South African born/Seoul based/techno is life

Ten years is a long time in the world of electronic music. Scenes and trends change at an incredible pace, and that change is even further accelerated by the hyper-activity and shortened attention spans of the internet age. Over the last decade hundreds, if not thousands, of artists and labels have emerged, seen their stars rise in popularity and prestige, and then faded into obscurity again; victims of an often ruthless music culture where audiences are constantly on the search for something new. The fact that ECI Korea has been around since 2008, then, is a pretty impressive achievement, and speaks to the hard work, dedication and, of course, talent of all the people involved – in particular label founder Unjin, a true stalwart of the Korean techno scene. Unjin has been one of the most instrumental figures in the growth and development of techno music on the Korean peninsula, both as a DJ/producer and as a label manager and party organiser; it’s not an over-exaggeration to say that without Unjin, the Korean techno scene would probably be nowhere near as healthy as it is today. Nor is his influence, and the influence of ECI Korea, limited only to Korea – the label has become a platform for artists from all over Asia, allowing them global reach and facilitating connections and collaborations both within the broader Asian techno scene and between techno scenes in Asia and Europe. It’s fitting, then, that the 10 Years of ECI Korea compilation released to celebrate this milestone in the label’s history features a broad range of artists – from Korea, from elsewhere in Asia, and from other countries around the world. The variety of producers featured on the album serves as a representation of the wide variety of artists who have worked with ECI Korea over the past decade.

 

 

 

The compilation opens with ‘Fascination X’ by Mojave, a swirling, epic ambient track whose crystalline synth-work is reminiscent of Vangelis. It has a sense of cosmic depth to it, but deep within the track’s nebulous clouds of sound there is a feeling of unease, a sense of distant menace that hints at the darkness to come. The next track, “Falling Out” by Shanghai-based artist MIIIA, begins with a haltering, staggering beat and deep, sonar-like bleeps that gradually resolve themselves into a ritualistic rhythm while hisses of static and bursts of noise lend the track an air of controlled chaos. Around the halfway mark the introduction of some shakers transforms the track into something a little vibier, but it never loses its downcast, eyes-down atmosphere. The third tune on the compilation, ‘Space Explorer’ by Italian producer Gennaro Mastrantonio, puts me in mind of the cosmic techno of Samuli Kemppi. It’s a meditative piece of loop-based techno that showcases Mastrantonio’s keen understanding of progression in dance music. Deep and mesmerising though it may be, the thick grittiness of the track’s bassline keeps ‘Space Explorer’ firmly anchored to the dancefloor.

 

The next track, ‘an-i-o-bi-o-ics’ by Taiwanese producer Jing, is notably darker and more aggressive than the three tracks preceding it. Thunderous percussion, cyberpunk-sounding pads and staccato synth riffs give off a kind of “future industrial” sort of feel. It’s a brief track, clocking in at just four minutes and twenty-one seconds. The following tune, ‘Weinfelden’ by Romi, proceeds to take things in a spacier, more introspective direction again. Romi, a Hong Kong based producer and frequent collaborator with Oslated, contributes what is easily one of the best tracks on the entire compilation here. Although each sound he puts to use here is distinctly artificial and machine-like, the overall impression given by the track reminded me of birdsong, or the hushed noise of a dark forest at midnight, warm and organic. He piles on a dizzying array of elements in the track, and yet it never feels overly busy or cluttered – each individual sonic element has its own carefully carved-out space in the mix.

 

 

 

 

Track six, ‘Cogito’ by HWA (aka Elvis T), is by contrast one of the weakest tunes on the compilation in my opinion. The ceaseless beeps that crowd its high-end become obnoxious after the first minute of listening, and the bass, while well processed, is too in your face and unsubtle for my taste. The seventh track, ‘Lights From The Pleiades’ by Dorian Gray, another Italian producer, is a good tune, but at the same time a frustrating one. A deceptively complex bass rumble (when I listened carefully I realised there was a lot going on in that low-end) propels the track forward, while the “light” in the title comes from the ghostly shimmer of synth drifting like smoke over the bassline, gradually coalescing into something that resembles a choir of ethereal voices. It’s masterfully produced, but too short; the track feels like the buildup to something potentially spectacular, but just as I was getting properly into it, it ended.

 

I was excited to listen to track eight, ‘Resplendent’ by Xanexx. Xanexx is one of my favorite Korean DJs by far, to the point where I’ve gone out a few times this year with the specific aim of catching a Xanexx set. His DJing is always transcendentally good, a searing, visceral sonic assault on the dancefloor, and I was very interested in hearing what his production sounded like. Fortunately, he didn’t disappoint. ‘Resplendent’ reminded me a little of the work of Shanghai-based producer Tzusing at first, featuring broken drum rhythms surrounded by a crawling and slithering mass of acid synth, but as the track goes on  the brutality of the drum-work is offset by glowing pads that would have sounded almost angelic if heard in isolation, a sensation of light that grows more and more pronounced until by the end the track is more ethereal than it is aggressive.

 

 

 

The ninth track, ‘Avia’ by UK-born producer Deepbass, sounds to me as if Deepbass was trying to invoke the nostalgic sound of 90s anthem trance, but filtered through a much darker contemporary lens. Insistent, endlessly repeating synth rhythms and helicopter blade bass drive the track forward as the percussion breaks against them like waves crashing on some distant and ancient beach. ‘Avia’ is followed by ‘Control’ by DJ Sodeyama. The Japanese producer is arguably one of the biggest names on the compilation, and his track is definitely one of its standout moments. A powerful kick drum sits front and centre holding everything together while the occult electronics that hiss and sputter and shriek around it menace the listener from the shadows, a host of alien noises that feel somehow alive, as if the synthesizers themselves have somehow gained sentience. From a DJs perspective I think this is probably one of the most interesting tracks on offer here – I can imagine it absolutely devastating dancefloors if mixed right.

 

The penultimate track, ‘Vann’ by Astronomy Domine, is one of the most abstract tunes on offer here. The Sardinian producer first assembles a complex mosaic of found sound and natural noises – rising wind, birdsong, snapping twigs, clinking metal, the splash of raindrops, the crunch of gravel, and about a dozen others I couldn’t even begin to identify – and then takes a dub techno bassline to it like a sledgehammer, smashing the soundscape into fragments that are gradually drowned out by splashes of echo-laden percussion and the occasional slab of gnarled synthetic noise. It leads into the final track on the compilation, ‘Obscured Facts’ by Scøpe. Here Scøpe, who runs the SCOPÁVIK label and podcast and the SCOPÁVIK club nights at vurt., immediately grabs the listeners attention with an infectious combination of growling bassline and syncopated kick drum thud. They’re soon joined by some of the crispest, sharpest hats I’ve ever heard and more undulating pads that once again feel reminiscent of a choir of voices, giving the whole track a kind of gothic ambience. Around the halfway mark the track is overwhelmed by what sounds like a swarm of cybernetic insects, which then begins to degrade and deform, dragging ‘Obscured Facts’ down with it into a spiralling vortex of hypnotic sound.

 

Though it falls flat a couple of times, as an overall listening experience 10 Years of ECI Korea is a fitting tribute to a fine label. Each producer in the collection brings something slightly different to the table, and the blend of ambient or abstract tunes and club-orientated body music cuts means that there’s a little bit of something for everyone here, from home listening techno heads to DJs looking for more secret weapons to get people grooving. Personally, I’m really looking forward to hearing these tunes out on Seoul’s dancefloors over the next few months – and to hopefully another decade (or more!) of quality techno from ECI Korea.

 

10 Years of ECI Korea is available for purchase at ECI Korea’s Bandcamp page.

DATE: 01/09/2018
VENUE: Beton Brut
ENTRANCE FEE: ₩ 20 000

There aren’t many techno producers that I immediately associate with particular tracks; when I think of Ben Klock, for instance, ‘Sub-Zero’ isn’t the first thing to spring to mind, and if someone mentions Shifted I don’t instantly think of ‘Control’. Whenever I think of Ø [Phase], however, I can’t help but think of ‘Binary Opposition (Process One)‘ and ‘Binary Opposition (Process Two)’, for my money two of the most monstrously huge tracks in recent techno history. Released on Belgian label Token in 2012, the two ‘Binary Opposition’ tracks are two variations on the same basic theme: the pulsating bass rhythms, loops of static-laced percussion and metallic synth textures that make up the tracks don’t stand out as particularly original in the world of dark techno, but in this case the whole is definitely more than the sum of its parts, and taken together the Binary Opposition EP has always sounded to me like the perfect crystallization of a particular techno sound, an ur-example of the kind of throbbing, shadowy dance music that has come to define what “techno” means in the 21st century – an impression that was only bolstered by the Binary Opposition remix EP released shortly afterwards, which featured top-shelf remixes from luminaries such as Ben Klock, Planetary Assault Systems and Peter Van Hoesen. Of course, there is more to Ø [Phase] as a DJ and producer than just those two tracks. The London-based artist (real name Ashley Burchett) has been making high-quality techno of a tough and steely nature for decades now, with dozens of releases to his name, and though for some reason he has never quite achieved the same degree of underground superstardom as some of his contemporaries he is nonetheless a master craftsman of greyscale techno.

