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.

Dub music has had a long and storied history, one that spans several decades, cultures and continents. From recording studios in Kingston, Jamaica in the 1960s to warehouse parties in London, England in the 1990s, the dub sound – with it’s emphasis on heavy, sinuous sub-bass, hazy rhythms and cavernous reverb – has found fans around the globe, and had an enormous influence on the development of electronic music – hell, on the development of modern music in general. It should come as no surprise, then, that even in the distant reaches of eastern Asia, among the mountains and skyscrapers of South Korea, dub has its acolytes. One such acolyte is Christopher Wing, aka mcthfg, originally hailing from the USA but now based in the southern coastal city of Changwon. On Korean Dub: Volume One, mcthfg provides three dub remixes of tracks by South Korean producers. It’s a brief but tantalizing glimpse into the curious niche of dub music on the Korean peninsula.

The opening track, a remix of “November, March” by Kuang Program, centers around decayed steel drum chords playing over shuddering waves of sub-bass, to the accompaniment of percussion that sounds like it was sampled in a third world junkyard. A kaleidoscopic array of intricate digital sounds completes the track and gives it a trippy, psychedelic feel. It’s followed by a “Brkn Replacment Dub” of mdbrkn’s “Shutted”, which provides listeners with a slightly more innovative take on the standard dub formula. Bitcrushed Nintendo-like squelches form the backbone of the piece, while the other sounds that duck and dive in and out of the mix could just as easily be processed field recordings as they could be digitally sculpted waveforms; the track blurs the line between the worlds of natural and computer-generated sound. The collection finishes off with “Spiritual (Floating Alone in the World Dub)”,a remix of a track by psychedelic electronica duo Tengger. It’s a suitable title; eerie vocal samples and raga chords give it a New Age ambience, though around midway through the track mcthfg picks up the pace a little, throwing in chiptune synth blasts, Morse code bleeps and a long extended breakdown that’s eventually swallowed by a rumbling two-step bass rhythm.

All three tracks are special in their own way; mcthfg clearly has some serious chops as a remixer. For anyone interested in dub music or in electronic music from the Korean peninsula, Korean Dub Volume 1 is a must-listen.

Korean Dub: Volume 1 is available for purchase at Dubmission‘s Bandcamp . 

 

Techno is a global phenomenon. It may be more firmly rooted in some places – Berlin, Detroit – than in others, but one of the joys of techno as a form of music and as a movement is the way in which techno clubs and labels can be found in almost every major city in the developed world (and elsewhere), and the kind of connections that spring up between producers and labels, DJs and clubs separated geographically, but united in a common passion for the music and by the work of technological wizardry that is the internet. This album, Västberga Allé by Eyvind Blix, exemplifies this interconnected aspect of the techno world. Eyvind Blix hails from Sweden, with the title Västberga Allé having been taken from the name of a street in Västberga, an industrial area in Stockholm notorious for being the site of illegal raves in the city. The label it’s been released on, however, is based in Seoul; Oslated, run by Jong-min Lee (aka Oslon) emerged out of the Oslated podcast series and is closely associated with the Constant Value warehouse parties and with the city’s premiere venue for techno of a dark and insular variety, vurt. It’s an interesting example of the international character of this kind of music, emblematic, to me at least, of techno’s ability to transcend boundaries.

The first track, ‘Elektra’, features a murky bass-kick combo submerged deep in the mix under a swell of constantly-evolving abrasive pads and insectile percussion. It’s a meditative, hypnotic piece, setting the tone for the album to come. It’s followed by “Maskinrum”, a more insistent number consisting of a jackhammer beat, subliminal synthesizer wails and hyper-repetitive looping percussion, coming across like a field recording from a Soviet uranium mine. The third track, “Introvert”, follows a similar kind of formula, presenting listeners with a barrage of rapid but muffled bass kicks, tribal plastic-bottle percussion, chattering robotic voices and two noisy crescendos of machine noise in place of traditional breakdowns which taken together form one of the high points of the entire album for me. By fourth track, “Karusellplan”, the album starts setting its eyes more firmly on the dancefloor; staggered, slightly off-kilter beats, intricate bursts of sonic detail and a muscular, droning lead that dominates the track’s latter half gives “Karusellplan” a groovy kind of feel that definitely got my head nodding. The fifth track, “Hemlängtan”, is an interesting example of how good techno music can be at displaying contrast; the kick and rumbling bass are crushingly heavy, but the sounds swirling around them – dub-like reverberation and a high-pitched, resonant three-note pattern that shines out of the darkness every so often like the beams of a lighthouse sweeping across a dark ocean – felt light and almost wistful, inducing in me a great sense of tranquility. This moment of respite is followed by the album’s biggest banger, “Drivhjulsvägen” (try saying that five times fast), a driving dancefloor bomb that derives a lot of mileage from a repetitive distorted synth pattern and a bone-shattering kick drum.

