Industrial techno is having a bit of a moment right now, and has been for the last couple of years. Artists such as Perc (and the various producers who he has given a home to on his label Perc Trax), Truss, Ancient Methods, Blawan and a legion of others have been pushing a darker and grittier sound for some time now, looking to the 1980s for inspiration and drawing on the harsh, transgressive music of avant-garde industrialists like Throbbing Gristle, Skinny Puppy and the roster of Wax Trax! . This bleaker, noisier form of techno has become incredibly successful, and one can argue that at the time of writing it is the definitive techno genre of the 2010s. Just this last month one of techno musics most iconic and trend-defining labels, Ostgut Ton, released the latest volume in its seminal mix series (Berghain 09), selected and mixed by noise music auteur par excellence Vatican Shadow (aka Dominic Fernow). Fernow’s mix is the most explicit acknowledgment yet of the huge debt contemporary techno owes to industrial and noise music, blending pummeling techno tracks with recordings of legendary industrial pioneer Genesis P-Orridge and jagged, abrasive sound by legendary Japanese noise artist Merzbow.

It wasn’t always this way, however; just ask veteran Canadian industrial/techno crossover act, Orphx. The Canadian duo of Rich Oddie and Christina Sealey have been developing their particular melange of industrial and techno music since the early 1990s, far ahead of the curve, but it took a long time for the techno world to properly catch up. “We were considered ‘too industrial’ for most techno promoters and labels”, Sealey said in an interview with Motz’s Eleanor Brooke. The pair only really managed to break into the world of techno properly thanks to the support of Sonic Groove founder Adam X, who shared the duo’s interest in industrial-indebted techno. In the late 2000s and early 2010s Orphx released several EPs on Sonic Groove (now collected on Hymen Records as The Sonic Groove Releases Parts I and II), which catapulted them into underground techno stardom. Those releases aside, they have an impressive catalogue of recordings to their name, including eleven full length albums and several collaborative projects (such as Eschaton, a collaboration with Ancient Methods).

 

 

As impressive as their varied production history is, however, it is as live performers that Orphx are most renowned. Utilizing a constantly-evolving range of methods and technologies, including both digital performance tools such as Ableton Live and more hands-on modular synthesizer wizardry, Orphx’s shows have attained a near mythical status for their flair and ferocity. And thanks to the efforts of Itaewon basement venue Volnost, techno lovers in Seoul were finally given the chance to witness this legendary performance for themselves when Orphx played their last Friday night.

Even at the very beginning of the night, the atmosphere inside Volnost was intense. The dancefloor was wreathed in a thick mist of smoke machine fog and red light that transformed the dancers into little more than shadowy figures drifting in and out of vision; at several points the clouds of smoke were so thick I could literally not make out anything that wasn’t directly in front of me, making it feel as if I was the only person in the club. The opening DJ for the night, Sijin, was busy laying down a selection of darkwave and goth-infused industrial techno. I could see what he was trying to do – the track selection was clearly intended to set the stage for Orphx’s set later that night – but to my ears he went a bit too hard and fast for an opening set, pounding out banger after pounding, distortion-laced banger while it felt like everyone was still busy finding their bearings and getting their free drinks. This, coupled with some clunky mixing and transitions, meant that unfortunately Sijin’s opening set didn’t leave the best impression on me.

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Live improvised experimental music from pianist Jared Redmond and techno producer Eexppoann. 

The rest of the night’s performances, however, more than made up for the slightly lacklustre opening. The next act was one of the more intriguing acts I have seen in Seoul, a live improvisational collaboration between Constant Value founder Eexppoann and classical pianist Jared Redmond, a California native who is currently a visiting professor of composition at Hanyang University. It was an unusual setup; Redmond sat on the dancefloor, the audience crowded in a hushed crescent around him as he unleashed a stream of thunderous, dissonant chords, while behind him Eexppoann moved between his drum machines and synthesizers, laying down a steady stream of ominous, warped beats and tones that served to accentuate Redmond’s playing. It was a challenging performance, but fascinating to watch, and certainly far more thought-provoking than a simple DJ set would have been; I enjoyed being reminded of the links between the worlds of techno and contemporary classical music, two seemingly disparate musical realms that actually share a fair few things in common with one another. After about half an hour or so, Redmond’s performance had reached its conclusion and he began packing away, leaving Eexxppoann to continue playing solo.

