2018 has been a fruitful year for Oslated. The fledgling label has already released two stellar albums this year – Eyvind Blix’s Västberga Allé and Saphileaum’s Uninhibited Kingdom – and now, as the memory of summer fades and the trees have begun to turn the crimsons and golds of autumn, they’ve put out their most challenging and experimental release yet: General Noise, by Spanish-born, Vietnam based producer Javier Marimon.

On General Noise Marimon, who contributed a remix of Saphileaum’s ‘No Clue of Life’ for Uninhibited Noise earlier this year, offers up six cuts of moody, atmospheric ambient techno, which are presented alongside four remixes by various Oslated affiliates. The album’s intro consists of reverb-drenched found sound – something like ping pong balls falling to a wooden floor, or marbles being rolled across a stage – that bubble and echo against a backdrop of ominous buzzes and drones that grow steadily richer and more textured as the track progresses, while a halting, uncertain kick rhythm lies almost buried in the mix. After the intro fades away, the album kicks off with the first ‘proper’ track, ‘General Noise I’ – though “kicks off” is really the wrong turn of phrase to use for such a muted, understated piece of music. A pad so deep it frequently finds itself merging with the bass rumbles and creaks alongside the thump of a chaotic kick pattern while more reverb-laden samples, similar to those in the intro piece, provide a counterpoint to the other elements of the track. It’s a bare-bones, hyperminimalist work, but at the same time it has a certain warmth to it, a flicker of emotion that belies the sparseness of the overall arrangement. No such sense of warmth is present in the following tune, ‘General Noise II’, a far more eerie and ominous affair. A soft rain of static leaves streaks of sound against a crystalline lead rhythm (I say “rhythm” because it would be an extreme stretch of the term to describe it as a “melody”), while over time something vaguely resembling a traditional techno track structure – 4/4 bass thud, whispers of percussion – is worn away by gusts of metallic wind. Later in the track things grow slightly more intense with the arrival of distorted, twisted clap-like sounds, battering the bulk of the track in a faltering, unpredictable frenzy, but they’re still mixed low enough that they only add to the murk of the piece, rather than making it any clearer.

 

 

General Noise III’, the fourth track, is probably the closest Marimon gets here to ‘straight’ dancefloor material, but even here he’s undeniably charting a stranger territory than paint-by-numbers peak-time techno ever dares to. A blunt-edged sub-bass and dry grid of kick drums form the basis of the track as bursts of shaped static sound off like faraway gunfire and synth sweeps and spirals through the air like UFOs searching for their next victim. It’s danceable, sure, but only in the darkest of basements in the blackest of hours, which I feel like is exactly what Marimon was aiming for. It’s followed by the last of the ‘General Noise’ tunes, ‘General Noise IV’. The low-end of the track tunnels its way through a fog of engine noise before being joined by the microscopic click and hiss of percussion and a swell of bright synth that would almost sound like vaporwave if heard in a different context.

After the last notes of ‘General Noise IV’ have faded away, it’s time for the remixes to start. First up is a remix of ‘General Noise I’ by Korea’s dark prince of the 5 a.m dancefloor, Xanexx. Here, Xanexx hollows out the dense soundscape of Marimon’s original and cloaks it in a shroud of his own ghostly electronics, producing an ambient work somehow even more somber and despondent than the original, making the listener feel as if they’re gazing out over the frozen surface of a desolate moon. The next rework comes from one of the most renowned names to have worked with Oslated to date, Silent Season luminary Winter in June. On his rework of ‘General Noise II’, the Sardinian producer cranks up the originals ominous atmosphere to 11, creating a tense, paranoid slice of dark ambient reminiscent of the early work of Ben Frost; it’s the kind of track that wouldn’t sound out of place on the soundtrack of a horror film. For the third remix, Georgian producer Saphileaum delivers what may be the album’s most floor-friendly moment with his ‘3rd Sky’ remix of ‘General Noise III’. A syncopated stepper kick rhythm gives the track a bit of groove and sexiness, but Saphileaum keeps things on the weird and experimental side by layering on a cacophony of disintegrating waveforms that flow and evaporate over the track’s dark void of bass. Saphileaum’s dub techno influences are prominently on display here, and his tune is probably the most original of the four remixes on the album, the one that deviates the furthest from its source material. The final remix comes courtesy of the mysterious Mojave, whose re-imagining of ‘General Noise IV’ features serene, glowing pads whose gentle hum forms a counterpoint to the repetitive buzz and click of something that was once, maybe, percussion, but that Mojave has bent and deformed until it’s closer to simple raw sound. Actual percussion emerges from the depths of the track a little later, in the form of sixteenth note hi-hat ticks and a tightly wound snare sound, but these details are soon eclipsed by a sudden unfurling of shimmering, warped noise that transforms the track into a stunning tapestry of sonic detail. The album closes off with Marimon’s ‘Outro’, a simple reprisal of the ‘Intro’ tracks that takes the intro’s pared-down minimalism and engulfs it in a gale of digital wind.

