Saturday 7 May 2016

poststep lingers - 2015 overview + latest news

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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