Though they may seem a million miles apart, ambient music and techno are really two sides of the same coin. While they may differ dramatically in function – one form of music being made for relaxing, calming down and spacing out, and the other being made to be moved to – both are similar in that they pull the listener into a world of their own, a psycho-acoustic space in which the all of the burdens of the self and the world beyond are brushed aside, for a brief while at least. On a more mundane level, of course, ambient and techno music often share similar methods and tools of composition, either digital or analogue, and many if not most techno producers have experimented with ambient works and vice versa. The blurring of the lines between techno and ambient music has arguably produced some of the best works in either genre, such as Voices From The Lake’s seminal self-titled album, or Wolfgang Voigt’s sublime GAS project.

Unjin Yeo (a name that anyone with any interest in the Korean techno scene should be very familiar with) is no stranger to ambient music. Though there are many ambient and electronica tracks kicking about in his back catalogue alongside his more floor-focused fare, in recent years he seems to have been drawn more and more to ambient production, as evinced by his recent excellent collaboration with Sunji. His latest album, Hui Gui, the second release on fledgling Japan-based label Kizen Records, is another of his recent ambient explorations. The album was composed primarily using analogue synthesizers and acoustic bass, with a couple of well-chosen guests being called in for remix duty.

In album opener ‘Ties’ Unjin places metallic pulses against a backdrop of static rain. Long, low bass notes cut through the mix like the horns of ships sounding through icy fog, while shards of guitar and fragmented chords float like ribbons around the track’s edges, adding to the cinematic feel of the piece. The watery theme continues into the following track, ‘Hui Gui’. Here, waves of musical texture crash and break against each other, and something that sounds like a distant, distorted church bell rings out a repetitive rhythm. But that description really just scratches the surface; ‘Hui Gui’ is a track full of minute details, a tapestry of sonic intricacies that is easy to get lost in. Unjin’s deployment of texture and timbre here feels very much inspired by dub techno; his soundscape puts me in mind of the work of artists such as Echospace or Pole in the way that it has been constructed. Towards the end of the track, notes begin streaming down towards and shattering upon the foundation of the bass, like a waterfall turning to ice moments before it reaches the ground.

 

 

After the last few echoes of ‘Hui Gui’ have faded away, Swedish producer Ntogn steps up to the plate to provide listeners with a change of pace. His remix of ‘Hui Gui’ takes Unjin’s eerie ambient sounds and contorts them into something more closely resembling straight-up techno, albeit of a hypnotic and trippy variety. A low, organic-sounding growl shifts up and down in pitch over the deep thud of the kick drum and the ticks and scratches and scrapes of the percussion. As the track goes on, otherworldly voices begin to gasp and howl as around them Ntogn contorts scraps of dub-industrial atmosphere into vaguely rhythmic forms. The mix feels both busy and sparse at the same time; there’s a lot going on, many elements at play, but each sonic detail still feels as if it has been allocated adequate space to breathe.

The fourth track, ‘Untitled Space’, takes things back in a more ambient direction, pairing gentle, choir like-pads with chest-rattling drawn-out bass notes that again reminded me of horns – this time more of ancient war horns, shofars or something similar, than of those used by ships in the night. Other sounds, high-pitched and alien, fluctuate in and out of hearing, each one slightly changed from the one that preceded it, but overall I found that this track felt somewhat unfinished, more a tantalizing loop or sketch of something greater than a full track in its own right. The album closes off with another remix, this time of the opening track ‘Ties’ by Hydrangea, a French producer who is a relatively recent addition to the mesmerising techno scene. Like Ntogn, Hydrangea’s remix opts to trade out Unjin’s dark and dreamy ambience for an altogether more beat-driven and danceable affair. An unpredictable double-time kick pattern and sinuous rumble of sub-bass anchor the track to earth while a complex pattern of interlocking and intersecting rhythms radiates through the blackness. Hydrangea appears to have left Unjin’s sound design more or less untouched; most of the sounds she deploys here are recognisable as those from ‘Ties’, but re-sculpted and re-arranged into very different forms, giving the remix a sense of both newness and familiarity. As the mix goes on the pads grow steadily more uplifting and dramatic, until by the track’s climax it feels like it would be better suited to an open-air rave under the stars than to a pitch-black warehouse.

