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.   

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Exploring the poststep map - outskirts and enclaves

The most important point in calling post dubstep post dubstep – or just poststep – is that it is not a genre. It certainly is a lame name, and an exciting new genre should have a snappy, exciting name, but poststep is not an exciting new genre. It is an overall term, loosely connecting a whole swarm of exiting new developments, some of which qualify as genres in themselves (where I actually have suggested more or less snappy names: bitstep, hypergrime, wonkle??), while others are one-of-a-kind experiments. Which is the aspect of poststep that is exactly like post punk (in a lot of other ways it certainly is not, as I've argued several times). You could perhaps say that “post punk” is in itself not that snappy a name, but post punk was not a genre either. How is, say, The Human League, DNA and The Durutti Column examples of one genre? Rather, post punk was an overall term, loosely connecting a whole swarm of exciting new developments, some qualifying as genres in themselves (avant funk, synth pop, no wave), while others were one-of-a-kind-experiments.

This does not mean that you can make a complete step by step analogy between the two, but you can use the comparison to get a better understanding of what's going on right now, not least because it – hopefully – makes it clear, that this music should not be seen through the tired old “scenius/'numm” lens that have been used to judge dance/rave music for so long. Poststep is not scenius 'nuum music. If that's the only kind of contemporary electronic music you care about, well, fair enough, but then just leave it at that, it's not this musics fault that it doesn't fit your framework for judging something else. Which is where the post punk analogy becomes useful: How well would most of our beloved post punk fare if it was judged by the same “dance music”-rulebook that poststep is looked down at for not following? Not very well I'd say, post punk was certainly not “scenius” in the way the usual 'nuum ideals (acid, 'ardcore, jungle, 2step, gabber) were. On the contrary, most of it was self consciously intellectual, brainy, pretentious and elitist, often having formal deconstruction as an end in itself (being weird for the sake of it). Deriding poststep for these sins – i.e. for not living up to the noble, time honoured tradition of the 'nuum – is just like deriding post punk for not being real rock'n'roll. In both cases, the “inauthenticity” is the point, or at least a big part of it.

Given that poststep is not a specific sound or style, but instead a collection of related aesthetic strategies, most of all united by the drive to go on creating something strange and weird and unheard rather than accepting the general retromanic imperative of the times, one obvious problem do arise – and one that you will also face if you're trying to give a full, coherent description of post punk as well: Where does poststep stop and everything else going on right now begin? There's other forms of experimental music around right now, stuff that has some sort of relation to rave/dance-history, yet isn't exactly poststep - much like there was still highly experimental rock-in-opposition-style avant prog going on in the post punk years, as well as free jazz and an industrial-sounding electronics-and-sound-collage scene (Conrad Schnitzler and related travellers of the more abstract ends of krautrock). Those scenes couldn't really be called post punk – and weren't considered post punk – yet they shared a lot of aesthetic elements and the overall sensibility prevailing in post punk – the scenes even overlapped to some degree: Avant-canterbury-veterans like Robert Wyatt and Henry Cow/Fred Frith participated in the post punk milieu, while post punk artists like Pere Ubu and The Raincoats eventually approached a quirky, surreal prog style from the opposite direction; similarly with the new wave and electro-pop experiments of Czukay, Dinger and Schnitzler on one side, and the krautrock-fetish of Throbbing Gristle and Nurse With Wound on the other; or John Zorn mingling with John Lurie and no wave - with Bill Laswell/Material somewhere in the middle.

The boundaries are similarly blurry when it comes to poststep: it's often rather unclear whether some current sound or style can be considered a part of the intermingled poststep ecosystem, or whether it's part of something else. A direct stylistic element of dubstep have nothing to do with it, just like there wasn't any stylistic elements of punk rock in, say, Ike Yard, Laurie Anderson or Young Marble Giants, it's something more vague, a sense of approach and attitude, of overall vision, and as a result, one persons poststep map may vary deeply from that of the next one. Personally, I prefer to make it very wide, while allowing huge parts of it to have separate identities of their own – much like industrial and synth pop are their very own things, with their own histories, while simultaneously being parts of the general post punk story.


Back in my first poststep piece I already touched some of the obvious grey areas as I tried to list all the distinct styles coexisting. One very straightforward example is what I called post hop, basically Flying Lotus-derived/J Dilla-esque downtempo hip hop gone weird and broken – sometimes hauntologically crumbling, sometimes elastically wobbly, sometimes 8 bit-colourful. The big question is where to draw the line between standard neo-downtempo and the real deal: How “weird” should it be to be more than just dull stoner-hop? There's no 100% clear border, some artists oscillate between regressive mush and brain melting brilliance from one record – if not track – to the next, and a lot of them annoyingly seem to have reached a style somewhere in-between; slightly twisted or ghostly, but not so much as to scare away the vast hordes of “blunted beats” consumers (and getting a piece of the cloud rap cake as well, perhaps?).  These are the most irritating; they're sort of part of the whole poststep thing, but not so much that they're really contributing anything relevant; rather, they're cluttering up that end of things.

With such unclear criteria and half baked practitioners, is “post hop” really (a part of) poststep at all, then? Well, given the polymorphous nature of poststep, I'd say it is, pretty much in the same way that synth pop “was” (a part of) post punk. Synth pop  was also a bit of an unclear case: it sometimes had just the right amount of futuristic sheen and angular funk to belong to the greater programme, but it was just as often a part of the most regressive end of the new pop movement, closer to straightforward new wave power pop or smooth neo soul balladeering. Both synth pop and post hop mix forward-thinking contemporary impulses (electro funk/disco and industrial-derived “subversivenes” in synth-pop; hauntological beat-decomposition and hyper-arpeggiated bitstep in post hop) with backward-looking elements that are, paradoxically, considered radical and edgy (producer-as-mastermind/pop-as-luxury-product, soul sophistication, cosmic-era sci fi synth-scapes, beat collages). The point is: Much of the synth pop/new romantics-movement couldn't really be called post punk at all, it was rather related to/intersecting with the British avant glam/art pop/mod tradition in much the same way as with post hop and downtempo, and yet, those parts that utilised post punk techniques and ideas to actually built something unmistakeably new eventually determined how we think of the style, i.e. very much as a crucial part of what made that era revolutionary. Of course, synth pop had the advantage that it was pop, and that making hits therefore was a crucial part of the game, so the best of it is still remembered as a sort of breakthrough-phenomenon. Post hop, being a much more esoteric and introspective affair, haven't got that pow-effect in its favour, but its greatest practitioners nevertheless makes it as crucial a part of the current poststep movement as synth pop was of post punk.


Another style being “part-of-poststep-yet-its-own-thing” that I talked about in the first piece was skweee, and it’s still brilliantly occupying this interzone. Back then I compared it with industrial, because industrial was also a genre that was a more or less isolated scene in its own right, but I’m not sure that comparison is all that fair, if for no other reason, then because skweee is simply a much better, and much more genuinely inventive from of music than the first wave (i.e. the post punk-era) of industrial ever was. As a post punk analogy, I’m increasingly thinking that the San Francisco scene is much more fitting, with its cartoony-creepy absurdist humour and grotesquely twisted stylistic elements from older musical forms, more or less foreign to rock (lounge/cabaret, childrens music). Skweee is equally weird, with an apparently fun-and-colourful sound that nevertheless seems oddly wrong and unsettling, its juicy synth-funk beats and quirky computer game melodies having an alien and inorganic quality. It doesn’t sound the least like anything from the San Francisco “freak scene”, but that’s the point: It’s the freakiness they share, the love of the grotesquely twisted and insidiously bizarre, rather than an actual sound.

