DATE: 26/05/2018
VENUE: vurt.
ENTRANCE FEE: ₩ 20 000

Those of us who like our techno on the dark and hypnotic side know that Italy’s where it’s at. The Mediterranean nation might not have quite the same fearsome reputation as Germany or the same historical significance as Detroit, but nevertheless Italy has contributed a lot to global techno, thanks to the efforts of a handful of producers – chief among them the legendary Donato Dozzy, one half of Voices From The Lake and co-founder of Rome-based label Elettronica Romana – who pioneered and continue to improve on a certain strain of idiosyncratic dance music: deep, liquid tracks that owe as much to trance as they do to techno. Though a host of producers and labels from other countries have also made music in this style, this particular niche is still dominated by Italians: Dozzy, Giorgio Gigli, Neel, Dino Sabatini, Obtane, Claudio PRC and Ness. The latter two – both hailing from the sunny island of Sardinia – produce and DJ together as The Gods Planet, and last Saturday techno fans in Seoul were blessed with the chance to see them play at vurt, supported by veteran DJ and producer Unjin.

Unjin really is a Seoul techno legend in his own right. Active in the Korean underground music scene since the late 90s, he founded the country’s first-ever techno label (ECI Korea) and has established a worldwide reputation as one of the best techno acts to come out of Korea, playing gigs at renowned techno clubs around the world, from Tresor in Berlin to Womb in Tokyo. He’s also worked with Ness before; the Sardinian contributed one of the remixes to Unjin’s Fog Machine Remix EP. For his opening set on Saturday night, Unjin treated his audience to a hazy, dreamlike stream of rolling psychedelic techno; it was danceable – his heavy dub bass and beefy kicks were more than enough to get a body moving – but for most of the set I caught myself doing more swaying than I did jamming; it was eyes-closed music, for sure. It set a good precedent for how the rest of the night was going to go, with the emphasis placed more on the deep and the delirious than on the hard and the heavy. It was easy music to get lost in, and I was surprised by how quickly the hours seemed to go by and how soon it was time for Claudio PRC to step into the booth.

 

Now, techno is, almost by definition, a darker form of dance music. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, of course – brighter, more uplifting techno certainly exists – but there is a definite trend within the genre towards the somber and the shadowy, one that has been accentuated in recent years by the boom in the “Berlin school” of basement techno. But “darkness” in techno is not a singular mood, and there are many kinds of darkness that techno can invoke. In the case of Claudio PRC, the darkness in his selections was the darkness of midnight in a tropical jungle, wrapped in thick, oppressive heat and tense with the menace of predatory animals stalking their prey through the trees. Something about the tunes he was playing – the organic whisper of percussion, the murky fog of bass, the acid synths that sounded like they were echoing out from a Funktion One stack on the ocean floor – sounded incredibly primitive and primal, as if someone had taken an uncontacted Amazonian tribe and taught them how to play analogue synthesizers. Based on this description, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he played a lot of tribal techno in his half of The Gods Planet’s performance, but honestly that wasn’t the case – there were none of the usual musical clichés of tribal tech (“ethnic” percussion, drum circle polyrhythms) going on in any of the tracks he threw into the mix. A few years ago, when this style of techno started getting more popular and receiving a lot of attention in the electronic music press, the term “voodoo techno” was thrown around a lot to describe this kind of sound, and it really seems to fit, perfectly encapsulating the bewitching soundscape conjured up by Claudio PRC that night.

Ness, when it was his turn to take control of the dancefloor, maintained a similar kind of feel and atmosphere, though he used a slightly different sound palette to do it. Whereas Claudio PRC’s half of the set leant on organic sounds and long, heady buildups and breakdowns, Ness’s selections felt more digital or mechanical, and his beats were a lot more relentless, favoring minimalist, hyper-repetitive rhythmic loops that crawled over and around each other like bees swarming over a honeycomb. The transition between the two was incredibly smooth, however, feeling more like a natural progression within a single DJ’s set than two separate artists playing back to back – the mark of a DJ duo experienced at, and comfortable with, playing together. After Ness had been playing on his own for an hour or so, Claudio PRC rejoined him in the DJ booth and the two of them began playing together, taking it in turns to select and mix in tracks, and this last joint effort was definitely the high point of the night as the two of them allowed the atmosphere of captivating darkness to lighten up a little, throwing in a few brighter sounds and getting slightly – but just slightly – more playful with their beats and rhythms. It’s been a while since I’ve had the energy and willpower to stay in a club all the way till closing – I always try and catch the last set, but tiredness generally causes me to flake out halfway through- but this time I had no trouble staying awake and dancing. Ness and Claudio PRC’s music pulled me into another world entirely, one where time and exhaustion simply ceased to exist, and all that mattered was moving to the music.

