Industrial techno is having a bit of a moment right now, and has been for the last couple of years. Artists such as Perc (and the various producers who he has given a home to on his label Perc Trax), Truss, Ancient Methods, Blawan and a legion of others have been pushing a darker and grittier sound for some time now, looking to the 1980s for inspiration and drawing on the harsh, transgressive music of avant-garde industrialists like Throbbing Gristle, Skinny Puppy and the roster of Wax Trax! . This bleaker, noisier form of techno has become incredibly successful, and one can argue that at the time of writing it is the definitive techno genre of the 2010s. Just this last month one of techno musics most iconic and trend-defining labels, Ostgut Ton, released the latest volume in its seminal mix series (Berghain 09), selected and mixed by noise music auteur par excellence Vatican Shadow (aka Dominic Fernow). Fernow’s mix is the most explicit acknowledgment yet of the huge debt contemporary techno owes to industrial and noise music, blending pummeling techno tracks with recordings of legendary industrial pioneer Genesis P-Orridge and jagged, abrasive by legendary Japanese noise artist Merzbow.

It wasn’t always this way, however; just ask veteran Canadian industrial/techno crossover act, Orphx. The Canadian duo of Rich Oddie and Christina Sealey have been developing their particular melange of industrial and techno music since the early 1990s, far ahead of the curve, but it took a long time for the techno world to properly catch up. “We were considered ‘too industrial’ for most techno promoters and labels”, Sealey said in an interview with Motz’s Eleanor Brooke. The pair only really managed to break into the world of techno properly thanks to the support of Sonic Groove founder Adam X, who shared the duo’s interest in industrial-indebted techno. In the late 2000s and early 2010s Orphx released several EPs on Sonic Groove (now collected on Hymen Records as The Sonic Groove Releases Parts I and II), which catapulted them into underground techno stardom. Those releases aside, they have an impressive catalogue of recordings to their name, including eleven full length albums and several collaborative projects (such as Eschaton, a collaboration with Ancient Methods).

 

 

As impressive as their varied production history is, however, it is as live performers that Orphx are most renowned. Utilizing a constantly-evolving range of methods and technologies, including both digital performance tools such as Ableton Live and more hands-on modular synthesizer wizardry, Orphx’s shows have attained a near mythical status for their flair and ferocity. And thanks to the efforts of Itaewon basement venue Volnost, techno lovers in Seoul were finally given the chance to witness this legendary performance for themselves when Orphx played their last Friday night.

Even at the very beginning of the night, the atmosphere inside Volnost was intense. The dancefloor was wreathed in a thick mist of smoke machine fog and red light that transformed the dancers into little more than shadowy figures drifting in and out of vision; at several points the clouds of smoke were so thick I could literally not make out anything that wasn’t directly in front of me, making it feel as if I was the only person in the club. The opening DJ for the night, Sijin, was busy laying down a selection of darkwave and goth-infused industrial techno. I could see what he was trying to do – the track selection was clearly intended to set the stage for Orphx’s set later that night – but to my ears he went a bit too hard and fast for an opening set, pounding out banger after pounding, distortion-laced banger while it felt like everyone was still busy finding their bearings and getting their free drinks. This, coupled with some clunky mixing and transmissions, meant that unfortunately Sijin’s opening set didn’t leave the best impression on me.

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Live improvised experimental music from pianist Jared Redmond and techno producer Eexppoann. 

The rest of the night’s performances, however, more than made up for the slightly lacklustre opening. The next act was one of the more intriguing acts I have seen in Seoul, a live improvisational collaboration between Constant Value founder Eexppoann and classical pianist Jared Redmond, a California native who is currently a visiting professor of composition at Hanyang University. It was an unusual setup; Redmond sat on the dancefloor, the audience crowded in a hushed crescent around him as he unleashed a stream of thunderous, dissonant chords, while behind him Eexppoann moved between his drum machines and synthesizers, laying down a steady stream of ominous, warped beats and tones that served to accentuate Redmond’s playing. It was a challenging performance, but fascinating to watch, and certainly far more thought-provoking than a simple DJ set would have been; I enjoyed being reminded of the links between the worlds of techno and contemporary classical music, two seemingly disparate musical realms that actually share a fair few things in common with one another. After about half an hour or so, Redmond’s performance had reached its conclusion and he began packing away, leaving Eexxppoann to continue playing solo.

Left to his own devices, Eexppoann ratcheted up the intensity, flying from machine to machine as he crafted gnarly, jagged beats and acid-corroded soundscapes on the fly. The majority of the music he played felt like it was at a slightly slower tempo, but what the set lacked in speed it made up for in rawness, evocative of such disparate musical styles as industrial, hardcore techno and noise. Volnost’s lighting guy also stepped up his game, and the thick banks of fog that still hung over the dancefloor began to be lit by scintillating flashes of neon pink. The vibe was pure Constant Value, and I felt a touch of sadness at the fact that the legendary Seoul rave series appears to have been placed on indefinite hiatus.

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The crowd on the dancefloor rendered little more than shadowy silhouettes by the light and smoke inside Volnost.

Something about the vibe of the evening – perhaps the more performative nature of Redmond and Eexppoann’s set, or the relatively long pauses between sets as each artist set up their equipment – made it feel more like a small concert than it did a club night. This feeling was amplified when Orphx took to the DJ booth and were greeted by an uproar of cheers and excited screams from the now-crowded dancefloor. Orphx, to their credit, had no difficulty matching and even exceeding the raw energy that Eexppoann had brought to his set. From behind their array of gear – two laptops running Ableton live, MPC controllers, and several mysterious synthesizer modules – Christina Sealey and Rich Oddie swiftly transformed Volnost into a swirling tunnel of psychedelic sound, weaving together rhythmic noise, esoteric synthesizer motifs and splintered hurricanes of percussion until the music throbbed with an almost psychic vehemence, worming its way deep into the minds of everyone on the floor. Though traces of Orphx’s industrial heritage were definitely present – particularly whenever Rich Oddie picked up the mic and added his indecipherable rasping and shouting into the mix – the overall vibe of the set felt firmly rooted in techno. For all the serrated slivers of static and raw tesseracts of brutal sound that Sealey and Oddie coaxed out of their hardware, their kick drums remained the centrepiece of the set, each one like a monstrous black hole whose gravitational pull twisted and tore apart the other sonic elements into their constituent particles. Sealey and Oddie were seldom predictable in their kick sequencing, however, preferring broken, stumbling rhythms over the rigid 4/4 grid that defines (some might say suffocates) much of techno.

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Rich Oddie of Orphx. 

This rhythmic inventiveness was made possible, in part, by the nature of Orphx’s setup. Though clearly the set had taken a lot of preparation and practice to get right, it was equally as clearly a fluidly improvised affair, full of chaotic moments and serendipitous grooves. The feeling of a live jam came through very strongly in Orphx’s set, something that not every live techno act actually manages to pull off (too often, live sets can end up over-rehearsed and sterile, to the point where the artist may as well just be playing a DJ set). My inner music nerd was having a great time watching Sealey leaned over her modular synths and trying to match up her movements with changes in the sound, and it was interesting watching the two of them briefly consult for a few moments and then hearing the set begin to move in a different direction. Working in concert, the two of them seemed to create an arresting sensation of tension and balance in their music, a kind of dystopian/utopian Yin-Yang of anxiety and ecstacy. Though who was Yin and who was Yang, I find impossible to say.

Once the last of Orphx’s washes of sound had faded away like blood drying in the sun, it was Comarobot’s turn to take to the decks and close off the night. Obviously eager to maintain the energy levels that Orphx had set, he hit the now much diminished crowd with a selection of dramatic, booming techno, all thunderous kicks and sizzling white noise. It was a good set, I think, taken in isolation, but I found it difficult to give it the level of attention and appreciation it deserved. It had been a long and taxing night; Orphx’s set, while mind-meltingly good, had taken a lot out of me both physically and mentally, and once they were finished I actually had to get out of Volnost and go for a brief walk in order to calm down and try process what I had just heard.

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Orphx’s Christina Sealey coaxing sound from a bewildering selection of modular synths. 

I’m not a big fan of superlatives. I’ve always been leery of describing anything as “the best”, because I feel that notions of “best” are very subjective (obviously) and highly susceptible to change. I find that especially when it comes to music “the best” performance or set in my mind is often of the most recent ones I’ve been to, since it’s easier to recall and feel excited about fresher memories. However, that being said I have no qualms about calling Orphx, if not the best, then certainly one of the best electronic music acts I’ve ever had the fortune of seeing (and even now I’m tempted to discard that qualifier altogether). Their execution was flawless, their sound palette original, their sonic narrative profound. Orphx have been making music for nearly three decades now, and the benefit of all those years of experience really shines through when they’re on stage. Whether you’re into industrial music, or techno, or indeed just interested in the creative possibilities of sound and music in general, go see Orphx play if you ever get a chance; they’re bound to astound you.

