Thursday, 3 January 2013


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.