That an analogy only goes so far (as I’ve stressed again and again), though, is made clear by the fact that outside of the shared “freakiness”, the comparison of post punk San Francisco and poststep Scandinavia is not very obvious: The San Francisco sound was mostly down to a few really big key players (basically The Residents, Tuxedomoon and Chrome), which to some degree shared an approach, but otherwise had their own personal sound. Skweee, on the other hand, is actually a great example of a “micro-scenius” genre. Even though there clearly are some indisputable leading names with recognizable takes on the style (Danial Savio, Limonious, Mesak), they’re not 100% unique entities in the way three big San Franciscans were. Instead, there’s a collective development within skweee; new names are joining and everyone’s swapping ideas and contributing, and it’s skweee as an overall sound that is idiosyncratic and unique and wonderfully twisted, and which occupies a place as crucial to poststeps jumbled cornucopia, as the San Francisco freaks were to post punk as a whole.


As for the “micro-scenius” angle, an even more obvious example is of course juke/footwork, something where I’m still on the fence as to whether it’s actually a part of (the broadest possible interpretation of) poststep as a vast genre-conglomerate, or whether it’s a completely isolated anomaly that just happen to have influenced poststep proper in a big way. You could point out that footwork is the result of a long localized development endemic to - and completely dependent on - a specific Chicago tradition, and that it’s exactly this isolation, this lack of influence from the global club community in general, and the London continuum in particular, that makes it special. On the other hand, something similar could be said of some of the most self contained and locally based post punk scenes, like Cleveland/Akron, Sheffield or No Wave. The last one is particularly interesting, because it actually seems analogous to footwork in some obvious respects - even though it’s obviously very different in others.

The roots of no wave and footwork - performance art/free jazz in one case, dance battles/ghetto house in the other - were quite different from the overall post punk/poststep movements, and yet both eventually became associated with those larger movements because they shared the overall attitude and approach. They both resemble outright avant garde in their sonic extremism and almost dysfunctional abstraction, but at the same time they're too visceral and primitivistic to really be “proper” art stuff. To begin with I thought of footwork simply as dance cultures equivalent to actual free jazz, in a lot of ways that seemed an appropriate analogy - footwork taking pure intuitive “body music” all the way into complete abstraction/fruitless extremism-for-the-sake-of-it, in much the same way free jazz took pure intuitive “head music” to the same lengths. Now that the scene has been noticed by the global beat-cognoscenti, though, some producers seems to work towards a broader, less hyper-functional style, in a way approaching something that resembles the same kind of fusion/hybrid-footwork that the worldwide poststep milieu is getting more and more obsessed with. And since no one would probably say that what DJ Rashad, Young Smoke or DJ Diamond is doing with footwork isn’t “real footwork”, it’s perhaps misleading to think of the style simply as the ultra abstract original version, apparently there’s actually a lot more room for complex and polymorphous structures than it seemed at first.

Consequently, footwork is perhaps, in the end, simply another part of the huge poststep family, an exciting new development going on right now, among many other exciting new developments going on right now, sometimes fusing with them or influencing them, sometimes being influenced by them, and sometimes just going its own way. Well, perhaps. I’m still not sure whether footworks relationship with poststep is more like the one no wave had with post punk, or like the one free jazz had (given that both comparisons are not eventually completely ridiculous, of course). In either case, the huge amount of footwork-influenced poststep fill up a place within poststep as well-established and diverse as the countless forms of post punk that took elements from performance art or free jazz, and used them for their own ends - Blurt, Rip Rig + Panic, late Pere Ubu, early Cabaret Voltaire etc.


The most intriguing and problematic poststep/not poststep area is what I last time called the “ghostly end of things - the grey area where poststep meld with hauntology and other post techno/post everything deconstruction strategies”.  Actually, this end of things is probably even more broad and unclear than that,  it could in theory be opened up to including stuff like Time Attendant, Bee Mask, Oneothrix Point Never or Ekoplekz, even though they all belong to an older, well established tradition, that mostly have remained completely indifferent to the dubstep revolution. I wouldn’t really classify any of those artists as poststep, but the kind of “experimental electronics” that they represent certainly intersects with stuff that I definitely do think belong to poststep. Again, there’s a very useful analogy to be found in post punk, and that is industrial. While industrial was definitely a part of post punks overwhelming impact - one of the many things happening simultaneously that, collectively, generated the feeling of out-of-control innovation and creativity pouring out of open floodgates - most of it was also its very own, isolated thing, grown out of an older and well-established experimental tradition, with multiple and tangled roots going from psychedelia and fluxus through the beatniks and all the way down to dada and surrealism - if not even further back. Industrial, and in particular the “defining” first generation (TG, Nurse With Wound, Whitehouse, SPK, Boyd Rice), was much more a product of that tradition and mindset than a reflection of the post punk times. Industrial would most likely have happened even if the rest of post punk - or punk, for that matter - hadn’t, it just wouldn’t have had the same exposure, and would have been a smaller, less noticed cult thing.

It’s worth noticing, that as industrial evolved, the name eventually covered more and more stylistic ground, without any unifying stylistic elements: The only connection between, say, Whitehouse, Nocturnal Emissions, Death in June, Test Dept. and Klinik, is one of aesthetic taste and approach, stylistically they’re different things. There’s plenty of industrial sub-genres of course (noise, dark ambient, neo folk, ebm), as far from each other as they’re from other kinds of music, and yet they’re somehow all lumped together under the larger “industrial”-label, simply because of the shared attitude (self importantly “dark and serious”, the belief that you’re one deep and hard motherfucker because you’re wallowing in gore, sexual “taboos” and the nastiest elements of human nature). Unfortunately, there isn’t yet a handy label connecting all the parts of poststep making up its equivalent to industrial, which is a reason why it’s hard to figure out what is what. A huge part of it, probably the majority, could, in one way or another, be classified as a part of the hauntology movement, but hauntology is a completely different beast as far as I can see, a conceptual approach a bit like the obsession with occult/magick/ritualistic practises that weirdly pervades much of industrial, without being in any way identical to it. (Is hauntology perhaps the occultism of futurism/modernism? Sort of makes sense, doesn’t it?)

 

