2012 Editor’s Picks: A.J. Samuels

Words by A.J. Samuels

2012 was the year that I really, really, really wanted to say that men and women in black made better techno—that musicians steeped in industrial music had a more interesting take on all things dark, hard and repetitive.

In fact I did say it, and so did a bunch of other people. But then I took it back because it wasn’t really true… and because standout tech-dustrial ringleader Dominick Fernow is more in camouflage these days. The former Prurient mastermind has consistently released standout twelve-inches and EPs as Vatican Shadow since 2010, though 2012’s September Cell is the pinnacle of his ongoing soundtrack to the War on Terror, with Ghosts of Chechnya hot on its tail. His work is  a nod to Detroit and Brussels—cities that spawned important strains of  shadowy electronics and operate historically as hubs of American and European military industrial complexes. Strangely, this is the music that made me feel like a giddy teenager. On the other hand, an increasingly prominent Berlin-based label owner with whom I spoke at the recent Cut Hands show told me he couldn’t get excited about Fernow’s romping live performances because he “wasn’t a teenager anymore”. Well, then pass me the pimple cream and give me detention.


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That said, surprisingly few other releases by currently associated artists (Andy Stott, Raime and to a lesser extent, Silent Servant), on often grouped together labels (Blackest Ever Black, Bed of Nails, Hospital Productions, Susan Lawly) got me that excited—with the initial exception of Cut Hand’s Black Mamba. And in the end, that turned out to be a pretty mixed bag, too. The blazing title track was my flower of hope, though it eventually wilted in a drought of equals that was the LP (follow-up to 2011’s Afro Noise I). Live, William Bennett’s Heart of Darkness-y footage of Haitian voodoo rituals didn’t leave as bad a taste in my mouth as it did for some, and as is often the case, parts of the album made more sense at high volume. What bothered me wasn’t the subject matter but the one dimensionality of its representation, both sonically and visually.


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And so I looked elsewhere for artists doing the idiosyncratic four-beat amble (tölt!) through uncharted territory. While much of dubstep trotted along now well-trodden paths (or just beat the dead horse), in-betweeners like Cooly G, aka Merissa Campbell, wholly reinterpreted electronic soul with her emotive, futuristic recombination of UK Funky and quiet storm, resulting in music entirely her own. Playin’ me is equal or superior to anything put out on Hyperdub, ever—and light years beyond certain aloof over-Hyped, art-project-y label mates.


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Equally varied though more out there than Hyperdub was Bill Kouliglas’ Berlin-based PAN imprint, which put out quality records by Heatsick (the not un-Daphne-like Déviation) and Lee Gamble (Dutch Tvashar Plumes, Diversions 1994-1996), as well the brilliant Mika Vainio/Kevin Drumm/Axel Dörner/Lucio Capece collaboration, Venexia. Gamble’s Diversions was the most thought provoking of the bunch, as the past 12 months for me have been packed with conversations about the relevance of sample sources and the concepts/ideologies/histories that instrumental music sometimes purports to convey. Seeing Diversions through the one-sheet prism paid off, with knowledge of Gamble’s intentions to deconstruct his personal Jungle history making the frequencies partially recognizable… or so I liked to think.


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But 2012 had even more explicit electronic concept albums with bigger ideas and bigger payoffs, the most massive being Terre Thaemlitz’s 30+ hour SD card ambient (and house) masterpiece Soulnessless. In 5 cantos, texts in a half dozen languages, an accompanying 90-minute video and DJ Sprinkles remixes thrown in for good measure, Thaemlitz has created an epic poem in the language of multimedia. Conceptually, the album is a Hydra of Marxist critique, taking on music labor’s debased value, Japanese immigration policy, and the adverse effects of world religions—with a special focus on the Catholic Church. The idea that the ubiquitous pop cultural concepts of “soulfulness” and “spirituality” are slapped on any and all forms of heartfelt musical performance as a measure of authenticity is particularly salient—and relevant. Indie-fied black metal, upside-down cross fads and continued new age aesthetics as 2012’s mirror manifestations of this skewed metric? If the shoe fits. Thaemlitz’s anti-religiousness has been kind of a game-changer for me. What game you ask? The game of life.


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On the thoroughly enjoyable non-conceptual tip were a series of electronic, groove-based improv albums all drawing from similarly diverse sound sources. Admittedly, the grouping is a bit of a stretch, but listen to the embeds one after the other and hopefully you’ll find the common denominators. Topping the list was Carter Tutti Void’s Transverse, featuring the live, post-industrial psych-tronics of former Throbbing Gristle members Cosey Fan Tutti and Chris Carter and the maximally innovative guitar sound of Factory Floor’s Nik Void. Following close behind was Moritz von Oswald Trio’s predictably dubbier, ear-bending (though not mind-bending) Fetch, as well as two releases by singular minimal maestro Ricardo Villalobos. The first, Dependent and Happy, picked up where previous albums left off, with his signature hollowed out, percussive tech-house shapeshifted by hallucinatory sample riffage and various mic-recorded percussion. The second, Villalobos and Max Loderbauer’s modular-synth heavy “reshaped and remodeled” version of Conrad Schnitzler’s Zug, more than made up for the pair’s disappointing Re:ECM.


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Clone Record’s 3 Drexciya rereleases were also on constant repeat in the listening trifecta of office, home and brain, as was Gerald Donald’s ultra-deep DJ Stingray collab under the guise of NRSB-11 and fellow Detroit-native Terrence Dixon’s Far From The Future Pt. 2. Though still kicking myself for missing Stingray’s appearance at the Panorama Bar a few months ago, I managed to catch Donald as Arpanet in //:aboutblank, which was outstanding—on par with this year’s other live highlights, including Raster Noton’s 15 year anniversary at the Berghain, the Alexander von Schlippenbach Trio at the Exploratorium (with Paul Lovens and the jaw-droppingly impressive Evan Parker), the Fusion Festival (less about the music), Jennifer Walsh’s captivating vocal schizophrenia at QuietCue, Rotterdam Terror Corps hooliganism at The VIP Room, and 3 unforgettable Kraftwerk performances at MoMA (Radioactivity, Trans Europe Express, Techno Pop). 2012 was kind of Chanukka year round for me, so I can’t trip about not getting a sweater or checks from family members I call far too infrequently.


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Honorable mentions:

* Morning Factory – “Analogue Sleepover” off the Clone Jack For Daze series: More please.


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* ProdigyH.N.I.C. 3 Mixtape: He should have stuck with Havoc’s production on the proper release, which unfortunately sucked. Mixtape version is pretty good.


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* Cecilia BartoliMission: The Italian mezzo-soprano donned a scary bald wig to promote her album of sacred baroque music by obscure 17th century composer Agostino Steffani, who, paradoxically, was some kind of evil scheming Machiavellian priest/diplomat . This is one of the few times NPR’s All Music Considered managed to convince me, and I don’t really care about opera. Incredible melodies and digging the harpsichord.


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