The digital version of Hui Gui comes with two bonus tracks, ‘Atramentum (The End of the Orbit)’ and ‘Tail of Us’. ‘Atramentum (The End of the Orbit)’ is another diversion from the album’s ambient ambitions. A dry, classic-drum-machine sounding kick slices through a liquid miasma of greyscale psychedelia that seems to be constantly mutating and evolving as the track progresses. An indistinct voice chants a mournful mantra as resonant synth tones orbit the body of the tune like the remnants of stars circling the event horizon of a supermassive black hole. The second bonus track, ‘Tail of Us’, makes use of microscopic, clicky kicks, loops of gated static, and warm analogue pads in a way that makes me think that Unjin must have been listening to a lot of Autechre when he was making it, or possibly to Radiohead’s Kid A. It’s a very minimal, ritualistic-sounding tune, and the bareness of its arrangement and soundscape means that even minor changes – the introduction of a snare hit around halfway through, for instance – end up having a massive impact. Both of the bonus tracks are masterful pieces of music, to the point where I am somewhat confused as to why they didn’t make it to the vinyl release, as in my opinion they are the two strongest tracks on Hui Gui.

Hui Gui is a challenging but ultimately rewarding album, the kind that benefits from many close and careful listens. I’ve had it on constant rotation this November, and as winter descends over Seoul (and thick clouds of pollution billow in from China), Unjin’s analogue explorations have provided the perfect soundtrack to, and respite from, this cold, dark, dusty time.

Hui Gui is available for purchase (in either vinyl or digital form) over at Kizen Records’ Bandcamp.

2018 has been a fruitful year for Oslated. The fledgling label has already released two stellar albums this year – Eyvind Blix’s Västberga Allé and Saphileaum’s Uninhibited Kingdom – and now, as the memory of summer fades and the trees have begun to turn the crimsons and golds of autumn, they’ve put out their most challenging and experimental release yet: General Noise, by Spanish-born, Vietnam based producer Javier Marimon.

On General Noise Marimon, who contributed a remix of Saphileaum’s ‘No Clue of Life’ for Uninhibited Noise earlier this year, offers up six cuts of moody, atmospheric ambient techno, which are presented alongside four remixes by various Oslated affiliates. The album’s intro consists of reverb-drenched found sound – something like ping pong balls falling to a wooden floor, or marbles being rolled across a stage – that bubble and echo against a backdrop of ominous buzzes and drones that grow steadily richer and more textured as the track progresses, while a halting, uncertain kick rhythm lies almost buried in the mix. After the intro fades away, the album kicks off with the first ‘proper’ track, ‘General Noise I’ – though “kicks off” is really the wrong turn of phrase to use for such a muted, understated piece of music. A pad so deep it frequently finds itself merging with the bass rumbles and creaks alongside the thump of a chaotic kick pattern while more reverb-laden samples, similar to those in the intro piece, provide a counterpoint to the other elements of the track. It’s a bare-bones, hyperminimalist work, but at the same time it has a certain warmth to it, a flicker of emotion that belies the sparseness of the overall arrangement. No such sense of warmth is present in the following tune, ‘General Noise II’, a far more eerie and ominous affair. A soft rain of static leaves streaks of sound against a crystalline lead rhythm (I say “rhythm” because it would be an extreme stretch of the term to describe it as a “melody”), while over time something vaguely resembling a traditional techno track structure – 4/4 bass thud, whispers of percussion – is worn away by gusts of metallic wind. Later in the track things grow slightly more intense with the arrival of distorted, twisted clap-like sounds, battering the bulk of the track in a faltering, unpredictable frenzy, but they’re still mixed low enough that they only add to the murk of the piece, rather than making it any clearer.

 

 

General Noise III’, the fourth track, is probably the closest Marimon gets here to ‘straight’ dancefloor material, but even here he’s undeniably charting a stranger territory than paint-by-numbers peak-time techno ever dares to. A blunt-edged sub-bass and dry grid of kick drums form the basis of the track as bursts of shaped static sound off like faraway gunfire and synth sweeps and spirals through the air like UFOs searching for their next victim. It’s danceable, sure, but only in the darkest of basements in the blackest of hours, which I feel like is exactly what Marimon was aiming for. It’s followed by the last of the ‘General Noise’ tunes, ‘General Noise IV’. The low-end of the track tunnels its way through a fog of engine noise before being joined by the microscopic click and hiss of percussion and a swell of bright synth that would almost sound like vaporwave if heard in a different context.

