DATE: 02/11/2018
VENUE: Faust
ENTRANCE FEE: ₩20 000

Expectations can be dangerous things. People tend to hold artists that they love to a punishingly unrealistic standard, and then feel angry and betrayed if the artist – be they a rock star or an industrial techno DJ – doesn’t live up to that standard. A recent example of this can be seen in the case of Aphex Twin’s recent much-hyped appearance at Funkhaus Berlin. Richard D. James’ first set in the German capital since 2003 was, by most accounts, a smashingly good time, but nonetheless there was no shortage of online dance heads lambasting Aphex Twin and Funkhaus for having, from their point of view, fallen short of expectations.

In the case of Blawan (aka Jamie Roberts, a native of Doncaster now residing in Berlin), there is certainly reason for expectations to be high. The electronic music world first became aware of Blawan in the late 2000s, when he emerged as one of a slew of promising young British producers working within the rapidly mutating dubstep/UK bass scene. Early releases such as ‘Fram‘ (on Hessle Audio) or ‘Bohla’ (on the prestigious R&S Records) saw Blawan dabbling in bass-heavy, garage- influenced skeletal beats, but by the time the release of the storming, tongue-in-cheek warehouse banger ‘Why’d They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage’ in 2012 cemented Blawan’s reputation as a top tier producer of underground club music it was clear that Roberts’ musical interests lay more in the direction of techno than in the off-kilter bass music on which he’d cut his teeth. Together with fellow Brit Pariah he became one half of industrial techno duo Karenn, whose raw, unhinged analogue hardware jams have become the stuff of Boiler Room legend, and he has also collaborated with none other than Surgeon himself, producing and performing unearthly blackened techno under the moniker Trade.

Blawan’s debut album Wet Will Always Dry is a floor-centric assembly of gut-wrenching techno bangers.

It’s straight-up club music”, he responded when asked about the appeal of making techno music in an interview with Electronic Beats. “Techno is limited, but it also moves you forward and it has a sense of direction… with techno it feels like there was and is a shared purpose, even if it’s a limited one”. This sense of shared purpose seems to have invigorated Blawan, who after a three year period of silence (due primarily to his struggles with chronic illness) returned to production in 2015 with the launch of his own label, Ternesc, on which he has released a stream of polished, intense analogue techno, culminating in the release of his debut album Wet Will Always Dry earlier this year. Wet Will Always Dry is without any shadow of doubt a DJ’s record: the album does without any of the pretentious ambient passages or mood pieces favoured by other techno full lengths, instead presenting the listener with a collection of eight no-frills, hard-hitting dancefloor cuts. For my money, it’s the best techno LP of 2018, and this has been a pretty damn good year for techno albums.

Given all this, I think I had good reason to be excited to hear that Blawan was playing at Faust – and to have high expectations of him. I wasn’t the only one, either; when I arrived at Faust fairly early on Friday night it was already fairly pumping, and there was a palpable aura of excitement in the air. The name ‘BlawanBlawanBlawan…’ seemed to be on everyone’s lips, rising like a mantra through the Tanzbar air. One guy I chatted to had even missed his flight home to Croatia in order to come and see Blawan play, which I think just goes to show what kind of superstar reputation Blawan has built up for himself in the world of techno.

We all still had to wait a while for Blawan to come on, however. First up was Korean DJ producer Polarfront, a Faust regular who also apparently produces music for pop artists and commercials. None of that pop influence could be seen in his opening set, which consisted of dark, heads down techno rollers with the occasional burst of dub techno or EBM to spice things up. It made for a solid, if not especially memorable, beginning to the night.

Blawan Faust 1

Faust’s lighting game was excellent as is usual for them. The dancefloor was dark most of the time, save for a few blue lights, but every now and then they shone a white strobe out over the crowd to accompany some of Blawan’s bigger drops.