Though it is relatively small and isolated, the Korean techno scene is notable for the consistently high level of quality it produces. Both in terms of club spaces and in terms of producers and labels, Korean techno has shown that it is more than capable of holding its own on the international stage, in a way that is rare among nations on the global underground’s periphery. This is only possible, of course, due to the talent, passion, and hard work of the people who devote themselves to promoting the health of the scene. Chief among these dedicated individuals is Scøpe, who has been instrumental in curating and promoting techno on the peninsula thanks to his SCOPÁVIK label, podcasts and parties. As well as being a skilled promoter and DJ, Scøpe also has serious chops as a producer, and his latest offering, the Corrode EP, showcases those talents in such a way that would make many other artists green with envy.

The EP opener ‘Eludes Observation’ features one of the slightly off-kilter staggered kick drum rhythms favoured so heavily in his DJ sets, the kind of beat that lurches to and fro rather than pounding out a simple staccato four to the floor pattern. It still packs a hefty punch though; the bass frequencies hit low and they hit hard. Elsewhere in the track, repetitive loops of sci-fi hi-fi noise warp and decay like the radio signals of an eons-extinct alien civilization, sizzling up against the boundaries of the rigid sequences they’ve been confined to. Scøpe apparently used a DIY instrument of his own design and manufacture to make some of the sounds on ‘Elude Observation’, which may explain the exotic and idiosyncratic nature of the sonic arsenal at his disposal.

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One of the DIY instruments that Scøpe built himself in order to create the sounds used on the EP. Picture courtesy of Scøpe

The next track, ‘Cruel Fragment’, uses a more conservative kick and offbeat bass substructure to glue everything else together, but it doesn’t feel any less adventurous for it. ‘Cruel Fragment’ is a slow-burner that piles layer upon layer of wet, organic-sounding synth sounds on top of one another like layers of cyborg bacteria, a bubbling, burbling head-nodding slice of techno that relies less on melody or harmony or counterpoint and more on what sounds like a grid of biological static shuddering in time to the beat. It’s an intensely creepy track that I can see causing more than a few shivers on the dancefloor.

Things get even heavier with the titular ‘Corrode’. The rolling kick drums bring to mind a tribal ritual being held in the middle of an irradiated wasteland, while the rises and sweeps of synth feel like they could have come straight from the sound effects banks of a vintage ‘80s mecha anime. It feels akin in some way to ‘Elude Observation’, and I had to wonder if some of these sounds also came from some bizarre homemade instrument of Scøpe’s devising. It does feel a little lacking in some way, however – somewhat stagnant or predictable in the way it progresses, cycling through a handful of bare-bones rhythmic arrangements before gradually fading out. It would have been nice to have heard him do something a little more exciting with such an original and interesting set of sounds.

If ‘Corrode’ left me a little wanting, however, the following track, ‘Inner Passage’, more than made up for it. The low end is so deep it feels positively abyssal, and yet each kick still punches through the mix with pinpoint-precise force and clarity. Meanwhile, the gritty synth leads that make up the bulk of the rest of the track seem to be play strange tricks with the listener’s ears and minds, slithering from ear to ear and appearing to play strange duets with themselves thanks to Scøpe’s masterful manipulation of echo and delay. This is proper body music, the kind of track that could tear apart a packed dancefloor like a plutonium bomb.

The EP closes out with a trio of mind-melting remixes from some of the biggest names in psychedelic techno. First up is Semantica boss Svreca, whose contributions to this particular strain of darkened dance music – as a DJ, producer, and label boss – have earned him a rightly legendary reputation. On his remix of ‘Cruel Fragment’ the Spaniard definitely doesn’t disappoint, serving up a Mike Parker-esque work of subaquatic driving techno, whose whirlpools of sonic texture are pulled along by a relentless surge of hi-hats. It feels like no sound in this tune ever goes away entirely; elements are introduced, and occasionally fade into the background, but they are always there, building up layer by layer until the entire track is a solid wall of shadowy bliss. Of particular interest is the outro; it’s kind of sad that most DJs playing this out will probably have mixed out at this stage, as the way that Svreca allows the various parts of the track to lurch and stumble against themselves as he brings the music to a close is a true masterclass in techno composition. Next up is Acronym, a Swedish producer championed by the likes of Abdulla Rashim and particularly adept at pulling off that most tricky of techno propositions, the long-form album; his 2015 LP June stands out as one of the best techno albums, not only of that year, but probably of the last decade. On his ‘Couloumb Mix’ of Scøpe’s banger ‘Inner Passage’, Acronym provides the EP with a burst of soul, combining an infectious bass groove with ragged, acid-adjacent chords and background sound effects that sound like an oldschool kung fu fight scene sped up until each punch lands like a laser blast. Along with Scøpe’s original, this is definitely one of the strongest cuts on the EP, and one I can see getting a lot of play by DJs the world over. The EP rounds off with a remix from one of Scøpe’s longtime compatriots, Korean DJ Xanexx, who released his own EP Poem of Light on SCOPÁVIK last year. Xanexx’s take on ‘Inner Passage’ is astonishingly well put together. It feels almost impossible to distinguish where one element of the track ends and others begin; the usual musical delineations of “kick”, “snare”, “synth”, “bass” etc. seem totally meaningless, the various parts shifting and flowing into one another like the space where the ocean meets the sky, viewed through a sleepless haze. It lacks the raw physicality of the other two remixes, but that doesn’t really matter – it works as a fantastic end to a fantastic musical journey.

 

Taken as a whole, the Corrode EP is a profound illustration not only of the producer’s own musical identity, but that of the Korean techno underground as a whole. The tracks and remixes on Corrode sound exactly how a night out in one of Seoul’s basement establishment feels. It’s possible to discern, in these heady, hypnotic tunes, a kind of dark musical lineage that begins at Mystik (RIP), winds its way to the contemporary triad of purist techno spaces vurt., Volnost and Beton Brut, and stretches all the way through to newer scenes such as AIN and Trippy. This, to me, is the sound of Seoul itself, crystallized and given timeless form on this EP. Now, if someone ever asks me “what’s the techno scene like in Seoul? What does it sound like?”, I can just point them to this EP and say: here. This is what it sounds like.
Corrode is available for purchase over on the SCOPÁVIK Bandcamp

 

 

DATE: 23/02/2019

VENUE: vurt.

ENTRANCE FEE: ₩20 000

Takaaki Itoh has been in the techno game for a long time now, DJing and producing for over twenty years. The Japanese producer has an extensive discography to his name, as well as his own label, Wols, which he uses exclusively for his own releases. In recent years he’s garnered more attention from techno enthusiasts in the West thanks to some excellent releases on Mord (‘Wisher’, from the EP Disciplinary Synthetics, was one of Resident Advisor’s most charted tracks of January 2018) and on legendary Georgian club Bassiani’s in-house label. As a DJ, he is also in high demand; he’s played at festivals around the world, including Freqs of Nature (RIP) and Awakenings, and just last year he embarked on an epic seven city tour of the United States. On his home turf he runs a regular industrial and techno night, Konvektion, alongside DJ Yazi at Tokyo’s legendary club Contact. He’s also a regular fixture at several major Japanese festivals, such as countryside techno campout Rural. No stranger to vurt., Takaaki Itoh last played at the venue in 2016; his set from that party is actually available for listening on vurt.’s Soundcloud, which provided me a soundtrack to listen and get hyped to as I rode the subway down to Hapjeong to hear him play there once again on Saturday night.

Takaaki Itoh’s set from his appearance at vurt. in 2016. 

Opening DJ Suna began her set by stitching together an evocative and eerie ambient soundscape, a deep ocean of sound in which slivers and shards of sonic intricacy glowed far below the surface. It was a mesmerizing affair, and in all honesty I was a little upset when the first few abrupt kick drums began to pound, signaling the beginning of the dancier half of the set; I was enjoying the ambient beginning too much, to the point where I didn’t really want it to end. That being said, I quickly forgot my discontent as I found myself lost within the groove that Suna was laying down. It was definitely a lot harder and darker than usual Suna fair: she swamped the dancefloor in long, sustained peaks of intensity, with the visceral pulse and thud of the bass feeling like the centerpiece of it all. Perhaps this more aggressive sound was intended to prime the crowd for Takaaki Itoh, whose sets generally fall on the more menacing side of the techno spectrum. Or perhaps Suna just felt like getting a little edgier that evening. Either way, I kind of hope she decides to continue in this direction – I think this may be one of the best opening sets of hers that I have heard.

 

 

By the time it was Takaaki Itoh’s turn to step up to the DJ booth, the dancefloor was already thick with bodies. The crowd seemed a little more boisterous than usual with a lot of laughter and conversation going on around me, as opposed to people just focusing on dancing. This isn’t a bad thing at all, of course, although I did find myself getting a little annoyed at a couple of women who were having an ear-splittingly loud conversation right behind me for what felt like hours (though actually I guess it’s kind of impressive that they were able to speak over the vurt. sound system). When Takaaki Itoh began to play, however, it seemed as if the entire crowd decided, as one, to shut the fuck up and move. There was an intensity to the people dancing around me; I saw people dancing with their eyes shut, bodies shaking and arms flailing in wild and unconstrained joy. A lot of this, of course, had to do with the music flowing out of the speakers. With his headphones acting as an Alice band for his mane of black hair, Takaaki Itoh was bombarding the dancefloor with a steady barrage of tunes, a blackened and warped take on big-room techno, with heavy emphasis placed on percussion. A lot of what he was playing sounded to me as if it had taken inspiration from the sounds of mid-90s Dutch and Belgian hardcore – laser-like synth riffs, acid-splash distortion – but repackaged and reconfigured in the tempo and context of contemporary techno. For all the rawness of his set, though, Takaaki Itoh knows how to give his audience a break every now and then; at regular intervals the tempo would drop slightly and the tunes would turn more introspective and hypnotic, providing some much-needed respite from the sheer intensity of a lot of what he played. If you were to try and plot out the course of Itoh’s set with pen and paper, it would look like a series of waves, the peak of each slightly higher than the one that came before it, the trough slightly lower, until the set reached its thrilling, jagged conclusion.