Left to his own devices, Eexppoann ratcheted up the intensity, flying from machine to machine as he crafted gnarly, jagged beats and acid-corroded soundscapes on the fly. The majority of the music he played felt like it was at a slightly slower tempo, but what the set lacked in speed it made up for in rawness, evocative of such disparate musical styles as industrial, hardcore techno and noise. Volnost’s lighting guy also stepped up his game, and the thick banks of fog that still hung over the dancefloor began to be lit by scintillating flashes of neon pink. The vibe was pure Constant Value, and I felt a touch of sadness at the fact that the legendary Seoul rave series appears to have been placed on indefinite hiatus.

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The crowd on the dancefloor rendered little more than shadowy silhouettes by the light and smoke inside Volnost.

Something about the vibe of the evening – perhaps the more performative nature of Redmond and Eexppoann’s set, or the relatively long pauses between sets as each artist set up their equipment – made it feel more like a small concert than it did a club night. This feeling was amplified when Orphx took to the DJ booth and were greeted by an uproar of cheers and excited screams from the now-crowded dancefloor. Orphx, to their credit, had no difficulty matching and even exceeding the raw energy that Eexppoann had brought to his set. From behind their array of gear – two laptops running Ableton live, MPC controllers, and several mysterious synthesizer modules – Christina Sealey and Rich Oddie swiftly transformed Volnost into a swirling tunnel of psychedelic sound, weaving together rhythmic noise, esoteric synthesizer motifs and splintered hurricanes of percussion until the music throbbed with an almost psychic vehemence, worming its way deep into the minds of everyone on the floor. Though traces of Orphx’s industrial heritage were definitely present – particularly whenever Rich Oddie picked up the mic and added his indecipherable rasping and shouting into the mix – the overall vibe of the set felt firmly rooted in techno. For all the serrated slivers of static and raw tesseracts of brutal sound that Sealey and Oddie coaxed out of their hardware, their kick drums remained the centrepiece of the set, each one like a monstrous black hole whose gravitational pull twisted and tore apart the other sonic elements into their constituent particles. Sealey and Oddie were seldom predictable in their kick sequencing, however, preferring broken, stumbling rhythms over the rigid 4/4 grid that defines (some might say suffocates) much of techno.

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Rich Oddie of Orphx. 

This rhythmic inventiveness was made possible, in part, by the nature of Orphx’s setup. Though clearly the set had taken a lot of preparation and practice to get right, it was equally as clearly a fluidly improvised affair, full of chaotic moments and serendipitous grooves. The feeling of a live jam came through very strongly in Orphx’s set, something that not every live techno act actually manages to pull off (too often, live sets can end up over-rehearsed and sterile, to the point where the artist may as well just be playing a DJ set). My inner music nerd was having a great time watching Sealey leaned over her modular synths and trying to match up her movements with changes in the sound, and it was interesting watching the two of them briefly consult for a few moments and then hearing the set begin to move in a different direction. Working in concert, the two of them seemed to create an arresting sensation of tension and balance in their music, a kind of dystopian/utopian Yin-Yang of anxiety and ecstacy. Though who was Yin and who was Yang, I find impossible to say.

Once the last of Orphx’s washes of sound had faded away like blood drying in the sun, it was Comarobot’s turn to take to the decks and close off the night. Obviously eager to maintain the energy levels that Orphx had set, he hit the now much diminished crowd with a selection of dramatic, booming techno, all thunderous kicks and sizzling white noise. It was a good set, I think, taken in isolation, but I found it difficult to give it the level of attention and appreciation it deserved. It had been a long and taxing night; Orphx’s set, while mind-meltingly good, had taken a lot out of me both physically and mentally, and once they were finished I actually had to get out of Volnost and go for a brief walk in order to calm down and try process what I had just heard.

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Orphx’s Christina Sealey coaxing sound from a bewildering selection of modular synths. 

I’m not a big fan of superlatives. I’ve always been leery of describing anything as “the best”, because I feel that notions of “best” are very subjective (obviously) and highly susceptible to change. I find that especially when it comes to music “the best” performance or set in my mind is often of the most recent ones I’ve been to, since it’s easier to recall and feel excited about fresher memories. However, that being said I have no qualms about calling Orphx, if not the best, then certainly one of the best electronic music acts I’ve ever had the fortune of seeing (and even now I’m tempted to discard that qualifier altogether). Their execution was flawless, their sound palette original, their sonic narrative profound. Orphx have been making music for nearly three decades now, and the benefit of all those years of experience really shines through when they’re on stage. Whether you’re into industrial music, or techno, or indeed just interested in the creative possibilities of sound and music in general, go see Orphx play if you ever get a chance; they’re bound to astound you.