Anyway, to make things easier, I’ll cook up a name for all this stuff, even if it’ll probably end up being as unused as “poststep” or “bitstep”. Since pretty much all of this music is working with a sneaking disintegration of voices and rhythms, slowly dissolving and degrading sounds and structures, I’d say the connecting characteristic is one of entropy as an aesthetic element, and hence I offer entropic, entropica or entropical. The idea is not just to connect entropy and hauntology, but also entropy and tropical and exotica, hinting that this stuff isn’t necessarily dark or pallid, the chaos and disintegration of structure could just as well be seen as unstoppable polymorphous growth, the run amok tropical jungles of Ballards drowned world. Also, the entropic approach is first and foremost an approach, not a style, and while it seems a defining characteristic for entropic artists like Howse, Ital or Hype Williams, those artists are also quite dissimilar, much like the industrial artist were. And more importantly, the entropic approach isn’t just an “entropical” thing, it’s a set of techniques that have been around for a long time and which just happen to appeal to a lot of poststep producers in a lot of different ways (just like with industrials collage/cut up/ritual improvisation-techniques). It is techniques being used by obvious entropica producers as well as some from completely different poststep areas (bitstep, posthop), and quite a lot of artists that are close-to-but-not-quite-entropic - again mirroring post punk/industrial where artists like Factrix, Ike Yard or (early) Pere Ubu were either seen as, or pretty much sounded like, they could have been part of the “official” industrial program, but nevertheless weren’t.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the entropical/industrial analogy is that, even though both “genres” have come up with some brilliant and highly original music, they also contain some of the most regressive, backward-looking and retromanic elements of the larger contexts to which they belong, poststep and post punk. In both cases the point is deconstruction and subversion rather than innovation, and in both cases that goal is reached by using well known (if perhaps, at times, obscure) experimental traditions and techniques from the past, rather than creating something new ex nihilo. Even though the techniques were often used and combined in original ways, and even though the endless focus on “extreme” sickness and depravity somehow creates a defining feel for most industrial, there isn’t much of the music that haven’t been heard before if you’re aware of different kinds of far out psychedelia, avant garde (futurism, musique concrete, cut up collages, atonality, free improvisation), and, especially, krautrock (did the first generation of industrial ever do anything hadn’t already been done - and much better - by Cluster, Schnitzler, Faust and Tangerine Dream?). Furthermore, the styles that eventually developed directly out of industrials first wave were often pure retro stuff, mixing sixties pop, folk and psych with some “pagan” and “ritualistic” elements (already to some degree a part of sixties folk/psychedelic-counter culture). Not until the second generation, with Einstürzende Neubauten and EBM, did industrial culture actually invent something new.

 

The elements going into entropic resemble those going into industrial in that they’re a weirdly mixed bag of pure experimental traditions (techniques of voice and sound manipulation found in anything from Stockhausen to the kind of minimal techno made more for art galleries than dancefloors), the weird indietronica intersection of electronic and dreampop (i.e. stuff like Boards of Canada, Mira Calix and Oval-derived dream-glitch, something that seems completely foreign to poststep, much like TGs elements of folk and cosmic psychedelia must have seemed to post punk), and not least the whole hypnagogig/hauntology-scene, that at least some entropica-artists seems to be deeply tied with. Interestingly, where industrial often didn’t do much more than recycle the ideas of deeply original predecessors, entropica often do the opposite: They somehow manage to get something original and new out of something - like hypnagogig or hauntology - that is at heart about recycling old stuff. 

Despite inspiring countless followers, the original industrial scene was composed of a few key players, whereas with entropica, there’s a huge amount of smaller names, again more of a scenius thing going on. Yet, I’d say that there actually IS one very obvious key act, seeming at least almost as central and definitive as Throbbing Gristle was for industrial, and that is Hype Williams. Highly conceptual, often with a deliberately “provocative” (if not “subversive”) agenda of “deconstructing” music as such, they seem more like an art project than an actual music group, and not least: their music is rarely as interesting or original as all the concepts and rhetoric suggests. Just like with Throbbing Gristle, Hype Williams seem mostly to use well known tricks and techniques, just used so “badly” (deliberately raw and sloppy) that it somehow comes of more weird and radical than it actually is. Like with Throbbing Gristle, Hype Williams music is nowhere near as good as their reputation would make you think, and even though it does occasionally reach a fascinating strangeness-on-the-brink-of-total-disintegration, their records - when heard as wholes - just come off a bit flat and underwhelming.  

Even though they’re not going to be seen as wreckers of civilisation (as nobody will anymore), Hype Williams have nevertheless managed to create a sound so woozy and lo-fi that talk about it being a pointless form-over-content-exercises or the emperor’s new clothes actually come up - and I guess that’s something of an achievement at a time when nothing otherwise seems able to be considered “too much” in this respect - perhaps a greater achievement than TGs scandals which happened at a time where it was still pretty easy to create shock and outrage. On the other hand, I doubt that Hype Williams will leave quite as great a legacy as Throbbing Gristle, because the interesting thing is that after they split, the projects that came out of TG actually made much better music than the mother group ever did (in particular Chris & Cosey, though Psychic TV were also often great, and Coil did the dark ambient thing better - even though they also made a lot of much less interesting stuff). So far, none of what I’ve heard from the solo projects of either Dean Blunt or Inga Copeland seem even remotely as promising.


As for the entropic part of poststep as a whole, the output so far has been much better than what the first generation of industrial came up with, perhaps because Hype Williams, despite being the most clearly identifiable figurehead, have not really been seen as a model or direct inspiration for the rest of the scene. Acts like Hav Lyfe or Lukid are clearly related to the Hype Williams sound (though both do it much better IMO, and Lukid also did it earlier), but then there’s records like Co La’s Moody Coup, an alien sound world where weird beats and disembodied voices fill hyper real CGI-vistas with digital spirits and inorganic tribal rhythms, or The-Drum’s Heavy Liquid, weaving labyrinthine voice-scapes into intricate and constantly morphing, yet surprisingly melodic, machine structures. And the more I listen to Ital, the less I understand why he’s sometimes said to make retro house; there’s certainly some elements of chill out/ambient house in his music, but the way they’re mangled and disintegrated makes it something new and strange, and reminds me most of all of the equally disorienting and decaying way Cabaret Voltaire mangled elements of sixties garage and psych on some of their early tracks. Would anyone call the early Cabaret Voltaire retro garage-punk?

There’s plenty of cases where it’s unclear where entropica stops and other forms of poststep begin, as well as where it simply stops being poststep at all, and once again this is much like with industrial. There’s the whole American Fade To Mind/Time No Place-scene (Nguzunguzu, San Gabriel, Fatima Al Qadiri), often overlapping with the Hippos In Tanks-crew and certainly sharing some characteristics with Co La or The-Drum. Is that entropica? Was Ike Yard or Implog industrial? Or Mark Stewart, Monoton or Dome? They sure sounded “industrial”. And then there’s the dreamy end of things, mostly centred round the Tri Angel-label and artists like Howse, Holy Other or Balam Acab, reimagining dream pop as gaseous voice-labyrinths, a bit like how industrial reimagined folk as occult ritual music. What about the brilliant new James Ferraro-LP Sushi? Unlike the deconstructive low fi/pomo-approach of most of his earlier stuff, this has a truly new and strange feel, related to both the unreal digital brightness of Nguzunguzu and Qadiri as well as the hazy dreamstates of Hype Williams. Fays equally brilliant (though much different) DIN LP is similarly caught between two worlds. Lots of weird voice science, but much more strict, spiky rhythms than with the rest of the entropics, and an almost pop-ish feel. And speaking of stricter rhythms - Actress does seem to fit in here somewhere as well - there’s certainly much of the hazy, disintegrated feel central to entropica in his music, even if the overall structure could just as well be click/glitch/minimal techno.


