Though it is relatively small and isolated, the Korean techno scene is notable for the consistently high level of quality it produces. Both in terms of club spaces and in terms of producers and labels, Korean techno has shown that it is more than capable of holding its own on the international stage, in a way that is rare among nations on the global underground’s periphery. This is only possible, of course, due to the talent, passion, and hard work of the people who devote themselves to promoting the health of the scene. Chief among these dedicated individuals is Scøpe, who has been instrumental in curating and promoting techno on the peninsula thanks to his SCOPÁVIK label, podcasts and parties. As well as being a skilled promoter and DJ, Scøpe also has serious chops as a producer, and his latest offering, the Corrode EP, showcases those talents in such a way that would make many other artists green with envy.

The EP opener ‘Eludes Observation’ features one of the slightly off-kilter staggered kick drum rhythms favoured so heavily in his DJ sets, the kind of beat that lurches to and fro rather than pounding out a simple staccato four to the floor pattern. It still packs a hefty punch though; the bass frequencies hit low and they hit hard. Elsewhere in the track, repetitive loops of sci-fi hi-fi noise warp and decay like the radio signals of an eons-extinct alien civilization, sizzling up against the boundaries of the rigid sequences they’ve been confined to. Scøpe apparently used a DIY instrument of his own design and manufacture to make some of the sounds on ‘Elude Observation’, which may explain the exotic and idiosyncratic nature of the sonic arsenal at his disposal.

SCOPE DIY instrument

One of the DIY instruments that Scøpe built himself in order to create the sounds used on the EP. Picture courtesy of Scøpe

The next track, ‘Cruel Fragment’, uses a more conservative kick and offbeat bass substructure to glue everything else together, but it doesn’t feel any less adventurous for it. ‘Cruel Fragment’ is a slow-burner that piles layer upon layer of wet, organic-sounding synth sounds on top of one another like layers of cyborg bacteria, a bubbling, burbling head-nodding slice of techno that relies less on melody or harmony or counterpoint and more on what sounds like a grid of biological static shuddering in time to the beat. It’s an intensely creepy track that I can see causing more than a few shivers on the dancefloor.

Things get even heavier with the titular ‘Corrode’. The rolling kick drums bring to mind a tribal ritual being held in the middle of an irradiated wasteland, while the rises and sweeps of synth feel like they could have come straight from the sound effects banks of a vintage ‘80s mecha anime. It feels akin in some way to ‘Elude Observation’, and I had to wonder if some of these sounds also came from some bizarre homemade instrument of Scøpe’s devising. It does feel a little lacking in some way, however – somewhat stagnant or predictable in the way it progresses, cycling through a handful of bare-bones rhythmic arrangements before gradually fading out. It would have been nice to have heard him do something a little more exciting with such an original and interesting set of sounds.

If ‘Corrode’ left me a little wanting, however, the following track, ‘Inner Passage’, more than made up for it. The low end is so deep it feels positively abyssal, and yet each kick still punches through the mix with pinpoint-precise force and clarity. Meanwhile, the gritty synth leads that make up the bulk of the rest of the track seem to be play strange tricks with the listener’s ears and minds, slithering from ear to ear and appearing to play strange duets with themselves thanks to Scøpe’s masterful manipulation of echo and delay. This is proper body music, the kind of track that could tear apart a packed dancefloor like a plutonium bomb.

