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Dance Tracks of the Week: Physical Therapy Stretches Techno to the Breaking Point

Physical Therapy

Physical Therapy, Yes, I’m Elastic EP (Fifth Wall)
“Elasticity” has become something of a standard talking point for Nicolas Jaar; he’s been telling interviewers about the virtues of rubberized timekeeping for at least four years now, and he trotted out the concept again last week in a New York Times story that was notable mainly for the fact that the Grey Lady rarely talks about recreational ketamine use among the techno-hipster set. (In fairness, Jaar professes to be a teetotaler when it comes to horse tranquilizers.) But the indietronic Ivy Leaguer’s slo-mo beats sound positively rigid compared to the head-spinning flux of Physical Therapy’s Yes, I’m Elastic EP. The title track is self-explanatory, with wind-whipped dub delay wrapping around rickety boom-tick beats and all manner of pitched-down voices dissolving into a hard, metallic flange. It sounds a little like late-’90s Thomas Brinkmann, if the Cologne conceptualist found himself trapped in a funhouse mirror. “World on Fire” applies similar tricks to Blawan’s brand of scorched-earth banger, complete with unsettling tri-tone acid sequences and handclaps that could crush rocks, but he expertly wriggles free of the harder/meaner/nastier rut via an explosion of colorful chords towards the track’s end — a sort of escape pod for the techno apocalypse. But the EP’s real headfuck is “I Did,” which runs churning machine beats and seasick chords through that same springy, metallic delay, rendering classic Detroit stylings just a few extra degrees off-kilter. Processing his voice through a harmonizing effect that pitches it up and down at once — a kind of sickly/evil-robot effect — he reels off a list of musicians’ names both iconic and obscure (Junior Vasquez, Mathew Jonson, Joey Beltram, Dirty Vegas, Alex Reece, Emanuel Top, even Traci Lords), preceded by the question, “Who killed…?” Never mind the fact that all, or at least most, of the figures referenced are still alive. As near as I can figure out, it’s a back-in-the-day lament in the vein of Abe Duque’s “What Happened.” Instead of sounding grumpy, though, the track is a testament to the enduring vitality of underground techno, breathing new life into a paradise lost.

Lumigraph, Yacht Cruiser EP (Mister Saturday Night)
Lumigraph’s vinyl debut is a travelogue of sorts. Dublin’s Gareth Smyth summered in New York last year, clubbing by night and roaming the streets with a field recorder by day. Occasionally, a more-or-less unadulterated scrap of city life scrapes through, as with a rambling spoken-word excerpt that druggily punctuates the already druggy “Playing My Numbers,” as though its slow-motion beats had sprung a trapdoor onto a 4 a.m. scene at the bodega counter. Generally, though, Smyth’s vistas are more oblique, fashioning idiosyncratic house music out of strange clanks and thuds. The son clave rhythm on “Cape Horn” might be a drumstick hammering on a lamppost; the low end is as gummy as a crepe sole on August asphalt. Then again, if he said that all his sounds were sourced from YouTube, you’d believe that too. All four tracks have the digitally degraded qualities familiar from Actress and Kassem Mosse; the more machine-oriented “Small Doses” and “Yacht Cruiser,” with their lumpy rhythm boxes and queasy synths — just get a load of those wonderfully dry rimshots — hang tantalizingly in the is-it-live-or-is-it-Memorex? netherzone that characterizes so much grit-obsessed dance music right now, in which iconic Roland sounds are sanded down to ghosts of their former selves. Whatever the case, you’ll come for the palette and stay for the compositions. Covering a broad range of tempos (from a housey 125 BPM all the way down to a haggard 94), all four tracks are just as diverse in mood. “Yacht Cruiser” is a gnarly acid cut with an otherwise dreamy disposition; “Small Doses” pairs a gut-rumbling low end with hesitant chimes, like a foggier-headed Smallville; and “Cape Horn” and “Playing My Numbers” use similar lo-fi sounds to hopscotch across the altered-states line, to wildly divergent effect.

Rabit, Sun Showers (Diskotopia)
Rabit’s blood runs cold on his Sun Showers EP, a four-panel portrait of grime at its most desolate, envisioned in the manner of grave rubbings, reduced to streaks of wax and charcoal. Two of the four tracks on the Houston producer’s new EP are virtually beatless, in fact, at least as far as traditional drum sounds go. There’s a kick drum skulking around somewhere beneath the icy flutes of “Sun Showers,” and the occasional flicker of sharpening knives, but they’re just accents. In most dance music, if you muted everything but the drum tracks, you’d be left with something functional enough to drive a dance floor. If you did that here, you’d get long expanses of silence punctuated by the occasional dead-weight thud or glint of metal. “Black Bag,” likewise, turns to single-shot cowbells for their mournful clang; the odd drum hit or clap is used primarily as a way of triggering the reverb that suggests the vastness of the music’s space — a space otherwise filled by buzzing squarewave bass melodies and mournful, slightly alien-sounding vocal samples. Where “Sun Showers” sounds like New Age packed in dry ice, “Black Bag” is the grime equivalent of Cocteau Twins’ Garlands. Rabit more than makes up for his percussive parsimony on the other two cuts, though. “40 Below” sketches out its bare-bones melody with a smattering of tuned hand drums, a la Shackleton, and piles on broken glass, laughter, and laser blasts for extra-nightmarish effect, while “Levels” is a riot of steel-beaked woodpeckers, pile-driving snares, and stuttering vocal samples, suggesting dancehall reggae diced into a pile of cold, hard cubes. Along with Slackk and Visionist, Rabit offers further proof of the thrilling energy at grime’s fringes.

A Made Up Sound, “After Hours” / “What Preset” (A Made Up Sound)
Last we heard from Dave Huismans’ A Made Up Sound project, he was chopping up breakbeats into triplets and jamming a wrench into the dance floor’s gears. He’s still triangulating wildly here. Both cuts on his eponymous label’s latest release break from dance music’s four-to-the-floor norms by rolling out their rhythms in 12/8 time, something you rarely hear in house, techno, or other dance subgenre, in fact. It’s amazing what a change it makes, too: The rolling, elliptical rhythms make you move differently, even if you’re just nodding along at home, and they give the music a lilting, bilateral, slow-fast groove that you don’t really get with straightforward boomty-boompty. Beyond the rhythmic novelty, both tracks are hypnotic and seriously out there. “After Hours” plaits sonar pings around urgent war drums and ominous, sci-fi drones; there are no real riffs to speak of, no great moments of rupture, just a soaring sense of unease that’s stoked by cleverly deployed bits of film dialogue and drawn out for more than 12 minutes of heart-in-mouth tension. “What Preset” follows a similar path, but it’s tougher and more energetic, filled with rainforest chatter and glancing Rhodes work. It sounds a lot like classic Photek, in fact, but broken apart and soldered back together at invigoratingly odd angles. The whole triangle thing is, mercifully, finally going out of fashion in dance music, but AMUS proves that three is still the magic number.