Things get messy when you try to map the entropic part of poststep, but industrial was equally messy, something that just happened to happen at the same time as post punk, without sounding - in its purest forms - much like what people usually think of as “post punkish”. And it’s worth noticing, that industrial was probably the only part of post punk that truly survived and thrived as the rest of the scene either collapsed or went “new pop”/goth rock. Perhaps because industrials constituting musical parts were older, perhaps more “universally” experimental than the other techniques flourishing in post punk, and therefore less tied to that specific era. The very same could be said about entropicas constituting elements, and in both cases this is probably also why both industrial and entropica doesn’t seem as fresh, overwhelming and relevant as the rest of post punk/poststep. And perhaps why entropica recently seems to make up a larger and larger part of good poststep, all while the activity on the rest of the scene have been slightly declining the last six months. If poststeps high tide is turning, it makes sense that the more universally appealing experimentalism of entropica will be what is going to remain, as industrial kept going in the mid eighties. The more familiar, agreeable forms of weirdness always win in the end I guess. The big question is whether the entropic milieu will be able to come up with stuff as inventive and groundbreaking as what the second industrial generation also had to offer: Will entropica get its own Einstürzende Neubauten, or will it eventually create a bridge to a completely new future, as with EBM? Here’s hoping.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

EP MANIA

Perhaps the main problem for poststep, the main reason it isn't recognised as the uncontrolled eruption of revolutionary musical modernism that it is, is that it's erupting at a time where countless retromanic eruptions are happening simultaneously, and where everybody seem to be doing everything, all styles, all the time. No matter how incredible and groundbreaking poststep is, it's hard work noticing it in this ocean of stuff, and even harder when it's using the same online underground networks as everybody else, where everything is available and considered equally interesting, and no larger, deeper impact is allowed to be made outside of the music nerd circles. There's countless “electronic releases”, collections of files “released” by virtual labels, as well endless amounts of music to be found on sites like Soundcloud and Bandcamp, even endless amounts of music in different poststep styles, and very much of this is pretty good, quite a bit of it is even great, but in the end, who has the time to listen to it all – let alone more than once! How to choose? How to ever get a relationship with any of it?




Now, there's no doubt that a lot of the really massive stylistic innovations are being made within these online communities, and that if you ever had the time to check it all, you might find the greatest, most unbelievable and futuristically potent music right now, lurking in those bottomless depths. But in the end, developing a lasting relationship with anything in that ever morphing audiomaze seem impossible, you're always on the move, always checking new stuff. Perhaps this is why, even though the frontline seems to be the online communities, records are still released – and lots of them, even! Of course, releasing records doesn't magically create an impact in the world outside the underground subcultural circels. The fact that Dam Mantels Purple Arrow made it to vinyl did not make it noticed by a generation, it didn't make it the kind of unavoidable Unknown Pleasures-like milestone that it should have been. There's certainly a sense in which the physical records are pretty much preaching to the converted: Mostly they're pressed in extremely limited numbers – less than 500, perhaps only 200 most of the time – and sold exclusively to those already down with the programme. If we only consider the records, the musical revolutions captured on them are only heard by an extremely small elite – for some of them just a couple of hundred people worldwide – those dedicated to the cause and ready to put both time and money into it.

At this point it's worth noticing a couple of things: 1) Even though the records are pressed in such small numbers, it doesn't necessarily say anything about how “unheard” this music is overall, since so much of its audience is in the purely digital domain. 2) Even if it is unheard, it doesn't mean that it isn't as innovative or groundbreaking modern as, say, the big post punk names. Huge parts of post punk were these small do-it-yourself communities of dysfunctionally radical experiments, and with poststep, that's simply how the major part of the scene works. The circles where this stuff makes an impact are small, but it doesn't mean that the impacts themselves, regarding the depth of inventiveness and originality, are small. There's this line of thinking within music (rock?) criticism, where socio-cultural resonance is considered the main parameter of importance – or rather, where a lack of socio-cultural resonance is seen as a criterion for deeming music irrelevant. I've always considered that line of thinking extremely dull and inhibiting. It's wonderful when really great stuff also seem to have a huge socio-cultural impact, but just because wilful obscurity and lack of commercial success doesn't equate art or brilliance, it doesn't mean that the reverse is automatically the case. And really; if we were to judge, say, Pere Ubu, This Heat or The Contortions in terms of socio-cultural impact, we could pretty much discard them right away. They might have had a slightly larger impact than most current underground poststep artists, but they're still wilfully obscure underground avant-gardists, and today pretty much unknown to all but a small elite of post punk scholars. Their greatness came from their bloody minded and elitist drive to completely dismantle musical structures – to move forwards into even more expressive fields in David Thomas words. The same thing is going on with the best of poststep, and that is definitely “enough” to make it awe inspiring – and worth our attention.  




Anyway, to get back on track: You might feel inclined to ask why they even bother releasing vinyl when there's so few who'll know - or care - about it – let alone buy it. I think most of these microlabels are happy if they just break even, and they seem like basically vanity projects, which I actually think is sort of right, in a sense, though there’s much more substance to it than just “vanity”. I think the whole reason lies precisely in the insubstantiality and incomprehensibility of the digital storage networks. It might not necessarily be a conscious reasoning, but nevertheless it's almost like a direct attempt to give the music an element of longevity, of recognisable substance – proving that it exist by incarnating it in physical form. For a long time, the continued existence of vinyl – at least in the electronic department – was considered a DJ-thing. It was made because DJs bought it, used it and wanted it. This is hardly the case anymore – the number of DJ using vinyl seems dwindling, and is mostly concentrated around particularly minimal/functional styles where the whole point is to see a DJ manipulate DJ tools that are pretty uninteresting in themselves. Even though the poststep vinyl is pressed in extremely small numbers, I really doubt that they're all bought by DJs (I, at least, am not a DJ, and I buy a lot of them). How many DJs even play that these styles?

So, while vinyl is becoming more and more irrelevant as a part of DJing, it's nevertheless still being made, even with a style like poststep, that doesn't seem to have much use for it, being mostly an online community, and much less DJ-centered than dubstep proper – or techno or house for that matter.  Of course, there's also the audiophile argument, and I'm sure that's part of it for many buyers as well, but it seems to me that it's more of an afterthought – after all, no one under thirty is really an audiophile nowadays; it's not like the poststep audience isn't using the online networks as the prime source. Vinyl must have more to offer than just supposedly superior sound quality to still be around. Rather, it's a way of showing that this stuff – considered unfocused and aimless dabbling by the larger (rock-centered or retromania-informed) critical narrative – is not just that; that it's felt and created to be important, to mean something. That it's worth using both money (when music is otherwise considered free) and, perhaps even more significant, time on it (self releasing records is a lot of cumbersome work and trouble). Of course, this does not make it important or world shattering in itself (just like self released post punk records weren't necessarily great just by the effort put into self releasing them), but it does show that these people think and care more about their music than they're supposed to by the overall hyperstasis-narrative, and certainly more than they have to if that narrative was 100% right.


One of the greatest things about the continued vinyl presence in poststep is that the records being made are increasingly leaving the dull 12” format – which dominated dubstep proper (as it did with grime and 2step and jungle and most other functionalist dance forms) – behind. This is in itself a strong indication that the records aren't just made for the DJs, who are usually supposed to be the ones who want the widest, loudest grooves, but more importantly, it's sort of reinventing the EP as a powerful medium in its own right. There have been times before where most of the interesting action was happening on EPs, especially the early days of rave, where few managed to actually release albums (and rarely made anything good when they did), and EPs made it possible to nevertheless release records that could be heard as a whole, with room for variety and experiments. And right now, we're not only living in the richest, most overwhelming time since the early nineties when it comes to music overall, we're also living in an incredible golden age of the EP format. I don't think its potential have ever been used so brilliantly before.

A very practical thing about the EP format is that it allows producers to make extended and integrated collections of tracks without falling into the many traps that the album represent when it comes to electronic dance music. As it's well known, there's a long history of techno/rave/trance/house/etc.-artists failing miserably when tackling the challenge to make albums. Partly, this was because an album was seen as a “challenge” at all, rather than just a collection of good tracks. For some reason albums were suddenly considered something that had to be “grand statements”, or had to cover all bases (a little ambient, a little jungle, a little acid etc., all of it stylistic exercises), or had to have huge crossover appeal (endless guests and pointless vocalists). It was never really explained why this had to be, but eventually it became sort of a self fulfilling prophecy, everybody talking about how rave genres wasn't really album music, making it seem practically impossible to succeed without some sort of Gordian-knot-solving. But with EPs that problem isn't really there anymore, nobody expects an EP to be the Sergeant Peppers of post dubstep, or to have guest vocals from every trendy indie singer who wants to seem relevant. 



