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. 

DATE: 11/08/2018
VENUE: Faust
ENTRANCE FEE: ₩ 20 000

I’m always kind of surprised to learn that some of the most renowned DJs and producers in the global techno scene are still holding down day jobs. I wonder how they have the time and energy for it – jetting around the world playing shows on the weekend, and then going back into the office and starting the nine to five grind on Monday. In the case of New York-based deep techno auteur Mike Parker, I think that work-life balance is made a little easier by the fact that he’s an academic, with all the flexible scheduling and copious vacation time that entails. Parker, who has been making techno music for over 20 years and runs his own label, Geophone, is a multi-talented man; he teaches art at the State University of New York, and produces drawings and other works of visual art alongside the hypnotic brand of machine music that has won him fans and renown around the globe. His particular brand of techno falls in the line with the mesmerising, bewitching, chasmically deep sounds championed by producers like Cio D’Or and Donato Dozzy and labels like Semantica and Prologue, the latter of which released Parker’s last album, the excellent Lustrations, a set of three 12 inch records that work as well as a collection of sublime DJ tools as they do a continuous album. Parker is known for the exacting level of attention to detail he brings to his productions; a Mike Parker track is one in which every single minute sound has had its place in the mix meticulously carved out, and where minuscule shifts in sonic texture feel more dramatic and impactful than the biggest, dirtiest EDM drops. With that in mind, I was very happy to get the chance to hear Parker play on the brand-new Faust soundsystem, where that aspect of his music would be able to really come to the fore.

The opening act, regular Faust DJ and stylish mullet rocker Marcus L, played a selection of techno as varied and diverse as the acts typically booked by Faust itself, hitting the crowd with everything from sleek maximalist tech-house to crashing and bumping Stone Age techno. For the most part, though, his tunes sounded to me like variations on mid-2000s minimal techno, only updated for a more modern audience; waves of white noise, punchy kick drums and big drops suitable for the big room. It definitely got a strong reaction out of the crowd, who were whooping and cheering at every dramatic transition. Personally, I felt like the set could have maybe been a bit more coherent or flowed more smoothly – his transitions were all flawless, but I didn’t get a very good sense of narrative or progression from one track to the next, which is half the fun of a good techno set. Nonetheless it was definitely fun to dance to, which at the end of the day is really the point behind, well, dance music.

Monika Faust

Monika dropping some crunchy beats in Tanzbar. 

About ten minutes before Mike Parker was due to start I decided to nip in to Tanzbar to grab a drink, which, depending on your point of view, was either a mistake or a stroke of fortune. I ended up getting completely sucked in by the Tanzbar DJ, UK expat Monika, who was busy laying down an infectiously fun array of glittery nu-disco, rubbery house and acid-inflected funk. What I’d intended to be a quick run to the bar turned into an extended jam session in the tiny dance space between the bar and the couches. I wasn’t alone, either – Monika had amassed quite a crowd around himself, all grinning like lunatics and dancing as wildly as they could in the crowded and confined space.

Dancing to Monika’s music was one of the high points of the night for me, but it did mean that I unfortunately missed a fair chunk of the beginning of Mike Parker’s set. When I finally worked up the willpower to leave Tanzbar and return to Faust itself, stepping through the door was like being abducted by brain-probing aliens from some DMT dimension. All of the signature sonic flourishes from Parker’s productions were on full display in his set: spiraling subterranean bass rhythms, serrated far future bleepery, a raging ocean of liquid noise that obliterated the usual boundaries between percussion and synth or pad and lead. As abstract and hypnotic as the set was, however, it was still intensely, almost overwhelmingly, groovy. A trap that some DJs and producers working on the more psychedelic and moody end of the techno spectrum can fall into is that of losing sight of the fact that at it’s core techno, especially in a club setting, is still fundamentally dance music. Some of Parker’s contemporaries seem to forget that from time to time, crafting tunes and sets that, while sonically rich and musically adventurous, aren’t actually all that fun to move your body to. But as Mike Parker’s set in Faust proved, it’s more than possible to play dark, liquid, mesmerising, trippy techno tunes that still bang like crazy and get people stomping.

Mike Parker Faust 1

Mike Parker surveying the crowd with his trademark unconcerned expression. 

Something else I enjoyed about Parker’s set was the air of absolute serenity the man projects. I don’t think I saw a single expression ever so much as flicker across his face as he gazed over the floor full of frenzied strobe-lit bodies in front of him, his bald head and aquiline features bringing to mind the image of a Roman centurion. But every now and then, when the music reached particular peaks or crescendos (it feels a little inaccurate to call them “drops” – they were far too subtly executed for that) he would stretch his hand out to the audience and make the tiniest indication with his fingers that yes, something exciting was about to happen, looking more like a priest offering his blessing to the congregation than a DJ trying to hype the crowd. It seems a strange thing to say of someone who did so little to interact with the audience and who maintained such an austere and restrained persona behind the decks, but Parker really did feel as if he had a crazy amount of stage presence, if not in the typical sense of the term.

I was kind of disappointed when Parker decided to step down from the decks a little early – he was scheduled to play for 3 hours, but ended his set roughly 20 minutes earlier – but my disappointment was short-lived. The closing act, Nicolas Lian, has apparently been a fixture of the Seoul techno scene since 2012, where he was a resident at legendary now-closed club Quadro, but this was my first time seeing him play. Now, something I’ve noticed with a lot of closing techno acts in Seoul (Xanexx and Oslon spring to mind) is that they often like to close the night out with much faster, more aggressive strains of techno that border on trance at times. Nicolas Lian took this trend in an extreme direction, battering the darkened dancefloor with a series of rapidfire blackened acid tunes that could have worked just as well in a darkpsy set as they did in a techno context. Personally, I loved it – it brought me back to the underground psychedelic trance parties that were my first introduction to the world of raving – but a lot of people on the floor didn’t seem to feel the same way; I saw quite a few of them stop dancing and look confused, and the floor emptied out pretty swiftly. Still though, the small hard core of dancers that remained were clearly super into the sound, and the sudden opening up of the dancefloor (which had felt claustrophobically crowded during the peak of Mike Parker’s set) meant that people could be a little looser and more creative with their dance moves.

It’s a little early to make these kinds of judgements – I reckon I need to wait a little for the afterglow to fade – but as it stands right now, I think Mike Parker’s set at Faust was the best one I’ve heard in 2018 so far (and if you’ve been reading previous entries at all, you’ll know I’ve seen some truly stellar sets this year). The new Faust continues to impress me, and it’s really encouraging that they can book a fairly niche and austere techno act like Parker (whose material, banging as it is, is a far cry from “big room”, mainstream appeal techno) and still have a club packed to the rafters with dancers. The night spoke well to the continued growth and health of the techno scene in Seoul, a scene which Faust seems to be staking a claim as the beating heart of.