Woe be to the artist who releases an album in late November or, worse, December. With critics and retailers hell-bent on year-end recaps those end-of-year albums tend to evaporate into a discursive void. To that end, today’s column covers five new or recent albums that were at risk of disappearing into the virtual recesses of my own iTunes playlists. They’re mostly “dance music,” except when they aren’t — offering strange, idiosyncratic shades of club music’s vernacular that are all the more satisfying for the head-scratching they inspire. And some of them may make you glad you haven’t finished your best-of-2012 list yet.
Benjamin Brunn, A Sun Life (Third Ear Recordings)
Earlier this year, Benjamin Brunn released a remarkable concept album called Colour Tracks, a 4LP set on multi-colored vinyl designed as an overview of canonical styles like techno, electro, deep house, and ambient. Each track was helpfully color-coded according to style, tempo, and harmonic key; essentially, it’s part toolkit and part textbook, all shaded by the Hamburg producer’s rich, distinctive style. (It’s part of a tradition of color-themed series in dance music that includes Donnacha Costello’s untitled series on Minimise and Wolfgang Voigt’s Studio 1 project.) A Sun Life, Brunn’s new album on London’s Third Ear Recordings, is a very different kind of proposition: More personal and more expressive, it uses genre less as a template than a springboard. Brunn’s synaesthetic fixations are, if anything, even more pronounced here: He wrings an unusual degree of super-saturated color out of his Nord Modular, his primary instrument of choice, imbuing the harmonic ideas of Larry Heard and Underground Resistance with a particularly opalescent sensibility, thanks to the Nord’s mutable timbres. You could call it a squishy sound, the way his chords seem to splash like muddy, oil-soaked potholes, but Brunn’s rhythms are the opposite of wishy-washy. His 707 patterns are tough and springy, clacking shut like a metal frame around the music’s squishy underbelly. Listeners who remember Brunn and Move D’s great 2008 album Songs from the Beehive will be all over this; it’s got the same kind of sunrise glow to it, but it’s tighter and more focused. It scratches a similar itch as Legowelt’s The Paranormal Soul, but with a less expressly retro vibe. As electronic long-players go, it’s one of 2012’s year-end highlights. (Stream the full album here.)
DJ Nature, Return of the Savage (Golf Channel Recordings)
Good news: New York’s formerly vinyl-only label Golf Channel Recordings has gone digital (“Look at me, all grown up,” quips owner Phil South), meaning that the turntable-deficient are now afforded equal access to the better part of the label’s catalog. (Alas, no “R+B Drunkie,” but, given the sample, we’ll probably never see a digital release of that.) Felicitously, the move online coincides with the release of Return of the Savage, the new album from New York’s DJ Nature. As noted back in September, Nature is Milo Johnson, a former member of Bristol’s Wild Bunch collective who eventually moved stateside and took up the banner of what he called “ruff disco.” The term remains apropos here, as Johnson turns out a rich, meditative strain of deep house that leans heavily on samples of funk, disco, and R&B. It’s as smooth as it is “ruff,” overflowing with mellifluous Rhodes, vibraphone, vocal harmonies, Philly-style strings, saxophone, and even, on “Return of the Savage,” a bit of cello/voice interplay reminiscent of Beth Orton’s debut album. But Johnson’s propensity for hardscrabble breakbeats, unvarnished drum machines, and gnarled clavinets lives up to the toughness implied in his chosen genre; it’s rough in the sense of wood grain or rolling seas. His approach is much like that of Theo Parrish or Moodymann in their more straight-ahead guises; where Nature’s signature is especially visible is in his knack for colliding samples in different keys into bright, modal clusters. The 2LP is out now from the usual suspects; digital is available from iTunes, Juno Download, and Beatport. (While you’re at it, check out the Golf Channel releases from Dominik Von Senger, Heroes of the Galleon Trade, Spike, and the Rhythm Odyssey and Dr. Dunks, as well as Juju & Jordash’s Jewsex and the Portuguese post-rock band Gala Drop’s excellent Overcoat Heat EP.)
Geiom, Black Screen (Frijsfo Beats)
Most of the music that has come out of the “bass music” explosion tends to be resolutely serious stuff — dark, anxious, sometimes angry, sometimes simply numb. That makes sense; dubstep, drum and bass, and U.K. techno, bass music’s principal feeders, have historically trafficked in dark energy and dystopian affect. There are exceptions, of course, colorful characters like Rustie, but even his gleaming fizz-scapes have a certain kind of imposing, monolithic quality to them, as overwhelming as the crystal obelisks on the cover of his Glass Swords.
