Music Review: Jeju 濟州 (Oslated, January 2019)

The tail end of January saw the release of Jeju 濟州 ,the third compilation release by Seoul-based techno label Oslated. The compilation’s namesake is Jeju island, a subtropical volcanic island off the coast of the Korean peninsula, and South Korea’s southernmost province. The island seems to hold a special place in the Korean psyche; its warm climate, beautiful natural landscape and pristine beaches combine to make it an extremely popular holiday destination (among both Koreans and people from elsewhere in Asia), and the island’s relative isolation from the mainland has meant that the people of Jeju have developed a language, culture and customs quite distinct from those of the mainland. It has always been a land apart; during Korea’s Joseon dynasty period, Jeju was used as a place to send political exiles who had fallen out of favour with the court, and shortly after World War 2 it was the site of a bloody political uprising (one in a long line of such uprisings in the islands history). Jeju is also a place richly steeped in myth and folklore, with stories of gods, goddesses, heroes and spirits abounding around the island. These themes – beauty and isolation, mystery and mysticism – are all foregrounded in this latest Oslated compilation, in which label curator Oslon has sought to pay tribute to the island in the form of a diverse selection of techno and techno-like tracks from a wide variety of producers, from both Korea and elsewhere around the globe.

The compilation starts off slowly, easing the listener into things. Opening track ‘Biyangdo (비양도)’ by Cyme is a study in ambient minimalism, using a combination of modulated found sounds – waves crashing, planes flying overhead, insects chittering – and softly glimmering synth tones to create an evocative but sparse soundscape that brings to mind the colours of sunrise playing over the waves. The track seems designed to evoke the image of its namesake (Biyang-do is a small, mountainous island off the coast of Jeju), a theme which runs throughout several tracks on the compilation. It’s followed by ‘Seolmundae (설문대할망)’, which takes its name from the mythological ‘Grandmother Goddess’ who is said to have created the island. Here the New York based artist Earthen Sea puts forward a tune that feels like a dub techno track whose beat has been slowly siphoned away, like sand spilling from a shattered hourglass. Echoes reverberate beneath the sound of static rain, and it is the interplay of reverberation and echo that drives the track forward.

 

The next track, ‘The Rain and the Storm’ by Asymmetric, is a cinematic, anticipation-building number, stirring tension with its nervy arps, staccato drums and percussive hits wrapped in shrouds of glitched-out reverb. It’s only really in the final two minutes of the track that the kick drum really hits – and hits hard – but rather than being a cathartic release, its introduction only seems to further amplify that feeling of anticipation, acting as an excellent bridge between the compilation’s ambient beginnings and the more frenetic tracks that are soon to follow. However, this then leads into ‘Hy’Naku’, by Dutch producer Alume, a move that feels like a slight misstep. It’s an all right tune for sure; deep, psychedelic-sounding cosmic techno, in which layer after layer of sound, some crisp and velvety, some little more than phantom smears of reverb, are layered over crunchy, textured bass and blunt kicks to hypnotic and head-nodding effect. However, the transition from Asymmetric’s track to Alume’s felt awkward and forced, and this track would probably have worked better had it been slotted in somewhere else.

Track 5, ‘Seongsan (성산일출봉) comes courtesy of French producer Xylème , and to my mind is one of the high points of the entire compilation. Tectonically deep rumbling bass propels the track forward, in concert with an offbeat hi-hat that sounds like a match being struck over and over again on a rain-drenched beach. There’s a great deal of sonic depth in the detailing and intricacies of the other sounds Xylème  has strung together here, and I imagine this tune would be absolutely mind-warping if heard on a big sound system. The next track, ‘Evaporite’ by Bmbmd, didn’t impress me quite as much, but it’s a fun tune nonetheless; its low-slung funky bassline groove and snatches of syncopated rhythm make it feel a bit like a technoid mutation of a deep house track.

 

The seventh track is the work of an old Oslated alumnus, Swedish producer Eyvind Blix, whose album Västberga Allé was released on the label last year. Entitled ‘In A Safe Place’, this is another slow-burning, tension building tune. If you stripped away the bass and drums, it might work as a blissful ambient piece, but the rapid-fire bursts of quasi-tribal percussion and subaquatic squelches and bleeps position the track in a darker dimension. Again, however, the transition between this track and the ones preceding and following it feels somewhat jarring, and this is another tune that might have worked better had it been slipped into a different portion of the compilation.

The following tune, ‘Cheonjiyeon (천지연) by Kannabi, is another one of the compilation’s best moments. Named for a famous waterfall on Jeju, the track is full of chaos and character from beginning to end. A dizzying collection of sounds – rubber band twangs, UFO engine noise, classic acid squelches – babble amongst themselves, their wildness barely contained by the dull sinoid thump of the kick attempting to keep everything from falling apart. It’s heady, trippy stuff – there’s a lot for the listener to lose themselves in here – but it seems to be made with a hint of playfulness as well. The ninth track, by contrast – ‘Underground Sea’ by Stigr – seems far more dour and serious in comparison. French producer Stigr takes his title quite literally, using the sounds of water lapping against the shore and what sounds like the digital squeals of cybernetic dolphins to evoke the ‘underground sea’ in question. It’s a pretty good tune, very atmospheric and psychedelic, but doesn’t really measure up against the rest of the compilation, in my opinion.

