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.

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. 

DATE: 01/06/2018
VENUE: vurt.
ENTRANCE FEE: ₩ 20 000

Since I moved to Seoul over a year ago, I’ve been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to see sets and performances from many of my favourite DJs and producers, artists that, when I was still living in distant, isolated South Africa I could only ever have dreamed of seeing. One of the benefits of living in such a massive metropolis with such a thriving electronic music underground is that many, many artists, big or small, pass through the city, and just about every weekend I’m spoiled for choice in terms of which international acts I feel like dancing to. That being said, I’ve never been quite so excited as when I saw that Cio d’Or was scheduled to play at vurt. Nearly a decade ago, when I was young and relatively innocent and I still listened primarily to indie rock and metal music, a friend of mine gave me a copy of Cio d’Ors glorious debut album Die Faser and, well, it sounds hyperbolic but it kind of changed my life. I’d never heard music like it before, and that album kickstarted a deep and abiding passion for techno (and, later, for electronic music in general) that remains with me to this day (and is the reason I started writing this blog in the first place!). I’ve been a massive fan of hers for years, both of her production and of the many quality DJ mixes she’s released online (in my opinion her On Clouds 11 mix is one of the best techno mixes on the entire internet). So to say I was excited about getting the chance to seeing her DJ, especially getting the chance to see her DJ at my favourite club in Seoul, is a bit of an understatement.

Goldbrokat by Cio d’Or, one of the best tracks off of her debut album, Die Faser.

A native of Munich currently residing in Cologne, Cio d’Or has been active as a DJ and producer of techno music since the late ‘90s, when she began Djing at Ultraschall, a club in her Bavarian hometown considered by many to be one of the flagship institutions of the ‘90s German rave scene. Cio later went on to curate her own series of parties, Nachtwind at Wondersclub, before moving to Cologne where she began to focus her energies on producing her own music. She’s a Renaissance woman, with a background in ballet and contemporary dance, who has also dabbled in jazz, classical music, film and theatre. After a string of strong EP releases on labels like Karmarouge and Time To Express, including a few collaborations with the likes of Gabriel Ananda and Donato Dozzy, Cio d’Or released her first full-length album, Die Faser, on the Munich-based deep techno label Prologue. The album was met with critical acclaim, being hailed as an emblematic example of the hypnotic, textured, trippy style of techno referred to as “headfuck techno” or “voodoo techno” in the electronic music press. This was followed in 2015 by a second album, all in all, released on Semantica, which is perhaps Cio d’Or’s most adventurous work, a conceptually dense collection of experimental techno that shows both classical and dub influences. Cio d’Or’s production is intricate and layered, much of it sculpted from found sound collected by her on her travels through Europe and Asia, and her rich musical background is reflected in the meticulous craftsmanship of her structures and arrangements. Her DJ sets, as well, are of an exceptionally high standard, and the mixes she has produced for online platforms like Resident Advisor, mnml ssgs (RIP), and XLR8R have played a crucial role in garnering her the attention of a wider audience. Sadly, Cio d’Or has struggled in the past with bouts of acute fatigue syndrome, which has resulted in many periods of relative silence from the producer, and many cancelled events and tours. Fortunately for us, however, her health and well-being seems to be improving, enough for her to take on a small Asian tour, on which Seoul was the first stop.

As usual Suna did an excellent job of starting off the night. Listen to her podcast for Oslated here.

As usual, I got there early-ish to catch the opening set. Once again, the responsibility for the start of the night lay in the capable hands of Suna, resident DJ and arguably the heart and soul of vurt. As usual, Suna played a great set, though I wasn’t quite as into it as I usually am – I think I was just impatient for Cio to begin. She started off the evening with a murky selection of techno obscura, a fog of echo and reverb through which the bass and kick drum cruised like enemy submarines hunting each other beneath a frozen ocean. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve enjoyed every set I’ve heard Suna play, and it’s easy to see why she’s so highly regarded within the Korean techno scene. Every set I’ve heard of hers, though, has been an opening set, so I can’t help shake the feeling I haven’t heard her play to her full potential; I’m very interested in hearing her play a prime-time or closing set, and I hope that some day I’ll get the chance to. That being said, she did a fine job of creating an atmosphere and warming up the crowd for Cio d’Or.

Cio d’Or has built quite a reputation for herself thanks to her excellent online mixes and podcasts, such as this mix for Resident Advisor.