Unfortunately, I had to be up early on Sunday morning, so as much as I was enjoying myself I had to tear myself away and leave vurt. before it was time for the closing artist, Scøpe, to take over. It’s a pity, because I know from previous gigs that Scøpe is a master of the subtle art of finishing a night. With a bit of luck, it won’t be too long before I get the chance to hear him play again, and I can make up for the lost opportunity.

D Js like Takaaki Itoh, and venues like vurt., are ample proof that the techno scene in east Asia is every bit as exciting and full of talent as those in Europe and elsewhere. With dedicated veterans like Itoh leading the way and setting an example for the younger generation, no doubt the scene will only continue to grow from strength to strength.

The tail end of January saw the release of Jeju 濟州 ,the third compilation release by Seoul-based techno label Oslated. The compilation’s namesake is Jeju island, a subtropical volcanic island off the coast of the Korean peninsula, and South Korea’s southernmost province. The island seems to hold a special place in the Korean psyche; its warm climate, beautiful natural landscape and pristine beaches combine to make it an extremely popular holiday destination (among both Koreans and people from elsewhere in Asia), and the island’s relative isolation from the mainland has meant that the people of Jeju have developed a language, culture and customs quite distinct from those of the mainland. It has always been a land apart; during Korea’s Joseon dynasty period, Jeju was used as a place to send political exiles who had fallen out of favour with the court, and shortly after World War 2 it was the site of a bloody political uprising (one in a long line of such uprisings in the islands history). Jeju is also a place richly steeped in myth and folklore, with stories of gods, goddesses, heroes and spirits abounding around the island. These themes – beauty and isolation, mystery and mysticism – are all foregrounded in this latest Oslated compilation, in which label curator Oslon has sought to pay tribute to the island in the form of a diverse selection of techno and techno-like tracks from a wide variety of producers, from both Korea and elsewhere around the globe.

The compilation starts off slowly, easing the listener into things. Opening track ‘Biyangdo (비양도)’ by Cyme is a study in ambient minimalism, using a combination of modulated found sounds – waves crashing, planes flying overhead, insects chittering – and softly glimmering synth tones to create an evocative but sparse soundscape that brings to mind the colours of sunrise playing over the waves. The track seems designed to evoke the image of its namesake (Biyang-do is a small, mountainous island off the coast of Jeju), a theme which runs throughout several tracks on the compilation. It’s followed by ‘Seolmundae (설문대할망)’, which takes its name from the mythological ‘Grandmother Goddess’ who is said to have created the island. Here the New York based artist Earthen Sea puts forward a tune that feels like a dub techno track whose beat has been slowly siphoned away, like sand spilling from a shattered hourglass. Echoes reverberate beneath the sound of static rain, and it is the interplay of reverberation and echo that drives the track forward.

 

The next track, ‘The Rain and the Storm’ by Asymmetric, is a cinematic, anticipation-building number, stirring tension with its nervy arps, staccato drums and percussive hits wrapped in shrouds of glitched-out reverb. It’s only really in the final two minutes of the track that the kick drum really hits – and hits hard – but rather than being a cathartic release, its introduction only seems to further amplify that feeling of anticipation, acting as an excellent bridge between the compilation’s ambient beginnings and the more frenetic tracks that are soon to follow. However, this then leads into ‘Hy’Naku’, by Dutch producer Alume, a move that feels like a slight misstep. It’s an all right tune for sure; deep, psychedelic-sounding cosmic techno, in which layer after layer of sound, some crisp and velvety, some little more than phantom smears of reverb, are layered over crunchy, textured bass and blunt kicks to hypnotic and head-nodding effect. However, the transition from Asymmetric’s track to Alume’s felt awkward and forced, and this track would probably have worked better had it been slotted in somewhere else.

Track 5, ‘Seongsan (성산일출봉) comes courtesy of French producer Xylème , and to my mind is one of the high points of the entire compilation. Tectonically deep rumbling bass propels the track forward, in concert with an offbeat hi-hat that sounds like a match being struck over and over again on a rain-drenched beach. There’s a great deal of sonic depth in the detailing and intricacies of the other sounds Xylème  has strung together here, and I imagine this tune would be absolutely mind-warping if heard on a big sound system. The next track, ‘Evaporite’ by Bmbmd, didn’t impress me quite as much, but it’s a fun tune nonetheless; its low-slung funky bassline groove and snatches of syncopated rhythm make it feel a bit like a technoid mutation of a deep house track.

 

The seventh track is the work of an old Oslated alumnus, Swedish producer Eyvind Blix, whose album Västberga Allé was released on the label last year. Entitled ‘In A Safe Place’, this is another slow-burning, tension building tune. If you stripped away the bass and drums, it might work as a blissful ambient piece, but the rapid-fire bursts of quasi-tribal percussion and subaquatic squelches and bleeps position the track in a darker dimension. Again, however, the transition between this track and the ones preceding and following it feels somewhat jarring, and this is another tune that might have worked better had it been slipped into a different portion of the compilation.

The following tune, ‘Cheonjiyeon (천지연) by Kannabi, is another one of the compilation’s best moments. Named for a famous waterfall on Jeju, the track is full of chaos and character from beginning to end. A dizzying collection of sounds – rubber band twangs, UFO engine noise, classic acid squelches – babble amongst themselves, their wildness barely contained by the dull sinoid thump of the kick attempting to keep everything from falling apart. It’s heady, trippy stuff – there’s a lot for the listener to lose themselves in here – but it seems to be made with a hint of playfulness as well. The ninth track, by contrast – ‘Underground Sea’ by Stigr – seems far more dour and serious in comparison. French producer Stigr takes his title quite literally, using the sounds of water lapping against the shore and what sounds like the digital squeals of cybernetic dolphins to evoke the ‘underground sea’ in question. It’s a pretty good tune, very atmospheric and psychedelic, but doesn’t really measure up against the rest of the compilation, in my opinion.

 

Track 10, ‘Vagabond’ by ASLLAN, seems to have been made with the 4 am basement dancefloor firmly in mind. A huge, galloping kick rhythm keeps time underneath a surging sea of sound, including a percussive rhythm that sounds stitched together from the sounds of old film projectors and rusty scissors, and a high-pitched synthetic whistle that brings to mind the soundtracks of 1960s Western films. Loose, off-kilter tribal percussion, great little drum fills, and exciting but rapid builds and breakdowns make the entire track feel like a blackened techno take on the tropes and styles of UK funky. Track 11, ‘Soggy Eyes to Winter Light’, is far deeper and more cerebral in comparison. Here Korean producer Hyein, whose background is in film and visual art, presents a tune that is as much a work of sonic art as it is a dancefloor track, a deep-space cosmic transmission that sounds like an encrypted signal being beamed down to an abandoned military base deep in a frozen forest. Hyein’s keen sense for rhythm and groove, however, keeps the piece from feeling too abstract or unapproachable; the beat gives it the feel of cutting-edge 21st century electro, and you can most certainly dance to it.

The eleventh track, ‘Oedolgae (외돌개)’ by Leipzig-based artist Kontinum, pairs a rolling bassline with ethereal cycles of synth and bursts of punctuation – like percussion in a way that makes time feel like it no longer exists. This is a very subtle track, the kind of tune that you might need to listen to a few times before it ‘clicks’. Track 13 – ‘Magma’ by Massa – also makes use of a rolling kick-bass rhythm, as well as chasms of dub techno reverb through which squelches of synth appear like veins in the skin of something floating in a vat. Psychedelic scraps of sound begin to crawl and slither out of the murk, appearing and disintegrating faster than a heartbeat.

 

Its at this point that Oslated begins to really bring out the big guns. Track 14 comes courtesy of Volnost boss and longtime Korean techno scene veteran Comarobot. The track’s title – ‘Baengnokdam (백록담)’ – is taken from the name of a massive crater lake situated at the top of Jeju’s Mount Halla, and there is something strangely romantic about it (an odd term to apply to a techno banger, I know). The gusts of synthetic reverb bring to mind windswept mountaintops, while something that is more than just a rhythm, but less than a melody, drives the tune forward, together with the rich, mournful tones of what sounds to me like an electric organ. The drop, when it happens, is definitely the most dramatic moment on the compilation. Comarobot displays a more “classical” approach to techno than any of the other artists on Jeju, but his music is definitely not any weaker for it. The next track, ‘Geomoreum (금오름)’ comes from another Seoul techno stalwart, SCOPÁVIK mastermind Scøpe. Here synthesizer growls and groans almost drown each other out over the stumbling, shuffling rumble of the kick drums, while the rest of the percussion sounds as if it is being twisted and deformed into razor-sharp ribbons of sculpted static. Each time the track seems to settle into the groove, it breaks apart again in a brief but violent moment of cacophony, constantly surprising the listener. This is another tune that I really want to hear on a bigger sound system – I feel like in a club or rave setting it would be absolutely massive.

