when taken this far into pure soundplay and atmospheric experimentalism, you inevitably end up with something resembling classic Autechre (or, heck, even Eno), at least on the surface level. And this kind of seem to be the way most of the radically experimental electronic scene is heading – away from the unheard structural weirdness of poststep and into the more well established world of “soundscaping”, as heard on records from Holly Herndon, M.E.S.H., TCF and Brood Ma. A lot of this is sort of brilliant (Herndons Platform is one of my 2015 favorites so far), but still also slightly disappointing in the returning to safe formulas. Not unlike the goth lite/proto dream pop of the early 4AD school I guess, delivering light, digestible and comforting “art music” as an alternative to the resurgence of lame and mannered “real rock”, in 2015 mirrored by the endless forms of retro house/retro 'nuum music paying lip service to all the righteous signifiers of true dance and club culture while offering no actual evolution of the form – except perhaps a few slight hybrid elements and updates in overall sound design - i.e. stuff that only people with oppressive historic knowledge would notice, let alone care about. I mean, how desperate do you have to be as a critic to get excited about something as boring and creatively inane as deep tech or jackin house, with nothing to offer except having the right, 'nuumologically correct attitude?



So, yeah, I'm not optimistic I guess. So far, 2015 has had very little to offer, and I don't think the coming years will offer much more than the aforementioned updated electronic art music – nu-IDM, entropic, new synth. The once so exciting engine of weird wobble dubstep has ossified into formulaic stadium trap, and most other attempts at making music simultaneously experimental and dance floor oriented seem to end up as yet more insultingly dull 4/4-house-with-percussion-and-slightly-gritty-basslines-crap. Of course, some of the best artists of the poststep golden age will be hanging on and continue to release great stuff (Debruit is still at it, and Kuedo is back after a looong break), and now and then a few new artists will make surprising anomalies as weird and wonderful as the best of the originals (like Jlin's Dark Energy, perhaps the best of 2015 so far). And I am excited to hear what artists like Felicita, Filter Dread and SD Laika will be doing next. But, in the end, the golden age of poststep is definitively over, as it inevitably would be. I knew it wouldn't last, and so I should most of all just be happy about the unbelievable amount of amazing music that made the last 5-6 years such a thrill to live through, an abundance I hadn't experienced since the first half of the nineties, and not something I had really expected to ever happen again. Yet, while I'm grateful for all this, and still listen to all these records more than anything else (and even find more amazing records from the last five years that I didn't even notice the first time around), there's also something about it that feels very curious, like somehow it wasn't real, it didn't really happen, despite all the concrete evidence, all the groundbreaking records. And indeed, if we're talking about this music being recognised as a golden age, as an abundance of innovation and creativity and shocking futurism, then it didn't really happen. It seems like I'm more or less the only one having this perspective – even Adam Harper has a different focus, both with the music he's championing and with the years he consider the best (to him the years prior to 2010 were the best, and then things got good again only recently, so pretty much exactly the opposite of how I see it).


The question is: why wasn't this golden age recognised as a golden age? I have been giving this a lot of thought lately, and it's a complex problem with no single, simple solution. Answering it really deserves a piece of its own – this is pretty long and pretty delayed already – so I'll postpone my thoughts on that matter for now, and hopefully return soon.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

POSTSTEP 2014

Three-fourths of 2014 is allready gone, and it's obvious that the golden age of poststep is at its end. Brilliant music is still being released, and I'm sure the year will eventually be a “great” one, but it's mostly because there's still an abundance of futuristic energy left from the high tide (2010-2012) that needs to find an outlet. A lot of started developments have to run their course, and a lot of the main artists are far from finished with being inspired. I do fear, though, that this will be the last year where these remnants are still strong and plentiful enough to be seen (if – like me - you're so inclined) as the sprawling manifestations of a hyperactive musical climate, rather than isolated glimmers of light in an otherwise tired and backwards-looking landscape. I suppose it's never possible to say exactly when that blurry line is crossed, but the way things are going right now, it's hard to believe that yet another year will pass without it happening.


