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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

DATE: 02/13/2018

VENUE: SK Olympic Handball Gymnasium

TICKET PRICE: ₩120 000 (I only ended up paying 60 000 though)

 

The focus of this blog is primarily on the underground electronic music scene here in Seoul, and I don’t really intend to write about much else on here. However, I had the chance to see a live performance by The xx the other night and I figured I’d scribble down some of my thoughts on the gig, both to add a little variety to the content and to give myself the opportunity to practice writing about something a little different.

 

When one of my colleagues managed to track down a couple of half-price tickets to The xx’s show in Seoul and asked me if I wanted to go, I said yes pretty much instantly. The xx is one of those bands that holds a lot of emotional resonance for me, even though my tastes have mutated pretty dramatically since I first fell in love with their sound and they’re no longer a group I can claim to actively listen to. When I first discovered the group around 2009 I was 18 years old and just finishing high school, and The xx’s idiosyncratic r&b-influenced indie pop debut album, xx, served to soundtrack a large part of that difficult transitional period between childhood and something closer to, but still not quite yet, adulthood.

 

Nearly a decade after its release on Young Turks, xx sounds more iconic than ever. It’s a sparse, delicate record, overflowing with a downcast but heartbreakingly direct kind of sincerity. On its release I genuinely don’t think anyone had heard anything quite like it; the combination of breathy, sultry vocal duets, understated yet infectious guitar hooks, and forward-thinking drumming and beat programming that together created something that felt so nuanced, so personal, so intimate. “Intimate” is the word that comes to mind most often whenever I try and put The xx into words; music that sounds like it was made in and for south London bedrooms in the quietest hours of the night. One of the most curious things about the album to me that something so incredibly personal and inward-looking could have such a wide-ranging global impact, lauded by everyone from the nerds over at Pitchfork to Shakira . Then again, maybe that’s not surprising at all; the core themes at the heart of xx – love, loss, longing, desire, loneliness, sex – are common to all of us.

 

 

After being showered with critical acclaim and commercial success, The xx (minus keyboardist and backup guitarist Baria Qureshi, who was asked to leave the band in late 2009 under circumstances that still remain mysterious, shrouded in rumour and salacious internet gossip) followed xx with sophomore album Coexist in 2012 and I See You in 2017. Coexist trod similar ground to their debut, though with perhaps a slightly heavier emphasis on groove and sensuality, while on I See You the band branched out a little, experimenting with a wider range of styles and approaches and producing something that was decidedly more upbeat than either of the two previous records. Both were strong albums loaded with memorable songs, for all that they languish a little in their predecessor’s shadow. In the meanwhile, the band’s drummer and beat-maker Jamie xx began to become recognized in his own right as a DJ and producer within the context of the post-dubstep boom period of British dance music, producing a handful of high-profile singles and remixes, a remix album of the late Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here entitled We’re New Here, and a debut solo album, In Colour, which was loved by some and loathed by others.

 

I should probably pause for a second here and let it be known that I fall firmly into the latter category. I love The xx, but I don’t really care for Jamie as a solo artist. To my ears his production oscillates between being twee, bombastic and flat-out boring, and while I enjoy one or two of his tracks and really liked We’re New Here I would never go out of my way to listen to his material or catch a Jamie xx set – an opinion that was to an extent confirmed by the performance, which I’ll talk about in a bit.

 

The gig took place on Valentine’s Day eve in the SK Olympic Handball Gymnasium, located in Olympic Park in Songpa-gu in the south-east of the city and originally built for the 1988 summer Olympics. It’s a squat, circular building that according to it’s Wikipedia entry can seat 5, 0003 people, though I would guess that a little over 2 000 turned up for the show. Our tickets were, unfortunately, for seats rather than standing tickets, so I saw the performance from a fair distance away and seated the entire time – not my ideal way of attending any kind of concert – but after all they were half-price so it seems a little churlish to complain. The performance was supposed to start at 8 pm, but the band kept us waiting for about half an hour before they finally walked onto the stage – which I had been expecting (what band worth their salt ever starts on time?), but which my colleague was very annoyed by; according to her Korean artists would never leave their fans waiting like that. While we waited for The xx to show face I amused myself by scoping out the crowd; majority Korean, but with a higher-than-average number of waygookin, almost all of which seemed to be women, scattered among the audience.

