In our BPM column, we review a clutch of the most intriguing electronic music currently on offer. This month, Robin Howells on B.N.M. / P.D.D.G., Charles Cohen, John Heckle, Levantis, Logos, and Visionist.
Artist: B.N.M. / P.D.D.G.
Title: B.N.M. / P.D.D.G.
Label: Principe Discos
Format (release date): 12″/digital (available now)
Principe Discos is on form again, following excellent debut EPs from DJ Marfox and DJ Nigga Fox. Here they issue eight more tracks from the bairros of Lisbon, giving Blacksea Não Maya crew and Piquenos DJs Do Guetto a side apiece. Their music—referred to as batida, literally meaning ‘beat’—distills Angolan and other African and Western genres into functional rhythm tracks. Manufactured for DJ sets, using basic software, it could almost be a form of grime transposed via Salman Rushdie’s idea of a tropical London.
Aside from lacings of astringent synth, B.N.M.’s music is bare bones: electronic drums and a bombardment of sampled hand percussion, spurred on like So Solid Crew’s “Dilemma” by minimal, chanted vocals. P.D.D.G. are more tuneful—incorporating flute, accordion and synthesized brass—but no less hard-hitting. The effect is more laid back than Youngstar’s “Pulse X”, say, but equally propulsive.
The Middle Distance
LP (available now)
The title of Charles Cohen’s blogspot asks, “What’s Charles up to?” The answer seems to be quite a lot. This year, he’s hauled himself and his modular synthesizers on board an open-top double decker bus in Philadelphia, (free ice cream sandwiches to the first fifteen people), turned up at a “phreak ‘n’ queer” arts festival, and played on WFMU with Marshall Allen, to give a few examples. But on this record’s inner sleeve, there’s an essay depicting an artist “completely under the radar”, whose “hiddenness is as critical to his art as the sound he produces.” I’ve got to say, I’d never heard of him. The paradox is that for Cohen, art evidently is performance, which means he’s on show. This would explain why he’s been gigging underground venues and local clubs for decades, while insisting on “the ephemerality of his music,” and refusing to be recorded.
Who knows what changed for Cohen to agree to three LP issues, of which this is the first. What is certain is that it’s a very welcome change of heart. The Middle Distance is all material from 1979-88, when despite his alleged reluctance Cohen was recorded several times. We hear him propulsively rehearsing for a nightclub performance in Philadelphia, soundtracking dance/performance art by Jeff Cain, and getting into a spaced-out, exploratory mood at The University of Texas at El Paso Electronic Music Lab. Cohen only became involved in music after working on theater sound for a modern dance company. He’s called himself a sound designer, claiming not to be a composer or even a musician. (True, he’s an improviser, although the video of Cohen at the Buchla Music Easel will leave you in no doubt that he’s musical.) Given his connection to dancing, along with his way of self-identifying, it’s no coincidence that this album is released on Morphine, the DIY techno label run my Morphosis. There’s plenty of potential to compare Cohen to the weird, modular-esque jams pushed by Morphine as club 12-inches. For example, his technique of repeating a short sequence of pitches while modifying the timbre is also the distinguishing feature of acid and, arguably, dance music in general. One of Cohen’s technically imaginative, bizarrely groovy recordings could easily slot into a DJ set this weekend. Yet it might have passed for an unheard David Tudor composition the previous afternoon. Not bad!
12″ (already available)
The title of another John Heckle 12-inch dubbed him, “the last magic maker,” with some justification. He does seem to have a wizardly intuition for the dynamics of acid and techno, which lift his old-school synth and drum machine jams above the muggles’. The A-side of this record is the Liverpudlian at his bluntest, almost charmless at first compared to his serpentine tunes for the Mathematics and Tabernacle labels. But the muscle of “Birds With Vertigo” turns out no less irresistible. Flocks of divebombing square waves, demented shortwave chatter, alarm sequences, sharp Roland funk; with a bit of luck these should induce a frenzied trance state in the right listening environment.
Spanning the B-side is the title track, named after Chinese tourist attraction White Cloud Mountain. Although this cyclical, nine-minute excursion deviates along the trail of Hieroglyphic Being, it’s nonetheless obviously a homage to Rhythim Is Rhythim. Considering that Heckle is aspiring to techno’s summit (at least as far as stratospheric elegance goes), it’s no insult to say he almost gets there. The feeling of airy enlightenment is essential refreshment after the workout earlier.
12″ (available now)
This sounds like the work of Actress: four intensely wrought palimpsets that could be deleted scenes from his last album R.I.P. The dense sonics—occulted by fog and encrustation, shackled by compression sidechaining—seem to bear his fingerprints. Chiming with the album, moreover, is an emotionally literate narrative which sees doleful bells and demonic choirs slug it out with beatific chords. Fortunately it avoids lesser mortals’ shlock and gloom—dropping the needle feels like slipping through the entrance to Hades, more so than ripping open a portal into Hell. The difference with R.I.P. is that a pendulous kick drum pounds through each track, firmly riveting it in place. It’s fun to imagine DJs insinuating these unsettling dreamscapes into techno sets.
CD/LP (already available)
In a November interview with The Quietus, Logos denies consciously making grime music or using the style as his main blueprint. This makes sense, although it hasn’t stopped nearly every review to date describing Cold Mission as a grime album. For sure he has an affinity with the genre—being a resident at London grime night Boxed—and in small ways the album pays tribute, echoing Wiley’s shotgun FX and Youngstar’s cartoonishly distorted 909 kicks. More abstractly, you might pigeonhole his minimalist compositions alongside Wiley’s beatless ‘Devils’ mixes. Then again, Logos also namechecks Steve Reich and Philip Glass in that department. In the mix with all the above, it’s possible to indentify the glowering turbulence of darkcore jungle (complete with mentasms and spinbacks) and the kind of General MIDI 98 FX 3 (crystal) glissandi you get on a Windham Hill EP of new age electronica. The drums and bass are angularly jumbled and fragmentary. Backgrounds are saturated with rain, TV static and birdsong, perhaps to lessen the initial awkwardness of such unfamiliar rhythms crashing in.
In a nutshell Logos is pretty original. Not totally, as you can’t deny a few of the drum tracks sound like a fussier version of Jam City‘s, but close enough. Another strength is sound design; Logos may be minimal but he’s certainly not too mean to provide a lush, HD listening experience. One problem with this album is the sequencing of tracks. It’s flawless up to the end of the ninth, “E3 Night Flight”, the album’s logical conclusion. Sadly the arc’s destroyed by “Wut It Do”, a collaboration with Mumdance chock-a-block with lairy breakbeats and basslines. Another issue is Cold Mission‘s emotional content, which might be even more abstract than the rhythms. You’ll have to see whether it keeps you coming back for long—maybe, if you can work out what it all means.
12″/digital (available now)
Visionist’s connection to grime here is no more obvious than Logos’, despite coming through on earlier work such as his Snakes EP. “M” and “Secrets” are closer to the techno/dubstep experiments of Martyn and Zomby in their dubby beats and lolloping basslines. Unlike most grime, this music has very few hard edges. Standout features include lonely bleeps and breathy, quasi-Japanese robo-flute, all smothered in a Vaseline and codeine haze. At first it’s pleasantly creepy, but slight, something you could pass on and forget about.
Bit by bit (or maybe just late at night) the EP transforms. Its subtlety becomes addictive and the humid, noirish, slightly sleazy atmosphere becomes harder to resist. It doesn’t need to stand out in terms of boldness or novelty—a reminder that not all the best records jump out and slap you in the face.~
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