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.

Jeju Digital is probably one of the most interesting musical projects to have come out of the Korean peninsula in recent years. The label, which specialises in vaporwave, mallsoft and various other kinds of post-internet electronica is run by an English expatriate in Korea, and releases music by artists scattered around the globe, but honestly the identities of the people behind Jeju Digital aren’t that important. What’s far more fascinating than the real-world biographies of artists like Clear State is the elaborate cyberpunk mythology that the label has constructed around itself. Within this musical mythos, “Jeju Digital” is the name of a near-future chaebol-turned-cyberpunk-megacorp, a vast conglomerate that controls everything and everything in Jeju Digital’s imagined dystopia, where Scientology has become the official global religion and the cutting edge of technology has achieved its inevitable apotheosis as the perfect vector of social control. There’s a narrative of sorts that emerges in the various Jeju Digital music and video releases, though a lot of it is deliberately opaque and unclear; some of the “story” takes place in the distant future, some in the recent past, and some of the releases are presented as pieces of the past re-interpreted and distorted by the Jeju Digital megacorp as part of their ongoing efforts to brainwash and stupefy the masses in order to crush any hope of dissent.

It’s heady stuff, and even if the music was sub-par the label would be interesting based purely on the merits of its worldbuilding and storytelling. Fortunately, that’s not the case – the music stands strong on it’s own merits, not just as a medium for another narrative to be told. This is very evident in the case of Walled City. The work of a UK-born, New York-based artist going by the name of Clear State (which is in itself a term in Scientology referring to one of the mental states achievable through the practice of dianetics – a state free of the trauma of past lives), Walled City presents listeners with a rich and evocative musical journey, influenced by vaporwave but not beholden to it and produced almost entirely via modular synthesis.

The album opener, “Disconnection”, is a pretty but unremarkable work of ambient vaporwave, pairing swirls of retro synth with a simple muffled beat. Things take a turn for the darker on the next track, however; entitled “Engrams” – a Scientology term for the suppressed memory of a traumatic event occurring in a past life – it combines a menacing, growling bassline with fragile pads that sound as if they’re beginning to flake away at the edges and a downcast, minor-key synth melody. The breakbeat that propels the latter half of the track forward pushes “Engrams” into something approaching drum and bass territory, and the net effect of all of this is intensely evocative, bringing to mind the image of high-tech police helicopters gliding over a neon-drenched city. It’s an early high point, and to my ears one of the best tracks on the album. It’s followed by “Freewinds”, a track that sounds like exactly that – digital wind gusting through the streets of a virtual city. The faint hint of a melodic hook flickers in and out of hearing, periodically punctuated by the dull boom of a kick drum, like an explosion in a far-off place sampled from a late night news channel.

Technological Singularity uses robotic vocal snippets to explicitly state Walled City’s thematic concerns.

With the fourth track, “Technological Singularity”, Walled City’s concept album ambitions are a little more explicitly expressed. It’s essentially a spoken word piece; plastic arpeggios and kamikaze dives of bass provide a sonic backdrop for a robotic female voice as it describes the album’s sci-fi setting to the listener, a dystopian post-Singularity world in which artificial intelligence has come to dominate and human beings find themselves “governed, policed and judged by… disembodied agents of the post-human era”. Things seem bleak, until a second, male-sounding mechanical voice begins intoning a message of resistance, declaring that “now is the advent of that human renaissance”.

The next track, “Saturatas”, takes the album in a more ambient direction. The sound of what could as easily be the crackle of a forest fire as it could be the soft fall of rain is punctuated by bright constellations of synthetic melody, all anchored to earth by the warm rumble of analogue bass. “Type 209”, by contrast, is far more ominous. Swells of wailing synth desperately struggle to escape the track’s orbit before crashing back down into the sonic darkness below, overwhelmed by their own gravity; diamond-edged arpeggios and what sounds like a 90’s anthemic trance lead muffled by a fog of codeine slice what’s left of them into slivers. The whole thing feels very reminiscent of Vangelis’ iconic Blade Runner soundtrack, and is definitely another high point in the album.

Track 7, “Maintenance of Order”, features the return of the robotic voices of “Technological Singularity”, and initially feels like a reprise of sort, with its synths and arpeggios feeling cut from the same cloth. However, it quickly sets itself apart from its predecessor when the percussion kicks in, turning the track into a retrowave groove given a sense of energy and movement by it’s muscular bassline, punchy drums and sharp claps. The snatches of intoned dialogue – “consumption drives productivity”, “punishable by imprisonment”, “the leadership of our nation” – is a lot less clear, this time overwhelmed by, rather than scaffolded by, the sounds enveloping it; a metaphor, maybe, for how meaning is so easily lost in the endless flood of information-consumption that we in the present time find ourselves trapped within.

Title track Walled City is a nine minute electronic odyssey.

There’s a brief, 2 minute interlude – “Simulated Bliss”, whose cybernetic parrot chattering could almost pass for a foray into noise music – before the voices return again, even more blurred and degraded than before, in “Restimulation”. Hollow, mournful tones form the backdrop to a series of ominous sentences “they are trying to do this in the name of security” being one that I found especially chilling – that feel as if they’re fading from hearing before the brain has even had time to process them. The overall impression is of a machine intelligence gradually dissolving, like HAL singing “Daisy, Daisy” as Dave pulls out his memory tapes in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then there’s another ambient interlude of sorts, albeit a much longer one – “Rotating”, which catapults the listener away from cyberpunk streets and virtual concentration camps and out into the depths of space – before the album reaches its climactic point, titular track “Walled City”. It’s a massive piece – nine and half minutes long – that pairs more rain sounds and piercing peals of vintage-sounding synth with a deep bass pulse that, if sped up a bit, wouldn’t feel out of place in thumping dark techno track. The various sonic elements slowly come together to form a crystalline, infectious melody, while a vocoded voice intones indecipherable subliminal messages and yet another frantic arpeggio ramps up the sense of sonic drama. Finally, the album closes with “Pulses”, whose synthetic chords sound almost like violins and whose foundation of grainy static threatens to crumble at any moment, melting away as a police siren wails in the deep distance.

Overall, Walled City is a very strong album. I found it really rewarded repeat listening – each time I listened to it (generally while on the subway somewhere around Seoul; it made for great travel music) I found some new detail or flourish I hadn’t noticed before. I’ll confess I wasn’t the biggest fan of the spoken word tracks; they were maybe a bit too heavy-handed and on the nose for my liking, but I understand what Clear State was trying to do with them and why they were included, within the context of the album and in context of the Jeju Digital mythos as a whole. Vaporwave and it’s dozens of related sub-genres might have more than a few detractors, and some of those detractors may have some valid points, but as Walled City demonstrates it’s still a genre within which there’s a lot of room for creativity. I’m looking forward to diving deeper into the Jeju Digital back catalogue; there’ll definitely be more reviews of this label’s output coming soon.

Walled City is available for purchase over on Jeju Digital’s Bandcamp