If I had to choose a single word to sum up Cio d’Or’s set, it would be: seamless. Her transitions were so subtle and subliminal that it was impossible to tell where one track ended and another began – in fact, it didn’t feel like she was playing tracks at all, but rather like we were dancing to one long singular composition. Sounds – enchanting glimmers of melody, crystalline bursts of synth, breathy whispers and alien frequencies – would fade in and out of the mix, catch one’s attention for a brief moment only to vanish and re-appear, in a different but still recognizable form, what felt like hours later. In some ways, Cio d’Or’s music could easily have passed for an exercise in ambient techno, were it not for the absolutely ferocious drum programming that lay at the foundation of it all: boneshaking kick drums pummelled out remorseless rhythms while above them a hurricane of hi-hats, shakers, crashes and rides wove around one another like starfighters in some far-future dogfight. The net result was a pleasing sense of contrast between the energy and intensity of the percussion and cosmic serenity of the soundscape it was scaffolding. Towards the latter half of her set, Cio d’Or took things in a darker direction; nebula shimmers of synth were replaced by ominous bass drones, warm and dusty harmonies by what sounded like the buzz of swarming insects – but she still steered clear of anything that too closely resembled paint-by-the-numbers “dark techno”, which I appreciated. If anything, the clean, well-defined character of her sound, filled to the brim with crisp sonic intricacies, reminded me more of the kind of organic minimalism associated with artists like Minilogue or Dominik Eulberg than it did the postmillennial industrialism of Ostgut Ton or the trancey voodoo techno of the Italian scene.

Something else that I took notice of during Cio d’Or’s set was her interesting use of tempo and pace. There are several different approaches to tempo when it comes to techno Djing, all equally valid. Some DJs like to start slow and build up the pace, each track marginally faster than the last until eventually by the peak of the set they’re playing their fastest, most banging tracks. Others, especially if they’re playing a headline slot, like to start fast and keep it their, maintaining a pretty quick tempo throughout their set. Cio d’Or took a totally different approach, however, switching between a wide range of tempos throughout her set, so that one moment we were grooving along to a bumping 128 bpm beat, and the next things were slowed right down to a dubby, half-time crawl. It was a bold choice, and one that takes quite a bit of experience and technical skill to pull off properly, but I think Cio d’Or definitely pulled it off; I enjoyed the variety, and the slower, spacier interludes gave me a good opportunity to catch my breath and get my bearings on the floor. I lost track of the time completely during her set – always the hallmark of a good DJ, in my opinion – and so I was surprised when the time came for her to step down and let the closing DJ, Siot, take over. But I wasn’t sure if I was surprised because I thought she was ending too soon, or surprised because I thought she was ending too late. It could have been 4 am, or it could have been 8 am the next day – I really had no idea at the time. Headfuck techno, indeed.

Siot closed the night in fine style. Check out his mix for Oslated here. 

Speaking of Siot, he managed to close out the night in fine style. His was probably one of the most adventurous and out-there sets I have heard at vurt in a while. Like Cio d’Or, he managed to maintain a sense of smooth, flawless continuity between his tracks, so that once again it was very difficult to tell exactly at which point new tracks had appeared and old ones had faded away. Unlike Cio d’Or, however, he leaned less heavily on the 4/4 format, mixing in a lot of broken beats and what sounded like the ghosts of breakbeats past, all shrouded in a dense gauze of reverb – like I was listening to the faint whispers of UK jungle rave echoing from somewhere deep underneath our feet. It was a daring and effective change of pace, and off the back of this performance Siot is definitely a name I’ll be looking out for more keenly in future.

vurtnight with cio d'or

Cio d’Or and the vurt. family pose for a picture in the street outside. 

I’ll admit I had strong expectations going in to this event, and a part of me was a little nervous – it would have been hard for me to come to terms with had Cio d’Or’s set been bad, or boring, or even just mediocre. Luckily, that wasn’t the case, and her DJ set proved to be every just as evocative and moving as her albums and mixes have been for me for all these years. Once again, vurt. has pulled off an incredible evening of techno, but at this point I really am not at all surprised – high quality is what I’ve come to expect from vurt., and so far Suna, Siot and the rest of the vurt. crew have never failed to deliver.

 

Note: I know that this blog is getting a bit repetitive (I keep going to vurt.!) I want to explore more places and write about other venues, I promise – vurt. just keeps booking all my favorite artists so I feel like I can’t not go there! Hopefully the next few reviews will be a little less monotonous.

