DATE: 23/02/2019

VENUE: vurt.

ENTRANCE FEE: ₩20 000

Takaaki Itoh has been in the techno game for a long time now, DJing and producing for over twenty years. The Japanese producer has an extensive discography to his name, as well as his own label, Wols, which he uses exclusively for his own releases. In recent years he’s garnered more attention from techno enthusiasts in the West thanks to some excellent releases on Mord (‘Wisher’, from the EP Disciplinary Synthetics, was one of Resident Advisor’s most charted tracks of January 2018) and on legendary Georgian club Bassiani’s in-house label. As a DJ, he is also in high demand; he’s played at festivals around the world, including Freqs of Nature (RIP) and Awakenings, and just last year he embarked on an epic seven city tour of the United States. On his home turf he runs a regular industrial and techno night, Konvektion, alongside DJ Yazi at Tokyo’s legendary club Contact. He’s also a regular fixture at several major Japanese festivals, such as countryside techno campout Rural. No stranger to vurt., Takaaki Itoh last played at the venue in 2016; his set from that party is actually available for listening on vurt.’s Soundcloud, which provided me a soundtrack to listen and get hyped to as I rode the subway down to Hapjeong to hear him play there once again on Saturday night.

Takaaki Itoh’s set from his appearance at vurt. in 2016. 

Opening DJ Suna began her set by stitching together an evocative and eerie ambient soundscape, a deep ocean of sound in which slivers and shards of sonic intricacy glowed far below the surface. It was a mesmerizing affair, and in all honesty I was a little upset when the first few abrupt kick drums began to pound, signaling the beginning of the dancier half of the set; I was enjoying the ambient beginning too much, to the point where I didn’t really want it to end. That being said, I quickly forgot my discontent as I found myself lost within the groove that Suna was laying down. It was definitely a lot harder and darker than usual Suna fair: she swamped the dancefloor in long, sustained peaks of intensity, with the visceral pulse and thud of the bass feeling like the centerpiece of it all. Perhaps this more aggressive sound was intended to prime the crowd for Takaaki Itoh, whose sets generally fall on the more menacing side of the techno spectrum. Or perhaps Suna just felt like getting a little edgier that evening. Either way, I kind of hope she decides to continue in this direction – I think this may be one of the best opening sets of hers that I have heard.

 

 

By the time it was Takaaki Itoh’s turn to step up to the DJ booth, the dancefloor was already thick with bodies. The crowd seemed a little more boisterous than usual with a lot of laughter and conversation going on around me, as opposed to people just focusing on dancing. This isn’t a bad thing at all, of course, although I did find myself getting a little annoyed at a couple of women who were having an ear-splittingly loud conversation right behind me for what felt like hours (though actually I guess it’s kind of impressive that they were able to speak over the vurt. sound system). When Takaaki Itoh began to play, however, it seemed as if the entire crowd decided, as one, to shut the fuck up and move. There was an intensity to the people dancing around me; I saw people dancing with their eyes shut, bodies shaking and arms flailing in wild and unconstrained joy. A lot of this, of course, had to do with the music flowing out of the speakers. With his headphones acting as an Alice band for his mane of black hair, Takaaki Itoh was bombarding the dancefloor with a steady barrage of tunes, a blackened and warped take on big-room techno, with heavy emphasis placed on percussion. A lot of what he was playing sounded to me as if it had taken inspiration from the sounds of mid-90s Dutch and Belgian hardcore – laser-like synth riffs, acid-splash distortion – but repackaged and reconfigured in the tempo and context of contemporary techno. For all the rawness of his set, though, Takaaki Itoh knows how to give his audience a break every now and then; at regular intervals the tempo would drop slightly and the tunes would turn more introspective and hypnotic, providing some much-needed respite from the sheer intensity of a lot of what he played. If you were to try and plot out the course of Itoh’s set with pen and paper, it would look like a series of waves, the peak of each slightly higher than the one that came before it, the trough slightly lower, until the set reached its thrilling, jagged conclusion.

