Industrial techno is having a bit of a moment right now, and has been for the last couple of years. Artists such as Perc (and the various producers who he has given a home to on his label Perc Trax), Truss, Ancient Methods, Blawan and a legion of others have been pushing a darker and grittier sound for some time now, looking to the 1980s for inspiration and drawing on the harsh, transgressive music of avant-garde industrialists like Throbbing Gristle, Skinny Puppy and the roster of Wax Trax! . This bleaker, noisier form of techno has become incredibly successful, and one can argue that at the time of writing it is the definitive techno genre of the 2010s. Just this last month one of techno musics most iconic and trend-defining labels, Ostgut Ton, released the latest volume in its seminal mix series (Berghain 09), selected and mixed by noise music auteur par excellence Vatican Shadow (aka Dominic Fernow). Fernow’s mix is the most explicit acknowledgment yet of the huge debt contemporary techno owes to industrial and noise music, blending pummeling techno tracks with recordings of legendary industrial pioneer Genesis P-Orridge and jagged, abrasive sound by legendary Japanese noise artist Merzbow.

It wasn’t always this way, however; just ask veteran Canadian industrial/techno crossover act, Orphx. The Canadian duo of Rich Oddie and Christina Sealey have been developing their particular melange of industrial and techno music since the early 1990s, far ahead of the curve, but it took a long time for the techno world to properly catch up. “We were considered ‘too industrial’ for most techno promoters and labels”, Sealey said in an interview with Motz’s Eleanor Brooke. The pair only really managed to break into the world of techno properly thanks to the support of Sonic Groove founder Adam X, who shared the duo’s interest in industrial-indebted techno. In the late 2000s and early 2010s Orphx released several EPs on Sonic Groove (now collected on Hymen Records as The Sonic Groove Releases Parts I and II), which catapulted them into underground techno stardom. Those releases aside, they have an impressive catalogue of recordings to their name, including eleven full length albums and several collaborative projects (such as Eschaton, a collaboration with Ancient Methods).

 

 

As impressive as their varied production history is, however, it is as live performers that Orphx are most renowned. Utilizing a constantly-evolving range of methods and technologies, including both digital performance tools such as Ableton Live and more hands-on modular synthesizer wizardry, Orphx’s shows have attained a near mythical status for their flair and ferocity. And thanks to the efforts of Itaewon basement venue Volnost, techno lovers in Seoul were finally given the chance to witness this legendary performance for themselves when Orphx played their last Friday night.

Even at the very beginning of the night, the atmosphere inside Volnost was intense. The dancefloor was wreathed in a thick mist of smoke machine fog and red light that transformed the dancers into little more than shadowy figures drifting in and out of vision; at several points the clouds of smoke were so thick I could literally not make out anything that wasn’t directly in front of me, making it feel as if I was the only person in the club. The opening DJ for the night, Sijin, was busy laying down a selection of darkwave and goth-infused industrial techno. I could see what he was trying to do – the track selection was clearly intended to set the stage for Orphx’s set later that night – but to my ears he went a bit too hard and fast for an opening set, pounding out banger after pounding, distortion-laced banger while it felt like everyone was still busy finding their bearings and getting their free drinks. This, coupled with some clunky mixing and transitions, meant that unfortunately Sijin’s opening set didn’t leave the best impression on me.

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Live improvised experimental music from pianist Jared Redmond and techno producer Eexppoann. 

The rest of the night’s performances, however, more than made up for the slightly lacklustre opening. The next act was one of the more intriguing acts I have seen in Seoul, a live improvisational collaboration between Constant Value founder Eexppoann and classical pianist Jared Redmond, a California native who is currently a visiting professor of composition at Hanyang University. It was an unusual setup; Redmond sat on the dancefloor, the audience crowded in a hushed crescent around him as he unleashed a stream of thunderous, dissonant chords, while behind him Eexppoann moved between his drum machines and synthesizers, laying down a steady stream of ominous, warped beats and tones that served to accentuate Redmond’s playing. It was a challenging performance, but fascinating to watch, and certainly far more thought-provoking than a simple DJ set would have been; I enjoyed being reminded of the links between the worlds of techno and contemporary classical music, two seemingly disparate musical realms that actually share a fair few things in common with one another. After about half an hour or so, Redmond’s performance had reached its conclusion and he began packing away, leaving Eexxppoann to continue playing solo.