After the last notes of ‘General Noise IV’ have faded away, it’s time for the remixes to start. First up is a remix of ‘General Noise I’ by Korea’s dark prince of the 5 a.m dancefloor, Xanexx. Here, Xanexx hollows out the dense soundscape of Marimon’s original and cloaks it in a shroud of his own ghostly electronics, producing an ambient work somehow even more somber and despondent than the original, making the listener feel as if they’re gazing out over the frozen surface of a desolate moon. The next rework comes from one of the most renowned names to have worked with Oslated to date, Silent Season luminary Winter in June. On his rework of ‘General Noise II’, the Sardinian producer cranks up the originals ominous atmosphere to 11, creating a tense, paranoid slice of dark ambient reminiscent of the early work of Ben Frost; it’s the kind of track that wouldn’t sound out of place on the soundtrack of a horror film. For the third remix, Georgian producer Saphileaum delivers what may be the album’s most floor-friendly moment with his ‘3rd Sky’ remix of ‘General Noise III’. A syncopated stepper kick rhythm gives the track a bit of groove and sexiness, but Saphileaum keeps things on the weird and experimental side by layering on a cacophony of disintegrating waveforms that flow and evaporate over the track’s dark void of bass. Saphileaum’s dub techno influences are prominently on display here, and his tune is probably the most original of the four remixes on the album, the one that deviates the furthest from its source material. The final remix comes courtesy of the mysterious Mojave, whose re-imagining of ‘General Noise IV’ features serene, glowing pads whose gentle hum forms a counterpoint to the repetitive buzz and click of something that was once, maybe, percussion, but that Mojave has bent and deformed until it’s closer to simple raw sound. Actual percussion emerges from the depths of the track a little later, in the form of sixteenth note hi-hat ticks and a tightly wound snare sound, but these details are soon eclipsed by a sudden unfurling of shimmering, warped noise that transforms the track into a stunning tapestry of sonic detail. The album closes off with Marimon’s ‘Outro’, a simple reprisal of the ‘Intro’ tracks that takes the intro’s pared-down minimalism and engulfs it in a gale of digital wind.

 

 

As an album, ‘General Noise’ is a triumph, both for Marimon as a producer and for Oslated as a label; it’s introspective, experimental nature represents a willingness to take risks and explore a deeper realm of sound, demonstrating the capacity of techno music to extend beyond its functional dimension as party music and instead illuminate something richer and more mysterious about the human condition. Furthermore, both Marimon and his remixers appear to be operating on the same wavelength, sharing a singular vision and understanding of techno that allows both Marimon’s original tracks and the four remixed tunes to operate as one continuous musical experience. All of the artists involved should be congratulated for putting forth such a fearless transgression of musical boundaries.

General Noise is available for purchase at Oslated’s Bandcamp

Earlier this year I published a review of Gyeongsang-based producer mcthfg’s Korean Dub: Volume One, a short EP consisting of dub remixes of tracks by various Korean artists. On that EP, mcthfg demonstrated a keen ear for soundcraft and a kind of innovation and playfulness that he nonetheless kept firmly constrained within the boundaries of dub music. His most recent offering on Dubmission, the Contact EP (or mini-album, I suppose, depending how you view these things), takes a slightly different approach. Produced in collaboration with E.R.S, an Austrian producer of dub and psybient music who has spent some time in India, the five tracks on Contact are all a little bit more out of the box, drawing inspiration from a wide variety of musical styles and genres and showcasing the creativity and craftsmanship of the two artists, separated by oceans and continents, who brought the EP to life.

Album opener ‘Disclose the Truth, Part 1’ opens up in paranoid acid-freak style with a voice clip assuring us that governments have ‘failed to disclose the truth’ about the existence of UFOs, but the deep 808 bass, dry claps and melancholy detuned key pads that follow feel closer in spirit to hip hop than they do to dub or psychedelic music, while the sci-fi melodies that soar and glide over the boom-bap beat sound like a throwback to the glory days of 1980s electro. It’s a bold approach, and an indication to the listener that Contact aims to do more than simply rehash old dub music formulae.

The following track, ‘Oriental Skank (Minimal Edit)’, is a sprawling monster of a tune, clocking in at over 10 minutes. It begins with a fast-paced Middle Eastern string sample that stutters and trips until it turns into the titular skank, playing counterpoint to a crushingly heavy sub-bass rhythm. Minimal but carefully programmed percussion and liquid sound effects keep the track rolling along the track’s second half, where following an extended breakdown of sorts (I say “of sorts” because the bass rhythm never really lets up) the drums and effects take on a slightly faster, more insistent quality, transforming the track into something like very stripped down, slow-motion drum and bass, with the occasional burst of Carribean MC chatter drawing the EP back into more prosaic dub territory. ‘Oriental Skank’ (Minimal Edit)’ is well crafted and bursting with ideas, but ultimately it didn’t do it for me; I found the Middle Eastern samples a little cheesy and in the final analysis I think the tune would probably have been better off with something else taking their place.