Personally, even though it's obvious that “the album” have always been something rave styles have had trouble with, I've never bought the idea that rave music is by definition not album music. The trouble with rave-albums have other roots, one of them clearly being that major labels (or the artists themselves?) didn't really think instrumental albums would sell to a sufficiently large audience, and hence the guest star plague started. But I think an equally disastrous element simply was the time rave music happened to break through – i.e. when CDs were thought to be the future, or at the very least the future of albums. Of course, ever since the late sixties, “the album” had already been redefined as something increasingly “important”, but with the CD it didn't just have to be some sort of integrated whole, it also had to be bloody long, and even more so when the inflated length and the amount of extra stuff was pushed as a reason to eventually give up on vinyl and go all CD. This almost automatically made albums from the early nineties and onwards worse than albums from the previous decades, not because the quality of the music as such had diminished (au contraire, IMO), but simply because they – even when they didn't fall into the aforementioned traps – simply were longer than they had to be, and often contained some filler material that previous generations wouldn't have needed to include.

There's obviously no need to think of albums in these terms anymore, now that we're living in an age where the CD seems to be on the way to the dustbin of history, and “albums” are becoming just clusters of tracks that are not fettered by the limitations of physical media. Nevertheless, the mindset sort of remains, releasing an album is still seen as some sort of event, and this is why EPs are so refreshing, and where the most amazing stuff is happening. It's worth noticing that back in the fifties and sixties, albums were short. So short, actually, that they'd hardly count as albums now – often closer to 30 than 40 minutes. And now, EPs are sort of moving towards the same format, but from the opposite direction. To begin with, most poststep was still 12” territory, EPs were rarely longer than four tracks, and a lot of them had the incredibly annoying three track format popular in a lot of dubstep. But now, six or seven tracks are not unusual, often with playing times of more than 25 minutes, and full picture sleeves are more and more common (in itself showing the level of dedication to the physical media – usually you'll have to press at least 500 records to get a picture sleeve, otherwise you'll have to come up with some creative (and time consuming) way to have it made). All this is effectively making these EPs mini albums rather than singles with some additional filler tracks, and certainly, they're very often clearly meant to be heard that way as well. 



Personally I think it would be wonderful if this development eventually would make the poststep producers completely ditch not just the faulty “grand statement”/crossover-understanding of albums, but also the stupid “DJ friendly” vinyl formats (albums as double/triple EPs/12”s), and expand the EPs to actual small (and affordable) albums - LPs, really, rather than “albums” as they've been defined by the CD. To some degree this is actually already happening – labels like Keysound and Time No Place seem to be thinking in LPs this way, as is much of the skweee scene. And Planet MU released at least some of their newer albums (Kuedo, Last Step, Ital Tek) as LPs rather than double EPs. Still, though, it doesn't yet seem like a step people are ready to take (or perhaps have considered taking at all), so all the more reason to praise the EPs, small wonders in their own right as many of them are, and released in staggering amount throughout these last couple of years.

In you want to know where the crucial poststep is happening you'll have to follow the EPs. For a start, there’s something like four or five labels really leading the way, followed by a cluster of more uneven ones. Forget Hotflush and Hessle Audio and Skull Disco and (yikes) Apple Pips and all those labels – they were the boring part of poststep to begin with, and they certainly haven't become more relevant recently. Hyperdub have not completely lost it, I guess, but they're also moving in directions which – interesting as they sometimes are – are only tangentially related to the exiting things going on right now. No, the holy trinity – poststeps Moving Shadow/Suburban Base/Reinforced (as misleading as that comparison is in many ways) – is Rwina, Lowriders Recordings and DonkyPitch. Slowly, these three have moved from being upstart outsiders to being the most consistently amazing sources of poststep in 2011-2012. Right now Rwina is the absolute powerhouse, and my theory is that it has a lot to do with the fact that it started as a more rave-oriented dubstep outlet, fusing playful wobble with wonky structures and 8 bit weirdness. This bitstep element is still a part of the overall Rwina profile, but recently they've gone in all sort of bizarre directions, branching out to wider trends in the overall poststep scene (mangled footwork and trap deconstructions, ghostly soundscapes) as well as housing some of the strangest and most astoundingly unique names right now.



The two greatest releases of 2012 were two Rwina EPs: Jameszoos Faaveelaa and Krampfhafts First Threshold. I was extremely sceptical about Faaveelaa to begin with, the title seemed to suggest MIA-ish ghetto beat tourism in full effect, but I was pleasantly surprised - utterly amazed, actually - by some of the most bizarre, dysfunctional beat contraptions I’ve ever heard, wonderfully free from any kind of attempted street level authenticity or borrowed exoticism. Rather, Jameszoo takes the poststep hallmark of stumbling, lopsided beats and dizzy, hypersynthetic sounds to hitherto unheard, near nauseous extremes. Every bit as bizarre and absurd and absolutely new as anything poststep has come up with before. As for Krampfhaft, he’s basically just going a step further from his great Making Magic EP from last year, creating an even more otherworldly amalgam of warm cosmic drifts and febrile hyper-bubbling riffs. On “Cork”, “Twin Prime” and “In a Dream” he turns the icy minimal stutter-structures of Anti-G’s awesome avant bubbling style into baroque maximalism, while “Marram” and “Bones” are sort of futuristic torch songs, all inorganically shiny alien surfaces, yet oddly touching.

Krapfhaft and Jameszoo were the best of Rwinas offerings this year, but their other releases were also pretty great. Desto has been a part of poststep almost from the very beginning, but 2012s No Sleep was his best so far, all cascading bitstep ballads with roots in the Zomby-aesthetic, but also expanding it in directions Zomby never really explored. The opposite approach is found on Defts Masquerade, which is pretty much drawing from all over the hipster beats map (much like I feared Jameszoo would do), with elements of footwork, trap and funky, but he still somehow managed to make them all work together as a polymorphous hybrid rather than a forced show of eclecticism. The amalgam of trap/footwork and the general poststep aesthetic (queasy, dizzy-dreamy soundscapes, rhythmic non-linearity) was by far the biggest trend in poststep this year, and as such Deft was probably the one instance where Rwina seemed to do the same as everybody else, rather than changing the rules - even if Deft was one of the better examples of this trend (which, in itself, and rather surprisingly, actually produced much better and much more original music than it, on paper, looked like it ever should have).



Hot on the heels of Rwina were Donky Pitch and (especially) Lowriders Recordings, two labels that practically started the same way: Each started in 2010 with an EP by Ghost Mutt in some combination (split/remix) with Slugabed, showcasing the 2010 bitstep sound at its best. However, Lowriders have since spread out to a wide variety of poststep styles, all while becoming more ambitious with the formats (longer and longer EPs, picture covers, even cassettes). Donky Pitch, on the other hand, are sticking with simple white cardboard sleeves, as well as a stylistic combination of Rustie-ish para-electroid bombast and melancholy downtempo bitstep. Rusties Glass Swords album was the most dominant force in the beginning of 2012 - before the footwork mania broke through - and I think it’s great that Donky Pitch made room for those who wanted to go on exploring the potential of that sound, twist it into much stranger, almost unrecognizable shapes - such as Keyboard Kid 206 on The Transition or The Range on Disk - rather than follow the newest fad. And the last Donky Pitch release of 2012, Arp 101 and Elliott Yorkes Fluro Black, showed that the bitstep madness from just two years ago can still sound fresh.

