When You Awake, the latest offering from Changwon-based producer mcthfg, is a concept album of sorts – “the outline of an SF story set to music”, inspired by the music of legendary roots-rock group The Band and the writing of speculative fiction authors N.K. Jemisin and Yoon Ha Lee. It’s an ambitious project; The five tracks (six, if one includes the album mix that forms track 6) on When You Awake range over a wide variety of musical styles, and the narrative intent is clear in the way in which the tracks progress and flow into one another.

Opening track ‘The Traveller’ starts off with a melody of microscopic blips, before being joined by a slowed-down electro groove and a warm Reese-esque bassline. The track makes great use of the stereo field; low-passed arps, wooden-sounding drum fills and spacey dub chords flow seamlessly from one headphone to the next, making the listener feel totally submerged in the music. The following track, ‘The World’, has a similar effect, achieved this time with dusty, delay-drenched synth notes bubbling in and out of hearing, punctuated every now and then by what sounds like the screech of a violin being fed through an over-spun loop of degraded tape. Other details – the occasional air-raid siren sweep, sparse, melancholic piano notes, a kind of dirty G-funk bass – combine to give the track a palpable sense of digital dread.

 

This atmosphere of dread and tension gradually evaporates over the course of the next track, ‘The Game’. Here, mcthfg deploys slow, evolving, Eno-like ambient pads and a relatively minimal arrangement that comes as a bit of a palette cleanser after the intensity of the two preceding tracks. A dry, tinny beat feels there to add texture rather than momentum, and overall the track reminds me of the kind of woozy, head-nodding numbers that occasionally crop up in the vaporwave end of the ambient spectrum.

If ‘The Game’ acts as the album’s pre-climactic ‘quiet before the storm’, then ‘The Difference’ is the storm itself. A heavy, echoey beat, with all the emphasis placed on the snare, gives the track a distinct mid 90s trip-hop vibe. This impression is only further entrenched by the arrival of dramatic organ chords that give the track its defining character. In my notes for this review, I see I have scrawled “mcthfg Does Portishead” next to the title of this track, and it honestly feels like the most accurate summation of what he’s done here.

Closing track ‘The End’ forms a kind of book-end to opener ‘The Traveller’, utilizing a similar opening melody, though here it sounds far more cosmic and ethereal. The bass is fathoms deep, and like ‘The Difference’, there is something a little retro, specifically something a little 90s, about the sound design in this track. Capping it all off is a distorted lead synth that, at the track’s peak moments, almost begins to feel like the wailing of an electric guitar, spliced and stitched into something far stranger.

The album ends with a continuous 32-minute mix of all the preceding tracks, a nice touch and one that highlights one of the key strengths of When You Awake; the flow of the music. Each track, while having its own distinct sense of identity, leads very naturally into the next, and overall the sequencing of the album is very well executed, something that sets it aside from a lot of other Bandcamp artists who, while they are gifted at making music, aren’t always as gifted when it comes to putting that music together in an aesthetically pleasing order. Part of this, no doubt, stems from the overarching narrative concept behind the album – the album is structured like a story, and its major moments feel like key scenes in a gripping graphic novel. Perfect tunes to close your eyes and explore future universes to.

When You Awake is available for purchase over on Dubmission’s Bandcamp. 

 

My first encounter with Tengger’s work came when I was reviewing the first Extra Noir compilation last year. There, the track the Seoul-based duo, comprised of  Itta (on harmonium and vocals) and Marqido (on analogue synthesizers) submitted (‘Breathe In, Breathe Out’) was dark and haunting, which fitted in well with Extra Noir’s witchy darkwave aesthetic. When given the space to define their own sound, however, Tengger favours a more fuzzed-out, sunburnt sound, exemplified in their album Spiritual, an eight-track array of synthesizer jams and garage psychedelia. Tengger first released Spiritual back in 2017, initially sold as a digital album and cassette tape combo produced in collaboration with arts collective Seendosi (the tape version is, sadly, no longer available). Thanks to Extra Noir, however the album is seeing a re-release, with a limited-run vinyl edition (at the time of writing, only 5 records are left up for grabs!). 