The decline was already evident last year – plenty of great records came out, but the sense of constant surprise and opening of endless new possibilities was somehow gone. Rather than continuing the restless drive for even further explorations into the unknown, the best music was mostly exploring the already established new possibilities in further detail – which is obviously not a bad thing in itself, it's just a bad sign when that is most of what's going on. Furthermore, the few examples of something really strange and previously unheard that the year did produce, were new and unheard because of unique oddball approaches, and not because they discovered fertile new areas open for all: On D'zzzz, Misty Conditions took the rhythmic dementia of the best footwork (but luckily none of the clichéd “street”-samples that always come off as lame and regressive), and used it to create a murky, 21st century scrap heap music all their own. 
En2ak's 3 got rid of (almost) all of the down tempo and alternative-hip-hop vestiges that made his two previous albums a bit too uneven to be completely convincing, and instead he embraced a kind of playful para-rave, where elements of bitstep, Rustie-style maximalism and even stadium-EDM didn't-quite-coalesce into quirky, almost pop-like microforms.

Though far more minimal and understated, Coco Bryce's Club Tropicana also offered a weird hodgepodge of melodic miniatures - 8bit-mangled pseudo-skweee, electroid dream step and zomby-arpeggiated break beat-contraptions -,  while David Kanagas soundtrack for the experimental video game DYAD dissolved its miniatures into a liquid kaleidoscope, where fragments of melody and rhythm constantly melted and merged into a colourful virtual goo. Even further gone into the digital ether, the spindly, transparent voicescapes on Co La's Moody Coup seemed to have lost any connection to organic reality or known musical forms, much like on R+7, where Oneohtrix Point Never finally completed the process of eliminating the last traces of synth pastiche, and instead offered an eerie, transparent non-space, that seemed equally untouched by both human hand and human mind.


The last three sort of belong to the entropic camp, at least when it's made wide enough to include the whole “new synth”/virtual dreampop/vapourwave crossover area – Adam Harper territory, basically. Though not as uniquely strange and of-its-own-kind as Kanaga, Co La and Oneohtrix, there's much, much more of this stuff to choose from, but most of it I'm only tangentially interested in – there’s a lot of potential and some great creations (in 2013, Ikonika and The-Drum made a couple of good contributions in the “new synth”-camp), but far too often it'll end up as eighties pastiches, or dull indietronica, or slightly off-kilter atmospheric pop. It's a fine line – on one side we'll find someone like Minerva, who have never really been able to convince me that she's more than a dreampop/synthpop-hybrid, but then on the other side there’s Fatima al Qadiri, sounding exactly as strange, new and otherworldly as you could hope for. Her long awaited debut LP for Hyperdub, Asiatisch, is among the 2014 highlights so far – by no means a sino grime pastiche (as the concept might lead you to believe), but rather a much more ethereal beast, a transparent and unreal maze of slowly morphing, digitally rendered dream-fragment simulacra.

In some ways Asiatisch could be the ultimate Adam Harper-album, bridging the slightly vaporwave-leaning part of the new synth territory with the current wave of abstract, atmospheric “cryo-grime”, which was one of the few successful examples of something resembling a broader movement within the 2013 poststep landscape, where it perhaps reached its apex with Logo's Cold Mission. A completely alien, empty and groovelesssly stuttering beatscape, it didn't actually sound like grime at all - not even like the cold, grey instrumentals of early Plasticman or Mark One. If anything, it was the aesthetic of Jam City’s Classical Curves taken to its logical conclusion, a trail followed by many others in 2013, and source of some of the best EP-releases in a year where that format seemed in decline. 

Highlights in this department were Rabit’s Double Dragon, Mssingno’s Mssingno and Wen’s Commotion, the latter followed in 2014 by Wens debut album Signals, which sort of took a few steps backwards towards a - slightly - more warm, groovy and full sound. While definitely containing some brilliant tracks (as well as a few fillers – an EP would have been better), it does seem like a regressive development, but perhaps it's not really possible to take cryo grime further after Cold Mission. You could certainly argue that the best developments of the style in 2014 (Filter Dread, Air Max '97, Beneath, Mock the Zuma) have pretty much gone entirely into omni-experimental “beat music”, the monochrome, inorganic art music that is Adam Harpers current favourite soundcloud-and-bandcamp-zeitgeist. Clearly related, yet much more ground breaking and unique, SD Laika's debut LP That's Harakiri has mostly been classified as a kind of “avant-grime”, but pretty much remain unclassifiable, a claustrophobic stress-scape of bizarre digital debris, asymmetrically twitching march-rhythms, and disturbing, dirty-yet-clinically-synthetic sounds – basically one of the greatest, strangest and unfathomably newest records of 2014.


