Observer: Makeup And Vanity Set & Webdriver Torso

Makeup And Vanity Set

Matthew Pusti’s work as Makeup And Vanity Set has favoured a cinematic sound, forgoing some of the neon markers of his synthwave peers to ply soundtrack-inspired compositions that owe a debt to pioneers like Tangerine Dream and Vangelis. The latter influence hangs heavily over new EP Pris, which as you can probably surmise from the title draws a great deal of inspiration from Vangelis’ legendary score for Blade Runner. Tributes that particular landmark in electronic music are plentiful, but Pusti can be commended for digging into some of its more interesting rhythmic and structural components. “Lover(s)” invokes both the film’s “Love Theme” and “Like Tears in Rain”, finding some commonality between the smooth and smokey jazz and the mournful synth strings that define each track. “Last Shuttle Home” digs deep into the use of arpeggiation, shifting the range of notes from bright and melodic to dark and bassy, and altering the shape of the envelope to suggest different moods a la Blade Runner‘s end titles theme. The most original track, “Crush”, departs from broad homage in its use of rubbery bass and wavering pads, speaking to some of Makeup and Vanity Set’s own previous work in soundtracks both real and imaginary, and in the project’s capacity for classic synth composition that doesn’t begin and end with retro sound design.

Webdriver Torso - Listen_Die_EP
Webdriver Torso

It’s not unusual for a contemporary act to be drawing from the legacy of 90s industrial. But when that act has one foot in contemporary underground darkwave and another in the most garish examples of 90s crossover acts, well, interesting things happen. Seattle’s up and coming Webdriver Torso proudly cite their generational markers (“Chris & Cosey raised on Marilyn Manson”), and even if their debut EP isn’t quite at schismatic as that pairing might suggest, it does a nice job of bringing some day-glo excess to today’s more dour stylings. Croaks and growls hang about the background of “Web_006″‘s wistful croon before seizing the controls and kicking the next number through pinball-machine rubbery kicks and screwball synths. Despite being relatively lo-fi, enough consideration’s been given to the shape and sound of the EP’s elements to keep things interesting, and the pitch and presentation of Webdriver Torso’s material doesn’t overshadow the actual tunes themselves. Regardless of the eras of their influences or differences in their style, the duo are able to bring them to heel when it comes time to put themselves forward.

Observer: Hex Wolves & Monolith

Hex Wolves - Another Man Made Tragedy
Hex Wolves
Another Man Made Tragedy

The titles of Hex Wolves’ Another Man Made Tragedy and its tracks which refer to mining disasters seem well timed to the Don Blankenship campaign, and whether that’s intentional or not the LA producer’s techno compositions are as soiled as Blankenship’s soul. Though only three tracks long, Another Man Made Tragedy quickly establishes its own ethos and delivery. Alternately delivering rubbery bounce and high, insistent sine waves which at times connote the sensation of chewing tin foil, the rapid speed with with Hex Wolves’ tracks shuffle the focus of their component tracks adds another layer of disquiet to an already confrontational style. The breakish chaos of the first two tracks is brought to bear on closer “Survivor’s Remorse”, in which a robotic funk beat chugs through at a regimented pace, though it’s the tension of “Just An Insurance Write-Off” which remains after the EP ends. The contrast between its submerged beats and the far-off shrieks which could be emitting from a train derailment or the restless souls of dead miners is nothing short of unnerving.

Falling Dreams
Hands Productions

Eric van Wonterghem’s Monolith has been a pretty constant fixture of the rhythmic noise scene for over two decades at this point, acting as a solo outlet for the producer between stints with Sonar, Absolute Body Control, and Insekt amongst others. Falling Dreams certainly speaks to van Wonterghem’s legacy in industrial circles via crunchy powernoise tracks like “Corpus” and “The Attack”, but also delves into some techno crossover sounds that fit very naturally within the project’s aesthetic. Numbers like “Sleeping Sun” and “High Carbon Steel” ease up on the saturation and distortion and focus more on big atmospheres and variations in rhythm programming, and even dashes of funk in their basslines. The two stylistic variations are kept distinct on a track by track basis, but occasionally come together in pleasing fashion: “Driving Blind” is built around techno minimalism and a a noisy soundset, and “Man Disconnected”‘s deep pulsing heart could hail easily hail from either genre. It’s not the first time Monolith has played with these ideas toghether, but in 2018 when more producers than ever are seeking to hybridize industrial and techno, it’s good to hear a practiced hand like van Wonterghem stir the mixture up.

