Dance Tracks of the Week: Nguzunguzu's 'Skycell' Is a Very Quiet Take on Grime

Plus Fis' darkly disorienting beats, Pional's yacht-rock harmonies, and John Heckle's muscular acid

Nguzunguzu's 'Skycell'
Nguzunguzu's 'Skycell' Fade to Mind
Philip Sherburne WRITTEN BY
Philip Sherburne

Nguzunguzu, Skycell EP (Fade to Mind)
Grime has typically been as diamond-tipped as the chainsaws Wiley uses to carve his Eskibeats into blocks of ice, but what if you could make grime with no hard edges at all? That seems to be the question behind Los Angeles duo Nguzunguzu's second EP for Fade to Mind. They don't totally eschew the genre's tough, percussive signifiers — indeed, pretty much all their drum-machine sounds, from booming low toms to rattling hi-hats, translate the violence of sticks hitting surfaces, and their bass hits like a medicine ball in the solar plexus. But even then, everything is coated in a profound sense of softness, and not the typical gauzy mush of the reverb-besotted novice. (Given a title like "Foam Feathers," they seem to know exactly what they're doing, too.) Their songs are thickets of shakers and finger snaps and quick exhalations; synths come on with sluggish attacks and linger over long decays, and snare drums are outfitted with slack rattles. Even guncock sounds, which typically broadcast the hardest kind of hardness, are employed in a way that exploits their tiny bursts of clicks. Timestretching, that grainy hallmark of classic jungle, becomes a kind of organizing principle for sound and rhythm alike, so that the whole thing comes to flicker like a flipbook. (Stream the full EP at Pitchfork.)

Fis, Preparations (Tri Angle)
What fresh hell is this? The Tri Angle label is no stranger to the doomier side of electronic music, but with its first release from Fis, it ventures into the realm of the actively terrifying. That's less because he's using sounds that scan as "dark" or "scary" — although he does that too, serving up ladlefuls of boiling, bubbling evil in the form of dissonant drones and distant wails — than due to the profound sense of disorientation his music provokes, and the unease that accompanies it. There's a ghost of a beat lurking inside "Magister Nunns," but it's so abraded that it practically falls apart at the seams, suggesting a kind of cellular decay deep in the heart of rhythm. In "DMT Usher," metallic insects seem to flutter distressingly close to your ears, sounding like a slowed-down version of George Crumb's "Black Angels." The beat is more pronounced here, but with its strange, lumbering, 10/4 time signature, it's hardly your typical toe-tapper. "Mildew Swoosh," sounding a little like a wet cardboard box full of scorpions, approximates a whispery version of dystopian drum'n'bass. And with the basso rumble of the closing "CE Visions," Fis approaches the monumental dread of Haxan Cloak's Excavation. Plus, it's got a good beat, and you can tremble to it.

Pional, Invisible/Amenaza (Young Turks)
It's been a couple of years since Madrid's Pional released any of his own music, and with good reason. He's mostly been out on the road with John Talabot, a collaboration that benefits both of them: Talabot got a second pair of hands on stage (and a co-writer and singer for the two best songs on his debut album), while Pional got a boost to his profile, particularly via their dates supporting the xx. The latter's first single for Young Turks should help him go further. All three songs are moody, slightly downbeat house in the vein of his early singles for Hivern and Permanent Vacation: Tambourines and open hi-hats give "Invisible Amenaza" an unmistakable disco glide; the quieter, cooler "A New Dawn" has a touch of "Smooth Operator" to it; and "The Shy" takes after Prins Thomas' bluesy, Balearic vibes. The bass lines and low-key production will draw you in, but it's Pional's vocals that make you stick around. He's not a forceful singer — he tends to keep his voice low in the mix — but he's a strong singer: Few vocalists can nail falsetto as effortlessly as he does. And that restraint lets him explore different paths through the music, particularly when he multitracks his own voice into yacht-rock-grade harmonies that cut like beams through a fog.

John Heckle, Baiyun Mountain (MOS Recordings)
John Heckle's vision of techno is a resolutely no-frills affair — well, unless distortion counts as a frill, in which case it's positively swimming in them. Sourced from hardware alone, his music celebrates the sound of machines running hot: Hi-hats and tambourines throw off sparks, and synthesizers take on the consistency of melted wax, leaving a greasy smear over everything they touch. Heckle's second album, Desolate Figures, comes out at the end of the month on the U.K.'s Tabernacle label, one of his main home bases. (Jamal Moss' Mathematics is the other.) Before that, though, he joins MOS Recordings for the first time with three raw, electrifying jams that are well in keeping with the Amsterdam label's scabby acid and busted-up jack tracks. "Cactus Jack" and "Birds With Vertigo" both tease out queasy arps and squealing oscillators over rugged Roland drum patterns; both are almost claustrophobic in their intensity, with overdriven sounds pressing in from every side. Listen carefully, though, and each comes equipped with an escape hatch of sorts, glinting melodies that stretch across the chaos like a rope bridge. The title track is more explicitly graceful, with a hint of Latin shimmy, faintly Eastern open fifths, and a bright staccato melody whose drifting pitch suggests the chirping of birds. (Listen to samples at Delsin.)

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