Ø [Phase]’s Binary Opposition EP is in my opinion one of the best techno releases of the decade.

The venue he was playing in on Saturday night, Beton Brut, is one of the techno joints in Seoul I have often – and unfairly – overlooked. It’s located in Itaewon, just a few doors up the hill from Faust. The club recently underwent some significant renovations, with Beton Brut itself moving into the basement of the building and two smaller bar zones (Rebus and Concrete Bar) apparently opening up on the first and second floors; I say ‘apparently’ because I have yet to see the latter two spaces – on Saturday I was pretty much glued to the dancefloor the entire time. It’s an integral part of the ecology of Seoul techno, alongside vurt. and Volnost; clubs that act as competitors, but also work alongside each other to bolster the local scene (Faust attempts to set itself apart from this scene in certain ways, which I don’t really agree with, but that’s a topic for another time).

beton brut behind bar

Behind the bar at Beton Brut.

When you pay your entrance fee at Beton Brut, you’re given a ticket entitling you to a free drink, common practice at Seoul clubs. What sets Beton Brut a little bit apart, however, is that instead of choosing from a fairly limited set list of free drinks, Beton Brut allows you to choose any drink from the menu as long as it’s under 10 000 won – which, in practice, is most of the drinks available. It’s a small thing but something I really appreciated. After slugging back my free shot of Fireball (I have pleb taste in alcohol, don’t judge me), I ventured onto the dancefloor. It’s probably one of the darkest dancefloors I’ve ever had the pleasure of dancing on, in a totally literal sense – the basement space was black as a moonless night, save for the ominous red glow of the DJ booth and a couple of of intermittently flashing red and white lights near the front. The near-total darkness reminded me a lot of Mystik (RIP), and I have to wonder if the resemblance to such a legendary Seoul venue was deliberate. With it’s high ceiling, bare concrete walls and row of gigantic extractor fans behind the DJ, Beton Brut nailed the “industrial” aesthetic better than any other club I’ve been to in Seoul, and the shadowy nature of the dancefloor meant that I didn’t really waste much time or energy checking out my fellow clubbers, saving me from distraction and allowing me to focus my attention on the music. Warm-up DJ Qna was keeping things at a pretty even pace, playing a selection sludgey, textured tunes that encouraged the listener to close their eyes and drift along to the river of darkness flowing from every speaker. He never ramped things up to too frenetic a pace or tried to get too dramatic with his drops and mixes, which is a good thing in my book – too many opening DJs seem to forget that they’re there to set the scene for the headliner and create an appropriate sense of atmosphere and ambience, and instead tire the crowd out with banger after ill-chosen banger. There was no such egotistical behaviour from Qna, a man who seems well accustomed to the subtle art of the opening set.
Textured” is a word I want to use again to describe a lot of the tracks Ø [Phase] played when he took over from Qna, around 2:30 am. He kept things firmly in the deep end to start with, playing tracks that were slightly faster and more energetic than those favored by Qna, but that were still wrapped in similar ghostly shrouds of sculpted sound and anchored by similarly crushingly heavy kicks. As the set drew on, however, the tone gradually shifted track by track, until at some point – I’m still not sure quite how he got there – Ø [Phase] was playing tunes that could have worked just as well in a particularly dark and aggressive UK funky set, hyper-percussive polyrhythmic techno tracks that made me dance until my legs hurt and kept my feet tapping even when I sat down to take a break. By this time the club had filled up considerably, and by the time it got to 3:30 am the dancefloor had achieved what I think of as perfect density – when there are enough people dancing around you that the place feels full, but spread out enough that it’s possible to move from any given point on the floor to any other point without having to bump or push anyone out of the way. The only time I realised just how many people were in Beton Brut was when I went to the toilet, where I had to stand in line for way longer than I had expected.

beton brut phase

Ø [Phase] working the decks.

By around 4 or 4:30 a.m., the shift from cerebral deep techno to full-blown warehouse bangers had been completed, and Ø [Phase]’s set began to enter true peak-time mode as he threw down storming tracks such as Blawan’s ‘Careless’ (one of the standout numbers from this year’s debut album Wet Will Always Dry) or Dark Sky’s huge techno/UK house crossover hit ‘The Lick’, fingers flying over the four decks in front of him. I should mention here that  Ø [Phase]’s mixing is damn near flawless. His blends and transitions are verrrrry smooth indeed, the kind of ‘couture mixing’ that makes it almost impossible to distinguish the beginning of one track from the end of another. The crowd responded well to him – lots of hands in the air, lots of big smiles, several dudes who felt so moved by the music they felt the need to whip their shirts off – and there was a real sense of camaraderie in the air, the ecstatic communion of strangers coming together to move to the same relentless beat.
My experience made me regret that I’ve been neglecting Beton Brut for so long – it’s a really good venue, one that ticks all the right boxes, from the quality of the resident DJs and soundsystem to the price of drinks. Like Ø [Phase] himself, Beton Brut perhaps suffers a little from being overlooked due to the sheer quantity and quality of the competition, but, as Saturday night proved, both Ø [Phase] and Beton Brut are more than capable of delivering a night of world-class pure techno.

DATE: 25/08/2018
VENUE: Faust
ENTRANCE FEE: ₩ 20 000 (I payed ₩ 30 000 though :/ )

I had to smile at the serendipity of it all when I saw that Perc was booked to play at Faust this past Saturday. As chance would have it I’d been rinsing the London-based producer’s three albums (Wicker and Steel, The Power and The Glory, and Bitter Music) pretty heavily for the past month or so, so it seemed like a stroke of exceptional good fortune to get the chance to see him in the flesh. Perc, or Ali Wells as his mum knows him, is a true giant of contemporary techno. He’s made a name for himself not only as a producer (having released tracks on seminal labels such as Drumcode, CLR and Stroboscopic Artefacts) and as a DJ, but also as a label owner in his own right; his Perc Trax imprint is one of the few labels which I make sure to listen to every single release off of, and he’s been responsible for bringing global attention to fantastic techno artists such as Forward Strategy Group, AnD, Ansome, and Truss. Perc’s production – and to a lesser extent the music he shills on his label – favours techno of a dour and dystopian bent, textured, abrasive tracks that invoke slate grey English skies, drab council estates, and factory chimneys belching out black smoke. He’s part of a vanguard of British producers – including artists such as Surgeon and Shifted – proving that heads-down pounding techno is not just the reserve of Berlin, and that the UK is still a crucial component in the international techno machine.

 

As excited as I was to see Perc DJ, I foolishly ended up missing the first bit of his set – took a nap before I went out, but managed to sleep through my alarm. I got dressed and rushed out as fast as humanly possible once I realised what had happened, but it was past 2 am by the time I got to Faust (Perc started around 1:30), which also meant that I had to pay 30 000 won to get in rather than the 20 000 I’m accustomed to paying. An irritating start to what would fortunately prove to be an amazing night.

The first thing I saw when I walked into Tanzbar was a middle-aged Korean man in blue work overalls and a cowboy hat, grooving to the music with an ecstatic grin plastered over his face. He seemed to sum up the eclectic nature of the crowd in Faust that night, which consisted of everyone from slick hip hop kids in designer tracksuits and bucket hats, to moody neo-goths with facial piercings and black lipstick, to a bunch of guys who looked like they’d just gotten off from work at some chaebol, still decked out in stiff white collar shirts and dress pants. I enjoyed the variety of it all – seeing people seemingly drawn from all kinds of sub-cultures and social scenes, rather than the usual monotonously dressed techno hipsters I’m used to seeing elsewhere (though that being said, I will always have a soft spot for those same techno hipsters, of course). It’s also a good indicator of the health of the scene – the diversity of styles on display implies that there’s a diversity of people being drawn to this kind of music.

I didn’t stay long in Tanzbar, downing my free drink as quickly as possible and then rushing into Faust so that I didn’t miss any more of Perc’s set than I already had. Stepping onto the dancefloor was like walking into a warzone; Perc was busy battering the crowd with a barrage of hard, no-frills percussive techno, every distorted hat or snare or clap hitting with the force of a high-calibre bullet. It was definitely the hardest set I’ve heard all year, and very possibly the hardest set I’ve heard in my entire life. I don’t know if the BPM ever dropped below 130, and the raw and aggressive nature of the sounds flowing out through the speakers felt closer in spirit to industrial metal or thrash punk than it did to most dance music, even though the standard 4/4 kick pattern was present throughout the majority of it. Dark and angry as his tunes were, however, the impact of that darkness was more exhilarating than it was oppressive, inspiring the people around me to cut lose and dance with a lack of restraint relatively unusual in Seoul. That lack of restraint worked against me at a certain point, when the guy I was dancing next to got a little too creative with the shapes he was throwing and elbowed me hard in the jaw, actually managing to knock me to the ground. He apologised, though, and though my jaw was still aching the next day it’s nothing worse than I’ve experienced in the average moshpit back in my (questionable) metalhead days.

perc faust crowd

I found myself thinking that in some ways, Perc’s set felt like the polar opposite of Mike Parker’s set at Faust a couple weekends before. Parker’s deep, hypnotic techno had me in a kind of trance, the music sinking into my subconscious so that in a way I wasn’t even aware of what I was listening to – all I could do was keep dancing. Perc’s selections, by contrast, were up-front and in your face, coming at the audience like a sonic assault by invaders from Planet Rave. His transitions were smooth, obviously, but they were smooth in the same way that a car crash is smooth – one track would become another in the blink of an eye, and for those few seconds the space in between them felt full to the brim with noise and violence.