With Lowriders, going in all sort of directions meant that not everything was equally successful, but they did come up with some brilliant releases, such as Halps Tic Tac Toe (containing some of the same dutch madness as Krampfhaft and Jameszoo, but combined with some of the slightly more “conventional” Rustie/footwork-inspired elements), Alephs Fourteen Dreams per Night (intricately convoluted beats, glittering bleepscapes, ghostly hollow atmospheres), and especially Doshys Electrophilic, somehow twisting incredibly rigid and minimal beat structures into something ridiculously slinky and bombastic. Strands Slam Funk! was more problematic - it did contain a couple of wonderfully raw bitstep gems, but sadly also some cringeworthy electro funk-pastiches. Equally uneven was the compilation EP Power Shuffles vol.1, an early attempt to chart the growing footwork fever. Now there’s definitely some amazing examples of footwork insanity taken-one-step-further on it (in particular Leatherfaces “Watch Me Do My Thang” and Motëms “Work”), but also some rather pointless stylistic exercises, and several tracks that are basically run-of-the-mill IDM with slightly jittery beats underneath.



Almost up there with Rwina, Donky Pitch and Lowriders was Civil Music. Though they’ve released as much good music recently as at least the last two, this highly prolific label is also a bit too diverse - stylistically as well as quality-wise. Artists like Darling Farah (minimal dub techno), Kotchy (oldschool downtempo beatscapes) and Brassica (retro disco) seems to place Civil Music among the retromanic “we-like-anything-as-long-as-it’s-good” electronic labels, and some of their best know poststep acts (Drums of Death, Om Unit) are rarely that interesting or original. However, they also released great EPs like Xliis twisted rave-step kaleidoscope Neon High, or Pixelord and Kuhns Supaplex and Kings, swirling reinterpretations of footwork as cosmic clockwork contraptions. I’d say both Pixelord and Kuhn were better and much more fascinating before they decided jump the work-wagon, but they do also show what can be done with the style without losing its sense of urgency, or resorting to pastiche. All that said, Civil Music actually made their greatest contribution to poststep this year through albums, but more about them later. 

Completing the top 5 of poststep labels we have Error Broadcast. They started out mostly as a downtempo label, but with a good sense of the “post hop” end of that scene, i.e. the end that also sort of belong to the overall poststep mess (they released Shlohmos debut EP Shlo-Fi, for example). Since then they’ve spread out extremely far, and not always in equally successful directions (i.e. more housey things like B-Ju), but all the same they sometimes come up with totally unexpected, almost indescribable records. This year it was Montgomery Clunks Mondegreen EP, which was just the kind of constantly morphing, dis-and-reintegrating freak-neo-rave that Hudson Mohawke would love to make, but is far too self consciously clever-ironic to come up with. Pretty great was also OLs Body Varial, which managed to fuse frantic footwork beats with hollow-eyed, almost burialesque slow mo-atmospherics in a way that made it seem like they’d never been apart to begin with. 


The top 5 is only the tip of the EP iceberg of course; in 2012 there also came lot of great EPs from many other places - whether it was new labels yet too small and sporadic to seem really established, or relatively big labels from completely different areas opening up to poststep - far too many to mention in detail. A couple of personal favourites include the complex, sprawling neon-doomstep of Bit-Tuners Signals (Hula Honeys), the muffled dream-juke of Howses Lay Hollow (Tri Angle), and The-Drums Heavy Liquid (Audraglint), a hallucinatory maze of vocal fragments, slow motion beats and gloopy melodies, sort of recreating the feel that made Burial so great, but from a completely different starting point, and as a result sounding very different. You could say that The-Drum is the greatest so far coming from the American micro-continuum that also include the likes of Kingdom, Egyptrixx and Nguzunguzu - the last of which released no less than two great EPs this year: Warm Pulse (Hippos in Tanks) and Mirage (Time No Place) - though the last is actually a physical rerelease of a digital release from 2010 (there’s the vinyl idealism again). Miage is one of those rare examples of how inventive and weird house-leaning poststep actually can be, while Warm Pulse is going into even more abstract and ethereal territories, somewhat reminiscent of Fatima Al Qadiri or a less abrasive Jam City.

In addition to the favourites, some further honorary mentions: Computer Jays Savage Planet Discotheque vol.1 (Weirds Science) as probably the best and most forward thinking 2012-example of Californian sci fi post hop (the Flying Lotus, Free the Robots etc. tradition), the ellipsoid ethno-step of Fresh Touchs The Ethiopian (Angular), Pixelord doing what he does best - stumbling somnambulist bitstep - on Keramika (Hit and Hope),  and Hudson Mohawke X Lunices TNGHT (Warp), which is actually quite good even if it isn’t as great as it has been hyped up to be, let alone compared to what other people have done in this area in 2012 (i.e. Montgomery Clunk and several of the Rwina/Donky Pitch/Lowriders-acts). There’s still a scene for experimental, complex grime (what I called “hypergrime”), and this is also an EP-thing (when it gets physical release at all), some of the best examples this year being Slackks highly unorthodox Raw Missions (Local Action), as well as Noaipres complex, but sadly much less noticed Noaipre (Ho Tep). And then there was the skweee scene, back in full effect in 2012 after a slightly inactive 2011. Here six track EPs/mini-LPs was where the most interesting things came out, either by scene veterans like Daniel Savio and Mesak (Valiant and Holtiton, both on Laton), or relative newcomers like Lazercrotch (Lazercrotch on Poisonous Gases) or Yöt (Bitch Bender on Raha & Tunteet). Oh, and Burial released his best since Untrue, the 30 minute EP/mini LP Kindred.



Now, I didn’t really plan for this piece to be a “best of 2012-thing”, but I guess the way it’s gotten out of hand, and the fact that the year is over by now, means that it’s become one nevertheless. Hence, and even though my main point is that the EPs are the ones to get first and foremost, I suppose I should get into the albums as well. Because in 2012 there was also released more poststep albums than ever before. As mentioned earlier, “the album” still represents a problem to most poststep producers, and as a result, most of the ones that were made this year weren’t quite as good as the EPs that preceded them. This was especially the case with four highly anticipated - at least by me - debuts, all of which disappointed, albeit to very different degrees: Slugabeds Time Team (Ninja Tune), Dam Mantles Brothers Fowl (Notown), Eproms Metahuman (Rwina), and Debruits From the Horizon (Civil Music).

It shouldn't be surprising that I had unreasonably high expectations for Slugabeds debut album; after all, it was pretty much his Ultra Heat Treated EP that finally woke me up to just how world shattering a force poststep was, and could be. That said, given that the two EPs preceding it, after he went from Planet MU to Ninja Tune, both showed a mellowing of his style, towards an altogether more warm and welcoming sound, I was prepared that Time Team probably wouldn't be the further development from Ultra heat Treated that I had hoped for. Still, it could have had at least some tracks developing his more harsh, splintered and far-out side. It hadn't. The wildest and most fractured track was the title track from his first Ninja Tune EP, Moonbeam Rider. So yeah, I was massively disappointed when hearing the first clips, I even considered not buying it at all. Eventually I gave in, though, and I'm glad I did, because even though there's a lot of irritation things about it, and even though it's nowhere nearly as good as it could have been – not even as good as it at least should have been, as a showcase for a softer, more relaxed Slugabed – it's nevertheless still a great, deeply original album, mostly not sounding like anything ever made before. But it takes some time getting into.

