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.

DATE: 30/06/208

ENTRANCE FEE: 30 000

I’m kind of surprised it’s taken me this long to go to a Constant Value event. The party has been on my radar for a long time; a classic warehouse-style rave, held in a secret location somewhere in an industrial corner of the city, with entrance allowed only to those on a pre-approved guest list. It comes up in conversation a lot in and around clubs in Seoul, and everyone who talks about it does so with a bit of a gleam in their eyes. Constant Value, I’ve been told, is crazy; it’s wild; it’s intense; nothing else in Korea is quite like it. 

A lot of hype, in other words, but from what I could tell the hype seemed to be fairly justified. Beginning in 2015, the Constant Value collective has been steadily growing in influence and reputation. They’ve hosted some heavyweight experimental techno names in Seoul – including Ancient Methods, Samuel Kerridge, and  Giegling‘s already legendary Planet Giegling tour – and have themselves been invited to play at events around the world, bringing their distinct sound and energy to appreciative crowds from Tokyo to Berlin. In addition to organizing, curating and playing at parties, the Constant Value crew has also founded a record label with a small but impressive roster of releases, bringing to light innovative, cutting-edge techno from both Korean and international artists.

As it so happens, their guests last Saturday night, Champ Libre, are one of the artists (or groups of artists, rather) who have had a release on the Constant Value label. The Champ Libre crew originate from France, and consist of DJs SpunOff and Size Pier, VJ Gildas Madelénat, and mysterious “four handed music research laboratory” Second Spectre (among others). Shadowy and mysterious seems to be their modus operandi; I was able to find precious little information on them online. What I did find, though, were several intriguing releases on their Bandcamp, such as this compilation, which showcases a variety of unsettling, menacing cuts of deep yet noisy industrial-tinged experimental dance music that reminded me of some of the more abrasive singles from Stroboscopic Artefacts. Honestly, I would probably have gone to Constant Value regardless of who was playing – I was just keen to check out the party – but listening to the tunes put out by Champ Libre definitely heightened up my excitement and curiosity. I signed up for the guest list, received the location in an e-mail sent out a couple days before the event, and around midnight on Saturday night made my way out into the great unknown.

One of the tracks Second Spectre has released on the Constant Value label.

The rave was held in the basement of an industrial space – a printworks, I believe – on the eastern side of Seoul, a far cry from the bustling party hotspots of Hongdae and Itaewon. Initially I was a little concerned about not being able to find the place, but I needn’t have worried; the directions given in the e-mail were clear enough, and anyway once I got close enough it was easy to follow the distant throb and thump of the bass until I found myself practically stumbling across the venue. A crowd of ravers congregated on the steps outside (almost every one of them dressed in black, of course) smoking and chatting quietly so as not to bring the ire of any neighbours down on the party. I made my way inside, checked my name off of the list, paid my entrance fee and descended towards the dancefloor.

Now, I’d heard from a lot of people how wild Constant Value was, and I’ve been to more than a few crazy raves in the past, but I still think I had underestimated just how intense it was going to be. From the moment I stepped onto the dance space, I realised that we were in for one hell of a night. In front of me was a mob of dancing bodies half-submerged in a thick haze of smoke machines and strobelights. Around the edges of the actual dancefloor, defined by a semi-translucent plastic curtain, people stood taking in the music or queuing for drinks, bathed in the glow of a mysterious red light whose source I couldn’t locate no matter how hard I searched for it. A series of incomprehensible organic-seeming images flickered in and out of place behind the DJs, adding to the surreal atmosphere of the event. The whole thing felt like an industrial rave as imagined by Hieronymous Bosch.

On the subject of drinks, this is probably as good a place as any to mention one of the most appealing things about Constant Value: the open bar. Presumably, they don’t have a license to sell booze on the premises, so instead they hand it out for free – and the “bar” was surprisingly well stocked. Now, back home, any open bar gets decimated in an hour, tops, and anyone arriving too late is left thirsty. But this is Korea, of course, so people were fairly restrained and considerate, and I found that it never took too long to get a drink, and that the bar remained pretty well stocked surprisingly late into the night, though of course it did run dry eventually. It was really great not to have to fork over extra cash every time I wanted a beer, and considering the cover charge was only ₩10 000 more than normal club cover I’d say in this respect Constant Value is a definite bargain.