The xx poster

As it turned out, the show was the very last one on The xx’s I See You tour, which began on February 8th last year. There was something special about being able to join them at the end of the tour – the end of one particular chapter in the story of the band, so to speak – but it was a double-edged sword; all three members – Guitarist and vocalist Romy Madley-Croft, bassist and vocalist Oliver Sim and drummer and electronics guy Jamie xx – were visibly exhausted, understandably so after having been on the road for over a year. The beginning of the show was especially choppy, with the band running through songs at what felt like a very rapid pace, barrelling into the tunes with little to no sense of build-up or introduction. “Islands”, arguably one of the most well-known standout tracks from xx, was the second or third song they played and while the crowd responded with screams of delight at the first few bars of the familiar melody I couldn’t help but wonder if it shouldn’t have been saved for a little later on in the evening. I began feeling a familiar, horrible sensation in my stomach – what if, in fact, this band that I had appreciated for so long actually… sucked? What if it turned out to be a bad show? I’m pretty sure a lot of the people reading this (if anyone is actually reading this, that is) know the feeling I mean: it’s kind of traumatic to finally get to see an artist you love live and find out that their stage show is kind of bad. Not that the initial few songs were actually all that bad, necessarily, the performance just felt a little… phoned in.

 

Ironically, the vibe of the show began to take a turn for the better around about the same time that Romy momentarily forgot how to play her instrument. In what was definitely one of the most endearing moments of the evening, she struggled to pull off the opening bars of ‘A Violent Noise’, starting and stopping again and again as the right notes continued to elude her, even going so far as to swap out guitars at one point. My heart went out to her; I can’t imagine how stressful and embarrassing it must be to run into a hiccup like that in the middle of a performance, in front of thousands of people. But she handled it like an absolute champion, refusing Oliver Sim’s gentle suggestion that they move on to the next song and trying the riff again and again until she eventually got it right. When she finally managed it, the entire atmosphere of the gig changed; the crowd burst into a roar of congratulations, Madley-Croft’s face lit up in triumph, Sim strode over to plant a kiss on her head before throwing himself into the bassline. It took a while to get there, but the rendition of ‘A Violent Noise’ that they eventually pulled off catapulted the song right to the top of my personal ranking of xx tunes. And man, was it worth the wait… it seemed like after getting over the grinding awkwardness that plagued the start of the song the whole band seemed to loosen up and enjoy themselves more, and a strong sense of almost familial warmth and intimacy (there’s that word again!) began to show, between the members on stage as well as between The xx and their audience. Especially palpable was the sense of on-stage chemistry between Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim. The two complimented each other perfectly, gazing into each other’s eyes as they strummed their guitars, their voices alternating in smoky, poetic duets suffused with the sense of yearning and heartache familiar from The xx’s studio albums. But where their voices on the albums were mostly murmur, their vocals on stage were suffused with confidence and presence, lending the duo a kind of command largely absent from their recorded work. It’s easy to see why for a long time fans of the band were convinced the two were secretly dating – rumours that were finally put to rest with Romy Madley-Croft’s engagement and the revelation that she bats for the other team. When Madley-Croft took centre-stage for a powerful solo performance of “Performance”, however, she showed that she was more than capable of commanding the rapt attention of the crowd without Oliver or Jamie’s support; her vulnerable croon sent honest-to-god chills through my entire body.

The xx 1

If Romy Madley-Croft dominated the beginning of The xx’s set, then Oliver Sim was the star of the middle. After pausing to throw out a few polite concert clichés at the crowd – “we love you Seoul”, “so happy to be here”, etc. etc., the usual stuff, harmless but a little cheesy – he descended off stage and down into the crowd, hi-fiving people as he strode towards a smaller stage set up towards the end of the standing area. From down there he launched into ‘Fiction’ a brooding, bass-driven number from Coexist written by Sim himself, whose lyrics seem, like a lot of The xx’s tracks, to be about a painful breakup  (or were they ever together at all?). There was a certain irony to be had in playing the song the day before Valentine’s, as Sim wryly acknowledged.