The only slight drawback of That's Harakiri is a few tracks, like “Meshes” or “Remote Heaven”, where the ugly, punishing harshness seem to almost regress into a kind of minimal techno – a problem that is not uncommon for many current practitioners of beats-experimentalism. The root of this may be Actress, whose minimalism occasionally fell back into some of the most unimaginative repetitive art-techno clichés, and far too much music did the same in 2013 – an even more annoying tendency than the countless, dreadfully pretty dream pop/trip hop-hybrids. And even worse, hitherto brilliant poststep practitioners suddenly decided to make boring minimal crap, perhaps the electronic equivalent of a rock musician going back to the “mature” “essence” of “song writing”. The worst offender in this respect was Montgomery Clunk, who made one of the greatest, maddest EPs of 2012 with Mondegreen, but in 2013 minimalized his name to Clnk and released an album of tasteful, restrained and deeply dull dub techno – not unlike that on Single Point Edge's SPE album, which the otherwise peerless Rwina-label for some reason released in 2013. Also disappointing was Egyptixx, who followed 2011s brilliant Bible Eyes with A/B Till Infinity, an album that seemed to consist almost entirely of not-that-interesting ambient interludes, mixed with a couple of excursion into pounding, pointless techno, and Dam Mantle, who haven't made much recently, but the little we've got – mostly remixes and tracks on split EPs – seem to be stuck in a minimal-house-with-slightly-more-lively-percussion groove, light years away from the brilliance he used to be capable of.  

Going back to “serious 4/4-techno” is of course nothing new in the arty end of dubstep – it was pretty much what people like 2562, Scuba and Shackleton did back before arty dubstep had really become post dubstep yet – but it's always sad to see a straightforward regression. Luckily, a lot of poststep artist still moved forward in 2013, even if it was mostly within the territory of already well-defined frontiers. Some of these included the maximalist hypergrime that took Rusties Glass Swords as a starting point and ran amuck with it, the expansion of footwork into a more and more deranged form of head music, and still-going-on-outside-the-limelight styles like skweee and bitstep. The hyper-maximal stuff was perhaps a bit of a hangover from 2012, and was best in the beginning of 2013, where Slugabeds Activia Benz-label released brilliant EPs like 813’s Recolor and Eloq’s C'mon, occasionally reaching the same level of ridiculous, sugar-overdose madness as Montgomery Clunks aforementioned Mondegreen . Since then, the style has been slightly in decline, a symptom perhaps being that Activia Benz apparently has given up on vinyl and now apparently is a digital-only label. The best attempts at actually doing something new with a maximalist approach have more or less been from the trapified wobble camp, which in 2013 delivered some good EPs in in the intersection of populist EDM-bombast and weird avant-brostep; good examples being Joney's Illowhead or Blue Daisy/Unknown Shapes Used to Give a FK. As for 2014, Rusties much anticipated follow up to Glass Swords, the messy Green Language, doesn't really seem like a convincing revitalisation of the style.


With footwork, the hype is also slowly fading, it's not really the new thing anymore, and with the death of DJ Rashad, just as he was beginning to get the attention he deserved, the scene also lost its most obvious figurehead. Rashad’s first Hyperdub-album, Double Cup, was released shortly before his death, and was anticipated as sort of the definitive footwork statement, but sadly it wasn't quite the milestone it was supposed to be. On the other hand, 2013 also gave us Lil Jabba's Scales, arguably the best footwork album yet (second perhaps only to DJ Diamond's Flight Muzik), where the jittery rhythms turned weirdly cold and arrested, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere further enhanced by murky drones and demented, oppressive-yet-catchy fanfare-melodies. 


Also worth mentioning was Hade+Dwfl's The Healthiest Man in Chicago, which, despite being a bit uneven, did have some brilliantly weird tracks on it, and Ital Tek, who continued to expand on the hybrid style developed on his 2012 Nebula Dance-album. He benefited from working with much shorter formats – the EP Hyper Real and the mini-LP Control – where his super smooth production style and the lack of attention grabbing melodic material didn't create the same problem of sameness as on a full length album. Especially Control had just the right balance between ideas and length, atmospheres and inventive structures, and it’s probably his best release so far. His 2014-EP Mega City Industry pretty much follows the same path, but still works as great little entity in its own right.


