Rhys Fulber, “Your Dystopia, My Utopia”

Rhys Fulber
Your Dystopia, My Utopia
Sonic Groove

As a member of Front Line Assembly (and its various off-shoots including successful world-beat/electronica act Delerium) during that project’s most well regarded and commercially successful era – not to mention his solo project Conjure One and studio work with Paradise Lost, Fear Factory and more recently Youth Code and Kanga – Rhys Fulber’s influence and profile amongst those who know can’t be overstated. Perhaps the most interesting thing then about his debut LP under his own name for Sonic Groove records is hearing the veteran artist/producer explore territory that hints at his broad catalogue of work without being specifically beholden to any one piece of it.

Broadly speaking the music on Your Dystopia, My Utopia falls into the rubric of industrialized-techno, although the album emphasizes texture and structure over dancefloor bangers. While rhythms and tempos are kept central to each composition, it’s Fulber’s sensibility as a programmer and articulate production style that define the record. “Limited Vision” has a straight 4/4 beat underneath most of it, but the essence of the track is in how grinding synths interact with the the vast, open reverbs that obscure the track’s sonic boundaries, hiding some sounds until they jump to the fore, and covering them as they retreat to the edges of the stereo spectrum again. Album highlight “My Church” invokes a technoid rhythm as its backbone before building a massive cathedral of organ and synth patches and portentous samples for a cinematic feel. Neither track feels like anything we’ve heard from Fulber before, but definitely bear his steady hand from the building blocks of sound design (some of which is contributed by Los Angeles synth guru Jeff Swearengin) through to final mix.

That’s not to say that the album suffers when it makes overt dancefloor bids though. Songs like “Truncheon” or “Anhedonia” have plenty of DJ appeal with their rapidly cycling basslines and tough, crunchy drums, but feature the same fine attention to detail as the rest of the record. The latter number is especially notable in how maximal it feels while working with a more limited structure, injecting a Gessafelstein-esque arrangement with a heft and coarseness that move it towards classic rhythmic noise.

Beyond the strong appeal it holds for simple repeat listening, Your Dystopia, My Utopia also acts as both evidence of Rhys Fulber’s technical proficiency, but also his oft overlooked skill as composer. For those who mostly know him via his extensive work as a remixer, collaborator or studio hand, it should go a ways to illuminating his auteurship; in presenting himself in a largely new way Fulber has made us appreciate him as an individual artist all the more. Recommended.

Buy it.

Celldöd, “Fragmenterade Minnen”

Fragmenterade Minnen
DKA Records

In a recent interview with Bandcamp daily, Anders Karlsson noted that “I [Karlsson] like the sound of cheap hardware that many people would never use. I like bad-sounding digital effects, old spring reverbs that have a sound of their own, and semi-functional gear.” That preference has been pretty apparent to followers of his solo-project Celldöd, a name that has stood for rough, DIY-EBM since it first emerged in 2014. At the outset that emphasis on grittiness seemed like a reaction to the smoother direction his previous band The Pain Machinery had taken to body music on its final release, but with 2018’s Fragmenterade Minnen Celldöd sounds more fully realized as its own entity, complete with a distinct and recognizable production aesthetic.

While Celldöd’s hardware-based compositions – made via an array of classic drum machines and synths alongside cheap and salvaged gear – have always sounded somewhat lo-fi, the key to their success has been in how immediately Karlsson pinpoints a groove and then squeezes every ounce of energy out of it. Nearly every track on Fragmenterade Minnen introduces its bassline within seconds and then rides it out, ornamenting the framework with reverbs, delays and layers of recording dirt. Whether a down the pipe EBM number like “Vrider”, a double-time synthpunk workout like “Alla Har Fel” or a deliberately awkward minimalist composition like “Hotet Från Underjorden (Dub)”, it’s always the arrangement of synth bass and noisy hats and kicks that make up the body of the song. Karlsson knows how far to push each composition, and when to cut them off as their energy and momentum begins to flag, never letting anything become exhausted or played out.

The biggest departure apparent on the LP is the emphasis on Karlsson as vocalist. We know from his previous work that he’s more than a capable singer, but here he shrouds himself in effects and goes guttural with his delivery, grunting and yelping his way through each song. It’s a fitting style for him to take on for the material, and one that places his voice in the same category as the various acid squeaks and squelches and washes of static that make their way through the audio spectrum, a textural element rather than a melodic one. It speaks to Karlsson’s philosophy as a producer; as he slowly expands the palette of sounds available to Celldöd, he also takes care not to betray the sound he’s cultivated, aligning his new tools with his proven approach.

Buy it.

