The new mixtape from Portugal’s DJ Marfox is called “Distortion Ass Mix,” but take the title with a grain of salt. The gluteal bit is self-explanatory: Marfox plays kuduro, an Angolan-Portuguese style of dance music that moves with the hypnotic, rotary motion of a KitchenAid churning dough; it might be the waist-windingest music I’ve ever heard. (“Kuduro” apparently translates as “hard ass,” in fact, presumably in reference to its effects upon muscle tone.) So, yeah, Marfox has the “Ass” part down pat. It’s the “Distortion” that makes no sense. Because, for all its frenzied motion and sonic overload, kuduro is also some of the cleanest, most spine-tinglingly precise dance music there is. Marfox’s Eu Sei Quem Sou EP, released earlier this year on Lisbon’s Príncipe label, was an atomic field of taut drums and hiccupping yelps and zapping synths and pinprick details, while his melodies, slippery in feel and queasily detuned, were imbued with a headache-inducing sense of clarity, like an ultra-vivid hybrid of grime and trance.
Whipping through 12 tracks in 28 minutes, Marfox’s “Distortion Ass Mix” follows in similar fashion, swarming like a cloud of steel-plated gnats — polyrhythm as pointillism. I haven’t heard enough kuduro to say how representative it is of the genre as a whole; in Marfox’s hands, at least, it’s fast, heavily swung, and relentlessly percussive, churning with drum machines, sampled percussion, and staccato bleeps. Vocals are reduced to chants and shouts (save for a lone verse lifted from Busta Rhymes), and there’s not much melody beyond the occasional synth riff or seasick trombone. Instead, the drums and percussion come to the fore as tonal instruments in their own right, with carefully tuned congas and booming toms and wheezing guiros all staking out their places in the virtual chorus. I’m not sure there’s an actual bass line in the whole mix, but its booming low end is still as heavy as that of any dubstep banger.
Mainly, it’s about the groove. With its not-quite-four-to-the-floor feel and its snapping offbeats, I’m reminded of U.K. funky, the uptempo, Caribbean-flavored strain of British house music; but this stuff is even more intense. Maybe it’s the extreme repetition that does it: Core rhythmic figures are boiled down to one-bar phrases bashed out over and over again, and the way they wrap around each other suggests nothing so much as a spring being wound tighter and tighter. It goes without saying that there are no “drops” here. The whole mix is one long free-fall into rhythm at its most unhinged.