Unfortunately, I had to be up early on Sunday morning, so as much as I was enjoying myself I had to tear myself away and leave vurt. before it was time for the closing artist, Scøpe, to take over. It’s a pity, because I know from previous gigs that Scøpe is a master of the subtle art of finishing a night. With a bit of luck, it won’t be too long before I get the chance to hear him play again, and I can make up for the lost opportunity.

D Js like Takaaki Itoh, and venues like vurt., are ample proof that the techno scene in east Asia is every bit as exciting and full of talent as those in Europe and elsewhere. With dedicated veterans like Itoh leading the way and setting an example for the younger generation, no doubt the scene will only continue to grow from strength to strength.

My first encounter with Tengger’s work came when I was reviewing the first Extra Noir compilation last year. There, the track the Seoul-based duo, comprised of  Itta (on harmonium and vocals) and Marqido (on analogue synthesizers) submitted (‘Breathe In, Breathe Out’) was dark and haunting, which fitted in well with Extra Noir’s witchy darkwave aesthetic. When given the space to define their own sound, however, Tengger favours a more fuzzed-out, sunburnt sound, exemplified in their album Spiritual, an eight-track array of synthesizer jams and garage psychedelia. Tengger first released Spiritual back in 2017, initially sold as a digital album and cassette tape combo produced in collaboration with arts collective Seendosi (the tape version is, sadly, no longer available). Thanks to Extra Noir, however the album is seeing a re-release, with a limited-run vinyl edition (at the time of writing, only 5 records are left up for grabs!). 

The titular opening track is all about repetition, pairing a chugging bass riff with Raga-reminiscent synth chords and… not a whole lot else. Snatches of crooning female vocals add some colour to the track’s final third, but beyond that, all of the track’s sense of progression is textural (or vertical, if that’s your preferred terminology) rather than melodic; the same rhythms and patterns repeat ad infinitum, but subtle changes in the substance of the sounds themselves keep it from growing stale or boring. This sets the trend for the rest of the album, which follows a similar path, and uses a similar sonic pallet. On Track 2, (‘Luft’), however, the bass groove is far funkier, and the thick waves of feedback and reverb that Tengger spice things up with seem to channel the wide-eyed and inventive spirit of a stoned teenager playing with effects pedals in Guitar Center. The vocal on this track, when it does put in appearance, is almost lost in the sea of sound, feeling more like a splash of sonic colour than an instrument per se. It’s followed by ‘Earther’, whose analogue arpeggios and harmonium keys and chord progressions sound reminiscent of both medieval music and the soundtracks of 1970s nature documentaries. The fourth track, ‘Barabonda’, is much more heavy and raw, centering around a sludgy distorted riff that acts as a counterpoint to a wispy, ethereal vocal warble. Bursts of feedback (a crucial element in Tengger’s sonic repertoire, it seems) complete the picture, setting the track up for an epic extended breakdown jam towards the end.

Footage of Tengger performing at a Spiritual album launch gig in 2017. 

This is followed by ‘Jongsori’, more a kind of brief interlude than a “track” in its own right, featuring the faint hiss of field recordings, the sound of what could be gongs warped and mutated by the dark sorcery of analogue technology till they’re almost unrecognizable, and the ominous sound of chanting voices. The sixth tune on the album, ‘Dancing’, is much more upbeat. Here insistent two and three note synth patterns spiral like the arms of galaxies around one another while an unassuming Pong-like blip keeps time. The real surprise, however, comes when Itta begins to play a jaunty sea-shanty-style tune on the harmonium. Considered individually, all these elements shouldn’t really work together, but somehow Tengger manages to pull it off. On Track 7, ‘Morgen Tempei’, percussive elements (which up until now has been either relegated to the background or entirely absent) take on more of a prominent role, with a rounded kick drum sound providing the rhythmic backbone of the tune. ‘Morgen Tempei’ is a cinematic and uplifting track; There is a pleasing sense of point and counterpoint between a clear, gentle bleeping sound and more ragged and energetic synth chords, and at different points in the track I was reminded both of the soft and poignant techno of The Field and also, for some reason, of Radiohead.