We Have a Commentary: The Mission, "God's Own Medicine"

This month’s Patreon-supported bonus podcast is about The Mission’s “God’s Own Medicine”, an important and dare we say controversial entry into the UK goth rock canon. What insights do Alex and Bruce have into the songwriting, arrangement and influences of Wayne Hussey and co’s debut? Listen and find out! Oh, and yes, we do talk about the Sisters a bunch. Don’t forget to rate and subscribe on iTunes, Google Play Music, or download directly or stream from Spotify or the widget down below.

Struck 9, “Ritual Body Music”

Struck 9
Ritual Body Music
EK Product

One of the failings of the EBM revival of the mid-to-late aughts was certainly the narrow focus on a specific, eighties iteration of the sound. While certainly not universal, that adherence to the muscle n’ hate template had an air of the reactionary about it, a rejection of any stylistic developments, and specifically any that were seen as a dilution of pure, true school EBM. Consequently a lot of the colorful and interesting sounds of the genre’s early 90s period were overlooked by the neo-oldschool crowd, leaving them ripe to be picked up by enterprising acts seeking to expand the palette available to classically minded body music producers.

Enter Colombian act Struck 9, whose 2018 sophomore album Ritual Body Music certainly has some post-80s flair in terms of sound design and arrangement. While songs like the opening title track definitely rely on the classic punchy, syncopated basslines of trad-EBM, the energy and bounce with which they’re executed here is more reminiscent of early 90s output of acts like Orange Sector or Paranoid than say, DAF or Nitzer Ebb. At least some of that is also due to the sleek, digital texture of the programming, which emphasizes smoothly interlocked sequences of notes, allowing the uptempo synthlines of “Execute” and “Bodytemple” to push simple melodies along in tempo with the rhythm section.

It’s a formula that works well for Struck 9, but at times betrays some creative inertia. While no individual track has much of an issue in a vacuum, Ritual Body Music does suffer from some sameyness in style throughout, with songs that blur a bit in execution. This might be a function of the plain vocals, which while perfectly serviceable don’t offer many memorable hooks for the listener to latch onto. That said, when the band bring in some other stylistic elements the results are notable, as with the electro-industrial tropes that inform “Zero Day”, or the And One-esque electropop touches on political number “No Fracking U.S.A.”.

With the boom of retro-EBM in the rearview mirror, it’s pleasant to uncover an act like Struck 9 taking up the style in a way that doesn’t feel like the same old school ideas being regurgitated. When listened to in a single sitting not every second of Ritual Body Music will necessarily standout, but there are enough moments like the fist-pumping arrangement of “999mb” to mitigate those lulls. Definitely worth checking out if you’re in the mood for some throwback sounds that aren’t just more of the same old.

Buy it.

Natura Est, self-titled

Natura Est

Would you believe that a collaboration between Tony Young of orchestral IDM project Autoclav1.1 and Andreas Davids of industrial/rhythmic noise act Xotox would result in an ambient record? Both acts are students of structure in their own way, with Young specializing in heady composition and Davids in sandpaper rough textural beats, so the idea of them entering the liquid realm of atmosphere and sound design devoid of traditional structures is a little odd. Then again, some of the fun of Natura Est’s debut is in hearing these two distinct artists subsume their individual artistic personalities in each imposing glacier of sound.

Given that Autoclav1.1 is already given to some level of abstraction, Natura Est is probably a bit closer to Young’s standard modus operandi than it is Davids’. That said, the album forgoes much of the semi-formalism of the former producer’s work, and wades into murkier waters. Massive washes of ambiance and slowly evolving shapes make up much of the sound design of the record, as individual tones emerge briefly only to be washed away in slow moving rivers of reverb and delay. Some of the glitches and long waves of of static that resolve on “Grey Skies” and “Black Town” come across as Davids’ work, although the latter track’s very distant drums suggest traditional dark ambient’s ritualism. That esoteric feeling is furthered on “Causatum”, where barely defined rhythms can be made out underneath the layers of deep rumbling bass, suggesting some hidden mechanism moving beyond our ability to perceive it.

That said, trying to figure out where each producer might have made their mark on these songs is a difficult proposition – the songs are so monolithic in nature that zooming in on any individual element loses perspective on the broader picture being painted. It’s more satisfying to turn up the volume and enjoy the subconscious and meditative aspects of the listening experience. In practice it’s good fodder for mental exercises, maintaining a focus and intensity that keep it from becoming background noise, but not intruding overly or being demanding of attention. Natura Est might not be what you expect from this particular meeting of the minds, but its an entrancing result nonetheless.

Buy it.