It was terribly good, but also terribly intense; the pace was unrelenting, and I found myself tiring out quickly (something a lot of other people I spoke to that night were complaining about). Fortunately, whenever my energy flagged or the brutality of Perc’s tracks got a bit too overwhelming I could pop into Tanzbar for a sit and a drink, and zone out to the music of Nicolas Lian, who was playing a comparatively more mellow and soothing (though still suitable for peak time) selection of progressive techno, transcendental electro and blissed-out tech-house. A particular highlight for me was when he played Gui Boratto’s ‘Azzurra’, a track I haven’t listened to in years and that I have some beautiful memories associated with. I was very impressed by the range Nicolas Lian clearly enjoys as a DJ – his set in Tanzbar was worlds apart from the banging late-night acid techno he played when he closed for Mike Parker. I really enjoyed the contrast between his set and Perc’s, and I think without the presence of Tanzbar as a space to chill out in and briefly escape the brutality of Perc’s set for a while the night would have been a lot tougher to get through in one piece.

Perc 1

I needed that little bit of rest and recuperation in Tanzbar, because in the final half an hour of his set Perc pushed the floor to absolute breaking point. The last few tracks he played sounded as if someone had synced an exploding train station to a 909, and each transition between tunes was marked by a cacophonous gale of static and raw noise, accompanied by a flood of white light from the strobes (at this point it must be said that as usual, Faust’s lighting game was on point – they made really excellent use of strobes, floodlights, lasers, fog and all the other usual atmospheric club tricks). At that point, it was easy to forget I was in a nightclub in Itaewon, South Korea; through the power of music Perc had transported the entire crowd through space and time to what felt like a warehouse rave somewhere in the grim north of England circa 1996 (or possibly 2096) – as if Perc was a Time Lord and the DJ booth a TARDIS. By the time he played his final track I never wanted him to step away from the decks, regardless of how much my legs and feet hurt from dancing.

Unfortunately, the closing DJ (Suman)’s set was a bit of an anticlimax. I get that it’s hard to follow someone like Perc, who’s probably one of the best techno Djs on the planet right now, but Suman’s set fell completely flat to me – generic rolling dark techno with little about it to stick in the memory or get the body moving. It was really a let-down, as I was incredibly pumped and excited after Perc’s set and looking forward to dancing more, but there was just nothing about the set that moved me. I gave him half an hour hoping it would pick up, but it never did, so I ended up going home, a little disappointed. This is a recurring problem I have with Faust, actually. They typically book amazing international acts, but their actual residents frequently (not always, but frequently) fail to measure up to the guests, and the sense of continuous flow and musical narrative between the opening, headlining and closing act is often disrupted or just totally absent (which I’ve found is not the case at, say, vurt. or Volnost). Maybe that’s a little harsh – I’ve heard plenty of solid-to-good supporting acts at Faust- but the truth is that I’ll seldom go out of my way to arrive early to catch an opening act or stay late to catch a closing act at Faust, like I do with other techno venues in Seoul. That being said, I’ll forever be grateful to Faust for managing to lure so many world-class acts to Seoul, and I still think that Faust (especially in it’s latest incarnation) ranks as one of the best club experiences available in Korea. And as for Perc, well, Ali Wells brought the goods in a big way – but then I never doubted for a second he would.

 

 

 

Anyone who’s ever been out drinking in South Korea is almost certainly familiar with 소맥 (somaek), a cocktail combining beer (맥주, maekju) and 소주 (soju), the legendarily lethal Korean spirit. Somaek is the kind of drink that can sneak up on you – the beer tends to mask the harshness of the soju, making it easy to overindulge without realizing just how strong this convenience-store special really is. As such, it’s a perfect moniker for the Northern Ireland-born, Korea-based producer DJ 소맥, who makes serene, almost subliminal cloud trap and UK drill beats that don’t immediately catch the listener’s attention, but rather gradually grow on you until before you know it you’ve been sucked down the DJ 소맥 wormhole and he’s all you’ve been listening to for a week.

He’s an incredibly prolific producer, with a ton of tracks and albums available for free download via his netlabel, Il Padrino Records, so for this review I’ll be focusing on just one of his albums, 구리시 (Guri-si). Guri is a satellite city on the eastern fringes of Seoul, and each of the tracks on the album is named after one of the city’s neighbourhoods (with the exception of the title track, 경기도/Gyeonggi-do, which is named for the province that surrounds Seoul). My impression is that the album is intended to be a sonic representation of the city, with each track capturing the feel and atmosphere of particular districts and neighbourhoods, an impression further reinforced by the album video which superimposes day and night footage of the city to great effect.

You can stream 구리시 in its entirety on YouTube.

Album opener, “Gyeonggi-do” (I’m switching from 한글 to English from here on just for ease of writing) is a gentle lullaby of a tune, reminiscent of work by bedroom producers such as Baths. Korean vocal samples (a feature of every track) fade in and around a soft synth melody playing over rising and falling bass tones. It’s followed by title track “Guri-si”, one of the strongest individual tracks on the album that pairs layered chords with a detuned choir of voices and more Korean vocal snippets, this time of a child’s voice. The rest of the work in the track is done by unpredictable, nicely crunchy drums; the percussion builds to a crescendo before all the sound is gradually stripped away, until  only a simple melody, at once heartbreaking and uplifting, is left behind.

The third track, ‘Topyeong-dong’, has a much icier, more menacing feel, channeling the soundscape of early 2000s UK trip hop. The eerie metallic percussion is definitely the standout feature on this slinky opium-den-bass beat. The mood of the following track, brief interlude ‘Inchang-Dong’, is more mournful than menacing thanks to its thick, gauzy clouds of reverb and choral vocal hooks. Track five, ‘Sutaek-dong’, is another of the album’s strongest moments, where fragile, shimmering synth patterns flutter and swirl, threatening to collapse in on themselves, only to be buoyed up by sinuous sub-bass and rattletrap percussive hits.

DJ 소맥 is a prolific producer with several albums available for streaming on YouTube and Soundcloud, such as this one, 야간 번개 (‘Yakan Byeongae’, or ‘Night Lightning’). 

On track 6, ‘Sano-dong’, old-timey piano samples give the tune a jazzy ambience, while a high-pitched, siren-like pad sound simultaneously suffuses it with a sense of dread. The seventh track, ‘Gyomun-dong’, is one of the simplest, pairing a synthetic woodwind melody with 808 kick-thuds. It’s followed by ‘Galmae-dong’, on which a delicate synth melody flows over gentle swelling pads and cavernous percussion like raindrops trickling down a window pane during a summer storm; along with ‘Guri-si’ and ‘Sutaek-dong’, this track stands out in my memory as one of my favorite tunes on the album. The final track, ‘Acheon-dong’, ends things on a pretty dramatic note, and is probably the “trappiest” tune on the album, with a frenetic, endlessly looping lead melody, emotional key stabs, and an ominous bassline taking center-stage.

Overall, I enjoyed the album, even though it isn’t the kind of stuff I generally listen to. I find DJ 소맥’s music works best as “soundtrack music” – stuff to listen to while riding the subway, or mooching moodily around the city, or stating out of a taxi window watching the lights go past at 4 am. If anyone reading this is interested in cloud – or vapor trap music with a Korean twist, you can’t really go wrong with DJ 소맥, and there’s a wealth of material to work through – six albums available for streaming or download, as well as numerous other tunes. My advice is to just pop on the DJ 소맥 playlist on Il Padrino Records’ YouTube channel and float away.

 

구리시 can be streamed via Il Padrino Records’ YouTube channel  and is available for (free!) download at the label’s tumblr page. 

DATE: 11/08/2018
VENUE: Faust
ENTRANCE FEE: ₩ 20 000

I’m always kind of surprised to learn that some of the most renowned DJs and producers in the global techno scene are still holding down day jobs. I wonder how they have the time and energy for it – jetting around the world playing shows on the weekend, and then going back into the office and starting the nine to five grind on Monday. In the case of New York-based deep techno auteur Mike Parker, I think that work-life balance is made a little easier by the fact that he’s an academic, with all the flexible scheduling and copious vacation time that entails. Parker, who has been making techno music for over 20 years and runs his own label, Geophone, is a multi-talented man; he teaches art at the State University of New York, and produces drawings and other works of visual art alongside the hypnotic brand of machine music that has won him fans and renown around the globe. His particular brand of techno falls in the line with the mesmerising, bewitching, chasmically deep sounds championed by producers like Cio D’Or and Donato Dozzy and labels like Semantica and Prologue, the latter of which released Parker’s last album, the excellent Lustrations, a set of three 12 inch records that work as well as a collection of sublime DJ tools as they do a continuous album. Parker is known for the exacting level of attention to detail he brings to his productions; a Mike Parker track is one in which every single minute sound has had its place in the mix meticulously carved out, and where minuscule shifts in sonic texture feel more dramatic and impactful than the biggest, dirtiest EDM drops. With that in mind, I was very happy to get the chance to hear Parker play on the brand-new Faust soundsystem, where that aspect of his music would be able to really come to the fore.