My eventual approach, my excuse (to myself) for buying it after all, was yet another comparison with the post punk period. I wasn't old enough to care much about music during the post punk years, and consequently I've come to many of the records somewhat higgledy piggledy, or even “backwards”. The first record I heard by Pere Ubu was Song of the Bailing Man, the first by Ultravox was Vienna, and the first by Tuxedomoon was Ship of Fools. Heck, for a long time I only knew the reformed Wire of the late eighties. And I loved those records, and still do as a matter of fact. As probably the only person in the world I like Song of the Bailing Man as much as Modern Dance and Dub Housing, or Ship of Fools as much as Half Mute (though the Foxx-era Ultravox rules supreme, obviously). However, had I discovered the music in real time, blown away by Modern Dance and Half Mute as they were released, I would most likely have felt the same sort of disappointment that a lot of post punkers apparently (and to me, bizarrely) felt with Song of the Bailing Man (I don't really know how people felt about the later Tuxedomoon, but clearly, a “mellowing” had happened there as well). And even though I prefer the early Ultravox, I’m still thrilled by most of Vienna, in a way I perhaps wouldn't be had I been betrayed by them “going commercial” in real time. Well, you could say that Slugabed is both going in the direction of Song of the Bailing Man with Time Team – a lighter, more quirky/absurdist sound – as well as “going commercial” to the degree that it is possible within this style: closer to the stoned down tempo grooves preferred by most Ninja Tune fans (I suppose), and even an electro house-ish single (“Sex”, perhaps his least original and interesting track ever). 



Had I heard Time Team first, on its own terms, might I not have grown to love it in much the same way as Song of the Bailing Man, even though I subsequently discovered the real, revolutionary deal? I'll never know, but even though I doubt that Time Team would ever had felt as great to me – it has quite a lot of flaws that The Bailing Man doesn't – it definitely has a unique and wonderful charm all its own, and manages to turn the terrifyingly fractured pixel topologies of his earlier tracks into gentler, more dreamy-disoriented shapes. Most of the time, anyway. Because, as I said, it does indeed have some problems, and they mostly come from Time Teams particular format, i.e. from his trying to come to terms with “the album”. First of all, it is, paradoxically, a shame that the album is released by Ninja Tune, because that's a label specializing in extravagant luxury packages appealing to vinyl-philes. Meaning, in this case, that the vinyl version is a triple EP, with two discs containing the actual album and an extra one of bonus material – much of which is actually better than several of the “official” tracks.

In any case, the consequence is that the album is a huge, heavy and pretty clumsy object, practically demanding to be a colossal work of art. But as it's usually the case with those records, it just means that it's too long, with its triple format getting annoying and unnecessary rather than luxurious or awe inspiring. Not least because of its second problem: There's a couple of not so great tracks – in particular “Unicorn Suplex” and the aforementioned “Sex”, where Slugabed seem pretty ordinary, without the weird structures that makes even his more laid back music strange and fascinating. In addition to that, there's two tracks from previous EPs, which didn't really need to be included, so all in all, the album could easily been trimmed down to an EP/mini-LP, OR it could have contained the best – if not all – of the bonus tracks without having to put them on a separate disc. Heck, I'd say all the best could be distilled on a single LP, compact and straightforward, and as light as his new direction suggests, and it would have been a killer, without a single  superfluous second, and definitely the best album of the year – because when he's really good, his new style is still that good. Ah well. Time Team is still a brilliant album, it has this sunny, lightheaded feel that makes his asymmetrical beats and fractal pixel-webs seem as warm and soothing as they seemed hostile and disorienting before. And tracks like “New Worlds”, “Mountains Come out of the Sky”, “Climbing a Tree” and “Make a Wish” are quite simply astonishing, beautiful. So yeah, as much as it disappointed me and wasn't what it should have been, we're still talking of one of the very best albums of 2012 (perhaps the second best).



Much more problematic is Dam Mantles Brothers Fowl. Here I was practically as excited as with Time Team, and perhaps even more so, given that Dam Mantles EPs have been consistently great. Perhaps his last before the album wasn’t quite as mindblowing as his first two, but almost nothing could be, and it was certainly amazing by anybody else’s standards – merciless forbidding and sorrowful ghoststep, as deeply moving as the best of Burial, yet pretty much unlike anything else on the poststep scene. How did he go from that to the cosy feel-good-melancholia of Brothers Fowl, not really substantially different from most by-the-numbers downtempo out there? Again I bought it, with pretty much the same excuses as with Time Team, but this time it didn't really help, and even though Brothers Fowl is perfectly listenable, it never clicked or seemed remotely relevant. Here, later Tuxedomoom would definitely be the most obvious comparison, given the jazzy elements and overall smooth, “sophisticated” sound. Or perhaps The Raincoats Moving, which I (probably even more alone in this than with Pere Ubu) actually think is their best, (slightly ahead of Odyshape and much better than the first), period. After all, Moving is jazzy, slightly “backwards looking” (it's basically folk-inflicted canterbury-prog, innit), smooth and full sounding – just like Brothers Fowl.

But it doesn't work: Both the Tuxedomoon of Ship of Fools and You, and The Raincoats of Moving, still had deeply original ideas, and even though Brothers Fowl do use a few synthetic sounds and abruptly arranged samples, it’s all made to fit discretely and tastefully into the overall mood of slick, harmless “sophistication”. In other words; the few original elements it does contain are ironed out, nothing seems strange or unexpected. And even that could perhaps be acceptable if only the actual compositions were better; after all, the final step elevating Moving to be the masterpiece that it is, is the incredible uniqueness and quality of its songs, and Dam Mantle have certainly shown himself more than capable in that direction, with amazing tracks like “Grey”, “Two Women” and “Not a Word”. On Brothers Fowl, however, the tracks are just too goddamn polite and anonymous to make any lasting impression. Sure, as mentioned before, it’s a listenable album, I can listen to it on its own terms and it seems OK - as downtempo goes, you might even say it’s one of the better offerings - but I’d never have heard it several times, or have bought it, or taken any time to think about it, if it wasn’t for those EPs that preceded it.



With Debruits From the Horizon, you could once again say that a sort of mellowing out had happened, but this time it was not as much towards a more smooth and laid back sound, but rather towards a more organic and human sound, with less of the insane, hyper-angular syncopations that made his previous music so fascinating, so shockingly new. Instead, the album was much more based on a traditional afro/ethno-funk aesthetic (including lots of talkbox), and contained much more fluid, straightforward rhythms, anchored by African samples that more or less created the entire structure of the tracks, rather than being cut into sharp blasts of ethno weirdness as on previous Debruit EPs. So once again not the blast it should have been, though in all fairness it’s still a really weird and original album - especially the last half -, and in many ways as brilliant and unique a reimagining of ethno-funk as many post punkers with similar inspirations.