Footwork is only in the first phase of losing its status as the new hip style; for bitstep this happened years ago. The “golden age” was approximately from 2009 to 2011, which is a long time ago by today’s standards, but nevertheless, surprisingly many of the best releases in 2013 could be classified as either bitstep or, in cases like Zomby and Desto, bitstep-derived. The latter’s Emptier Streets is mostly a kind of somnambulist ghost-trap, containing only a few scattered remnants of the archetypical “bit”-signifiers (angular arpeggio-patterns, diced computer game sounds), but it also comes off as an obvious, almost logical development - the empty, spectral city where harder, rave-aligned poststep goes to die. Equally haunted, but clearly bitstep proper, Clouds double EP USB Islands sounded like the (mini)-album Dam Mantle or Darkstar should have made, which means that it’s obviously one of the very best poststep releases of 2013. In a way it's the perfection of bitstep-as-entropic/psychedelic-melancholia, like wandering further and further into a dark maze of hopelessness and despair, all stumbling, fractured beats, seasick laments and cascades of vertigo-inducing 8bit-debris.

In the opposite, more wild and colourful end of bitstep, 96wrlds mini-LP Private Language and Eprom's Halflife both offered diverse curio cabinets of popular club-forms turned into grotesque and lopsided, yet still oddly groovy, monsters. Especially Halflife, as a follow up to 2012s not-completely-successful Metahuman, was pretty much exactly the album you'd hope Eprom would make – bare boned, raw and wonderfully ugly, containing both brutally rave-oriented behemoths and completely bizarre experiments, as well as a few more relaxed pieces – which were thankfully as unpolished and direct as the rest of the album. I could be wrong, but it seems to me like Halflife was done much faster and in a much more intuitive manner than its predecessor, and is all the better for it.


Perhaps DKSTR's mini-LP Pleasures should be classified as bitstep as well – it definitely contains a lot of the aforementioned “bit-signifiers” – but in any case, it was the best skweee-release of 2013, and probably the best since the wonder year of 2010. Ever since the brief media-interest of approximately 2009-2010, skweee has lived even more outside of the limelight than bitstep, yet the style just keep going, and each year there seem to come at least a couple of great releases, showing that it's still worth keeping an eye on. In the case of Pleasures – apparently by a new skweee-recruit – it feels almost like a rebirth. All the best skweee-elements – the baffling syncopations, the raw, deliberately synthetic sounds, the abrupt, counter-intuitive melodies – seem intensified, turned up to eleven, and further enhanced by an onslaught of hysteric 8bit-shrapnel – an instant skweee-classic! 

In 2013 Pleasures was pretty much in a skweee-league of its own, but that said, the debut LP of one of the oldest skweee-practitioners, Easy & Center of the Universe, was definitely also worth checking out. Easy & C.O.U. is the prime exponent of “ethno skweee”, and on Aryayek Machine the fusion of rubbery square wave-funk and middle eastern elements had never worked better. It might seem a bit regressively organic compared to the futuristic madness of DKSTR, but on its own terms it's a brilliant combination, sort of the skweee equivalent of Débruit - who happened to release a pretty great album in 2013 as well. A collaboration with Sudanese singer Alsarah, Aljawal was also a meeting of organic and synthetic, but Débruits production was as colourful and inventive as ever, and seemed further inspired by the plenty of opportunity for vocal science offered by Alsarah.    


All in all, it should be obvious that 2013 was indeed a brilliant year for poststep-releases – there's even a few great ones that I haven't been able to fit in yet, but which definitely should be mentioned: Nguzunguzu made one of their best so far with the mini-LP Skycell, Burial made his most interesting release since Untrue with Rival Dealer, and Pascäal gave new life to the original Burial-sound by turning it into irresistibly catchy, heartbreakingly sad and yet weirdly bright and colourful pop-step on Fragile. So far – despite some really great releases, some promising ones on their way, and an apparent resurge of great new EPs – 2014 doesn't seem nearly as great. But then, in all fairness, that's probably also how I felt same time last year. A lot can still happen. But in the end, that's not the point. There's at least 20-25 EPs and albums from 2013 that I wouldn't be without, records that didn't sound like they could belong in any other era than this, and more than half of them still radiated the utter newness that has been so thrilling the last five years, still held the future promise. Perhaps there will be as many records of the same calibre when 2014 ends, but again – that's not the point.