You could tell the moment that Blawan had started, however, because everyone in Tanzbar and the smoking area rushed to the dancefloor and the roar that went up from the crowd was almost loud enough to drown out the deafening kick drums of his first few tracks. Blawan wasted precious little time, beginning his set with a selection of storming, jacking Berlin-school techno: humongous kick drums pounded out a fairly static 4/4 rhythm while overhead the shriek of twisting metal and the sputter and sizzle of decaying electronics contorted themselves into something approaching a percussion section. Blawan leaned fairly heavily on his own tracks; I heard several tunes off of Wet Will Always Dry get dropped in the first hour, and I’m fairly certain he mixed in a couple of tracks from his Nutrition EP as well. The tracks he played went hard, though not especially fast (it felt like most of what he played stayed within the “traditional” 125 – 128 BPM range), and his mixing was fairly workmanlike. I didn’t hear a lot of fancy blending or extravagant mixing tricks; Blawan seemed to prefer a simpler outro – into intro – into outro approach, which isn’t necessarily a negative thing. Often, the simplest way of doing things is the most effective. One thing I did hear a lot of, however, was drops. Now, techno isn’t traditonally a “drop heavy” genre like EDM or dubstep is. Big bass drop moments are usually fewer and further between, which tends to make them all the more impactful. In Blawan’s set, however, I felt like there was a massive hands-in-the-air moment every ten minutes or so, which, while fun at first, quickly became a little exhausting if I’m being honest. Perhaps Blawan’s drop-centric approach to mixing techno is a consequence of his origins playing dubstep and bass music, where the drop is a more central aspect of the music; whatever the case, it didn’t especially work for me – I prefer more constant, hypnotic techno jams – and I found myself spending a lot of time off of the dancefloor, in Tanzbar or outside chatting with people, which is rare for me when it comes to big headline acts. I didn’t seem to be the only one, either – a few of the people I spoke to expressed similar sentiments. Then again, that was almost certainly a case of selection bias at play. Obviously, the people who were really digging Blawan’s set – most of the people in Faust, in other words – weren’t wandering around Tanzbar or on the street, they were on the dancefloor, losing their minds. I must say, it was maybe a blessing in disguise that I didn’t vibe so hard with Blawan’s set, as it meant that I met some really lovely people that night; the crowd that Blawan drew to Faust was really lovely even by Korean techno standards (s/o to Nice Anton from Prague and Scary Anton from Vladivostok, hope you chaps made it back home ok).

Blawan Faust 2

Here we have another edition in my ongoing series of unintentional conceptual art, ‘The DJ as Oil Painting’. (This is Blawan if you can’t tell). 

I enjoyed the final hour of Blawan’s set the most. He had begun laying down some deliciously dramatic, almost operatic techno cuts, and the massive foot-stomping rise and fall moments felt more welcome and natural at the tail-end of his set than they did at the beginning. My favourite musical experience of the night, though, happened after Blawan had packed up for the night. Me and my mates went into Tanzbar for a final few drinks after Blawan had played his last tune, to find that the Tanzbar DJ was playing a truly excellent set of dark, psychedelic outsider house, at times sleazy and at other times ecstatic, the perfect way to decompress after the intensity of the Blawan set. His name was PIDJ, apparently; I’ve never heard him play before, and I can’t find out anything about him on the (Anglophone) internet, but whoever he is, he really knows how to make a five AM crowd move their bodies.

I began this piece talking about expectations, how dangerous they can be and how they can lessen one’s enjoyment of an otherwise good set or performance. Unfortunately, I think that kind of happened to me last Friday. I had such high expectations of Blawan that it was unlikely he would have ever lived up to them, and when he didn’t I was disproportionately – and unfairly – disappointed. I don’t think I was necessarily wrong to have high expectations; I mean, come on, this is Blawan we’re talking about, there’s no way that my expectations were not going to be sky high. But I also recognize that just because I, personally, didn’t exactly jive with his set that night, that doesn’t mean he played a bad set by any means. On the contrary, he brought the house down, and if the cheering, sweating mass of people going crazy for him on the dancefloor is any indication, I was part of a very small dissatisfied minority. Unmet expectations or no, I still left Faust convinced that Blawan is in a class of his own as a DJ and producer, even if his style of DJing isn’t my cup of tea, and I definitely think he deserves all of the hype and renown he has accrued over the years. Honestly, if he plays his cards right I can see Blawan achieving the status of someone like Surgeon or Marcel Dettmann in the future; we’ll just have to see what the future holds. 

DATE: 27/10/2018
VENUE: vurt.
ENTRANCE FEE: ₩20 000

Note: I ended getting to vurt. later than I would have liked for this party, so unfortunately I missed Suna’s opening set. 