Tengger - Gatefold Outer

The outer sleeve design for the Spiritual vinyl release.

Spiritual finishes off with an epic, almost 15 minute long odyssey of a closing track, entitled ‘Dodeuri’. The track begins with some heavy-handed, loose bass and key rhythms, that sound like they’ve been recorded from an ancient grand piano rather than on a synthesizer. A high-pitched shuddering synthetic hum, however, reminds the listener that this is most certainly still electronic music. Female vocals whisper and chant, while low, fuzzed-out synth stabs lend the tune something approaching a “bassline”. At around 11 minutes in, ‘Dodeuri’ fakes out the listener, fading into near silence before kicking in again with a vengeance for the album’s last stretch. It’s clear that Tengger intended ‘Dodeuri’ to be the crowning moment of the album, an epic psychedelic voyage, which makes it a pity that, for me at least, it falls a little flat. It seems like there just aren’t enough ideas here to sustain a track of this length, and the chaotic jumble of elements at play feels less like a raw surge of musical energy than it does simply under-produced.

Despite my disappointments with the final track, however, I still think Spiritual is a good album, a showcase of how you can wring a lot of emotion and narrative out of very simple, abstract electronic sounds. The whole album feels played, rather than produced – there’s a loose, live kind of atmosphere that permeates throughout – which makes me even more keen than I was before to try and catch a live Tengger set sometime.

Spiritual is available for purchase over at Tengger’s Bandcamp. You can order a copy of the vinyl release from Extra Noir

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. 

DATE: 27/10/2018
VENUE: vurt.
ENTRANCE FEE: ₩20 000

Note: I ended getting to vurt. later than I would have liked for this party, so unfortunately I missed Suna’s opening set. 

One of the strange things about niche genres of music is how they seem to be constantly fragmenting and sub-dividing into ever more narrow niches. This happens across the musical spectrum – from black metal to acid house, industrial techno to neo-folk – but it seems especially prevalent in the vast and varied world of underground dance music. It seems like every other week a new sub-genre of one kind or another has emerged from the murk of the internet, the result of more and more artists trying to hone in and imitate a particular kind of sound. One of the reasons this compartmentalization of musical forms seems so prevalent of dance music has to do, of course, with the role played by DJs in driving the artistic development of club sounds. Your average DJ, looking to create seamless and continuous sets and mixes, has a need for tracks that resemble each other in some way or another, and so we end up with producers who, consciously or unconsciously, work within certain musical parameters in order to fill this need. This is a double-edged sword; on the one hand, the laser-like focus on particular styles and trends means that for every sub-genre of, say, techno music, there is an almost infinite supply of masterfully produced tracks that blend well with each other within the same set. On the other hand, it can be easy for producers and DJs to allow themselves to be stifled and constrained by the narrow boundaries of their chosen genres, killing creativity and resulting in a bland and monotonous musical landscape. The best artists, of course, are able to tread the fine line between the two, managing to work within the confines of a given genre while still remaining fresh, original and exciting.

What holds true for producers and DJs also holds true for the clubs in which they perform. There seems to be a greater and greater pressure placed on clubs and venues these days to specialise in their sounds, to narrow their musical palettes to one or two styles within a particular genre in order to appeal to the tastes of their target audiences and to differentiate themselves from their competition. vurt. is a successful example of this approach; the small but highly respected Hapjeong basement venue has staked out a claim for itself as the premiere venue in Seoul for techno music of a dark, mysterious and cerebral variety, it’s residents and guests spinning tracks that are more hypnotic and entrancing than they are abrasive or aggressive. The challenge then, for both the DJs who play there and for vurt. as a whole, is to find ways to ensure that the music played each night fits in with this unified core vision of what the club is all about, without becoming overly predictable or boring.

If anyone is up to this challenge, it is Tokyo’s DJ Yazi. He has a rich and storied musical history; he first burst onto the Japanese music scene in the mid-1990s, as part of the experimental hip hop collective Think Tank, with whom he co-founded Black Smoker Records, an abstract hip hop label whose eclectic nature is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that they have released records from both Ras G and Merzbow. In addition, he also performs as one half of live electronica act Twin Peaks together with Future Terror‘s Haruka, and in recent years he has begun to turn his attention to techno, launching a regular techno/industrial night at Contact alongside Takaaki Itoh (of Mord fame).