The final two tracks are less frenetic and intense, slowly winding down from the fever pitch of the compilation’s second half. ‘Sarang (사랑)’ by Swedish artist Skóll  is named after the Korean word for ‘love’, and the rolling bassline, deep, hypnotic pads and liquid sound effects all combine to create a trancey, tranquil atmosphere. The compilation closer comes courtesy of collaboration between Swiss artists Ben Kaczor and Morphing Territories. It’s called ‘Halla (할라)’, after Halla Mountain, the active volcano that is the highest mountain in Korean territory, and that historically has a great deal of spiritual significance in Korean mythology, seen as the home of the gods and spirits in a way somewhat analogous to the role played by Mount Olympus in Greek mythology. The track starts out as a piece of shadowy bleep techno in the vein of Sleeparchive, but the initial sense of menace or darkness begins to gradually crumble with the introduction of deep, digital whalesong chords and jaunty syncopated techno rhythms that sound as if they’re being played on an ancient typewriter. It’s a good end to a good compilation, finishing the intense marathon of techno that went before it on a more calm and meditative note.

Jeju 濟州 is an excellent addition to Oslated’s catalogue, working both as a wide-ranging collection of various talented artists and on another level as a “concept album” representing the mystery and grandeur of Jeju album itself. Several of the tracks on offer here – most notably ‘Soggy Eyes to Winter Light’ and ‘Geumoreum (금오름)’, are arguably some of the high points not only of the compilation album, but of Oslated in general, standing out as some of the strongest individual pieces of music the label has yet to release. It’s not perfect, however. The sequencing of tracks is sometimes unintuitive or jarring, breaking the flow of the compilation. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t be too concerned by this, as generally speaking compilations are not necessarily intended to be listened to the way that albums are, and the flow and sequencing of tracks is of lesser importance, but in the case of Jeju 濟州 I think such criticisms are warranted, as as I’ve mentioned above it seems to be intended to work as both a compilation and a concept album of sorts. Another issue I have with it is that it’s a bit too long, clocking in at 17 tracks. Certain tracks, while not bad by any means, are definitely noticeably weaker than the rest, and the compilation would have been stronger had Oslon been a bit more judicious with his editing and left them on the cutting room floor. Still, these are fairly minor quibbles, and at the end of the day I can still see myself giving Jeju 濟州 a lot of love in the months to come.

Jeju 濟州  is available for purchase over on Oslated’s Bandcamp

DATE: 02/11/2018
VENUE: Faust
ENTRANCE FEE: ₩20 000

Expectations can be dangerous things. People tend to hold artists that they love to a punishingly unrealistic standard, and then feel angry and betrayed if the artist – be they a rock star or an industrial techno DJ – doesn’t live up to that standard. A recent example of this can be seen in the case of Aphex Twin’s recent much-hyped appearance at Funkhaus Berlin. Richard D. James’ first set in the German capital since 2003 was, by most accounts, a smashingly good time, but nonetheless there was no shortage of online dance heads lambasting Aphex Twin and Funkhaus for having, from their point of view, fallen short of expectations.

In the case of Blawan (aka Jamie Roberts, a native of Doncaster now residing in Berlin), there is certainly reason for expectations to be high. The electronic music world first became aware of Blawan in the late 2000s, when he emerged as one of a slew of promising young British producers working within the rapidly mutating dubstep/UK bass scene. Early releases such as ‘Fram‘ (on Hessle Audio) or ‘Bohla’ (on the prestigious R&S Records) saw Blawan dabbling in bass-heavy, garage- influenced skeletal beats, but by the time the release of the storming, tongue-in-cheek warehouse banger ‘Why’d They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage’ in 2012 cemented Blawan’s reputation as a top tier producer of underground club music it was clear that Roberts’ musical interests lay more in the direction of techno than in the off-kilter bass music on which he’d cut his teeth. Together with fellow Brit Pariah he became one half of industrial techno duo Karenn, whose raw, unhinged analogue hardware jams have become the stuff of Boiler Room legend, and he has also collaborated with none other than Surgeon himself, producing and performing unearthly blackened techno under the moniker Trade.

Blawan’s debut album Wet Will Always Dry is a floor-centric assembly of gut-wrenching techno bangers.

It’s straight-up club music”, he responded when asked about the appeal of making techno music in an interview with Electronic Beats. “Techno is limited, but it also moves you forward and it has a sense of direction… with techno it feels like there was and is a shared purpose, even if it’s a limited one”. This sense of shared purpose seems to have invigorated Blawan, who after a three year period of silence (due primarily to his struggles with chronic illness) returned to production in 2015 with the launch of his own label, Ternesc, on which he has released a stream of polished, intense analogue techno, culminating in the release of his debut album Wet Will Always Dry earlier this year. Wet Will Always Dry is without any shadow of doubt a DJ’s record: the album does without any of the pretentious ambient passages or mood pieces favoured by other techno full lengths, instead presenting the listener with a collection of eight no-frills, hard-hitting dancefloor cuts. For my money, it’s the best techno LP of 2018, and this has been a pretty damn good year for techno albums.

Given all this, I think I had good reason to be excited to hear that Blawan was playing at Faust – and to have high expectations of him. I wasn’t the only one, either; when I arrived at Faust fairly early on Friday night it was already fairly pumping, and there was a palpable aura of excitement in the air. The name ‘BlawanBlawanBlawan…’ seemed to be on everyone’s lips, rising like a mantra through the Tanzbar air. One guy I chatted to had even missed his flight home to Croatia in order to come and see Blawan play, which I think just goes to show what kind of superstar reputation Blawan has built up for himself in the world of techno.

We all still had to wait a while for Blawan to come on, however. First up was Korean DJ producer Polarfront, a Faust regular who also apparently produces music for pop artists and commercials. None of that pop influence could be seen in his opening set, which consisted of dark, heads down techno rollers with the occasional burst of dub techno or EBM to spice things up. It made for a solid, if not especially memorable, beginning to the night.

Blawan Faust 1

Faust’s lighting game was excellent as is usual for them. The dancefloor was dark most of the time, save for a few blue lights, but every now and then they shone a white strobe out over the crowd to accompany some of Blawan’s bigger drops.

You could tell the moment that Blawan had started, however, because everyone in Tanzbar and the smoking area rushed to the dancefloor and the roar that went up from the crowd was almost loud enough to drown out the deafening kick drums of his first few tracks. Blawan wasted precious little time, beginning his set with a selection of storming, jacking Berlin-school techno: humongous kick drums pounded out a fairly static 4/4 rhythm while overhead the shriek of twisting metal and the sputter and sizzle of decaying electronics contorted themselves into something approaching a percussion section. Blawan leaned fairly heavily on his own tracks; I heard several tunes off of Wet Will Always Dry get dropped in the first hour, and I’m fairly certain he mixed in a couple of tracks from his Nutrition EP as well. The tracks he played went hard, though not especially fast (it felt like most of what he played stayed within the “traditional” 125 – 128 BPM range), and his mixing was fairly workmanlike. I didn’t hear a lot of fancy blending or extravagant mixing tricks; Blawan seemed to prefer a simpler outro – into intro – into outro approach, which isn’t necessarily a negative thing. Often, the simplest way of doing things is the most effective. One thing I did hear a lot of, however, was drops. Now, techno isn’t traditonally a “drop heavy” genre like EDM or dubstep is. Big bass drop moments are usually fewer and further between, which tends to make them all the more impactful. In Blawan’s set, however, I felt like there was a massive hands-in-the-air moment every ten minutes or so, which, while fun at first, quickly became a little exhausting if I’m being honest. Perhaps Blawan’s drop-centric approach to mixing techno is a consequence of his origins playing dubstep and bass music, where the drop is a more central aspect of the music; whatever the case, it didn’t especially work for me – I prefer more constant, hypnotic techno jams – and I found myself spending a lot of time off of the dancefloor, in Tanzbar or outside chatting with people, which is rare for me when it comes to big headline acts. I didn’t seem to be the only one, either – a few of the people I spoke to expressed similar sentiments. Then again, that was almost certainly a case of selection bias at play. Obviously, the people who were really digging Blawan’s set – most of the people in Faust, in other words – weren’t wandering around Tanzbar or on the street, they were on the dancefloor, losing their minds. I must say, it was maybe a blessing in disguise that I didn’t vibe so hard with Blawan’s set, as it meant that I met some really lovely people that night; the crowd that Blawan drew to Faust was really lovely even by Korean techno standards (s/o to Nice Anton from Prague and Scary Anton from Vladivostok, hope you chaps made it back home ok).

Blawan Faust 2

Here we have another edition in my ongoing series of unintentional conceptual art, ‘The DJ as Oil Painting’. (This is Blawan if you can’t tell). 

