ENTRANCE FEE: ₩20 000
In the notes that I took during this event, tapped out hurriedly on my phone during downtime waiting in line for the bathroom, I see I’ve written, in all caps “WHY THE HELL DO YOU EVER GO ANYWHERE ELSE?”. Honestly, it’s a good question. Seoul is full of excellent clubs, each catering to different tastes and each with their own unique charm; but vurt. is something special. I can very clearly remember the first time I ever went there, just over a year ago. Myself and a friend spent an hour trying to find the place, wandering around Hapjeong starting at our phone gps in frustration, until we eventually realised we’d walked straight past it half a dozen times. It’s an easy place to miss; a nondescript wooden door in a wall down a quiet side street, with no sign or other markings indicating it’s presence other than the black-clad doorperson perched outside. Behind the door a narrow staircase leads downwards to another door, and behind that door lies the club itself, a concrete basement where the only source of illumination are slowly strobing lights and strategically-placed tealight candles. It’s a simple, utilitarian layout, not dissimilar to the multitude of other dark techno dens scattered around the world, but it works. More than any other club location I’ve been to in Seoul, stepping into vurt. feels like stepping into a small private universe.
Part of that feeling no doubt stems from the relative isolation of the club. It’s located in Hapjeong, the trendier, more sophisticated older brother to boisterous party neighbourhood Hongdae, and while it’s not exactly a quiet area it’s got nowhere near the same level of raucous bustle as somewhere like Hongdae or Itaewon. Clubs and bars are a little fewer and further spaced out, so it’s less easy to just stumble from one drinking or dancing spot to another. This geographic seclusion, together with the club’s anonymous exterior, means that very few of the people one meets inside vurt. ever seem to have stumbled into the place by mistake. Everyone there seems to be there because they want to be there, because they’ve actively sought the place out. And there are plenty of reasons to seek out vurt.; if you’re into techno of a dark and deep variety, the kind of sound synonymous with a certain Berlin nightclub that stars with “B” and ends with “erghain”, vurt. is the best place in the city to scratch that itch. Not only is the club blessed with a rotating roster of very talented Korean DJs, it also regularly plays host to respected names in techno from all over the world; last year saw sets from Silent Servant, Dasha Rush, Cassegrain, and Sigha, among others.
The cover of Answer Code Request’s second album, Gens, released February this year on Ostgut Ton.
Saturday April 7th saw vurt. offering up a special treat, however; a DJ set by Ostgut Ton luminary and Berghain resident Answer Code Request, currently touring to promote his second album, Gens. Answer Code Request (real name Patrick Gräser), reportedly a childhood friend of Marcel Dettmann, has been Djing since he was 13, but really rose to prominence in 2011 with breakout track “Escape Myself”, released as part of the Subway Into EP on the Answer Code Request imprint, a sub-label of Dettmann’s MDR created especially for the record. The track catapulted Answer Code Request into the ranks of techno stardom, and his debut album, Code, released on Ostgut Ton three years later, served to further solidify his status. Gräser’s idiosyncratic approach to techno immediately made him stand out from his peers. He tends to steer clear of the rigid genre structures preferred by many other producers, blending techno with tropes and details pillaged from breakbeat, jungle, hardcore and ambient music. In an interview with Resident Advisor’s Matt Unicomb conducted earlier this year, Gräser claims that “when I hear only straight 4/4 techno there’s nothing there for me”, and that for him “it’s not always about banging, dark music. There’s something else we can also enjoy – breaks, melodies”. This philosophy towards dance music (which he claims to have some trouble making – he prefers producing ambient tunes) is clearly apparent in his work, which is frequently as impossible to classify as it is immaculately crafted. I was very glad to have the chance to hear one of his sets for myself (he apparently played at vurt. in February of last year, as well, but I wasn’t in the country then) and after spending a week listening to Gens on repeat every chance I got I was almost dead from hype by the time Saturday night rolled around.
“Escape Myself”, the track that catapulted Answer Code Request to techno stardom.
I made sure to get there early so as not to miss much of Suna’s opening set. In my opinion, she’s the best local DJ, techno or otherwise, working in Seoul, and her performances are always something special. Saturday night was no exception. She began with a selection of slow-burning dub techno that gradually morphed into a slightly faster and darker affair, luring the already sizable crowd lingering along the edges of the room onto the dancefloor. The latter part of her set paired agile, nimble beats with ominous atmospheric noise that circled like vultures overhead, a combination of techno moodiness and rhythmic experimentation that complimented the kind of breakbeat-heavy adventurous tunes Answer Code Request would be playing later. I was so entranced by her selections and mixing that when the time came for her set to draw to a close and for Answer Code Request to take to the stage I was actually a little disappointed – at that moment I would have happily listened to Suna play all night.