The EP closes out with a trio of mind-melting remixes from some of the biggest names in psychedelic techno. First up is Semantica boss Svreca, whose contributions to this particular strain of darkened dance music – as a DJ, producer, and label boss – have earned him a rightly legendary reputation. On his remix of ‘Cruel Fragment’ the Spaniard definitely doesn’t disappoint, serving up a Mike Parker-esque work of subaquatic driving techno, whose whirlpools of sonic texture are pulled along by a relentless surge of hi-hats. It feels like no sound in this tune ever goes away entirely; elements are introduced, and occasionally fade into the background, but they are always there, building up layer by layer until the entire track is a solid wall of shadowy bliss. Of particular interest is the outro; it’s kind of sad that most DJs playing this out will probably have mixed out at this stage, as the way that Svreca allows the various parts of the track to lurch and stumble against themselves as he brings the music to a close is a true masterclass in techno composition. Next up is Acronym, a Swedish producer championed by the likes of Abdulla Rashim and particularly adept at pulling off that most tricky of techno propositions, the long-form album; his 2015 LP June stands out as one of the best techno albums, not only of that year, but probably of the last decade. On his ‘Couloumb Mix’ of Scøpe’s banger ‘Inner Passage’, Acronym provides the EP with a burst of soul, combining an infectious bass groove with ragged, acid-adjacent chords and background sound effects that sound like an oldschool kung fu fight scene sped up until each punch lands like a laser blast. Along with Scøpe’s original, this is definitely one of the strongest cuts on the EP, and one I can see getting a lot of play by DJs the world over. The EP rounds off with a remix from one of Scøpe’s longtime compatriots, Korean DJ Xanexx, who released his own EP Poem of Light on SCOPÁVIK last year. Xanexx’s take on ‘Inner Passage’ is astonishingly well put together. It feels almost impossible to distinguish where one element of the track ends and others begin; the usual musical delineations of “kick”, “snare”, “synth”, “bass” etc. seem totally meaningless, the various parts shifting and flowing into one another like the space where the ocean meets the sky, viewed through a sleepless haze. It lacks the raw physicality of the other two remixes, but that doesn’t really matter – it works as a fantastic end to a fantastic musical journey.

 

Taken as a whole, the Corrode EP is a profound illustration not only of the producer’s own musical identity, but that of the Korean techno underground as a whole. The tracks and remixes on Corrode sound exactly how a night out in one of Seoul’s basement establishment feels. It’s possible to discern, in these heady, hypnotic tunes, a kind of dark musical lineage that begins at Mystik (RIP), winds its way to the contemporary triad of purist techno spaces vurt., Volnost and Beton Brut, and stretches all the way through to newer scenes such as AIN and Trippy. This, to me, is the sound of Seoul itself, crystallized and given timeless form on this EP. Now, if someone ever asks me “what’s the techno scene like in Seoul? What does it sound like?”, I can just point them to this EP and say: here. This is what it sounds like.
Corrode is available for purchase over on the SCOPÁVIK Bandcamp

 

 

The tail end of January saw the release of Jeju 濟州 ,the third compilation release by Seoul-based techno label Oslated. The compilation’s namesake is Jeju island, a subtropical volcanic island off the coast of the Korean peninsula, and South Korea’s southernmost province. The island seems to hold a special place in the Korean psyche; its warm climate, beautiful natural landscape and pristine beaches combine to make it an extremely popular holiday destination (among both Koreans and people from elsewhere in Asia), and the island’s relative isolation from the mainland has meant that the people of Jeju have developed a language, culture and customs quite distinct from those of the mainland. It has always been a land apart; during Korea’s Joseon dynasty period, Jeju was used as a place to send political exiles who had fallen out of favour with the court, and shortly after World War 2 it was the site of a bloody political uprising (one in a long line of such uprisings in the islands history). Jeju is also a place richly steeped in myth and folklore, with stories of gods, goddesses, heroes and spirits abounding around the island. These themes – beauty and isolation, mystery and mysticism – are all foregrounded in this latest Oslated compilation, in which label curator Oslon has sought to pay tribute to the island in the form of a diverse selection of techno and techno-like tracks from a wide variety of producers, from both Korea and elsewhere around the globe.

The compilation starts off slowly, easing the listener into things. Opening track ‘Biyangdo (비양도)’ by Cyme is a study in ambient minimalism, using a combination of modulated found sounds – waves crashing, planes flying overhead, insects chittering – and softly glimmering synth tones to create an evocative but sparse soundscape that brings to mind the colours of sunrise playing over the waves. The track seems designed to evoke the image of its namesake (Biyang-do is a small, mountainous island off the coast of Jeju), a theme which runs throughout several tracks on the compilation. It’s followed by ‘Seolmundae (설문대할망)’, which takes its name from the mythological ‘Grandmother Goddess’ who is said to have created the island. Here the New York based artist Earthen Sea puts forward a tune that feels like a dub techno track whose beat has been slowly siphoned away, like sand spilling from a shattered hourglass. Echoes reverberate beneath the sound of static rain, and it is the interplay of reverberation and echo that drives the track forward.