The opening act, regular Faust DJ and stylish mullet rocker Marcus L, played a selection of techno as varied and diverse as the acts typically booked by Faust itself, hitting the crowd with everything from sleek maximalist tech-house to crashing and bumping Stone Age techno. For the most part, though, his tunes sounded to me like variations on mid-2000s minimal techno, only updated for a more modern audience; waves of white noise, punchy kick drums and big drops suitable for the big room. It definitely got a strong reaction out of the crowd, who were whooping and cheering at every dramatic transition. Personally, I felt like the set could have maybe been a bit more coherent or flowed more smoothly – his transitions were all flawless, but I didn’t get a very good sense of narrative or progression from one track to the next, which is half the fun of a good techno set. Nonetheless it was definitely fun to dance to, which at the end of the day is really the point behind, well, dance music.

Monika Faust

Monika dropping some crunchy beats in Tanzbar. 

About ten minutes before Mike Parker was due to start I decided to nip in to Tanzbar to grab a drink, which, depending on your point of view, was either a mistake or a stroke of fortune. I ended up getting completely sucked in by the Tanzbar DJ, UK expat Monika, who was busy laying down an infectiously fun array of glittery nu-disco, rubbery house and acid-inflected funk. What I’d intended to be a quick run to the bar turned into an extended jam session in the tiny dance space between the bar and the couches. I wasn’t alone, either – Monika had amassed quite a crowd around himself, all grinning like lunatics and dancing as wildly as they could in the crowded and confined space.

Dancing to Monika’s music was one of the high points of the night for me, but it did mean that I unfortunately missed a fair chunk of the beginning of Mike Parker’s set. When I finally worked up the willpower to leave Tanzbar and return to Faust itself, stepping through the door was like being abducted by brain-probing aliens from some DMT dimension. All of the signature sonic flourishes from Parker’s productions were on full display in his set: spiraling subterranean bass rhythms, serrated far future bleepery, a raging ocean of liquid noise that obliterated the usual boundaries between percussion and synth or pad and lead. As abstract and hypnotic as the set was, however, it was still intensely, almost overwhelmingly, groovy. A trap that some DJs and producers working on the more psychedelic and moody end of the techno spectrum can fall into is that of losing sight of the fact that at it’s core techno, especially in a club setting, is still fundamentally dance music. Some of Parker’s contemporaries seem to forget that from time to time, crafting tunes and sets that, while sonically rich and musically adventurous, aren’t actually all that fun to move your body to. But as Mike Parker’s set in Faust proved, it’s more than possible to play dark, liquid, mesmerising, trippy techno tunes that still bang like crazy and get people stomping.

Mike Parker Faust 1

Mike Parker surveying the crowd with his trademark unconcerned expression. 

Something else I enjoyed about Parker’s set was the air of absolute serenity the man projects. I don’t think I saw a single expression ever so much as flicker across his face as he gazed over the floor full of frenzied strobe-lit bodies in front of him, his bald head and aquiline features bringing to mind the image of a Roman centurion. But every now and then, when the music reached particular peaks or crescendos (it feels a little inaccurate to call them “drops” – they were far too subtly executed for that) he would stretch his hand out to the audience and make the tiniest indication with his fingers that yes, something exciting was about to happen, looking more like a priest offering his blessing to the congregation than a DJ trying to hype the crowd. It seems a strange thing to say of someone who did so little to interact with the audience and who maintained such an austere and restrained persona behind the decks, but Parker really did feel as if he had a crazy amount of stage presence, if not in the typical sense of the term.

I was kind of disappointed when Parker decided to step down from the decks a little early – he was scheduled to play for 3 hours, but ended his set roughly 20 minutes earlier – but my disappointment was short-lived. The closing act, Nicolas Lian, has apparently been a fixture of the Seoul techno scene since 2012, where he was a resident at legendary now-closed club Quadro, but this was my first time seeing him play. Now, something I’ve noticed with a lot of closing techno acts in Seoul (Xanexx and Oslon spring to mind) is that they often like to close the night out with much faster, more aggressive strains of techno that border on trance at times. Nicolas Lian took this trend in an extreme direction, battering the darkened dancefloor with a series of rapidfire blackened acid tunes that could have worked just as well in a darkpsy set as they did in a techno context. Personally, I loved it – it brought me back to the underground psychedelic trance parties that were my first introduction to the world of raving – but a lot of people on the floor didn’t seem to feel the same way; I saw quite a few of them stop dancing and look confused, and the floor emptied out pretty swiftly. Still though, the small hard core of dancers that remained were clearly super into the sound, and the sudden opening up of the dancefloor (which had felt claustrophobically crowded during the peak of Mike Parker’s set) meant that people could be a little looser and more creative with their dance moves.

It’s a little early to make these kinds of judgements – I reckon I need to wait a little for the afterglow to fade – but as it stands right now, I think Mike Parker’s set at Faust was the best one I’ve heard in 2018 so far (and if you’ve been reading previous entries at all, you’ll know I’ve seen some truly stellar sets this year). The new Faust continues to impress me, and it’s really encouraging that they can book a fairly niche and austere techno act like Parker (whose material, banging as it is, is a far cry from “big room”, mainstream appeal techno) and still have a club packed to the rafters with dancers. The night spoke well to the continued growth and health of the techno scene in Seoul, a scene which Faust seems to be staking a claim as the beating heart of.

DATE: 20/07/2018
VENUE: Faust
ENTRANCE FEE: ₩ 20 000

One of the biggest First World Problems that comes with living in a big city with a lively electronic music scene like Seoul is the excruciatingly difficult choices that have to be made on the weekend. On any given Friday or Saturday night, there are so many great acts, both local and international, playing in the city’s various venues, and only so many places someone can be at once. This Friday past was no exception; I was faced with having to choose between hearing a performance by legend of house music Fred P. (aka Black Jazz Consortium) at Contra, or a showcase by one of the most cutting-edge house labels to emerge in recent years, Lobster Theremin, at Faust. I really struggled to choose between the two (I went so far as to put up a survey in a dance music group on Facebook to help make the decision), but in the end, I chose to go to the Lobster Theremin party instead – honestly, not because I was so interested in seeing Lobster Theremin artists Asquith and Route 8 perform, but because Faust is such a good venue (sorry, Contra).

Faust has long been an important fixture on the Seoul underground nightlife scene. Previously, it used to occupy a spot near the top of Itaewon’s infamous Hooker Hill, surrounded by brothels and love motels; walking up to Faust (especially as a man alone) was always a bit of an eye-opening experience. Earlier this year, however, the club relocated a little bit down the hill, closer to the subway station, at the place previously occupied by club/events venue Sonnendeck. The relocation involved significant renovation and expansion on the part of Faust, with the club now occupying a significantly larger space and kitted out with a state-of-the-art sound system by Kirsch Audio that, at the time of writing, may well be the best one in the entire country. In terms of music on offer, Faust leans towards techno but often features house artists as well, and tends to host artists that have both underground cred as well as a little mainstream appeal; in that sense, it reminds me of Cakeshop, in that it seeks to cater to both deep techno heads alongside a slightly more mainstream audience – a slightly difficult thing to achieve, but one that thus far the management of Faust seems to be managing to pull off quite well.

Behind Faust, a mini-documentary released by Faust in order to promote their new venue. 

On Friday night, Faust’s management had elected to indulge their housier inclinations, providing a venue for modern house label Lobster Theremin’s Seoul leg of their current Asia tour, which label founder Jimmy Asquith and star producer Route 8 embarked on in celebration of the label’s fifth anniversary. Based in London, but providing a home for producers from all around the world, Lobster Theremin have been at the vanguard of a new wave of post-internet house music, releasing a steady flow of singles and EPs remarkably consistent in their quality. They’ve sometimes (lazily, in my opinion) been lumped together with the broader category of “lo-fi house”, but the the adventurous nature of much of the label’s output, together with it’s vinyl-centric approach, sets it apart from the legions of YouTube house dilettantes currently in vogue, even though some of it’s landmark releases have come from lo-fi house icons such as DJ Seinfeld or Ross From Friends.

With all this in mind, I decided to give Fred P. a skip on Friday night and head down to Faust instead. The new Faust is split into two distinct zones: Faust itself, which consists of nothing but dancefloor, and Tanzbar, a more mellow chillout zone where one can buy drinks, mingle and listen to music on a smaller but still respectable soundsystem. I decided to check out Tanzbar first; my free drink ticket was burning a hole in my pocket. Here, everything still feels brand-new, from the bleached wood paneling to red and green neon light fixtures behind the bar (red and green seems to be the official colour scheme of Faust, which honestly I think is a bit of a weird design choice – the colour combination makes me think of ugly Christmas jumpers, not of one of Seoul’s premiere underground clubs). The overall vibe of the place is distinctly retro, like a seaside cocktail bar in the 80s. The Tanzbar DJ was playing an assortment of funky, elastic house tunes, pitched at the perfect volume for the space – it was loud enough to jam to, but soft enough that it was still possible to talk to someone without having to bellow into their ear.