So far I’ve spent a lot of words gushing about how much I enjoyed Romy and Oliver’s performances, but I haven’t said that much about Jamie xx, frankly because I don’t have that many nice things to say. To my mind, he’s the weak link of the group, and there were several times where I felt as if his booming electronic percussion felt overbearing and forced, working at odds with the gentle, soulful atmosphere being carefully put together by his bandmates. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy any of his contributions, though. One of his high points towards the end of the show was a stunning live remix version of Shelter, with Romy and Oliver singing over a sparkling swirl of synth notes and machine kicks that turned the angsty, wistful number into a total bop. This was followed by a live rendition of one of Jamie xx’s own solo pieces, “Loud Places”, which I can’t say I’ve ever enjoyed overmuch in studio form but which was really powerful and impactful on stage, especially in conjunction with the excellent lighting work from The xx’s stage crew. What good will I’d begun to feel for him off the back of those two songs, however, was lost when he launched into a long, filter-heavy jacking house track, utterly jarring and completely out of step with the atmosphere built up throughout the show. Romy and Oliver managed to salvage the end of the show, however, closing with a beautiful rendition of “Intro” and then dusting off “Angel” as an encore number, prompting the entire audience to sing along to the final refrain of “love, love, love” – a fitting end given the date, and the key themes that have dominated The xx’s music for the last nine years.

Overall, I’d say I’m glad I took the chance to see The xx perform. Musically, the show fell a bit flat for me more than once, and I’m not sure if I would ever make much of an effort to see the a second time. Nevertheless, it was really something special seeing the band interact with each other on stage, and witnessing the warmth, familiarity, friendship and love that they clearly share for each other. The impression I was left with was that the band plays together because they really, really love playing together, and they really, really, love each other; and that’s the kind of artistic vision I can definitely get behind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DATE: 27/01/2018

VENUE: Cakeshop, Itaewon

ENTRANCE FEE: ₩20 000

I missed my first chance to see an Actress set in 2013. I was still living in my home country of South Africa then, and thanks to a series of events jointly curated by Live Magazine and the British Council aimed at bringing British electronic musicians to South Africa, Actress was scheduled to play two sets, one in Cape Town, one in Johannesburg. Myself and my small group of techno-head friends were beyond excited. International underground acts rarely make it so far down south – there’s not really a thriving enough scene there to make the journey worthwhile – so to have someone like the legendary Darren J Cunningham in the country was something special. Unfortunately, at the last minute I was forced to stay home; I simply couldn’t afford it, both in time (to get from our sleepy Eastern Cape town to Johannesburg for the gig required a solid 10 hours of driving) and money (I was absolutely skint). The friends of mine who went came home raving about the experience, and I was understandably seething with jealousy, but one thing that they said stood out to me. When I asked about the crowd – how many people were there? Was there a good vibe? – they hesitated a little, then shook their heads and said “a lot of them didn’t get it, hey”.

Honestly, I wasn’t at all surprised. As a producer, a DJ and – judging by his interviews – as a personality, Actress is straight-up weird, albeit in the best possible way. His production completely defies categorisation: emerging out of that busy, fertile period of London dance music in the immediate wake of dubstep in the late 00’s and early ‘10s, Actress’s tracks clearly draw from a bewildering array of influences – Detroit techno, Chicago house, grime, jungle, r&b, hip-hop, even classical music – yet manage to sound nothing like any of them. Instead, he’s one of comparatively few producers whose sonic palette sounds entirely unique – nothing and no one sounds quite like Actress. The closest comparison that comes to mind – not in terms of musical similarity, but rather in their relationship to their particular scenes – is that of Flying Lotus. In a similar way to how FlyLo takes on the influences and structures and sounds of hip hop and jazz and by some technical wizardry twists them into musical forms that are entirely his own, Actress has crafted something previously unimaginable out of random bits and pieces of the UK hardcore continuum. And though it hasn’t garnered quite the same level of praise and influence that Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label has, Actress’ own Werkdiscs has earned its own place amid the legion of electronic labels out there, providing a home for such diverse and excellent artists as Moiré, Lukid, and Helena Hauff.  What makes Actress even more remarkable, as both a producer and a DJ, is how he’s somehow managed to make such abstract, difficult sounds that often bear only the barest tangential relationship to the dancefloor have such wide appeal – a trait especially apparent on his latest album, AZD, which is probably his most accessible and floor-friendly work since debut album Hazyville.