 

The next track, ‘The Rain and the Storm’ by Asymmetric, is a cinematic, anticipation-building number, stirring tension with its nervy arps, staccato drums and percussive hits wrapped in shrouds of glitched-out reverb. It’s only really in the final two minutes of the track that the kick drum really hits – and hits hard – but rather than being a cathartic release, its introduction only seems to further amplify that feeling of anticipation, acting as an excellent bridge between the compilation’s ambient beginnings and the more frenetic tracks that are soon to follow. However, this then leads into ‘Hy’Naku’, by Dutch producer Alume, a move that feels like a slight misstep. It’s an all right tune for sure; deep, psychedelic-sounding cosmic techno, in which layer after layer of sound, some crisp and velvety, some little more than phantom smears of reverb, are layered over crunchy, textured bass and blunt kicks to hypnotic and head-nodding effect. However, the transition from Asymmetric’s track to Alume’s felt awkward and forced, and this track would probably have worked better had it been slotted in somewhere else.

Track 5, ‘Seongsan (성산일출봉) comes courtesy of French producer Xylème , and to my mind is one of the high points of the entire compilation. Tectonically deep rumbling bass propels the track forward, in concert with an offbeat hi-hat that sounds like a match being struck over and over again on a rain-drenched beach. There’s a great deal of sonic depth in the detailing and intricacies of the other sounds Xylème  has strung together here, and I imagine this tune would be absolutely mind-warping if heard on a big sound system. The next track, ‘Evaporite’ by Bmbmd, didn’t impress me quite as much, but it’s a fun tune nonetheless; its low-slung funky bassline groove and snatches of syncopated rhythm make it feel a bit like a technoid mutation of a deep house track.

 

The seventh track is the work of an old Oslated alumnus, Swedish producer Eyvind Blix, whose album Västberga Allé was released on the label last year. Entitled ‘In A Safe Place’, this is another slow-burning, tension building tune. If you stripped away the bass and drums, it might work as a blissful ambient piece, but the rapid-fire bursts of quasi-tribal percussion and subaquatic squelches and bleeps position the track in a darker dimension. Again, however, the transition between this track and the ones preceding and following it feels somewhat jarring, and this is another tune that might have worked better had it been slipped into a different portion of the compilation.

The following tune, ‘Cheonjiyeon (천지연) by Kannabi, is another one of the compilation’s best moments. Named for a famous waterfall on Jeju, the track is full of chaos and character from beginning to end. A dizzying collection of sounds – rubber band twangs, UFO engine noise, classic acid squelches – babble amongst themselves, their wildness barely contained by the dull sinoid thump of the kick attempting to keep everything from falling apart. It’s heady, trippy stuff – there’s a lot for the listener to lose themselves in here – but it seems to be made with a hint of playfulness as well. The ninth track, by contrast – ‘Underground Sea’ by Stigr – seems far more dour and serious in comparison. French producer Stigr takes his title quite literally, using the sounds of water lapping against the shore and what sounds like the digital squeals of cybernetic dolphins to evoke the ‘underground sea’ in question. It’s a pretty good tune, very atmospheric and psychedelic, but doesn’t really measure up against the rest of the compilation, in my opinion.

 

Track 10, ‘Vagabond’ by ASLLAN, seems to have been made with the 4 am basement dancefloor firmly in mind. A huge, galloping kick rhythm keeps time underneath a surging sea of sound, including a percussive rhythm that sounds stitched together from the sounds of old film projectors and rusty scissors, and a high-pitched synthetic whistle that brings to mind the soundtracks of 1960s Western films. Loose, off-kilter tribal percussion, great little drum fills, and exciting but rapid builds and breakdowns make the entire track feel like a blackened techno take on the tropes and styles of UK funky. Track 11, ‘Soggy Eyes to Winter Light’, is far deeper and more cerebral in comparison. Here Korean producer Hyein, whose background is in film and visual art, presents a tune that is as much a work of sonic art as it is a dancefloor track, a deep-space cosmic transmission that sounds like an encrypted signal being beamed down to an abandoned military base deep in a frozen forest. Hyein’s keen sense for rhythm and groove, however, keeps the piece from feeling too abstract or unapproachable; the beat gives it the feel of cutting-edge 21st century electro, and you can most certainly dance to it.