Haujobb, “Alive”

Metropolis Records

A live album from Haujobb is an enticing idea: moreso than many of their peers in the world of industrial, Dejan Samardzic and Daniel Myer have made efforts to make their live shows distinct from their albums. In practice that means trading a small amount of studio exactitude for dynamic live percussion, keys and vocals. The press release for Alive makes a point of noting how much of their catalogue the live document covers, but its value lies less in acting as a career retrospective and more as a snapshot of who the long-running act are in the second decade of the millennium.

Starting with 2011’s New World March the sound that Samardzic and Myer’s work has been placing more emphasis on rhythm and structure, and how percussion and sequencing fit together inside their high-sheen production aesthetic. Consequently the tracks from that album and its follow-up Blendwerk feel most potent in these recordings. The way “Machine Drum”‘s whirling string sample gives way to the workmanlike pulse of a kick drum and manually filtered synth sweeps as Myer lets loose vocally is instructive, bringing the song closer in line with slightly more recent numbers like “Meltdown” and “Input Error”. Those latter songs’ detuned analogue sounds remain fairly intact from their studio incarnations; understandable given how the project’s most recent recordings have likely influenced how they bring their music to the stage.

While it’s the recent material that feels most natural on Alive (check the slightly renovated but totally comfortable versions of “Crossfire”, “Dead Market” and “Lets Drop Bombs”) some of the classics benefit equally from the shift. Fan favourite “Anti/Matter”‘s speedy breaks are given a kosmische drum machine makeover and Myer going way over the top when called on to shout, injecting a different energy into a number that traditionally represents the group at their most precise and sleekly digital. Conversely, stone electro-industrial classic “Penetration” omits the rhythm track for a good portion of its run time, making the entrance of a motorik beat halfway through all the more impactful. Some selections (“Eye Over You”, “Dream Aid”, “Renegades of Noise”) aren’t especially enlivened by the translation to the stage, but are generally legacy numbers that don’t lose anything from being presented in their most familiar forms.

Like most live albums, Alive‘s primary appeal will be to those who are already familiar with the material, and wish to hear how songs new and old might sound in the more active and unpredictable live setting – check final track “Let’s Drop Errors” for an example of those latter qualities in action. Those same fans might however be surprised by exactly how much of Haujobb’s current goals and strategies are reflected in these recordings, and how it serves to illuminate the fluidity of an act who show no signs of slowing down creatively some 25 years since their formation.

Buy it.

Michael Idehall, “Prophecies of the Storm”

Michael Idehall
Prophecies of the Storm

Like his previous releases for Ant-Zen, Michael Idehall’s newest Prophecies of the Storm is an exploration of his self-coined “seancetronica” sound. In practice, the Swedish producer/performer mixes up ambient, power electronics and rhythmic noise signifiers into a whole, with a strong streak of esoteric thematics and personal poetics shaping the mood and tone. As with all his work, Idehall himself is something of a focal point, his rich baritone intoning ritual chants and secretive whispers that further highlight the arcane bent of the music.

Even by Idehall’s standards, there’s an opaque, impenetrable air to the music on Prophecies of the Storm. Moments of clarity exist, like on the cleanly mixed drone n’ noise number “Gordian Knot”, but more often the album uses washes of noise and bass (“One Who Sees All”, “Another Prophet of the Storm”) or cavernous reverb textures and glacial loops (“Bear Nemesis”, “In the Dark Vapour”) to blur the edges of each composition into obscurity. Sometimes both approaches meet in a controlled cacophony, as on the slow-rolling “Another Prophet of the Storm”, whose pulsing beat creates a visceral, physical reaction even at lower volumes. There’s a weight to how each song is rendered, as vast fields of slowly expand, growing in mass and then dissipating with surprising transience. You would think this mode of operation would best lend itself to lengthy track times, but only one individual track breaking the five and a half minute mark, a secret sign of Idehall’s reservation as a an arranger.

Still, the album is forceful, and its intensity is both discomfiting and beguiling. While its vastness and carriage has the effect of making the music harder to parse, it also draws in the ear, as whirring, crackling energies flit across the stereo spectrum, beckoning. Idehall works that push-pull of exceptionally, hiding himself in behind simile and ducking sonic elements in the mix, while still showing enough of himself that he himself isn’t lost. Oftentimes the record’s explorations feel like a kind of metaphorical chase, as Idehall forges forwards through unmapped territory, sometimes disappearing briefly from the listener, and then reappearing in the distance, or even right in front them. The lack of an easy path for pursuit is part of the experience, Prophecies of the Storm‘s uncertain destination its central appeal. Recommended.

Buy it.

We Have a Commentary: And One, "Anguish"

For this month’s Patreon-supported bonus commentary podcast, Bruce and Alex chat about And One’s 1991 LP Anguish! Speculation runs rampant as our two intrepid hosts jabber about what has made the band so unique, how much of their future is apparent from their very first release and a host of other topics as refracted through the lens of Steve Naghavi and company’s debut album. So get out your metal hammers, and book your ticket on Devil Airlines, because it’s (Crime)time for We Have a Commentary! You can rate and subscribe on iTunes, Google Play Music, download directly or stream from Spotify or the widget down below.