DATE: 26/05/2018
VENUE: vurt.
ENTRANCE FEE: ₩ 20 000

Those of us who like our techno on the dark and hypnotic side know that Italy’s where it’s at. The Mediterranean nation might not have quite the same fearsome reputation as Germany or the same historical significance as Detroit, but nevertheless Italy has contributed a lot to global techno, thanks to the efforts of a handful of producers – chief among them the legendary Donato Dozzy, one half of Voices From The Lake and co-founder of Rome-based label Elettronica Romana – who pioneered and continue to improve on a certain strain of idiosyncratic dance music: deep, liquid tracks that owe as much to trance as they do to techno. Though a host of producers and labels from other countries have also made music in this style, this particular niche is still dominated by Italians: Dozzy, Giorgio Gigli, Neel, Dino Sabatini, Obtane, Claudio PRC and Ness. The latter two – both hailing from the sunny island of Sardinia – produce and DJ together as The Gods Planet, and last Saturday techno fans in Seoul were blessed with the chance to see them play at vurt, supported by veteran DJ and producer Unjin.

Unjin really is a Seoul techno legend in his own right. Active in the Korean underground music scene since the late 90s, he founded the country’s first-ever techno label (ECI Korea) and has established a worldwide reputation as one of the best techno acts to come out of Korea, playing gigs at renowned techno clubs around the world, from Tresor in Berlin to Womb in Tokyo. He’s also worked with Ness before; the Sardinian contributed one of the remixes to Unjin’s Fog Machine Remix EP. For his opening set on Saturday night, Unjin treated his audience to a hazy, dreamlike stream of rolling psychedelic techno; it was danceable – his heavy dub bass and beefy kicks were more than enough to get a body moving – but for most of the set I caught myself doing more swaying than I did jamming; it was eyes-closed music, for sure. It set a good precedent for how the rest of the night was going to go, with the emphasis placed more on the deep and the delirious than on the hard and the heavy. It was easy music to get lost in, and I was surprised by how quickly the hours seemed to go by and how soon it was time for Claudio PRC to step into the booth.

 

Now, techno is, almost by definition, a darker form of dance music. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, of course – brighter, more uplifting techno certainly exists – but there is a definite trend within the genre towards the somber and the shadowy, one that has been accentuated in recent years by the boom in the “Berlin school” of basement techno. But “darkness” in techno is not a singular mood, and there are many kinds of darkness that techno can invoke. In the case of Claudio PRC, the darkness in his selections was the darkness of midnight in a tropical jungle, wrapped in thick, oppressive heat and tense with the menace of predatory animals stalking their prey through the trees. Something about the tunes he was playing – the organic whisper of percussion, the murky fog of bass, the acid synths that sounded like they were echoing out from a Funktion One stack on the ocean floor – sounded incredibly primitive and primal, as if someone had taken an uncontacted Amazonian tribe and taught them how to play analogue synthesizers. Based on this description, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he played a lot of tribal techno in his half of The Gods Planet’s performance, but honestly that wasn’t the case – there were none of the usual musical clichés of tribal tech (“ethnic” percussion, drum circle polyrhythms) going on in any of the tracks he threw into the mix. A few years ago, when this style of techno started getting more popular and receiving a lot of attention in the electronic music press, the term “voodoo techno” was thrown around a lot to describe this kind of sound, and it really seems to fit, perfectly encapsulating the bewitching soundscape conjured up by Claudio PRC that night.

Ness, when it was his turn to take control of the dancefloor, maintained a similar kind of feel and atmosphere, though he used a slightly different sound palette to do it. Whereas Claudio PRC’s half of the set leant on organic sounds and long, heady buildups and breakdowns, Ness’s selections felt more digital or mechanical, and his beats were a lot more relentless, favoring minimalist, hyper-repetitive rhythmic loops that crawled over and around each other like bees swarming over a honeycomb. The transition between the two was incredibly smooth, however, feeling more like a natural progression within a single DJ’s set than two separate artists playing back to back – the mark of a DJ duo experienced at, and comfortable with, playing together. After Ness had been playing on his own for an hour or so, Claudio PRC rejoined him in the DJ booth and the two of them began playing together, taking it in turns to select and mix in tracks, and this last joint effort was definitely the high point of the night as the two of them allowed the atmosphere of captivating darkness to lighten up a little, throwing in a few brighter sounds and getting slightly – but just slightly – more playful with their beats and rhythms. It’s been a while since I’ve had the energy and willpower to stay in a club all the way till closing – I always try and catch the last set, but tiredness generally causes me to flake out halfway through- but this time I had no trouble staying awake and dancing. Ness and Claudio PRC’s music pulled me into another world entirely, one where time and exhaustion simply ceased to exist, and all that mattered was moving to the music.

