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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

On the Bandcamp page for Heptaprism by Yetsuby, one of the most recent additions to the Extra Noir family, the mysterious South Korean producer is described as ‘reflecting Seoul’s nocturnal futurism’. It’s an apt description. There is a sort of futurism at work in Yetsuby’s tracks, but the future being hinted at is closer to that depicted in Neuromancer or Blade Runner than anything one might imagine from the vantage point of the 21st century. A kind of retro-cyberpunk atmosphere threads itself like DNA through all of the tracks on display here, whose rigid soundscapes and dusty pop hooks feel deeply indebted to the much-fetishized analogue synth music of that halcyon age of electronic music, the 1980s.

Heptaprism opens with ‘Sunrisemagic’, a laidback tune whose warm analogue chords and crooning vocals give it a distinctly New Age kind of vibe, like Boards of Canada being played at the back of an incense shop. The second track, a slow but summery slice of house entitled ‘Who Ate My Chocolate’ features African-inspired percussion, basketball kicks and massive, echo-drenched claps that put me in mind of some of John Talabot’s early material. The title of track three, ‘Ppuppuppappa’, could be an onomatopoeia for the high-pitched crystalline whistling that makes up the bulk of the track. Interlocking melodies, their tones reminiscent of early 90s home computing, play off and around one another, accented by the occasional burst of keyboard-clack percussion. It’s a fun little sonic exercise, but at over five minutes feels a little overlong for what it is; I felt like it overstayed its welcome very quickly, and on subsequent listens I found myself frequently skipping this track halfway through.

 

 

The following track, ‘Croquis 1’, features similar wistful, ethereal vocals to ‘sunrisemagic’, this time set over a staggering, glitchy mechanical rhythm, creating an interesting contrast between the organic and inorganic elements of the track. Further atmosphere is furnished by smatterings of street sounds and delirious, half-buried fragments of forgotten melody. This to my mind is one of the most interesting and arresting pieces of music on the album – my only complaint, this time, being that’s a bit too short; I would have liked for Yetsuby to maybe draw it out a little, give some of its captivating detail more time to glow.

On track five, ‘Sea Frog’, Yetsuby combines a fuzzed-out oldschool drum machine kick with a simple two note bassline and melodic streams of bleeps and blips in a way that feels pulled from the soundtrack of a long-lost straight to video 80s action movie. That vintage feel continues into the next tune, ‘Wiretap In My Ear’, whose central feature is a rubbery, groovy bass guitar riff. The title of the closing track, ‘Sunsetmagic’, seems intended to act as a companion to opener ‘Sunrisemagic’, but the names are really the only point of comparison. Where ‘Sunrisemagic’ is starry-eyed and serene, ‘Sunsetmagic’ is far more boisterous: big, booming gated drums lay down a rhythmic foundation, while snatches of human voices, sanded down and shaped into microscopic bursts of noise, provide the lead melody.

Final thoughts: while I really enjoyed Heptaprism, I do think it could have done with some more ruthless editing, and would probably have worked better as an EP than an album. Several tracks on here are very strong – most notably ‘Who Ate My Chocolate?’ and ‘Croquis 1’ – but others feel more like personal sketches or experiments than fully realised pieces of music in their own right, and may have been better off left on the cutting room floor. That being said, however, it’s clear that Yetsuby is both technically gifted and creatively innovative as a producer, and this album has definitely made me curious to hear what she comes up with next.

Heptaprism is available for purchase over at Extra Noir’s Bandcamp.

DATE: 20/04/2018

VENUE: Pistil

ENTRANCE FEE: ₩10 000

So far in this blog, I’ve tended to focus on covering sets by more “big name” underground electronic artists, the kind of guys (and up till now they’ve all been guys) you see turn up on the front page of Resident Advisor. Truth be told, though, these kind of “A-list” acts represent only a tiny percentage of all the hardworking, talented DJs out there, and for every one of them there’s another dozen underground heroes putting on parties and playing sets every bit as rad despite their lack of media attention. So when the fine folks over at Seoul Community Radio let me know that up-and-coming Tokyo-based DJ Licaxxx was playing a set at Pistil on Friday, supported by local deep house team C’est Qui?, I figured it was as as good an opportunity as any to get outside of my comfort zone and support a smaller artist.

I say “smaller”, but Licaxxx (aka Rika Hirota) has proven herself to be a bit of a powerhouse in her own right, steadily making a name for herself as a DJ, producer, music writer and radio personality in Tokyo. She’s previously played supporting sets for such illustrious names in techno as Ellen Allien and Anthony Naples, and last year she garnered a lot of attention online with her high-octane Boiler Room mix. I’ll confess I hadn’t heard of her before, but after being privileged enough to witness her play a warm-up set for Seoul Community Radio last Thursday night I was really excited to have the chance to dance to her music in a club setting.