 

 

As an album, ‘General Noise’ is a triumph, both for Marimon as a producer and for Oslated as a label; it’s introspective, experimental nature represents a willingness to take risks and explore a deeper realm of sound, demonstrating the capacity of techno music to extend beyond its functional dimension as party music and instead illuminate something richer and more mysterious about the human condition. Furthermore, both Marimon and his remixers appear to be operating on the same wavelength, sharing a singular vision and understanding of techno that allows both Marimon’s original tracks and the four remixed tunes to operate as one continuous musical experience. All of the artists involved should be congratulated for putting forth such a fearless transgression of musical boundaries.

General Noise is available for purchase at Oslated’s Bandcamp

Anyone who’s ever been out drinking in South Korea is almost certainly familiar with 소맥 (somaek), a cocktail combining beer (맥주, maekju) and 소주 (soju), the legendarily lethal Korean spirit. Somaek is the kind of drink that can sneak up on you – the beer tends to mask the harshness of the soju, making it easy to overindulge without realizing just how strong this convenience-store special really is. As such, it’s a perfect moniker for the Northern Ireland-born, Korea-based producer DJ 소맥, who makes serene, almost subliminal cloud trap and UK drill beats that don’t immediately catch the listener’s attention, but rather gradually grow on you until before you know it you’ve been sucked down the DJ 소맥 wormhole and he’s all you’ve been listening to for a week.

He’s an incredibly prolific producer, with a ton of tracks and albums available for free download via his netlabel, Il Padrino Records, so for this review I’ll be focusing on just one of his albums, 구리시 (Guri-si). Guri is a satellite city on the eastern fringes of Seoul, and each of the tracks on the album is named after one of the city’s neighbourhoods (with the exception of the title track, 경기도/Gyeonggi-do, which is named for the province that surrounds Seoul). My impression is that the album is intended to be a sonic representation of the city, with each track capturing the feel and atmosphere of particular districts and neighbourhoods, an impression further reinforced by the album video which superimposes day and night footage of the city to great effect.

You can stream 구리시 in its entirety on YouTube.

Album opener, “Gyeonggi-do” (I’m switching from 한글 to English from here on just for ease of writing) is a gentle lullaby of a tune, reminiscent of work by bedroom producers such as Baths. Korean vocal samples (a feature of every track) fade in and around a soft synth melody playing over rising and falling bass tones. It’s followed by title track “Guri-si”, one of the strongest individual tracks on the album that pairs layered chords with a detuned choir of voices and more Korean vocal snippets, this time of a child’s voice. The rest of the work in the track is done by unpredictable, nicely crunchy drums; the percussion builds to a crescendo before all the sound is gradually stripped away, until  only a simple melody, at once heartbreaking and uplifting, is left behind.

The third track, ‘Topyeong-dong’, has a much icier, more menacing feel, channeling the soundscape of early 2000s UK trip hop. The eerie metallic percussion is definitely the standout feature on this slinky opium-den-bass beat. The mood of the following track, brief interlude ‘Inchang-Dong’, is more mournful than menacing thanks to its thick, gauzy clouds of reverb and choral vocal hooks. Track five, ‘Sutaek-dong’, is another of the album’s strongest moments, where fragile, shimmering synth patterns flutter and swirl, threatening to collapse in on themselves, only to be buoyed up by sinuous sub-bass and rattletrap percussive hits.

DJ 소맥 is a prolific producer with several albums available for streaming on YouTube and Soundcloud, such as this one, 야간 번개 (‘Yakan Byeongae’, or ‘Night Lightning’). 