I’m only sad that relatively few people got to experience such an amazing set. vurt. was quieter on Saturday than I’ve seen it in a while; there were still people on the floor, of course, and it was far from feeling “empty”, but it was definitely under-populated that night, which is a shame because honestly with a set that good The Gods Planet deserves a sea of people from wall to wall. Hopefully this Friday’s set by Cio D’Or, another world-class purveyor of deep, dark headfuck techno, draws a bit more of a crowd.

DATE: 05/05/2018
VENUE: vurt.
ENTRANCE FEE: ₩20 000

Anyone more than casually interested in the state of techno in South Korea is familiar with Oslated. Originally just a podcast, now a record label home to some of the most interesting and forward-thinking techno produced on the Korean peninsula and beyond, Oslated has become synonymous with deep, dark, intense techno in Seoul. As such, the Oslated nights that they organize – hosted usually either at vurt. or at Volnostare invariably high-quality affairs, showcasing some of the best talent the label has to offer alongside international guests drawn from shadowy corners of the techno scene all over the world. This past weekend was a very busy one for Oslated; Friday night saw them throw a party with Hong Kong based producer Romi at Volnost, while on Saturday night Oslated took over vurt. for an evening of brooding, psychedelic techno featuring Swiss producer/DJ duo Agonis and Garçon, co-founders of boutique techno label Amenthia Recordings.

Based in Basel – a beautiful city nestled in a corner of the Swiss border where the edges of Switzerland, France and Germany meet – Amenthia Recordings, like Oslated, operates in a more peripheral zone of the global techno scene. While Basel is obviously not as far removed from the Germanic epicentre of the world of techno as Seoul is, it’s still far removed enough that the city’s techno pioneers have seemingly been able to forge their own distinct scene relatively untouched by the tropes and trends that at times appear to constrain the development of the techno sound in bigger, more “hyped” cities. As a result, the releases on Amenthia Recording’s catalogue (the overwhelming majority of which are by label founder Agonis) display the kind of creativity and originality that is sadly becoming a rarer and rarer commodity in the techno industry. I’d be lying if I said that either Agonis or Amenthia co-founder Garçon had ever crossed my radar before last week, but after sitting down and listening through some of the Agonis tracks and Garçon DJ sets available online I was very keen to head down to vurt. and give them a listen, especially given the fact that Agonis would be playing live as opposed to DJing; live techno sets always pique my interest.

An example of what an Agonis set sounds like, courtesy of Taipei techno podcast Smoke Machine

One thing that sets vurt. apart from other clubs in Seoul, in my opinion, is the consistent quality of the club’s opening and closing acts. Given that the venue hosts so many world-class acts on a regular basis, it would be easy for its resident DJs to pale a little in comparison, which, to be frank, has been my experience at a few of the other clubs in the Korean capital. At vurt., however, I find that each opening and closing DJ is memorable in their own right, which is no mean feat for artists sharing a bill with such big names. Busan transplant Lavera’s opening set on Saturday night was no exception. When I arrived, she was playing a sultry, spacy selection of slow techno to the small but already palpably excited crowd gathered on the dark dancefloor. Bathed in the darkroom-red glow of the vurt. DJ booth, she began to gradually pick up the pace, steadily mixing in heavier and funkier tracks until eventually the audience was catapulted into full-on groove mode. For an opening set it was pretty energetic, but the crowd responded well and it set the bar nice and high for the following acts.

Once Lavera had played her final tune – a psychedelic voodoo-techno roller that sounded like an Aphex Twin track on bath salts – it was Agonis’ turn to step up to the booth. In my experience, DJs tend to take one of two approaches to following on from another set: either they try and maintain the energy level and tempo set by the previous DJ, attempting to create a seamless transition between the two sets, or they “reset” and start building a set from scratch again, starting slow and slowly picking up the pace again. For his live set, Agonis chose the latter approach; he began by piecing together a murky rhythmic soundscape of scrapes, clanks, shrieks and bleeps, still highly danceable but definitely several degrees more abstract than the relatively straightforward techno that had made up the bulk of Lavera’s set. I was struck by the immaculate quality of his sound design; every noise and detail seemed intricately crafted and originally, a showcase of just how much room for creativity there is to be found within the apparently strict boundaries of this kind of music. As the set drew on his sound began to evolve into something more beat-driven, but it was still heady, trippy stuff, a kind of industrial trance sound that mesmerized as much as it moved.