Observer: RadioVoid & Visions/Phurpa

Violence Acts

While the description “antifascist industrial music for the coming dark ages” might lead you to believe Montreal’s RadioVoid were a chaotic and violent band, the sound on their recent 3-track Violence Acts is of a pretty subdued nature. Situated at the minimal end of the European coldwave spectrum, the duo keep things simple in their compositions, with sparse arrangements and limited building blocks. The results are monochromatic in nature, relying on rhythm and repetition more than bombast to engage with listeners. “Stones” opens with a bold synthline, but when a thudding kick and gated snares come into the mix it settles into a straight groove, with delayed vocals layered affectlessly over top. Late in the song a feedback drone is introduced, slowly growing until the already familiar drum hits have to carve themselves a place in the mix, changing the dynamic of the track considerably. “Secluded Sunset” plays it a bit more straight, feeling like a classic Mute records number a la the Normal or Fad Gadget, albeit with less manic energy and a more disinterested outlook. The title track departs considerably from the preceding songs, starting with a distant percussion loop that is slowly dragged underwater and lost by massive drones and reverbed pads, with only the occasional cymbal breaking through to the surface to remind you of the song’s origins. It’s interesting stuff, if not necessarily the most urgent or attention grabbing, dealing in implication more than immediacy.

Visions & Phurpa - Monad
Visions & Phurpa
Cyclic Law

Dark music aficionados will likely be most familiar with Frederic Arbour as the man behind Cyclic Law, but he has dark ambient work of his own in addition to promoting that of others. Arbour’s taken up his Visions project for the first time in a number of years, and is doing so in order to collaborate with Phurpa, a Buddhist liturgical collective based out of Moscow who focus on ritual chants (never let it be said that you don’t meet life’s more outré travelers in dark ambient). The end result is a slow and weighty listen which seems to press in upon the chest and the soul, simultaneously crushing and liberating both. While never sounding either “stygian” or “cosmic”, Monad does conjure a sense of the otherworldly if only by pressing in on the senses to the point that one’s own self begins to feel alien and unfamiliar. Sonically, while there are slow moving harmonic shifts to be teased out of Monad‘s pads, much of its traction comes from the textural tension between its buzzing drones and the slow, gutteral timbre of Phurpa’s chants. Without ever reaching catharsis or release, the glacial back and forth of Monad‘s four pieces build patterns which aren’t so much rhythmic as cyclical, matching the processes of bodies adjusting to move, breathe, and function in keeping with the tones resonating from Phurpa’s throats without beginning or end.

Observer: Kontravoid & Vanligt Folk

Kontravoid - Undone

A lot’s happened in dark electronics since Kontravoid’s last major release. The combination of darkwave and minimal wave sounds put forth on the Toronto producer’s 2012 LP put him ahead of the curve at that point, but the embracing of industrial and noisier textures in the broader electronic world in the interim has been significant. That Undone, the project’s first sustained release since 2013 (presaged by stand-alone 2017 track “So It Seems”) has been released by the razor sharp Fleisch collective out of Berlin speaks to how Kontravoid’s responded to that change. And yes, a marked EBM influence is apparent right from the start on Undone to be sure. It’s never been too far from hand in Kontravoid’s previous work, but tunes like “Hold Nothing” and “Not Your Dream” are kick-forward EBM bangers from start to finish. That said, Kontravoid hasn’t rushed into a wholly generic EBM template in seeking to update his sound. Plenty of the quirks of his original sound design and synth-work remain, offering fuzzy and bendy fun even as the rhythms remain strict. The combination of oddball synth squalls alongside new-school EBM fascination ends up being somewhat reminiscent of //TENSE//’s trailblazing work, but is also clearly in line with the more synthpop-oriented tracks on Kontravoid’s early releases.