Beyond Tanzbar, inside Faust itself, the vibe was completely different. I’d expected Route 8 to keep things on the more smooth and sultry side at the beginning of his set, but when I walked in he was belting out some hard, bone rattling techno, all staccato acid riffs and crunchy kick drums. The tune really showed off just how immaculate the new Faust’s sound system is. Every sound seemed deep and crisp and clear, and no matter where on the dancefloor I found myself, it felt like I was in the perfect listening spot – clearly some serious acoustic wizardry has gone into the construction of the space.

lobster theremin 1

After another couple of grinding techno tracks, Route 8 changed pace a little, allowing his rhythms to get looser, his basslines more seductive, until we were firmly in house territory. This pattern defined much of his set that night: he would hit the audience with some groovy, soulful house (often vocal-driven) for a bit, allow things to get gradually harder and darker until we were suddenly listening to some heads-down beefy techno once again, only for him to lighten up again a few tracks later, creating a kind of push-pull emotional response on the dancefloor that varied up the pace enough so that the set never felt too boring or predictable and kept me intrigued and dancing for the majority of his time on the decks. A lot of the house numbers he was playing had a distinctly classic feel to them as well, sounding more like tunes he’d dug up from obscure 80s vinyl than lo-fi YouTube hits. Speaking of which, Lobster Theremin often gets lumped in with the “lo-fi house” phenomenon, but nothing I heard from either Route 8 or Asquith that night sounded especially lo-fi to me. If I had to describe the Lobster Theremin sound that night, I’d say it was somehow retro and futuristic at the same time, the house music equivalent of raygun gothic. This sort of retro feel to the night was enhanced by Faust’s lighting; during Route 8’s set, the lighting consisted mainly of slowly-circling colourful spotlights, that made the club feel a little like a Mediterranean disco in the late 70s.

lobster theremin 2

The tone of the night changed a little when it was time for Jimmy Asquith to take over. The first half of his set was definitely a little harder and rougher around the edges than Route 8’s had been, favouring gritty techno over soulful house. His techno tracks still maintained that kind of retro/classic feel, though – a lot of what he was playing wouldn’t have sounded out of place on, say, the Ghost in the Shell PlayStation soundtrack (which is unironically one of the best showcases of 90s techno out there). The lighting inside Faust, as well, featuring more strobing and flashing lights and beams of colour that sliced through the darkness, creating a more intense, “ravier” atmosphere. Around midway through his set, however, Asquith changed up his sound quite dramatically, swapping out thumping kick drums and serrated synth rhythms for the syncopated beats and melancholy pads of UK garage house. The shift was really unexpected, and it took me a little bit to get used to; I actually had to leave the dancefloor at this point for the first time in ages to have a breather and get my bearings a little. When I returned, though, I got back into it, grooving to the more subtle, funky and emotional tunes Asquith was throwing down. Between the music, the lights and the clouds from the fog machine (which were, I shit you not, lemon-scented – probably one of the most Korean things I have ever experienced) it was really easy to lose myself in the moment and slip into that timeless, mesmerised state that to me is one of the biggest draws of dance music and club culture.

Lobster Theremin 3.jpg

I snapped out of it, though, when Asquith decided to throw us a curveball by dropping ‘Miss Jackson’ by OutKast, which, of course, prompted a mass sing-along from everyone in the crowd (especially the foreigners). It was the kind of irreverent, playful move that can really make a set stand out, the kind of thing that I’ve not heard for a little while, given that for the last month or so I’ve been going exclusively to pretty serious, purist techno events. It was a moment that seemed to epitomise a lot of the seemingly contradictory qualities of Lobster Theremin, a label who over the last five years have shown they are not afraid to appeal to the everyday punter on the dancefloor as well as the more cerebral dance music heads haunting internet comment sections – a quality they share with the management behind Faust.

Shortly afterwards, Asquith stepped down from the decks and it was time for local DJ and producer Messiahwaits to close out the night. Once again, there was a significant sonic shift, with Messiahwaits following Asquith’s garage and hip hop inflected house with some twisty, trippy psychedelic techno, all rich metallic textures and ghostly echoes. It was maybe a bit too much of a deviation from what had gone before, and a lot of the people on the floor filtered out almost instantly, though that may just have been because they were tired – it was, after all, around 5 am at this point. For what it’s worth though, I enjoyed the closing set – none of the tunes sounded familiar or predictable to me at all, which for someone who listens to a lot of techno is kind of hard to come by. I can also see why so many people had to call it a night, though; at this point many of the dancers seemed decidedly worse for wear, alcohol wise. There was a lot of stumbling and slurred speech going on, and one person passed out in the stairway long enough that eventually paramedics had to be called. It’s not exactly an unusual sight in Itaewon on a Friday night, of course, but to me at least seeing stuff like that always sours the mood a little.

Hard as it was to make, by the end of the night I was sure I had made the right choice. Route 8 and Asquith’s sets complimented each other well, and between them they struck a nice balance between forward-thinking, exciting sounds, tried and tested formulas, and tongue-in-cheek-playfulness. And as a venue, the relocated Faust is truly quite remarkable, and represents an exponential step forward for the underground music scene in Seoul. I only hope that they can make a success of it; keeping a nightclub afloat isn’t easy, and it looks like some serious cash has been invested in Faust’s renovation. However, judging by the size and enthusiasm of the crowd on Friday night, I’m sure they’re not having too much difficulty getting people through the doors.

Over the last few years the Georgian capital of Tbilisi has garnered a reputation for having one of the best techno scenes in the world – a surprising turn of events, perhaps, given the former Soviet republic’s tumultuous past and difficult present. The strength of the Georgian scene – and it’s particular political dimensions – was further demonstrated earlier this year, when police raids on the legendary club Bassiani sparked off a gigantic ‘protest rave’ outside of the Georgian parliament buildings which, in all honesty, looks like it may well have been the best party of 2018. It seems that if you’re into techno, Georgia is a good place to be, whether you’re a producer, a DJ or just a fan.

One of the many talented producers to have come out of this scene is Saphileaum, aka Andro Gogibedashvili. He’s released on Oslated before, having contributed a sultry ambient techno remix of ‘Karusellplan’ for Eyvind Blix’s album Västberga Allé. Now he’s back with his first album for Oslated, Uninhibited Kingdom, a painstakingly assembled collection of mind-bending dub techno cuts.

Album opener ‘No Clue of Life’ is a brooding, slow-burning piece of quasi-ambient techno, combining insectile noises, psychedelic sounds and sanded-down synth stabs with a hollowed-out kick rhythm that seems to be there more to mark time than to inspire movement. The sound design is impressive, but overall something about the track is a little lacking to my ears – it’s probably my least favourite tune on the album, and the one I found myself skipping most often on re-listens. Fortunately, however, it’s followed up by ‘Lost in the Forest’, which is easily one of the strongest tracks Saphileaum has on offer here. The soundscape reminded me a little of the kinds of noises found in some of the darker varieties of psytrance: alien-sounding bubbling and bleeping, ethnic hand-drum percussion samples, but the reverb-heavy loping kick pattern they were bolted on top of made it very clear that we were very much deep in dub-techno territory. Around midway through the appearance a series of piercing minor-key synth chords really kicks the track into a higher gear; it becomes completely hypnotic and bewitching, and I can easily imagine it absolutely devastating certain kinds of dancefloors in the hands of the right DJ.

Lost in the Forest is a strong contender for the title of ‘best track’ on the album. 

The next track, ‘Abandoned Fortress’, is by contrast much warmer and gentler. Featuring another shuffled beat, the track uses soft, sometimes euphoric evolving pads, a perky offbeat melody and some more interesting tribal percussion loops and rhythms to create a soothing sense of calm and tranquility; it evokes the abandoned fortress of the title, sure, but rather than being a grim and desolate place, this abandoned fortress is lush with tropical plants and crowded with wild animals, teeming with life, like Chernobyl in the years after it was abandoned by humanity.

The happy, upbeat tone of ‘Abandoned Fortress’ doesn’t linger for long, however. ‘Treated by Herbs and Fire’ is a serious and dramatic piece, once again featuring the now-familiar staggered kick rhythm and pairing it with resonant metal-on-metal percussion. A cosmic abyss of bass undulates throughout the track, accompanied by the sounds of chanting voices that rise and fall like a strip of ribbon twisting through the air. Snatches of digital birdsong and stark bursts of saw-wave complete the piece, and when taken together the whole thing feels as if it would work well as the soundtrack to something or other, though I’m not sure exactly what. The final original track on the album, ‘Dual Expression’, maintains a similar sort of tone and atmosphere: vintage-sounding synth tones echo beneath a high-pitched ringing sound, like the sound of noise being coaxed from the rim of a wine glass, highlighted by more drum-circle polyrhythms, all firmly anchored by a classic dub beat. The strong sound design on display here merits special mention once again; the subtly phased and layered snare drum, the rise and fall of pads evoking the sound of whalesong, the way that all of the intricate percussive elements sweep and glide around one another.