The eleventh track, ‘Oedolgae (외돌개)’ by Leipzig-based artist Kontinum, pairs a rolling bassline with ethereal cycles of synth and bursts of punctuation – like percussion in a way that makes time feel like it no longer exists. This is a very subtle track, the kind of tune that you might need to listen to a few times before it ‘clicks’. Track 13 – ‘Magma’ by Massa – also makes use of a rolling kick-bass rhythm, as well as chasms of dub techno reverb through which squelches of synth appear like veins in the skin of something floating in a vat. Psychedelic scraps of sound begin to crawl and slither out of the murk, appearing and disintegrating faster than a heartbeat.

 

Its at this point that Oslated begins to really bring out the big guns. Track 14 comes courtesy of Volnost boss and longtime Korean techno scene veteran Comarobot. The track’s title – ‘Baengnokdam (백록담)’ – is taken from the name of a massive crater lake situated at the top of Jeju’s Mount Halla, and there is something strangely romantic about it (an odd term to apply to a techno banger, I know). The gusts of synthetic reverb bring to mind windswept mountaintops, while something that is more than just a rhythm, but less than a melody, drives the tune forward, together with the rich, mournful tones of what sounds to me like an electric organ. The drop, when it happens, is definitely the most dramatic moment on the compilation. Comarobot displays a more “classical” approach to techno than any of the other artists on Jeju, but his music is definitely not any weaker for it. The next track, ‘Geomoreum (금오름)’ comes from another Seoul techno stalwart, SCOPÁVIK mastermind Scøpe. Here synthesizer growls and groans almost drown each other out over the stumbling, shuffling rumble of the kick drums, while the rest of the percussion sounds as if it is being twisted and deformed into razor-sharp ribbons of sculpted static. Each time the track seems to settle into the groove, it breaks apart again in a brief but violent moment of cacophony, constantly surprising the listener. This is another tune that I really want to hear on a bigger sound system – I feel like in a club or rave setting it would be absolutely massive.

The final two tracks are less frenetic and intense, slowly winding down from the fever pitch of the compilation’s second half. ‘Sarang (사랑)’ by Swedish artist Skóll  is named after the Korean word for ‘love’, and the rolling bassline, deep, hypnotic pads and liquid sound effects all combine to create a trancey, tranquil atmosphere. The compilation closer comes courtesy of collaboration between Swiss artists Ben Kaczor and Morphing Territories. It’s called ‘Halla (할라)’, after Halla Mountain, the active volcano that is the highest mountain in Korean territory, and that historically has a great deal of spiritual significance in Korean mythology, seen as the home of the gods and spirits in a way somewhat analogous to the role played by Mount Olympus in Greek mythology. The track starts out as a piece of shadowy bleep techno in the vein of Sleeparchive, but the initial sense of menace or darkness begins to gradually crumble with the introduction of deep, digital whalesong chords and jaunty syncopated techno rhythms that sound as if they’re being played on an ancient typewriter. It’s a good end to a good compilation, finishing the intense marathon of techno that went before it on a more calm and meditative note.

Jeju 濟州 is an excellent addition to Oslated’s catalogue, working both as a wide-ranging collection of various talented artists and on another level as a “concept album” representing the mystery and grandeur of Jeju album itself. Several of the tracks on offer here – most notably ‘Soggy Eyes to Winter Light’ and ‘Geumoreum (금오름)’, are arguably some of the high points not only of the compilation album, but of Oslated in general, standing out as some of the strongest individual pieces of music the label has yet to release. It’s not perfect, however. The sequencing of tracks is sometimes unintuitive or jarring, breaking the flow of the compilation. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t be too concerned by this, as generally speaking compilations are not necessarily intended to be listened to the way that albums are, and the flow and sequencing of tracks is of lesser importance, but in the case of Jeju 濟州 I think such criticisms are warranted, as as I’ve mentioned above it seems to be intended to work as both a compilation and a concept album of sorts. Another issue I have with it is that it’s a bit too long, clocking in at 17 tracks. Certain tracks, while not bad by any means, are definitely noticeably weaker than the rest, and the compilation would have been stronger had Oslon been a bit more judicious with his editing and left them on the cutting room floor. Still, these are fairly minor quibbles, and at the end of the day I can still see myself giving Jeju 濟州 a lot of love in the months to come.

