Control Voltage's Friday Five


by Philip Sherburne
Laurel Halo rules in her guise as King Felix
Laurel Halo rules in her guise as King Felix

This week's five faves are all about the groove. Perhaps that should go without saying, in a column about electronic dance music. But not all grooves are created equal, and the records featured here all share an interest in teasing out unusually tensile rhythms, while combining unlikely musical elements. Voices and organs and acoustic drums abound — and so do piercing synth tones and brittle 808s, though not always in the same tracks. A kind of pointillist sensibility prevails across clipped samples and diamond-hard drums. More than anything, these tracks represent quirky mutations in established club-music subgenres, tweaking the norms of house, dubstep, U.K. garage, juke, and multifarious styles into dazzling rhythmic set pieces.

Juk Juk "Fall"/"Unwrap" (NOMMOS)
Some six months after his remarkable debut EP for Four Tet's Text Records, London's Juk Juk (Caleb Waterman) returns with two more tracks of beguiling, flickering 2-step garage, this time on his own NOMMOS label. Both cuts turn unusual source material into quick-stepping dance grooves, to distinct ends. "Fall" takes a scrap of what sounds like 1950s vocal jazz and loops it over buzzing, detuned bass synth; Jamie xx and James Blake (his more floor-focused pursuits, anyway) come to mind, given the dry, whipcrack drums and the bass' almost monolithic character. The low-end ostinato feels less like an instrument than a vast, amorphous presence whose gravitational pull draws all the other elements into elliptical orbit.

Where "Fall" is all fog and gaslight, the plucked guitars, ringing cymbals and choppy falsetto of "Unwrap" are pure pastoral reverie. It might take you a few listens to realize that it's built entirely out of scraps of a certain geologically-themed song by a formerly cabin-dwelling cheesehead. Even once you've had that Eureka moment, "Unwrap" doesn't really resolve back to its root. Instead of just adding beats, Juk Juk has chopped up his source material in such a way that it feels like flashing through a DVD on fast-forward, a blast of bright colors and accidental rhythms.

DJ Druzz vs. OMEGA MUs "Apeman" (Throne of Blood)
Do people still say "bananas" any more? Probably not, but I'm going to do it anyway. The track is called "Apeman," after all, and it is certifiably bananas, complete with jungle-frug whoops and a squealing synthesizer lead that bobs and weaves like a monkey swinging through the trees.

Also kind of bananas: The artist behind the unwieldy alias of DJ Druzz vs. OMEGA MUs is none other than Gabriel Andruzzi, also known as the Rapture's sax, keyboards, and cowbell man. Given his resume, as well as the Throne of Blood label's reputation for deep, pumping, vintage-inspired house and techno, you might not have expected something this modern (although there is a cowbell solo). With its rude bass, hydraulic swing, and crystalline finger-snaps, it sounds for all the world like something you'd hear on Claude VonStroke's dirtybird label: a collision of Chicago jack and West Coast swagger, with just a twinge of Virginia Beach (those snaps) and Detroit (that lead, which comes straight out of DBX's classic minimal techno, but refracted through G-funk). For all the baggage, it's never ungainly. Rattling and squealing, it's got a delirious sense of focus, moving through the crowd like a knife through, well, a banana.

Pearson Sound "Untitled"/"Footloose" (Pearson Sound)
I often imagine that the U.K.'s David Kennedy, better known for his aliases Ramadanman and Pearson Sound, must have grown up underneath a typing school. What else would explain the trim, staccato, rat-a-tat action that drives his productions? Or perhaps his neighbor was a seamstress; his FabricLive 56 mix CD, released about a year ago, stitched together scraps of dubstep and house with the dizzying precision of an industrial-strength sewing machine.

Kennedy's new single for his own Pearson Sound label, his first release of 2012, finds him more rhythmically focused than ever. The A-side track, "Untitled," is the likely hit here, with its earwormy vocal samples and pointed organ riffs jabbing against trim, syncopated 808 grooves, but it's "Footloose" that really shows off Kennedy's percussive mettle. It's essentially a pure drum track, with pinpoint claps, snares and rimshots snapping themselves to a breakbeat frame like a kind of right-angled filigree; the TR-808's cowbell and booming kick drum provide the only tonal elements. The tattoo-like cadence recalls Levon Vincent's propulsive "Late Night Jam" (which, perhaps not coincidentally, served as the second track on Kennedy's FabricLive mix), but where that track is all cobwebs and echo, "Footloose" takes those basement vibes and freeze-dries them into crystalline form.

Lorca "Can't See Higher" (Dummy)
If the dreamy vocals and rattling percussion of Lorca's "Can't See Higher" sound familiar, that might be because they played a particularly dramatic role in Scuba's recent BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix, breaking into the dark, moody mix like sunlight through stormclouds.

Like so many of his bass-music peers, the young Brighton musician known as Lorca has clearly been influenced by Joy Orbison's ecstatic 2010 anthem "Hyph Mngo." The looped vocals of "Can't See Higher" trace a similar line to that of Orbison's whipporwilling diva, so much so that it almost feels like an answer song. But where "Hyph Mngo" was all hard surfaces and uncanny gleam, "Can't See Higher" is softer and more uncertain, with rolling, rock-tumbler drums and a wispy mixture of synths and voices.

Backed by the more restrained "Missed Me," the single is out now on Dummy Records, the label arm of London's Dummy magazine.

King Felix "Spring" (Liberation Technologies)
Out next week on the new Mute Records sub-label Liberation Technologies, Spring is the first release from Laurel Halo in her King Felix guise, and it represents a marked shift from ambient atmospheres to dance-floor discipline. While the Ann Arbor-via-Brooklyn musician has never shied away from club grooves — last year's Hour Logic EP thrummed with a racing techno pulse, and even her poppier 2010 debut EP, also titled King Felix, flirted with freestyle — the rhythms have tended to play a secondary role, lost in billowing clouds of formless tone. Here, she reverses her approach. The massive organs and looped voices of "Spring 01" are mere scene-setting; the real action is in breakneck drum machines pushed to the tempo of Chicago juke. "Spring 03," an alternate version of the same track, makes the point even more explicit, dubbing out the voices and filling the sound field with triple-time drums that seem to flicker like an old 16-mm film. "Spring 02" might be the EP's most surprising track, if only because it's the most conventional, with a loose, 4/4 groove that toes the line between house and techno. The organs and choral samples reappear here, adding depth and color to the spindly, lo-fi underpinnings. They also add a sense of grandeur befitting her new alias, but the overall effect is still hazy and heads-down, with her hard-scrabble rhythms kicking up dust against a purple velvet backdrop.

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