I enjoyed the final hour of Blawan’s set the most. He had begun laying down some deliciously dramatic, almost operatic techno cuts, and the massive foot-stomping rise and fall moments felt more welcome and natural at the tail-end of his set than they did at the beginning. My favourite musical experience of the night, though, happened after Blawan had packed up for the night. Me and my mates went into Tanzbar for a final few drinks after Blawan had played his last tune, to find that the Tanzbar DJ was playing a truly excellent set of dark, psychedelic outsider house, at times sleazy and at other times ecstatic, the perfect way to decompress after the intensity of the Blawan set. His name was PIDJ, apparently; I’ve never heard him play before, and I can’t find out anything about him on the (Anglophone) internet, but whoever he is, he really knows how to make a five AM crowd move their bodies.

I began this piece talking about expectations, how dangerous they can be and how they can lessen one’s enjoyment of an otherwise good set or performance. Unfortunately, I think that kind of happened to me last Friday. I had such high expectations of Blawan that it was unlikely he would have ever lived up to them, and when he didn’t I was disproportionately – and unfairly – disappointed. I don’t think I was necessarily wrong to have high expectations; I mean, come on, this is Blawan we’re talking about, there’s no way that my expectations were not going to be sky high. But I also recognize that just because I, personally, didn’t exactly jive with his set that night, that doesn’t mean he played a bad set by any means. On the contrary, he brought the house down, and if the cheering, sweating mass of people going crazy for him on the dancefloor is any indication, I was part of a very small dissatisfied minority. Unmet expectations or no, I still left Faust convinced that Blawan is in a class of his own as a DJ and producer, even if his style of DJing isn’t my cup of tea, and I definitely think he deserves all of the hype and renown he has accrued over the years. Honestly, if he plays his cards right I can see Blawan achieving the status of someone like Surgeon or Marcel Dettmann in the future; we’ll just have to see what the future holds. 

DATE: 27/10/2018
VENUE: vurt.
ENTRANCE FEE: ₩20 000

Note: I ended getting to vurt. later than I would have liked for this party, so unfortunately I missed Suna’s opening set. 

One of the strange things about niche genres of music is how they seem to be constantly fragmenting and sub-dividing into ever more narrow niches. This happens across the musical spectrum – from black metal to acid house, industrial techno to neo-folk – but it seems especially prevalent in the vast and varied world of underground dance music. It seems like every other week a new sub-genre of one kind or another has emerged from the murk of the internet, the result of more and more artists trying to hone in and imitate a particular kind of sound. One of the reasons this compartmentalization of musical forms seems so prevalent of dance music has to do, of course, with the role played by DJs in driving the artistic development of club sounds. Your average DJ, looking to create seamless and continuous sets and mixes, has a need for tracks that resemble each other in some way or another, and so we end up with producers who, consciously or unconsciously, work within certain musical parameters in order to fill this need. This is a double-edged sword; on the one hand, the laser-like focus on particular styles and trends means that for every sub-genre of, say, techno music, there is an almost infinite supply of masterfully produced tracks that blend well with each other within the same set. On the other hand, it can be easy for producers and DJs to allow themselves to be stifled and constrained by the narrow boundaries of their chosen genres, killing creativity and resulting in a bland and monotonous musical landscape. The best artists, of course, are able to tread the fine line between the two, managing to work within the confines of a given genre while still remaining fresh, original and exciting.

What holds true for producers and DJs also holds true for the clubs in which they perform. There seems to be a greater and greater pressure placed on clubs and venues these days to specialise in their sounds, to narrow their musical palettes to one or two styles within a particular genre in order to appeal to the tastes of their target audiences and to differentiate themselves from their competition. vurt. is a successful example of this approach; the small but highly respected Hapjeong basement venue has staked out a claim for itself as the premiere venue in Seoul for techno music of a dark, mysterious and cerebral variety, it’s residents and guests spinning tracks that are more hypnotic and entrancing than they are abrasive or aggressive. The challenge then, for both the DJs who play there and for vurt. as a whole, is to find ways to ensure that the music played each night fits in with this unified core vision of what the club is all about, without becoming overly predictable or boring.

If anyone is up to this challenge, it is Tokyo’s DJ Yazi. He has a rich and storied musical history; he first burst onto the Japanese music scene in the mid-1990s, as part of the experimental hip hop collective Think Tank, with whom he co-founded Black Smoker Records, an abstract hip hop label whose eclectic nature is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that they have released records from both Ras G and Merzbow. In addition, he also performs as one half of live electronica act Twin Peaks together with Future Terror‘s Haruka, and in recent years he has begun to turn his attention to techno, launching a regular techno/industrial night at Contact alongside Takaaki Itoh (of Mord fame).

His set at vurt. this past Saturday night was a good example of how in the right hands it is possible to sound incredibly techno while not actually playing all that much “straight” techno. Had I heard them in isolation, I probably would have classified a lot of the tunes he played that night as electro, or IDM; dry, mechanical 808 percussion thumping and clattering in strange and unpredictable patterns, waves of subaquatic bass, and strange tapestries of digital texture sliced through the smoke-laden air inside vurt., very different from the heads-down techno I had been expecting. However, even though a lot of DJ Yazi’s selections were not “techno” in the typical sense (no 4/4 kick drum boom, sixteenth-note high-hats, industrial clangs ghostly atmospherics or any other such tricks of the trade), they nonetheless still felt like they fit in with the vurt. aesthetic; partly because the sonic palette, the textures and details in the tracks he played were still fairly downcast and dystopian in nature, and partly because DJ Yazi did an excellent job of weaving his more unusual tunes in and among a selection of more purist techno tracks; he would get the audience grooving for a while with some good, but fairly straightforward rolling dark techno before subtly blending it with off-kilter, dubbed-out left-of-field electronica. It was a high-risk, high-reward approach, the kind of thing that would have sounded incoherent in the hands of an inexperienced DJ and absolutely killed the momentum on the dancefloor, but DJ Yazi pulled it off and by the end of his set I was left with a fresh appreciation of just how far it is possible to bend the boundaries of a techno set.

Fittingly, DJ Yazi was followed by another genre bender, local DJ and frequent occupant of the vurt. DJ booth Siot. If DJ Yazi was channeling the sound and spirit of Drexciya for much of his set, then Siot was tapping deep into the UK’s hardcore continuum. His set of high-tempo, breakbeat-infused experimental techno reminded me on more than one occasion of drum and bass and jungle, and put me in mind of the recent production work of London’s Forest Drive West, who blends techno with jungle and bass music to earth shattering effect.

I began this review by ruminating on the narrow niche vurt. has carved out for itself as a purveyor of a certain style of dark techno; however, as both DJ Yazi and Siot showed on Saturday night, within the apparently narrow confines the club has defined for itself, there is seemingly endless room for experimentation and creativity. If they continue in this fashion – booking acts who are able to conform to the ethos of the venue while still managing to put their own unique spin on it at the same time – then I don’t see the club being in danger growing stale or uninspiring any time soon.

Vurt DJ Yazi Crowd

The crowd and staff left at vurt. at the end of Siot’s set pose for a photograph before heading upstairs and braving the light of day. Picture by Suna. 

DATE: 02/10/2018
VENUE: Volnost
ENTRANCE FEE: ₩15 000

October is a good month for public holidays in Korea; between Chuseok (the harvest festival, which was at the end of September this year, but the point still stands), Gaecheonjol (National Foundation day, which celebrates the founding of the first semi-mythical Korean state thousands of years ago) and Hangeul Day (which commemorates the invention of the Korean alphabet, Hangeul, by King Sejong the Great) those of us living in the Land of the Morning Calm are blessed with an abundance of days off, welcome respite from the daily grind. This also means, of course, that there are plenty of parties during early October, with clubs taking advantage of the fact that people have some time off to host club nights during the week for a change. The night before Gaecheonjol, clubbers were spoiled for choice as to where to go. Over at vurt., New York based experimental music label Mysteries of the Deep was throwing a party with label founder Grant Aaron and Tokyo-based DJ Lynne, while Cakeshop was hosting underground beat legend Knxwledge (back again in Seoul – I remember checking him play at Cakeshop around this time last year), and over at Faust the headliner for the evening was none other than Ellen Allien. I had my sights set, however, on a smaller event. Over at Volnost, Unjin of ECI Korea was throwing a party to celebrate ECI Korea’s tenth anniversary, and after having listened to the label’s recent compilation I was very interested in seeing how ECI Korea’s sound translated to the dancefloor.

 

Part of the reason I wanted to go to this gig and not to any of the others on offer was an interest in Volnost as a venue. It’s a club that I have only been to a handful of times, but which continues to intrigue me. Volnost lies buried in a basement on the bustling main strip in Itaewon, the kind of place that’s very easy to walk past if you don’t know it’s there. I think of Volnost as the “anti-Faust”. Whereas Faust is a cavernous space that draws a large and mixed crowd and takes great pride in its extravagant soundsystem and impressive lightshows, Volnost is small and austere, attracts a small audience of diehard techno-heads and is frequently pitch black save for a single stark strobe or flashing red light. In many ways it is very similar to vurt., and the two clubs operate within the same underground techno ecosystem and seem to share a fairly cordial relationship with one another, from what I can tell. The main difference between Volnost and vurt., in my experience, seems to be that while vurt. often draws a sizable crowd of European expats and tourists – sometimes there are more Frenchmen or Germans on its dancefloor than there are Koreans – Volnost always seems to be a more distinctly Korean affair, with foreigners always present but typically much more of a minority than at vurt.