Left to his own devices, Eexppoann ratcheted up the intensity, flying from machine to machine as he crafted gnarly, jagged beats and acid-corroded soundscapes on the fly. The majority of the music he played felt like it was at a slightly slower tempo, but what the set lacked in speed it made up for in rawness, evocative of such disparate musical styles as industrial, hardcore techno and noise. Volnost’s lighting guy also stepped up his game, and the thick banks of fog that still hung over the dancefloor began to be lit by scintillating flashes of neon pink. The vibe was pure Constant Value, and I felt a touch of sadness at the fact that the legendary Seoul rave series appears to have been placed on indefinite hiatus.

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The crowd on the dancefloor rendered little more than shadowy silhouettes by the light and smoke inside Volnost.

Something about the vibe of the evening – perhaps the more performative nature of Redmond and Eexppoann’s set, or the relatively long pauses between sets as each artist set up their equipment – made it feel more like a small concert than it did a club night. This feeling was amplified when Orphx took to the DJ booth and were greeted by an uproar of cheers and excited screams from the now-crowded dancefloor. Orphx, to their credit, had no difficulty matching and even exceeding the raw energy that Eexppoann had brought to his set. From behind their array of gear – two laptops running Ableton live, MPC controllers, and several mysterious synthesizer modules – Christina Sealey and Rich Oddie swiftly transformed Volnost into a swirling tunnel of psychedelic sound, weaving together rhythmic noise, esoteric synthesizer motifs and splintered hurricanes of percussion until the music throbbed with an almost psychic vehemence, worming its way deep into the minds of everyone on the floor. Though traces of Orphx’s industrial heritage were definitely present – particularly whenever Rich Oddie picked up the mic and added his indecipherable rasping and shouting into the mix – the overall vibe of the set felt firmly rooted in techno. For all the serrated slivers of static and raw tesseracts of brutal sound that Sealey and Oddie coaxed out of their hardware, their kick drums remained the centrepiece of the set, each one like a monstrous black hole whose gravitational pull twisted and tore apart the other sonic elements into their constituent particles. Sealey and Oddie were seldom predictable in their kick sequencing, however, preferring broken, stumbling rhythms over the rigid 4/4 grid that defines (some might say suffocates) much of techno.

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Rich Oddie of Orphx. 

This rhythmic inventiveness was made possible, in part, by the nature of Orphx’s setup. Though clearly the set had taken a lot of preparation and practice to get right, it was equally as clearly a fluidly improvised affair, full of chaotic moments and serendipitous grooves. The feeling of a live jam came through very strongly in Orphx’s set, something that not every live techno act actually manages to pull off (too often, live sets can end up over-rehearsed and sterile, to the point where the artist may as well just be playing a DJ set). My inner music nerd was having a great time watching Sealey leaned over her modular synths and trying to match up her movements with changes in the sound, and it was interesting watching the two of them briefly consult for a few moments and then hearing the set begin to move in a different direction. Working in concert, the two of them seemed to create an arresting sensation of tension and balance in their music, a kind of dystopian/utopian Yin-Yang of anxiety and ecstacy. Though who was Yin and who was Yang, I find impossible to say.

Once the last of Orphx’s washes of sound had faded away like blood drying in the sun, it was Comarobot’s turn to take to the decks and close off the night. Obviously eager to maintain the energy levels that Orphx had set, he hit the now much diminished crowd with a selection of dramatic, booming techno, all thunderous kicks and sizzling white noise. It was a good set, I think, taken in isolation, but I found it difficult to give it the level of attention and appreciation it deserved. It had been a long and taxing night; Orphx’s set, while mind-meltingly good, had taken a lot out of me both physically and mentally, and once they were finished I actually had to get out of Volnost and go for a brief walk in order to calm down and try process what I had just heard.

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Orphx’s Christina Sealey coaxing sound from a bewildering selection of modular synths. 