Jeju 濟州  is available for purchase over on Oslated’s Bandcamp

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.

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.

Blawan Faust 1

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).

Blawan Faust 2

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. 

I’ve written a couple of times before about how much I’ve come to enjoy Xanexx’s DJ prowess since I arrived in Korea. His sets have never failed to disappoint; his sounds are invariably dark and uncompromising and overflowing with gnarly energy, and he has a knack for challenging his audience and making them really think about the tunes they’re hearing while also making them dance like their lives depended on it. This ear for music and refined sense of rhythm and groove carries over well into his production work, as well, as evinced by the thunderous broken-beat of ‘Resplendent’, his track on this year’s ECI Korea compilation, or in the industrial haze of his remix for Javier Marimon that I wrote about earlier this month. As such, I was very keen to get my hands on his latest release, the Poem of Light EP that recently came out on SCOPÁVIK, the label and podcast expertly managed by Seoul techno veteran Scøpe.

After hearing Xanexx’s ethereal rework of Javier Marimon’s ‘General Noise I’, I half expected him to dabble in more ambient techno for this release; however, all four tracks here seem to be designed with the dancefloor firmly in mind. Title track and EP opener ‘Poem of Light’ kicks off with a deep, rubbery bassline whose innate funkiness is offset by the ghostly inhuman voices and cascade of retro sci-fi effects that Xanexx drapes over it. As the track progresses the snap and sizzle of laser blasts grows ever more rapid and insistent until it is transformed into a jackhammer of synth tones, tunneling into the dark foundation of the bass while the rest of the track’s structural elements begin to glow white-hot. The following track, ‘Superposition’, follows on so suddenly and smoothly from ‘Poem of Light’ that I had to double check to see if the first track wasn’t still playing. Here, ragged, alien noises expand and contract, glistening against the backdrop of a pitch-black kick and bass combo that feels loose, almost jazzlike in its composition. Meanwhile, rapidly revolving cycles of shamanistic synth cut through the carefully constructed soundscape, providing the listener with a kind of rhythmic anchor and imposing a sense of order on the near-chaos around them.

 

 

Track 3, ‘Swaying Lights’, is centered around a staccato sequence of synth notes that feels reminiscent of the early days of Detroit techno. The earthquake pulse of the kick rumbles along below a kaleidoscope formed from glitched-out fragments of sonic architecture. The EP closes off with a remix by German DJ/producer and Mind Express label boss Refracted, who puts his own spin on ‘Swaying Lights’. He chooses to beef things up a bit here, swapping out Xanexx’s nimble, polished 909 kicks for a much rougher and boomier low-end sound that thuds along constrained by a rigid 4/4 grid. Like the original track, Refracted’s remix of ‘Swaying Lights’ relies on repetitive loops of microscopic noise to drive itself forward, but in Refracted’s hands the end result is much more direct, much “trackier”, transforming Xanexx’s tune into a jacking groove that will surely devastate many a dimly-lit dancefloor. DJs will undoubtedly love this one, but to my ears it’s probably the least interesting of the four tracks on the EP, eroding much of the intrigue and depth of the original and losing out on one of Xanexx’s greatest strengths as a producer – his unusual and unpredictable drum programming.

The EP is, unfortunately, marred by a few slight technical mishaps; I think it probably could have done with a bit more time spent in the mixing and mastering stage, as to my ears the higher frequencies on a couple of tracks (most notably ‘Poem of Light’) are mixed a little too loud and harsh, detracting from the work going on in the low-end. I was also a little let down by Refracted’s remix, and feel that he could have done more to preserve the spirit of the original tune and craft a remix that fit better with the flow and feel of the EP. Ultimately, however, these are fairly minor quibbles, and Poem of Light remains a strong collection of tracks, a bold statement of intent from an artist who continues to prove time and time again that he is one of the most important figures within the world of Korean techno today. I’m looking forward to hearing more from him in the near future – and secretly hoping that his next release is album-length.

