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: 16/03/2018
VENUE: Yes 24 MUV Hall, Mapo-gu
TICKET PRICE: ₩46 000 (Pre-sold)

For myself and my core group of friends, Mount Kimbie – the name under which British musicians Kai Campos and Dominic Maker have been releasing genre-defining and defying electronic music for the last decade – holds a pretty significant place in our hearts. We were introduced to the band when the brother of a friend of a friend shared a flat with them in London somewhere around 2010 and returned home with a vinyl copy of their first album, Crooks and Lovers, complete with a circular coffee-stain on the sleeve. That record ended up getting played to death over the next couple of years, ripped copies circulating like electrons being exchanged between atoms, and it became the go-to soundtrack for everything from pre-drinks to post-seshes, days at the beach to road-trips across the country. It’s one of a handful of albums I think I’ve listened to a little bit too much; I basically can’t listen to it any more, because every time I put it on my brain starts anticipating the next bar and filling it in before it’s even had a chance to reach my ears.

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Kai Campos and Dominic Maker, the two halves of Mount Kimbie

Which is a pity, because Crooks and Lovers really is a special record. Released on Scuba’s legendary bass music label Hot Flush Recordings in 2010, at a time when the UK dubstep sound had exploded into the mainstream and rapidly been incorporated into the global commercial dance music scene, Mount Kimbie’s demure, understated debut album came across as the perfect polar opposite of the garish bombast of producers like, say, Skrillex, whose influential (for better or worse) EP Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites was released that same year. On Crooks and Lovers, Maker and Campos grabbed hold of all of the traditional sonic signifiers of dubstep – cavernous sub-bass, whipcrack percussion, shuffling garage beats – and turned them inside out, crafting a tender, patient record that couldn’t be further removed from the whomps and roars of dancefloor dubstep, and yet at the same time still felt curiously reminiscent of it, like rave tracks filtered through a thick fog of half-forgotten dreams. Together with artists like James Blake (one of their frequent collaborators) and Burial, Mount Kimbie helped to carve out the hazy genre boundaries of what music critics would come to call “post-dubstep”, inspiring a legion of imitators in the process.


‘Before I Move Off’, from debut album 
Crooks and Lovers

To Mount Kimbie’s credit, though, they didn’t stay within the confines of the genre they’d help define for long. Their second record, released on Warp in 2013, saw the duo breaking new musical ground, incorporating vocal performances from both themselves and ginger chanteur du jour Archie Marshall (King Krule), jazzy percussion and guitar and keyboard sounds which leant a more natural, jam-band feel to their output, a trend that became even more apparent on their latest outing, 2017’s Love What Remains (also on Warp). Personally, I’m a little ambivalent about these changes; from my point of view Cold Spring Faultless Youth and Love What Remains are both fine records, but very far removed from the Mount Kimbie I fell in love with (I must have listened to Crooks and Lovers hundreds of times; I listened to Love What Remains twice when it came out and I haven’t gone back to it since). Nonetheless I have a great deal of respect for them for not resting on their laurels and instead actively trying to push their sound in new directions. I also had a suspicion that their post-Crooks and Lovers material, especially the tracks off of the new album, probably worked better live than they did on record, a hunch that the gig proved to be correct.

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I’m actually pretty happy with my terrible phone camera this time around, feel like it captured the feel of the show quite well. 

The venue was the Yes 24 MUV Hall, located roughly halfway in between Hongdae and Hapjeong stations (prime Korean hipster real estate, in other words). What it lacked in decent and affordable drinks (the bar carried exactly four alcoholic options, all priced at 7000 won or over) it more than made up for in space, atmosphere and sound. Red brick walls enclosed a space that felt at once intimate and roomy; I never once felt crushed or crowded in upon despite the hundreds of people around me, a feeling that’s sadly (but understandably) hard to come by sometimes in Seoul. And even before Mount Kimbie took to the stage it was clear from the sound quality of the warm-up indie muzak being piped over our heads that the system was either extravagantly expensive, lovingly maintained, or both – every note was crisp, clear and rich (note: there were apparently a couple of warm up acts that played before Mount Kimbie – local artists Mogwaa and Alter Ego – but their sets were already over by the time we arrived). The audience was comprised primarily of foreigners, most of whom seemed overjoyed to be there, and the people overall were far chattier and friendlier than I’m used to them being in this city; by the time Mount Kimbie took to the stage to whoops and whistles from the crowd I’d had more small-talk than I’d had in months.