The album is rounded out by four stellar remixes from other Oslated associates. Vâyu’s remix of “Karusellplan” transforms the track into a rich ambient techno soundscape; while it maintains a sense of forward motion through the ebbs and flows of the bassline it feels very much more tailored for home listening (or opening/closing sets, perhaps) than for dark basements at 4 a.m. Saphileaum’s “1st Sky” mix of the same track takes a similar kind of approach. It’s slightly more beat-focused, but maintains a similar sort of spacey, floaty atmosphere, livening things up with an epic trance-like breakdown and synth chords towards the end. The remix of “Hemlängtan” by stalwart vurt resident Unjin, on the other hand, combines a rigid kickdrum groove with glowing pads, woodblock percussion and starship-engine-room ambient noise to create a track at once both cerebral and intensely physical, the kind of beat I’d be equally happy to dance my feet off in the club to as to listen to on the subway home. The closing track, a remix of “Drivhjulsvägen” by another vurt resident, Djilogue, is one of the most interesting tracks on the album, taking Eyvind Blix’s banger apart and reassembling it as a slinky, sleazy slice of brothel techno, bringing to mind the image of cyborg assassins stalking the streets of some far-future cyberpunk vice district.

All told, Vastbergä Allé is a worthy addition to the Oslated catalogue. It’s a well-crafted collection of deep, mesmerising techno that has something to offer both for DJs looking for material for their sets and for home listeners looking to space out with their headphones on. It’s not especially original or boundary-defying as an album, but not all music has to be innovative to be good; Eyvind Blix doesn’t do anything particularly new here, but he does display a refined understanding of and mastery over all of the tropes and tricks of techno, and utilizes them to extremely good effect.

Vastbergä Allé is available for purchase as a digital album over at Oslated’s Bandcamp

DATE: 20/04/2018

VENUE: Pistil

ENTRANCE FEE: ₩10 000

So far in this blog, I’ve tended to focus on covering sets by more “big name” underground electronic artists, the kind of guys (and up till now they’ve all been guys) you see turn up on the front page of Resident Advisor. Truth be told, though, these kind of “A-list” acts represent only a tiny percentage of all the hardworking, talented DJs out there, and for every one of them there’s another dozen underground heroes putting on parties and playing sets every bit as rad despite their lack of media attention. So when the fine folks over at Seoul Community Radio let me know that up-and-coming Tokyo-based DJ Licaxxx was playing a set at Pistil on Friday, supported by local deep house team C’est Qui?, I figured it was as as good an opportunity as any to get outside of my comfort zone and support a smaller artist.

I say “smaller”, but Licaxxx (aka Rika Hirota) has proven herself to be a bit of a powerhouse in her own right, steadily making a name for herself as a DJ, producer, music writer and radio personality in Tokyo. She’s previously played supporting sets for such illustrious names in techno as Ellen Allien and Anthony Naples, and last year she garnered a lot of attention online with her high-octane Boiler Room mix. I’ll confess I hadn’t heard of her before, but after being privileged enough to witness her play a warm-up set for Seoul Community Radio last Thursday night I was really excited to have the chance to dance to her music in a club setting.

 

The venue for the event was Pistil, a club that’s long been on my radar but which I hadn’t gotten around to visiting before now. It’s located in a basement in Itaewon, a stone’s throw away from the subway station – prime party real estate, in other words. This accessible location together with low entrance fees and the club’s focus on house music and related genres as opposed to the harder techno sounds favoured by a lot of other clubs in the Seoul underground means it draws a fairly large and varied crowd, a mixture of electronic music heads and casual partygoers just out for a good time. It’s a good middle ground, a meeting point of sorts between the mainstream and underground scenes in Seoul. As a venue, it’s a little awkwardly laid out; the positioning of a couple of concrete support columns means that the crowd ends up funnelled into an odd triangular shape, with the apex at the DJ booth and the hypotenuse along the bar. On the positive side, however, a long leather couch along one side of the dancefloor and a scattering of barstools makes it easy to find somewhere to relax and take a break from dancing, or to leave your coat or bag.

cest qui

Seoul-based house duo C’est Qui? kicked off the night. Pic courtesy of Closet Yi 

The night kicked off with a strong start thanks to a sublime opening set by C’est Qui? , a duo consisting of up-and-coming female Korean DJs Naone and Closet Yi. The two of them got the crowd grooving with a selection of funky deep house cuts that paired deep resonated basslines with wistful, ethereal synths and interesting chord progressions, a lot of it strongly influenced by disco and electro. Their mixing was on point, as well; the two of them managed to switch between a range of different feels and tempos without once making a poorly-judged or jarring transition. Musically, the set was a lot of fun, and I’m definitely interested in hearing more from the two of them in the future. However, I have to say that the crowd kind of detracted from my enjoyment of the music a little bit. In the first place, there were a lot of people there, surprising considering it was still pretty early in the night – which is of course not a bad thing by itself, but it did make the space feel pretty cramped. The bigger problem was that more than a few members of the audience seemed way drunker than they reasonably should have been, especially so early on in the night. This, coupled with the small space and large crowd, meant that there was a lot of bumping, stumbling and shoving going on, which made dancing a little hazardous and kind of soured the vibe a little bit. After one especially tall foreign guy accidentally elbowed me in the face I strongly considered leaving before Licaxxx had even begun to play.

licaxxx

Licaxxx deep in the mix. Pic courtesy of Closet Yi. 