Poem of Light is available for purchase over on SCOPAVIK’s Bandcamp

DATE: 02/10/2018
VENUE: Volnost
ENTRANCE FEE: ₩15 000

October is a good month for public holidays in Korea; between Chuseok (the harvest festival, which was at the end of September this year, but the point still stands), Gaecheonjol (National Foundation day, which celebrates the founding of the first semi-mythical Korean state thousands of years ago) and Hangeul Day (which commemorates the invention of the Korean alphabet, Hangeul, by King Sejong the Great) those of us living in the Land of the Morning Calm are blessed with an abundance of days off, welcome respite from the daily grind. This also means, of course, that there are plenty of parties during early October, with clubs taking advantage of the fact that people have some time off to host club nights during the week for a change. The night before Gaecheonjol, clubbers were spoiled for choice as to where to go. Over at vurt., New York based experimental music label Mysteries of the Deep was throwing a party with label founder Grant Aaron and Tokyo-based DJ Lynne, while Cakeshop was hosting underground beat legend Knxwledge (back again in Seoul – I remember checking him play at Cakeshop around this time last year), and over at Faust the headliner for the evening was none other than Ellen Allien. I had my sights set, however, on a smaller event. Over at Volnost, Unjin of ECI Korea was throwing a party to celebrate ECI Korea’s tenth anniversary, and after having listened to the label’s recent compilation I was very interested in seeing how ECI Korea’s sound translated to the dancefloor.

 

Part of the reason I wanted to go to this gig and not to any of the others on offer was an interest in Volnost as a venue. It’s a club that I have only been to a handful of times, but which continues to intrigue me. Volnost lies buried in a basement on the bustling main strip in Itaewon, the kind of place that’s very easy to walk past if you don’t know it’s there. I think of Volnost as the “anti-Faust”. Whereas Faust is a cavernous space that draws a large and mixed crowd and takes great pride in its extravagant soundsystem and impressive lightshows, Volnost is small and austere, attracts a small audience of diehard techno-heads and is frequently pitch black save for a single stark strobe or flashing red light. In many ways it is very similar to vurt., and the two clubs operate within the same underground techno ecosystem and seem to share a fairly cordial relationship with one another, from what I can tell. The main difference between Volnost and vurt., in my experience, seems to be that while vurt. often draws a sizable crowd of European expats and tourists – sometimes there are more Frenchmen or Germans on its dancefloor than there are Koreans – Volnost always seems to be a more distinctly Korean affair, with foreigners always present but typically much more of a minority than at vurt.

 

The headlining act for the evening was Scottish DJ/producer Deepbass, a frequent collaborator with ECI who contributed one of (in my opinion) the finer tracks on the 10 Years of ECI Korea compilation, ‘Avia’. The Glaswegian DJ/producer, who is known for his stellar collaborations with Italian don of dark techno Ness, has been making techno music for over a decade and has numerous quality releases on labels such as Edit Select Records, Soma and Dynamic Reflection. In addition, he runs his own label, Informa Records, on which he has released records by luminaries such as Nax_Acid and Giorgio Gigli. His strain of brooding, atmospheric techno inflected with ambient and trance influences is a perfect fit for the hypnotic machine music championed by Unjin and others within the Korean dark techno underworld, and I felt sure that his set at Volnost on Tuesday was going to be worth checking out, regardless of how many other intriguing events were slated for that night.

Unjin oil painting

I tried to take this picture of Unjin during his set, but the low lighting and poor quality of my phone camera made him come out like an oil painting. I quite like the effect though!

Unjin kicked off the evening with a selection of dark, entrancing music that I’d describe as “forest techno” – if the forest in question made of stainless steel trees on an airless moon. Pulsating basslines churned and thrashed beneath a fog of ever-evolving noise, sometimes digital, sometimes organic. It was a great way to start the night, and though there were only a handful of people on the dancefloor – no more than ten or fifteen of us at the most – I could tell that every person dancing was feeling the music very deeply.

