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.

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.

DATE: 18/05/2018
VENUE: Volnost
ENTRANCE FEE: 15 000

Like a lot of good techno clubs, Itaewon’s Volnost is a little hard to find. It’s located just a few doors down from Cakeshop, in the basement of a Vietnamese restaurant, but looking from the outside you wouldn’t know it; the only indication that there’s a club there is a small, discrete sign on the door informing patrons that illegal drugs and alcohol are strictly forbidden, and asking them not to take flash photography. Go through this door and down the staircase behind it, however, and you find yourself in a low, square, brick-wallled room, with a bar at one end and a DJ booth at the other; a functional, utilitarian dance space that matches perfectly the aesthetic of the music played there. It’s in this shadowy dungeon that I found myself on Friday night, sipping on my complimentary rum and coke (like many clubs in Seoul, paying entrance at Volnost entitles you to one free drink) and looking forward to hearing the evening’s headliner: the Madonna of minimal techno in Japan, Hito.

Hito’s been in the game for a long time. After being exposed to techno upon moving to Berlin in 1999, she began DJing and swiftly gained attention for her energetic, vinyl-only sets. Hito’s rise to techno stardom began when she connected with minimal techno superstar Richie Hawtin, who brought her onboard as part of the team for his legendary ENTER. summer residency at Space in Ibiza. Since then, Hito has been living the nomadic existence of a touring DJ, playing at clubs and festivals around the world. Unusually for DJs of her stature, Hito has never really made the jump from DJing to producing, and she has maintained a slightly old-fashioned approached to DJing; unlike her mentor Hawtin, who has eagerly embraced the possibilities afforded by digital DJing, Hito has decided to keep things old-school and continues to play strictly vinyl sets. There were a lot of good parties on in Seoul this last Friday – Jimmy Edgar was playing a set at Cakeshop, while Faust hosted a gig by Chris Liebing – but I was intrigued by Hito after hearing her play a warm-up set early Friday evening for Seoul Community Radio, so at the last minute I decided to get myself down to Volnost and see her for myself.

 

Before her set at Volnost on Friday, Hito played an excellent warm-up set for Seoul Community Radio. 

 

Being an opening DJ is a thankless job; most people only want to hit the club a little later into the night, and so in most places openers are usually stuck playing to a small scattering of friends who’ve shown up to support them. Friday night was no exception to this rule; opener Comarobot – who, with his patrol cap and beard, put me in mind of a young, Korean Fidel Castro – only had about ten people dancing to his set, which is a pity because he played a very high-quality selection of contemporary dark techno, though it was marred a little by a few mixing slip-ups here and there. By the time following act DJ SIN took over, however, the club had begun to full up considerably, and it didn’t take long for the small, square basement space to begin to feel a tad crowded. DJ SIN has apparently been an important figure in the Seoul underground dance scene for some time; she was formerly a resident DJ and musical director of Itaewon’s legendary club Mystik, which sadly closed its doors last year, and was also (together with vurt. resident Suna and Mario, a DJ who has since left Seoul) one of the members of Triple House, the first all-female DJ crew in the city. Listening to her play, it was easy to see how she’s managed to garner such a good reputation. Her set was masterfully executed, a totally seamless flow of sound that seemed to bridge the gap between the current trend towards hard-edged European basement techno and a more classic mid-00s “minimal” sound. Particularly towards the end of her set the cosmic overtones and dreamlike loops of the bleep techno she was laying down reminded me of the future-shamanism of artists like Sleeparchive. I was actually pretty disappointed when it was time for her to step down from the decks and let Hito take over – which to me is always the mark of a really strong supporting act.

Hito 1

Hito and Comarobot relaxing in the Seoul Community Radio studio before the gig. Picture courtesy of Richard Price, Seoul Community Radio. 

