Album Review: Unjin – Hui Gui (Kizen Records, November 2018)

Though they may seem a million miles apart, ambient music and techno are really two sides of the same coin. While they may differ dramatically in function – one form of music being made for relaxing, calming down and spacing out, and the other being made to be moved to – both are similar in that they pull the listener into a world of their own, a psycho-acoustic space in which the all of the burdens of the self and the world beyond are brushed aside, for a brief while at least. On a more mundane level, of course, ambient and techno music often share similar methods and tools of composition, either digital or analogue, and many if not most techno producers have experimented with ambient works and vice versa. The blurring of the lines between techno and ambient music has arguably produced some of the best works in either genre, such as Voices From The Lake’s seminal self-titled album, or Wolfgang Voigt’s sublime GAS project.

Unjin Yeo (a name that anyone with any interest in the Korean techno scene should be very familiar with) is no stranger to ambient music. Though there are many ambient and electronica tracks kicking about in his back catalogue alongside his more floor-focused fare, in recent years he seems to have been drawn more and more to ambient production, as evinced by his recent excellent collaboration with Sunji. His latest album, Hui Gui, the second release on fledgling Japan-based label Kizen Records, is another of his recent ambient explorations. The album was composed primarily using analogue synthesizers and acoustic bass, with a couple of well-chosen guests being called in for remix duty.

In album opener ‘Ties’ Unjin places metallic pulses against a backdrop of static rain. Long, low bass notes cut through the mix like the horns of ships sounding through icy fog, while shards of guitar and fragmented chords float like ribbons around the track’s edges, adding to the cinematic feel of the piece. The watery theme continues into the following track, ‘Hui Gui’. Here, waves of musical texture crash and break against each other, and something that sounds like a distant, distorted church bell rings out a repetitive rhythm. But that description really just scratches the surface; ‘Hui Gui’ is a track full of minute details, a tapestry of sonic intricacies that is easy to get lost in. Unjin’s deployment of texture and timbre here feels very much inspired by dub techno; his soundscape puts me in mind of the work of artists such as Echospace or Pole in the way that it has been constructed. Towards the end of the track, notes begin streaming down towards and shattering upon the foundation of the bass, like a waterfall turning to ice moments before it reaches the ground.

 

 

After the last few echoes of ‘Hui Gui’ have faded away, Swedish producer Ntogn steps up to the plate to provide listeners with a change of pace. His remix of ‘Hui Gui’ takes Unjin’s eerie ambient sounds and contorts them into something more closely resembling straight-up techno, albeit of a hypnotic and trippy variety. A low, organic-sounding growl shifts up and down in pitch over the deep thud of the kick drum and the ticks and scratches and scrapes of the percussion. As the track goes on, otherworldly voices begin to gasp and howl as around them Ntogn contorts scraps of dub-industrial atmosphere into vaguely rhythmic forms. The mix feels both busy and sparse at the same time; there’s a lot going on, many elements at play, but each sonic detail still feels as if it has been allocated adequate space to breathe.

The fourth track, ‘Untitled Space’, takes things back in a more ambient direction, pairing gentle, choir like-pads with chest-rattling drawn-out bass notes that again reminded me of horns – this time more of ancient war horns, shofars or something similar, than of those used by ships in the night. Other sounds, high-pitched and alien, fluctuate in and out of hearing, each one slightly changed from the one that preceded it, but overall I found that this track felt somewhat unfinished, more a tantalizing loop or sketch of something greater than a full track in its own right. The album closes off with another remix, this time of the opening track ‘Ties’ by Hydrangea, a French producer who is a relatively recent addition to the mesmerising techno scene. Like Ntogn, Hydrangea’s remix opts to trade out Unjin’s dark and dreamy ambience for an altogether more beat-driven and danceable affair. An unpredictable double-time kick pattern and sinuous rumble of sub-bass anchor the track to earth while a complex pattern of interlocking and intersecting rhythms radiates through the blackness. Hydrangea appears to have left Unjin’s sound design more or less untouched; most of the sounds she deploys here are recognisable as those from ‘Ties’, but re-sculpted and re-arranged into very different forms, giving the remix a sense of both newness and familiarity. As the mix goes on the pads grow steadily more uplifting and dramatic, until by the track’s climax it feels like it would be better suited to an open-air rave under the stars than to a pitch-black warehouse.

The digital version of Hui Gui comes with two bonus tracks, ‘Atramentum (The End of the Orbit)’ and ‘Tail of Us’. ‘Atramentum (The End of the Orbit)’ is another diversion from the album’s ambient ambitions. A dry, classic-drum-machine sounding kick slices through a liquid miasma of greyscale psychedelia that seems to be constantly mutating and evolving as the track progresses. An indistinct voice chants a mournful mantra as resonant synth tones orbit the body of the tune like the remnants of stars circling the event horizon of a supermassive black hole. The second bonus track, ‘Tail of Us’, makes use of microscopic, clicky kicks, loops of gated static, and warm analogue pads in a way that makes me think that Unjin must have been listening to a lot of Autechre when he was making it, or possibly to Radiohead’s Kid A. It’s a very minimal, ritualistic-sounding tune, and the bareness of its arrangement and soundscape means that even minor changes – the introduction of a snare hit around halfway through, for instance – end up having a massive impact. Both of the bonus tracks are masterful pieces of music, to the point where I am somewhat confused as to why they didn’t make it to the vinyl release, as in my opinion they are the two strongest tracks on Hui Gui.

Hui Gui is a challenging but ultimately rewarding album, the kind that benefits from many close and careful listens. I’ve had it on constant rotation this November, and as winter descends over Seoul (and thick clouds of pollution billow in from China), Unjin’s analogue explorations have provided the perfect soundtrack to, and respite from, this cold, dark, dusty time.

Hui Gui is available for purchase (in either vinyl or digital form) over at Kizen Records’ Bandcamp.

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