One of the strange things about niche genres of music is how they seem to be constantly fragmenting and sub-dividing into ever more narrow niches. This happens across the musical spectrum – from black metal to acid house, industrial techno to neo-folk – but it seems especially prevalent in the vast and varied world of underground dance music. It seems like every other week a new sub-genre of one kind or another has emerged from the murk of the internet, the result of more and more artists trying to hone in and imitate a particular kind of sound. One of the reasons this compartmentalization of musical forms seems so prevalent of dance music has to do, of course, with the role played by DJs in driving the artistic development of club sounds. Your average DJ, looking to create seamless and continuous sets and mixes, has a need for tracks that resemble each other in some way or another, and so we end up with producers who, consciously or unconsciously, work within certain musical parameters in order to fill this need. This is a double-edged sword; on the one hand, the laser-like focus on particular styles and trends means that for every sub-genre of, say, techno music, there is an almost infinite supply of masterfully produced tracks that blend well with each other within the same set. On the other hand, it can be easy for producers and DJs to allow themselves to be stifled and constrained by the narrow boundaries of their chosen genres, killing creativity and resulting in a bland and monotonous musical landscape. The best artists, of course, are able to tread the fine line between the two, managing to work within the confines of a given genre while still remaining fresh, original and exciting.

What holds true for producers and DJs also holds true for the clubs in which they perform. There seems to be a greater and greater pressure placed on clubs and venues these days to specialise in their sounds, to narrow their musical palettes to one or two styles within a particular genre in order to appeal to the tastes of their target audiences and to differentiate themselves from their competition. vurt. is a successful example of this approach; the small but highly respected Hapjeong basement venue has staked out a claim for itself as the premiere venue in Seoul for techno music of a dark, mysterious and cerebral variety, it’s residents and guests spinning tracks that are more hypnotic and entrancing than they are abrasive or aggressive. The challenge then, for both the DJs who play there and for vurt. as a whole, is to find ways to ensure that the music played each night fits in with this unified core vision of what the club is all about, without becoming overly predictable or boring.

If anyone is up to this challenge, it is Tokyo’s DJ Yazi. He has a rich and storied musical history; he first burst onto the Japanese music scene in the mid-1990s, as part of the experimental hip hop collective Think Tank, with whom he co-founded Black Smoker Records, an abstract hip hop label whose eclectic nature is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that they have released records from both Ras G and Merzbow. In addition, he also performs as one half of live electronica act Twin Peaks together with Future Terror‘s Haruka, and in recent years he has begun to turn his attention to techno, launching a regular techno/industrial night at Contact alongside Takaaki Itoh (of Mord fame).

His set at vurt. this past Saturday night was a good example of how in the right hands it is possible to sound incredibly techno while not actually playing all that much “straight” techno. Had I heard them in isolation, I probably would have classified a lot of the tunes he played that night as electro, or IDM; dry, mechanical 808 percussion thumping and clattering in strange and unpredictable patterns, waves of subaquatic bass, and strange tapestries of digital texture sliced through the smoke-laden air inside vurt., very different from the heads-down techno I had been expecting. However, even though a lot of DJ Yazi’s selections were not “techno” in the typical sense (no 4/4 kick drum boom, sixteenth-note high-hats, industrial clangs ghostly atmospherics or any other such tricks of the trade), they nonetheless still felt like they fit in with the vurt. aesthetic; partly because the sonic palette, the textures and details in the tracks he played were still fairly downcast and dystopian in nature, and partly because DJ Yazi did an excellent job of weaving his more unusual tunes in and among a selection of more purist techno tracks; he would get the audience grooving for a while with some good, but fairly straightforward rolling dark techno before subtly blending it with off-kilter, dubbed-out left-of-field electronica. It was a high-risk, high-reward approach, the kind of thing that would have sounded incoherent in the hands of an inexperienced DJ and absolutely killed the momentum on the dancefloor, but DJ Yazi pulled it off and by the end of his set I was left with a fresh appreciation of just how far it is possible to bend the boundaries of a techno set.

Fittingly, DJ Yazi was followed by another genre bender, local DJ and frequent occupant of the vurt. DJ booth Siot. If DJ Yazi was channeling the sound and spirit of Drexciya for much of his set, then Siot was tapping deep into the UK’s hardcore continuum. His set of high-tempo, breakbeat-infused experimental techno reminded me on more than one occasion of drum and bass and jungle, and put me in mind of the recent production work of London’s Forest Drive West, who blends techno with jungle and bass music to earth shattering effect.

I began this review by ruminating on the narrow niche vurt. has carved out for itself as a purveyor of a certain style of dark techno; however, as both DJ Yazi and Siot showed on Saturday night, within the apparently narrow confines the club has defined for itself, there is seemingly endless room for experimentation and creativity. If they continue in this fashion – booking acts who are able to conform to the ethos of the venue while still managing to put their own unique spin on it at the same time – then I don’t see the club being in danger growing stale or uninspiring any time soon.

