Saturday, 19 December 2009

A year of Short Circuitry

My final Short Circuitry column of the year has just been published on Muso's Guide, encompassing a (relatively) swift run-through of the year in electronic music and a couple of lists which, whilst containing some fantastic stuff, could in no way be said to be definitive. Such is life.

The column can be found here, avec lists and embedded videos - here's a text only reproduction of the main body of the feature.

There’s something so offensively bland about end-of-year lists that I’m almost loathe to curate one myself - yet given that this column only started in July, it seems almost churlish not to. At this point, the power to make music of such technical proficiency that it makes the work of Warp’s early pioneers sound lo-fi by comparison is encoded within the hardware of every single computer. This fact is not only responsible for the remarkable state of diversity that electronic music finds itself in at the end of this decade, but also for its lucid, shapeshifting nature.

The second half of the noughties has been the point at which the ‘net has really come into its own for distribution of information – musical, cultural, political or otherwise. Away from questionable government interest in filesharing and data availability (I’m looking at you, Murdochs), and valid concerns about our increased reliance on screens for survival, such enforced globalisation has without a doubt been the key shaping force in modern music this decade. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that the musical landscape circa now would be far less exciting without its myriad charms and pitfalls.

Which leads neatly into the soca beats and tribal flex of UK house: 2009 was the year when our bass sounds fully woke up and ‘got’ funky – and began getting funky with one another. The last twelve months have been characterised by incredibly rapid cross-pollination, giving rise to a host of luminous, supple and deeply sexy hybrids spanning the links connecting two-step, dubstep and UK funky itself. It’s been an intriguing cultural and musical collision: at the end of 2008 all eyes were on the ever-expanding fertile zone between dubstep and techno, exemplified by the mechanistic and cyclical heart of 2562’s debut album Aerial and the music on Appleblim’s Dubstep Allstars 6. A year later, the sounds of Detroit and Berlin have become absorbed into the living whole, one of many influences permeating cutting-edge dancefloor sounds – lending Untold’s skeletal grime a cool, chrome sheen, and infusing Peverelist’s gorgeous machine soul with an intrinsically mechanical, hypnotic heartbeat.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his record for pushing things forward (FWD?), Kode9’s label Hyperdub has led the charge toward pastures new and flexible. One of the first traditionally ‘dubstep’ DJs to fully embrace the truly global permutations of funky, his own ‘Black Sun’ was something of a landmark release, its furiously acidic synthline as much a rallying cry to battle as a call for celebration. And, along with the swung futurism of the Blunted Robots crew, Geiom’s tropical bounce and Cooly G’s unique take on house, it was both: simultaneously declaring war on the stagnant cul-de-sac dubstep was staggering drunkenly into and opening the floor for a welcome return of an ‘anything goes’ mentality to the dance.

Elsewhere, the mainstream beckoned following chart-hogging and still-ubiquitous remix commissions for Skream (La Roux’s ‘In For The Kill', naturally) and Joker (Simian Mobile Disco’s ‘Cruel Intentions’). Next year looks set to be an exciting time for Joker and his compadres Gemmy and Guido, with their scorched melodies and future-shocked R’n’B perhaps arriving at the right time to court a mainstream increasingly excited by all-things synth-based.

Away from club concerns; though not strictly electronic, Broadcast & The Focus Group crafted a wonderful insular world of their own on their ‘stopgap’ EP Witch Cults Of The Radio Age, burying the occasional ‘proper’ song in the fuzzy detritus of a lifetime’s worth of nostalgia. It may have been the year’s finest example of what The Wire have recently been calling ‘hypnagogic pop’ – hazy and often beautiful music buried under the weight of its own past. Sounds as disparate as Leyland Kirby’s achingly beautiful ambience on Sadly The Future Is Not What It Once Was, Gold Panda’s sample-based travelogues and Nite Jewel’s uber lo-fi electro-pop tap into the same mindset. Whether such ideas differ in any way from Boards Of Canada’s kidulthood or the ghosts that haunt Burial’s spectral two-step - or whether they represent some more general social phenomenon - is up for more sophisticated discussion, the likes of which it seems excessive to go into here. Ultimately, each of these artists has enough character to last far beyond theorizing, and all are well worthy of investigation.

A similar atmosphere also defines the music of Highpoint Lowlife’s success story of the year (depending, of course, on how you define success), 10-20. He’s been startlingly prolific, releasing one of the year’s best records in the shape of his self-titled album, as well as two EPs from his new Landforms series, Island and Lake. His music itself treads a curious line between impossibly busy and warmly ambient, the tension between stuttering percussion and muted melody on tracks like ‘Hallows’ and ‘Arcadeagle’ creating an intense, hallucinatory sensory deprivation that finds its resolution somewhere between waking and dream.

Long term Highpoint Lowlife associate Ruaridh Law – The Village Orchestra, or TVO, to give him his official title – has had a similarly busy release schedule. His hour-long ambient improvisation I Can Hear The Sirens Singing Again was wonderful, but even better were the six-tracks of upfront, highly percussive techno that made up his The Starry Wisdom EP. Again treading the line between energy and introspection, ‘Aklo Cut With Saffron’ and ‘The King In Yellow’ drive relentlessly forward, even as delicate wisps of melody drift through the superstructure like smoke. Both intensely physical and almost intangible, it’s this delicious contrast that makes The Starry Wisdom the most rewarding techno record of the year.

To wind up where we began, in pleasingly techno-esque fashion, Highpoint Lowlife’s attitude towards swift releasing and digital distribution mirrors what I discussed in the opening paragraphs. In many ways Thorsten Sideboard’s label is leading the pack in terms of modern technology: each release is immediately available digitally at an almost comically reasonable price through the HL website. As a new decade starts and the debate about mp3 sharing continues unabated, it also posits an example of the internet’s largely untapped potential: here is a label unearthing as yet undiscovered gems and making them widely available, simply and cheaply, motivated by nothing other than love of music. At this point, that seems as inspirational an idea as any to take forward to the next decade.

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