All of this makes Agonis’ set sound kind of dry or academic, music for thinking about rather than dancing to, but in fact nothing could be further from the truth. For all of the downcast mood and cerebral nature of his music, the man definitely still knows how to get a dancefloor moving. He demonstrated a keen command of rhythm throughout his set, and his carefully calculated minimalist percussion work – the gut-punch of kick here, the switchblade flicker of a hi-hat there – inspired some truly impressive dance moves from the people around me on the floor; I witnessed some dancers losing themselves in the music in a way that I hadn’t seen for a long time.

Garçon’s entry in the Oslated podcast series. 

Agonis’ thought-provoking and bone-shaking live set was followed by a DJ set from his Amenthia Recordings colleague, Garçon. Clad in a brightly coloured tie-dye shirt, Garçon immediately set about lightening the mood a little, laying down slightly more melodic, looser tracks that acted as the perfect antidote to the storm of ragged-edge synths and remorseless bass that had come before. His tunes, while they still banged hard and fell firmly within deep techno territory, had a kind of warmth to them – something about the character of the bass, maybe, or the occasional jazzy percussion lick – that belied their sparse and brittle structure, as if I was listening to the bones of a deep house set that had been picked clean by a flock of vultures. Something else that really interested me about Garçon’s mixing was the unexpected musicality of it – I was floored by his clever use of key changes and chord progression, to the point where I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that he’s had some classical music training. That kind of harmonic mixing, while not exactly unheard of in the world of techno, certainly doesn’t seem to be as common as it does in some other forms of dance music, and it really helped his set stand out in my memory.

Taken individually, Agonis and Garçon both played stellar sets, but as a back to back duo they really brought out the best in each other. The two sets had a kind of ying-yang quality to them, with Garçon’s playful yet still hard-edged beats providing an excellent counterpoint to the somber tech-trance of Agonis, bringing a much needed sense of levity to an evening of music that, while excellent, had begun to feel like it was taking itself a little too seriously.

By the time it was closing DJ and Oslated label head Oslon’s turn to take over, the crowd had thinned out a little, but there were definitely still enough people dancing that the floor didn’t feel overly empty. Those that left early definitely missed out; Oslon pulled out all the stops, pummeling the audience with a demented array of scorched acid synths, hammer-and-anvil kick-bass combos, squalls of shaped noise and relentless, jittery percussion. It was heavy music, cold and alien and with little in the way of recognizable melody or harmony; but that didn’t stop it from being utterly exhilarating, and the crowd around me was going wild, whooping and cheering with every rapid-fire, effortless track transition. In short, it was a “total stomp, bru”, as ravers back home might say.

Looking back on my overall impression of the night, I’d say that if I had to pinpoint one aspect of the party that really impressed me it would be the variety of it all. Each DJ, while staying firmly within the bounds of techno, had very different interpretations of what “techno” means, and the end result was a constant sense of exploration and adventure that deftly avoided the rut that too many techno nights fall into – stale, monotonous, repetitive sets with little in the way of uniqueness or originality. Instead, each DJ offered the crowd an idiosyncratic musical experience, and the four sets, alongside help from a fantastic crowd, combined to produce and immensely fun and memorable evening. I can’t say I’m surprised – as I’ve mentioned before, I seldom don’t have a good time at vurt., and I have only respect and admiration for the gifted and hardworking Oslated crew – but I certainly am pleased.

 

Techno is a global phenomenon. It may be more firmly rooted in some places – Berlin, Detroit – than in others, but one of the joys of techno as a form of music and as a movement is the way in which techno clubs and labels can be found in almost every major city in the developed world (and elsewhere), and the kind of connections that spring up between producers and labels, DJs and clubs separated geographically, but united in a common passion for the music and by the work of technological wizardry that is the internet. This album, Västberga Allé by Eyvind Blix, exemplifies this interconnected aspect of the techno world. Eyvind Blix hails from Sweden, with the title Västberga Allé having been taken from the name of a street in Västberga, an industrial area in Stockholm notorious for being the site of illegal raves in the city. The label it’s been released on, however, is based in Seoul; Oslated, run by Jong-min Lee (aka Oslon) emerged out of the Oslated podcast series and is closely associated with the Constant Value warehouse parties and with the city’s premiere venue for techno of a dark and insular variety, vurt. It’s an interesting example of the international character of this kind of music, emblematic, to me at least, of techno’s ability to transcend boundaries.

