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Anyone more than casually interested in the state of techno in South Korea is familiar with Oslated. Originally just a podcast, now a record label home to some of the most interesting and forward-thinking techno produced on the Korean peninsula and beyond, Oslated has become synonymous with deep, dark, intense techno in Seoul. As such, the Oslated nights that they organize – hosted usually either at vurt. or at Volnost – are invariably high-quality affairs, showcasing some of the best talent the label has to offer alongside international guests drawn from shadowy corners of the techno scene all over the world. This past weekend was a very busy one for Oslated; Friday night saw them throw a party with Hong Kong based producer Romi at Volnost, while on Saturday night Oslated took over vurt. for an evening of brooding, psychedelic techno featuring Swiss producer/DJ duo Agonis and Garçon, co-founders of boutique techno label Amenthia Recordings.
Based in Basel – a beautiful city nestled in a corner of the Swiss border where the edges of Switzerland, France and Germany meet – Amenthia Recordings, like Oslated, operates in a more peripheral zone of the global techno scene. While Basel is obviously not as far removed from the Germanic epicentre of the world of techno as Seoul is, it’s still far removed enough that the city’s techno pioneers have seemingly been able to forge their own distinct scene relatively untouched by the tropes and trends that at times appear to constrain the development of the techno sound in bigger, more “hyped” cities. As a result, the releases on Amenthia Recording’s catalogue (the overwhelming majority of which are by label founder Agonis) display the kind of creativity and originality that is sadly becoming a rarer and rarer commodity in the techno industry. I’d be lying if I said that either Agonis or Amenthia co-founder Garçon had ever crossed my radar before last week, but after sitting down and listening through some of the Agonis tracks and Garçon DJ sets available online I was very keen to head down to vurt. and give them a listen, especially given the fact that Agonis would be playing live as opposed to DJing; live techno sets always pique my interest.
An example of what an Agonis set sounds like, courtesy of Taipei techno podcast Smoke Machine.
One thing that sets vurt. apart from other clubs in Seoul, in my opinion, is the consistent quality of the club’s opening and closing acts. Given that the venue hosts so many world-class acts on a regular basis, it would be easy for its resident DJs to pale a little in comparison, which, to be frank, has been my experience at a few of the other clubs in the Korean capital. At vurt., however, I find that each opening and closing DJ is memorable in their own right, which is no mean feat for artists sharing a bill with such big names. Busan transplant Lavera’s opening set on Saturday night was no exception. When I arrived, she was playing a sultry, spacy selection of slow techno to the small but already palpably excited crowd gathered on the dark dancefloor. Bathed in the darkroom-red glow of the vurt. DJ booth, she began to gradually pick up the pace, steadily mixing in heavier and funkier tracks until eventually the audience was catapulted into full-on groove mode. For an opening set it was pretty energetic, but the crowd responded well and it set the bar nice and high for the following acts.
Once Lavera had played her final tune – a psychedelic voodoo-techno roller that sounded like an Aphex Twin track on bath salts – it was Agonis’ turn to step up to the booth. In my experience, DJs tend to take one of two approaches to following on from another set: either they try and maintain the energy level and tempo set by the previous DJ, attempting to create a seamless transition between the two sets, or they “reset” and start building a set from scratch again, starting slow and slowly picking up the pace again. For his live set, Agonis chose the latter approach; he began by piecing together a murky rhythmic soundscape of scrapes, clanks, shrieks and bleeps, still highly danceable but definitely several degrees more abstract than the relatively straightforward techno that had made up the bulk of Lavera’s set. I was struck by the immaculate quality of his sound design; every noise and detail seemed intricately crafted and originally, a showcase of just how much room for creativity there is to be found within the apparently strict boundaries of this kind of music. As the set drew on his sound began to evolve into something more beat-driven, but it was still heady, trippy stuff, a kind of industrial trance sound that mesmerized as much as it moved.
All of this makes Agonis’ set sound kind of dry or academic, music for thinking about rather than dancing to, but in fact nothing could be further from the truth. For all of the downcast mood and cerebral nature of his music, the man definitely still knows how to get a dancefloor moving. He demonstrated a keen command of rhythm throughout his set, and his carefully calculated minimalist percussion work – the gut-punch of kick here, the switchblade flicker of a hi-hat there – inspired some truly impressive dance moves from the people around me on the floor; I witnessed some dancers losing themselves in the music in a way that I hadn’t seen for a long time.
Garçon’s entry in the Oslated podcast series.
Agonis’ thought-provoking and bone-shaking live set was followed by a DJ set from his Amenthia Recordings colleague, Garçon. Clad in a brightly coloured tie-dye shirt, Garçon immediately set about lightening the mood a little, laying down slightly more melodic, looser tracks that acted as the perfect antidote to the storm of ragged-edge synths and remorseless bass that had come before. His tunes, while they still banged hard and fell firmly within deep techno territory, had a kind of warmth to them – something about the character of the bass, maybe, or the occasional jazzy percussion lick – that belied their sparse and brittle structure, as if I was listening to the bones of a deep house set that had been picked clean by a flock of vultures. Something else that really interested me about Garçon’s mixing was the unexpected musicality of it – I was floored by his clever use of key changes and chord progression, to the point where I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that he’s had some classical music training. That kind of harmonic mixing, while not exactly unheard of in the world of techno, certainly doesn’t seem to be as common as it does in some other forms of dance music, and it really helped his set stand out in my memory.
Taken individually, Agonis and Garçon both played stellar sets, but as a back to back duo they really brought out the best in each other. The two sets had a kind of ying-yang quality to them, with Garçon’s playful yet still hard-edged beats providing an excellent counterpoint to the somber tech-trance of Agonis, bringing a much needed sense of levity to an evening of music that, while excellent, had begun to feel like it was taking itself a little too seriously.
By the time it was closing DJ and Oslated label head Oslon’s turn to take over, the crowd had thinned out a little, but there were definitely still enough people dancing that the floor didn’t feel overly empty. Those that left early definitely missed out; Oslon pulled out all the stops, pummeling the audience with a demented array of scorched acid synths, hammer-and-anvil kick-bass combos, squalls of shaped noise and relentless, jittery percussion. It was heavy music, cold and alien and with little in the way of recognizable melody or harmony; but that didn’t stop it from being utterly exhilarating, and the crowd around me was going wild, whooping and cheering with every rapid-fire, effortless track transition. In short, it was a “total stomp, bru”, as ravers back home might say.
Looking back on my overall impression of the night, I’d say that if I had to pinpoint one aspect of the party that really impressed me it would be the variety of it all. Each DJ, while staying firmly within the bounds of techno, had very different interpretations of what “techno” means, and the end result was a constant sense of exploration and adventure that deftly avoided the rut that too many techno nights fall into – stale, monotonous, repetitive sets with little in the way of uniqueness or originality. Instead, each DJ offered the crowd an idiosyncratic musical experience, and the four sets, alongside help from a fantastic crowd, combined to produce and immensely fun and memorable evening. I can’t say I’m surprised – as I’ve mentioned before, I seldom don’t have a good time at vurt., and I have only respect and admiration for the gifted and hardworking Oslated crew – but I certainly am pleased.