I’m glad I chose to stick it out, though, because when Licaxxx did eventually step up to the decks it was instantly clear that we were in the hands of a seriously talented DJ. Playing entirely on vinyl, she wowed the crowd with a choice assortment of acid house, oldschool deep house, electro and breakbeat – a spiky yet playful bunch of tunes that put me in mind of a less austere, more bouncy and upbeat version of Helena Hauff. A lot of what she was playing had a very “classic” kind of feel – I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those tracks dated back to the 90s or earlier – and I found myself thinking that this could well what a set at Manchester’s infamous Hacienda sounded like back in the day. Which is not to say that Licaxxx’s set sounded out of touch or dated at all; rather, it had a kind of timeless quality, the kind of stuff that I could imagine people getting down to regardless of what decade they were in or what continent they were on. By the time her set really got going the crowd had improved considerably, as well; some of the more plastered specimens had taken themselves elsewhere and the people who remained seemed more interested in getting down and dancing than in just getting wasted or trying to pick up girls. As the night wore on Licaxxx started playing steadily harder, more banging stuff, slipping in more frantic breakbeats and ravey synth stabs, much to the audience’s delight; by the time she got to the end of her set every new track she threw into the mix was accompanied by whoops and cheers from the dancefloor. Eventually, it was time for her to step down from the decks, to the sound of rapturous applause from everyone inside Pistil, and C’est Qui took charge again, playing a slightly steelier late set, though the sounds they were laying down still maintained a kind of lush, almost tropical atmosphere. I left shortly after they started playing again, so I’d be lying if I said I knew how the rest of their set went, but judging by what I did hear and by their earlier performance I don’t doubt that it was excellent.

Overall, I’m happy I chose to go to Pistil that night. A slightly obnoxious crowd aside, musically it was a very quality event, and it was great to get off the beaten track a little and hear sets by smaller artists. Hopefully Licaxxx’s profile continues to grow and she can get more attention and more international gigs in the future – she really is a top-notch DJ, and she deserves a much wider audience.

DATE: 07/04/2018

VENUE: vurt.

ENTRANCE FEE: ₩20 000

In the notes that I took during this event, tapped out hurriedly on my phone during downtime waiting in line for the bathroom, I see I’ve written, in all caps “WHY THE HELL DO YOU EVER GO ANYWHERE ELSE?”. Honestly, it’s a good question. Seoul is full of excellent clubs, each catering to different tastes and each with their own unique charm; but vurt. is something special. I can very clearly remember the first time I ever went there, just over a year ago. Myself and a friend spent an hour trying to find the place, wandering around Hapjeong starting at our phone gps in frustration, until we eventually realised we’d walked straight past it half a dozen times. It’s an easy place to miss; a nondescript wooden door in a wall down a quiet side street, with no sign or other markings indicating it’s presence other than the black-clad doorperson perched outside. Behind the door a narrow staircase leads downwards to another door, and behind that door lies the club itself, a concrete basement where the only source of illumination are slowly strobing lights and strategically-placed tealight candles. It’s a simple, utilitarian layout, not dissimilar to the multitude of other dark techno dens scattered around the world, but it works. More than any other club location I’ve been to in Seoul, stepping into vurt. feels like stepping into a small private universe.

Part of that feeling no doubt stems from the relative isolation of the club. It’s located in Hapjeong, the trendier, more sophisticated older brother to boisterous party neighbourhood Hongdae, and while it’s not exactly a quiet area it’s got nowhere near the same level of raucous bustle as somewhere like Hongdae or Itaewon. Clubs and bars are a little fewer and further spaced out, so it’s less easy to just stumble from one drinking or dancing spot to another. This geographic seclusion, together with the club’s anonymous exterior, means that very few of the people one meets inside vurt. ever seem to have stumbled into the place by mistake. Everyone there seems to be there because they want to be there, because they’ve actively sought the place out. And there are plenty of reasons to seek out vurt.; if you’re into techno of a dark and deep variety, the kind of sound synonymous with a certain Berlin nightclub that stars with “B” and ends with “erghain”, vurt. is the best place in the city to scratch that itch. Not only is the club blessed with a rotating roster of very talented Korean DJs, it also regularly plays host to respected names in techno from all over the world; last year saw sets from Silent Servant, Dasha Rush, Cassegrain, and Sigha, among others.

gens

 

The cover of Answer Code Request’s second album, Gens, released February this year on Ostgut Ton.