The third track, ‘Bizarre Bazaar’, takes its title rather literally, beginning with sounds from a busy market somewhere in what sounds like India. When the noise of the bazaar fades away, however, it’s replaced with an icy, unstable synth melody that is without a doubt one of my favorite singular sounds on the EP, evocative of the sound design present in early 2000s G-funk. This synth pattern, surfing over a tidal wave of bass while spacious percussion clangs and clanks and crashes in the distance, carries the tune for it’s first third or so, until it’s joined by a similar melody playing in counterpoint to it. Midway through the track the producers introduce more samples, this time sounding like they’re lifted from a Bollywood soundtrack, and while I feel these samples worked better than the instrumentation on the previous track I still feel like the piece may have been slightly stronger without them. Nonetheless, this is still a very strong track, and the level of skill on display here is evident in the minutiae of the sound design, the little squelches and whispers and clicks echoing in the space between the track’s main elements.

Particles of Funk is the clear standout track on the EP (to me, anyway). 

It’s track six, however, that is the clear standout piece here. The title is ‘Particles of Funk’, and it seems that it does more or less what it says on the tin – a lot of the sonic elements here sound like they’re lifted from various funk numbers, not the least of which is the stretched and twisted slap-bass sound weighing down the low end. The layering in this track is really something to behold; it begins pretty simply, introducing one element at a time – a vocal sample, some snare hits, a rattling noise, a twinkly tin organ melody – but with each rhythmic cycle the character of the soundscape grows deeper and more textured, until the entire thing feels light years deep, particles of funk smashing one another apart in a Large Hadron Collider of dub. The overall vibe of the track feels very Afro-Futurist; it’s the kind of thing I can imagine a cybernetically enhanced clone of Fela Kuti making if you locked him in a room with a cracked copy of Cubase for a couple of days.

The album closer, ‘Disclose the Truth, Part 2’, is a reprisal of the opening track, and where the opener was crisp and groovy, this is sinuous and psychedelic. A hypnotic metronome of sub-bass runs throughout the entire track, keeping the music anchored, while thick, gritty, acid-tinged signals continuously emerge and decay, as if they’re being assembled and pulled apart by self-replicating nanonmachines. The melancholic pads from the first track are there still, but this time there’s a whole lot more going on with them – their sound is wilder, weirder, more unnatural and more alive. The arrival of wooden-sounding ethnic percussion and tropical chords completes the picture. It’s the kind of track that would work well at an outdoor party, during the day, in the middle of the desert or on a sun-kissed beach.

It’s always hard, when listening to collaborative projects, to know where the work and influence of one producer begins and the other ends. With that being said though, insofar as this EP is an indication of mcthfg’s talents as a producer I would say he has taken some significant steps forward. The tracks on display here on the Contact EP show significantly more verve and creativity than those released on Korean Dub: Volume One earlier in the year, and though I didn’t personally enjoy every tune here (more thanks to my individual taste than anything else) I can’t deny the raw skill and ear for music that’s gone into the construction and composition of the EP. If mcthfg continues on this upward trajectory, his next release is going to be nothing short of pure fire.

Contact is available for purchase at Dubmission’s Bandcamp

DATE: 30/06/208

ENTRANCE FEE: 30 000

I’m kind of surprised it’s taken me this long to go to a Constant Value event. The party has been on my radar for a long time; a classic warehouse-style rave, held in a secret location somewhere in an industrial corner of the city, with entrance allowed only to those on a pre-approved guest list. It comes up in conversation a lot in and around clubs in Seoul, and everyone who talks about it does so with a bit of a gleam in their eyes. Constant Value, I’ve been told, is crazy; it’s wild; it’s intense; nothing else in Korea is quite like it. 

A lot of hype, in other words, but from what I could tell the hype seemed to be fairly justified. Beginning in 2015, the Constant Value collective has been steadily growing in influence and reputation. They’ve hosted some heavyweight experimental techno names in Seoul – including Ancient Methods, Samuel Kerridge, and  Giegling‘s already legendary Planet Giegling tour – and have themselves been invited to play at events around the world, bringing their distinct sound and energy to appreciative crowds from Tokyo to Berlin. In addition to organizing, curating and playing at parties, the Constant Value crew has also founded a record label with a small but impressive roster of releases, bringing to light innovative, cutting-edge techno from both Korean and international artists.