I’m not a big fan of superlatives. I’ve always been leery of describing anything as “the best”, because I feel that notions of “best” are very subjective (obviously) and highly susceptible to change. I find that especially when it comes to music “the best” performance or set in my mind is often of the most recent ones I’ve been to, since it’s easier to recall and feel excited about fresher memories. However, that being said I have no qualms about calling Orphx, if not the best, then certainly one of the best electronic music acts I’ve ever had the fortune of seeing (and even now I’m tempted to discard that qualifier altogether). Their execution was flawless, their sound palette original, their sonic narrative profound. Orphx have been making music for nearly three decades now, and the benefit of all those years of experience really shines through when they’re on stage. Whether you’re into industrial music, or techno, or indeed just interested in the creative possibilities of sound and music in general, go see Orphx play if you ever get a chance; they’re bound to astound you.

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: 18/05/2018
VENUE: Volnost
ENTRANCE FEE: 15 000

Like a lot of good techno clubs, Itaewon’s Volnost is a little hard to find. It’s located just a few doors down from Cakeshop, in the basement of a Vietnamese restaurant, but looking from the outside you wouldn’t know it; the only indication that there’s a club there is a small, discrete sign on the door informing patrons that illegal drugs and alcohol are strictly forbidden, and asking them not to take flash photography. Go through this door and down the staircase behind it, however, and you find yourself in a low, square, brick-wallled room, with a bar at one end and a DJ booth at the other; a functional, utilitarian dance space that matches perfectly the aesthetic of the music played there. It’s in this shadowy dungeon that I found myself on Friday night, sipping on my complimentary rum and coke (like many clubs in Seoul, paying entrance at Volnost entitles you to one free drink) and looking forward to hearing the evening’s headliner: the Madonna of minimal techno in Japan, Hito.

Hito’s been in the game for a long time. After being exposed to techno upon moving to Berlin in 1999, she began DJing and swiftly gained attention for her energetic, vinyl-only sets. Hito’s rise to techno stardom began when she connected with minimal techno superstar Richie Hawtin, who brought her onboard as part of the team for his legendary ENTER. summer residency at Space in Ibiza. Since then, Hito has been living the nomadic existence of a touring DJ, playing at clubs and festivals around the world. Unusually for DJs of her stature, Hito has never really made the jump from DJing to producing, and she has maintained a slightly old-fashioned approached to DJing; unlike her mentor Hawtin, who has eagerly embraced the possibilities afforded by digital DJing, Hito has decided to keep things old-school and continues to play strictly vinyl sets. There were a lot of good parties on in Seoul this last Friday – Jimmy Edgar was playing a set at Cakeshop, while Faust hosted a gig by Chris Liebing – but I was intrigued by Hito after hearing her play a warm-up set early Friday evening for Seoul Community Radio, so at the last minute I decided to get myself down to Volnost and see her for myself.

 

Before her set at Volnost on Friday, Hito played an excellent warm-up set for Seoul Community Radio. 

 

Being an opening DJ is a thankless job; most people only want to hit the club a little later into the night, and so in most places openers are usually stuck playing to a small scattering of friends who’ve shown up to support them. Friday night was no exception to this rule; opener Comarobot – who, with his patrol cap and beard, put me in mind of a young, Korean Fidel Castro – only had about ten people dancing to his set, which is a pity because he played a very high-quality selection of contemporary dark techno, though it was marred a little by a few mixing slip-ups here and there. By the time following act DJ SIN took over, however, the club had begun to full up considerably, and it didn’t take long for the small, square basement space to begin to feel a tad crowded. DJ SIN has apparently been an important figure in the Seoul underground dance scene for some time; she was formerly a resident DJ and musical director of Itaewon’s legendary club Mystik, which sadly closed its doors last year, and was also (together with vurt. resident Suna and Mario, a DJ who has since left Seoul) one of the members of Triple House, the first all-female DJ crew in the city. Listening to her play, it was easy to see how she’s managed to garner such a good reputation. Her set was masterfully executed, a totally seamless flow of sound that seemed to bridge the gap between the current trend towards hard-edged European basement techno and a more classic mid-00s “minimal” sound. Particularly towards the end of her set the cosmic overtones and dreamlike loops of the bleep techno she was laying down reminded me of the future-shamanism of artists like Sleeparchive. I was actually pretty disappointed when it was time for her to step down from the decks and let Hito take over – which to me is always the mark of a really strong supporting act.

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Hito and Comarobot relaxing in the Seoul Community Radio studio before the gig. Picture courtesy of Richard Price, Seoul Community Radio. 