 

The headlining act for the evening was Scottish DJ/producer Deepbass, a frequent collaborator with ECI who contributed one of (in my opinion) the finer tracks on the 10 Years of ECI Korea compilation, ‘Avia’. The Glaswegian DJ/producer, who is known for his stellar collaborations with Italian don of dark techno Ness, has been making techno music for over a decade and has numerous quality releases on labels such as Edit Select Records, Soma and Dynamic Reflection. In addition, he runs his own label, Informa Records, on which he has released records by luminaries such as Nax_Acid and Giorgio Gigli. His strain of brooding, atmospheric techno inflected with ambient and trance influences is a perfect fit for the hypnotic machine music championed by Unjin and others within the Korean dark techno underworld, and I felt sure that his set at Volnost on Tuesday was going to be worth checking out, regardless of how many other intriguing events were slated for that night.

Unjin oil painting

I tried to take this picture of Unjin during his set, but the low lighting and poor quality of my phone camera made him come out like an oil painting. I quite like the effect though!

Unjin kicked off the evening with a selection of dark, entrancing music that I’d describe as “forest techno” – if the forest in question made of stainless steel trees on an airless moon. Pulsating basslines churned and thrashed beneath a fog of ever-evolving noise, sometimes digital, sometimes organic. It was a great way to start the night, and though there were only a handful of people on the dancefloor – no more than ten or fifteen of us at the most – I could tell that every person dancing was feeling the music very deeply.

 

When it was time for Deepbass to step up to the decks, he kept things running on a similar level for a while, mesmerising the crowd with shadowy, atmospheric rolling beats that were only slightly too groovy to be called ambient techno. I must say, though, that the first hour of his set underwhelmed me somewhat; after a while it seemed like the selection of tracks he was playing, while good, at first didn’t stray far from montonous, generic techno, and I was a little worried that Deepbass would end up playing it too safe, and that the set would end up being forgettable as a result. My concerns, however, turned out to be unfounded. He may have taken a little time to get there, but by the peak of his set Deepbass was well and truly living up to his name, filling the basement space with a rich tapestry of deeper dance music. Psychedelic synth rhythms rippled above the thud of the kick drum like a banner of sculpted darkness twisting in an alien wind, their edges brought into sharp relief by the spit and sizzle of static-laced percussion. By this time, Volnost had also begun to fill up a little, with people drifting in from elsewhere in Itaewon – many of the punters I spoke with had come from Ellen Allien’s gig at Faust, or had been to see Knxwledge’s set at Cakeshop next door, and had turned to Volnost for the after-party, which I reckon was a good decision. The lighting, too, began to change subtly; whereas before the room had been more or less pitch black save for the light spilling from the DJ booth and behind the bar, now whoever was controlling Volnost’s lighting rig began to tease the crowd with the odd flashes of red or purple behind the DJ, the occasional red light that swept over the crowd, a few flickers of strobe here, a spotlight held for a second or two there. It was all very subtly executed, however – Volnost certainly knows how to achieve maximum effect with minimal elements, an approach they take to both the music played there and to the lighting and design of the space.

 

Something I appreciate a lot in techno DJs is when they don’t take the easy route of slamming down track after track of hard, dark pounding techno for the entirety of their 2+ hour sets, and have the confidence to lighten up the mood every once in a while. So I was pretty pleased when, in the last hour or so of his set, Deepbass began playing the occasional warmer, lighter track, creating a pleasing sense of contrast within the dark, stark, strobe-lit interior of the club. That’s not to say he suddenly started playing tropical house, or even that the techno he played in the latter part of the set was even that much less sombre than what had gone before it, but given how techno is a genre of minute nuances, the difference was definitely noticeable – and welcome. Perhaps part of this sense of lightness came not from the music, but from Deepbass himself; he was a pleasure to watch behind the decks, constantly smiling, tossing back shots and pulling off sick dance moves – a welcome change from the techno cliché of the grim-faced “serious” DJ.

Scopavik at Volnost

SCOPAVIK label/podcast manager Scøpe played an absolutely brutal killer of a closing set.

After Deepbass had played his last track to rapturous applause, it was time for the final act of the night, SCOPAVIK boss Scøpe, to take the reins. By this time the club had emptied out again, but once again the people who remained were determined to dance regardless of who else was on the dancefloor, and Scøpe, to his credit, gave it his all, playing to the almost empty room as if he was DJing in front of a crowd of thousands. Volnost was bathed in a glow of eerie red light as he let loose with a storm of broken beats and gnarly industrial textures. As much as my feet were sore from dancing and a part of me seriously wanted to go home, I found I just couldn’t stop moving – Scøpe’s set sunk its teeth into me and refused to let go. It’s easy to see why, alongside Unjin, Scøpe is probably one of the most influential and respected DJs in the Korean underground techno scene.

 

Despite the fact that there were so many other tempting options on offer that night, in retrospect I feel like I made the right choice by going to Volnost. The crowd may have been small, but the quality of both the music and the people around me was exceptionally high, and as a clubbing experience it felt far more raw and honest than what I probably would have encountered elsewhere. Volnost, though it may be a small and relatively niche venue, continues to punch above its weight in terms of the kind of authentic techno experience it’s dedicated to delivering, and with their sets Unjin, Deepbass and Scope proved that you don’t need to be on the front page of RA every week in order to be a world-class DJ.

Ten years is a long time in the world of electronic music. Scenes and trends change at an incredible pace, and that change is even further accelerated by the hyper-activity and shortened attention spans of the internet age. Over the last decade hundreds, if not thousands, of artists and labels have emerged, seen their stars rise in popularity and prestige, and then faded into obscurity again; victims of an often ruthless music culture where audiences are constantly on the search for something new. The fact that ECI Korea has been around since 2008, then, is a pretty impressive achievement, and speaks to the hard work, dedication and, of course, talent of all the people involved – in particular label founder Unjin, a true stalwart of the Korean techno scene. Unjin has been one of the most instrumental figures in the growth and development of techno music on the Korean peninsula, both as a DJ/producer and as a label manager and party organiser; it’s not an over-exaggeration to say that without Unjin, the Korean techno scene would probably be nowhere near as healthy as it is today. Nor is his influence, and the influence of ECI Korea, limited only to Korea – the label has become a platform for artists from all over Asia, allowing them global reach and facilitating connections and collaborations both within the broader Asian techno scene and between techno scenes in Asia and Europe. It’s fitting, then, that the 10 Years of ECI Korea compilation released to celebrate this milestone in the label’s history features a broad range of artists – from Korea, from elsewhere in Asia, and from other countries around the world. The variety of producers featured on the album serves as a representation of the wide variety of artists who have worked with ECI Korea over the past decade.

 

 

 

The compilation opens with ‘Fascination X’ by Mojave, a swirling, epic ambient track whose crystalline synth-work is reminiscent of Vangelis. It has a sense of cosmic depth to it, but deep within the track’s nebulous clouds of sound there is a feeling of unease, a sense of distant menace that hints at the darkness to come. The next track, “Falling Out” by Shanghai-based artist MIIIA, begins with a haltering, staggering beat and deep, sonar-like bleeps that gradually resolve themselves into a ritualistic rhythm while hisses of static and bursts of noise lend the track an air of controlled chaos. Around the halfway mark the introduction of some shakers transforms the track into something a little vibier, but it never loses its downcast, eyes-down atmosphere. The third tune on the compilation, ‘Space Explorer’ by Italian producer Gennaro Mastrantonio, puts me in mind of the cosmic techno of Samuli Kemppi. It’s a meditative piece of loop-based techno that showcases Mastrantonio’s keen understanding of progression in dance music. Deep and mesmerising though it may be, the thick grittiness of the track’s bassline keeps ‘Space Explorer’ firmly anchored to the dancefloor.

 

The next track, ‘an-i-o-bi-o-ics’ by Taiwanese producer Jing, is notably darker and more aggressive than the three tracks preceding it. Thunderous percussion, cyberpunk-sounding pads and staccato synth riffs give off a kind of “future industrial” sort of feel. It’s a brief track, clocking in at just four minutes and twenty-one seconds. The following tune, ‘Weinfelden’ by Romi, proceeds to take things in a spacier, more introspective direction again. Romi, a Hong Kong based producer and frequent collaborator with Oslated, contributes what is easily one of the best tracks on the entire compilation here. Although each sound he puts to use here is distinctly artificial and machine-like, the overall impression given by the track reminded me of birdsong, or the hushed noise of a dark forest at midnight, warm and organic. He piles on a dizzying array of elements in the track, and yet it never feels overly busy or cluttered – each individual sonic element has its own carefully carved-out space in the mix.