As it so happens, their guests last Saturday night, Champ Libre, are one of the artists (or groups of artists, rather) who have had a release on the Constant Value label. The Champ Libre crew originate from France, and consist of DJs SpunOff and Size Pier, VJ Gildas Madelénat, and mysterious “four handed music research laboratory” Second Spectre (among others). Shadowy and mysterious seems to be their modus operandi; I was able to find precious little information on them online. What I did find, though, were several intriguing releases on their Bandcamp, such as this compilation, which showcases a variety of unsettling, menacing cuts of deep yet noisy industrial-tinged experimental dance music that reminded me of some of the more abrasive singles from Stroboscopic Artefacts. Honestly, I would probably have gone to Constant Value regardless of who was playing – I was just keen to check out the party – but listening to the tunes put out by Champ Libre definitely heightened up my excitement and curiosity. I signed up for the guest list, received the location in an e-mail sent out a couple days before the event, and around midnight on Saturday night made my way out into the great unknown.

One of the tracks Second Spectre has released on the Constant Value label.

The rave was held in the basement of an industrial space – a printworks, I believe – on the eastern side of Seoul, a far cry from the bustling party hotspots of Hongdae and Itaewon. Initially I was a little concerned about not being able to find the place, but I needn’t have worried; the directions given in the e-mail were clear enough, and anyway once I got close enough it was easy to follow the distant throb and thump of the bass until I found myself practically stumbling across the venue. A crowd of ravers congregated on the steps outside (almost every one of them dressed in black, of course) smoking and chatting quietly so as not to bring the ire of any neighbours down on the party. I made my way inside, checked my name off of the list, paid my entrance fee and descended towards the dancefloor.

Now, I’d heard from a lot of people how wild Constant Value was, and I’ve been to more than a few crazy raves in the past, but I still think I had underestimated just how intense it was going to be. From the moment I stepped onto the dance space, I realised that we were in for one hell of a night. In front of me was a mob of dancing bodies half-submerged in a thick haze of smoke machines and strobelights. Around the edges of the actual dancefloor, defined by a semi-translucent plastic curtain, people stood taking in the music or queuing for drinks, bathed in the glow of a mysterious red light whose source I couldn’t locate no matter how hard I searched for it. A series of incomprehensible organic-seeming images flickered in and out of place behind the DJs, adding to the surreal atmosphere of the event. The whole thing felt like an industrial rave as imagined by Hieronymous Bosch.

On the subject of drinks, this is probably as good a place as any to mention one of the most appealing things about Constant Value: the open bar. Presumably, they don’t have a license to sell booze on the premises, so instead they hand it out for free – and the “bar” was surprisingly well stocked. Now, back home, any open bar gets decimated in an hour, tops, and anyone arriving too late is left thirsty. But this is Korea, of course, so people were fairly restrained and considerate, and I found that it never took too long to get a drink, and that the bar remained pretty well stocked surprisingly late into the night, though of course it did run dry eventually. It was really great not to have to fork over extra cash every time I wanted a beer, and considering the cover charge was only ₩10 000 more than normal club cover I’d say in this respect Constant Value is a definite bargain.

SpunOff, one of the Champ Libre DJs who played that night, has several excellent tunes under his belt. This is one of them.

Musically speaking, the show put on by the Champ Libre crew (Constant Value founder and live techno wizard EEXXPPOANN was also on the bill, but sadly I think I missed his set) seemed to owe as much to noise music as it did to techno, invoking the sound and energy of artists such as Whitehouse, Merzbow and Prurient alongside that of Surgeon or Regis. Every sound of their set (I’m talking about them as a collective, because between the smoke, the lights and the visuals it got pretty difficult pretty quick to keep track of who was playing when) seemed suffused with ferocity and aggression: distorted blast beats, warped waves of ragged white noise, guttural synth tones that sounded like they’d been scorched to cinders in a firebombing or dragged through tangled webs of barbed wire. And it was fast, furiously fast, every kickdrum firing out from the speakers at a blistering pace. With all that being said, however, at no point did I find anything they were playing difficult to dance to, abstract as it was. Everything was still definitely body music, music to move to rather than just to intellectually appreciate, though I’m not sure if a more casual EDM crowd would have agreed. But clearly, throwing shapes and busting moves to experimental machine noise was no problem for the hardened techno veterans on the floor, since everyone around me was dancing as if their life depended on it. In an article for Resident Advisor on electronic music in east Asia, Tobias Burgers mentions that the vibe he got from the Constant Value he attended “felt more like a punk concert than a techno gig”, and I could kind of see what he meant- the dancefloor had that same raw and unpredictable kind of energy.

