Jam City, Club Constructions, Vol. 6 (Night Slugs)
Night Slugs' Club Constructions series has one of the most unpretentious titles going. Designed to highlight the fact that these are, first and foremost, DJ tools, it's a way of saying, "Hey, don't blame us if you don't find any melodies here." Whether intentionally or not, however — maybe out of humility, maybe out of irony — it seriously undersells what's actually going on here. Because as far as tools go, they don't come more deluxe than this; these are the motherfucking plasma cutters of DJ tools, and they make ordinary drum tracks look like hacksaws by comparison. In fact, maybe it's time we jettison the whole utility conceit altogether, because while these five cuts were designed for club play, they lose nothing heard on their own, unmixed, from start to finish. As he proved on last year's Classical Curves, Jam City has an uncanny sense for texture and tone color, sculpting swathes of reverb into cold, metallic arcs and sending dirty pennies across the dusty noise floor; serrated claps and stuttering shouts frame yawning expanses of nothingness — a rave in the vacuum of empty space. It's stern, brooding stuff, but it's not afraid to indulge a more sensitive side, as indicated with the soft, spongy keys of "Worst Illusion" and "500 Years," while "Garlands" (at least in name) suggests that Jam City might be a secret Cocteau Twins fan. Once again, proof that Night Slugs is putting out some of the most modern, inventive, and effective techno around.
Hailu Mergia, Hailu Mergia Remixes (Awesome Tapes from Africa)
If you hadn't figured it out from the name, one listen to Hailu Mergia's modal Rhodes solos ought to tell you that we're headed back to Ethiopia. Reissued by the label arm of the excellent Awesome Tapes from Africa blog, Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument: Shemonmuanaye is a 1985 album (a cassette, originally) by a master accordionist, Walias Band member, and multi-tracking genius from Addis Ababa who reworked traditional Ethiopian styles for Moog, electric piano, and drum machine. The reissue feels faintly reminiscent of 2012's excellent Francis Bebey rediscovery; both projects are attempt to uncover the hidden roots of African electronic music. But Ethiopia is not Cameroon, and Mergia is certainly not Bebey. Far from the joyful rebellion of a Bebey song like "New Track," "Wegene," reissued here as a single, is a slow, meandering, ruminative number that's more hypnotic than provocative; there's no need to rally for a "new track," because as long as "Wegene" is playing, it's impossible to imagine any other kind of music ever needing to exist.
The remixers for the EP couldn't have been better chosen. Prins Thomas accentuates the song's shuffling, 6/8 groove with beefy, phased drum machines, somehow magically extends five-and-a-half minutes to nearly eight, but otherwise keeps wisely out of the way. If you were looking for an accordion-led, 88-BPM Ethio-jazz cut in 6/8 time to fill out a set, this would be an excellent choice. Washington, D.C.'s Protect-U (Aaron Leitko and Mike Petillo) ask what might have happened had Mergia been a fan of Tangerine Dream, dubbing out his drums and adding an expansive layer of call-and-response synth work. The biggest surprise of the batch comes from Barcelona's El Guincho, who turns Mergia's "Ambasel" into a lumpy, waterlogged house jam, gooey with tape hiss, as propulsive as it is haunting.
Downliners Sekt, Balt Shakt (Infiné)
It's said of a lot of things, but in the case of Downliners Sekt, it's especially true: You need to listen to their music loud. The Barcelona duo favors quiet, muted sounds cloaked in filtered hiss — deadweight drum thump, ghostly vocals, rain runoff. Crank it up, though, and all those clattering rivets and trickling rivulets swell to immense proportions. On their new single, a teaser for an upcoming album on France's Infiné label, they ease away from the abstractions of their earlier work and flirt with full-on dance structures, massive almost in spite of themselves. Swirling with voices and silvery pads, the A-side track sounds hazy at first, but propulsive dub-techno grooves focus its energies, and as it gathers steam, heavy offbeat snares strike with the force of gale-tossed debris. The loping B-side cut, meanwhile, revives the elliptical, ungainly rhythms once explored by Kompakt's Dettinger. Piled high with striated synths and vocal samples, the track has a curious density to it, as though they'd attacked a charcoal drawing with a stubby gum eraser. For points of comparison, see Shackleton and perhaps DjRum; mostly, though, Downliners Sekt are quietly (and not so quietly) doing their own thing, and it's getting better with every release.
Move D, KM20 Tapes (Off Minor)
Jordan Czamanski, of Juju & Jordash, kicked off his Off Minor label with a surprisingly dulcet single under his own Crybaby J alias, so perhaps it's not quite so surprising that the label's second release switches gears so drastically. (J&J, after all, have never been known for playing it straight.) All five cuts here come from the archives of Heidelberg, Germany's Move D (David Moufang), who's been at it for more than 20 years; the tracks were recorded between 1992 and 1996, although the way things have been going lately, you could be forgiven for assuming that they're new productions. "Kriek – Animals" and "Ovi Riese" both offer templates for the kind of scruffy analog jams being turned out everywhere from L.I.E.S. to the Trilogy Tapes to Wild Oats. The former is a brooding, almost ambient cut (save that pinging drum line) that sounds like it's holding in a dark secret; the latter is one of the surliest, most unhinged acid tracks to come along in ages. With gnarled bass and hardscrabble snares practically bursting from their circuits, it's the perfect expression of two decades of bottled-up energy. On the B-side, "Ground Zero" comes closer to the sound that many of us may identify with Move D, carefully and almost delicately balancing plangent pads and pings with crisp hi-hats and tendrils of 303. It's hard to imagine how this didn't get released on Moufang's own Source label back in the day, and the same could be said of the winsome "Picking Flowers for You," which anticipates the Smallville aesthetic in its luminous keys and crisp, spacious drum work. "March of the Cheesecrackers" closes out the EP with two minutes of rhythmic rumble—a locked groove, basically, except that it isn't—that paves the way for Thomas Brinkmann and STL's needle-fluff fugues.
Audiotech, "Darkside" (Metroplex)
The Detroit/Berlin connection keeps going strong. Following his Borderland collaboration with Moritz von Oswald from earlier this year, Juan Atkins hooks up with the other half of Basic Channel, Mark Ernestus, for a dark, dubby electro lament that sounds like the work of two artists who have nothing to prove. Setting a stripped-down electro rhythm against inky chords, "Darkside" is as understated as they come; even Atkins' occasional vocals are shrouded in murky delay, leaving pitch-bent chords, moving like a shark's fin through leaden waters, as the sole marker of the music's path. Ricardo Villalobos turns in two versions of his remix, one 13 minutes long, and the other running more than three quarters of an hour. Neither sounds related to the original in any obvious way; as usual, this is Villalobos hearing some private cue in the source material and scurrying deep down his own rabbit hole to an underground chamber where beats thwack dully against the clay, and tone color seeps like groundwater. It's as cozy and as captivating as he's sounded in a long while.