 

 

 

 

Track six, ‘Cogito’ by HWA (aka Elvis T), is by contrast one of the weakest tunes on the compilation in my opinion. The ceaseless beeps that crowd its high-end become obnoxious after the first minute of listening, and the bass, while well processed, is too in your face and unsubtle for my taste. The seventh track, ‘Lights From The Pleiades’ by Dorian Gray, another Italian producer, is a good tune, but at the same time a frustrating one. A deceptively complex bass rumble (when I listened carefully I realised there was a lot going on in that low-end) propels the track forward, while the “light” in the title comes from the ghostly shimmer of synth drifting like smoke over the bassline, gradually coalescing into something that resembles a choir of ethereal voices. It’s masterfully produced, but too short; the track feels like the buildup to something potentially spectacular, but just as I was getting properly into it, it ended.

 

I was excited to listen to track eight, ‘Resplendent’ by Xanexx. Xanexx is one of my favorite Korean DJs by far, to the point where I’ve gone out a few times this year with the specific aim of catching a Xanexx set. His DJing is always transcendentally good, a searing, visceral sonic assault on the dancefloor, and I was very interested in hearing what his production sounded like. Fortunately, he didn’t disappoint. ‘Resplendent’ reminded me a little of the work of Shanghai-based producer Tzusing at first, featuring broken drum rhythms surrounded by a crawling and slithering mass of acid synth, but as the track goes on  the brutality of the drum-work is offset by glowing pads that would have sounded almost angelic if heard in isolation, a sensation of light that grows more and more pronounced until by the end the track is more ethereal than it is aggressive.

 

 

 

The ninth track, ‘Avia’ by UK-born producer Deepbass, sounds to me as if Deepbass was trying to invoke the nostalgic sound of 90s anthem trance, but filtered through a much darker contemporary lens. Insistent, endlessly repeating synth rhythms and helicopter blade bass drive the track forward as the percussion breaks against them like waves crashing on some distant and ancient beach. ‘Avia’ is followed by ‘Control’ by DJ Sodeyama. The Japanese producer is arguably one of the biggest names on the compilation, and his track is definitely one of its standout moments. A powerful kick drum sits front and centre holding everything together while the occult electronics that hiss and sputter and shriek around it menace the listener from the shadows, a host of alien noises that feel somehow alive, as if the synthesizers themselves have somehow gained sentience. From a DJs perspective I think this is probably one of the most interesting tracks on offer here – I can imagine it absolutely devastating dancefloors if mixed right.

 

The penultimate track, ‘Vann’ by Astronomy Domine, is one of the most abstract tunes on offer here. The Sardinian producer first assembles a complex mosaic of found sound and natural noises – rising wind, birdsong, snapping twigs, clinking metal, the splash of raindrops, the crunch of gravel, and about a dozen others I couldn’t even begin to identify – and then takes a dub techno bassline to it like a sledgehammer, smashing the soundscape into fragments that are gradually drowned out by splashes of echo-laden percussion and the occasional slab of gnarled synthetic noise. It leads into the final track on the compilation, ‘Obscured Facts’ by Scøpe. Here Scøpe, who runs the SCOPÁVIK label and podcast and the SCOPÁVIK club nights at vurt., immediately grabs the listeners attention with an infectious combination of growling bassline and syncopated kick drum thud. They’re soon joined by some of the crispest, sharpest hats I’ve ever heard and more undulating pads that once again feel reminiscent of a choir of voices, giving the whole track a kind of gothic ambience. Around the halfway mark the track is overwhelmed by what sounds like a swarm of cybernetic insects, which then begins to degrade and deform, dragging ‘Obscured Facts’ down with it into a spiralling vortex of hypnotic sound.

 

Though it falls flat a couple of times, as an overall listening experience 10 Years of ECI Korea is a fitting tribute to a fine label. Each producer in the collection brings something slightly different to the table, and the blend of ambient or abstract tunes and club-orientated body music cuts means that there’s a little bit of something for everyone here, from home listening techno heads to DJs looking for more secret weapons to get people grooving. Personally, I’m really looking forward to hearing these tunes out on Seoul’s dancefloors over the next few months – and to hopefully another decade (or more!) of quality techno from ECI Korea.

 

10 Years of ECI Korea is available for purchase at ECI Korea’s Bandcamp page.

DATE: 01/09/2018
VENUE: Beton Brut
ENTRANCE FEE: ₩ 20 000

There aren’t many techno producers that I immediately associate with particular tracks; when I think of Ben Klock, for instance, ‘Sub-Zero’ isn’t the first thing to spring to mind, and if someone mentions Shifted I don’t instantly think of ‘Control’. Whenever I think of Ø [Phase], however, I can’t help but think of ‘Binary Opposition (Process One)‘ and ‘Binary Opposition (Process Two)’, for my money two of the most monstrously huge tracks in recent techno history. Released on Belgian label Token in 2012, the two ‘Binary Opposition’ tracks are two variations on the same basic theme: the pulsating bass rhythms, loops of static-laced percussion and metallic synth textures that make up the tracks don’t stand out as particularly original in the world of dark techno, but in this case the whole is definitely more than the sum of its parts, and taken together the Binary Opposition EP has always sounded to me like the perfect crystallization of a particular techno sound, an ur-example of the kind of throbbing, shadowy dance music that has come to define what “techno” means in the 21st century – an impression that was only bolstered by the Binary Opposition remix EP released shortly afterwards, which featured top-shelf remixes from luminaries such as Ben Klock, Planetary Assault Systems and Peter Van Hoesen. Of course, there is more to Ø [Phase] as a DJ and producer than just those two tracks. The London-based artist (real name Ashley Burchett) has been making high-quality techno of a tough and steely nature for decades now, with dozens of releases to his name, and though for some reason he has never quite achieved the same degree of underground superstardom as some of his contemporaries he is nonetheless a master craftsman of greyscale techno.

Ø [Phase]’s Binary Opposition EP is in my opinion one of the best techno releases of the decade.

The venue he was playing in on Saturday night, Beton Brut, is one of the techno joints in Seoul I have often – and unfairly – overlooked. It’s located in Itaewon, just a few doors up the hill from Faust. The club recently underwent some significant renovations, with Beton Brut itself moving into the basement of the building and two smaller bar zones (Rebus and Concrete Bar) apparently opening up on the first and second floors; I say ‘apparently’ because I have yet to see the latter two spaces – on Saturday I was pretty much glued to the dancefloor the entire time. It’s an integral part of the ecology of Seoul techno, alongside vurt. and Volnost; clubs that act as competitors, but also work alongside each other to bolster the local scene (Faust attempts to set itself apart from this scene in certain ways, which I don’t really agree with, but that’s a topic for another time).

beton brut behind bar

Behind the bar at Beton Brut.

When you pay your entrance fee at Beton Brut, you’re given a ticket entitling you to a free drink, common practice at Seoul clubs. What sets Beton Brut a little bit apart, however, is that instead of choosing from a fairly limited set list of free drinks, Beton Brut allows you to choose any drink from the menu as long as it’s under 10 000 won – which, in practice, is most of the drinks available. It’s a small thing but something I really appreciated. After slugging back my free shot of Fireball (I have pleb taste in alcohol, don’t judge me), I ventured onto the dancefloor. It’s probably one of the darkest dancefloors I’ve ever had the pleasure of dancing on, in a totally literal sense – the basement space was black as a moonless night, save for the ominous red glow of the DJ booth and a couple of of intermittently flashing red and white lights near the front. The near-total darkness reminded me a lot of Mystik (RIP), and I have to wonder if the resemblance to such a legendary Seoul venue was deliberate. With it’s high ceiling, bare concrete walls and row of gigantic extractor fans behind the DJ, Beton Brut nailed the “industrial” aesthetic better than any other club I’ve been to in Seoul, and the shadowy nature of the dancefloor meant that I didn’t really waste much time or energy checking out my fellow clubbers, saving me from distraction and allowing me to focus my attention on the music. Warm-up DJ Qna was keeping things at a pretty even pace, playing a selection sludgey, textured tunes that encouraged the listener to close their eyes and drift along to the river of darkness flowing from every speaker. He never ramped things up to too frenetic a pace or tried to get too dramatic with his drops and mixes, which is a good thing in my book – too many opening DJs seem to forget that they’re there to set the scene for the headliner and create an appropriate sense of atmosphere and ambience, and instead tire the crowd out with banger after ill-chosen banger. There was no such egotistical behaviour from Qna, a man who seems well accustomed to the subtle art of the opening set.
Textured” is a word I want to use again to describe a lot of the tracks Ø [Phase] played when he took over from Qna, around 2:30 am. He kept things firmly in the deep end to start with, playing tracks that were slightly faster and more energetic than those favored by Qna, but that were still wrapped in similar ghostly shrouds of sculpted sound and anchored by similarly crushingly heavy kicks. As the set drew on, however, the tone gradually shifted track by track, until at some point – I’m still not sure quite how he got there – Ø [Phase] was playing tunes that could have worked just as well in a particularly dark and aggressive UK funky set, hyper-percussive polyrhythmic techno tracks that made me dance until my legs hurt and kept my feet tapping even when I sat down to take a break. By this time the club had filled up considerably, and by the time it got to 3:30 am the dancefloor had achieved what I think of as perfect density – when there are enough people dancing around you that the place feels full, but spread out enough that it’s possible to move from any given point on the floor to any other point without having to bump or push anyone out of the way. The only time I realised just how many people were in Beton Brut was when I went to the toilet, where I had to stand in line for way longer than I had expected.

beton brut phase

Ø [Phase] working the decks.