Like certain parts of DJ SIN’s set, Hito’s set was a bit of a throwback. Playing only vinyl, Hito favoured the crisp, punchy drums, clear sine bass tones and washes of white noise that characterized the minimal techno boom of the 2000s – unsurprising, given Hito’s connections with Hawtin, arguably the definitive figure within that particular scene. The overall sound of the set was more Ibiza than it was Berlin; she was a lot less self-consciously dark and serious than most of the other techno DJs I’ve heard over the last year or so, and wasn’t afraid to throw in more than a fair share of catchy melodies and infectious vocal hooks. The term “tech house” has acquired a bit of a pejorative connotation in techno snob circles, but this was tech house done right, full of soul and swing, unabashed party music. Now don’t get me wrong, I love me some serious, cerebral basement techno, but hearing something so different and yet the same time so similar was like a breath of fresh air, and paradoxically enough, even though this style of techno is perhaps a bit more of a “dated”, to me it sounded really exciting, fresh and new. Hito’s tunes were a good reminder of how, even though from the outside it seems like a very constricted and unvaried genre, techno is actually an incredibly diverse sound, one that comes in many different forms and flavours. The last time I heard this kind of techno was a few years ago, at one of the dance camps at AfrikaBurn (South Africa’s regional Burning Man event), and if I closed my eyes I could imagine that I was dancing in the desert under the stars, rather than in a basement in Itaewon. In fact, overall I got a very “festival” vibe from Hito’s set – her track selection and mixing were very evocative of an outdoor party feeling, music for open fields and marquees, beaches and forests.

This festival atmosphere was further reinforced by the crowd. Everyone on the heaving dancefloor seemed to be having a whale of a time; every time I looked around I saw people smiling, people cheering, people hugging and embracing (not to mention people making out; it felt like a LOT of people got lucky in Volnost that night!). Special mention needs to be made of one individual, an absurdly tall moustachio’d man in a red tophat and kimono shirt wrapped in fairy lights, waving a plastic baby doll around, who seemed like a small festival all by himself. That kind of whimsical approach to partying – costumes, props, a flair for the theatrical and the carnivalesque – is a big part of the underground dance scene back home in South Africa, and it’s something I don’t see a lot here in Korea, more’s the pity. It was good to see a little glimmer of the same attitude in Volnost that night.

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The crowd at Volnost. Picture courtesy of Richard Price, Seoul Community Radio. 

By the time Hito finally spun her last track and Xanexx took over, the audience was, in a word, lit. Their ranks were a little thinner – several large groups departed en masse shortly before the end of Hito’s set – but those who were left behind seemed well and truly ready to party, with seemingly no interest in stopping any time soon. Fortunately, they were in good hands; Xanexx wasted absolutely no time, laying down track after banging track of loopy, mesmerising voodoo techno. I’ve seen him play closing sets at vurt. before, and the man really is a veteran when it comes to this kind of thing; he knows exactly how to keep people dancing at the end of a night. Every time I felt like I’d reached the point of exhaustion where I needed to call it a night, he’d mix in some new hypnotic rhythm or ecstatic burst of noise that kept me wanting to hear more, and more; I lost track of the times I muttered “just one more tune” to myself. Eventually tiredness won out and I finally made my way upstairs and out into the light, but when I left everyone else in the club still appeared to be going strong. Honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that all of them are still there dancing, two days later.

If I have one small complaint, it’s that at times the sound system at Volnost didn’t seem to be quite as good as it could be. The bass was sometimes a little muddy and muffled, and the acoustics were a little weird – there were certain spots where if one stood the music became noticeably quieter or louder, which threw me off a bit. On the other hand, I feel compelled to mention of how really excellent the lighting was. Whoever was in charge of Volnost’s lighting that night did an excellent job of reading the feel of the party, making use of flashing colour, strobes, bursts of brightness and bursts of total darkness in perfect unison with the music. It did a lot for the atmosphere of the event, and perhaps also contributed to the “festival” feeling that I keep harping on about.

Between the four of them, Hito and her supporting acts  put on a hell of a show, a fun and engaging evening of techno and good old fashioned Friday hedonism. Nights like this really are testament to how healthy the techno scene is, not only in Seoul, but in east Asia more generally.