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

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

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

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

beton brut behind bar

Behind the bar at Beton Brut.

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

beton brut phase

Ø [Phase] working the decks.

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

DATE: 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.

DATE: 20/07/2018
VENUE: Faust
ENTRANCE FEE: ₩ 20 000

One of the biggest First World Problems that comes with living in a big city with a lively electronic music scene like Seoul is the excruciatingly difficult choices that have to be made on the weekend. On any given Friday or Saturday night, there are so many great acts, both local and international, playing in the city’s various venues, and only so many places someone can be at once. This Friday past was no exception; I was faced with having to choose between hearing a performance by legend of house music Fred P. (aka Black Jazz Consortium) at Contra, or a showcase by one of the most cutting-edge house labels to emerge in recent years, Lobster Theremin, at Faust. I really struggled to choose between the two (I went so far as to put up a survey in a dance music group on Facebook to help make the decision), but in the end, I chose to go to the Lobster Theremin party instead – honestly, not because I was so interested in seeing Lobster Theremin artists Asquith and Route 8 perform, but because Faust is such a good venue (sorry, Contra).

Faust has long been an important fixture on the Seoul underground nightlife scene. Previously, it used to occupy a spot near the top of Itaewon’s infamous Hooker Hill, surrounded by brothels and love motels; walking up to Faust (especially as a man alone) was always a bit of an eye-opening experience. Earlier this year, however, the club relocated a little bit down the hill, closer to the subway station, at the place previously occupied by club/events venue Sonnendeck. The relocation involved significant renovation and expansion on the part of Faust, with the club now occupying a significantly larger space and kitted out with a state-of-the-art sound system by Kirsch Audio that, at the time of writing, may well be the best one in the entire country. In terms of music on offer, Faust leans towards techno but often features house artists as well, and tends to host artists that have both underground cred as well as a little mainstream appeal; in that sense, it reminds me of Cakeshop, in that it seeks to cater to both deep techno heads alongside a slightly more mainstream audience – a slightly difficult thing to achieve, but one that thus far the management of Faust seems to be managing to pull off quite well.

Behind Faust, a mini-documentary released by Faust in order to promote their new venue. 

On Friday night, Faust’s management had elected to indulge their housier inclinations, providing a venue for modern house label Lobster Theremin’s Seoul leg of their current Asia tour, which label founder Jimmy Asquith and star producer Route 8 embarked on in celebration of the label’s fifth anniversary. Based in London, but providing a home for producers from all around the world, Lobster Theremin have been at the vanguard of a new wave of post-internet house music, releasing a steady flow of singles and EPs remarkably consistent in their quality. They’ve sometimes (lazily, in my opinion) been lumped together with the broader category of “lo-fi house”, but the the adventurous nature of much of the label’s output, together with it’s vinyl-centric approach, sets it apart from the legions of YouTube house dilettantes currently in vogue, even though some of it’s landmark releases have come from lo-fi house icons such as DJ Seinfeld or Ross From Friends.

With all this in mind, I decided to give Fred P. a skip on Friday night and head down to Faust instead. The new Faust is split into two distinct zones: Faust itself, which consists of nothing but dancefloor, and Tanzbar, a more mellow chillout zone where one can buy drinks, mingle and listen to music on a smaller but still respectable soundsystem. I decided to check out Tanzbar first; my free drink ticket was burning a hole in my pocket. Here, everything still feels brand-new, from the bleached wood paneling to red and green neon light fixtures behind the bar (red and green seems to be the official colour scheme of Faust, which honestly I think is a bit of a weird design choice – the colour combination makes me think of ugly Christmas jumpers, not of one of Seoul’s premiere underground clubs). The overall vibe of the place is distinctly retro, like a seaside cocktail bar in the 80s. The Tanzbar DJ was playing an assortment of funky, elastic house tunes, pitched at the perfect volume for the space – it was loud enough to jam to, but soft enough that it was still possible to talk to someone without having to bellow into their ear.

Beyond Tanzbar, inside Faust itself, the vibe was completely different. I’d expected Route 8 to keep things on the more smooth and sultry side at the beginning of his set, but when I walked in he was belting out some hard, bone rattling techno, all staccato acid riffs and crunchy kick drums. The tune really showed off just how immaculate the new Faust’s sound system is. Every sound seemed deep and crisp and clear, and no matter where on the dancefloor I found myself, it felt like I was in the perfect listening spot – clearly some serious acoustic wizardry has gone into the construction of the space.