Vurt DJ Yazi Crowd

The crowd and staff left at vurt. at the end of Siot’s set pose for a photograph before heading upstairs and braving the light of day. Picture by Suna. 

DATE: 02/10/2018
VENUE: Volnost
ENTRANCE FEE: ₩15 000

October is a good month for public holidays in Korea; between Chuseok (the harvest festival, which was at the end of September this year, but the point still stands), Gaecheonjol (National Foundation day, which celebrates the founding of the first semi-mythical Korean state thousands of years ago) and Hangeul Day (which commemorates the invention of the Korean alphabet, Hangeul, by King Sejong the Great) those of us living in the Land of the Morning Calm are blessed with an abundance of days off, welcome respite from the daily grind. This also means, of course, that there are plenty of parties during early October, with clubs taking advantage of the fact that people have some time off to host club nights during the week for a change. The night before Gaecheonjol, clubbers were spoiled for choice as to where to go. Over at vurt., New York based experimental music label Mysteries of the Deep was throwing a party with label founder Grant Aaron and Tokyo-based DJ Lynne, while Cakeshop was hosting underground beat legend Knxwledge (back again in Seoul – I remember checking him play at Cakeshop around this time last year), and over at Faust the headliner for the evening was none other than Ellen Allien. I had my sights set, however, on a smaller event. Over at Volnost, Unjin of ECI Korea was throwing a party to celebrate ECI Korea’s tenth anniversary, and after having listened to the label’s recent compilation I was very interested in seeing how ECI Korea’s sound translated to the dancefloor.

 

Part of the reason I wanted to go to this gig and not to any of the others on offer was an interest in Volnost as a venue. It’s a club that I have only been to a handful of times, but which continues to intrigue me. Volnost lies buried in a basement on the bustling main strip in Itaewon, the kind of place that’s very easy to walk past if you don’t know it’s there. I think of Volnost as the “anti-Faust”. Whereas Faust is a cavernous space that draws a large and mixed crowd and takes great pride in its extravagant soundsystem and impressive lightshows, Volnost is small and austere, attracts a small audience of diehard techno-heads and is frequently pitch black save for a single stark strobe or flashing red light. In many ways it is very similar to vurt., and the two clubs operate within the same underground techno ecosystem and seem to share a fairly cordial relationship with one another, from what I can tell. The main difference between Volnost and vurt., in my experience, seems to be that while vurt. often draws a sizable crowd of European expats and tourists – sometimes there are more Frenchmen or Germans on its dancefloor than there are Koreans – Volnost always seems to be a more distinctly Korean affair, with foreigners always present but typically much more of a minority than at vurt.

 

The headlining act for the evening was Scottish DJ/producer Deepbass, a frequent collaborator with ECI who contributed one of (in my opinion) the finer tracks on the 10 Years of ECI Korea compilation, ‘Avia’. The Glaswegian DJ/producer, who is known for his stellar collaborations with Italian don of dark techno Ness, has been making techno music for over a decade and has numerous quality releases on labels such as Edit Select Records, Soma and Dynamic Reflection. In addition, he runs his own label, Informa Records, on which he has released records by luminaries such as Nax_Acid and Giorgio Gigli. His strain of brooding, atmospheric techno inflected with ambient and trance influences is a perfect fit for the hypnotic machine music championed by Unjin and others within the Korean dark techno underworld, and I felt sure that his set at Volnost on Tuesday was going to be worth checking out, regardless of how many other intriguing events were slated for that night.

Unjin oil painting

I tried to take this picture of Unjin during his set, but the low lighting and poor quality of my phone camera made him come out like an oil painting. I quite like the effect though!

Unjin kicked off the evening with a selection of dark, entrancing music that I’d describe as “forest techno” – if the forest in question made of stainless steel trees on an airless moon. Pulsating basslines churned and thrashed beneath a fog of ever-evolving noise, sometimes digital, sometimes organic. It was a great way to start the night, and though there were only a handful of people on the dancefloor – no more than ten or fifteen of us at the most – I could tell that every person dancing was feeling the music very deeply.

