Tensnake, "58 BPM" (Virgin/EMI/Astralwerks)
Make no mistake, the affliction that the New York Times' Jon Caramanica calls "the Summer of Smooth, the most tepid and timid season of pop music in recent memory," has also affected dance music. For proof, just look at the rise of the new "deep house," a wan, plinky-dink take on the genre that has turned up everywhere from the U.K. pop charts to Tiësto's radio show. There's nothing wrong with smoothness, per se; done right, deep house balances pillowy softness with a healthy amount of grit. Hamburg's Tensnake helped pave the way for the current deep-house revival with his 2010 single "Coma Cat," a springy, boogie-flavored cut that managed to reach No. 85 on the U.K. pop charts after Defected licensed it from Permanent Vacation. Now, his new single "58 BPM" takes dropped tempos and doe-eyed affect to new extremes. It's not a bad tune at all; it's novel to hear a tempo setting flipped into a song chorus, and those Prince-referencing Linn Drum sounds supply a necessary dose of bit-crushed bite to offset the track's otherwise frictionless glide. Fiora's harmonized vocals are gorgeous, but are they too pretty? At times, the song's breathy balladry comes uncomfortably close to sounding like a pastiche of Berlin's "Take My Breath Away." If Tensnake's inevitable imitators try to go any smoother, we may be in for a soporific fall indeed.
Headhunterz, "Colors" feat. Tatu (Ultra)
For the opposite of smooth, see hardstyle, a predominantly Dutch and Belgian strain of dance music that pairs piledriving kick drums with apocalyptic synthesizer riffs. Hardstyle shares American dubstep's obsession with searing midrange frequencies, but with its punishing, four-to-the-floor kicks and Wagnerian bombast, it makes even the harshest dubstep sound almost mellow by comparison. Hardstyle has been making inroads in America's EDM scene for a couple of years: Dutch promoters Q-Dance had their own stage at Electric Daisy Carnival 2012, and they'll have another this month at Georgia's Tomorrowworld festival, the domestic spinoff of Belgium's Tomorrowland. The 27-year-old producer Headhunterz, meanwhile, is one of hardstyle's likeliest crossover candidates. In the past three years, he's climbed from No. 36 to No. 11 on DJ Mag's Top 100 DJs Poll, making him the highest-ranked hardstyle DJ on the list, and this year he signed to Ultra, the mainstream dance powerhouse. "Colors," his first release for the label, appears to be taking the spoonful-of-sugar approach to the American market. His booming, distorted kick drums are as voluminous as ever, but the colorful (get it?) synths are informed by luminous trance riffs favored by Rusko and Rustie, and the tune is overlaid with the kind of mewling pop vocals that America's EDM scene can't seem to get enough of. As he often does, Headhunterz employs a basso voiceover to help tip the track from wide-screen into IMAX. But this time, instead of recounting a sci-fi inspired narrative, the voiceover delivers a much simpler message: "This is hardstyle." (This isn't, in fact, the first time he's made that particular point.) It remains to be seen whether the hardstyle faithful agree with him.
Hot Natured, Different Sides of the Sun (Big Beat)
At the opposite end of the spectrum, there's the debut album from Hot Natured, the determinedly laid-back quartet of Jamie Jones, Lee Foss, and Infinity Ink's Ali Love and Luca C. They grazed the U.K.'s top 40 with last year's "Benediction"; this year's "Reverse Skydiving," featuring Anabel Englund, stalled out at No. 56. How well the album's remaining 13 tracks perform is anybody's guess, given that they all offer only marginally different variations upon their predecessors' themes: Plucky funk bass lines, synths poised halfway between Larry Heard and the Human League, and breathy vocal refrains delivered to varying degrees of pitchiness. On their own, most of the songs come across as reliably catchy and convincingly atmospheric. "Alternate Stake" pokes its nose above the rest of the pack by virtue of its wriggly synth line and the fact that it would be impossible for any track featuring Roisin Murphy to sound lifeless; "Take You There" pays vivid tribute to Robert Owens' style of devotional house. But taken together across 74 minutes, the whole set feels both overstuffed and curiously flat, like a plate of foie gras that's been left out overnight. The lyrical platitudes ("I don't wanna wait 'til the morning comes"; "Time stands still when we're dancing") don't help much, though the musicians do occasionally strike upon clever, engaging ideas ("She comes from a different side of the sun / But she feels the same heat"). The sheer doggedness with which they pursue their aesthetic is admirable; pop could use more of their sense of restraint. But restraint isn't the same as nuance, and Hot Natured's languid atmospherics too often feel like a void, not so much sensual as merely sedate.
Cray76, "Say My Name" / "The Holy Ghost" (CRWDSPCR)
The first release on Joakim's CRWDSPCR label proved that rough and smooth aren't mutually exclusive, and Cray76 takes a similar tack. "Say My Name" offsets gleaming DX pads with springy, gently flanged 909 and the rubberiest of 303 lines, and brittle Linn Drum rimshots add an extra dose of fly-in-the-ointment. Throw in looped diva vocals and pulse-raising snare rolls, and it becomes a delirious fusion of slow-jam R&B and brittle acid house shot through with an unmistakable whiff of dry ice. On the B-side, "The Holy Ghost" goes whole-hog on a gospel-house a cappella (Daryl Pandy?) over a beat that snaps like a mousetrap reactor; a soaring dial-tone squeal chimes in to create a dizzying man-machine counterpoint, lifting the whole thing into the stratosphere.
Bookworms, Mechanism (Anòmia)
Is gabber going to be the next move for techno's noise faction? The thought occurred to me earlier this week when a L.I.E.S. associate posted a link to a mid-'90s documentary about the subgenre to his Facebook page. Once you get beyond the obvious yuks — the Smurfs-on-speed dance moves, the tracksuits, the hollow-cheeked gurning — there are obvious links between gabber in its purest, punk-as-fuckest form and contemporary underground techno's distortion peddlers. Now, an EP from L.I.E.S.' Bookworms on Barcelona's newish Anòmia label nudges us a little closer to a rapprochement with the piledriving style. Recorded live at a New York gig, "Mechanism" and "Photogenic" aren't textbook gabber by any means. At roughly 150 and 140 BPM, respectively, they're quite a bit slower than gabber's breakneck pace; the shuffling, syncopated toms have much to do with Chicago footwork. But those blown-out kicks feel like they're trying to pummel their way back to a Rotterdam squat circa 1991. "Mechanism" almost sounds like a funkier, slinkier response to Mescalinum United's stomping "We Have Arrived," while the black-hole kicks and searing phaser abuse of "Photogenic" recall RA-X's mid-'90s fusions of hardcore and noise. ("Mechanism" is pressed at 45, which means that if you play it back at 33, you get a bonus cut in the form of a gooey, slow-motion mindfuck with kick drums that bloat like rubber inner tubes left out in the sun.) He wraps up the EP with "Product Configuration," a drifting, droning, dread-filled dark-ambient jam that flashes back to Christoph de Babalon's darkest moments. (Listen to samples on the label's website.)