 

Track 10, ‘Vagabond’ by ASLLAN, seems to have been made with the 4 am basement dancefloor firmly in mind. A huge, galloping kick rhythm keeps time underneath a surging sea of sound, including a percussive rhythm that sounds stitched together from the sounds of old film projectors and rusty scissors, and a high-pitched synthetic whistle that brings to mind the soundtracks of 1960s Western films. Loose, off-kilter tribal percussion, great little drum fills, and exciting but rapid builds and breakdowns make the entire track feel like a blackened techno take on the tropes and styles of UK funky. Track 11, ‘Soggy Eyes to Winter Light’, is far deeper and more cerebral in comparison. Here Korean producer Hyein, whose background is in film and visual art, presents a tune that is as much a work of sonic art as it is a dancefloor track, a deep-space cosmic transmission that sounds like an encrypted signal being beamed down to an abandoned military base deep in a frozen forest. Hyein’s keen sense for rhythm and groove, however, keeps the piece from feeling too abstract or unapproachable; the beat gives it the feel of cutting-edge 21st century electro, and you can most certainly dance to it.

The eleventh track, ‘Oedolgae (외돌개)’ by Leipzig-based artist Kontinum, pairs a rolling bassline with ethereal cycles of synth and bursts of punctuation – like percussion in a way that makes time feel like it no longer exists. This is a very subtle track, the kind of tune that you might need to listen to a few times before it ‘clicks’. Track 13 – ‘Magma’ by Massa – also makes use of a rolling kick-bass rhythm, as well as chasms of dub techno reverb through which squelches of synth appear like veins in the skin of something floating in a vat. Psychedelic scraps of sound begin to crawl and slither out of the murk, appearing and disintegrating faster than a heartbeat.

 

Its at this point that Oslated begins to really bring out the big guns. Track 14 comes courtesy of Volnost boss and longtime Korean techno scene veteran Comarobot. The track’s title – ‘Baengnokdam (백록담)’ – is taken from the name of a massive crater lake situated at the top of Jeju’s Mount Halla, and there is something strangely romantic about it (an odd term to apply to a techno banger, I know). The gusts of synthetic reverb bring to mind windswept mountaintops, while something that is more than just a rhythm, but less than a melody, drives the tune forward, together with the rich, mournful tones of what sounds to me like an electric organ. The drop, when it happens, is definitely the most dramatic moment on the compilation. Comarobot displays a more “classical” approach to techno than any of the other artists on Jeju, but his music is definitely not any weaker for it. The next track, ‘Geomoreum (금오름)’ comes from another Seoul techno stalwart, SCOPÁVIK mastermind Scøpe. Here synthesizer growls and groans almost drown each other out over the stumbling, shuffling rumble of the kick drums, while the rest of the percussion sounds as if it is being twisted and deformed into razor-sharp ribbons of sculpted static. Each time the track seems to settle into the groove, it breaks apart again in a brief but violent moment of cacophony, constantly surprising the listener. This is another tune that I really want to hear on a bigger sound system – I feel like in a club or rave setting it would be absolutely massive.

The final two tracks are less frenetic and intense, slowly winding down from the fever pitch of the compilation’s second half. ‘Sarang (사랑)’ by Swedish artist Skóll  is named after the Korean word for ‘love’, and the rolling bassline, deep, hypnotic pads and liquid sound effects all combine to create a trancey, tranquil atmosphere. The compilation closer comes courtesy of collaboration between Swiss artists Ben Kaczor and Morphing Territories. It’s called ‘Halla (할라)’, after Halla Mountain, the active volcano that is the highest mountain in Korean territory, and that historically has a great deal of spiritual significance in Korean mythology, seen as the home of the gods and spirits in a way somewhat analogous to the role played by Mount Olympus in Greek mythology. The track starts out as a piece of shadowy bleep techno in the vein of Sleeparchive, but the initial sense of menace or darkness begins to gradually crumble with the introduction of deep, digital whalesong chords and jaunty syncopated techno rhythms that sound as if they’re being played on an ancient typewriter. It’s a good end to a good compilation, finishing the intense marathon of techno that went before it on a more calm and meditative note.

Jeju 濟州 is an excellent addition to Oslated’s catalogue, working both as a wide-ranging collection of various talented artists and on another level as a “concept album” representing the mystery and grandeur of Jeju album itself. Several of the tracks on offer here – most notably ‘Soggy Eyes to Winter Light’ and ‘Geumoreum (금오름)’, are arguably some of the high points not only of the compilation album, but of Oslated in general, standing out as some of the strongest individual pieces of music the label has yet to release. It’s not perfect, however. The sequencing of tracks is sometimes unintuitive or jarring, breaking the flow of the compilation. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t be too concerned by this, as generally speaking compilations are not necessarily intended to be listened to the way that albums are, and the flow and sequencing of tracks is of lesser importance, but in the case of Jeju 濟州 I think such criticisms are warranted, as as I’ve mentioned above it seems to be intended to work as both a compilation and a concept album of sorts. Another issue I have with it is that it’s a bit too long, clocking in at 17 tracks. Certain tracks, while not bad by any means, are definitely noticeably weaker than the rest, and the compilation would have been stronger had Oslon been a bit more judicious with his editing and left them on the cutting room floor. Still, these are fairly minor quibbles, and at the end of the day I can still see myself giving Jeju 濟州 a lot of love in the months to come.

Jeju 濟州  is available for purchase over on Oslated’s Bandcamp

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