 

When it was time for Deepbass to step up to the decks, he kept things running on a similar level for a while, mesmerising the crowd with shadowy, atmospheric rolling beats that were only slightly too groovy to be called ambient techno. I must say, though, that the first hour of his set underwhelmed me somewhat; after a while it seemed like the selection of tracks he was playing, while good, at first didn’t stray far from montonous, generic techno, and I was a little worried that Deepbass would end up playing it too safe, and that the set would end up being forgettable as a result. My concerns, however, turned out to be unfounded. He may have taken a little time to get there, but by the peak of his set Deepbass was well and truly living up to his name, filling the basement space with a rich tapestry of deeper dance music. Psychedelic synth rhythms rippled above the thud of the kick drum like a banner of sculpted darkness twisting in an alien wind, their edges brought into sharp relief by the spit and sizzle of static-laced percussion. By this time, Volnost had also begun to fill up a little, with people drifting in from elsewhere in Itaewon – many of the punters I spoke with had come from Ellen Allien’s gig at Faust, or had been to see Knxwledge’s set at Cakeshop next door, and had turned to Volnost for the after-party, which I reckon was a good decision. The lighting, too, began to change subtly; whereas before the room had been more or less pitch black save for the light spilling from the DJ booth and behind the bar, now whoever was controlling Volnost’s lighting rig began to tease the crowd with the odd flashes of red or purple behind the DJ, the occasional red light that swept over the crowd, a few flickers of strobe here, a spotlight held for a second or two there. It was all very subtly executed, however – Volnost certainly knows how to achieve maximum effect with minimal elements, an approach they take to both the music played there and to the lighting and design of the space.

 

Something I appreciate a lot in techno DJs is when they don’t take the easy route of slamming down track after track of hard, dark pounding techno for the entirety of their 2+ hour sets, and have the confidence to lighten up the mood every once in a while. So I was pretty pleased when, in the last hour or so of his set, Deepbass began playing the occasional warmer, lighter track, creating a pleasing sense of contrast within the dark, stark, strobe-lit interior of the club. That’s not to say he suddenly started playing tropical house, or even that the techno he played in the latter part of the set was even that much less sombre than what had gone before it, but given how techno is a genre of minute nuances, the difference was definitely noticeable – and welcome. Perhaps part of this sense of lightness came not from the music, but from Deepbass himself; he was a pleasure to watch behind the decks, constantly smiling, tossing back shots and pulling off sick dance moves – a welcome change from the techno cliché of the grim-faced “serious” DJ.

Scopavik at Volnost

SCOPAVIK label/podcast manager Scøpe played an absolutely brutal killer of a closing set.

After Deepbass had played his last track to rapturous applause, it was time for the final act of the night, SCOPAVIK boss Scøpe, to take the reins. By this time the club had emptied out again, but once again the people who remained were determined to dance regardless of who else was on the dancefloor, and Scøpe, to his credit, gave it his all, playing to the almost empty room as if he was DJing in front of a crowd of thousands. Volnost was bathed in a glow of eerie red light as he let loose with a storm of broken beats and gnarly industrial textures. As much as my feet were sore from dancing and a part of me seriously wanted to go home, I found I just couldn’t stop moving – Scøpe’s set sunk its teeth into me and refused to let go. It’s easy to see why, alongside Unjin, Scøpe is probably one of the most influential and respected DJs in the Korean underground techno scene.

 

Despite the fact that there were so many other tempting options on offer that night, in retrospect I feel like I made the right choice by going to Volnost. The crowd may have been small, but the quality of both the music and the people around me was exceptionally high, and as a clubbing experience it felt far more raw and honest than what I probably would have encountered elsewhere. Volnost, though it may be a small and relatively niche venue, continues to punch above its weight in terms of the kind of authentic techno experience it’s dedicated to delivering, and with their sets Unjin, Deepbass and Scope proved that you don’t need to be on the front page of RA every week in order to be a world-class DJ.

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.

 

 

 

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.

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.

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.

DATE: 26/05/2018
VENUE: vurt.
ENTRANCE FEE: ₩ 20 000

Those of us who like our techno on the dark and hypnotic side know that Italy’s where it’s at. The Mediterranean nation might not have quite the same fearsome reputation as Germany or the same historical significance as Detroit, but nevertheless Italy has contributed a lot to global techno, thanks to the efforts of a handful of producers – chief among them the legendary Donato Dozzy, one half of Voices From The Lake and co-founder of Rome-based label Elettronica Romana – who pioneered and continue to improve on a certain strain of idiosyncratic dance music: deep, liquid tracks that owe as much to trance as they do to techno. Though a host of producers and labels from other countries have also made music in this style, this particular niche is still dominated by Italians: Dozzy, Giorgio Gigli, Neel, Dino Sabatini, Obtane, Claudio PRC and Ness. The latter two – both hailing from the sunny island of Sardinia – produce and DJ together as The Gods Planet, and last Saturday techno fans in Seoul were blessed with the chance to see them play at vurt, supported by veteran DJ and producer Unjin.

