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. 

 

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.