The titular opening track is all about repetition, pairing a chugging bass riff with Raga-reminiscent synth chords and… not a whole lot else. Snatches of crooning female vocals add some colour to the track’s final third, but beyond that, all of the track’s sense of progression is textural (or vertical, if that’s your preferred terminology) rather than melodic; the same rhythms and patterns repeat ad infinitum, but subtle changes in the substance of the sounds themselves keep it from growing stale or boring. This sets the trend for the rest of the album, which follows a similar path, and uses a similar sonic pallet. On Track 2, (‘Luft’), however, the bass groove is far funkier, and the thick waves of feedback and reverb that Tengger spice things up with seem to channel the wide-eyed and inventive spirit of a stoned teenager playing with effects pedals in Guitar Center. The vocal on this track, when it does put in appearance, is almost lost in the sea of sound, feeling more like a splash of sonic colour than an instrument per se. It’s followed by ‘Earther’, whose analogue arpeggios and harmonium keys and chord progressions sound reminiscent of both medieval music and the soundtracks of 1970s nature documentaries. The fourth track, ‘Barabonda’, is much more heavy and raw, centering around a sludgy distorted riff that acts as a counterpoint to a wispy, ethereal vocal warble. Bursts of feedback (a crucial element in Tengger’s sonic repertoire, it seems) complete the picture, setting the track up for an epic extended breakdown jam towards the end.

Footage of Tengger performing at a Spiritual album launch gig in 2017. 

This is followed by ‘Jongsori’, more a kind of brief interlude than a “track” in its own right, featuring the faint hiss of field recordings, the sound of what could be gongs warped and mutated by the dark sorcery of analogue technology till they’re almost unrecognizable, and the ominous sound of chanting voices. The sixth tune on the album, ‘Dancing’, is much more upbeat. Here insistent two and three note synth patterns spiral like the arms of galaxies around one another while an unassuming Pong-like blip keeps time. The real surprise, however, comes when Itta begins to play a jaunty sea-shanty-style tune on the harmonium. Considered individually, all these elements shouldn’t really work together, but somehow Tengger manages to pull it off. On Track 7, ‘Morgen Tempei’, percussive elements (which up until now has been either relegated to the background or entirely absent) take on more of a prominent role, with a rounded kick drum sound providing the rhythmic backbone of the tune. ‘Morgen Tempei’ is a cinematic and uplifting track; There is a pleasing sense of point and counterpoint between a clear, gentle bleeping sound and more ragged and energetic synth chords, and at different points in the track I was reminded both of the soft and poignant techno of The Field and also, for some reason, of Radiohead.

Tengger - Gatefold Outer

The outer sleeve design for the Spiritual vinyl release.

Spiritual finishes off with an epic, almost 15 minute long odyssey of a closing track, entitled ‘Dodeuri’. The track begins with some heavy-handed, loose bass and key rhythms, that sound like they’ve been recorded from an ancient grand piano rather than on a synthesizer. A high-pitched shuddering synthetic hum, however, reminds the listener that this is most certainly still electronic music. Female vocals whisper and chant, while low, fuzzed-out synth stabs lend the tune something approaching a “bassline”. At around 11 minutes in, ‘Dodeuri’ fakes out the listener, fading into near silence before kicking in again with a vengeance for the album’s last stretch. It’s clear that Tengger intended ‘Dodeuri’ to be the crowning moment of the album, an epic psychedelic voyage, which makes it a pity that, for me at least, it falls a little flat. It seems like there just aren’t enough ideas here to sustain a track of this length, and the chaotic jumble of elements at play feels less like a raw surge of musical energy than it does simply under-produced.

Despite my disappointments with the final track, however, I still think Spiritual is a good album, a showcase of how you can wring a lot of emotion and narrative out of very simple, abstract electronic sounds. The whole album feels played, rather than produced – there’s a loose, live kind of atmosphere that permeates throughout – which makes me even more keen than I was before to try and catch a live Tengger set sometime.

Spiritual is available for purchase over at Tengger’s Bandcamp. You can order a copy of the vinyl release from Extra Noir

Though they may seem a million miles apart, ambient music and techno are really two sides of the same coin. While they may differ dramatically in function – one form of music being made for relaxing, calming down and spacing out, and the other being made to be moved to – both are similar in that they pull the listener into a world of their own, a psycho-acoustic space in which the all of the burdens of the self and the world beyond are brushed aside, for a brief while at least. On a more mundane level, of course, ambient and techno music often share similar methods and tools of composition, either digital or analogue, and many if not most techno producers have experimented with ambient works and vice versa. The blurring of the lines between techno and ambient music has arguably produced some of the best works in either genre, such as Voices From The Lake’s seminal self-titled album, or Wolfgang Voigt’s sublime GAS project.

Unjin Yeo (a name that anyone with any interest in the Korean techno scene should be very familiar with) is no stranger to ambient music. Though there are many ambient and electronica tracks kicking about in his back catalogue alongside his more floor-focused fare, in recent years he seems to have been drawn more and more to ambient production, as evinced by his recent excellent collaboration with Sunji. His latest album, Hui Gui, the second release on fledgling Japan-based label Kizen Records, is another of his recent ambient explorations. The album was composed primarily using analogue synthesizers and acoustic bass, with a couple of well-chosen guests being called in for remix duty.