I’m only sad that relatively few people got to experience such an amazing set. vurt. was quieter on Saturday than I’ve seen it in a while; there were still people on the floor, of course, and it was far from feeling “empty”, but it was definitely under-populated that night, which is a shame because honestly with a set that good The Gods Planet deserves a sea of people from wall to wall. Hopefully this Friday’s set by Cio D’Or, another world-class purveyor of deep, dark headfuck techno, draws a bit more of a crowd.

DATE: 18/05/2018
VENUE: Volnost
ENTRANCE FEE: 15 000

Like a lot of good techno clubs, Itaewon’s Volnost is a little hard to find. It’s located just a few doors down from Cakeshop, in the basement of a Vietnamese restaurant, but looking from the outside you wouldn’t know it; the only indication that there’s a club there is a small, discrete sign on the door informing patrons that illegal drugs and alcohol are strictly forbidden, and asking them not to take flash photography. Go through this door and down the staircase behind it, however, and you find yourself in a low, square, brick-wallled room, with a bar at one end and a DJ booth at the other; a functional, utilitarian dance space that matches perfectly the aesthetic of the music played there. It’s in this shadowy dungeon that I found myself on Friday night, sipping on my complimentary rum and coke (like many clubs in Seoul, paying entrance at Volnost entitles you to one free drink) and looking forward to hearing the evening’s headliner: the Madonna of minimal techno in Japan, Hito.

Hito’s been in the game for a long time. After being exposed to techno upon moving to Berlin in 1999, she began DJing and swiftly gained attention for her energetic, vinyl-only sets. Hito’s rise to techno stardom began when she connected with minimal techno superstar Richie Hawtin, who brought her onboard as part of the team for his legendary ENTER. summer residency at Space in Ibiza. Since then, Hito has been living the nomadic existence of a touring DJ, playing at clubs and festivals around the world. Unusually for DJs of her stature, Hito has never really made the jump from DJing to producing, and she has maintained a slightly old-fashioned approached to DJing; unlike her mentor Hawtin, who has eagerly embraced the possibilities afforded by digital DJing, Hito has decided to keep things old-school and continues to play strictly vinyl sets. There were a lot of good parties on in Seoul this last Friday – Jimmy Edgar was playing a set at Cakeshop, while Faust hosted a gig by Chris Liebing – but I was intrigued by Hito after hearing her play a warm-up set early Friday evening for Seoul Community Radio, so at the last minute I decided to get myself down to Volnost and see her for myself.

 

Before her set at Volnost on Friday, Hito played an excellent warm-up set for Seoul Community Radio. 

 

Being an opening DJ is a thankless job; most people only want to hit the club a little later into the night, and so in most places openers are usually stuck playing to a small scattering of friends who’ve shown up to support them. Friday night was no exception to this rule; opener Comarobot – who, with his patrol cap and beard, put me in mind of a young, Korean Fidel Castro – only had about ten people dancing to his set, which is a pity because he played a very high-quality selection of contemporary dark techno, though it was marred a little by a few mixing slip-ups here and there. By the time following act DJ SIN took over, however, the club had begun to full up considerably, and it didn’t take long for the small, square basement space to begin to feel a tad crowded. DJ SIN has apparently been an important figure in the Seoul underground dance scene for some time; she was formerly a resident DJ and musical director of Itaewon’s legendary club Mystik, which sadly closed its doors last year, and was also (together with vurt. resident Suna and Mario, a DJ who has since left Seoul) one of the members of Triple House, the first all-female DJ crew in the city. Listening to her play, it was easy to see how she’s managed to garner such a good reputation. Her set was masterfully executed, a totally seamless flow of sound that seemed to bridge the gap between the current trend towards hard-edged European basement techno and a more classic mid-00s “minimal” sound. Particularly towards the end of her set the cosmic overtones and dreamlike loops of the bleep techno she was laying down reminded me of the future-shamanism of artists like Sleeparchive. I was actually pretty disappointed when it was time for her to step down from the decks and let Hito take over – which to me is always the mark of a really strong supporting act.

