Control Voltage’s Friday Five: Fringe Music From the American Underground
Portable Sunsets, Austin Cesear, and Darling Farah re-invent techno on their own terms
America hasn’t produced many viable electronic-music scenes in the past decade or so — that is, local or regional communities with their own sound, like Chicago house or Detroit techno in the 1980s and 1990s. There are some, sure, but not really to the extent that the rest of the world has served up localized interpretations of a specific sound. But maybe there’s a silver lining there. Isolation can also breed creativity, and even in an era when the internet has supposedly made place irrelevant, distance from cultural hubs can lead to productive misinterpretations. In the past few weeks, I’ve been struck by a number of albums by American artists that use certain canonical styles of techno as jumping-off points for more idiosyncratic investigations. Here are three of them, along with records from Seattle and Portland that move outwards from there.
Austin Cesear, Cruise Forever (Public Information) Launched last year by an employee of the British Library Sound Archive (and a freelancer at Bleep, Warp Records’ retail arm), London’s Public Information label is dedicated to outer-limits electronica, roughly speaking; releases so far have encompassed archival recordings from the electronic-music pioneer F.C. Judd and the cracked dub of Bristol’s Ekoplekz. For its latest release, the label looks west, to San Francisco’s Austin Cesear, and comes up with its closest approximation of “club music” yet, without losing touch with its experimental roots. Cesear’s palette sounds a lot like the hissing, lo-fi sonics favored by Actress; on the more beat-oriented tracks, like “The Groove,” it sounds less like techno than an approximation of techno, if that makes sense — like he’s built a scale model of a classic form using spare parts and scrap metal. I’m often reminded of the glancing accents and backmasked chug of M:I:5’s Maßstab 1:5, released in 1997 on Profan, the predecessor to Kompakt. But it’s not all so tentative: “The Beast,” appropriately titled, has more in common with Ben Klock or Marcel Dettmann’s seismic Berghain sound. (In terms of pure functionalism, however, it could do with a heavier kick.) “Peralta Place” is a broken-down drum session slowed to an ominous 90 beats per minute and evoking the dread-filled frug of recent Modern Love releases. The remaining half of the album is taken up with beatless forays into stretched-out bell tones and sped-up tape warble, foggy as the hills of Cesear’s hometown.
Portable Sunsets, Mercy (Magical Properties) San Francisco’s Peter Segerstrom is nothing if not in tune with the zeitgeist, starting with his alias: Portable Sunsets, a name so perfectly attuned to indie culture’s pastoral Instagram obsessions that one suspects it came straight from the Witch House / Chill Wave Name Generator. Naturally, there are triangles on the cover of Mercy, his debut album, although the artist’s characterization of his own website as containing “a bunch of faded jpgs and flickering gifs” suggests that he’s not unaware of how hackneyed such a fixation with pastel pixels has become. Outwardly, Mercy isn’t outwardly a startlingly sophisticated album; shuttling between ruminative techno and limpid ambient interludes, it makes do with the bare necessities — stripped-back drum programming, quietly evolving synthesizers, some appropriately moody vocals to give it an emotional center. But it pulls you in. Songs like “California” and “Clone Opera” remind me of the San Francisco duo Broker/Dealer’s all-hardware live sets of the early 2000s; you can also hear an echo of Los Angeles’ Tin Man running through Portable Sunsets’ downcast electro-pop. It’s not surprisingly to learn that the Field recently tapped him as his opening act for a San Francisco gig.
Darling Farah, Body (Civil Music) Darling Farah (Kamau Baaqi) has the kind of backstory you don’t see every day in electronic music: Born and raised in Detroit, he moved to the United Arab Emirates when he was 16, and formed his musical worldview while living in an insular expat community outside Dubai. His first releases had the slightly scattered feel of an artist who liked a lot of different things — Akufen, James Blake, U.K. garage, dub techno — and hadn’t quite figured out how to reconcile them. His debut album is much more focused. Keeping the more aggressive swing of his earlier work at bay, it sticks largely to more straightforward, four-to-the-floor pulses; between the downbeats, though, things get slipperier. You can guess that he’s been listening to a lot of Shed and Basic Channel; the album’s toughest cut, “Curse,” has the sullen attitude of Blawan’s percussive piledrivers. “I wanted a more refined sound,” Baaqi told Resident Advisor earlier this year, describing how he moved beyond his more erratic early experiments. He’s found it.
Raica, Dose (Further Records) Seattle’s Further Records is the rare label to straddle the club-music and noise scenes. Its catalog includes left-field techno from Donato Dozzy and John Daly, a 1972 live recording by Conrad Schnitzler, lo-fi hip-hop from the Bay Area’s Aybee, and patchouli-tinted new age from Nuel. Many of Further’s releases are cassettes; vinyl LPs come in gorgeous, screen-printed sleeves, generously inked — handling them is as much a tactile as a visual experience. For the label’s latest release, it turns to co-founder Chloe Harris, a.k.a. Raica, who uses an array of hardware synthesizers — Doepfer Dark Energy and Dark Time, Waldorf Pulse and Waldorf Q — plus “samples and love” to create abstracted soundscapes that incorporate elements of 1970s computer music along with echoes of Cabaret Voltaire and early Warp and Rephlex. For the most part, it’s dark, viscous stuff; it makes sense that music like this would come from Seattle (and from a label run by a pair of self-described stoners, at that). But once you penetrate the surface, unexpected rays of light emerge, and the music’s sluggishness gives way to a mercurial flutter.
Golden Retriever, Occupied with the Unspoken (Thrill Jockey) There aren’t nearly enough clarinets in contemporary electronic-music contexts (unless we’re talking about electro-swing, which, just, no). Enter Portland, Oregon’s Golden Retriever, who source their shimmering drone fantasias from modular synthesizer and bass clarinet. The way they use the latter, you might not even realize that it’s in there; it was more prominent on the duo’s 2010 album Canonic Horizon (Root Strata), whereas on their new LP, Golden Retriever (Thrill Jockey), it slinks almost unnoticed through thickets of oscillating tone. The overall effect is somewhere between a reedier Emeralds and a more lyrical Oskar Sala.
Pre-order the album, and get a free 8-ounce bag of Stumptown Coffee’s Costa Rica Montes de Oro beans (Golden Retriever’s Jonathan Sielaff works for the roaster and visited the Costa Rican plantation in 2010). You couldn’t get much more quintessentially Portland if you put a bird on it.