When You Awake, the latest offering from Changwon-based producer mcthfg, is a concept album of sorts – “the outline of an SF story set to music”, inspired by the music of legendary roots-rock group The Band and the writing of speculative fiction authors N.K. Jemisin and Yoon Ha Lee. It’s an ambitious project; The five tracks (six, if one includes the album mix that forms track 6) on When You Awake range over a wide variety of musical styles, and the narrative intent is clear in the way in which the tracks progress and flow into one another.

Opening track ‘The Traveller’ starts off with a melody of microscopic blips, before being joined by a slowed-down electro groove and a warm Reese-esque bassline. The track makes great use of the stereo field; low-passed arps, wooden-sounding drum fills and spacey dub chords flow seamlessly from one headphone to the next, making the listener feel totally submerged in the music. The following track, ‘The World’, has a similar effect, achieved this time with dusty, delay-drenched synth notes bubbling in and out of hearing, punctuated every now and then by what sounds like the screech of a violin being fed through an over-spun loop of degraded tape. Other details – the occasional air-raid siren sweep, sparse, melancholic piano notes, a kind of dirty G-funk bass – combine to give the track a palpable sense of digital dread.

 

This atmosphere of dread and tension gradually evaporates over the course of the next track, ‘The Game’. Here, mcthfg deploys slow, evolving, Eno-like ambient pads and a relatively minimal arrangement that comes as a bit of a palette cleanser after the intensity of the two preceding tracks. A dry, tinny beat feels there to add texture rather than momentum, and overall the track reminds me of the kind of woozy, head-nodding numbers that occasionally crop up in the vaporwave end of the ambient spectrum.

If ‘The Game’ acts as the album’s pre-climactic ‘quiet before the storm’, then ‘The Difference’ is the storm itself. A heavy, echoey beat, with all the emphasis placed on the snare, gives the track a distinct mid 90s trip-hop vibe. This impression is only further entrenched by the arrival of dramatic organ chords that give the track its defining character. In my notes for this review, I see I have scrawled “mcthfg Does Portishead” next to the title of this track, and it honestly feels like the most accurate summation of what he’s done here.

Closing track ‘The End’ forms a kind of book-end to opener ‘The Traveller’, utilizing a similar opening melody, though here it sounds far more cosmic and ethereal. The bass is fathoms deep, and like ‘The Difference’, there is something a little retro, specifically something a little 90s, about the sound design in this track. Capping it all off is a distorted lead synth that, at the track’s peak moments, almost begins to feel like the wailing of an electric guitar, spliced and stitched into something far stranger.

The album ends with a continuous 32-minute mix of all the preceding tracks, a nice touch and one that highlights one of the key strengths of When You Awake; the flow of the music. Each track, while having its own distinct sense of identity, leads very naturally into the next, and overall the sequencing of the album is very well executed, something that sets it aside from a lot of other Bandcamp artists who, while they are gifted at making music, aren’t always as gifted when it comes to putting that music together in an aesthetically pleasing order. Part of this, no doubt, stems from the overarching narrative concept behind the album – the album is structured like a story, and its major moments feel like key scenes in a gripping graphic novel. Perfect tunes to close your eyes and explore future universes to.

When You Awake is available for purchase over on Dubmission’s Bandcamp. 

 

Earlier this year I published a review of Gyeongsang-based producer mcthfg’s Korean Dub: Volume One, a short EP consisting of dub remixes of tracks by various Korean artists. On that EP, mcthfg demonstrated a keen ear for soundcraft and a kind of innovation and playfulness that he nonetheless kept firmly constrained within the boundaries of dub music. His most recent offering on Dubmission, the Contact EP (or mini-album, I suppose, depending how you view these things), takes a slightly different approach. Produced in collaboration with E.R.S, an Austrian producer of dub and psybient music who has spent some time in India, the five tracks on Contact are all a little bit more out of the box, drawing inspiration from a wide variety of musical styles and genres and showcasing the creativity and craftsmanship of the two artists, separated by oceans and continents, who brought the EP to life.

Album opener ‘Disclose the Truth, Part 1’ opens up in paranoid acid-freak style with a voice clip assuring us that governments have ‘failed to disclose the truth’ about the existence of UFOs, but the deep 808 bass, dry claps and melancholy detuned key pads that follow feel closer in spirit to hip hop than they do to dub or psychedelic music, while the sci-fi melodies that soar and glide over the boom-bap beat sound like a throwback to the glory days of 1980s electro. It’s a bold approach, and an indication to the listener that Contact aims to do more than simply rehash old dub music formulae.

The following track, ‘Oriental Skank (Minimal Edit)’, is a sprawling monster of a tune, clocking in at over 10 minutes. It begins with a fast-paced Middle Eastern string sample that stutters and trips until it turns into the titular skank, playing counterpoint to a crushingly heavy sub-bass rhythm. Minimal but carefully programmed percussion and liquid sound effects keep the track rolling along the track’s second half, where following an extended breakdown of sorts (I say “of sorts” because the bass rhythm never really lets up) the drums and effects take on a slightly faster, more insistent quality, transforming the track into something like very stripped down, slow-motion drum and bass, with the occasional burst of Carribean MC chatter drawing the EP back into more prosaic dub territory. ‘Oriental Skank’ (Minimal Edit)’ is well crafted and bursting with ideas, but ultimately it didn’t do it for me; I found the Middle Eastern samples a little cheesy and in the final analysis I think the tune would probably have been better off with something else taking their place.

