I’ve written a couple of times before about how much I’ve come to enjoy Xanexx’s DJ prowess since I arrived in Korea. His sets have never failed to disappoint; his sounds are invariably dark and uncompromising and overflowing with gnarly energy, and he has a knack for challenging his audience and making them really think about the tunes they’re hearing while also making them dance like their lives depended on it. This ear for music and refined sense of rhythm and groove carries over well into his production work, as well, as evinced by the thunderous broken-beat of ‘Resplendent’, his track on this year’s ECI Korea compilation, or in the industrial haze of his remix for Javier Marimon that I wrote about earlier this month. As such, I was very keen to get my hands on his latest release, the Poem of Light EP that recently came out on SCOPÁVIK, the label and podcast expertly managed by Seoul techno veteran Scøpe.

After hearing Xanexx’s ethereal rework of Javier Marimon’s ‘General Noise I’, I half expected him to dabble in more ambient techno for this release; however, all four tracks here seem to be designed with the dancefloor firmly in mind. Title track and EP opener ‘Poem of Light’ kicks off with a deep, rubbery bassline whose innate funkiness is offset by the ghostly inhuman voices and cascade of retro sci-fi effects that Xanexx drapes over it. As the track progresses the snap and sizzle of laser blasts grows ever more rapid and insistent until it is transformed into a jackhammer of synth tones, tunneling into the dark foundation of the bass while the rest of the track’s structural elements begin to glow white-hot. The following track, ‘Superposition’, follows on so suddenly and smoothly from ‘Poem of Light’ that I had to double check to see if the first track wasn’t still playing. Here, ragged, alien noises expand and contract, glistening against the backdrop of a pitch-black kick and bass combo that feels loose, almost jazzlike in its composition. Meanwhile, rapidly revolving cycles of shamanistic synth cut through the carefully constructed soundscape, providing the listener with a kind of rhythmic anchor and imposing a sense of order on the near-chaos around them.

 

 

Track 3, ‘Swaying Lights’, is centered around a staccato sequence of synth notes that feels reminiscent of the early days of Detroit techno. The earthquake pulse of the kick rumbles along below a kaleidoscope formed from glitched-out fragments of sonic architecture. The EP closes off with a remix by German DJ/producer and Mind Express label boss Refracted, who puts his own spin on ‘Swaying Lights’. He chooses to beef things up a bit here, swapping out Xanexx’s nimble, polished 909 kicks for a much rougher and boomier low-end sound that thuds along constrained by a rigid 4/4 grid. Like the original track, Refracted’s remix of ‘Swaying Lights’ relies on repetitive loops of microscopic noise to drive itself forward, but in Refracted’s hands the end result is much more direct, much “trackier”, transforming Xanexx’s tune into a jacking groove that will surely devastate many a dimly-lit dancefloor. DJs will undoubtedly love this one, but to my ears it’s probably the least interesting of the four tracks on the EP, eroding much of the intrigue and depth of the original and losing out on one of Xanexx’s greatest strengths as a producer – his unusual and unpredictable drum programming.

The EP is, unfortunately, marred by a few slight technical mishaps; I think it probably could have done with a bit more time spent in the mixing and mastering stage, as to my ears the higher frequencies on a couple of tracks (most notably ‘Poem of Light’) are mixed a little too loud and harsh, detracting from the work going on in the low-end. I was also a little let down by Refracted’s remix, and feel that he could have done more to preserve the spirit of the original tune and craft a remix that fit better with the flow and feel of the EP. Ultimately, however, these are fairly minor quibbles, and Poem of Light remains a strong collection of tracks, a bold statement of intent from an artist who continues to prove time and time again that he is one of the most important figures within the world of Korean techno today. I’m looking forward to hearing more from him in the near future – and secretly hoping that his next release is album-length.

Poem of Light is available for purchase over on SCOPAVIK’s Bandcamp

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

General Noise is available for purchase at Oslated’s Bandcamp

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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.

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!