The first track, ‘Elektra’, features a murky bass-kick combo submerged deep in the mix under a swell of constantly-evolving abrasive pads and insectile percussion. It’s a meditative, hypnotic piece, setting the tone for the album to come. It’s followed by “Maskinrum”, a more insistent number consisting of a jackhammer beat, subliminal synthesizer wails and hyper-repetitive looping percussion, coming across like a field recording from a Soviet uranium mine. The third track, “Introvert”, follows a similar kind of formula, presenting listeners with a barrage of rapid but muffled bass kicks, tribal plastic-bottle percussion, chattering robotic voices and two noisy crescendos of machine noise in place of traditional breakdowns which taken together form one of the high points of the entire album for me. By fourth track, “Karusellplan”, the album starts setting its eyes more firmly on the dancefloor; staggered, slightly off-kilter beats, intricate bursts of sonic detail and a muscular, droning lead that dominates the track’s latter half gives “Karusellplan” a groovy kind of feel that definitely got my head nodding. The fifth track, “Hemlängtan”, is an interesting example of how good techno music can be at displaying contrast; the kick and rumbling bass are crushingly heavy, but the sounds swirling around them – dub-like reverberation and a high-pitched, resonant three-note pattern that shines out of the darkness every so often like the beams of a lighthouse sweeping across a dark ocean – felt light and almost wistful, inducing in me a great sense of tranquility. This moment of respite is followed by the album’s biggest banger, “Drivhjulsvägen” (try saying that five times fast), a driving dancefloor bomb that derives a lot of mileage from a repetitive distorted synth pattern and a bone-shattering kick drum.

The album is rounded out by four stellar remixes from other Oslated associates. Vâyu’s remix of “Karusellplan” transforms the track into a rich ambient techno soundscape; while it maintains a sense of forward motion through the ebbs and flows of the bassline it feels very much more tailored for home listening (or opening/closing sets, perhaps) than for dark basements at 4 a.m. Saphileaum’s “1st Sky” mix of the same track takes a similar kind of approach. It’s slightly more beat-focused, but maintains a similar sort of spacey, floaty atmosphere, livening things up with an epic trance-like breakdown and synth chords towards the end. The remix of “Hemlängtan” by stalwart vurt resident Unjin, on the other hand, combines a rigid kickdrum groove with glowing pads, woodblock percussion and starship-engine-room ambient noise to create a track at once both cerebral and intensely physical, the kind of beat I’d be equally happy to dance my feet off in the club to as to listen to on the subway home. The closing track, a remix of “Drivhjulsvägen” by another vurt resident, Djilogue, is one of the most interesting tracks on the album, taking Eyvind Blix’s banger apart and reassembling it as a slinky, sleazy slice of brothel techno, bringing to mind the image of cyborg assassins stalking the streets of some far-future cyberpunk vice district.

All told, Vastbergä Allé is a worthy addition to the Oslated catalogue. It’s a well-crafted collection of deep, mesmerising techno that has something to offer both for DJs looking for material for their sets and for home listeners looking to space out with their headphones on. It’s not especially original or boundary-defying as an album, but not all music has to be innovative to be good; Eyvind Blix doesn’t do anything particularly new here, but he does display a refined understanding of and mastery over all of the tropes and tricks of techno, and utilizes them to extremely good effect.

Vastbergä Allé is available for purchase as a digital album over at Oslated’s Bandcamp

DATE: 07/04/2018

VENUE: vurt.

ENTRANCE FEE: ₩20 000

In the notes that I took during this event, tapped out hurriedly on my phone during downtime waiting in line for the bathroom, I see I’ve written, in all caps “WHY THE HELL DO YOU EVER GO ANYWHERE ELSE?”. Honestly, it’s a good question. Seoul is full of excellent clubs, each catering to different tastes and each with their own unique charm; but vurt. is something special. I can very clearly remember the first time I ever went there, just over a year ago. Myself and a friend spent an hour trying to find the place, wandering around Hapjeong starting at our phone gps in frustration, until we eventually realised we’d walked straight past it half a dozen times. It’s an easy place to miss; a nondescript wooden door in a wall down a quiet side street, with no sign or other markings indicating it’s presence other than the black-clad doorperson perched outside. Behind the door a narrow staircase leads downwards to another door, and behind that door lies the club itself, a concrete basement where the only source of illumination are slowly strobing lights and strategically-placed tealight candles. It’s a simple, utilitarian layout, not dissimilar to the multitude of other dark techno dens scattered around the world, but it works. More than any other club location I’ve been to in Seoul, stepping into vurt. feels like stepping into a small private universe.