His set at vurt. this past Saturday night was a good example of how in the right hands it is possible to sound incredibly techno while not actually playing all that much “straight” techno. Had I heard them in isolation, I probably would have classified a lot of the tunes he played that night as electro, or IDM; dry, mechanical 808 percussion thumping and clattering in strange and unpredictable patterns, waves of subaquatic bass, and strange tapestries of digital texture sliced through the smoke-laden air inside vurt., very different from the heads-down techno I had been expecting. However, even though a lot of DJ Yazi’s selections were not “techno” in the typical sense (no 4/4 kick drum boom, sixteenth-note high-hats, industrial clangs ghostly atmospherics or any other such tricks of the trade), they nonetheless still felt like they fit in with the vurt. aesthetic; partly because the sonic palette, the textures and details in the tracks he played were still fairly downcast and dystopian in nature, and partly because DJ Yazi did an excellent job of weaving his more unusual tunes in and among a selection of more purist techno tracks; he would get the audience grooving for a while with some good, but fairly straightforward rolling dark techno before subtly blending it with off-kilter, dubbed-out left-of-field electronica. It was a high-risk, high-reward approach, the kind of thing that would have sounded incoherent in the hands of an inexperienced DJ and absolutely killed the momentum on the dancefloor, but DJ Yazi pulled it off and by the end of his set I was left with a fresh appreciation of just how far it is possible to bend the boundaries of a techno set.

Fittingly, DJ Yazi was followed by another genre bender, local DJ and frequent occupant of the vurt. DJ booth Siot. If DJ Yazi was channeling the sound and spirit of Drexciya for much of his set, then Siot was tapping deep into the UK’s hardcore continuum. His set of high-tempo, breakbeat-infused experimental techno reminded me on more than one occasion of drum and bass and jungle, and put me in mind of the recent production work of London’s Forest Drive West, who blends techno with jungle and bass music to earth shattering effect.

I began this review by ruminating on the narrow niche vurt. has carved out for itself as a purveyor of a certain style of dark techno; however, as both DJ Yazi and Siot showed on Saturday night, within the apparently narrow confines the club has defined for itself, there is seemingly endless room for experimentation and creativity. If they continue in this fashion – booking acts who are able to conform to the ethos of the venue while still managing to put their own unique spin on it at the same time – then I don’t see the club being in danger growing stale or uninspiring any time soon.

Vurt DJ Yazi Crowd

The crowd and staff left at vurt. at the end of Siot’s set pose for a photograph before heading upstairs and braving the light of day. Picture by Suna. 

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

2018 has been a fruitful year for Oslated. The fledgling label has already released two stellar albums this year – Eyvind Blix’s Västberga Allé and Saphileaum’s Uninhibited Kingdom – and now, as the memory of summer fades and the trees have begun to turn the crimsons and golds of autumn, they’ve put out their most challenging and experimental release yet: General Noise, by Spanish-born, Vietnam based producer Javier Marimon.