The point is that all this is living on borrowed time, running on a hitherto unimagined reservoir of energy that was detected sometime around 2007, and unexpectedly erupted two years later. We shouldn't expect it to go on forever, and the transformation from out-of-control frontline research to slightly-refining-discoveries-already-made will happen as gradually and almost unnoticed as it did in the mid-nineties, the early eighties, the early or mid-seventies (depending on how you regard prog), etc. Except – this time it doesn't even seem like most of the people involved have even recognised it as a golden age, so perhaps they won't notice that anything's gone afterwards? It does leave a lot of questions. How did the original energy materialise, seemingly out of nowhere and in spite of all those people saying that it didn't exist – couldn't exist – and even now, saying that it never even did exist, that nothing have happened during the last ten years that haven't just been a regurgitation of all the real innovation that (of course) happened when they were young. Which leads us to the next question: Why was the energy never recognised? Even the ones who participated didn't seem to think of it as a connected thing – or a whole lot of connected things -, there was never really a movement, a common feeling of moving in specific, ground breaking new directions – even though that was what they did – and never any struggles as to which new directions ought to be followed. Everyone was left to their own devices.

These questions will take some time to answer, time I don't have right now. Obviously, it all has something to do with the time we're living in, a time where movements just aren't supposed to happen, and where the ability to recognise something new has been purged to such a degree that most people refuse to recognise it even if it's staring them in the face. Hopefully, I'll have the time to go into further detail later.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

NEW POSTSTEP ALBUMS

The tide of post dubstep seems to be turning. As 2013 draws to a close, there’s no denying that the year has seen a clear decrease in amazing new music. In truth, things looked much more grim during the first half of the year, and especially the last months has offered a nice run-up of brilliant releases, but nevertheless: The three previous years constant surge of strangeness and surprise has started to dry up. This realisation is of course making me a bit sad, but I guess it shouldn't be surprising. I've been through at least one – albeit much different – golden age before, and I now know that they never last, so I've been prepared. And, considering that we've already got 3-4 stellar years, and that 2013 is still going to be stellar by any other standard than that of 2010-2012, the poststep era has already delivered so much incredible music that it probably is pretty far-fetched to expect it to go on like that much longer. And even though keeping track of the good stuff has become much easier, there still is a lot of great new stuff to keep track on, it's just not in the same stunning amounts as before, and it’s mostly further developments of the major poststep trends, rather than completely unprecedented new ideas.

The most significant sign of the waning momentum is probably that, even though there actually is just as much new poststep coming out as before, the majority of it is horribly dull and regressive, mostly stuff from the “bass”-department (pointless, polite and painfully tasteful house, really), as well as the awful hybrid of downtempo, synth-pop and dreampop-step (James Blakes lame spawn). There’s so much of this crap clogging up poststeps veins that the records that actually do push forward and continue the future drive of the last three years, doesn't make the impact they ought to. This is particularly clear when looking at EPs: This used to be the frontier where the maddest, strangest and most powerfully forwardthinking stuff crystallised, dedicated and determined to be more than just soundcloud or bandcamp-data, yet still with a freshness and restless vision that too often got slightly diluted when the artists got around to making “proper” albums.

Sure, there’s a ton of new poststep EPs, but they're mostly in the aforementioned house department, and I suppose this means that the EP format to some degree is returning to its traditional role as anonymous club tool containers rather than the exciting mini-LP-as-stylistic-laboratory approach of the last couple of years. For the first time in poststep history, albums are now where things are primarily happening. Hyperdub in particular seems to be taking the lead, having done a Warp and transformed into - mostly - an album label, with a recognisable roster of big poststep players. Which is altogether the trend: The major names, having been around for some time, now increasingly seem to try and build a career around massive, “significant” albums.