The next four tracks on the album are all remixes by various Oslated affiliates. The first is a remix of the album opener, “No Clue of Life”, by Spanish-born, Vietnam based producer Javier Marimon. Marimon’s remix takes things a little deeper, by and large preserving the labyrinthine sonic details and effects of the original, but layering them over a sinuous Northern Electronics-style wave of sub-bass. There’s no real sense of progress here; sounds simply play off of themselves, repeat and refract into infinity, creating a sense of darkened ambience, like shadows dancing around the edge of a mirror. Marimon’s remix is followed by a remix of ‘Lost in the Forest’ by Romi. In this mix Romi, currently based in Hong Kong, serves up a claustrophobic, paranoid take on Saphileaum’s dubby roller; noxious pads descend over the track’s distant sub-bass rumble like chem-trails spewing out from a squadron unmarked jet-black fighter planes, while halfway through an urgent shaker rhythm and acid-like bass and synth squelches lend the tune a feeling of groove and movement.

Vice City’s remix of Treated by Herbs and Fire is a personal favourite of mine.

The next remix, a version of ‘Treated by Herbs and Fire’ by Vice City, is far and away my favourite track on the entire album. Vice City, who hails from Taiwan, reportedly draws her inspiration from nature, science, philosophy and mythology, and I felt like I could catch a glimpse of some of these inspirations while listening to this remix. Her command of sound design and construction is, in a word, exquisite; within the first 20 seconds of the mix I had already become thoroughly lost within all of the dizzying richness and texture of the track. It’s as if she had carefully dissected Saphileaum’s original track one precise incision at a time, eventually pulling it wide open to reveal entire unexpected universes within. She preserves a lot of the original chords and patterns of the original, but presents them to the listener in stunningly imaginative and unexpected ways. It’s a largely ambient piece, but a beat does slowly emerge over the course of the track – slowly and haltingly, shuddering every step of the way and threatening to collapse in on itself at any moment, until all of a sudden it comes into focus fully formed and ready to kill. This is another track that I can imagine being incredibly effective if mixed into the right set, though it would take a lot of skill on the part of the DJ in order to pull it off correctly.

The final tune on the album, a remix of “Dual Expression” by Sanjib, places the emphasis firmly on the production. Sanjib is a side-project of techno producer Jibis, who operates out of Lyon, France; Sanjib is apparently the moniker he uses for more “emotional” or personal projects. For this remix, he takes the hints of tribal techno scattered throughout Saphileaum’s debut and brings them to the fore, creating one of the most directly dancefloor-oriented cuts on album as a result; I can easily imagine that I’ll be hearing this particular track on the floor of vurt. or Volnost over the next few months. Of particular delight is the crushing bassweight of the piece – the sub really sinks into your bones – and the rattling, clanking percussion fills, like the sound of a box of pots and pans falling down a spiral steel staircase, but in reverse. It’s a good tune, for sure, but sadly I think it’s a bit overshadowed by the excellence of the Vice City remix that came before – personally, I would have rather the album ended with that.

Uninhibited Kingdom is an impressive album. Saphileaum has a fantastic ear for soundcraft, and his original tracks successfully invoke a wide variety of feelings and emotions in the listener. If I have a small complaint, it’s that his sound pallette felt a little limited at times; I heard variations of the same set of sounds being used in just about every track. Then again, this may have been a deliberate decision on his part – it has the effect of creating a sense of continuity and coherency throughout the album. I would have still preferred it if he’d stretched himself a little more, though, but that’s just my opinion. And thankfully, the four remixers do a great job of adding in some new elements and changing up the pace and atmosphere of the album, so overall the whole thing still works very well as a continuous listen. If, like me, you have a soft spot for dub techno, I can definitely recommend giving Uninhibited Kingdom a spin.

Uninhibited Kingdom is available for purchase over at Oslated’s Bandcamp

DATE: 30/06/208

ENTRANCE FEE: 30 000

I’m kind of surprised it’s taken me this long to go to a Constant Value event. The party has been on my radar for a long time; a classic warehouse-style rave, held in a secret location somewhere in an industrial corner of the city, with entrance allowed only to those on a pre-approved guest list. It comes up in conversation a lot in and around clubs in Seoul, and everyone who talks about it does so with a bit of a gleam in their eyes. Constant Value, I’ve been told, is crazy; it’s wild; it’s intense; nothing else in Korea is quite like it. 

A lot of hype, in other words, but from what I could tell the hype seemed to be fairly justified. Beginning in 2015, the Constant Value collective has been steadily growing in influence and reputation. They’ve hosted some heavyweight experimental techno names in Seoul – including Ancient Methods, Samuel Kerridge, and  Giegling‘s already legendary Planet Giegling tour – and have themselves been invited to play at events around the world, bringing their distinct sound and energy to appreciative crowds from Tokyo to Berlin. In addition to organizing, curating and playing at parties, the Constant Value crew has also founded a record label with a small but impressive roster of releases, bringing to light innovative, cutting-edge techno from both Korean and international artists.

As it so happens, their guests last Saturday night, Champ Libre, are one of the artists (or groups of artists, rather) who have had a release on the Constant Value label. The Champ Libre crew originate from France, and consist of DJs SpunOff and Size Pier, VJ Gildas Madelénat, and mysterious “four handed music research laboratory” Second Spectre (among others). Shadowy and mysterious seems to be their modus operandi; I was able to find precious little information on them online. What I did find, though, were several intriguing releases on their Bandcamp, such as this compilation, which showcases a variety of unsettling, menacing cuts of deep yet noisy industrial-tinged experimental dance music that reminded me of some of the more abrasive singles from Stroboscopic Artefacts. Honestly, I would probably have gone to Constant Value regardless of who was playing – I was just keen to check out the party – but listening to the tunes put out by Champ Libre definitely heightened up my excitement and curiosity. I signed up for the guest list, received the location in an e-mail sent out a couple days before the event, and around midnight on Saturday night made my way out into the great unknown.

One of the tracks Second Spectre has released on the Constant Value label.

The rave was held in the basement of an industrial space – a printworks, I believe – on the eastern side of Seoul, a far cry from the bustling party hotspots of Hongdae and Itaewon. Initially I was a little concerned about not being able to find the place, but I needn’t have worried; the directions given in the e-mail were clear enough, and anyway once I got close enough it was easy to follow the distant throb and thump of the bass until I found myself practically stumbling across the venue. A crowd of ravers congregated on the steps outside (almost every one of them dressed in black, of course) smoking and chatting quietly so as not to bring the ire of any neighbours down on the party. I made my way inside, checked my name off of the list, paid my entrance fee and descended towards the dancefloor.

Now, I’d heard from a lot of people how wild Constant Value was, and I’ve been to more than a few crazy raves in the past, but I still think I had underestimated just how intense it was going to be. From the moment I stepped onto the dance space, I realised that we were in for one hell of a night. In front of me was a mob of dancing bodies half-submerged in a thick haze of smoke machines and strobelights. Around the edges of the actual dancefloor, defined by a semi-translucent plastic curtain, people stood taking in the music or queuing for drinks, bathed in the glow of a mysterious red light whose source I couldn’t locate no matter how hard I searched for it. A series of incomprehensible organic-seeming images flickered in and out of place behind the DJs, adding to the surreal atmosphere of the event. The whole thing felt like an industrial rave as imagined by Hieronymous Bosch.

On the subject of drinks, this is probably as good a place as any to mention one of the most appealing things about Constant Value: the open bar. Presumably, they don’t have a license to sell booze on the premises, so instead they hand it out for free – and the “bar” was surprisingly well stocked. Now, back home, any open bar gets decimated in an hour, tops, and anyone arriving too late is left thirsty. But this is Korea, of course, so people were fairly restrained and considerate, and I found that it never took too long to get a drink, and that the bar remained pretty well stocked surprisingly late into the night, though of course it did run dry eventually. It was really great not to have to fork over extra cash every time I wanted a beer, and considering the cover charge was only ₩10 000 more than normal club cover I’d say in this respect Constant Value is a definite bargain.

SpunOff, one of the Champ Libre DJs who played that night, has several excellent tunes under his belt. This is one of them.

Musically speaking, the show put on by the Champ Libre crew (Constant Value founder and live techno wizard EEXXPPOANN was also on the bill, but sadly I think I missed his set) seemed to owe as much to noise music as it did to techno, invoking the sound and energy of artists such as Whitehouse, Merzbow and Prurient alongside that of Surgeon or Regis. Every sound of their set (I’m talking about them as a collective, because between the smoke, the lights and the visuals it got pretty difficult pretty quick to keep track of who was playing when) seemed suffused with ferocity and aggression: distorted blast beats, warped waves of ragged white noise, guttural synth tones that sounded like they’d been scorched to cinders in a firebombing or dragged through tangled webs of barbed wire. And it was fast, furiously fast, every kickdrum firing out from the speakers at a blistering pace. With all that being said, however, at no point did I find anything they were playing difficult to dance to, abstract as it was. Everything was still definitely body music, music to move to rather than just to intellectually appreciate, though I’m not sure if a more casual EDM crowd would have agreed. But clearly, throwing shapes and busting moves to experimental machine noise was no problem for the hardened techno veterans on the floor, since everyone around me was dancing as if their life depended on it. In an article for Resident Advisor on electronic music in east Asia, Tobias Burgers mentions that the vibe he got from the Constant Value he attended “felt more like a punk concert than a techno gig”, and I could kind of see what he meant- the dancefloor had that same raw and unpredictable kind of energy.