Vanligt Folk

Despite listening to the band for about five years, we’re still pretty much at a loss when it comes to describing Swedish trio Vanligt Folk. While their earliest recordings suggested a link to EBM, every subsequent release has pushed their oddball mix of sounds further and further afield. Settling into a striking combination of sounds that prominently includes IDM and dub, new release Svenskbotten still has the wry sense of humour of their earlier synthpunk material, but perhaps a little more laidback. “Kall Mat” pairs a springy, tropical electro vibe with punch vocals, the whole track revolving around a plain cymbal groove. “Kastas I Soborna” is reminiscent of The Bug or Kode 9, with a springy bassline that comes across as sinister, especially when peaky synth pads and and breathy hits elbow their way into the mix. Bookended with tracks that take distinctly opposite approaches: “Köad” is all whirring vocal cut ups and syncopated kick-snare patterns, “Lik Null” is filled with lush reverbs and rich keyboard sounds. It’s another distinctly WTF release from a band who consistently walk the walk of experimentalism, never settling for what they’ve done before. At this point it’d be foolish to expect anything else.

Observer: Phil Barry & Corvax

Phil Barry - The Inside Out
Phil Barry
The Inside Out

Phil Barry’s work as one half of the legendary Cubanate needs no introduction, and his recent work as Be My Enemy has shown his talents for stand-alone songwriting. His new solo release is of a wholly different cast than either of those projects, however. Crafted with effect and loop pedals and a single guitar (check the release page for details if you’re a gear-head), the eight pieces which comprise The Inside Out are ambient works of striking warmth and serenity. While the manner in which soft waves of tone and feedback are slowly woven back and forth initially reminded me of Nurse With Wound’s immortal Soliloquy for Lilith, as the delicate chiming of Barry’s guitar work unfolded, a host of more “approachable” names came to mind: Eno, Budd, and the more minimal moments of Robin Guthrie’s solo catalog. Although the record’s structure suggests an at least somewhat improvisational process, the clarity and precision with which simple but striking notes are struck across layers of analog warmth suggests careful consideration of the changes in mood any of those notes might evoke. The simultaneous vulnerability and confidence connoted by The Inside Out hits deep regardless of your level of familiarity with Barry’s far more acerbic work.

Fake EP

London-based industrialist Corvax is absolutely the kind of act you would expect to hear on audiotrauma. While the label run by Arco and Syco Trauma of Chrysalide encompasses a lot of different sonic ideas, Corvax embodies the angry, rusty aesthetics that we associate with the former act to a tee. There’s also a lot of off-kilter stop-start timing and sample abuse on the project’s first EP Fake that make the association abundantly clear. It’s a brash and punky effort that makes the most of the rage fuels it, with opener “I’m Fine… (Keep It All In)” coming out swinging with screamed vocals, gritty lo-fi programming and clanging percussion that gates open and shut to create dynamics. Follow-up “Anger Out” goes full rhythmic noise at the outset but quickly transitions to grinding bass and a suprisingly funky cymbal-led groove before a full-on hardcore breakdown with Corvax howling “Use my face as a fucking drum!” over it. Latter tracks “I Don’t Fucking Care” and “Get a Real Job” are a bit less overtly agresssive, but no less caustic in their delivery, although both feature surprisingly melodic moments of calm amidst the chaos. Coming at 4 tracks and a little over ten minutes, it’s a bracing introduction to an act whose rabid veneer belies some surprising emotion and vulnerability. Invigorating stuff.