My disappointment, however, was soon forgotten once Answer Code Request started laying down his first couple of grooves. From the start, it was clear we were in for something very far removed from the stereotypical idea of “dour Berghain techno”; for the first hour of his set there wasn’t a single straight 4/4 beat to be heard. Instead, Answer Code Request played an assortment of rubbery, funky tracks that sounded more like something off of 50 Weapons, Hyperdub or Hessle Audio than they did Ostgut Ton, Nevertheless, the feeling and atmosphere he maintained was still unmistakably techno. Each immense kick sounded as if it had been launched from an underground silo in a secret location, their crushing weight buoyed up by deconstructed and decaying rave leads reminiscent of an old-school hardcore mixtape dug up in a radioactive wasteland. Everything he played felt ever-so-slightly alien – recognizable as techno, but techno playing from an adjacent dimension, or being beamed into the concrete interior of the club by some mysterious future radio station. Or maybe, and more prosaically, from the UK; a lot of the tracks he threw in the mix definitely felt drawn from, or at least influenced by, the dizzying depths of the British hardcore continuum.
Around halfway through, however, Gräser seemed to hit a bit of a rut, swapping out the breaks and polyrhythms he’d been dealing in before for a more straight-laced, direct form of techno. It wasn’t a bad thing, necessarily – even when mixing more conventional 4-to-the-floor tracks he still kept the dancefloor enthralled – but I was a little let down that after such a daring and unconventional start he’d decided to turn back down such a well-worn musical path. To me the change in pace felt especially surprising given what I’d heard about Answer Code Request’s disdain for such formulaic stuff. I wasn’t alone, either; a couple of the people I chatted to outside when I went up for some air expressed a similar confused and vaguely dissatisfied sentiment. That being said, when I went back down I still had a great time dancing even if I what I was dancing to wasn’t quite as sonically interesting as it had been earlier, and towards the end of his set Answer Code Request started to get a little adventurous again, lightening up the shadowy atmosphere with a choice range of warm, bassline-driven house numbers. He finished off with Bicep’s “Glue”, one of the biggest tracks off of their fantastic self-titled debut album that came out last year, and I was struck by what an interesting journey we’d been taken on in the couple of hours he’d been playing; how Gräser’s tracks had covered such a wide musical range while still maintaining such an impressive sense of continuity and coherency. It’s easy to see why Answer Code Request has been able to make a name for himself as one of the most respected resident DJs at one of the most legendary techno institutions on the planet. Even taking account the awkward lag in the middle, his set was still one of the best I’ve ever heard, evidence that Patrick Gräser is a master of his craft.
After the last few claps from “Glue” had been drowned out by whoops and cheers from a rapturous crowd, it was resident DJ Xanexx’s turn to step up behind the decks and close out the night. Following an act like Answer Code Request must be daunting beyond belief, but if Xanexx was feeling the pressure he didn’t show it. With a confident grin plastered on his face, he launched straight into a high-octane burst of raw, twisted bangers. Whereas Suna’s opening set had been heavy on nebulous chords and sullen atmosphere, Xanexx took a more direct approach, favouring rapid-fire percussion and acid-tinged synths that almost – but not quite – verged on trance. It worked brilliantly. Normally, I expect people to start filtering out once the headliner’s set is done (there are unfortunately always going to be those people who are only interested in big international names and have minimal interest in hearing local acts). When I looked around me on the dancefloor about an hour-ish into Xanexx’s set, however, it felt just as full as it had in the middle of Answer Code Request’s – and a whole lot rowdier. By the time the sun had come up outside the crowd inside vurt. had gotten loose as hell and just seemed to be getting looser.
I haven’t spoken about the crowd that night yet, so I’ll take the opportunity to do so now. They were, in a word, lovely. The audience was perhaps 50% European (a lot of French and Germans, which is pretty normal for vurt. and for Seoul in general – wherever there is techno, I find, the Germans come out of the woodwork) – and people were by and large very relaxed and friendly, with none of the standoffish, too-cool-for-chit-chat attitudes that sometimes come with techno hipster territory. Something I really like about vurt. in general is that while it’s a place where I can go to and feel totally comfortable alone, not feeling any pressure to socialise with anyone else if I don’t want to and not feeling judged or looked down on for being by myself, in my experience it’s also really easy to strike up conversation and get to know people there if I want to, which isn’t always the case elsewhere. The balance of solitude and sociability I can find at vurt. is another thing I really love about the place, and as much a part of the attraction as the excellent music, top-notch soundsystem and reasonably-priced (for Seoul, anyway) drinks. I regret not staying to the very end, but by around 7 my feet and knees were beginning to ache and I knew I had to get myself onto the subway home before I found myself passing out on one of the black leather couches in the corner.
Why the hell do I ever go anywhere else, indeed? Based on how great this night was, I don’t intend to go anywhere but vurt. for a little while. Very few other clubs in Seoul can really measure up.
Note: You may have noticed something missing from this article – photographs! I decided not to take any pictures in vurt. … I don’t think they have any policy against it, it just didn’t feel like something I wanted to do in that space. You’ll have to use your imaginations, I’m afraid!