The only downside to the night was the heat. Seoul in summer is basically an oven; it gets oppressively hot and humid around this time of year, and the warm evening, combined with the lack of ventilation in the basement and the mass of moving bodies, meant that it got unbearably hot pretty quickly – me and the friend I was with kept on having to take breaks from dancing, a little more regularly than I would have liked, in order to go upstairs, get some air and cool down. It wasn’t all bad, though, as it meant there were plenty of opportunities to chat with the other party-goers for a bit, and just about everyone I spoke to there was pretty friendly and interesting. Paradoxically, the elitist nature of the party – the distant, “secret” location, the lack of advertising, the refusal to admit anyone not already on the guest list – actually contributed, I think, to making people more open and friendly than they’d perhaps be in a club setting. Since all of us had made some degree of effort to get there, you could be assured that everyone was “into” the music and the scene a little more seriously than most, and that shared passion and intensity made for a great sense of camaraderie. Of course, this is by no means unique to the Seoul techno scene; it’s a defining aspect of underground raves everywhere, and has been for decades.

As the night wore on, the music mellowed out a little bit, placing less emphasis on rawness and noise and more on rhythm and groove. That’s only relatively speaking, though – I’d say it was still several degrees rougher and harder than anything I’d heard out on a normal club night. At this point in the night the bar had finally begun to run a little dry, but people didn’t seem to mind. The crowd was still going strong, though, happily settling into that post-peak time hypnotic trance-dance which is very often the best part of the night. For the first time that night I felt like I really had a chance to appreciate the visualisations being summoned up by the team of VJs, which were really arresting – a constantly evolving series of shapes and forms, sometimes fluid and biological, sometimes hard and geometric. Clearly, Constant Value takes the visual aspect of their gigs as seriously as they do the music, an approach which really paid off in terms of creating a compelling and otherworldly atmosphere.

I really can’t stress enough what a special experience this party was. The Constant Value crew are doing something truly spectacular, going above and beyond to create a true, unconstrained and totally immersive techno experience; calling it simply “a party” or “an event” or even “a rave” feels like a complete understatement – this was “the rave” as an art form. Hypothetically, if a travelling techno fan had only one night to spend in Seoul, and could only attend one singular event, I’d probably recommend Constant Value to them – no matter how near and dear many of the club venues in this city are to my heart, Constant Value was simply on a whole different level, operating in a different dimension of dance. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go sign up for the next one.

Jeju Digital is probably one of the most interesting musical projects to have come out of the Korean peninsula in recent years. The label, which specialises in vaporwave, mallsoft and various other kinds of post-internet electronica is run by an English expatriate in Korea, and releases music by artists scattered around the globe, but honestly the identities of the people behind Jeju Digital aren’t that important. What’s far more fascinating than the real-world biographies of artists like Clear State is the elaborate cyberpunk mythology that the label has constructed around itself. Within this musical mythos, “Jeju Digital” is the name of a near-future chaebol-turned-cyberpunk-megacorp, a vast conglomerate that controls everything and everything in Jeju Digital’s imagined dystopia, where Scientology has become the official global religion and the cutting edge of technology has achieved its inevitable apotheosis as the perfect vector of social control. There’s a narrative of sorts that emerges in the various Jeju Digital music and video releases, though a lot of it is deliberately opaque and unclear; some of the “story” takes place in the distant future, some in the recent past, and some of the releases are presented as pieces of the past re-interpreted and distorted by the Jeju Digital megacorp as part of their ongoing efforts to brainwash and stupefy the masses in order to crush any hope of dissent.

It’s heady stuff, and even if the music was sub-par the label would be interesting based purely on the merits of its worldbuilding and storytelling. Fortunately, that’s not the case – the music stands strong on it’s own merits, not just as a medium for another narrative to be told. This is very evident in the case of Walled City. The work of a UK-born, New York-based artist going by the name of Clear State (which is in itself a term in Scientology referring to one of the mental states achievable through the practice of dianetics – a state free of the trauma of past lives), Walled City presents listeners with a rich and evocative musical journey, influenced by vaporwave but not beholden to it and produced almost entirely via modular synthesis.

The album opener, “Disconnection”, is a pretty but unremarkable work of ambient vaporwave, pairing swirls of retro synth with a simple muffled beat. Things take a turn for the darker on the next track, however; entitled “Engrams” – a Scientology term for the suppressed memory of a traumatic event occurring in a past life – it combines a menacing, growling bassline with fragile pads that sound as if they’re beginning to flake away at the edges and a downcast, minor-key synth melody. The breakbeat that propels the latter half of the track forward pushes “Engrams” into something approaching drum and bass territory, and the net effect of all of this is intensely evocative, bringing to mind the image of high-tech police helicopters gliding over a neon-drenched city. It’s an early high point, and to my ears one of the best tracks on the album. It’s followed by “Freewinds”, a track that sounds like exactly that – digital wind gusting through the streets of a virtual city. The faint hint of a melodic hook flickers in and out of hearing, periodically punctuated by the dull boom of a kick drum, like an explosion in a far-off place sampled from a late night news channel.

Technological Singularity uses robotic vocal snippets to explicitly state Walled City’s thematic concerns.

With the fourth track, “Technological Singularity”, Walled City’s concept album ambitions are a little more explicitly expressed. It’s essentially a spoken word piece; plastic arpeggios and kamikaze dives of bass provide a sonic backdrop for a robotic female voice as it describes the album’s sci-fi setting to the listener, a dystopian post-Singularity world in which artificial intelligence has come to dominate and human beings find themselves “governed, policed and judged by… disembodied agents of the post-human era”. Things seem bleak, until a second, male-sounding mechanical voice begins intoning a message of resistance, declaring that “now is the advent of that human renaissance”.

The next track, “Saturatas”, takes the album in a more ambient direction. The sound of what could as easily be the crackle of a forest fire as it could be the soft fall of rain is punctuated by bright constellations of synthetic melody, all anchored to earth by the warm rumble of analogue bass. “Type 209”, by contrast, is far more ominous. Swells of wailing synth desperately struggle to escape the track’s orbit before crashing back down into the sonic darkness below, overwhelmed by their own gravity; diamond-edged arpeggios and what sounds like a 90’s anthemic trance lead muffled by a fog of codeine slice what’s left of them into slivers. The whole thing feels very reminiscent of Vangelis’ iconic Blade Runner soundtrack, and is definitely another high point in the album.

Track 7, “Maintenance of Order”, features the return of the robotic voices of “Technological Singularity”, and initially feels like a reprise of sort, with its synths and arpeggios feeling cut from the same cloth. However, it quickly sets itself apart from its predecessor when the percussion kicks in, turning the track into a retrowave groove given a sense of energy and movement by it’s muscular bassline, punchy drums and sharp claps. The snatches of intoned dialogue – “consumption drives productivity”, “punishable by imprisonment”, “the leadership of our nation” – is a lot less clear, this time overwhelmed by, rather than scaffolded by, the sounds enveloping it; a metaphor, maybe, for how meaning is so easily lost in the endless flood of information-consumption that we in the present time find ourselves trapped within.

Title track Walled City is a nine minute electronic odyssey.

There’s a brief, 2 minute interlude – “Simulated Bliss”, whose cybernetic parrot chattering could almost pass for a foray into noise music – before the voices return again, even more blurred and degraded than before, in “Restimulation”. Hollow, mournful tones form the backdrop to a series of ominous sentences “they are trying to do this in the name of security” being one that I found especially chilling – that feel as if they’re fading from hearing before the brain has even had time to process them. The overall impression is of a machine intelligence gradually dissolving, like HAL singing “Daisy, Daisy” as Dave pulls out his memory tapes in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then there’s another ambient interlude of sorts, albeit a much longer one – “Rotating”, which catapults the listener away from cyberpunk streets and virtual concentration camps and out into the depths of space – before the album reaches its climactic point, titular track “Walled City”. It’s a massive piece – nine and half minutes long – that pairs more rain sounds and piercing peals of vintage-sounding synth with a deep bass pulse that, if sped up a bit, wouldn’t feel out of place in thumping dark techno track. The various sonic elements slowly come together to form a crystalline, infectious melody, while a vocoded voice intones indecipherable subliminal messages and yet another frantic arpeggio ramps up the sense of sonic drama. Finally, the album closes with “Pulses”, whose synthetic chords sound almost like violins and whose foundation of grainy static threatens to crumble at any moment, melting away as a police siren wails in the deep distance.

Overall, Walled City is a very strong album. I found it really rewarded repeat listening – each time I listened to it (generally while on the subway somewhere around Seoul; it made for great travel music) I found some new detail or flourish I hadn’t noticed before. I’ll confess I wasn’t the biggest fan of the spoken word tracks; they were maybe a bit too heavy-handed and on the nose for my liking, but I understand what Clear State was trying to do with them and why they were included, within the context of the album and in context of the Jeju Digital mythos as a whole. Vaporwave and it’s dozens of related sub-genres might have more than a few detractors, and some of those detractors may have some valid points, but as Walled City demonstrates it’s still a genre within which there’s a lot of room for creativity. I’m looking forward to diving deeper into the Jeju Digital back catalogue; there’ll definitely be more reviews of this label’s output coming soon.