On General Noise Marimon, who contributed a remix of Saphileaum’s ‘No Clue of Life’ for Uninhibited Noise earlier this year, offers up six cuts of moody, atmospheric ambient techno, which are presented alongside four remixes by various Oslated affiliates. The album’s intro consists of reverb-drenched found sound – something like ping pong balls falling to a wooden floor, or marbles being rolled across a stage – that bubble and echo against a backdrop of ominous buzzes and drones that grow steadily richer and more textured as the track progresses, while a halting, uncertain kick rhythm lies almost buried in the mix. After the intro fades away, the album kicks off with the first ‘proper’ track, ‘General Noise I’ – though “kicks off” is really the wrong turn of phrase to use for such a muted, understated piece of music. A pad so deep it frequently finds itself merging with the bass rumbles and creaks alongside the thump of a chaotic kick pattern while more reverb-laden samples, similar to those in the intro piece, provide a counterpoint to the other elements of the track. It’s a bare-bones, hyperminimalist work, but at the same time it has a certain warmth to it, a flicker of emotion that belies the sparseness of the overall arrangement. No such sense of warmth is present in the following tune, ‘General Noise II’, a far more eerie and ominous affair. A soft rain of static leaves streaks of sound against a crystalline lead rhythm (I say “rhythm” because it would be an extreme stretch of the term to describe it as a “melody”), while over time something vaguely resembling a traditional techno track structure – 4/4 bass thud, whispers of percussion – is worn away by gusts of metallic wind. Later in the track things grow slightly more intense with the arrival of distorted, twisted clap-like sounds, battering the bulk of the track in a faltering, unpredictable frenzy, but they’re still mixed low enough that they only add to the murk of the piece, rather than making it any clearer.

 

 

General Noise III’, the fourth track, is probably the closest Marimon gets here to ‘straight’ dancefloor material, but even here he’s undeniably charting a stranger territory than paint-by-numbers peak-time techno ever dares to. A blunt-edged sub-bass and dry grid of kick drums form the basis of the track as bursts of shaped static sound off like faraway gunfire and synth sweeps and spirals through the air like UFOs searching for their next victim. It’s danceable, sure, but only in the darkest of basements in the blackest of hours, which I feel like is exactly what Marimon was aiming for. It’s followed by the last of the ‘General Noise’ tunes, ‘General Noise IV’. The low-end of the track tunnels its way through a fog of engine noise before being joined by the microscopic click and hiss of percussion and a swell of bright synth that would almost sound like vaporwave if heard in a different context.

After the last notes of ‘General Noise IV’ have faded away, it’s time for the remixes to start. First up is a remix of ‘General Noise I’ by Korea’s dark prince of the 5 a.m dancefloor, Xanexx. Here, Xanexx hollows out the dense soundscape of Marimon’s original and cloaks it in a shroud of his own ghostly electronics, producing an ambient work somehow even more somber and despondent than the original, making the listener feel as if they’re gazing out over the frozen surface of a desolate moon. The next rework comes from one of the most renowned names to have worked with Oslated to date, Silent Season luminary Winter in June. On his rework of ‘General Noise II’, the Sardinian producer cranks up the originals ominous atmosphere to 11, creating a tense, paranoid slice of dark ambient reminiscent of the early work of Ben Frost; it’s the kind of track that wouldn’t sound out of place on the soundtrack of a horror film. For the third remix, Georgian producer Saphileaum delivers what may be the album’s most floor-friendly moment with his ‘3rd Sky’ remix of ‘General Noise III’. A syncopated stepper kick rhythm gives the track a bit of groove and sexiness, but Saphileaum keeps things on the weird and experimental side by layering on a cacophony of disintegrating waveforms that flow and evaporate over the track’s dark void of bass. Saphileaum’s dub techno influences are prominently on display here, and his tune is probably the most original of the four remixes on the album, the one that deviates the furthest from its source material. The final remix comes courtesy of the mysterious Mojave, whose re-imagining of ‘General Noise IV’ features serene, glowing pads whose gentle hum forms a counterpoint to the repetitive buzz and click of something that was once, maybe, percussion, but that Mojave has bent and deformed until it’s closer to simple raw sound. Actual percussion emerges from the depths of the track a little later, in the form of sixteenth note hi-hat ticks and a tightly wound snare sound, but these details are soon eclipsed by a sudden unfurling of shimmering, warped noise that transforms the track into a stunning tapestry of sonic detail. The album closes off with Marimon’s ‘Outro’, a simple reprisal of the ‘Intro’ tracks that takes the intro’s pared-down minimalism and engulfs it in a gale of digital wind.