Unjin really is a Seoul techno legend in his own right. Active in the Korean underground music scene since the late 90s, he founded the country’s first-ever techno label (ECI Korea) and has established a worldwide reputation as one of the best techno acts to come out of Korea, playing gigs at renowned techno clubs around the world, from Tresor in Berlin to Womb in Tokyo. He’s also worked with Ness before; the Sardinian contributed one of the remixes to Unjin’s Fog Machine Remix EP. For his opening set on Saturday night, Unjin treated his audience to a hazy, dreamlike stream of rolling psychedelic techno; it was danceable – his heavy dub bass and beefy kicks were more than enough to get a body moving – but for most of the set I caught myself doing more swaying than I did jamming; it was eyes-closed music, for sure. It set a good precedent for how the rest of the night was going to go, with the emphasis placed more on the deep and the delirious than on the hard and the heavy. It was easy music to get lost in, and I was surprised by how quickly the hours seemed to go by and how soon it was time for Claudio PRC to step into the booth.

 

Now, techno is, almost by definition, a darker form of dance music. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, of course – brighter, more uplifting techno certainly exists – but there is a definite trend within the genre towards the somber and the shadowy, one that has been accentuated in recent years by the boom in the “Berlin school” of basement techno. But “darkness” in techno is not a singular mood, and there are many kinds of darkness that techno can invoke. In the case of Claudio PRC, the darkness in his selections was the darkness of midnight in a tropical jungle, wrapped in thick, oppressive heat and tense with the menace of predatory animals stalking their prey through the trees. Something about the tunes he was playing – the organic whisper of percussion, the murky fog of bass, the acid synths that sounded like they were echoing out from a Funktion One stack on the ocean floor – sounded incredibly primitive and primal, as if someone had taken an uncontacted Amazonian tribe and taught them how to play analogue synthesizers. Based on this description, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he played a lot of tribal techno in his half of The Gods Planet’s performance, but honestly that wasn’t the case – there were none of the usual musical clichés of tribal tech (“ethnic” percussion, drum circle polyrhythms) going on in any of the tracks he threw into the mix. A few years ago, when this style of techno started getting more popular and receiving a lot of attention in the electronic music press, the term “voodoo techno” was thrown around a lot to describe this kind of sound, and it really seems to fit, perfectly encapsulating the bewitching soundscape conjured up by Claudio PRC that night.

Ness, when it was his turn to take control of the dancefloor, maintained a similar kind of feel and atmosphere, though he used a slightly different sound palette to do it. Whereas Claudio PRC’s half of the set leant on organic sounds and long, heady buildups and breakdowns, Ness’s selections felt more digital or mechanical, and his beats were a lot more relentless, favoring minimalist, hyper-repetitive rhythmic loops that crawled over and around each other like bees swarming over a honeycomb. The transition between the two was incredibly smooth, however, feeling more like a natural progression within a single DJ’s set than two separate artists playing back to back – the mark of a DJ duo experienced at, and comfortable with, playing together. After Ness had been playing on his own for an hour or so, Claudio PRC rejoined him in the DJ booth and the two of them began playing together, taking it in turns to select and mix in tracks, and this last joint effort was definitely the high point of the night as the two of them allowed the atmosphere of captivating darkness to lighten up a little, throwing in a few brighter sounds and getting slightly – but just slightly – more playful with their beats and rhythms. It’s been a while since I’ve had the energy and willpower to stay in a club all the way till closing – I always try and catch the last set, but tiredness generally causes me to flake out halfway through- but this time I had no trouble staying awake and dancing. Ness and Claudio PRC’s music pulled me into another world entirely, one where time and exhaustion simply ceased to exist, and all that mattered was moving to the music.

I’m only sad that relatively few people got to experience such an amazing set. vurt. was quieter on Saturday than I’ve seen it in a while; there were still people on the floor, of course, and it was far from feeling “empty”, but it was definitely under-populated that night, which is a shame because honestly with a set that good The Gods Planet deserves a sea of people from wall to wall. Hopefully this Friday’s set by Cio D’Or, another world-class purveyor of deep, dark headfuck techno, draws a bit more of a crowd.