Saturday April 7th saw vurt. offering up a special treat, however; a DJ set by Ostgut Ton luminary and Berghain resident Answer Code Request, currently touring to promote his second album, Gens. Answer Code Request (real name Patrick Gräser), reportedly a childhood friend of Marcel Dettmann, has been Djing since he was 13, but really rose to prominence in 2011 with breakout track “Escape Myself”, released as part of the Subway Into EP on the Answer Code Request imprint, a sub-label of Dettmann’s MDR created especially for the record. The track catapulted Answer Code Request into the ranks of techno stardom, and his debut album, Code, released on Ostgut Ton three years later, served to further solidify his status. Gräser’s idiosyncratic approach to techno immediately made him stand out from his peers. He tends to steer clear of the rigid genre structures preferred by many other producers, blending techno with tropes and details pillaged from breakbeat, jungle, hardcore and ambient music. In an interview with Resident Advisor’s Matt Unicomb conducted earlier this year, Gräser claims that “when I hear only straight 4/4 techno there’s nothing there for me”, and that for him “it’s not always about banging, dark music. There’s something else we can also enjoy – breaks, melodies”. This philosophy towards dance music (which he claims to have some trouble making – he prefers producing ambient tunes) is clearly apparent in his work, which is frequently as impossible to classify as it is immaculately crafted. I was very glad to have the chance to hear one of his sets for myself (he apparently played at vurt. in February of last year, as well, but I wasn’t in the country then) and after spending a week listening to Gens on repeat every chance I got I was almost dead from hype by the time Saturday night rolled around.

“Escape Myself”, the track that catapulted Answer Code Request to techno stardom. 

I made sure to get there early so as not to miss much of Suna’s opening set. In my opinion, she’s the best local DJ, techno or otherwise, working in Seoul, and her performances are always something special. Saturday night was no exception. She began with a selection of slow-burning dub techno that gradually morphed into a slightly faster and darker affair, luring the already sizable crowd lingering along the edges of the room onto the dancefloor. The latter part of her set paired agile, nimble beats with ominous atmospheric noise that circled like vultures overhead, a combination of techno moodiness and rhythmic experimentation that complimented the kind of breakbeat-heavy adventurous tunes Answer Code Request would be playing later. I was so entranced by her selections and mixing that when the time came for her set to draw to a close and for Answer Code Request to take to the stage I was actually a little disappointed – at that moment I would have happily listened to Suna play all night.

My disappointment, however, was soon forgotten once Answer Code Request started laying down his first couple of grooves. From the start, it was clear we were in for something very far removed from the stereotypical idea of “dour Berghain techno”; for the first hour of his set there wasn’t a single straight 4/4 beat to be heard. Instead, Answer Code Request played an assortment of rubbery, funky tracks that sounded more like something off of 50 Weapons, Hyperdub or Hessle Audio than they did Ostgut Ton, Nevertheless, the feeling and atmosphere he maintained was still unmistakably techno. Each immense kick sounded as if it had been launched from an underground silo in a secret location, their crushing weight buoyed up by deconstructed and decaying rave leads reminiscent of an old-school hardcore mixtape dug up in a radioactive wasteland. Everything he played felt ever-so-slightly alien – recognizable as techno, but techno playing from an adjacent dimension, or being beamed into the concrete interior of the club by some mysterious future radio station. Or maybe, and more prosaically, from the UK; a lot of the tracks he threw in the mix definitely felt drawn from, or at least influenced by, the dizzying depths of the British hardcore continuum.

Around halfway through, however, Gräser seemed to hit a bit of a rut, swapping out the breaks and polyrhythms he’d been dealing in before for a more straight-laced, direct form of techno. It wasn’t a bad thing, necessarily – even when mixing more conventional 4-to-the-floor tracks he still kept the dancefloor enthralled – but I was a little let down that after such a daring and unconventional start he’d decided to turn back down such a well-worn musical path. To me the change in pace felt especially surprising given what I’d heard about Answer Code Request’s disdain for such formulaic stuff. I wasn’t alone, either; a couple of the people I chatted to outside when I went up for some air expressed a similar confused and vaguely dissatisfied sentiment. That being said, when I went back down I still had a great time dancing even if I what I was dancing to wasn’t quite as sonically interesting as it had been earlier, and towards the end of his set Answer Code Request started to get a little adventurous again, lightening up the shadowy atmosphere with a choice range of warm, bassline-driven house numbers. He finished off with Bicep’s “Glue”, one of the biggest tracks off of their fantastic self-titled debut album that came out last year, and I was struck by what an interesting journey we’d been taken on in the couple of hours he’d been playing; how Gräser’s tracks had covered such a wide musical range while still maintaining such an impressive sense of continuity and coherency. It’s easy to see why Answer Code Request has been able to make a name for himself as one of the most respected resident DJs at one of the most legendary techno institutions on the planet. Even taking account the awkward lag in the middle, his set was still one of the best I’ve ever heard, evidence that Patrick Gräser is a master of his craft.

After the last few claps from “Glue” had been drowned out by whoops and cheers from a rapturous crowd, it was resident DJ Xanexx’s turn to step up behind the decks and close out the night. Following an act like Answer Code Request must be daunting beyond belief, but if Xanexx was feeling the pressure he didn’t show it. With a confident grin plastered on his face, he launched straight into a high-octane burst of raw, twisted bangers. Whereas Suna’s opening set had been heavy on nebulous chords and sullen atmosphere, Xanexx took a more direct approach, favouring rapid-fire percussion and acid-tinged synths that almost – but not quite – verged on trance. It worked brilliantly. Normally, I expect people to start filtering out once the headliner’s set is done (there are unfortunately always going to be those people who are only interested in big international names and have minimal interest in hearing local acts). When I looked around me on the dancefloor about an hour-ish into Xanexx’s set, however, it felt just as full as it had in the middle of Answer Code Request’s – and a whole lot rowdier. By the time the sun had come up outside the crowd inside vurt. had gotten loose as hell and just seemed to be getting looser.