Blac Kolor, “Awakening”

Blac Kolor
Hands Productions

Hendrick Grothe’s Blac Kolor project emerged in 2013, around the time that the current wave of techno-industrial crossover sounds was really starting to take form. Those early records for Basic Unit Productions were rhythmically focused, with Grothe’s background as a DJ shaping his production ethos. Even then though, the aesthetics of Blac Kolor were apparent, with opaque sound design and spacious atmospheres being central to the project’s character. On the producer’s debut for Hands Productions Awakening those same elements are given the lion’s share of the spotlight, largely forgoing the dancefloor in favour of a rich, textural listening experience.

That doesn’t mean that rhythm is absent from the LP. In fact it still serves a central purpose, it’s just a different purpose than on previous releases. Pre-release single “We Are the Darkness” is a good example of how Grothe’s rhythm programming is used to create structure and balance in a track, with the shape of the song defined by the density and arrangement of drum hits, while vocal samples and sinister pads dictate the mood and feeling. The deep, bassy “Loneliness” and rhythmic noise inflected “One Floor” definitely rely on groove as a building block, but it’s the shimmery sonic veil of the former and the woozy breath of the latter that make them distinct. There are danceable songs in the form of the title track (which features a brief vocal from Front 242’s Jean-Luc De Meyer), the body-music inflected “Nano Creator”, and the surprisingly smooth “All of Us”, although they’re far different animals in terms of disposition than the flat-out bangers that you might expect from Blac Kolor.

Awakening‘s emphasis on design gives it a lot of scope, and that both works for and against it. On the plus side, there are moments on the record that articulate a real thoughtfulness in construction, like how the whirring, ticking complexity of “Fall Into Oblivion” gives way to the ambience of “Abstand”, or how “Fire God!” cleverly invokes rhythmic noise with the same toolset used on the dubby, cinematic “Tears”. That said its expansiveness and monochromatic palette also make it harder to stay invested in across a single listening session, as the details of each track’s construction stack up and blur together. Blac Kolor have traded some immediacy in order to explore more intricate ideas and forms, and given its hour plus length it takes some investment from the listener to really appreciate. It’s an ambitious LP, and for those willing to put the time in, it yields subtle and understated rewards.

Buy it.

Binary Park, “Life on Lines”

Binary Park
Life on Lines
Infacted Recordings

The main problem with Binary Park’s 2015 sophomore album Singularity was its languid pace and lack of catchy songs; the trio of Torben Schmidt, Alfred Gregl and vocalist Huw Jones had all the tools as producers and performers, but the material just wasn’t up to snuff. Third album Life on Lines feels like a step forward for Binary Park, adjusting the tempo and emphasizing melody to redress the imbalance between production and songcraft that has plagued them in the past.

Musically, the band are still working in the same vein of melodic electronic music with touches of EBM and synthpop as on their previous releases. To their credit, that mix is sounding very developed in 2018, with their impeccable modern sound design meshing different stylistic forms into a smooth whole. The pumping bassline and busy synth sequences of opener “Your Own Great Nation” might not seem like a natural fit for Jones’ velvety croon as a vocalist, but the clarity of the mix fits them together in pleasingly cozy fashion. Ditto the guitar and piano on synth ballad “The Last Ones Alive”, a song reminiscent of modern-era Depeche Mode in its lushness and warmth.

The material itself is by and large stronger than the preceding effort, especially when the tempos are kept more upbeat. Album highlight “How Strange” has a delicately articulated chorus from Jones, acting as a terrific counterpoint to the song’s grinding synth bass drops and syncopated rhythms. “Faith Has Let Me Down Again” has a memorably plucky hook backed by straightforward rhythm track that flirts with funky deep house in intriguing fashion, exactly the kind of transparent genre fusion that they excel at. Even the weaker songs are pleasant enough – whether by virtue of strong, uptempo rhythm programming (“Normal”, “Welcome Home”) or funk-lite grooves (“Cropper 2”, “Dream Like This”) the album consistently stays in agreeable listening territory. There’s still a smattering of underwritten numbers amongst the 12 tracks, but they’re more unremarkable than out and out bad.

The cohesion of Life on Lines means that it’s probably best consumed as a whole. Its best cuts are fine on their own, but their strength is reinforced by taking them in with the rest of the record, bolstering their congeniality and urbane sensibility. It’s a good look for Binary Park, who feel like they’re hitting their stride in terms of writing and execution, producing music that hints at still greater possibilities for them moving forward.

Buy it.