By around 4 or 4:30 a.m., the shift from cerebral deep techno to full-blown warehouse bangers had been completed, and Ø [Phase]’s set began to enter true peak-time mode as he threw down storming tracks such as Blawan’s ‘Careless’ (one of the standout numbers from this year’s debut album Wet Will Always Dry) or Dark Sky’s huge techno/UK house crossover hit ‘The Lick’, fingers flying over the four decks in front of him. I should mention here that  Ø [Phase]’s mixing is damn near flawless. His blends and transitions are verrrrry smooth indeed, the kind of ‘couture mixing’ that makes it almost impossible to distinguish the beginning of one track from the end of another. The crowd responded well to him – lots of hands in the air, lots of big smiles, several dudes who felt so moved by the music they felt the need to whip their shirts off – and there was a real sense of camaraderie in the air, the ecstatic communion of strangers coming together to move to the same relentless beat.
My experience made me regret that I’ve been neglecting Beton Brut for so long – it’s a really good venue, one that ticks all the right boxes, from the quality of the resident DJs and soundsystem to the price of drinks. Like Ø [Phase] himself, Beton Brut perhaps suffers a little from being overlooked due to the sheer quantity and quality of the competition, but, as Saturday night proved, both Ø [Phase] and Beton Brut are more than capable of delivering a night of world-class pure techno.

DATE: 25/08/2018
VENUE: Faust
ENTRANCE FEE: ₩ 20 000 (I payed ₩ 30 000 though :/ )

I had to smile at the serendipity of it all when I saw that Perc was booked to play at Faust this past Saturday. As chance would have it I’d been rinsing the London-based producer’s three albums (Wicker and Steel, The Power and The Glory, and Bitter Music) pretty heavily for the past month or so, so it seemed like a stroke of exceptional good fortune to get the chance to see him in the flesh. Perc, or Ali Wells as his mum knows him, is a true giant of contemporary techno. He’s made a name for himself not only as a producer (having released tracks on seminal labels such as Drumcode, CLR and Stroboscopic Artefacts) and as a DJ, but also as a label owner in his own right; his Perc Trax imprint is one of the few labels which I make sure to listen to every single release off of, and he’s been responsible for bringing global attention to fantastic techno artists such as Forward Strategy Group, AnD, Ansome, and Truss. Perc’s production – and to a lesser extent the music he shills on his label – favours techno of a dour and dystopian bent, textured, abrasive tracks that invoke slate grey English skies, drab council estates, and factory chimneys belching out black smoke. He’s part of a vanguard of British producers – including artists such as Surgeon and Shifted – proving that heads-down pounding techno is not just the reserve of Berlin, and that the UK is still a crucial component in the international techno machine.

 

As excited as I was to see Perc DJ, I foolishly ended up missing the first bit of his set – took a nap before I went out, but managed to sleep through my alarm. I got dressed and rushed out as fast as humanly possible once I realised what had happened, but it was past 2 am by the time I got to Faust (Perc started around 1:30), which also meant that I had to pay 30 000 won to get in rather than the 20 000 I’m accustomed to paying. An irritating start to what would fortunately prove to be an amazing night.

The first thing I saw when I walked into Tanzbar was a middle-aged Korean man in blue work overalls and a cowboy hat, grooving to the music with an ecstatic grin plastered over his face. He seemed to sum up the eclectic nature of the crowd in Faust that night, which consisted of everyone from slick hip hop kids in designer tracksuits and bucket hats, to moody neo-goths with facial piercings and black lipstick, to a bunch of guys who looked like they’d just gotten off from work at some chaebol, still decked out in stiff white collar shirts and dress pants. I enjoyed the variety of it all – seeing people seemingly drawn from all kinds of sub-cultures and social scenes, rather than the usual monotonously dressed techno hipsters I’m used to seeing elsewhere (though that being said, I will always have a soft spot for those same techno hipsters, of course). It’s also a good indicator of the health of the scene – the diversity of styles on display implies that there’s a diversity of people being drawn to this kind of music.

I didn’t stay long in Tanzbar, downing my free drink as quickly as possible and then rushing into Faust so that I didn’t miss any more of Perc’s set than I already had. Stepping onto the dancefloor was like walking into a warzone; Perc was busy battering the crowd with a barrage of hard, no-frills percussive techno, every distorted hat or snare or clap hitting with the force of a high-calibre bullet. It was definitely the hardest set I’ve heard all year, and very possibly the hardest set I’ve heard in my entire life. I don’t know if the BPM ever dropped below 130, and the raw and aggressive nature of the sounds flowing out through the speakers felt closer in spirit to industrial metal or thrash punk than it did to most dance music, even though the standard 4/4 kick pattern was present throughout the majority of it. Dark and angry as his tunes were, however, the impact of that darkness was more exhilarating than it was oppressive, inspiring the people around me to cut lose and dance with a lack of restraint relatively unusual in Seoul. That lack of restraint worked against me at a certain point, when the guy I was dancing next to got a little too creative with the shapes he was throwing and elbowed me hard in the jaw, actually managing to knock me to the ground. He apologised, though, and though my jaw was still aching the next day it’s nothing worse than I’ve experienced in the average moshpit back in my (questionable) metalhead days.

perc faust crowd

I found myself thinking that in some ways, Perc’s set felt like the polar opposite of Mike Parker’s set at Faust a couple weekends before. Parker’s deep, hypnotic techno had me in a kind of trance, the music sinking into my subconscious so that in a way I wasn’t even aware of what I was listening to – all I could do was keep dancing. Perc’s selections, by contrast, were up-front and in your face, coming at the audience like a sonic assault by invaders from Planet Rave. His transitions were smooth, obviously, but they were smooth in the same way that a car crash is smooth – one track would become another in the blink of an eye, and for those few seconds the space in between them felt full to the brim with noise and violence.

It was terribly good, but also terribly intense; the pace was unrelenting, and I found myself tiring out quickly (something a lot of other people I spoke to that night were complaining about). Fortunately, whenever my energy flagged or the brutality of Perc’s tracks got a bit too overwhelming I could pop into Tanzbar for a sit and a drink, and zone out to the music of Nicolas Lian, who was playing a comparatively more mellow and soothing (though still suitable for peak time) selection of progressive techno, transcendental electro and blissed-out tech-house. A particular highlight for me was when he played Gui Boratto’s ‘Azzurra’, a track I haven’t listened to in years and that I have some beautiful memories associated with. I was very impressed by the range Nicolas Lian clearly enjoys as a DJ – his set in Tanzbar was worlds apart from the banging late-night acid techno he played when he closed for Mike Parker. I really enjoyed the contrast between his set and Perc’s, and I think without the presence of Tanzbar as a space to chill out in and briefly escape the brutality of Perc’s set for a while the night would have been a lot tougher to get through in one piece.

Perc 1

I needed that little bit of rest and recuperation in Tanzbar, because in the final half an hour of his set Perc pushed the floor to absolute breaking point. The last few tracks he played sounded as if someone had synced an exploding train station to a 909, and each transition between tunes was marked by a cacophonous gale of static and raw noise, accompanied by a flood of white light from the strobes (at this point it must be said that as usual, Faust’s lighting game was on point – they made really excellent use of strobes, floodlights, lasers, fog and all the other usual atmospheric club tricks). At that point, it was easy to forget I was in a nightclub in Itaewon, South Korea; through the power of music Perc had transported the entire crowd through space and time to what felt like a warehouse rave somewhere in the grim north of England circa 1996 (or possibly 2096) – as if Perc was a Time Lord and the DJ booth a TARDIS. By the time he played his final track I never wanted him to step away from the decks, regardless of how much my legs and feet hurt from dancing.

Unfortunately, the closing DJ (Suman)’s set was a bit of an anticlimax. I get that it’s hard to follow someone like Perc, who’s probably one of the best techno Djs on the planet right now, but Suman’s set fell completely flat to me – generic rolling dark techno with little about it to stick in the memory or get the body moving. It was really a let-down, as I was incredibly pumped and excited after Perc’s set and looking forward to dancing more, but there was just nothing about the set that moved me. I gave him half an hour hoping it would pick up, but it never did, so I ended up going home, a little disappointed. This is a recurring problem I have with Faust, actually. They typically book amazing international acts, but their actual residents frequently (not always, but frequently) fail to measure up to the guests, and the sense of continuous flow and musical narrative between the opening, headlining and closing act is often disrupted or just totally absent (which I’ve found is not the case at, say, vurt. or Volnost). Maybe that’s a little harsh – I’ve heard plenty of solid-to-good supporting acts at Faust- but the truth is that I’ll seldom go out of my way to arrive early to catch an opening act or stay late to catch a closing act at Faust, like I do with other techno venues in Seoul. That being said, I’ll forever be grateful to Faust for managing to lure so many world-class acts to Seoul, and I still think that Faust (especially in it’s latest incarnation) ranks as one of the best club experiences available in Korea. And as for Perc, well, Ali Wells brought the goods in a big way – but then I never doubted for a second he would.