Part of that feeling no doubt stems from the relative isolation of the club. It’s located in Hapjeong, the trendier, more sophisticated older brother to boisterous party neighbourhood Hongdae, and while it’s not exactly a quiet area it’s got nowhere near the same level of raucous bustle as somewhere like Hongdae or Itaewon. Clubs and bars are a little fewer and further spaced out, so it’s less easy to just stumble from one drinking or dancing spot to another. This geographic seclusion, together with the club’s anonymous exterior, means that very few of the people one meets inside vurt. ever seem to have stumbled into the place by mistake. Everyone there seems to be there because they want to be there, because they’ve actively sought the place out. And there are plenty of reasons to seek out vurt.; if you’re into techno of a dark and deep variety, the kind of sound synonymous with a certain Berlin nightclub that stars with “B” and ends with “erghain”, vurt. is the best place in the city to scratch that itch. Not only is the club blessed with a rotating roster of very talented Korean DJs, it also regularly plays host to respected names in techno from all over the world; last year saw sets from Silent Servant, Dasha Rush, Cassegrain, and Sigha, among others.

gens

 

The cover of Answer Code Request’s second album, Gens, released February this year on Ostgut Ton.

Saturday April 7th saw vurt. offering up a special treat, however; a DJ set by Ostgut Ton luminary and Berghain resident Answer Code Request, currently touring to promote his second album, Gens. Answer Code Request (real name Patrick Gräser), reportedly a childhood friend of Marcel Dettmann, has been Djing since he was 13, but really rose to prominence in 2011 with breakout track “Escape Myself”, released as part of the Subway Into EP on the Answer Code Request imprint, a sub-label of Dettmann’s MDR created especially for the record. The track catapulted Answer Code Request into the ranks of techno stardom, and his debut album, Code, released on Ostgut Ton three years later, served to further solidify his status. Gräser’s idiosyncratic approach to techno immediately made him stand out from his peers. He tends to steer clear of the rigid genre structures preferred by many other producers, blending techno with tropes and details pillaged from breakbeat, jungle, hardcore and ambient music. In an interview with Resident Advisor’s Matt Unicomb conducted earlier this year, Gräser claims that “when I hear only straight 4/4 techno there’s nothing there for me”, and that for him “it’s not always about banging, dark music. There’s something else we can also enjoy – breaks, melodies”. This philosophy towards dance music (which he claims to have some trouble making – he prefers producing ambient tunes) is clearly apparent in his work, which is frequently as impossible to classify as it is immaculately crafted. I was very glad to have the chance to hear one of his sets for myself (he apparently played at vurt. in February of last year, as well, but I wasn’t in the country then) and after spending a week listening to Gens on repeat every chance I got I was almost dead from hype by the time Saturday night rolled around.

“Escape Myself”, the track that catapulted Answer Code Request to techno stardom. 

I made sure to get there early so as not to miss much of Suna’s opening set. In my opinion, she’s the best local DJ, techno or otherwise, working in Seoul, and her performances are always something special. Saturday night was no exception. She began with a selection of slow-burning dub techno that gradually morphed into a slightly faster and darker affair, luring the already sizable crowd lingering along the edges of the room onto the dancefloor. The latter part of her set paired agile, nimble beats with ominous atmospheric noise that circled like vultures overhead, a combination of techno moodiness and rhythmic experimentation that complimented the kind of breakbeat-heavy adventurous tunes Answer Code Request would be playing later. I was so entranced by her selections and mixing that when the time came for her set to draw to a close and for Answer Code Request to take to the stage I was actually a little disappointed – at that moment I would have happily listened to Suna play all night.

My disappointment, however, was soon forgotten once Answer Code Request started laying down his first couple of grooves. From the start, it was clear we were in for something very far removed from the stereotypical idea of “dour Berghain techno”; for the first hour of his set there wasn’t a single straight 4/4 beat to be heard. Instead, Answer Code Request played an assortment of rubbery, funky tracks that sounded more like something off of 50 Weapons, Hyperdub or Hessle Audio than they did Ostgut Ton, Nevertheless, the feeling and atmosphere he maintained was still unmistakably techno. Each immense kick sounded as if it had been launched from an underground silo in a secret location, their crushing weight buoyed up by deconstructed and decaying rave leads reminiscent of an old-school hardcore mixtape dug up in a radioactive wasteland. Everything he played felt ever-so-slightly alien – recognizable as techno, but techno playing from an adjacent dimension, or being beamed into the concrete interior of the club by some mysterious future radio station. Or maybe, and more prosaically, from the UK; a lot of the tracks he threw in the mix definitely felt drawn from, or at least influenced by, the dizzying depths of the British hardcore continuum.