Observer: Paul Mørk & Coldgeist

Paul Mørk
I Will Take Care Of You
RND. Records

The appetite for techno-industrial crossover music shows little sign of abating in 2018, and with that popularity comes a glut of uninspired releases that ape surface elements of the style without direction or inspiration. Thankfully there are plenty of emerging acts like French producer Paul Mørk who are still finding interesting angles from which to approach dancefloor music with a rusty edge. His new album I Will Take Care Of You feels tough in the right ways, engaging with the bleakness and physicality inherent in the mesh of styles without sliding into cartoonish aggression or cutesy detachment. Songs like “Devotion” and the pounding “Self Destruction” recall classic rhythmic noise in their use of distortion, layering in samples and swathes of monochrome static that fill the cracks between the tightly sequenced drum patterns. Elsewhere “Armor” and “Rebreather” explore up-tempo techno rhythms, the former using sinister vocals for a cool European vibe, the latter going all in with a tightly wound 16th note bassline that threatens to derail the whole song before it can fully play out. There’s even some flirtation with EBM on “Confess”, which establishes a solid groove built around rubbery bass, chunky leads, and horror movie pads. There’s a goodly amount of variety on I Will Take Care of You, and Mørk has a deft enough touch as a producer to bring unity to the proceedings without simply producing a suite of identical songs.
Buy it.

Coldgeist - Unknown Bodies
Unknown Bodies

So often when we talk about the industrial-techno crossover, we’re drawn to the textures of beats and a particularly grimy atmosphere. The latest EP of Coldgeist, aka French producer Matthieu Ruben certainly puts a premium on atmosphere, but rather than the clutter of abandoned factories, Coldgeist (Matthieu Ruben) taps into the spirit of his moniker, conjuring icy mists and polar drones to wind their way through stripped-down yet still punchy tracks. The end result has far more in common with dark ambient than techno/industrial hybrids generally produce, and is an all the more intriguing listen for it. The swampy drones which blare overtop the muted kicks of Unknown Bodies are perhaps not too far off from the claustrophobic horns of Klinik or, more recently, the ethos of Silent Service and Vatican Shadow. However, for all their heaviness and presence, these elements feel lithe and changeable, often seeming to invert the direction of the rhythms in an instant. Further variety is added through tips of the hat to the classic coldwave of Ruben’s homeland, such as the anxious guitar shimmies of the title track, or the sprained rhythm of “Martyr Of Beauty”. Despite juggling a number of styles and sounds in a relatively compact six tracks, Ruben’s never caught slipping and feels just as adroit at charnel moans as he does club-minded beats. Heady and intoxicating, Unknown Bodies moves through numerous climes with grace, and has plenty to offer the inhabitants of each.

Observer: Nausea & Viktor Kalima

self-released/Squall Rec.

Nausea (not to be confused with the crustpunk or synthpop bands that bare the same name) are a lo-fi UK darkwave act helmed by Samuel Cooper. Their new EP Wait works in a deliberately crunchy and sparse arena, shifting handily back and forth between rhythm and melody as a focus. The latter is definitely in the spotlight on the opening title track as a raunchy bass guitar and a clanky snare drum roll forth, with little else beyond a minimal bit of synth as accompaniment. As a song it’s underwritten, but the simple repetition works for it, creating a forceful groove. “Feel” is an equally minimal but even sparser tune, featuring simple guitar figures and a sentimental vocal line that emerges and retires back into the foggy mix. “Save Yourself” splits the difference of the preceding tracks by pushing a chorused out bassline to the forefront, but weaving seasick guitars and punchier, more cleanly presented singing. Closer “Take You There” betrays some of the project’s Cure influence (the cassette version of the EP includes a cover of “Faith”), with a soupy blend of synths and a mournful dirge-like rhythm, as forlorn and mopey as the opener was swaggering. The charm here is in how raw and ready the recordings of these songs are, the haziness adding to their charm and most importantly, their immediacy. Buy it.