After spending what seemed like much longer than it probably was bumbling around the stage in headtorches fiddling with arcane-looking synthesizers, the band (that is, Campos and Maker plus a live drummer and someone else helping out on various synthesizers – I did some perfunctory digging but I couldn’t find their names) finally began, kicking off the show with “Four Years and One Day”, the opening track from Love What Survives. From the start, it became clear that Mount Kimbie on stage was a very, very different beast to Mount Kimbie on record. Songs unfurled and elongated, stretching into what at times seemed like entirely new productions, at once more muscular and more ethereal. Maker and Campos were in a state of constant motion around the stage, moving effortlessly between guitars and synths as the screen behind them flashed with the same beautiful, cryptic imagery familiar from Mount Kimbie’s music videos: flowers, beaches, street scenes, airplanes, all with the same grainy, washed-out look, as if they’d been cut from a dusty roll of film found by chance in some long-forgotten attic.

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The rose seemed to be a recurring motif in a lot of Mount Kimbie’s visuals that night. 

An early surprise came when Dominic Maker took to the microphone and began singing the vocal part from “We Go Home Together”, one of Kimbie’s collaboration’s with fellow “post-dubstep” luminary James Blake. It was a bold move; Blake’s tender croon is fairly idiosyncratic, and not easily replaced. Maker made it work, however, bringing a similar degree of raw, emotional sincerity to the piece, though it’s obvious that neither him nor Campos (who also provided vocal accompaniment at several points during the show) are all that comfortable when it comes to singing. That’s maybe a little unfair; the two of them have fine voices – it’s just that their vocal capabilities don’t stand out as spectacular in the same way as their instrumental abilities do. That being said, I’ll confess to breathing a sigh of relief when, a few songs later, they chose to play recorded audio of King Krule singing “Blue Train Lines” rather than attempting to sing the part themselves. Archie Marshall has what is probably one of the most unique and recognizable voices in contemporary music and hearing anyone else sing his verses on tracks like “Blue Train Lines” or “You Took Your Time” would just have felt… wrong.

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Kai Campos switches out cables on a modular synthesizer as Dominic Maker hypnotizes with the bass. 

The show leaned far more heavily on material from the new album (though they did at one point play “Before I Move Off” from Crooks and Lovers, to rapturous applause and cheers). I’d expected this to be the case, and it made sense; for one thing, it’s pretty normal for bands to play newer music on stage so relatively soon after dropping a new release, and for another the driving, noisy motorik compositions of Love What Survives made for much better live show fodder than the woozy, intimate bedroom beats that characterized Crooks and Lovers and, to a slightly lesser extent, Cold Spring Faultless Youth. I was struck by how much more like a band, and less like a pair of producers, Mount Kimbie seemed on stage. Whereas on their albums, especially their earlier work, traditional instrumentation was just one element in a broader sonic palette, sharing the soundscape equally with synthesized noises and found-sound samples, here the guitar and bass seemed to take centre-stage, the rest of the sonic elements at their disposal falling into place in support around them. Mount Kimbie have definitely changed a lot since the Crooks and Lovers days, and in all honesty feel more like a particularly inventive post-rock band than they do a pair of post-dubstep pioneers. This change in musical direction really didn’t appeal to me, initially; as I mentioned earlier, Love What Remains is my least favourite Kimbie record by quite a wide margin, and I really do miss the days when they wore their dancefloor influences and aspirations a little more openly. But seeing how well the new Kimbie sound worked in a live setting I definitely felt more open to it; I could grok what they were trying to do, and their live show was so damn good because of it that it felt really churlish to hold their musical evolution against them.

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Towards the end of the show the lighting scheme switched from red to blue. 

Just when I thought I had them figured out, though, Kimbie threw the audience a curveball. A noisy crescendo suddenly dissipated into a long, sustained drone that just kept going – and going – and going, until several members of the audience began looking around uncomfortably and I began to wonder if one of their synths had blown a circuit or something. Just when I thought the drone would never end, Kimbie began to lay down a thick cut of gnarly, booming outsider techno, all crushing claps and splutters of static that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an Opal Tapes compilation. It was a whiplash-inducing change of pace, but the duo pulled it off well, and the crowd loved them for it. They quickly settled back into more guitar-driven and mellow territory, but the rapid shift in atmosphere seemed evidence to me that Mount Kimbie still had more than enough tricks up their sleeves, and that they weren’t afraid to experiment with their sound and their show. I’d say this was probably my second favorite part of the show. My number-one favorite was their final song (which came all too soon for my liking), “Made To Stray”, easily the standout track from Cold Spring Faultless Youth and arguably one of the best pieces of music Kimbie has released over their career. I’m not ashamed to admit that I (together with my friends) sang along with every word and absolutely lost ourselves to the track’s rolling percussion and otherworldly keyboard tones. Looking around, I could see that we weren’t alone; the entire crowd seemed similarly entranced.

This was apparently Mount Kimbie’s first-ever show in South Korea, and it was a wonderfully memorable one. Hopefully, having definitely made a new fans in Seoul and will be back again some day soon!