Poststeps first real album artist was Burial, but he has, paradoxically, only made EPs for the last six years. Next to him, the biggest name around is Zomby, whose second album, With Love, was probably one of the most anticipated poststep album of 2013. Well, if Slugabeds Time Team wasn't quite the great album it could havebeen because of its clumsy and unnecessary huge-bordering-on-the-bloated-format, that is nothing compared to this double album/triple vinyl monstrosity, packaged in a ridiculously big and impractical gatefold cover that doesn't really look neither impressive nor luxurious, but just takes up a grotesque amount of space on your table or shelf, like a huge lump of unmanageable cardboard covered in oh so stylish black roses.

Now I'm actually quite tolerant of overblown magnum opus albums packed in extravagant boxes, but only when the content is sufficiently ambitious and well-considered to pull it off. Exai was the first Autechre-album I've bought in many years, and more than anything that was because of its bulky proportions, not despite of them. Even though the cover design of that box is deadly dull (a classic Autechre-design you could say), the box format fits like a glove because this is a couple of electronic veterans going all in, giving you so much stuff to get lost in that the album seems like a world in itself – as the best box sets should do. The point is: that is not exactly what Zomby does on With Love. Had he actually delivered an overwhelming treasure trove of riches, perfectly crafted compositions forming a breathtaking whole, or a maze of brilliant new ideas going in all sorts of strange directions, then there'd be some sense in presenting it like some grand statement. However, it's pretty much just a big heap of the usual not-quite-finished and often rather samey tracks in the well-established Zomby-styles.

You could say that that's just how Zomby works – his tracks have always been rough sketches, suddenly cutting of when he didn't feel like doing more with them, and I've nothing against that approach per se, rough and sketchy compositions can be fine and fascinating, and for some producers that might simply be how they do their best stuff and keep it fresh. I can't say whether Zomby's simply incapable of developing simple ideas to more fully rounded compositions, or whether his just too lazy or self satisfied to do so, but it has pretty much always been what he does, and that is not really a problem when his sketches really are fresh and highly original, even when they feel like unfinished doodling. However, if that's what you do, it comes off as pretty ridiculous when you pile up a huge, hardly sorted mess of those unfinished doodlings, wrap it in a big pompous luxury-package like it was a 20-year anniversary-re-release of some canonised “masterwork”, and price it accordingly. Buying such a thing, you'd at least expect the composer to be able to work out how to sustain and develop the potential in a really promising idea, rather than just letting it go round in circles a few times and then cutting it off when it becomes clear that he has to put some effort into bringing it to a conclusion. At the very least you'd expect that the most one-dimensional ideas would be the ones to be cut off after the shortest time, rather than going on far beyond their welcome, while the tracks with the most potential, detail and layers, wouldn't be stopped before you had the chance to fully take them in and appreciate them. And you certainly wouldn't expect a lot of tracks being slightly different takes on the same idea.

I'm well aware that this is how Zomby makes his music, that doesn't prevent him from making amazing tunes (even if it prevents them from being even more amazing), but I sure wish he would work with a format that would fit that modus operandi. A short, sharp and trimmed single-LP with the best tracks from With Love would have been a killer – his best so far and perhaps the album of the year. In its current shape, it seems more like denial, an attempt to hide that what he does is essentially (and brilliantly) unfinished doodling, as if a puffy, extravagant packaging would somehow elevate the tracks to more than that. The effect is the opposite - the samey, unfinished quality sticks out much more than it needed to, had the tracks been placed in more straightforward surroundings actually reflecting the music. And it’s a shame, because there’s no denying that Zomby is still making great music, even when apparently not putting much effort into it, it’s still unique, instantly recognisable as him, and often as ghostly unreal as it’s immediately moving. He’s just making it much harder to appreciate.


On the plus side, this time Zomby for once doesn’t spread out a few tracks, with the playing time of a long EP or short LP, on more sides of vinyl than they in any reasonable way need, as with the Zomby-EP, One Foot Ahead of the Other and Dedication. With Love could easily have been a double rather than a triple, but here it’s Mostly because it’s just too long and contains too many tracks. To get an idea of how a more restrained approach could have worked out, you could compare With Love with Desto’s Emptier Streets, which generally comes off as a better album, even though the tunes on it perhaps aren’t as clearly original or memorable as Zombys. Pretty much working with a singular vision, but also sharpening this vision into a compact, equally singular wholse, Emptier Streets is much more immediately powerful and convincing than self-consciously “big” records like Time Team or With Love, even if the tracks, in themselves, are more unique on those.