Hito 1

Hito and Comarobot relaxing in the Seoul Community Radio studio before the gig. Picture courtesy of Richard Price, Seoul Community Radio. 

Like certain parts of DJ SIN’s set, Hito’s set was a bit of a throwback. Playing only vinyl, Hito favoured the crisp, punchy drums, clear sine bass tones and washes of white noise that characterized the minimal techno boom of the 2000s – unsurprising, given Hito’s connections with Hawtin, arguably the definitive figure within that particular scene. The overall sound of the set was more Ibiza than it was Berlin; she was a lot less self-consciously dark and serious than most of the other techno DJs I’ve heard over the last year or so, and wasn’t afraid to throw in more than a fair share of catchy melodies and infectious vocal hooks. The term “tech house” has acquired a bit of a pejorative connotation in techno snob circles, but this was tech house done right, full of soul and swing, unabashed party music. Now don’t get me wrong, I love me some serious, cerebral basement techno, but hearing something so different and yet the same time so similar was like a breath of fresh air, and paradoxically enough, even though this style of techno is perhaps a bit more of a “dated”, to me it sounded really exciting, fresh and new. Hito’s tunes were a good reminder of how, even though from the outside it seems like a very constricted and unvaried genre, techno is actually an incredibly diverse sound, one that comes in many different forms and flavours. The last time I heard this kind of techno was a few years ago, at one of the dance camps at AfrikaBurn (South Africa’s regional Burning Man event), and if I closed my eyes I could imagine that I was dancing in the desert under the stars, rather than in a basement in Itaewon. In fact, overall I got a very “festival” vibe from Hito’s set – her track selection and mixing were very evocative of an outdoor party feeling, music for open fields and marquees, beaches and forests.

This festival atmosphere was further reinforced by the crowd. Everyone on the heaving dancefloor seemed to be having a whale of a time; every time I looked around I saw people smiling, people cheering, people hugging and embracing (not to mention people making out; it felt like a LOT of people got lucky in Volnost that night!). Special mention needs to be made of one individual, an absurdly tall moustachio’d man in a red tophat and kimono shirt wrapped in fairy lights, waving a plastic baby doll around, who seemed like a small festival all by himself. That kind of whimsical approach to partying – costumes, props, a flair for the theatrical and the carnivalesque – is a big part of the underground dance scene back home in South Africa, and it’s something I don’t see a lot here in Korea, more’s the pity. It was good to see a little glimmer of the same attitude in Volnost that night.

Hito 2

The crowd at Volnost. Picture courtesy of Richard Price, Seoul Community Radio. 

By the time Hito finally spun her last track and Xanexx took over, the audience was, in a word, lit. Their ranks were a little thinner – several large groups departed en masse shortly before the end of Hito’s set – but those who were left behind seemed well and truly ready to party, with seemingly no interest in stopping any time soon. Fortunately, they were in good hands; Xanexx wasted absolutely no time, laying down track after banging track of loopy, mesmerising voodoo techno. I’ve seen him play closing sets at vurt. before, and the man really is a veteran when it comes to this kind of thing; he knows exactly how to keep people dancing at the end of a night. Every time I felt like I’d reached the point of exhaustion where I needed to call it a night, he’d mix in some new hypnotic rhythm or ecstatic burst of noise that kept me wanting to hear more, and more; I lost track of the times I muttered “just one more tune” to myself. Eventually tiredness won out and I finally made my way upstairs and out into the light, but when I left everyone else in the club still appeared to be going strong. Honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that all of them are still there dancing, two days later.