Like certain parts of DJ SIN’s set, Hito’s set was a bit of a throwback. Playing only vinyl, Hito favoured the crisp, punchy drums, clear sine bass tones and washes of white noise that characterized the minimal techno boom of the 2000s – unsurprising, given Hito’s connections with Hawtin, arguably the definitive figure within that particular scene. The overall sound of the set was more Ibiza than it was Berlin; she was a lot less self-consciously dark and serious than most of the other techno DJs I’ve heard over the last year or so, and wasn’t afraid to throw in more than a fair share of catchy melodies and infectious vocal hooks. The term “tech house” has acquired a bit of a pejorative connotation in techno snob circles, but this was tech house done right, full of soul and swing, unabashed party music. Now don’t get me wrong, I love me some serious, cerebral basement techno, but hearing something so different and yet the same time so similar was like a breath of fresh air, and paradoxically enough, even though this style of techno is perhaps a bit more of a “dated”, to me it sounded really exciting, fresh and new. Hito’s tunes were a good reminder of how, even though from the outside it seems like a very constricted and unvaried genre, techno is actually an incredibly diverse sound, one that comes in many different forms and flavours. The last time I heard this kind of techno was a few years ago, at one of the dance camps at AfrikaBurn (South Africa’s regional Burning Man event), and if I closed my eyes I could imagine that I was dancing in the desert under the stars, rather than in a basement in Itaewon. In fact, overall I got a very “festival” vibe from Hito’s set – her track selection and mixing were very evocative of an outdoor party feeling, music for open fields and marquees, beaches and forests.

This festival atmosphere was further reinforced by the crowd. Everyone on the heaving dancefloor seemed to be having a whale of a time; every time I looked around I saw people smiling, people cheering, people hugging and embracing (not to mention people making out; it felt like a LOT of people got lucky in Volnost that night!). Special mention needs to be made of one individual, an absurdly tall moustachio’d man in a red tophat and kimono shirt wrapped in fairy lights, waving a plastic baby doll around, who seemed like a small festival all by himself. That kind of whimsical approach to partying – costumes, props, a flair for the theatrical and the carnivalesque – is a big part of the underground dance scene back home in South Africa, and it’s something I don’t see a lot here in Korea, more’s the pity. It was good to see a little glimmer of the same attitude in Volnost that night.

Hito 2

The crowd at Volnost. Picture courtesy of Richard Price, Seoul Community Radio. 

By the time Hito finally spun her last track and Xanexx took over, the audience was, in a word, lit. Their ranks were a little thinner – several large groups departed en masse shortly before the end of Hito’s set – but those who were left behind seemed well and truly ready to party, with seemingly no interest in stopping any time soon. Fortunately, they were in good hands; Xanexx wasted absolutely no time, laying down track after banging track of loopy, mesmerising voodoo techno. I’ve seen him play closing sets at vurt. before, and the man really is a veteran when it comes to this kind of thing; he knows exactly how to keep people dancing at the end of a night. Every time I felt like I’d reached the point of exhaustion where I needed to call it a night, he’d mix in some new hypnotic rhythm or ecstatic burst of noise that kept me wanting to hear more, and more; I lost track of the times I muttered “just one more tune” to myself. Eventually tiredness won out and I finally made my way upstairs and out into the light, but when I left everyone else in the club still appeared to be going strong. Honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that all of them are still there dancing, two days later.

If I have one small complaint, it’s that at times the sound system at Volnost didn’t seem to be quite as good as it could be. The bass was sometimes a little muddy and muffled, and the acoustics were a little weird – there were certain spots where if one stood the music became noticeably quieter or louder, which threw me off a bit. On the other hand, I feel compelled to mention of how really excellent the lighting was. Whoever was in charge of Volnost’s lighting that night did an excellent job of reading the feel of the party, making use of flashing colour, strobes, bursts of brightness and bursts of total darkness in perfect unison with the music. It did a lot for the atmosphere of the event, and perhaps also contributed to the “festival” feeling that I keep harping on about.

