Scott Wilson has a new column on Juno Plus devoted to “outsider dance,” in which he suggests that the margins of dance music are moving steadily outwards. Citing a recent radio show in which Ben UFO shouted out the Trilogy Tapes, Bill Kouligas’ PAN label, and the increasingly out-there Hieroglyphic Being, Wilson writes: “If I will remember 2012 for anything, it will be as a year that more emphasis was placed on these individuals operating at the fringes of the fringes rather than labels, genres or scenes – almost as if the genre issue had become not just irrelevant, but dull.”
For the most part, I agree with him. My own tastes have certainly moved steadily away from traditional club-music aesthetics, which have become increasingly safe and stagnant. But I’m also leery of lumping all the weirdness together under the name “outsider dance,” as tempting as it is, because I’m well aware that once you concretize these kinds of things, they can quickly reify into pure style, the disruptive elements smoothed out into mere tropes. Just look at what happened with Burial or, more recently, Blawan. Once you codify it, then others start trying to make music that sounds like it, almost always losing that negative spark that fueled the music in the first place.
I could sit down and try to make something that sounds like outsider techno, and I’d fail miserably—in large part, because I haven’t developed my own methods for doing so; I haven’t forged my own path through the messy raw material of unknowing. There’d be no process of moving from A to B; I’d just be starting at B. And that’s how we get so much B-grade music. We saw this around the turn of the millennium, as a variety of approaches for making unconventional techno codified into something recognizable as “experimental techno,” at which point it became some of the most drab and unimaginative and utterly joyless stuff ever, certainly no better than the workaday dance-floor fodder it purported to replace.
Nevertheless, I agree with Wilson: Right now, some of the best dance music (even if it’s not always conducive to dancing) is coming from far outside the traditional centers of the scene. Read on to check out five artists doing it proudly, weirdly, their own way.
Juju & Jordash Techno Primitivism (Dekmantel)
For a sense of how the Israeli/Dutch duo Juju & Jordash makes its music, see them perform live. When I caught them at the Unsound festival in Krakow last week, they started from zero, surrounded by tables full of synthesizers and drum machines and effects, and proceeded to improvise their way through an hourlong set of house rhythms, subtly shifting arps and chords, and meandering, psychedelic top-lines played on guitar and keyboard. With just 20 fingers between them, the mechanics of the task are daunting, but they kept the set moving forward via a kind of sleight of hand, stringing long tones and steady machine grooves like rope bridges across a cavernous landscape. It could get pretty chaotic: At one point, Jordan “Jordash” Czamanski smacked a microphone against the table at odd intervals, setting off a spring reverb that rang out like a crash cymbal and threatened to derail the proceedings. For all their heavy concentration, they weren’t afraid to crack the occasional dark joke; after the show, Czamanski told me that he had chanted, in Hebrew, “Fifteen miles from Auschwitz.” (The theme of contemporary Jewish/Israeli identity often runs through the duo’s work; see also the EPs Unleash the Golem and Jewsex.)
Techno Primitivism, their dank, wooly third album, came together in much the same way, with the duo holed up in its Amsterdam studio, jamming away and eventually editing the 60- or 90-minute improv sessions down to six- or seven-minute tracks. While the machine sequences of Detroit techno provide a rough foundation, nothing else is quite so straightforward. Instead of the politely augmented chords of contemporary retro-house, they favor strange, modal changes and bursts of all-out dissonance, and their idea of dub has as much to do with Cabaret Voltaire as Kingston; free jazz-flavored sprawl morphs into new-wave reggae into steely, square-wave techno, and each track feels like a maze within a larger maze. At 13 tracks and 83 minutes long, it takes some time to acclimate to their faded headspace, but it’s well worth it.
Lukid Lonely at the Top (Werk Discs)
Lukid’s fourth album starts out soft and easygoing and unabashedly nostalgic, with a slow-motion house chug and scraps of ethereal soul vocals; it could easily be mistaken for something off one of Mo Wax’s Headz compilations of the early 1990s. After the blurry, psychedelic dimensions of his first three albums, which proffered a pastel take on the tradition that runs through Dilla, Dabrye and Flying Lotus, it sounds almost like a step backwards. But that’s just Lukid being Lukid, fucking with our expectations. (In his Twitter feed and his track titles—”Spitting Bile,” “My Teeth in Your Neck”—dude often comes off as lovingly irascible and a little bit cryptic; such a sweet-natured intro is the last thing we’d expect from him, which is precisely why it makes so much sense.) From there, though, all certainties fly right out the window. Scrappy and squirrelly, cobbling together truncated machine rhythms and samples of uncertain provenance, Lonely at the Top is Lukid’s best and least predictable record yet. His fondness for flash-frozen textures and the cellophane-crinkle compression of YouTube bears a resemblance to the digital lo-fi preoccupations of Actress, which should come as no surprise; like its predecessors, the album appears on Actress’ Werk Discs label, and the pair sometimes record together as Thriller. But Lukid’s rhythms often have more bite than Actress’ productions, which scatter laterally like water droplets on hot oil; tracks like the industrial electro “Southpaw” and the ambient “The Life of the Mind” suggest that Lukid’s a capital-R Romantic at heart, freeze-framing old VHS tapes for supersaturated moments of transcendence. It’s music for big hearts squeezed into a small-screen world.