I haven’t spoken about the crowd that night yet, so I’ll take the opportunity to do so now. They were, in a word, lovely. The audience was perhaps 50% European (a lot of French and Germans, which is pretty normal for vurt. and for Seoul in general – wherever there is techno, I find, the Germans come out of the woodwork) – and people were by and large very relaxed and friendly, with none of the standoffish, too-cool-for-chit-chat attitudes that sometimes come with techno hipster territory. Something I really like about vurt. in general is that while it’s a place where I can go to and feel totally comfortable alone, not feeling any pressure to socialise with anyone else if I don’t want to and not feeling judged or looked down on for being by myself, in my experience it’s also really easy to strike up conversation and get to know people there if I want to, which isn’t always the case elsewhere. The balance of solitude and sociability I can find at vurt. is another thing I really love about the place, and as much a part of the attraction as the excellent music, top-notch soundsystem and reasonably-priced (for Seoul, anyway) drinks. I regret not staying to the very end, but by around 7 my feet and knees were beginning to ache and I knew I had to get myself onto the subway home before I found myself passing out on one of the black leather couches in the corner.

Why the hell do I ever go anywhere else, indeed? Based on how great this night was, I don’t intend to go anywhere but vurt. for a little while. Very few other clubs in Seoul can really measure up.

Note: You may have noticed something missing from this article – photographs! I decided not to take any pictures in vurt. … I don’t think they have any policy against it, it just didn’t feel like something I wanted to do in that space. You’ll have to use your imaginations, I’m afraid!

DATE: 16/03/2018
VENUE: Yes 24 MUV Hall, Mapo-gu
TICKET PRICE: ₩46 000 (Pre-sold)

For myself and my core group of friends, Mount Kimbie – the name under which British musicians Kai Campos and Dominic Maker have been releasing genre-defining and defying electronic music for the last decade – holds a pretty significant place in our hearts. We were introduced to the band when the brother of a friend of a friend shared a flat with them in London somewhere around 2010 and returned home with a vinyl copy of their first album, Crooks and Lovers, complete with a circular coffee-stain on the sleeve. That record ended up getting played to death over the next couple of years, ripped copies circulating like electrons being exchanged between atoms, and it became the go-to soundtrack for everything from pre-drinks to post-seshes, days at the beach to road-trips across the country. It’s one of a handful of albums I think I’ve listened to a little bit too much; I basically can’t listen to it any more, because every time I put it on my brain starts anticipating the next bar and filling it in before it’s even had a chance to reach my ears.

mount-kimbie

Kai Campos and Dominic Maker, the two halves of Mount Kimbie

Which is a pity, because Crooks and Lovers really is a special record. Released on Scuba’s legendary bass music label Hot Flush Recordings in 2010, at a time when the UK dubstep sound had exploded into the mainstream and rapidly been incorporated into the global commercial dance music scene, Mount Kimbie’s demure, understated debut album came across as the perfect polar opposite of the garish bombast of producers like, say, Skrillex, whose influential (for better or worse) EP Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites was released that same year. On Crooks and Lovers, Maker and Campos grabbed hold of all of the traditional sonic signifiers of dubstep – cavernous sub-bass, whipcrack percussion, shuffling garage beats – and turned them inside out, crafting a tender, patient record that couldn’t be further removed from the whomps and roars of dancefloor dubstep, and yet at the same time still felt curiously reminiscent of it, like rave tracks filtered through a thick fog of half-forgotten dreams. Together with artists like James Blake (one of their frequent collaborators) and Burial, Mount Kimbie helped to carve out the hazy genre boundaries of what music critics would come to call “post-dubstep”, inspiring a legion of imitators in the process.


‘Before I Move Off’, from debut album 
Crooks and Lovers

To Mount Kimbie’s credit, though, they didn’t stay within the confines of the genre they’d help define for long. Their second record, released on Warp in 2013, saw the duo breaking new musical ground, incorporating vocal performances from both themselves and ginger chanteur du jour Archie Marshall (King Krule), jazzy percussion and guitar and keyboard sounds which leant a more natural, jam-band feel to their output, a trend that became even more apparent on their latest outing, 2017’s Love What Remains (also on Warp). Personally, I’m a little ambivalent about these changes; from my point of view Cold Spring Faultless Youth and Love What Remains are both fine records, but very far removed from the Mount Kimbie I fell in love with (I must have listened to Crooks and Lovers hundreds of times; I listened to Love What Remains twice when it came out and I haven’t gone back to it since). Nonetheless I have a great deal of respect for them for not resting on their laurels and instead actively trying to push their sound in new directions. I also had a suspicion that their post-Crooks and Lovers material, especially the tracks off of the new album, probably worked better live than they did on record, a hunch that the gig proved to be correct.

1

I’m actually pretty happy with my terrible phone camera this time around, feel like it captured the feel of the show quite well. 