My disappointment with Eproms Metahuman is perhaps a little surprising, given that I’ve never quite followed him with the same interest as many other poststeppers. Not that his EPs weren’t good - they’re excellent examples of the wobbly end of bitstep - it’s just that many other producers seemed more crucial in that respect (Slugabed most of all, of course). However, I heard that Metahuman was on its way exactly while I was still really disappointed with Time Team, and I guess I sort of hoped that Eprom - who often seemed more raw and brutal (if not quite as far out) than Slugabed - would do things right, and make the uncompromised bitstep masterpiece that Time Team wasn’t. It didn’t quite happen that way, and it’s also a pretty unfair way to meet the album. In many ways, Metahuman is a brilliant album, and if I forget my personal expectations it’s certainly close to being one of the best. And when it doesn’t quite make it, it’s once again exactly because it tries so hard to be “the album”. Eprom wants to show us that he’s both capable of twisted, bleepy harsh-step (“Prototype”, “The Golden Planet”, “Needle Trasher”) as well as moody sci fi atmospherics (“Honey Badger”, “Floating Palace”, “Raytracing”), and that’s all right, he is capable, and comes up with some awesome takes on both. What he doesn’t quite manage, unfortunately, is to turn this into a much longer and more coherent package, i.e. “the album”. Metahuman is coherent all right, but it’s primarily because it’s pretty samey-sounding most of the time. “Tunes” have never been Eproms strong side, what makes his music memorable is the formal inventions - sound and structures - and he doesn’t seem to have had enough ideas in that department to fill a full 45 minutes. I wouldn’t say that there are tracks on Metahuman that are bad as such, but several of them seem a bit anonymous/filler-ish, and a “mini album” approach could have worked wonders. I’d still say it’s among the ten best albums of 2012, but as with Time Team, a more sharp format would have made it a candidate for the very best.


And what, then, was, the best album of 2012? To my surprise that happened to be Starkeys Orbits (Civil Music), which came out not much more than a month ago. His 2008 debut album, Ephemereal Exhibits, was quite good, but suffered a bit from the same kind of “samey-ness” as Metahuman, and the follow up Ear Drums and Black Holes seemed like the typical attempt to simultaneously cover all bases and make cross over pop, resulting in the equally typical overlong mess. Subsequent EPs also contained an annoying mix of ace hypergrime and bitstep on the one hand, and lame indetronica on the other, and as a result I’d pretty much written him off. Hence my surprise, for what a return to form Orbits is, totally getting it right where both Ephemereal Exhibits and Metahuman didn’t. It oscillates between soft/atmospheric and hard/ravey - often within single tracks - and he’s got exactly the wealth of ideas, futuristic originality and melodic depth necessary to make that simple dichotomy work for 55 minutes. It’s also interesting that he’s only very sparsely using either 8 bit elements or the collapsing rhythmic structures that makes most ravey/wobbly bitstep so insane, instead he seems to use grime as a starting point, taking the bizarre, angular fanfare-riffs and inorganic syncopations far into the hysterical - often almost getting close to Krampfhafts psycho-bubbling sound. A huge part of Orbits is simply everything I could ever have hoped “hypergrime” would turn into, but in addition to that, the more “cosmic” tracks approach the sci fi synth-aesthetic in a way that works just as brilliantly as, say, Kuedo, and yet is Starkeys very own. Orbits is thrillingly futuristic in both vision and execution.

As for other great albums this year, it’s worth mentioning a couple of debuts that were positive surprises, though mostly because I didn’t have great expectations for them to begin with: Jam City have always been one of the better Night Slugs-acts, but that’s not saying that much in my book, and I haven’t been particular overwhelmed by him. However, with Classical Curves he completely abandoned the house vestiges and explored an unapologetically inorganic, “vibeless” soundworld - and was all the better for it! It was all shiny, slick, synthetic surfaces, and in that way you could probably say that there was some small relation to Rusties maximalist sound, but where Rustie is often silly, colourful and hysterical, Jam City was cold and empty, with an almost ballardian twist. Not exactly music that “touches” you, but it was nevertheless deeply fascinating, and perhaps the strangest album this year.



Another artist that never quite impressed me before was Distal, but with Civilization (Tectonic) he made one of 2012 most convincing footwork-based (and trap-based too I guess) poststep offerings. It was probably a bit too long and uneven (“the album” again), and sometimes the use of “authentic”-sounding “ghetto” vocal samples got annoyingly close to parody/pastiche, but mostly it was brilliant exactly because it didn't try to be wild, raw, street-real dancefloor music. Rather, it took the element of abstraction within those styles and ran with them, turned them into increasingly bizarre shapes. Rather than just sprinkling some footwork over a stale IDM-dish to spice it up, Distal, when he’s best, dissects the sound completely, and then reassemble it in ways that doesn’t really sound like anything else around.

If Civilization came up with some of the most refreshingly strange footwork deformations this year, but just didn’t work equally well all the time, the most consistent deconstruction of the style was probably Ital Teks Nebula Dance (Planet MU), which was in many ways an heir to Kuedos Severant: Panoramic and bittersweet synth music made strangely unstable by alien rhythms. Nebula Dance had a bit more going on in the beat department, the tracks were often extremely dizzy and jittery, but on the other hand, the melodies were rarely memorable - an old Ital Tek problem, which also means that it was a good move to make this album substantially shorter and more focused than the previous one. You could argue that it’s still close to simply being too nice and smooth, with all sounds blending in endless digital reverb, but in the end it works, perhaps because the way it manages to incorporate the footwork rhythms seems so obvious; the end result doesn’t really sound like footwork at all, or like some other style superficially decorated by footwork, it’s its own, fully integrated thing.




The more club-tinged part of poststep - the area where things have become more and more house/funky-oriented lately -, actually also delivered a couple of surprisingly good albums: San Gabriels Wolfe (Time No Place) was almost like a colourful party version of Nguzunguzu (though some parts were a bit too “funny” for their own good), while Dusk+Blackdowns Dasaflex (Keysound), despite a couple of tracks suffering from some of the most cringeworthy funky clichés around, also managed to fuse elements of grime and funky in a way that seemed both charmingly lightheaded and almost playfully futuristic. Diametrically opposite this light and elastic music, Lorns Ask the Dust (Ninja Tune) made the already extremely dark and sorrowful sound of his 2010 LP Nothing even more dark and sorrowful. Together with the Bit-Tuner EP it was pretty much the ultimate amalgam of “ghoststep” and old fashioned doomstep, and basically just building on a style that has been pretty well established for several years now; yet rarely done this good. One of the years’ most overpowering albums, actually, even though it’s probably a bit too pompous for some.

The “ghostly” end of things - i.e. the grey area where poststep meld with hauntology and other post techno/post everything deconstruction strategies, was generally very active this year, and makes me wonder where poststep stops and the larger experimental strategies right now take over. That’ll have to be a question for another time; for now, I’ll just mention 2012s best albums from this interzone: Offshores first (and, sadly, last) LP Bake Haus seemed a bit of mess to me to begin with; unfinished sketches, run-of-the-mill beats and an overall melancholia that often sounded almost like indietronica. Not my kind of thing and not exactly futuristic. But nevertheless, Bake Haus just worms itself into your brain in its own haunting, desolate way, and I find it really hard to put my finger on why it works. Lukids Lonely at the Top, the first of his albums to really get me, is similarly difficult to figure out. Dreamy decay-ology of the kind I normally find a bit too dreamy and gaseous, but here it’s got just the right edge. Finally, I guess the two Ital-albums Hive Mind and Dream On (both Planet MU) sort of belong here, even though most would probably say they represent a kind of psychedelic retro house. Well, perhaps they do, but the disorienting, kaleidoscopic sound and the weird, grooveless use of half dissolved samples is totally “now”, as far as I’m concerned.

OK, so more than enough for now. I planned that this should have been all about the EPs, and yet I ended writing more about the albums. Perhaps I’m still caught up in the idea of “the album” myself. Ah well.