DATE: 02/11/2018
VENUE: Faust
ENTRANCE FEE: ₩20 000

Expectations can be dangerous things. People tend to hold artists that they love to a punishingly unrealistic standard, and then feel angry and betrayed if the artist – be they a rock star or an industrial techno DJ – doesn’t live up to that standard. A recent example of this can be seen in the case of Aphex Twin’s recent much-hyped appearance at Funkhaus Berlin. Richard D. James’ first set in the German capital since 2003 was, by most accounts, a smashingly good time, but nonetheless there was no shortage of online dance heads lambasting Aphex Twin and Funkhaus for having, from their point of view, fallen short of expectations.

In the case of Blawan (aka Jamie Roberts, a native of Doncaster now residing in Berlin), there is certainly reason for expectations to be high. The electronic music world first became aware of Blawan in the late 2000s, when he emerged as one of a slew of promising young British producers working within the rapidly mutating dubstep/UK bass scene. Early releases such as ‘Fram‘ (on Hessle Audio) or ‘Bohla’ (on the prestigious R&S Records) saw Blawan dabbling in bass-heavy, garage- influenced skeletal beats, but by the time the release of the storming, tongue-in-cheek warehouse banger ‘Why’d They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage’ in 2012 cemented Blawan’s reputation as a top tier producer of underground club music it was clear that Roberts’ musical interests lay more in the direction of techno than in the off-kilter bass music on which he’d cut his teeth. Together with fellow Brit Pariah he became one half of industrial techno duo Karenn, whose raw, unhinged analogue hardware jams have become the stuff of Boiler Room legend, and he has also collaborated with none other than Surgeon himself, producing and performing unearthly blackened techno under the moniker Trade.

Blawan’s debut album Wet Will Always Dry is a floor-centric assembly of gut-wrenching techno bangers.

It’s straight-up club music”, he responded when asked about the appeal of making techno music in an interview with Electronic Beats. “Techno is limited, but it also moves you forward and it has a sense of direction… with techno it feels like there was and is a shared purpose, even if it’s a limited one”. This sense of shared purpose seems to have invigorated Blawan, who after a three year period of silence (due primarily to his struggles with chronic illness) returned to production in 2015 with the launch of his own label, Ternesc, on which he has released a stream of polished, intense analogue techno, culminating in the release of his debut album Wet Will Always Dry earlier this year. Wet Will Always Dry is without any shadow of doubt a DJ’s record: the album does without any of the pretentious ambient passages or mood pieces favoured by other techno full lengths, instead presenting the listener with a collection of eight no-frills, hard-hitting dancefloor cuts. For my money, it’s the best techno LP of 2018, and this has been a pretty damn good year for techno albums.

Given all this, I think I had good reason to be excited to hear that Blawan was playing at Faust – and to have high expectations of him. I wasn’t the only one, either; when I arrived at Faust fairly early on Friday night it was already fairly pumping, and there was a palpable aura of excitement in the air. The name ‘BlawanBlawanBlawan…’ seemed to be on everyone’s lips, rising like a mantra through the Tanzbar air. One guy I chatted to had even missed his flight home to Croatia in order to come and see Blawan play, which I think just goes to show what kind of superstar reputation Blawan has built up for himself in the world of techno.

We all still had to wait a while for Blawan to come on, however. First up was Korean DJ producer Polarfront, a Faust regular who also apparently produces music for pop artists and commercials. None of that pop influence could be seen in his opening set, which consisted of dark, heads down techno rollers with the occasional burst of dub techno or EBM to spice things up. It made for a solid, if not especially memorable, beginning to the night.

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Faust’s lighting game was excellent as is usual for them. The dancefloor was dark most of the time, save for a few blue lights, but every now and then they shone a white strobe out over the crowd to accompany some of Blawan’s bigger drops.