The venue was the Yes 24 MUV Hall, located roughly halfway in between Hongdae and Hapjeong stations (prime Korean hipster real estate, in other words). What it lacked in decent and affordable drinks (the bar carried exactly four alcoholic options, all priced at 7000 won or over) it more than made up for in space, atmosphere and sound. Red brick walls enclosed a space that felt at once intimate and roomy; I never once felt crushed or crowded in upon despite the hundreds of people around me, a feeling that’s sadly (but understandably) hard to come by sometimes in Seoul. And even before Mount Kimbie took to the stage it was clear from the sound quality of the warm-up indie muzak being piped over our heads that the system was either extravagantly expensive, lovingly maintained, or both – every note was crisp, clear and rich (note: there were apparently a couple of warm up acts that played before Mount Kimbie – local artists Mogwaa and Alter Ego – but their sets were already over by the time we arrived). The audience was comprised primarily of foreigners, most of whom seemed overjoyed to be there, and the people overall were far chattier and friendlier than I’m used to them being in this city; by the time Mount Kimbie took to the stage to whoops and whistles from the crowd I’d had more small-talk than I’d had in months.

After spending what seemed like much longer than it probably was bumbling around the stage in headtorches fiddling with arcane-looking synthesizers, the band (that is, Campos and Maker plus a live drummer and someone else helping out on various synthesizers – I did some perfunctory digging but I couldn’t find their names) finally began, kicking off the show with “Four Years and One Day”, the opening track from Love What Survives. From the start, it became clear that Mount Kimbie on stage was a very, very different beast to Mount Kimbie on record. Songs unfurled and elongated, stretching into what at times seemed like entirely new productions, at once more muscular and more ethereal. Maker and Campos were in a state of constant motion around the stage, moving effortlessly between guitars and synths as the screen behind them flashed with the same beautiful, cryptic imagery familiar from Mount Kimbie’s music videos: flowers, beaches, street scenes, airplanes, all with the same grainy, washed-out look, as if they’d been cut from a dusty roll of film found by chance in some long-forgotten attic.

2

The rose seemed to be a recurring motif in a lot of Mount Kimbie’s visuals that night. 

An early surprise came when Dominic Maker took to the microphone and began singing the vocal part from “We Go Home Together”, one of Kimbie’s collaboration’s with fellow “post-dubstep” luminary James Blake. It was a bold move; Blake’s tender croon is fairly idiosyncratic, and not easily replaced. Maker made it work, however, bringing a similar degree of raw, emotional sincerity to the piece, though it’s obvious that neither him nor Campos (who also provided vocal accompaniment at several points during the show) are all that comfortable when it comes to singing. That’s maybe a little unfair; the two of them have fine voices – it’s just that their vocal capabilities don’t stand out as spectacular in the same way as their instrumental abilities do. That being said, I’ll confess to breathing a sigh of relief when, a few songs later, they chose to play recorded audio of King Krule singing “Blue Train Lines” rather than attempting to sing the part themselves. Archie Marshall has what is probably one of the most unique and recognizable voices in contemporary music and hearing anyone else sing his verses on tracks like “Blue Train Lines” or “You Took Your Time” would just have felt… wrong.

3

Kai Campos switches out cables on a modular synthesizer as Dominic Maker hypnotizes with the bass. 

The show leaned far more heavily on material from the new album (though they did at one point play “Before I Move Off” from Crooks and Lovers, to rapturous applause and cheers). I’d expected this to be the case, and it made sense; for one thing, it’s pretty normal for bands to play newer music on stage so relatively soon after dropping a new release, and for another the driving, noisy motorik compositions of Love What Survives made for much better live show fodder than the woozy, intimate bedroom beats that characterized Crooks and Lovers and, to a slightly lesser extent, Cold Spring Faultless Youth. I was struck by how much more like a band, and less like a pair of producers, Mount Kimbie seemed on stage. Whereas on their albums, especially their earlier work, traditional instrumentation was just one element in a broader sonic palette, sharing the soundscape equally with synthesized noises and found-sound samples, here the guitar and bass seemed to take centre-stage, the rest of the sonic elements at their disposal falling into place in support around them. Mount Kimbie have definitely changed a lot since the Crooks and Lovers days, and in all honesty feel more like a particularly inventive post-rock band than they do a pair of post-dubstep pioneers. This change in musical direction really didn’t appeal to me, initially; as I mentioned earlier, Love What Remains is my least favourite Kimbie record by quite a wide margin, and I really do miss the days when they wore their dancefloor influences and aspirations a little more openly. But seeing how well the new Kimbie sound worked in a live setting I definitely felt more open to it; I could grok what they were trying to do, and their live show was so damn good because of it that it felt really churlish to hold their musical evolution against them.

5

Towards the end of the show the lighting scheme switched from red to blue. 