 

When it was time for Deepbass to step up to the decks, he kept things running on a similar level for a while, mesmerising the crowd with shadowy, atmospheric rolling beats that were only slightly too groovy to be called ambient techno. I must say, though, that the first hour of his set underwhelmed me somewhat; after a while it seemed like the selection of tracks he was playing, while good, at first didn’t stray far from montonous, generic techno, and I was a little worried that Deepbass would end up playing it too safe, and that the set would end up being forgettable as a result. My concerns, however, turned out to be unfounded. He may have taken a little time to get there, but by the peak of his set Deepbass was well and truly living up to his name, filling the basement space with a rich tapestry of deeper dance music. Psychedelic synth rhythms rippled above the thud of the kick drum like a banner of sculpted darkness twisting in an alien wind, their edges brought into sharp relief by the spit and sizzle of static-laced percussion. By this time, Volnost had also begun to fill up a little, with people drifting in from elsewhere in Itaewon – many of the punters I spoke with had come from Ellen Allien’s gig at Faust, or had been to see Knxwledge’s set at Cakeshop next door, and had turned to Volnost for the after-party, which I reckon was a good decision. The lighting, too, began to change subtly; whereas before the room had been more or less pitch black save for the light spilling from the DJ booth and behind the bar, now whoever was controlling Volnost’s lighting rig began to tease the crowd with the odd flashes of red or purple behind the DJ, the occasional red light that swept over the crowd, a few flickers of strobe here, a spotlight held for a second or two there. It was all very subtly executed, however – Volnost certainly knows how to achieve maximum effect with minimal elements, an approach they take to both the music played there and to the lighting and design of the space.

 

Something I appreciate a lot in techno DJs is when they don’t take the easy route of slamming down track after track of hard, dark pounding techno for the entirety of their 2+ hour sets, and have the confidence to lighten up the mood every once in a while. So I was pretty pleased when, in the last hour or so of his set, Deepbass began playing the occasional warmer, lighter track, creating a pleasing sense of contrast within the dark, stark, strobe-lit interior of the club. That’s not to say he suddenly started playing tropical house, or even that the techno he played in the latter part of the set was even that much less sombre than what had gone before it, but given how techno is a genre of minute nuances, the difference was definitely noticeable – and welcome. Perhaps part of this sense of lightness came not from the music, but from Deepbass himself; he was a pleasure to watch behind the decks, constantly smiling, tossing back shots and pulling off sick dance moves – a welcome change from the techno cliché of the grim-faced “serious” DJ.

Scopavik at Volnost

SCOPAVIK label/podcast manager Scøpe played an absolutely brutal killer of a closing set.

After Deepbass had played his last track to rapturous applause, it was time for the final act of the night, SCOPAVIK boss Scøpe, to take the reins. By this time the club had emptied out again, but once again the people who remained were determined to dance regardless of who else was on the dancefloor, and Scøpe, to his credit, gave it his all, playing to the almost empty room as if he was DJing in front of a crowd of thousands. Volnost was bathed in a glow of eerie red light as he let loose with a storm of broken beats and gnarly industrial textures. As much as my feet were sore from dancing and a part of me seriously wanted to go home, I found I just couldn’t stop moving – Scøpe’s set sunk its teeth into me and refused to let go. It’s easy to see why, alongside Unjin, Scøpe is probably one of the most influential and respected DJs in the Korean underground techno scene.

 

Despite the fact that there were so many other tempting options on offer that night, in retrospect I feel like I made the right choice by going to Volnost. The crowd may have been small, but the quality of both the music and the people around me was exceptionally high, and as a clubbing experience it felt far more raw and honest than what I probably would have encountered elsewhere. Volnost, though it may be a small and relatively niche venue, continues to punch above its weight in terms of the kind of authentic techno experience it’s dedicated to delivering, and with their sets Unjin, Deepbass and Scope proved that you don’t need to be on the front page of RA every week in order to be a world-class DJ.