Between the four of them, Hito and her supporting acts  put on a hell of a show, a fun and engaging evening of techno and good old fashioned Friday hedonism. Nights like this really are testament to how healthy the techno scene is, not only in Seoul, but in east Asia more generally.

Extra Noir Volume One, the inaugural release on (currently) Daejeon-based label Extra Noir, is a bit of an oddity. The label is an extension of the Extra Noir podcast, which in turn grew out of a planned (but never fully materialised) radio show on Texan co-operative radio station KOOP Radio; label founders Andrew Wilbur and Laura Francesangeli had originally envisioned running a show for industrial, minimal synth and post-punk music, but moved to Korea before the show could really get off the ground and thus decided to launch the podcast (and later, label) as a way to showcase the music they’d originally wanted to promote on the show. What’s surprising about all this, given how disjointed the label’s genesis has been, is the way in which – judging by their first release, at any rate – Wilbur and Francesangeli have managed to create such a strong sense of coherence and identity around a label whose contributors are both geographically separated from one another and working within very different genres.

Album opener ‘Sign Spinning School’, by Texan multi-instrumentalist Aadm Our Hatley, is an evocative piece of experimental music defined by heavily reverbed guitar chords, hollow drums, low voices and, best of all, a piercing whistle that put me in mind of the soundtrack of a Sergio Leone western. The closest point of comparison I can think of is with English artist Forest Swords, whose sophomore album Compassion was released to critical acclaim last year. It’s followed by a groovy, dirty industrial disco track from Glasgow outfit Total Leatherette, ‘Work Harder’, which combines clattering percussion, demented whoops and a rumbling, rough-around-the-edges bassline, all of which sound ever so slightly out of sync with each other. It’s a ferocious beast of a tune, and the inclusion of an indecipherable call-and-response vocal hook makes it sound like some kind of Cthulhuesque re-imagining of Tiga’s ‘Bugatti’. The next track, ‘Bridges’ by Kübler-Ross, is one of the compilation’s most straightforward, though no weaker for it, a gothically funky (or should that be funkily gothic?) slice of contemporary minimal synth.

The following two tracks are the compilation’s only contributions by Korean artists, and interestingly enough both take things in a slightly more ambient direction. Track 4, ‘Onujih_10’ by Airy Textile (a duo comprised of Seoul-based producers Seonggu de Kim & Eajik) is an epic, cinematic work, running over 10 minutes in length, that presents listeners with a haze of flickering signals, at turns soothing and unnerving. Occasionally, clear tones of retro, 80s-sounding synths manage to break through the sonic gloom, like a John Carpenter soundtrack being beamed to a distant outpost through the blackness of space. It leads almost seamlessly into ‘Breathe In, Breathe Out’ by Tengger (another Seoul-based duo), who layer blunted synth arpeggios and rhythmic analogue squelches under harmonium chords and breathy vocal refrains to hypnotic, witchy effect.

Following this extended ambient (ish) interlude, the compilation hits us with what may be it’s hardest, most dancefloor-friendly track: ‘The Velvet Hand’ by Xander Harris, a storming outsider techno banger with clear post-punk influences that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Silent Servant set. The tone of the compilation simmers down a bit with the next track, ‘unlocked’ by British producer Pecht, an exclusive remaster of a track from his debut album. It’s perhaps the weirdest track on the compilation, an eccentric sort of tune that maintains the retrograde 80s industrial aesthetic of the rest of the compilation but bolts it onto the skeleton of a soulful dub number. I had to listen to it a couple of times before it really ‘clicked’ for me; definitely a grower, not a show-er. The compilation is rounded off by ‘Hirvi ja viiniköynnös’ by Cucina Povera (Maria Rossi), a Finnish-born, Glasgow-based musician and DJ. The real star of the song is Rossi’s voice; her singing (in Finnish) takes centre stage, the minimal instrumentation and back-up vocal fading into the background. It’s a sombre, almost poignant end to the compilation, a refreshing palate cleanser after all the gnarly darkwave preceding it.