The only downside to the night was the heat. Seoul in summer is basically an oven; it gets oppressively hot and humid around this time of year, and the warm evening, combined with the lack of ventilation in the basement and the mass of moving bodies, meant that it got unbearably hot pretty quickly – me and the friend I was with kept on having to take breaks from dancing, a little more regularly than I would have liked, in order to go upstairs, get some air and cool down. It wasn’t all bad, though, as it meant there were plenty of opportunities to chat with the other party-goers for a bit, and just about everyone I spoke to there was pretty friendly and interesting. Paradoxically, the elitist nature of the party – the distant, “secret” location, the lack of advertising, the refusal to admit anyone not already on the guest list – actually contributed, I think, to making people more open and friendly than they’d perhaps be in a club setting. Since all of us had made some degree of effort to get there, you could be assured that everyone was “into” the music and the scene a little more seriously than most, and that shared passion and intensity made for a great sense of camaraderie. Of course, this is by no means unique to the Seoul techno scene; it’s a defining aspect of underground raves everywhere, and has been for decades.

As the night wore on, the music mellowed out a little bit, placing less emphasis on rawness and noise and more on rhythm and groove. That’s only relatively speaking, though – I’d say it was still several degrees rougher and harder than anything I’d heard out on a normal club night. At this point in the night the bar had finally begun to run a little dry, but people didn’t seem to mind. The crowd was still going strong, though, happily settling into that post-peak time hypnotic trance-dance which is very often the best part of the night. For the first time that night I felt like I really had a chance to appreciate the visualisations being summoned up by the team of VJs, which were really arresting – a constantly evolving series of shapes and forms, sometimes fluid and biological, sometimes hard and geometric. Clearly, Constant Value takes the visual aspect of their gigs as seriously as they do the music, an approach which really paid off in terms of creating a compelling and otherworldly atmosphere.

I really can’t stress enough what a special experience this party was. The Constant Value crew are doing something truly spectacular, going above and beyond to create a true, unconstrained and totally immersive techno experience; calling it simply “a party” or “an event” or even “a rave” feels like a complete understatement – this was “the rave” as an art form. Hypothetically, if a travelling techno fan had only one night to spend in Seoul, and could only attend one singular event, I’d probably recommend Constant Value to them – no matter how near and dear many of the club venues in this city are to my heart, Constant Value was simply on a whole different level, operating in a different dimension of dance. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go sign up for the next one.

DATE: 27/01/2018

VENUE: Cakeshop, Itaewon

ENTRANCE FEE: ₩20 000

I missed my first chance to see an Actress set in 2013. I was still living in my home country of South Africa then, and thanks to a series of events jointly curated by Live Magazine and the British Council aimed at bringing British electronic musicians to South Africa, Actress was scheduled to play two sets, one in Cape Town, one in Johannesburg. Myself and my small group of techno-head friends were beyond excited. International underground acts rarely make it so far down south – there’s not really a thriving enough scene there to make the journey worthwhile – so to have someone like the legendary Darren J Cunningham in the country was something special. Unfortunately, at the last minute I was forced to stay home; I simply couldn’t afford it, both in time (to get from our sleepy Eastern Cape town to Johannesburg for the gig required a solid 10 hours of driving) and money (I was absolutely skint). The friends of mine who went came home raving about the experience, and I was understandably seething with jealousy, but one thing that they said stood out to me. When I asked about the crowd – how many people were there? Was there a good vibe? – they hesitated a little, then shook their heads and said “a lot of them didn’t get it, hey”.