If I have one small complaint, it’s that at times the sound system at Volnost didn’t seem to be quite as good as it could be. The bass was sometimes a little muddy and muffled, and the acoustics were a little weird – there were certain spots where if one stood the music became noticeably quieter or louder, which threw me off a bit. On the other hand, I feel compelled to mention of how really excellent the lighting was. Whoever was in charge of Volnost’s lighting that night did an excellent job of reading the feel of the party, making use of flashing colour, strobes, bursts of brightness and bursts of total darkness in perfect unison with the music. It did a lot for the atmosphere of the event, and perhaps also contributed to the “festival” feeling that I keep harping on about.

Between the four of them, Hito and her supporting acts  put on a hell of a show, a fun and engaging evening of techno and good old fashioned Friday hedonism. Nights like this really are testament to how healthy the techno scene is, not only in Seoul, but in east Asia more generally.

DATE: 05/05/2018
VENUE: vurt.
ENTRANCE FEE: ₩20 000

Anyone more than casually interested in the state of techno in South Korea is familiar with Oslated. Originally just a podcast, now a record label home to some of the most interesting and forward-thinking techno produced on the Korean peninsula and beyond, Oslated has become synonymous with deep, dark, intense techno in Seoul. As such, the Oslated nights that they organize – hosted usually either at vurt. or at Volnostare invariably high-quality affairs, showcasing some of the best talent the label has to offer alongside international guests drawn from shadowy corners of the techno scene all over the world. This past weekend was a very busy one for Oslated; Friday night saw them throw a party with Hong Kong based producer Romi at Volnost, while on Saturday night Oslated took over vurt. for an evening of brooding, psychedelic techno featuring Swiss producer/DJ duo Agonis and Garçon, co-founders of boutique techno label Amenthia Recordings.

Based in Basel – a beautiful city nestled in a corner of the Swiss border where the edges of Switzerland, France and Germany meet – Amenthia Recordings, like Oslated, operates in a more peripheral zone of the global techno scene. While Basel is obviously not as far removed from the Germanic epicentre of the world of techno as Seoul is, it’s still far removed enough that the city’s techno pioneers have seemingly been able to forge their own distinct scene relatively untouched by the tropes and trends that at times appear to constrain the development of the techno sound in bigger, more “hyped” cities. As a result, the releases on Amenthia Recording’s catalogue (the overwhelming majority of which are by label founder Agonis) display the kind of creativity and originality that is sadly becoming a rarer and rarer commodity in the techno industry. I’d be lying if I said that either Agonis or Amenthia co-founder Garçon had ever crossed my radar before last week, but after sitting down and listening through some of the Agonis tracks and Garçon DJ sets available online I was very keen to head down to vurt. and give them a listen, especially given the fact that Agonis would be playing live as opposed to DJing; live techno sets always pique my interest.

An example of what an Agonis set sounds like, courtesy of Taipei techno podcast Smoke Machine

One thing that sets vurt. apart from other clubs in Seoul, in my opinion, is the consistent quality of the club’s opening and closing acts. Given that the venue hosts so many world-class acts on a regular basis, it would be easy for its resident DJs to pale a little in comparison, which, to be frank, has been my experience at a few of the other clubs in the Korean capital. At vurt., however, I find that each opening and closing DJ is memorable in their own right, which is no mean feat for artists sharing a bill with such big names. Busan transplant Lavera’s opening set on Saturday night was no exception. When I arrived, she was playing a sultry, spacy selection of slow techno to the small but already palpably excited crowd gathered on the dark dancefloor. Bathed in the darkroom-red glow of the vurt. DJ booth, she began to gradually pick up the pace, steadily mixing in heavier and funkier tracks until eventually the audience was catapulted into full-on groove mode. For an opening set it was pretty energetic, but the crowd responded well and it set the bar nice and high for the following acts.