Extra Noir Volume One represents a strong start for the fledgling label. Selectors Wilbur and Francesangeli have managed to pull off the not inconsiderable feat of gathering together disparate artists with divergent sounds and moulding their contributions into a smooth and seamless whole, producing a debut compilation that works as well as one continuous listen as it does a selection of individual tracks and tunes. There’s a clear sense of vision and intent behind the release, something which bodes well for the label’s future output.

Extra Noir: Volume One is available for purchase at Extra Noir’s Bandcamp. Also, if you’re reading this on Thursday night or Friday, they’re having a launch party on Friday May 11 at Strange Fruit

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

Anyone more than casually interested in the state of techno in South Korea is familiar with Oslated. Originally just a podcast, now a record label home to some of the most interesting and forward-thinking techno produced on the Korean peninsula and beyond, Oslated has become synonymous with deep, dark, intense techno in Seoul. As such, the Oslated nights that they organize – hosted usually either at vurt. or at Volnostare invariably high-quality affairs, showcasing some of the best talent the label has to offer alongside international guests drawn from shadowy corners of the techno scene all over the world. This past weekend was a very busy one for Oslated; Friday night saw them throw a party with Hong Kong based producer Romi at Volnost, while on Saturday night Oslated took over vurt. for an evening of brooding, psychedelic techno featuring Swiss producer/DJ duo Agonis and Garçon, co-founders of boutique techno label Amenthia Recordings.

Based in Basel – a beautiful city nestled in a corner of the Swiss border where the edges of Switzerland, France and Germany meet – Amenthia Recordings, like Oslated, operates in a more peripheral zone of the global techno scene. While Basel is obviously not as far removed from the Germanic epicentre of the world of techno as Seoul is, it’s still far removed enough that the city’s techno pioneers have seemingly been able to forge their own distinct scene relatively untouched by the tropes and trends that at times appear to constrain the development of the techno sound in bigger, more “hyped” cities. As a result, the releases on Amenthia Recording’s catalogue (the overwhelming majority of which are by label founder Agonis) display the kind of creativity and originality that is sadly becoming a rarer and rarer commodity in the techno industry. I’d be lying if I said that either Agonis or Amenthia co-founder Garçon had ever crossed my radar before last week, but after sitting down and listening through some of the Agonis tracks and Garçon DJ sets available online I was very keen to head down to vurt. and give them a listen, especially given the fact that Agonis would be playing live as opposed to DJing; live techno sets always pique my interest.

An example of what an Agonis set sounds like, courtesy of Taipei techno podcast Smoke Machine

One thing that sets vurt. apart from other clubs in Seoul, in my opinion, is the consistent quality of the club’s opening and closing acts. Given that the venue hosts so many world-class acts on a regular basis, it would be easy for its resident DJs to pale a little in comparison, which, to be frank, has been my experience at a few of the other clubs in the Korean capital. At vurt., however, I find that each opening and closing DJ is memorable in their own right, which is no mean feat for artists sharing a bill with such big names. Busan transplant Lavera’s opening set on Saturday night was no exception. When I arrived, she was playing a sultry, spacy selection of slow techno to the small but already palpably excited crowd gathered on the dark dancefloor. Bathed in the darkroom-red glow of the vurt. DJ booth, she began to gradually pick up the pace, steadily mixing in heavier and funkier tracks until eventually the audience was catapulted into full-on groove mode. For an opening set it was pretty energetic, but the crowd responded well and it set the bar nice and high for the following acts.