Honestly, I wasn’t at all surprised. As a producer, a DJ and – judging by his interviews – as a personality, Actress is straight-up weird, albeit in the best possible way. His production completely defies categorisation: emerging out of that busy, fertile period of London dance music in the immediate wake of dubstep in the late 00’s and early ‘10s, Actress’s tracks clearly draw from a bewildering array of influences – Detroit techno, Chicago house, grime, jungle, r&b, hip-hop, even classical music – yet manage to sound nothing like any of them. Instead, he’s one of comparatively few producers whose sonic palette sounds entirely unique – nothing and no one sounds quite like Actress. The closest comparison that comes to mind – not in terms of musical similarity, but rather in their relationship to their particular scenes – is that of Flying Lotus. In a similar way to how FlyLo takes on the influences and structures and sounds of hip hop and jazz and by some technical wizardry twists them into musical forms that are entirely his own, Actress has crafted something previously unimaginable out of random bits and pieces of the UK hardcore continuum. And though it hasn’t garnered quite the same level of praise and influence that Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label has, Actress’ own Werkdiscs has earned its own place amid the legion of electronic labels out there, providing a home for such diverse and excellent artists as Moiré, Lukid, and Helena Hauff.  What makes Actress even more remarkable, as both a producer and a DJ, is how he’s somehow managed to make such abstract, difficult sounds that often bear only the barest tangential relationship to the dancefloor have such wide appeal – a trait especially apparent on his latest album, AZD, which is probably his most accessible and floor-friendly work since debut album Hazyville.

azd cover

the cover image for Actress’ latest LP, AZD

With all that in mind, when I saw that Actress was due to play a set in Seoul I was both extremely hyped – and grateful that I’d been given a second chance to hear him play – and extremely curious: would he draw a particularly large crowd here? What kind of stuff would he be laying down, and how would the floor respond?

He was hosted, of course, by Cakeshop. Located on the main strip of Seoul’s “foreign quarter”, Itaewon, within spitting distance of the Yongsan Military Base, Cakeshop – which has been in business for five years now – is to my mind a serious contender for the title of “best club in Seoul”. It’s literally underground, occupying the basement level of the building, and the interior is constantly bathed in soft red light. The lighting never fails to make me think of Twin Peaks, as if the club was something out of the set of a K-drama as directed by David Lynch. Musically, Cakeshop walks a fine line between accessible, crowd-friendly grooves and bangers, usually in a hip hop, trap and bass music vein, and more adventurous sonic fare (over the past year they’ve featured artists like Elysia Crampton, Kode9, Gaika and Machinedrum). It’s this balancing act – the way that Cakeshop is able to provide a space both for dedicated beat-heads and casual clubbers just out for a good night- that seems to be the recipe for the venue’s success. If anything, sometimes the place can be a little too successful; on busy nights it’s heaving with bodies to the point where hacking out a space in the crowd to dance can be an exhausting task.

Cakeshop itself is the main attraction, but next door is home to Cakeshop’s affiliate club/secondary floor, Contra; paying door fee at one club secures you entrance to the other. Where Cakeshop specialises in bombastic bass, boisterous crowds and bone-shaking rhythms, Contra, by contrast, is a little more refined; the colour palette is blue to Cakeshop’s red and the sounds on display lean more towards house, disco and techno than bass, dubstep and hip-hop. The fact that you can easily wander between the floors if one gets a bit too monotonous or crowded is a big plus in Cakeshop/Contra’s favour.

The Actress gig took place on Saturday, January 27th, with Contra hosting the first anniversary of its innovative techno night, Exlinear (the brainchild of German transplant Tobias Kalleder, aka KLLDR) at the same time. When I arrived, around half midnight, Cakeshop was still three-quarters empty, with a handful of people clinging to the walls and talking over rather than bobbing to the bass and hip-hop being spun by the opening acts. Upstairs, at Contra, the Exlinear night was a little more interesting. Despite the relatively early hour the music was full of energy, the DJs churning out a barrage of booming, chunky techno and tech-house cuts. I told myself I was only there to mark time until Actress stepped up to the decks downstairs, but in all honesty I found myself zoning out so hard to the Exlinear crew’s muscular brand of techno that I completely lost track of time, and it was around 2:30 am – half an hour after Actress was due to begin – that I glanced at my phone to check the time. Cursing, I made my way back down into the ‘Shop, which Actress had already thoroughly taken over.

If there’s one word I would use to describe the bulk of Actress’ set, it would be “minimal”. Not in the shiny, sterile sense, the clicking and popping of the mid 00s Berlin “mnml” movement. Rather, the sounds issuing from the speakers had a deep and cavernous quality, edged with oodles of negative space and characterised by a crisp sonic severity. I don’t think I’ve ever heard so much groove and feeling wrung out of such sparse elements: a shuriken-sharp hi-hat here, a leaden slab of bass there, squeals and sizzles of synth, the occasional grainy ambient wave crashing down around it all. It was a masterclass in simplicity, making everything else I’d heard that night sound overwrought in comparison. Something that I was always keenly aware of was his use of bass. Now, bass is the cornerstone of pretty much all electronic dance music (and, for that matter, most popular music). It’s the bit that actually gets people moving. But in Actress’s set, the bass really felt like the star of the show, at various times coarse and well-defined, rough around the edges and skull-squeezingly deep, thick and sinuous and undeniably present at all times.