Once Lavera had played her final tune – a psychedelic voodoo-techno roller that sounded like an Aphex Twin track on bath salts – it was Agonis’ turn to step up to the booth. In my experience, DJs tend to take one of two approaches to following on from another set: either they try and maintain the energy level and tempo set by the previous DJ, attempting to create a seamless transition between the two sets, or they “reset” and start building a set from scratch again, starting slow and slowly picking up the pace again. For his live set, Agonis chose the latter approach; he began by piecing together a murky rhythmic soundscape of scrapes, clanks, shrieks and bleeps, still highly danceable but definitely several degrees more abstract than the relatively straightforward techno that had made up the bulk of Lavera’s set. I was struck by the immaculate quality of his sound design; every noise and detail seemed intricately crafted and originally, a showcase of just how much room for creativity there is to be found within the apparently strict boundaries of this kind of music. As the set drew on his sound began to evolve into something more beat-driven, but it was still heady, trippy stuff, a kind of industrial trance sound that mesmerized as much as it moved.

All of this makes Agonis’ set sound kind of dry or academic, music for thinking about rather than dancing to, but in fact nothing could be further from the truth. For all of the downcast mood and cerebral nature of his music, the man definitely still knows how to get a dancefloor moving. He demonstrated a keen command of rhythm throughout his set, and his carefully calculated minimalist percussion work – the gut-punch of kick here, the switchblade flicker of a hi-hat there – inspired some truly impressive dance moves from the people around me on the floor; I witnessed some dancers losing themselves in the music in a way that I hadn’t seen for a long time.

Garçon’s entry in the Oslated podcast series. 

Agonis’ thought-provoking and bone-shaking live set was followed by a DJ set from his Amenthia Recordings colleague, Garçon. Clad in a brightly coloured tie-dye shirt, Garçon immediately set about lightening the mood a little, laying down slightly more melodic, looser tracks that acted as the perfect antidote to the storm of ragged-edge synths and remorseless bass that had come before. His tunes, while they still banged hard and fell firmly within deep techno territory, had a kind of warmth to them – something about the character of the bass, maybe, or the occasional jazzy percussion lick – that belied their sparse and brittle structure, as if I was listening to the bones of a deep house set that had been picked clean by a flock of vultures. Something else that really interested me about Garçon’s mixing was the unexpected musicality of it – I was floored by his clever use of key changes and chord progression, to the point where I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that he’s had some classical music training. That kind of harmonic mixing, while not exactly unheard of in the world of techno, certainly doesn’t seem to be as common as it does in some other forms of dance music, and it really helped his set stand out in my memory.

Taken individually, Agonis and Garçon both played stellar sets, but as a back to back duo they really brought out the best in each other. The two sets had a kind of ying-yang quality to them, with Garçon’s playful yet still hard-edged beats providing an excellent counterpoint to the somber tech-trance of Agonis, bringing a much needed sense of levity to an evening of music that, while excellent, had begun to feel like it was taking itself a little too seriously.

By the time it was closing DJ and Oslated label head Oslon’s turn to take over, the crowd had thinned out a little, but there were definitely still enough people dancing that the floor didn’t feel overly empty. Those that left early definitely missed out; Oslon pulled out all the stops, pummeling the audience with a demented array of scorched acid synths, hammer-and-anvil kick-bass combos, squalls of shaped noise and relentless, jittery percussion. It was heavy music, cold and alien and with little in the way of recognizable melody or harmony; but that didn’t stop it from being utterly exhilarating, and the crowd around me was going wild, whooping and cheering with every rapid-fire, effortless track transition. In short, it was a “total stomp, bru”, as ravers back home might say.

Looking back on my overall impression of the night, I’d say that if I had to pinpoint one aspect of the party that really impressed me it would be the variety of it all. Each DJ, while staying firmly within the bounds of techno, had very different interpretations of what “techno” means, and the end result was a constant sense of exploration and adventure that deftly avoided the rut that too many techno nights fall into – stale, monotonous, repetitive sets with little in the way of uniqueness or originality. Instead, each DJ offered the crowd an idiosyncratic musical experience, and the four sets, alongside help from a fantastic crowd, combined to produce and immensely fun and memorable evening. I can’t say I’m surprised – as I’ve mentioned before, I seldom don’t have a good time at vurt., and I have only respect and admiration for the gifted and hardworking Oslated crew – but I certainly am pleased.