The third track, ‘Bizarre Bazaar’, takes its title rather literally, beginning with sounds from a busy market somewhere in what sounds like India. When the noise of the bazaar fades away, however, it’s replaced with an icy, unstable synth melody that is without a doubt one of my favorite singular sounds on the EP, evocative of the sound design present in early 2000s G-funk. This synth pattern, surfing over a tidal wave of bass while spacious percussion clangs and clanks and crashes in the distance, carries the tune for it’s first third or so, until it’s joined by a similar melody playing in counterpoint to it. Midway through the track the producers introduce more samples, this time sounding like they’re lifted from a Bollywood soundtrack, and while I feel these samples worked better than the instrumentation on the previous track I still feel like the piece may have been slightly stronger without them. Nonetheless, this is still a very strong track, and the level of skill on display here is evident in the minutiae of the sound design, the little squelches and whispers and clicks echoing in the space between the track’s main elements.

Particles of Funk is the clear standout track on the EP (to me, anyway). 

It’s track six, however, that is the clear standout piece here. The title is ‘Particles of Funk’, and it seems that it does more or less what it says on the tin – a lot of the sonic elements here sound like they’re lifted from various funk numbers, not the least of which is the stretched and twisted slap-bass sound weighing down the low end. The layering in this track is really something to behold; it begins pretty simply, introducing one element at a time – a vocal sample, some snare hits, a rattling noise, a twinkly tin organ melody – but with each rhythmic cycle the character of the soundscape grows deeper and more textured, until the entire thing feels light years deep, particles of funk smashing one another apart in a Large Hadron Collider of dub. The overall vibe of the track feels very Afro-Futurist; it’s the kind of thing I can imagine a cybernetically enhanced clone of Fela Kuti making if you locked him in a room with a cracked copy of Cubase for a couple of days.

The album closer, ‘Disclose the Truth, Part 2’, is a reprisal of the opening track, and where the opener was crisp and groovy, this is sinuous and psychedelic. A hypnotic metronome of sub-bass runs throughout the entire track, keeping the music anchored, while thick, gritty, acid-tinged signals continuously emerge and decay, as if they’re being assembled and pulled apart by self-replicating nanonmachines. The melancholic pads from the first track are there still, but this time there’s a whole lot more going on with them – their sound is wilder, weirder, more unnatural and more alive. The arrival of wooden-sounding ethnic percussion and tropical chords completes the picture. It’s the kind of track that would work well at an outdoor party, during the day, in the middle of the desert or on a sun-kissed beach.

It’s always hard, when listening to collaborative projects, to know where the work and influence of one producer begins and the other ends. With that being said though, insofar as this EP is an indication of mcthfg’s talents as a producer I would say he has taken some significant steps forward. The tracks on display here on the Contact EP show significantly more verve and creativity than those released on Korean Dub: Volume One earlier in the year, and though I didn’t personally enjoy every tune here (more thanks to my individual taste than anything else) I can’t deny the raw skill and ear for music that’s gone into the construction and composition of the EP. If mcthfg continues on this upward trajectory, his next release is going to be nothing short of pure fire.

Contact is available for purchase at Dubmission’s Bandcamp

Dub music has had a long and storied history, one that spans several decades, cultures and continents. From recording studios in Kingston, Jamaica in the 1960s to warehouse parties in London, England in the 1990s, the dub sound – with it’s emphasis on heavy, sinuous sub-bass, hazy rhythms and cavernous reverb – has found fans around the globe, and had an enormous influence on the development of electronic music – hell, on the development of modern music in general. It should come as no surprise, then, that even in the distant reaches of eastern Asia, among the mountains and skyscrapers of South Korea, dub has its acolytes. One such acolyte is Christopher Wing, aka mcthfg, originally hailing from the USA but now based in the southern coastal city of Changwon. On Korean Dub: Volume One, mcthfg provides three dub remixes of tracks by South Korean producers. It’s a brief but tantalizing glimpse into the curious niche of dub music on the Korean peninsula.

The opening track, a remix of “November, March” by Kuang Program, centers around decayed steel drum chords playing over shuddering waves of sub-bass, to the accompaniment of percussion that sounds like it was sampled in a third world junkyard. A kaleidoscopic array of intricate digital sounds completes the track and gives it a trippy, psychedelic feel. It’s followed by a “Brkn Replacment Dub” of mdbrkn’s “Shutted”, which provides listeners with a slightly more innovative take on the standard dub formula. Bitcrushed Nintendo-like squelches form the backbone of the piece, while the other sounds that duck and dive in and out of the mix could just as easily be processed field recordings as they could be digitally sculpted waveforms; the track blurs the line between the worlds of natural and computer-generated sound. The collection finishes off with “Spiritual (Floating Alone in the World Dub)”,a remix of a track by psychedelic electronica duo Tengger. It’s a suitable title; eerie vocal samples and raga chords give it a New Age ambience, though around midway through the track mcthfg picks up the pace a little, throwing in chiptune synth blasts, Morse code bleeps and a long extended breakdown that’s eventually swallowed by a rumbling two-step bass rhythm.

All three tracks are special in their own way; mcthfg clearly has some serious chops as a remixer. For anyone interested in dub music or in electronic music from the Korean peninsula, Korean Dub Volume 1 is a must-listen.

Korean Dub: Volume 1 is available for purchase at Dubmission‘s Bandcamp .