 

 

As an album, ‘General Noise’ is a triumph, both for Marimon as a producer and for Oslated as a label; it’s introspective, experimental nature represents a willingness to take risks and explore a deeper realm of sound, demonstrating the capacity of techno music to extend beyond its functional dimension as party music and instead illuminate something richer and more mysterious about the human condition. Furthermore, both Marimon and his remixers appear to be operating on the same wavelength, sharing a singular vision and understanding of techno that allows both Marimon’s original tracks and the four remixed tunes to operate as one continuous musical experience. All of the artists involved should be congratulated for putting forth such a fearless transgression of musical boundaries.

General Noise is available for purchase at Oslated’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.

Ten years is a long time in the world of electronic music. Scenes and trends change at an incredible pace, and that change is even further accelerated by the hyper-activity and shortened attention spans of the internet age. Over the last decade hundreds, if not thousands, of artists and labels have emerged, seen their stars rise in popularity and prestige, and then faded into obscurity again; victims of an often ruthless music culture where audiences are constantly on the search for something new. The fact that ECI Korea has been around since 2008, then, is a pretty impressive achievement, and speaks to the hard work, dedication and, of course, talent of all the people involved – in particular label founder Unjin, a true stalwart of the Korean techno scene. Unjin has been one of the most instrumental figures in the growth and development of techno music on the Korean peninsula, both as a DJ/producer and as a label manager and party organiser; it’s not an over-exaggeration to say that without Unjin, the Korean techno scene would probably be nowhere near as healthy as it is today. Nor is his influence, and the influence of ECI Korea, limited only to Korea – the label has become a platform for artists from all over Asia, allowing them global reach and facilitating connections and collaborations both within the broader Asian techno scene and between techno scenes in Asia and Europe. It’s fitting, then, that the 10 Years of ECI Korea compilation released to celebrate this milestone in the label’s history features a broad range of artists – from Korea, from elsewhere in Asia, and from other countries around the world. The variety of producers featured on the album serves as a representation of the wide variety of artists who have worked with ECI Korea over the past decade.

 

 

 

The compilation opens with ‘Fascination X’ by Mojave, a swirling, epic ambient track whose crystalline synth-work is reminiscent of Vangelis. It has a sense of cosmic depth to it, but deep within the track’s nebulous clouds of sound there is a feeling of unease, a sense of distant menace that hints at the darkness to come. The next track, “Falling Out” by Shanghai-based artist MIIIA, begins with a haltering, staggering beat and deep, sonar-like bleeps that gradually resolve themselves into a ritualistic rhythm while hisses of static and bursts of noise lend the track an air of controlled chaos. Around the halfway mark the introduction of some shakers transforms the track into something a little vibier, but it never loses its downcast, eyes-down atmosphere. The third tune on the compilation, ‘Space Explorer’ by Italian producer Gennaro Mastrantonio, puts me in mind of the cosmic techno of Samuli Kemppi. It’s a meditative piece of loop-based techno that showcases Mastrantonio’s keen understanding of progression in dance music. Deep and mesmerising though it may be, the thick grittiness of the track’s bassline keeps ‘Space Explorer’ firmly anchored to the dancefloor.

 

The next track, ‘an-i-o-bi-o-ics’ by Taiwanese producer Jing, is notably darker and more aggressive than the three tracks preceding it. Thunderous percussion, cyberpunk-sounding pads and staccato synth riffs give off a kind of “future industrial” sort of feel. It’s a brief track, clocking in at just four minutes and twenty-one seconds. The following tune, ‘Weinfelden’ by Romi, proceeds to take things in a spacier, more introspective direction again. Romi, a Hong Kong based producer and frequent collaborator with Oslated, contributes what is easily one of the best tracks on the entire compilation here. Although each sound he puts to use here is distinctly artificial and machine-like, the overall impression given by the track reminded me of birdsong, or the hushed noise of a dark forest at midnight, warm and organic. He piles on a dizzying array of elements in the track, and yet it never feels overly busy or cluttered – each individual sonic element has its own carefully carved-out space in the mix.