In album opener ‘Ties’ Unjin places metallic pulses against a backdrop of static rain. Long, low bass notes cut through the mix like the horns of ships sounding through icy fog, while shards of guitar and fragmented chords float like ribbons around the track’s edges, adding to the cinematic feel of the piece. The watery theme continues into the following track, ‘Hui Gui’. Here, waves of musical texture crash and break against each other, and something that sounds like a distant, distorted church bell rings out a repetitive rhythm. But that description really just scratches the surface; ‘Hui Gui’ is a track full of minute details, a tapestry of sonic intricacies that is easy to get lost in. Unjin’s deployment of texture and timbre here feels very much inspired by dub techno; his soundscape puts me in mind of the work of artists such as Echospace or Pole in the way that it has been constructed. Towards the end of the track, notes begin streaming down towards and shattering upon the foundation of the bass, like a waterfall turning to ice moments before it reaches the ground.

 

 

After the last few echoes of ‘Hui Gui’ have faded away, Swedish producer Ntogn steps up to the plate to provide listeners with a change of pace. His remix of ‘Hui Gui’ takes Unjin’s eerie ambient sounds and contorts them into something more closely resembling straight-up techno, albeit of a hypnotic and trippy variety. A low, organic-sounding growl shifts up and down in pitch over the deep thud of the kick drum and the ticks and scratches and scrapes of the percussion. As the track goes on, otherworldly voices begin to gasp and howl as around them Ntogn contorts scraps of dub-industrial atmosphere into vaguely rhythmic forms. The mix feels both busy and sparse at the same time; there’s a lot going on, many elements at play, but each sonic detail still feels as if it has been allocated adequate space to breathe.

The fourth track, ‘Untitled Space’, takes things back in a more ambient direction, pairing gentle, choir like-pads with chest-rattling drawn-out bass notes that again reminded me of horns – this time more of ancient war horns, shofars or something similar, than of those used by ships in the night. Other sounds, high-pitched and alien, fluctuate in and out of hearing, each one slightly changed from the one that preceded it, but overall I found that this track felt somewhat unfinished, more a tantalizing loop or sketch of something greater than a full track in its own right. The album closes off with another remix, this time of the opening track ‘Ties’ by Hydrangea, a French producer who is a relatively recent addition to the mesmerising techno scene. Like Ntogn, Hydrangea’s remix opts to trade out Unjin’s dark and dreamy ambience for an altogether more beat-driven and danceable affair. An unpredictable double-time kick pattern and sinuous rumble of sub-bass anchor the track to earth while a complex pattern of interlocking and intersecting rhythms radiates through the blackness. Hydrangea appears to have left Unjin’s sound design more or less untouched; most of the sounds she deploys here are recognisable as those from ‘Ties’, but re-sculpted and re-arranged into very different forms, giving the remix a sense of both newness and familiarity. As the mix goes on the pads grow steadily more uplifting and dramatic, until by the track’s climax it feels like it would be better suited to an open-air rave under the stars than to a pitch-black warehouse.

The digital version of Hui Gui comes with two bonus tracks, ‘Atramentum (The End of the Orbit)’ and ‘Tail of Us’. ‘Atramentum (The End of the Orbit)’ is another diversion from the album’s ambient ambitions. A dry, classic-drum-machine sounding kick slices through a liquid miasma of greyscale psychedelia that seems to be constantly mutating and evolving as the track progresses. An indistinct voice chants a mournful mantra as resonant synth tones orbit the body of the tune like the remnants of stars circling the event horizon of a supermassive black hole. The second bonus track, ‘Tail of Us’, makes use of microscopic, clicky kicks, loops of gated static, and warm analogue pads in a way that makes me think that Unjin must have been listening to a lot of Autechre when he was making it, or possibly to Radiohead’s Kid A. It’s a very minimal, ritualistic-sounding tune, and the bareness of its arrangement and soundscape means that even minor changes – the introduction of a snare hit around halfway through, for instance – end up having a massive impact. Both of the bonus tracks are masterful pieces of music, to the point where I am somewhat confused as to why they didn’t make it to the vinyl release, as in my opinion they are the two strongest tracks on Hui Gui.

Hui Gui is a challenging but ultimately rewarding album, the kind that benefits from many close and careful listens. I’ve had it on constant rotation this November, and as winter descends over Seoul (and thick clouds of pollution billow in from China), Unjin’s analogue explorations have provided the perfect soundtrack to, and respite from, this cold, dark, dusty time.

Hui Gui is available for purchase (in either vinyl or digital form) over at Kizen Records’ Bandcamp.