Just when I thought I had them figured out, though, Kimbie threw the audience a curveball. A noisy crescendo suddenly dissipated into a long, sustained drone that just kept going – and going – and going, until several members of the audience began looking around uncomfortably and I began to wonder if one of their synths had blown a circuit or something. Just when I thought the drone would never end, Kimbie began to lay down a thick cut of gnarly, booming outsider techno, all crushing claps and splutters of static that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an Opal Tapes compilation. It was a whiplash-inducing change of pace, but the duo pulled it off well, and the crowd loved them for it. They quickly settled back into more guitar-driven and mellow territory, but the rapid shift in atmosphere seemed evidence to me that Mount Kimbie still had more than enough tricks up their sleeves, and that they weren’t afraid to experiment with their sound and their show. I’d say this was probably my second favorite part of the show. My number-one favorite was their final song (which came all too soon for my liking), “Made To Stray”, easily the standout track from Cold Spring Faultless Youth and arguably one of the best pieces of music Kimbie has released over their career. I’m not ashamed to admit that I (together with my friends) sang along with every word and absolutely lost ourselves to the track’s rolling percussion and otherworldly keyboard tones. Looking around, I could see that we weren’t alone; the entire crowd seemed similarly entranced.

This was apparently Mount Kimbie’s first-ever show in South Korea, and it was a wonderfully memorable one. Hopefully, having definitely made a new fans in Seoul and will be back again some day soon!

 

DATE: 15/02/2018

VENUE: Cakeshop, Itaewon

ENTRANCE FEE: ₩20 000

 

Thursday February 15 marked the first day of the Seollal period – the Korean celebration of the lunar New Year. For most of Korea, Seollal is a time to be spent with family, but for some – including wayward waygooks like myself and my friends – it’s a time to party, and parties were plentiful in Seoul over the long weekend. There were plenty of events to choose from, from Berlin techno dame Resom at Faust to French improvisational-music weirdo Jacques at Soap, but for us there was one act that we couldn’t possibly pass up the chance to see: Tzusing’s set at Cakeshop.

In a global scene dominated by European and American artists, Chinese producer and DJ Tzusing is one of comparatively few Asian producers that has risen to prominence over the last few years. A longtime resident DJ at Shanghai’s legendary club Shelter, which sadly shut down in 2016, Tzusing began to gain the attention of techno-heads in the West with a string of excellent EPs on New Yorker Ron Morelli’s label L.I.E.S. (Long Island Electrical Systems), beginning with A Name Out of Place (Pt I) in 2014. Those initial tracks for L.I.E.S. immediately stood out from the rest of the label’s roster, showcasing a similar kind of raw and muscular energy to their peers while simultaneously being more slickly produced than many of their rough-around-the-edges lo-fi counterparts. Tzusing’s approach – pulsing, industrial-tinged dancefloor tracks that seethe with a kind of carefully controlled aggression – came to a head in his first full-length album, 東方不敗, which came out on L.I.E.S. in 2017. The album was an immediate critical success, making a couple of high-profile year-end lists and winning the producer, who  job runs a bicycle parts company as a day job, new fans around the world.

Tzusing, “Four Floors of Whores”, from the EP A Name Out of Place, Pt II (L.I.E.S., 2015)

 

The success of Tzusing, the producer, has also naturally led to greater interest in and exposure for Tzusing, the DJ, and it was reports on his DJ prowess that had gotten me really excited to see him perform. In an interview conducted with Resident Advisor’s Andrew Ryce, Tzusing notes how his approach to DJing  had been shaped by the Chinese crowds he cut his teeth playing for, where a lack of preconceived ideas of how “techno” ought to sound coupled with pressure to engage the audience’s limited attention spans led him to develop a DJ style more diverse and frenetic than his sometimes dogmatic contemporaries from Europe and the USA; he plays a lot of techno in his sets, yes, but he isn’t averse to dropping in hip hop, trap, pop or even rock tunes when he feels like they’ll suit the mood. In his own words: “you need to interact with the crowd, or you’re a dick”.

 

tzusing album.jpg

Cover of Tzusing’s debut LP, 東方不敗 (L.I.E.S., 2017). 

This kind of attitude I found really intriguing, because it reminded me a lot of how things are done back home. With a couple of exceptions (like the massive South African psytrance scene, which honestly is a whole article by itself), underground dance music scenes in South Africa are pretty small and underdeveloped. The demographics of the country and the distance from the “centre” just don’t allow for the emergence of, say, dedicated techno institutes like you see in America, Europe and even Asia, and clubs and DJs tend to have to be a bit more versatile and open-minded in terms of what they play and how they play it in order to attract the punters, a facet of the scene that’s even more apparent outside of the capitals of Cape Town and Johannesburg. I used to be involved in a couple of small club nights back in my college town of Grahamstown, and in my experience each DJ would not only play very different genres from one another, but would think nothing of blending wildly different styles together in a single set. You sort of had to; play one kind of anything too long and people would start getting bored and wander off. From what I could glean through reading interviews and listening to a couple of his mixes online, Tzusing seemed to have come out of a similar sort of scene, and I was interested in seeing how far those similarities went.
So with that in mind, me and one of my friends decided to see in the Year of the Dog in Cakeshop (note: I promise that there are other clubs in Seoul, and that I’m planning to go to and write about them- I just really wanted to hear Tzusing play!). Full disclosure: both of us were already pretty plastered by the time we got there; usually I don’t like drinking too much on club nights (dulls the enjoyment of the music a little for me), but it’s easy to over-indulge in good company. Fortunately, Tzusing’s tunes, which began not too long after we walked through the door, lent themselves to being danced to in a bit of a boozy haze.

