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: 11/08/2018
VENUE: Faust
ENTRANCE FEE: ₩ 20 000

I’m always kind of surprised to learn that some of the most renowned DJs and producers in the global techno scene are still holding down day jobs. I wonder how they have the time and energy for it – jetting around the world playing shows on the weekend, and then going back into the office and starting the nine to five grind on Monday. In the case of New York-based deep techno auteur Mike Parker, I think that work-life balance is made a little easier by the fact that he’s an academic, with all the flexible scheduling and copious vacation time that entails. Parker, who has been making techno music for over 20 years and runs his own label, Geophone, is a multi-talented man; he teaches art at the State University of New York, and produces drawings and other works of visual art alongside the hypnotic brand of machine music that has won him fans and renown around the globe. His particular brand of techno falls in the line with the mesmerising, bewitching, chasmically deep sounds championed by producers like Cio D’Or and Donato Dozzy and labels like Semantica and Prologue, the latter of which released Parker’s last album, the excellent Lustrations, a set of three 12 inch records that work as well as a collection of sublime DJ tools as they do a continuous album. Parker is known for the exacting level of attention to detail he brings to his productions; a Mike Parker track is one in which every single minute sound has had its place in the mix meticulously carved out, and where minuscule shifts in sonic texture feel more dramatic and impactful than the biggest, dirtiest EDM drops. With that in mind, I was very happy to get the chance to hear Parker play on the brand-new Faust soundsystem, where that aspect of his music would be able to really come to the fore.

The opening act, regular Faust DJ and stylish mullet rocker Marcus L, played a selection of techno as varied and diverse as the acts typically booked by Faust itself, hitting the crowd with everything from sleek maximalist tech-house to crashing and bumping Stone Age techno. For the most part, though, his tunes sounded to me like variations on mid-2000s minimal techno, only updated for a more modern audience; waves of white noise, punchy kick drums and big drops suitable for the big room. It definitely got a strong reaction out of the crowd, who were whooping and cheering at every dramatic transition. Personally, I felt like the set could have maybe been a bit more coherent or flowed more smoothly – his transitions were all flawless, but I didn’t get a very good sense of narrative or progression from one track to the next, which is half the fun of a good techno set. Nonetheless it was definitely fun to dance to, which at the end of the day is really the point behind, well, dance music.

Monika Faust

Monika dropping some crunchy beats in Tanzbar. 

About ten minutes before Mike Parker was due to start I decided to nip in to Tanzbar to grab a drink, which, depending on your point of view, was either a mistake or a stroke of fortune. I ended up getting completely sucked in by the Tanzbar DJ, UK expat Monika, who was busy laying down an infectiously fun array of glittery nu-disco, rubbery house and acid-inflected funk. What I’d intended to be a quick run to the bar turned into an extended jam session in the tiny dance space between the bar and the couches. I wasn’t alone, either – Monika had amassed quite a crowd around himself, all grinning like lunatics and dancing as wildly as they could in the crowded and confined space.

Dancing to Monika’s music was one of the high points of the night for me, but it did mean that I unfortunately missed a fair chunk of the beginning of Mike Parker’s set. When I finally worked up the willpower to leave Tanzbar and return to Faust itself, stepping through the door was like being abducted by brain-probing aliens from some DMT dimension. All of the signature sonic flourishes from Parker’s productions were on full display in his set: spiraling subterranean bass rhythms, serrated far future bleepery, a raging ocean of liquid noise that obliterated the usual boundaries between percussion and synth or pad and lead. As abstract and hypnotic as the set was, however, it was still intensely, almost overwhelmingly, groovy. A trap that some DJs and producers working on the more psychedelic and moody end of the techno spectrum can fall into is that of losing sight of the fact that at it’s core techno, especially in a club setting, is still fundamentally dance music. Some of Parker’s contemporaries seem to forget that from time to time, crafting tunes and sets that, while sonically rich and musically adventurous, aren’t actually all that fun to move your body to. But as Mike Parker’s set in Faust proved, it’s more than possible to play dark, liquid, mesmerising, trippy techno tunes that still bang like crazy and get people stomping.

Mike Parker Faust 1

Mike Parker surveying the crowd with his trademark unconcerned expression. 

Something else I enjoyed about Parker’s set was the air of absolute serenity the man projects. I don’t think I saw a single expression ever so much as flicker across his face as he gazed over the floor full of frenzied strobe-lit bodies in front of him, his bald head and aquiline features bringing to mind the image of a Roman centurion. But every now and then, when the music reached particular peaks or crescendos (it feels a little inaccurate to call them “drops” – they were far too subtly executed for that) he would stretch his hand out to the audience and make the tiniest indication with his fingers that yes, something exciting was about to happen, looking more like a priest offering his blessing to the congregation than a DJ trying to hype the crowd. It seems a strange thing to say of someone who did so little to interact with the audience and who maintained such an austere and restrained persona behind the decks, but Parker really did feel as if he had a crazy amount of stage presence, if not in the typical sense of the term.

I was kind of disappointed when Parker decided to step down from the decks a little early – he was scheduled to play for 3 hours, but ended his set roughly 20 minutes earlier – but my disappointment was short-lived. The closing act, Nicolas Lian, has apparently been a fixture of the Seoul techno scene since 2012, where he was a resident at legendary now-closed club Quadro, but this was my first time seeing him play. Now, something I’ve noticed with a lot of closing techno acts in Seoul (Xanexx and Oslon spring to mind) is that they often like to close the night out with much faster, more aggressive strains of techno that border on trance at times. Nicolas Lian took this trend in an extreme direction, battering the darkened dancefloor with a series of rapidfire blackened acid tunes that could have worked just as well in a darkpsy set as they did in a techno context. Personally, I loved it – it brought me back to the underground psychedelic trance parties that were my first introduction to the world of raving – but a lot of people on the floor didn’t seem to feel the same way; I saw quite a few of them stop dancing and look confused, and the floor emptied out pretty swiftly. Still though, the small hard core of dancers that remained were clearly super into the sound, and the sudden opening up of the dancefloor (which had felt claustrophobically crowded during the peak of Mike Parker’s set) meant that people could be a little looser and more creative with their dance moves.

It’s a little early to make these kinds of judgements – I reckon I need to wait a little for the afterglow to fade – but as it stands right now, I think Mike Parker’s set at Faust was the best one I’ve heard in 2018 so far (and if you’ve been reading previous entries at all, you’ll know I’ve seen some truly stellar sets this year). The new Faust continues to impress me, and it’s really encouraging that they can book a fairly niche and austere techno act like Parker (whose material, banging as it is, is a far cry from “big room”, mainstream appeal techno) and still have a club packed to the rafters with dancers. The night spoke well to the continued growth and health of the techno scene in Seoul, a scene which Faust seems to be staking a claim as the beating heart of.