lobster theremin 1

After another couple of grinding techno tracks, Route 8 changed pace a little, allowing his rhythms to get looser, his basslines more seductive, until we were firmly in house territory. This pattern defined much of his set that night: he would hit the audience with some groovy, soulful house (often vocal-driven) for a bit, allow things to get gradually harder and darker until we were suddenly listening to some heads-down beefy techno once again, only for him to lighten up again a few tracks later, creating a kind of push-pull emotional response on the dancefloor that varied up the pace enough so that the set never felt too boring or predictable and kept me intrigued and dancing for the majority of his time on the decks. A lot of the house numbers he was playing had a distinctly classic feel to them as well, sounding more like tunes he’d dug up from obscure 80s vinyl than lo-fi YouTube hits. Speaking of which, Lobster Theremin often gets lumped in with the “lo-fi house” phenomenon, but nothing I heard from either Route 8 or Asquith that night sounded especially lo-fi to me. If I had to describe the Lobster Theremin sound that night, I’d say it was somehow retro and futuristic at the same time, the house music equivalent of raygun gothic. This sort of retro feel to the night was enhanced by Faust’s lighting; during Route 8’s set, the lighting consisted mainly of slowly-circling colourful spotlights, that made the club feel a little like a Mediterranean disco in the late 70s.

lobster theremin 2

The tone of the night changed a little when it was time for Jimmy Asquith to take over. The first half of his set was definitely a little harder and rougher around the edges than Route 8’s had been, favouring gritty techno over soulful house. His techno tracks still maintained that kind of retro/classic feel, though – a lot of what he was playing wouldn’t have sounded out of place on, say, the Ghost in the Shell PlayStation soundtrack (which is unironically one of the best showcases of 90s techno out there). The lighting inside Faust, as well, featuring more strobing and flashing lights and beams of colour that sliced through the darkness, creating a more intense, “ravier” atmosphere. Around midway through his set, however, Asquith changed up his sound quite dramatically, swapping out thumping kick drums and serrated synth rhythms for the syncopated beats and melancholy pads of UK garage house. The shift was really unexpected, and it took me a little bit to get used to; I actually had to leave the dancefloor at this point for the first time in ages to have a breather and get my bearings a little. When I returned, though, I got back into it, grooving to the more subtle, funky and emotional tunes Asquith was throwing down. Between the music, the lights and the clouds from the fog machine (which were, I shit you not, lemon-scented – probably one of the most Korean things I have ever experienced) it was really easy to lose myself in the moment and slip into that timeless, mesmerised state that to me is one of the biggest draws of dance music and club culture.

Lobster Theremin 3.jpg

I snapped out of it, though, when Asquith decided to throw us a curveball by dropping ‘Miss Jackson’ by OutKast, which, of course, prompted a mass sing-along from everyone in the crowd (especially the foreigners). It was the kind of irreverent, playful move that can really make a set stand out, the kind of thing that I’ve not heard for a little while, given that for the last month or so I’ve been going exclusively to pretty serious, purist techno events. It was a moment that seemed to epitomise a lot of the seemingly contradictory qualities of Lobster Theremin, a label who over the last five years have shown they are not afraid to appeal to the everyday punter on the dancefloor as well as the more cerebral dance music heads haunting internet comment sections – a quality they share with the management behind Faust.

Shortly afterwards, Asquith stepped down from the decks and it was time for local DJ and producer Messiahwaits to close out the night. Once again, there was a significant sonic shift, with Messiahwaits following Asquith’s garage and hip hop inflected house with some twisty, trippy psychedelic techno, all rich metallic textures and ghostly echoes. It was maybe a bit too much of a deviation from what had gone before, and a lot of the people on the floor filtered out almost instantly, though that may just have been because they were tired – it was, after all, around 5 am at this point. For what it’s worth though, I enjoyed the closing set – none of the tunes sounded familiar or predictable to me at all, which for someone who listens to a lot of techno is kind of hard to come by. I can also see why so many people had to call it a night, though; at this point many of the dancers seemed decidedly worse for wear, alcohol wise. There was a lot of stumbling and slurred speech going on, and one person passed out in the stairway long enough that eventually paramedics had to be called. It’s not exactly an unusual sight in Itaewon on a Friday night, of course, but to me at least seeing stuff like that always sours the mood a little.

Hard as it was to make, by the end of the night I was sure I had made the right choice. Route 8 and Asquith’s sets complimented each other well, and between them they struck a nice balance between forward-thinking, exciting sounds, tried and tested formulas, and tongue-in-cheek-playfulness. And as a venue, the relocated Faust is truly quite remarkable, and represents an exponential step forward for the underground music scene in Seoul. I only hope that they can make a success of it; keeping a nightclub afloat isn’t easy, and it looks like some serious cash has been invested in Faust’s renovation. However, judging by the size and enthusiasm of the crowd on Friday night, I’m sure they’re not having too much difficulty getting people through the doors.

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.

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.

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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.