Viktor Kalima - Club Muscle
Viktor Kalima
Club Muscle
Infidel Bodies

The title of Finnish producer Viktor Kalima’s debut LP notifies the listener of the frame of mind with which they should approach its nine tracks. There’s little consideration of albumcraft or dynamics on Club Muscle: Kalima is instead running fresh out of the gate with his best bids for heavy-body club floor play. Despite lifting heavily from both techno and EBM traditions, the style being showcased here has a lot more glitz and polish than the concrete blasts which have been holding sway on Berlin floors of late. Glitzed up with lithe bends, leads, and pulses, Kalima’s aiming for tunes with a little bit of swing and sex, even if their core rhythms are still quite pummelling. The title track finds an interesting balance of French house and psytrance evened out by modern techno beats, and tunes like “Burn The Dada” and “Operations & Interactions” stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Black Strobe and Daniel Meyer’s Liebknecht project. The regular switch up in styles from track to track perhaps keeps Club Muscle from working as a coherent whole, but as alluded to above these are cuts designed to be worked into DJ sets or at least a personal mix.

Observer: Mentallo & The Fixer and SDH

Mentallo & The Fixer - Live At Das Bunker
Mentallo & The Fixer
Live At Das Bunker
Das Bunker

The path of Mentallo & The Fixer has been a long and weathered one, with the Dassing brothers’ pioneering aggressive dark electro gradually growing more claustrophobic, especially when the band slimmed just to Gary Dassing. But what’s on the docket here is Mentallo harshness of a different stripe: a warts and all line tape of the duo’s 1998 set at Das Bunker. While the programming comes across with impressive clarity, the percussion and Gary’s vocals are redlined to speaker frapping levels…which isn’t perhaps so different from the source material at hand, and certainly only adds to the fun. A swath of classic tunes from duo’s first four LPs – plus a bonus Mainesthai track – showcase the material which would go on to cement the band’s legacy. In spite of the rawness of the tape itself, this recording has value to even casual fans just on the basis of the strength of the material, and it’s a treat to hear that material in the context of its own time and in a performance the band themselves seem pleased with (“It’s so nice to see a happy crowd out: we sucked last night!” Gary remarks before going on a tear about JR Ewing). What’s more, as a historical document it underscores the influence of Mentallo on modern acts like Statiqbloom and By Any Means Necessary. As if that wasn’t enough, in a display of dark electro solidarity all proceeds from the recording are going towards Leaether Strip’s medical bills.

Tell Them
Avant! Records

Despite being a recently christened project, Semiotics Department of Heteronyms (mercifully abbreviated to SDH) certainly aren’t newcomers to dark synth world. The Barcelona-based duo comprised of Andrea P. Latorre and Sergi Algiz are founders of the Cønjuntø Vacíø label and have done time in post-punk act Wind Atlas, whose use of electronics informs SDH. Opting for bright, clear production and vocally driven melodies, the three songs on Tell Them are infused with a soulfulness that plays well against the programmed beats and electronics. The two songs that bookend the release are the title track and “Blind Guide”, each showcasing a different tempo or mood: the former is a brief and tightly wound dancefloor cut with a sinister vibe, while the former is a somber ballad, showcasing Latorre’s rich and expressive voice. Between them is “Abandon”, a cut that acts as a bridge between each mode, its sprightly rhythm programming and mournful vocal calling classic era darkwave to mind. It’s an effective taster for SDH’s forthcoming LP, suggesting themes and ideas it might include without completely showing their hand, keeping their mystique as a new project intact.

Observer: ProtoU & Celldöd

ProtoU - The Edge Of Architecture
The Edge Of Architecture
Cryo Chamber

Despite being released by Cryo Chamber, fine purveyors of dark ambient that’s as icy as their name implies, there isn’t a whole lot that’s cold or even, well, dark about the latest release from ProtoU. The one-woman Ukranian project crafts contemplative sonic landscapes on The Edge Of Architecture, but they rarely feel like the harsh or unyielding worlds into which dark ambient often casts the listener. Instead, the combination of pads and crackles which feels weather-worn and welcoming. Building upon the theme of cities connoted in the title and album art, the release feels akin to watching the urban flurry of life, activity, and machinery (or even children playing in “Falling Home”) from a slight distance, perhaps through the window of a bus or cafe. Despite not relying on melody as such, The Edge Of Architecture‘s recurring use of seemingly randomized notes in a particular scale producing an intriguing windchime effect, communicated through musicbox keys on “Quiet Sky” and quickly decaying sine waves on “Glass Fractals”. While never explicitly nostalgic, there’s something reflective and perhaps even cozy about the way the environs so many of us spend our lives within are rendered here.