SpunOff, one of the Champ Libre DJs who played that night, has several excellent tunes under his belt. This is one of them.

Musically speaking, the show put on by the Champ Libre crew (Constant Value founder and live techno wizard EEXXPPOANN was also on the bill, but sadly I think I missed his set) seemed to owe as much to noise music as it did to techno, invoking the sound and energy of artists such as Whitehouse, Merzbow and Prurient alongside that of Surgeon or Regis. Every sound of their set (I’m talking about them as a collective, because between the smoke, the lights and the visuals it got pretty difficult pretty quick to keep track of who was playing when) seemed suffused with ferocity and aggression: distorted blast beats, warped waves of ragged white noise, guttural synth tones that sounded like they’d been scorched to cinders in a firebombing or dragged through tangled webs of barbed wire. And it was fast, furiously fast, every kickdrum firing out from the speakers at a blistering pace. With all that being said, however, at no point did I find anything they were playing difficult to dance to, abstract as it was. Everything was still definitely body music, music to move to rather than just to intellectually appreciate, though I’m not sure if a more casual EDM crowd would have agreed. But clearly, throwing shapes and busting moves to experimental machine noise was no problem for the hardened techno veterans on the floor, since everyone around me was dancing as if their life depended on it. In an article for Resident Advisor on electronic music in east Asia, Tobias Burgers mentions that the vibe he got from the Constant Value he attended “felt more like a punk concert than a techno gig”, and I could kind of see what he meant- the dancefloor had that same raw and unpredictable kind of energy.

The only downside to the night was the heat. Seoul in summer is basically an oven; it gets oppressively hot and humid around this time of year, and the warm evening, combined with the lack of ventilation in the basement and the mass of moving bodies, meant that it got unbearably hot pretty quickly – me and the friend I was with kept on having to take breaks from dancing, a little more regularly than I would have liked, in order to go upstairs, get some air and cool down. It wasn’t all bad, though, as it meant there were plenty of opportunities to chat with the other party-goers for a bit, and just about everyone I spoke to there was pretty friendly and interesting. Paradoxically, the elitist nature of the party – the distant, “secret” location, the lack of advertising, the refusal to admit anyone not already on the guest list – actually contributed, I think, to making people more open and friendly than they’d perhaps be in a club setting. Since all of us had made some degree of effort to get there, you could be assured that everyone was “into” the music and the scene a little more seriously than most, and that shared passion and intensity made for a great sense of camaraderie. Of course, this is by no means unique to the Seoul techno scene; it’s a defining aspect of underground raves everywhere, and has been for decades.

As the night wore on, the music mellowed out a little bit, placing less emphasis on rawness and noise and more on rhythm and groove. That’s only relatively speaking, though – I’d say it was still several degrees rougher and harder than anything I’d heard out on a normal club night. At this point in the night the bar had finally begun to run a little dry, but people didn’t seem to mind. The crowd was still going strong, though, happily settling into that post-peak time hypnotic trance-dance which is very often the best part of the night. For the first time that night I felt like I really had a chance to appreciate the visualisations being summoned up by the team of VJs, which were really arresting – a constantly evolving series of shapes and forms, sometimes fluid and biological, sometimes hard and geometric. Clearly, Constant Value takes the visual aspect of their gigs as seriously as they do the music, an approach which really paid off in terms of creating a compelling and otherworldly atmosphere.

I really can’t stress enough what a special experience this party was. The Constant Value crew are doing something truly spectacular, going above and beyond to create a true, unconstrained and totally immersive techno experience; calling it simply “a party” or “an event” or even “a rave” feels like a complete understatement – this was “the rave” as an art form. Hypothetically, if a travelling techno fan had only one night to spend in Seoul, and could only attend one singular event, I’d probably recommend Constant Value to them – no matter how near and dear many of the club venues in this city are to my heart, Constant Value was simply on a whole different level, operating in a different dimension of dance. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go sign up for the next one.