Tzusing 1

My crappy phone pics came out a little less crappy this time, #aesthetic. 

 

He opened his set with a rapid-fire assault of energetic, EBM-ish industrial techno, not too far removed from the kind of stuff he produces himself: all clanking percussion, shrill horror-movie synths and staccato basslines. Often, that kind of sound can either come across as either too self-consciously dour and dystopian or else just plain cheesy, but Tzusing’s selections were deft enough that he was able to maintain a sense of fun and energy in spite  – or perhaps even because of – his harsh sound palette. He displayed a cunning grasp of the art of mixing, as well, frequently layering tracks together ever so slightly out of time with one another in such a way that what were on paper rather rigid grooves seemed to swing and breathe and syncopate. It’s a technique I’ve heard used to superb effect on a few commercial mixes before (notably Surgeon’s seminal entrance in the Fabric series, Fabric 53), but that I’ve never had the privilege of dancing to in a club setting up until now.

 

Somehow, he also managed to have a lot of stage presence – not always the easiest thing to do for a DJ behind the decks. Outside of the gauche theatrics of the mainstream EDM world (I’m thinking here of gimmicks like DeadMau5’ giant mouse head or Steve Aoki’s cake-throwing shenanigans), DJs usually aren’t quite the centre of attention when they’re on stage, at least not in the same way as pop, rock or hip hop artists are – they’re really more of a conduit for the music than a “performer” in their own right, which I think is for the better (helps keep egos a little bit more in check, and focuses the attention of the crowd on what they’re listening to as opposed to what they’re seeing). That being said, I just couldn’t take my eyes off of Tzusing. Something about him – maybe the way he continuously bobbed to his own music, or the flurry of expressions that flew across his face – just seemed to command attention. His nonstop dancing in the DJ booth was something else that set him apart from other techno artists I’ve seen, many of whom stand stone still and look like they could just as easily be checking e-mails on their iPads as playing music to a crowd of hundreds.

 

Tzusing CLose 1

The man himself. 

 

This sense of energy only grew more vivid as the set wore on and Tzusing began to break away from angular techno and into more diverse territory. He began to weave  hip hop, trap and ghetto house tunes into the mix, though the dominant sonic flavour – the “DNA” of the set, so to speak – remained that of techno. Some of the tracks he hit the dancefloor with were complete curveballs; one of the highlights of the set for me was hearing him play Estonian rapper Tommy Cash’s ridiculously sleazy “Winaloto”, followed by a brief but furious blast of hyper-distorted gabber kicks (in fact, now that I come to think of it Actress also dropped some gabber during his set at Cakeshop; is this a growing trend, techno DJs using gabber and hardcore as a way to spice things up?). It seemed as if he began to take a bit more of a laidback approach to his mixing as the night progressed as well, content to let tracks run to their conclusion before lining up the next selection or making the occasional rapid cross-fader transition between tunes rather than carefully beatmatching them. I can see why some people, techno purists in particular, might take exception to this style of DJing, though I personally don’t mind it, and I felt like in the context of the party it added to the sort of house party atmosphere that had been characterizing the night.

 

“House party” describes the overall atmosphere of the night pretty well, come to think of it. The club was on the empty side, for Cakeshop – even less full than it had been during Actress’ set a few weeks earlier. That was to be expected, though. It was Seollal, after all, and a lot of people had left Seoul to spend time with their families. I found myself wondering about the Koreans I saw out partying that night; how many of them were planning on heading hung-over and under-slept to their family homes the next day, to bow in front of their grandparents and make offerings to their ancestors? How many of them were loners and outcasts with no family to spend Seollal with at all, other than the family of friends and strangers they surrounded themselves with in the club? It made for interesting food for thought. Whatever the case, though, everyone in Cakeshop that night seemed extra friendly, relaxed, having a great time, with very little of the self-conscious posteuring that can be the bane of trendy nightclubs around the world in general and Korea in particular. A large part of that atmosphere, I think, came from the energy that Tzusing himself was putting out into the crowd. He was having such a visibly good time, and so evidently laid-back and in his element, that it was hard not to feel the same way. And the audience, for their part, showered him with appreciation, especially towards the last third of his set where each new track thrown down elicited a whoop, cheer or holler, and where a brief moment of silence as he faded out of one track and into another was filled with a spontaneous explosion of applause.

 

Tzusing close 2

One last blurry closeup. 

If I have one niggling regret regarding the night, it’s that I didn’t take the chance to pop upstairs to Contra for a little bit to catch the other headliner of the night – South Africa’s own afro-house adept Culoe de Song, who’d come to Seoul all the way from Johannesburg and who I’d last seen at Contra about a year ago. I really had intended to try divide my time between the two sets, wanting to show a little support for Culoe out of a vague sense of patriotism, but in the end I just couldn’t drag myself away from the basement – Tzusing was that mesmerising. I can’t say I’m too bothered, to be perfectly honest; every second of his set was worthwhile, and a week later me and my mate were still raving about how great it was. I’m hoping Tzusing makes his way Seoulward again sometime this year, because if he does I would definitely take the time to see him again.