azd cover

the cover image for Actress’ latest LP, AZD

With all that in mind, when I saw that Actress was due to play a set in Seoul I was both extremely hyped – and grateful that I’d been given a second chance to hear him play – and extremely curious: would he draw a particularly large crowd here? What kind of stuff would he be laying down, and how would the floor respond?

He was hosted, of course, by Cakeshop. Located on the main strip of Seoul’s “foreign quarter”, Itaewon, within spitting distance of the Yongsan Military Base, Cakeshop – which has been in business for five years now – is to my mind a serious contender for the title of “best club in Seoul”. It’s literally underground, occupying the basement level of the building, and the interior is constantly bathed in soft red light. The lighting never fails to make me think of Twin Peaks, as if the club was something out of the set of a K-drama as directed by David Lynch. Musically, Cakeshop walks a fine line between accessible, crowd-friendly grooves and bangers, usually in a hip hop, trap and bass music vein, and more adventurous sonic fare (over the past year they’ve featured artists like Elysia Crampton, Kode9, Gaika and Machinedrum). It’s this balancing act – the way that Cakeshop is able to provide a space both for dedicated beat-heads and casual clubbers just out for a good night- that seems to be the recipe for the venue’s success. If anything, sometimes the place can be a little too successful; on busy nights it’s heaving with bodies to the point where hacking out a space in the crowd to dance can be an exhausting task.

Cakeshop itself is the main attraction, but next door is home to Cakeshop’s affiliate club/secondary floor, Contra; paying door fee at one club secures you entrance to the other. Where Cakeshop specialises in bombastic bass, boisterous crowds and bone-shaking rhythms, Contra, by contrast, is a little more refined; the colour palette is blue to Cakeshop’s red and the sounds on display lean more towards house, disco and techno than bass, dubstep and hip-hop. The fact that you can easily wander between the floors if one gets a bit too monotonous or crowded is a big plus in Cakeshop/Contra’s favour.

The Actress gig took place on Saturday, January 27th, with Contra hosting the first anniversary of its innovative techno night, Exlinear (the brainchild of German transplant Tobias Kalleder, aka KLLDR) at the same time. When I arrived, around half midnight, Cakeshop was still three-quarters empty, with a handful of people clinging to the walls and talking over rather than bobbing to the bass and hip-hop being spun by the opening acts. Upstairs, at Contra, the Exlinear night was a little more interesting. Despite the relatively early hour the music was full of energy, the DJs churning out a barrage of booming, chunky techno and tech-house cuts. I told myself I was only there to mark time until Actress stepped up to the decks downstairs, but in all honesty I found myself zoning out so hard to the Exlinear crew’s muscular brand of techno that I completely lost track of time, and it was around 2:30 am – half an hour after Actress was due to begin – that I glanced at my phone to check the time. Cursing, I made my way back down into the ‘Shop, which Actress had already thoroughly taken over.

If there’s one word I would use to describe the bulk of Actress’ set, it would be “minimal”. Not in the shiny, sterile sense, the clicking and popping of the mid 00s Berlin “mnml” movement. Rather, the sounds issuing from the speakers had a deep and cavernous quality, edged with oodles of negative space and characterised by a crisp sonic severity. I don’t think I’ve ever heard so much groove and feeling wrung out of such sparse elements: a shuriken-sharp hi-hat here, a leaden slab of bass there, squeals and sizzles of synth, the occasional grainy ambient wave crashing down around it all. It was a masterclass in simplicity, making everything else I’d heard that night sound overwrought in comparison. Something that I was always keenly aware of was his use of bass. Now, bass is the cornerstone of pretty much all electronic dance music (and, for that matter, most popular music). It’s the bit that actually gets people moving. But in Actress’s set, the bass really felt like the star of the show, at various times coarse and well-defined, rough around the edges and skull-squeezingly deep, thick and sinuous and undeniably present at all times.