You could tell the moment that Blawan had started, however, because everyone in Tanzbar and the smoking area rushed to the dancefloor and the roar that went up from the crowd was almost loud enough to drown out the deafening kick drums of his first few tracks. Blawan wasted precious little time, beginning his set with a selection of storming, jacking Berlin-school techno: humongous kick drums pounded out a fairly static 4/4 rhythm while overhead the shriek of twisting metal and the sputter and sizzle of decaying electronics contorted themselves into something approaching a percussion section. Blawan leaned fairly heavily on his own tracks; I heard several tunes off of Wet Will Always Dry get dropped in the first hour, and I’m fairly certain he mixed in a couple of tracks from his Nutrition EP as well. The tracks he played went hard, though not especially fast (it felt like most of what he played stayed within the “traditional” 125 – 128 BPM range), and his mixing was fairly workmanlike. I didn’t hear a lot of fancy blending or extravagant mixing tricks; Blawan seemed to prefer a simpler outro – into intro – into outro approach, which isn’t necessarily a negative thing. Often, the simplest way of doing things is the most effective. One thing I did hear a lot of, however, was drops. Now, techno isn’t traditonally a “drop heavy” genre like EDM or dubstep is. Big bass drop moments are usually fewer and further between, which tends to make them all the more impactful. In Blawan’s set, however, I felt like there was a massive hands-in-the-air moment every ten minutes or so, which, while fun at first, quickly became a little exhausting if I’m being honest. Perhaps Blawan’s drop-centric approach to mixing techno is a consequence of his origins playing dubstep and bass music, where the drop is a more central aspect of the music; whatever the case, it didn’t especially work for me – I prefer more constant, hypnotic techno jams – and I found myself spending a lot of time off of the dancefloor, in Tanzbar or outside chatting with people, which is rare for me when it comes to big headline acts. I didn’t seem to be the only one, either – a few of the people I spoke to expressed similar sentiments. Then again, that was almost certainly a case of selection bias at play. Obviously, the people who were really digging Blawan’s set – most of the people in Faust, in other words – weren’t wandering around Tanzbar or on the street, they were on the dancefloor, losing their minds. I must say, it was maybe a blessing in disguise that I didn’t vibe so hard with Blawan’s set, as it meant that I met some really lovely people that night; the crowd that Blawan drew to Faust was really lovely even by Korean techno standards (s/o to Nice Anton from Prague and Scary Anton from Vladivostok, hope you chaps made it back home ok).

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Here we have another edition in my ongoing series of unintentional conceptual art, ‘The DJ as Oil Painting’. (This is Blawan if you can’t tell). 

I enjoyed the final hour of Blawan’s set the most. He had begun laying down some deliciously dramatic, almost operatic techno cuts, and the massive foot-stomping rise and fall moments felt more welcome and natural at the tail-end of his set than they did at the beginning. My favourite musical experience of the night, though, happened after Blawan had packed up for the night. Me and my mates went into Tanzbar for a final few drinks after Blawan had played his last tune, to find that the Tanzbar DJ was playing a truly excellent set of dark, psychedelic outsider house, at times sleazy and at other times ecstatic, the perfect way to decompress after the intensity of the Blawan set. His name was PIDJ, apparently; I’ve never heard him play before, and I can’t find out anything about him on the (Anglophone) internet, but whoever he is, he really knows how to make a five AM crowd move their bodies.

I began this piece talking about expectations, how dangerous they can be and how they can lessen one’s enjoyment of an otherwise good set or performance. Unfortunately, I think that kind of happened to me last Friday. I had such high expectations of Blawan that it was unlikely he would have ever lived up to them, and when he didn’t I was disproportionately – and unfairly – disappointed. I don’t think I was necessarily wrong to have high expectations; I mean, come on, this is Blawan we’re talking about, there’s no way that my expectations were not going to be sky high. But I also recognize that just because I, personally, didn’t exactly jive with his set that night, that doesn’t mean he played a bad set by any means. On the contrary, he brought the house down, and if the cheering, sweating mass of people going crazy for him on the dancefloor is any indication, I was part of a very small dissatisfied minority. Unmet expectations or no, I still left Faust convinced that Blawan is in a class of his own as a DJ and producer, even if his style of DJing isn’t my cup of tea, and I definitely think he deserves all of the hype and renown he has accrued over the years. Honestly, if he plays his cards right I can see Blawan achieving the status of someone like Surgeon or Marcel Dettmann in the future; we’ll just have to see what the future holds.