 

The venue for the event was Pistil, a club that’s long been on my radar but which I hadn’t gotten around to visiting before now. It’s located in a basement in Itaewon, a stone’s throw away from the subway station – prime party real estate, in other words. This accessible location together with low entrance fees and the club’s focus on house music and related genres as opposed to the harder techno sounds favoured by a lot of other clubs in the Seoul underground means it draws a fairly large and varied crowd, a mixture of electronic music heads and casual partygoers just out for a good time. It’s a good middle ground, a meeting point of sorts between the mainstream and underground scenes in Seoul. As a venue, it’s a little awkwardly laid out; the positioning of a couple of concrete support columns means that the crowd ends up funnelled into an odd triangular shape, with the apex at the DJ booth and the hypotenuse along the bar. On the positive side, however, a long leather couch along one side of the dancefloor and a scattering of barstools makes it easy to find somewhere to relax and take a break from dancing, or to leave your coat or bag.

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Seoul-based house duo C’est Qui? kicked off the night. Pic courtesy of Closet Yi 

The night kicked off with a strong start thanks to a sublime opening set by C’est Qui? , a duo consisting of up-and-coming female Korean DJs Naone and Closet Yi. The two of them got the crowd grooving with a selection of funky deep house cuts that paired deep resonated basslines with wistful, ethereal synths and interesting chord progressions, a lot of it strongly influenced by disco and electro. Their mixing was on point, as well; the two of them managed to switch between a range of different feels and tempos without once making a poorly-judged or jarring transition. Musically, the set was a lot of fun, and I’m definitely interested in hearing more from the two of them in the future. However, I have to say that the crowd kind of detracted from my enjoyment of the music a little bit. In the first place, there were a lot of people there, surprising considering it was still pretty early in the night – which is of course not a bad thing by itself, but it did make the space feel pretty cramped. The bigger problem was that more than a few members of the audience seemed way drunker than they reasonably should have been, especially so early on in the night. This, coupled with the small space and large crowd, meant that there was a lot of bumping, stumbling and shoving going on, which made dancing a little hazardous and kind of soured the vibe a little bit. After one especially tall foreign guy accidentally elbowed me in the face I strongly considered leaving before Licaxxx had even begun to play.

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Licaxxx deep in the mix. Pic courtesy of Closet Yi. 

I’m glad I chose to stick it out, though, because when Licaxxx did eventually step up to the decks it was instantly clear that we were in the hands of a seriously talented DJ. Playing entirely on vinyl, she wowed the crowd with a choice assortment of acid house, oldschool deep house, electro and breakbeat – a spiky yet playful bunch of tunes that put me in mind of a less austere, more bouncy and upbeat version of Helena Hauff. A lot of what she was playing had a very “classic” kind of feel – I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those tracks dated back to the 90s or earlier – and I found myself thinking that this could well what a set at Manchester’s infamous Hacienda sounded like back in the day. Which is not to say that Licaxxx’s set sounded out of touch or dated at all; rather, it had a kind of timeless quality, the kind of stuff that I could imagine people getting down to regardless of what decade they were in or what continent they were on. By the time her set really got going the crowd had improved considerably, as well; some of the more plastered specimens had taken themselves elsewhere and the people who remained seemed more interested in getting down and dancing than in just getting wasted or trying to pick up girls. As the night wore on Licaxxx started playing steadily harder, more banging stuff, slipping in more frantic breakbeats and ravey synth stabs, much to the audience’s delight; by the time she got to the end of her set every new track she threw into the mix was accompanied by whoops and cheers from the dancefloor. Eventually, it was time for her to step down from the decks, to the sound of rapturous applause from everyone inside Pistil, and C’est Qui took charge again, playing a slightly steelier late set, though the sounds they were laying down still maintained a kind of lush, almost tropical atmosphere. I left shortly after they started playing again, so I’d be lying if I said I knew how the rest of their set went, but judging by what I did hear and by their earlier performance I don’t doubt that it was excellent.

Overall, I’m happy I chose to go to Pistil that night. A slightly obnoxious crowd aside, musically it was a very quality event, and it was great to get off the beaten track a little and hear sets by smaller artists. Hopefully Licaxxx’s profile continues to grow and she can get more attention and more international gigs in the future – she really is a top-notch DJ, and she deserves a much wider audience.