Previously, Desto had a slightly more raw and ravey sound, but with Emptier Streets he’s more in the tradition of Distances My Demons and Nosaj Things Drift: Heavy, noisy dancefloor forms (here elements of trap-step and vestiges of bit-step) are weirdly inverted, all movements slowed down as if taking place in a glazed, sub zero ghost world. There’s plenty of bittersweet melodies and weird beats, but they're so submerged in the brittle and unreal overall flow that you hardly notice them at first – everything seems to blur into one long somnambulist nightwalk through a deserted and strangely intangible city. The result is something that almost, in a way, seems to be conceived as a kind of “classic IDM”-style album – a cerebral, atmospheric “alternative” to a cruder popular form – but nevertheless consisting of stylistic ideas and ambiguous structures that would pretty much be inconceivable without the last four years of poststep development. And – as it’s the case with more or less all the best poststep, practically the definition actually - it manages to transform the cruder popular form into odd art without losing its essence, something that “classic IDM” almost never managed to pull off.

Emptier Streets is a strong contestant for album of the year, but you can't completely deny that there's an element of poststep coming full circle to it – after the relentless drive towards the unknown of the last three years (the structural madness and colourful futurism of bitstep, hyper grime, skweee and Rustie-style maximalism), we're back at the end-of-history-hopelessness and dead-city-meditations of Burial, Distance and Nosaj Thing. Not that those elements ever really disappeared as a strong undercurrent in poststep, but now they more or less seem to be back as the central theme – the future as an insubstantial phantom, constantly out of reach and slipping through our fingers, rather than something going on here and now. This is also the case with Waltons debut album Beyond: the sharp and twisted hypergrime that was the best parts of his previous EPs have almost completely disappeared, and instead we get an album of twitchy late night grooves and dislocated vocal fragments – i.e. pretty much the elements that characterized the earliest strain of burialesque poststep. Not that it’s a backward-looking album exactly, there's mostly a strange, inorganic angularity to the grooves that is much more in line with Jam Citys brilliant Classical Curves from last year than with standard funky or retro-garage (despite the generous amount of awful soul samples which the album really could have done without). On its best tracks Beyond is indisputably original and forward-thinking, but the overall feel is nevertheless like a return to the defeatist zombie-futurism of the earliest poststep.


Interestingly, this is to some degree reversed with Aerotropolis, the second album from Ikonika. She seemed like one of the absolute poststep figureheads back in 2011, but since then a lot of the original buzz surrounding her has disappeared, and this is perhaps mirrored in the more “classic” electronic sound of the album, which still goes for the futurist spirit and attitude, but through a music that is nevertheless much less future-sounding than before. This does not mean - as some have suggested - that Aerotropolis is retro music as such: Despite using a very eighties-specific sound palette, it doesn’t really sound at all like the eighties house and freestyle that was allegedly the inspiration. Rather, it’s still very clearly Ikonika, the melodies are pretty much shaped the same weird way as on Contact, Love, Want, Have, they’re just combined with more straightforward beats and less spiralling arcade-sounds. Conceptually, it’s sort of an experiment in counterfactual history, imagining how she could have twisted the raw materials of an earlier era into a different future path, and as such it’s part of a larger trend of “new synth” - electronic music that seems to reject the acid/rave-revolution as the point where everything really got started, and rather see the essence of electronic music as the floating future-worlds of earlier eighties and seventies synth, whether through direct imitation (as with a lot of the “experimental electronics” - bordering the entropic camp - going on right now), or through a complete reimagining of classic synth futurism - a bit like how the new pop-groups tried to resurrect a golden, anti-rockist pop aesthetic of producer-vision and song writing as craft.