Once Lavera had played her final tune – a psychedelic voodoo-techno roller that sounded like an Aphex Twin track on bath salts – it was Agonis’ turn to step up to the booth. In my experience, DJs tend to take one of two approaches to following on from another set: either they try and maintain the energy level and tempo set by the previous DJ, attempting to create a seamless transition between the two sets, or they “reset” and start building a set from scratch again, starting slow and slowly picking up the pace again. For his live set, Agonis chose the latter approach; he began by piecing together a murky rhythmic soundscape of scrapes, clanks, shrieks and bleeps, still highly danceable but definitely several degrees more abstract than the relatively straightforward techno that had made up the bulk of Lavera’s set. I was struck by the immaculate quality of his sound design; every noise and detail seemed intricately crafted and originally, a showcase of just how much room for creativity there is to be found within the apparently strict boundaries of this kind of music. As the set drew on his sound began to evolve into something more beat-driven, but it was still heady, trippy stuff, a kind of industrial trance sound that mesmerized as much as it moved.

All of this makes Agonis’ set sound kind of dry or academic, music for thinking about rather than dancing to, but in fact nothing could be further from the truth. For all of the downcast mood and cerebral nature of his music, the man definitely still knows how to get a dancefloor moving. He demonstrated a keen command of rhythm throughout his set, and his carefully calculated minimalist percussion work – the gut-punch of kick here, the switchblade flicker of a hi-hat there – inspired some truly impressive dance moves from the people around me on the floor; I witnessed some dancers losing themselves in the music in a way that I hadn’t seen for a long time.

Garçon’s entry in the Oslated podcast series. 

Agonis’ thought-provoking and bone-shaking live set was followed by a DJ set from his Amenthia Recordings colleague, Garçon. Clad in a brightly coloured tie-dye shirt, Garçon immediately set about lightening the mood a little, laying down slightly more melodic, looser tracks that acted as the perfect antidote to the storm of ragged-edge synths and remorseless bass that had come before. His tunes, while they still banged hard and fell firmly within deep techno territory, had a kind of warmth to them – something about the character of the bass, maybe, or the occasional jazzy percussion lick – that belied their sparse and brittle structure, as if I was listening to the bones of a deep house set that had been picked clean by a flock of vultures. Something else that really interested me about Garçon’s mixing was the unexpected musicality of it – I was floored by his clever use of key changes and chord progression, to the point where I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that he’s had some classical music training. That kind of harmonic mixing, while not exactly unheard of in the world of techno, certainly doesn’t seem to be as common as it does in some other forms of dance music, and it really helped his set stand out in my memory.

Taken individually, Agonis and Garçon both played stellar sets, but as a back to back duo they really brought out the best in each other. The two sets had a kind of ying-yang quality to them, with Garçon’s playful yet still hard-edged beats providing an excellent counterpoint to the somber tech-trance of Agonis, bringing a much needed sense of levity to an evening of music that, while excellent, had begun to feel like it was taking itself a little too seriously.

By the time it was closing DJ and Oslated label head Oslon’s turn to take over, the crowd had thinned out a little, but there were definitely still enough people dancing that the floor didn’t feel overly empty. Those that left early definitely missed out; Oslon pulled out all the stops, pummeling the audience with a demented array of scorched acid synths, hammer-and-anvil kick-bass combos, squalls of shaped noise and relentless, jittery percussion. It was heavy music, cold and alien and with little in the way of recognizable melody or harmony; but that didn’t stop it from being utterly exhilarating, and the crowd around me was going wild, whooping and cheering with every rapid-fire, effortless track transition. In short, it was a “total stomp, bru”, as ravers back home might say.

Looking back on my overall impression of the night, I’d say that if I had to pinpoint one aspect of the party that really impressed me it would be the variety of it all. Each DJ, while staying firmly within the bounds of techno, had very different interpretations of what “techno” means, and the end result was a constant sense of exploration and adventure that deftly avoided the rut that too many techno nights fall into – stale, monotonous, repetitive sets with little in the way of uniqueness or originality. Instead, each DJ offered the crowd an idiosyncratic musical experience, and the four sets, alongside help from a fantastic crowd, combined to produce and immensely fun and memorable evening. I can’t say I’m surprised – as I’ve mentioned before, I seldom don’t have a good time at vurt., and I have only respect and admiration for the gifted and hardworking Oslated crew – but I certainly am pleased.