 

 

 

 

Track six, ‘Cogito’ by HWA (aka Elvis T), is by contrast one of the weakest tunes on the compilation in my opinion. The ceaseless beeps that crowd its high-end become obnoxious after the first minute of listening, and the bass, while well processed, is too in your face and unsubtle for my taste. The seventh track, ‘Lights From The Pleiades’ by Dorian Gray, another Italian producer, is a good tune, but at the same time a frustrating one. A deceptively complex bass rumble (when I listened carefully I realised there was a lot going on in that low-end) propels the track forward, while the “light” in the title comes from the ghostly shimmer of synth drifting like smoke over the bassline, gradually coalescing into something that resembles a choir of ethereal voices. It’s masterfully produced, but too short; the track feels like the buildup to something potentially spectacular, but just as I was getting properly into it, it ended.

 

I was excited to listen to track eight, ‘Resplendent’ by Xanexx. Xanexx is one of my favorite Korean DJs by far, to the point where I’ve gone out a few times this year with the specific aim of catching a Xanexx set. His DJing is always transcendentally good, a searing, visceral sonic assault on the dancefloor, and I was very interested in hearing what his production sounded like. Fortunately, he didn’t disappoint. ‘Resplendent’ reminded me a little of the work of Shanghai-based producer Tzusing at first, featuring broken drum rhythms surrounded by a crawling and slithering mass of acid synth, but as the track goes on  the brutality of the drum-work is offset by glowing pads that would have sounded almost angelic if heard in isolation, a sensation of light that grows more and more pronounced until by the end the track is more ethereal than it is aggressive.

 

 

 

The ninth track, ‘Avia’ by UK-born producer Deepbass, sounds to me as if Deepbass was trying to invoke the nostalgic sound of 90s anthem trance, but filtered through a much darker contemporary lens. Insistent, endlessly repeating synth rhythms and helicopter blade bass drive the track forward as the percussion breaks against them like waves crashing on some distant and ancient beach. ‘Avia’ is followed by ‘Control’ by DJ Sodeyama. The Japanese producer is arguably one of the biggest names on the compilation, and his track is definitely one of its standout moments. A powerful kick drum sits front and centre holding everything together while the occult electronics that hiss and sputter and shriek around it menace the listener from the shadows, a host of alien noises that feel somehow alive, as if the synthesizers themselves have somehow gained sentience. From a DJs perspective I think this is probably one of the most interesting tracks on offer here – I can imagine it absolutely devastating dancefloors if mixed right.

 

The penultimate track, ‘Vann’ by Astronomy Domine, is one of the most abstract tunes on offer here. The Sardinian producer first assembles a complex mosaic of found sound and natural noises – rising wind, birdsong, snapping twigs, clinking metal, the splash of raindrops, the crunch of gravel, and about a dozen others I couldn’t even begin to identify – and then takes a dub techno bassline to it like a sledgehammer, smashing the soundscape into fragments that are gradually drowned out by splashes of echo-laden percussion and the occasional slab of gnarled synthetic noise. It leads into the final track on the compilation, ‘Obscured Facts’ by Scøpe. Here Scøpe, who runs the SCOPÁVIK label and podcast and the SCOPÁVIK club nights at vurt., immediately grabs the listeners attention with an infectious combination of growling bassline and syncopated kick drum thud. They’re soon joined by some of the crispest, sharpest hats I’ve ever heard and more undulating pads that once again feel reminiscent of a choir of voices, giving the whole track a kind of gothic ambience. Around the halfway mark the track is overwhelmed by what sounds like a swarm of cybernetic insects, which then begins to degrade and deform, dragging ‘Obscured Facts’ down with it into a spiralling vortex of hypnotic sound.

 

Though it falls flat a couple of times, as an overall listening experience 10 Years of ECI Korea is a fitting tribute to a fine label. Each producer in the collection brings something slightly different to the table, and the blend of ambient or abstract tunes and club-orientated body music cuts means that there’s a little bit of something for everyone here, from home listening techno heads to DJs looking for more secret weapons to get people grooving. Personally, I’m really looking forward to hearing these tunes out on Seoul’s dancefloors over the next few months – and to hopefully another decade (or more!) of quality techno from ECI Korea.

 

10 Years of ECI Korea is available for purchase at ECI Korea’s Bandcamp page.