The “new synth” approach is present in different parts of poststep and with poststep-related players, such as Fatima al Qadiri, the early Laurie Halo of Hour Logic, and especially Kuedo on Severant, which is perhaps the closest relative to Aerotropolis: Both albums are basically a completely current electronic music masquerading as classic synth-nostalgia rather than the other way round.  Where Severant was sort of an amazing world by itself, though, Aerotropolis is less strikingly original, as well as more uneven quality-wise. “Beach Mode” is a horrible attempt to make vocal pop, and tracks like “Mr Cake” and “Eternal Mode” come off as failed experiments with Rustie-ish maximalism, completely lacking the twisted mania that makes Rustie so great. Still, all those tracks are at the beginning of Aerotropolis, and as soon as you get past them, it’s mostly a great album, sometimes even brilliant. Perhaps too classy and polished to be among the absolute frontline this year, but still an odd and fascinating time-out-of-joint-exercise in alternate futurology.


The-Drums Contact could also be seen as belonging in the “new synth” department, yet it manages to reach the ideal of a truly new synth music - a reactivation of a pre-rave future-rush through a completely new and current aesthetic - so smoothly and effortlessly that it basically feels timeless, rather than either “new” or “retro”. It’s all slowly drifting sci fi-soundscapes full of cosmic loneliness and longing, but first and foremost created through endless layers of corroded-yet-ethereal voice manipulations - one of the key elements defining poststeps sound of now. Still, it’s done with such lightness and elegance that it somehow doesn’t feel as futuristic as it is. Contact doesn’t hit you in the face with bizarre sounds and structures, which I guess is why Adam Harper consider it slightly backwards-looking and eighties-sounding, though I can’t find much in it that sounds even remotely like it’s referencing anything from the past, and even when it does, I think it’s mostly superficial - some timbres and effects will eventually appear when you’re orchestrating with vocal samples to the degree that is happening here, but except for the odd isolated shade of a sound here and there, I simply can’t hear how it should be reminiscent of Art of Noise or Depeche Mode in any way. Perhaps Harper is only thinking in production terms, but then the argument becomes really silly - if you’re unable to create something new using older tools and approaches, then a lot of stuff that we’re usually considering groundbreaking would automatically be regressive.

I do agree with Harper that Contact eventually feels a bit more familiar than The-Drum’s previous stuff, but I think the problem is mostly the well known one for albums with this kind of music: It goes on for too long, and becomes too samey. I don’t hear an overall downsizing of futuristic vision compared to the Sense Net-EP (if anything, Heavy Liquid is their real masterpiece in purely futuristic terms), Contact pretty much tries to develop the Sense Net-vision to a larger format, and it mostly succeeds. It’s just that the format would have gained by not being quite as large; it drags on and lose focus towards the end, and especially the vocal driven title track is horribly pedestrian, while the closing “Mantra” is the only time where I think Harper is right about the album sounding like it could have been a eighties sci fi-score - it does sound much like some Vangelis tracks, especially parts of Blade Runner and The City. So, yeah, Contact could have been shaped better, but it’s nevertheless one of the most convincing experiments in envisioning a truly new cosmic sci fi-music I’ve heard so far - so convincing, that it doesn’t even sound like an experiment at all!  


The albums from Zomby, Desto, Walton, Ikonika and The-Drum are only a fragment of poststeps album-output his year, and some of the very best ones have come long since I started this piece many months ago, or have been made by much less known artists (well, perhaps not les known than Desto I guess, who I mostly included here for the contrast with Zomby. As so often before I had planned to get this done much earlier - it’s not a 2013 survey, but rather a closer look at records that I think show the shift from EP-oriented experimentalism to  a focus on “significant albums”. There’s other albums that would fit this idea in one way or another - DJ Rashads Double Cup as footworks final integration into album oriented poststep, or Om Units massive crossover-exercise Threads - but I never got around to including them, they came too late in the year, and didn’t quite manage to convince me as much as even Ikonika and Walton did, despite their obvious flaws.

It has been tempting to just give up the original idea and turn this piece into a “best-of-postetep-2013” list instead, but then it would most likely have gone completely out of hand, and I’d rather deal with posteps 2013-merits - or lack thereof - until sometime after the year has actually ended. But just if anyone’s looking for tips for the Christmas shopping: the best of 2013 definitely include these: Eprom’s Halflife, En2ak’s 3, Co La’s Moody Coup, Lil’ Jabba’s Scales, Clouds’ USB Island, 96wrld’s Private Language, Ital Tek’s Control, and Eloq’s C’MON. Some are albums, some are EPs, some are perhaps something in between, but all are great. More about that, and about other good stuff, some time next year. Probably.