On track 6, ‘Sano-dong’, old-timey piano samples give the tune a jazzy ambience, while a high-pitched, siren-like pad sound simultaneously suffuses it with a sense of dread. The seventh track, ‘Gyomun-dong’, is one of the simplest, pairing a synthetic woodwind melody with 808 kick-thuds. It’s followed by ‘Galmae-dong’, on which a delicate synth melody flows over gentle swelling pads and cavernous percussion like raindrops trickling down a window pane during a summer storm; along with ‘Guri-si’ and ‘Sutaek-dong’, this track stands out in my memory as one of my favorite tunes on the album. The final track, ‘Acheon-dong’, ends things on a pretty dramatic note, and is probably the “trappiest” tune on the album, with a frenetic, endlessly looping lead melody, emotional key stabs, and an ominous bassline taking center-stage.

Overall, I enjoyed the album, even though it isn’t the kind of stuff I generally listen to. I find DJ 소맥’s music works best as “soundtrack music” – stuff to listen to while riding the subway, or mooching moodily around the city, or stating out of a taxi window watching the lights go past at 4 am. If anyone reading this is interested in cloud – or vapor trap music with a Korean twist, you can’t really go wrong with DJ 소맥, and there’s a wealth of material to work through – six albums available for streaming or download, as well as numerous other tunes. My advice is to just pop on the DJ 소맥 playlist on Il Padrino Records’ YouTube channel and float away.

 

구리시 can be streamed via Il Padrino Records’ YouTube channel  and is available for (free!) download at the label’s tumblr page. 

Jeju Digital is probably one of the most interesting musical projects to have come out of the Korean peninsula in recent years. The label, which specialises in vaporwave, mallsoft and various other kinds of post-internet electronica is run by an English expatriate in Korea, and releases music by artists scattered around the globe, but honestly the identities of the people behind Jeju Digital aren’t that important. What’s far more fascinating than the real-world biographies of artists like Clear State is the elaborate cyberpunk mythology that the label has constructed around itself. Within this musical mythos, “Jeju Digital” is the name of a near-future chaebol-turned-cyberpunk-megacorp, a vast conglomerate that controls everything and everything in Jeju Digital’s imagined dystopia, where Scientology has become the official global religion and the cutting edge of technology has achieved its inevitable apotheosis as the perfect vector of social control. There’s a narrative of sorts that emerges in the various Jeju Digital music and video releases, though a lot of it is deliberately opaque and unclear; some of the “story” takes place in the distant future, some in the recent past, and some of the releases are presented as pieces of the past re-interpreted and distorted by the Jeju Digital megacorp as part of their ongoing efforts to brainwash and stupefy the masses in order to crush any hope of dissent.

It’s heady stuff, and even if the music was sub-par the label would be interesting based purely on the merits of its worldbuilding and storytelling. Fortunately, that’s not the case – the music stands strong on it’s own merits, not just as a medium for another narrative to be told. This is very evident in the case of Walled City. The work of a UK-born, New York-based artist going by the name of Clear State (which is in itself a term in Scientology referring to one of the mental states achievable through the practice of dianetics – a state free of the trauma of past lives), Walled City presents listeners with a rich and evocative musical journey, influenced by vaporwave but not beholden to it and produced almost entirely via modular synthesis.

The album opener, “Disconnection”, is a pretty but unremarkable work of ambient vaporwave, pairing swirls of retro synth with a simple muffled beat. Things take a turn for the darker on the next track, however; entitled “Engrams” – a Scientology term for the suppressed memory of a traumatic event occurring in a past life – it combines a menacing, growling bassline with fragile pads that sound as if they’re beginning to flake away at the edges and a downcast, minor-key synth melody. The breakbeat that propels the latter half of the track forward pushes “Engrams” into something approaching drum and bass territory, and the net effect of all of this is intensely evocative, bringing to mind the image of high-tech police helicopters gliding over a neon-drenched city. It’s an early high point, and to my ears one of the best tracks on the album. It’s followed by “Freewinds”, a track that sounds like exactly that – digital wind gusting through the streets of a virtual city. The faint hint of a melodic hook flickers in and out of hearing, periodically punctuated by the dull boom of a kick drum, like an explosion in a far-off place sampled from a late night news channel.

Technological Singularity uses robotic vocal snippets to explicitly state Walled City’s thematic concerns.