ACTRESS_PAINT 3

my phone camera is terrible. That dark pixellated shape is Actress. 

Cunningham’s transitions were also remarkable. In all truthfulness his mixing was a million light years away from seamless. New tracks were abruptly, jarringly introduced into the mix, meshing into each other in a chaotic, car-crash fashion that nevertheless never once felt clumsy or out of control. Rather, after each initially shocking mix the new tracks settled into the set almost subliminally, so that in one moment I found myself stopping and marvelling at how weird and unexpected a particular shift was, yet only a few seconds later I found myself once again caught up in the groove and could barely recall what the set had sounded like the minute before. The flow of the set was never actually disrupted, the energy never lagged, despite how many curveballs Actress threw at the crowd- and there were plenty of curveballs. At one point, he ratcheted the tempo up to a punishing, nearly unbearable pace, beats pummelling the crowd in a way that would almost have been gabber-like had the rhythms not remained so slinky and off-kilter, only to drop right back down again a few tracks later into sludgy, shuffling slo-house. As for what, exactly, he was playing, I would be hard-pressed to give an answer; it’s difficult to guess at what genre(s) I was listening to, let alone which artists. The best I can come up with is: everything he played sounded like it had been ripped off of Soundcloud, but in the best possible way.

The crowd, for the most part, seemed to love it. It’s been said that, at an earlier point in his DJ career, Actress had a habit of clearing (or should that be cleansing?) dancefloors, but I found that the faces and bodies around me remained pretty consistent throughout the night: people were there for him from beginning to end. The club was, it must be said, less crowded than I had expected it to be. It was still full, don’t get me wrong, but nowhere near the overwhelming crush of humans I’m used to experiencing on busy Cakeshop nights. This may indicate that Actress is perhaps not as well-known or appreciated in the Korean capital as he ought to be; however, I think it’s more likely that the weather kept more than a few people home (Seoul in January is bitterly cold, and that weekend the city was in the grip of a nasty cold snap). The crowd was also, I was surprised to see, predominantly Korean, with very few waygookin in attendance. This was, I would say, pretty unusual, as typically acts like this draw quite a sizeable number of the city’s expatriate techno cognoscenti out of the woodwork. Another unusual (especially for Cakeshop) feature of the makeup of the audience was the fact that it was predominantly male. At some points, especially towards the DJ booth, it felt like I was seeing three or four men for every woman. This speaks, perhaps, to a sad truth about the demographic appeal of this kind of music – that fans of the sort of abstract techno that Actress has made his career off of are very much a “boy’s club”.

At some point after 4 am, following a few brief ambient interludes and a final run of rough-shod instrumental grime, Actress’s set drew to a close and he withdrew, almost unnoticed, into the shadows. I decided to head back upstairs and see how the Exlinear anniversary party was progressing, which turned out to be a good decision. KLLDR had taken to the decks, bewitching dancers with a weirder, more psychedelic techno sound than had been playing before. At this point it was clear that everyone was tired – more and more people began to peel away from the dancefloor and venture outside – but it was a happy kind of tired; all around me people were smiling, laughing and dancing in the special way that people do after they’ve had a particularly good night out. By the time everyone was hustled out and both venues shut their doors the subway had already started running again and the winter sun was just beginning to lighten the skyline.

As I strolled out into the dawn, I remembered another thing that my friends had told me about that time they all went up to Johannesburg to see Actress play; how when they’d been leaving the gig they were held up at gunpoint and nearly robbed of all their possessions, only to be rescued by a passing taxi driver with a can of mace (Johannesburg is a dangerous city). Making my way through the orderly streets of Seoul – even Itaewon at its rowdiest feels pretty controlled after a lifetime in South Africa – I turned the story over in my mind, and marvelled at how far away I was from home, how deeply different the context around me was from the one I’d come from – and how despite their differences, both environments could be momentarily connected by something as arbitrary and tenuous as throwing a party with Actress. And that feeling – strangeness and familiarity rolled up into one weirdly comforting sensation – seems like as good a metaphor as any other for the night.