Dan Friel Valedictorian (Thrill Jockey)
Parts and Labor’s Dan Friel (a former bandmate of SPIN‘s own Christopher R. Weingarten) lets loose on a new EP for Thrill Jockey, connecting the dots between lo-fi garage rock, Midwestern noise, Tangerine Dream, 1980s pop, and (at least on remixes by Moss of Aura and Peaking Lights) something approaching techno, albeit of a decidedly home-schooled sort. Opening with the rosy tones of what might be a carillon ringing three counties away, “Valedictorian” quickly launches into an overdriven surf-punk hoedown that sounds like Dan Deacon covering Madonna’s “Open Your Heart,” all piledriving drum machine and dueling kazoos, piercing as an ice-cream headache. “Exoskeleton” is more meditative, built around a hesitant organ arpeggio that sounds like an agyrophobic Phillip Glass, moving one, two, three steps forward, only to hurry back to the curb and start over, as though cowed by the careening drones and squeals. It comes across like a more rough-and-tumble Emeralds, and its poignant air is only heightened by the fact that it’s barely three minutes long. It’s the excellently named Moss of Aura who first whips the tune into dancing shape, arraying Friel’s arps and drones over a booming “Perfect Kiss” drum pattern and sounding like a cross between early trance and Gavin Russom’s Crystal Ark; West Coast dub deviants Peaking Lights, far more agitated than on their recent album Lucifer, take another Friel jam, “Ulysses,” and blow it up into and overblown new wave-disco cut arrayed with pinwheeling guitars, like Arthur Baker jamming with Magic Hour at the bottom of the ocean.
Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe “Timon Irnok Manta” (Type)
The kaleidoscopic kente-cloth cover is a red herring: There’s nothing explicitly African about these slowly unspooling drones from Lichens’ Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, aside from a hint of hand percussion. The way those leathery thwacks are caked in digital clipping and nervous delay suggests that messing with the way we decode overdetermined sounds is part of Lowe’s project, however. The skulking, barely-there beat is shrouded in a resonant drone with Appalachian overtones, like a jaw harp twanging from mountaintop to mountaintop; a plunging dub bassline breaks the surface in a fizzy echo of Porter Ricks, and in the B-side version, a rippling arpeggio flashes back on Tangerine Dream’s Sorcerer soundtrack. It’s all suffused in opalescent digital static, like Pole with a fetish for low bit-rates, and despite the brightly covered sleeve, it’s as bleak as anything you might find on the Blackest Ever Black label. You can listen to samples on Boomkat, but the tracks really need to be heard in their full, quarter-hour lengths to make sense.
Lee Gamble Diversions 1994-1996 / Dutch Tvashtar Plumes (PAN)
If it weren’t for the press release, I’d have had no idea that the U.K.’s Lee Gamble had sourced this remarkable mini-album from his collection of old jungle mixtapes. A breakbeat rears its head towards the end of side B, as does the blown-out loop that, in retrospect, could well be an MC’s cry. But presumably he focused most of his attention on the spaces between the beats, Hoovering up ambient hum and vinyl hiss into his sampler and pouring it out in a slurry of warped tone, more Pierre Schaeffer than Moving Shadow. (It’s comparable to the lysergic soundtrack to Mark Leckey’s Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, but even more fucked-up sounding.)
Gamble’s Dutch Tvashtar Plumes, due out in late November, engages more explicitly with dance music, with occasional techno rhythms suggesting a rave booming up from the bottom of a well. Oval, Actress, and Thomas Köner are all touchstones for the digital grit and tape hiss that bathe the record’s 10 tracks; the weird, mercurial dimensions of the more ambient passages, which refuse to be pinned down, remind me of the electro-acoustic gurgle of Per Giöbel’s 1984 composition “Codex:Midlothian/Sluss-Hek” (an obscurity, for sure, but well worth seeking out). Both records are further proof that Bill Kouligas’ Berlin-based PAN label is one of the most exciting outlets for experimental music at the moment—on the dance floor as well as far, far from it.