Walled City is available for purchase over on Jeju Digital’s Bandcamp

DATE: 01/06/2018
VENUE: vurt.
ENTRANCE FEE: ₩ 20 000

Since I moved to Seoul over a year ago, I’ve been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to see sets and performances from many of my favourite DJs and producers, artists that, when I was still living in distant, isolated South Africa I could only ever have dreamed of seeing. One of the benefits of living in such a massive metropolis with such a thriving electronic music underground is that many, many artists, big or small, pass through the city, and just about every weekend I’m spoiled for choice in terms of which international acts I feel like dancing to. That being said, I’ve never been quite so excited as when I saw that Cio d’Or was scheduled to play at vurt. Nearly a decade ago, when I was young and relatively innocent and I still listened primarily to indie rock and metal music, a friend of mine gave me a copy of Cio d’Ors glorious debut album Die Faser and, well, it sounds hyperbolic but it kind of changed my life. I’d never heard music like it before, and that album kickstarted a deep and abiding passion for techno (and, later, for electronic music in general) that remains with me to this day (and is the reason I started writing this blog in the first place!). I’ve been a massive fan of hers for years, both of her production and of the many quality DJ mixes she’s released online (in my opinion her On Clouds 11 mix is one of the best techno mixes on the entire internet). So to say I was excited about getting the chance to seeing her DJ, especially getting the chance to see her DJ at my favourite club in Seoul, is a bit of an understatement.

Goldbrokat by Cio d’Or, one of the best tracks off of her debut album, Die Faser.

A native of Munich currently residing in Cologne, Cio d’Or has been active as a DJ and producer of techno music since the late ‘90s, when she began Djing at Ultraschall, a club in her Bavarian hometown considered by many to be one of the flagship institutions of the ‘90s German rave scene. Cio later went on to curate her own series of parties, Nachtwind at Wondersclub, before moving to Cologne where she began to focus her energies on producing her own music. She’s a Renaissance woman, with a background in ballet and contemporary dance, who has also dabbled in jazz, classical music, film and theatre. After a string of strong EP releases on labels like Karmarouge and Time To Express, including a few collaborations with the likes of Gabriel Ananda and Donato Dozzy, Cio d’Or released her first full-length album, Die Faser, on the Munich-based deep techno label Prologue. The album was met with critical acclaim, being hailed as an emblematic example of the hypnotic, textured, trippy style of techno referred to as “headfuck techno” or “voodoo techno” in the electronic music press. This was followed in 2015 by a second album, all in all, released on Semantica, which is perhaps Cio d’Or’s most adventurous work, a conceptually dense collection of experimental techno that shows both classical and dub influences. Cio d’Or’s production is intricate and layered, much of it sculpted from found sound collected by her on her travels through Europe and Asia, and her rich musical background is reflected in the meticulous craftsmanship of her structures and arrangements. Her DJ sets, as well, are of an exceptionally high standard, and the mixes she has produced for online platforms like Resident Advisor, mnml ssgs (RIP), and XLR8R have played a crucial role in garnering her the attention of a wider audience. Sadly, Cio d’Or has struggled in the past with bouts of acute fatigue syndrome, which has resulted in many periods of relative silence from the producer, and many cancelled events and tours. Fortunately for us, however, her health and well-being seems to be improving, enough for her to take on a small Asian tour, on which Seoul was the first stop.

As usual Suna did an excellent job of starting off the night. Listen to her podcast for Oslated here.

As usual, I got there early-ish to catch the opening set. Once again, the responsibility for the start of the night lay in the capable hands of Suna, resident DJ and arguably the heart and soul of vurt. As usual, Suna played a great set, though I wasn’t quite as into it as I usually am – I think I was just impatient for Cio to begin. She started off the evening with a murky selection of techno obscura, a fog of echo and reverb through which the bass and kick drum cruised like enemy submarines hunting each other beneath a frozen ocean. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve enjoyed every set I’ve heard Suna play, and it’s easy to see why she’s so highly regarded within the Korean techno scene. Every set I’ve heard of hers, though, has been an opening set, so I can’t help shake the feeling I haven’t heard her play to her full potential; I’m very interested in hearing her play a prime-time or closing set, and I hope that some day I’ll get the chance to. That being said, she did a fine job of creating an atmosphere and warming up the crowd for Cio d’Or.

Cio d’Or has built quite a reputation for herself thanks to her excellent online mixes and podcasts, such as this mix for Resident Advisor.

If I had to choose a single word to sum up Cio d’Or’s set, it would be: seamless. Her transitions were so subtle and subliminal that it was impossible to tell where one track ended and another began – in fact, it didn’t feel like she was playing tracks at all, but rather like we were dancing to one long singular composition. Sounds – enchanting glimmers of melody, crystalline bursts of synth, breathy whispers and alien frequencies – would fade in and out of the mix, catch one’s attention for a brief moment only to vanish and re-appear, in a different but still recognizable form, what felt like hours later. In some ways, Cio d’Or’s music could easily have passed for an exercise in ambient techno, were it not for the absolutely ferocious drum programming that lay at the foundation of it all: boneshaking kick drums pummelled out remorseless rhythms while above them a hurricane of hi-hats, shakers, crashes and rides wove around one another like starfighters in some far-future dogfight. The net result was a pleasing sense of contrast between the energy and intensity of the percussion and cosmic serenity of the soundscape it was scaffolding. Towards the latter half of her set, Cio d’Or took things in a darker direction; nebula shimmers of synth were replaced by ominous bass drones, warm and dusty harmonies by what sounded like the buzz of swarming insects – but she still steered clear of anything that too closely resembled paint-by-the-numbers “dark techno”, which I appreciated. If anything, the clean, well-defined character of her sound, filled to the brim with crisp sonic intricacies, reminded me more of the kind of organic minimalism associated with artists like Minilogue or Dominik Eulberg than it did the postmillennial industrialism of Ostgut Ton or the trancey voodoo techno of the Italian scene.

Something else that I took notice of during Cio d’Or’s set was her interesting use of tempo and pace. There are several different approaches to tempo when it comes to techno Djing, all equally valid. Some DJs like to start slow and build up the pace, each track marginally faster than the last until eventually by the peak of the set they’re playing their fastest, most banging tracks. Others, especially if they’re playing a headline slot, like to start fast and keep it their, maintaining a pretty quick tempo throughout their set. Cio d’Or took a totally different approach, however, switching between a wide range of tempos throughout her set, so that one moment we were grooving along to a bumping 128 bpm beat, and the next things were slowed right down to a dubby, half-time crawl. It was a bold choice, and one that takes quite a bit of experience and technical skill to pull off properly, but I think Cio d’Or definitely pulled it off; I enjoyed the variety, and the slower, spacier interludes gave me a good opportunity to catch my breath and get my bearings on the floor. I lost track of the time completely during her set – always the hallmark of a good DJ, in my opinion – and so I was surprised when the time came for her to step down and let the closing DJ, Siot, take over. But I wasn’t sure if I was surprised because I thought she was ending too soon, or surprised because I thought she was ending too late. It could have been 4 am, or it could have been 8 am the next day – I really had no idea at the time. Headfuck techno, indeed.

Siot closed the night in fine style. Check out his mix for Oslated here. 

Speaking of Siot, he managed to close out the night in fine style. His was probably one of the most adventurous and out-there sets I have heard at vurt in a while. Like Cio d’Or, he managed to maintain a sense of smooth, flawless continuity between his tracks, so that once again it was very difficult to tell exactly at which point new tracks had appeared and old ones had faded away. Unlike Cio d’Or, however, he leaned less heavily on the 4/4 format, mixing in a lot of broken beats and what sounded like the ghosts of breakbeats past, all shrouded in a dense gauze of reverb – like I was listening to the faint whispers of UK jungle rave echoing from somewhere deep underneath our feet. It was a daring and effective change of pace, and off the back of this performance Siot is definitely a name I’ll be looking out for more keenly in future.

vurtnight with cio d'or

Cio d’Or and the vurt. family pose for a picture in the street outside. 

I’ll admit I had strong expectations going in to this event, and a part of me was a little nervous – it would have been hard for me to come to terms with had Cio d’Or’s set been bad, or boring, or even just mediocre. Luckily, that wasn’t the case, and her DJ set proved to be every just as evocative and moving as her albums and mixes have been for me for all these years. Once again, vurt. has pulled off an incredible evening of techno, but at this point I really am not at all surprised – high quality is what I’ve come to expect from vurt., and so far Suna, Siot and the rest of the vurt. crew have never failed to deliver.

 

Note: I know that this blog is getting a bit repetitive (I keep going to vurt.!) I want to explore more places and write about other venues, I promise – vurt. just keeps booking all my favorite artists so I feel like I can’t not go there! Hopefully the next few reviews will be a little less monotonous.