With the fourth track, “Technological Singularity”, Walled City’s concept album ambitions are a little more explicitly expressed. It’s essentially a spoken word piece; plastic arpeggios and kamikaze dives of bass provide a sonic backdrop for a robotic female voice as it describes the album’s sci-fi setting to the listener, a dystopian post-Singularity world in which artificial intelligence has come to dominate and human beings find themselves “governed, policed and judged by… disembodied agents of the post-human era”. Things seem bleak, until a second, male-sounding mechanical voice begins intoning a message of resistance, declaring that “now is the advent of that human renaissance”.

The next track, “Saturatas”, takes the album in a more ambient direction. The sound of what could as easily be the crackle of a forest fire as it could be the soft fall of rain is punctuated by bright constellations of synthetic melody, all anchored to earth by the warm rumble of analogue bass. “Type 209”, by contrast, is far more ominous. Swells of wailing synth desperately struggle to escape the track’s orbit before crashing back down into the sonic darkness below, overwhelmed by their own gravity; diamond-edged arpeggios and what sounds like a 90’s anthemic trance lead muffled by a fog of codeine slice what’s left of them into slivers. The whole thing feels very reminiscent of Vangelis’ iconic Blade Runner soundtrack, and is definitely another high point in the album.

Track 7, “Maintenance of Order”, features the return of the robotic voices of “Technological Singularity”, and initially feels like a reprise of sort, with its synths and arpeggios feeling cut from the same cloth. However, it quickly sets itself apart from its predecessor when the percussion kicks in, turning the track into a retrowave groove given a sense of energy and movement by it’s muscular bassline, punchy drums and sharp claps. The snatches of intoned dialogue – “consumption drives productivity”, “punishable by imprisonment”, “the leadership of our nation” – is a lot less clear, this time overwhelmed by, rather than scaffolded by, the sounds enveloping it; a metaphor, maybe, for how meaning is so easily lost in the endless flood of information-consumption that we in the present time find ourselves trapped within.

Title track Walled City is a nine minute electronic odyssey.

There’s a brief, 2 minute interlude – “Simulated Bliss”, whose cybernetic parrot chattering could almost pass for a foray into noise music – before the voices return again, even more blurred and degraded than before, in “Restimulation”. Hollow, mournful tones form the backdrop to a series of ominous sentences “they are trying to do this in the name of security” being one that I found especially chilling – that feel as if they’re fading from hearing before the brain has even had time to process them. The overall impression is of a machine intelligence gradually dissolving, like HAL singing “Daisy, Daisy” as Dave pulls out his memory tapes in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then there’s another ambient interlude of sorts, albeit a much longer one – “Rotating”, which catapults the listener away from cyberpunk streets and virtual concentration camps and out into the depths of space – before the album reaches its climactic point, titular track “Walled City”. It’s a massive piece – nine and half minutes long – that pairs more rain sounds and piercing peals of vintage-sounding synth with a deep bass pulse that, if sped up a bit, wouldn’t feel out of place in thumping dark techno track. The various sonic elements slowly come together to form a crystalline, infectious melody, while a vocoded voice intones indecipherable subliminal messages and yet another frantic arpeggio ramps up the sense of sonic drama. Finally, the album closes with “Pulses”, whose synthetic chords sound almost like violins and whose foundation of grainy static threatens to crumble at any moment, melting away as a police siren wails in the deep distance.

Overall, Walled City is a very strong album. I found it really rewarded repeat listening – each time I listened to it (generally while on the subway somewhere around Seoul; it made for great travel music) I found some new detail or flourish I hadn’t noticed before. I’ll confess I wasn’t the biggest fan of the spoken word tracks; they were maybe a bit too heavy-handed and on the nose for my liking, but I understand what Clear State was trying to do with them and why they were included, within the context of the album and in context of the Jeju Digital mythos as a whole. Vaporwave and it’s dozens of related sub-genres might have more than a few detractors, and some of those detractors may have some valid points, but as Walled City demonstrates it’s still a genre within which there’s a lot of room for creativity. I’m looking forward to diving deeper into the Jeju Digital back catalogue; there’ll definitely be more reviews of this label’s output coming soon.

Walled City is available for purchase over on Jeju Digital’s Bandcamp

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: 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.