Around halfway through, however, Gräser seemed to hit a bit of a rut, swapping out the breaks and polyrhythms he’d been dealing in before for a more straight-laced, direct form of techno. It wasn’t a bad thing, necessarily – even when mixing more conventional 4-to-the-floor tracks he still kept the dancefloor enthralled – but I was a little let down that after such a daring and unconventional start he’d decided to turn back down such a well-worn musical path. To me the change in pace felt especially surprising given what I’d heard about Answer Code Request’s disdain for such formulaic stuff. I wasn’t alone, either; a couple of the people I chatted to outside when I went up for some air expressed a similar confused and vaguely dissatisfied sentiment. That being said, when I went back down I still had a great time dancing even if I what I was dancing to wasn’t quite as sonically interesting as it had been earlier, and towards the end of his set Answer Code Request started to get a little adventurous again, lightening up the shadowy atmosphere with a choice range of warm, bassline-driven house numbers. He finished off with Bicep’s “Glue”, one of the biggest tracks off of their fantastic self-titled debut album that came out last year, and I was struck by what an interesting journey we’d been taken on in the couple of hours he’d been playing; how Gräser’s tracks had covered such a wide musical range while still maintaining such an impressive sense of continuity and coherency. It’s easy to see why Answer Code Request has been able to make a name for himself as one of the most respected resident DJs at one of the most legendary techno institutions on the planet. Even taking account the awkward lag in the middle, his set was still one of the best I’ve ever heard, evidence that Patrick Gräser is a master of his craft.

After the last few claps from “Glue” had been drowned out by whoops and cheers from a rapturous crowd, it was resident DJ Xanexx’s turn to step up behind the decks and close out the night. Following an act like Answer Code Request must be daunting beyond belief, but if Xanexx was feeling the pressure he didn’t show it. With a confident grin plastered on his face, he launched straight into a high-octane burst of raw, twisted bangers. Whereas Suna’s opening set had been heavy on nebulous chords and sullen atmosphere, Xanexx took a more direct approach, favouring rapid-fire percussion and acid-tinged synths that almost – but not quite – verged on trance. It worked brilliantly. Normally, I expect people to start filtering out once the headliner’s set is done (there are unfortunately always going to be those people who are only interested in big international names and have minimal interest in hearing local acts). When I looked around me on the dancefloor about an hour-ish into Xanexx’s set, however, it felt just as full as it had in the middle of Answer Code Request’s – and a whole lot rowdier. By the time the sun had come up outside the crowd inside vurt. had gotten loose as hell and just seemed to be getting looser.

I haven’t spoken about the crowd that night yet, so I’ll take the opportunity to do so now. They were, in a word, lovely. The audience was perhaps 50% European (a lot of French and Germans, which is pretty normal for vurt. and for Seoul in general – wherever there is techno, I find, the Germans come out of the woodwork) – and people were by and large very relaxed and friendly, with none of the standoffish, too-cool-for-chit-chat attitudes that sometimes come with techno hipster territory. Something I really like about vurt. in general is that while it’s a place where I can go to and feel totally comfortable alone, not feeling any pressure to socialise with anyone else if I don’t want to and not feeling judged or looked down on for being by myself, in my experience it’s also really easy to strike up conversation and get to know people there if I want to, which isn’t always the case elsewhere. The balance of solitude and sociability I can find at vurt. is another thing I really love about the place, and as much a part of the attraction as the excellent music, top-notch soundsystem and reasonably-priced (for Seoul, anyway) drinks. I regret not staying to the very end, but by around 7 my feet and knees were beginning to ache and I knew I had to get myself onto the subway home before I found myself passing out on one of the black leather couches in the corner.

Why the hell do I ever go anywhere else, indeed? Based on how great this night was, I don’t intend to go anywhere but vurt. for a little while. Very few other clubs in Seoul can really measure up.

Note: You may have noticed something missing from this article – photographs! I decided not to take any pictures in vurt. … I don’t think they have any policy against it, it just didn’t feel like something I wanted to do in that space. You’ll have to use your imaginations, I’m afraid!