ACTRESS_PAINT 3

my phone camera is terrible. That dark pixellated shape is Actress. 

Cunningham’s transitions were also remarkable. In all truthfulness his mixing was a million light years away from seamless. New tracks were abruptly, jarringly introduced into the mix, meshing into each other in a chaotic, car-crash fashion that nevertheless never once felt clumsy or out of control. Rather, after each initially shocking mix the new tracks settled into the set almost subliminally, so that in one moment I found myself stopping and marvelling at how weird and unexpected a particular shift was, yet only a few seconds later I found myself once again caught up in the groove and could barely recall what the set had sounded like the minute before. The flow of the set was never actually disrupted, the energy never lagged, despite how many curveballs Actress threw at the crowd- and there were plenty of curveballs. At one point, he ratcheted the tempo up to a punishing, nearly unbearable pace, beats pummelling the crowd in a way that would almost have been gabber-like had the rhythms not remained so slinky and off-kilter, only to drop right back down again a few tracks later into sludgy, shuffling slo-house. As for what, exactly, he was playing, I would be hard-pressed to give an answer; it’s difficult to guess at what genre(s) I was listening to, let alone which artists. The best I can come up with is: everything he played sounded like it had been ripped off of Soundcloud, but in the best possible way.

The crowd, for the most part, seemed to love it. It’s been said that, at an earlier point in his DJ career, Actress had a habit of clearing (or should that be cleansing?) dancefloors, but I found that the faces and bodies around me remained pretty consistent throughout the night: people were there for him from beginning to end. The club was, it must be said, less crowded than I had expected it to be. It was still full, don’t get me wrong, but nowhere near the overwhelming crush of humans I’m used to experiencing on busy Cakeshop nights. This may indicate that Actress is perhaps not as well-known or appreciated in the Korean capital as he ought to be; however, I think it’s more likely that the weather kept more than a few people home (Seoul in January is bitterly cold, and that weekend the city was in the grip of a nasty cold snap). The crowd was also, I was surprised to see, predominantly Korean, with very few waygookin in attendance. This was, I would say, pretty unusual, as typically acts like this draw quite a sizeable number of the city’s expatriate techno cognoscenti out of the woodwork. Another unusual (especially for Cakeshop) feature of the makeup of the audience was the fact that it was predominantly male. At some points, especially towards the DJ booth, it felt like I was seeing three or four men for every woman. This speaks, perhaps, to a sad truth about the demographic appeal of this kind of music – that fans of the sort of abstract techno that Actress has made his career off of are very much a “boy’s club”.

At some point after 4 am, following a few brief ambient interludes and a final run of rough-shod instrumental grime, Actress’s set drew to a close and he withdrew, almost unnoticed, into the shadows. I decided to head back upstairs and see how the Exlinear anniversary party was progressing, which turned out to be a good decision. KLLDR had taken to the decks, bewitching dancers with a weirder, more psychedelic techno sound than had been playing before. At this point it was clear that everyone was tired – more and more people began to peel away from the dancefloor and venture outside – but it was a happy kind of tired; all around me people were smiling, laughing and dancing in the special way that people do after they’ve had a particularly good night out. By the time everyone was hustled out and both venues shut their doors the subway had already started running again and the winter sun was just beginning to lighten the skyline.

As I strolled out into the dawn, I remembered another thing that my friends had told me about that time they all went up to Johannesburg to see Actress play; how when they’d been leaving the gig they were held up at gunpoint and nearly robbed of all their possessions, only to be rescued by a passing taxi driver with a can of mace (Johannesburg is a dangerous city). Making my way through the orderly streets of Seoul – even Itaewon at its rowdiest feels pretty controlled after a lifetime in South Africa – I turned the story over in my mind, and marvelled at how far away I was from home, how deeply different the context around me was from the one I’d come from – and how despite their differences, both environments could be momentarily connected by something as arbitrary and tenuous as throwing a party with Actress. And that feeling – strangeness and familiarity rolled up into one weirdly comforting sensation – seems like as good a metaphor as any other for the night.