The Nottingham, U.K., producer Geiom (Kamal Joury) has a far more playful take on bass music on his new album, Black Screen, released on Cambridge’s Frijsfo Beats label. This isn’t the sci-fi of Blade Runner or Alien, it’s Woody Allen’s Sleeper or, better yet, Raymond Scott. That’s not to say that Geiom’s approach is jokey or even especially madcap. But his 8-bit bleeps and metallic drum sounds have a distinct sense of naivete to them, suggestive of old Commodore 64 games, and his rhythms snap and flex like Transformers or Erector Sets. Stylistically, he’s all over the place: Elements of grime, jungle, minimal techno, 2-step, U.K. funky, and deep house all careen through his tracks, ricocheting off each other like Super Balls in a closet. At quite a few points, I’m reminded of Squarepusher’s debut album, Feed Me Weird Things, although Geiom’s album has a much more explicitly electronic palette. And despite everything I’ve said about its quirkier qualities, he can be dead serious when he wants to be; “Row2Land” is a particularly white-knuckled take on U.K. funky, vivid as a Ritalin fever dream.
Tuff Sherm, Shrapnel Maestro (Braincamp)
Tuff Sherm is a relatively recent alias of Australia’s Dro Carey (Eugene Hector), a prolific maker of idiosyncratic, lo-fi grime/funky/dubstep hybrids. (He also has an even newer, apparently footwork-oriented project, Fad TMB, on the way.) After a couple of cassette tapes, his Pharmacy 12-inch for the Trilogy Tapes label marked Tuff Sherm’s official coming out, and now he follows up with a self-released album, Shrapnel Maestro, via his own Bandcamp page.
Tuff Sherm is Hector’s nominally house/techno project; where Dro Carey productions are all about snapping, counterintuitive electronic funk, Tuff Sherm sticks mostly to 4/4 cadences in the 120-BPM range. But Tuff Sherm’s idea of house and techno is a smeary abstraction, closer to the woozy workouts of Actress and Lukid than most of what we’ve come to expect from the genre. His lo-fi samples have been worked over until there’s virtually nothing left of the source, just scraps of felted texture; even his synthesizers have a sour, recalcitrant quality to them, as though they were unwilling to commit to clarity (or even master tuning). Mixing drum machines (or samples of them) with rough-cut percussion sounds, his rhythms move with an unusual elasticity. He may be working in 4/4, but these are rarely straight four-to-the-floor grooves; they hiccup and wobble, unruly as a bucket of worms. Falling somewhere between FaldyDL and Farben, it’s a fantastic album, and the whole thing is available for the ridiculously low price of $2AU (about $2.09 in American currency); I paid more, just because it felt right.
Bee Mask, When We Were Eating Unripe Pears (Spectrum Spools)
Neither as chaotic as his Canzoni dal Laboratorio del Silenzio Cosmico, as drone-oriented as his Elegy for Beach Friday, nor as New Agey as his recent Vaporware/Scanops 12-inch, Bee Mask’s new album strikes the perfect balance between those modes. Given my own predilection for blissed-out ambient music, I still think I prefer Vaporware/Scanops as a listening experience, but it seems pretty clear that When We Were Eating Unripe Pears is the most sophisticated, ambitious, and rewarding thing that Philadelphia’s Chris Madak has done yet.
I’ll go ahead and quote from Madak’s own description of the record, since paraphrasing his text wouldn’t really do it justice: “The seven pieces on this LP were developed over a period of about five years; ‘Rain in Coffee’ is built on a Hyperborean Trenchtown-era demo, while ‘Pinq Drinq’ — sorrel, for the record, and neither guava nor antacid as certain wags have already ventured — was reanimated directly from the cutting room floor, eleventh hour twenty-twelve. As a whole, they should probably be considered the proper ‘sequel’ to Canzoni dal Laboratorio del Silenzio Cosmico, extending that record’s preoccupation with the dream interiors of post-1965 Fellini and synthesizing (pun very much NOT intended) it with Elegy for Beach Friday‘s fascination with the lush and abject facets of advanced gastronomy and the embrace of the recursive, solipsistic, simultaneously expansive and claustrophobic universe of the sampler on Vaporware/Scanops.”
To that end, Pears enfolds wildly abstracted computer music and musique concrete — I particularly hear the quicksilver, percussive flutter of Oskar Sala in there, and maybe a little Tod Dockstader—the liquid fascinations of Fluxus, and overdriven noise, along with the requisite tip of the cap to Tangerine Dream; what’s more surprising are the fleeting references to pure techno, like the muscular bass arpeggios of “Pink Drinq,” which push Drexciyan electro into full-on gabber territory. Madak’s sounds are spine-tingling throughout, as visceral as a Moebius loop of the THX “Deep Note” and suffused in the glassy overtones I associate with Japanese ambient music of the early 1990s. It’s a real head trip.