Kess Kill

While the music Anders Karlsson has been plying in his solo incarnation as Celldöd certainly holds appeal to those interested in the intersection of EBM and techno, the essence of his hardware based compositions is firmly in the former camp. What initially separated his work as Celldöd from previous projects like The Pain Machinery was the stripped down approach to production and presentation, beats and synths laid into sequence with an appealing severity. His most recent release KESS07 certainly demonstrates some of the project’s growth from that starting point, allowing some additional elements to infiltrate the suite of four body music tunes. Opener “Flodvåg” comes out of the gate hard with a tightly quantized bassline and a simple kick snare pattern, but it’s Ander’s distant vocal punctuation and the occasional smattering of slightly out time hi-hats that help accentuate the song’s groove. “Dom Kommer Aldrig” is a slower number the ups the funk quotient with a knurled, swinging synth arrangement that can’t decide if it wants to go full acid or balloon out into chunky electro. Side B goes even further afield, starting withe upbeat “Inom Dig” whose chipper and chirpy melody recalls the soundtrack to a vintage industrial education film. Closer “Alltid Vi” speaks most closely to Karlsson’s history, with a sinister, loping rhythm and buzzy texture that suggests Vomito Negro or even The Klinik. As resolute as ever, the 12″ release is an engaging into Celldöd’s increasingly sturdy catalogue.

Observer: EFF DST & Nova Guardia

Out of Body
Hymen Records

Belarusian producer Dmitry Stepnov’s work as EFF DST continues to draw from numerous different schools on his second LP for Hymen Records, Out of Body. Perhaps most obviously, the sound of the record fits squarely into the classic technoid style, using industrialized rhythms and sound design in conjunction with IDM structures and ideas. It’s well-trodden ground, but Stepnov proves adept at it, working a gradually evolving mechanical rhythm loop through big, breathy textures on “Punch Header”, and firing off tweaky synth sequences on “Silent Reflections” before a breezy melody takes the spotlight. There are also hints of breaksy soundtrack-ready work pioneered by classic Hymen act Beefcake on “Blind Faith” where synth-strings duck and dodge between complex percussion programming, on the dubby “First Sight”, and on the crunchy kicks and snares of the otherwise smooth “Ripped Rise”. Hints of of Stepnov’s work with Alfa Matrix signees Diffuzion are in the mix as well, with “Smash Them All” employing sequences and pads that could easily port over to electro-industrial. It’s all reasonably well-executed stuff in terms of production and atmosphere, and the record really benefits from just how easy to listen to it is. While Out of Body doesn’t have many moments that truly jump out at the listener, it finds a subtle and pleasingly listenable groove early on sticks with it.

Nova Guardia - Mirror
Nova Guardia
Squall Recordings

Sevastopol’s Evgen Syprun pitches his Nova Guardia project as an “analog sound only” hybrid of coldwave, darkwave, and industrial. Each of those sounds (along with a healthy helping of minimal synth) are certainly present on the brisk and brief four tracks which make up his debut EP, but a sense of tension and anxiety is really what Mirror connotes rather than specific genres. Stripped down and plainly executed, each of the tunes are made up of clean and clear synths whose waveforms are practically visible as the EP ticks by, oscillating in stark red, orange, or black tones. They’re set against minimal and clicking percussion, but a more intriguing rhythmic wildcard is introduced in the vocal samples (and some original vocals) Syprun works in between the drums and synths. Rather than repeating a particular phrase over and over, Syprun’s opted for lengthier monologues and speeches in a variety of languages. They seem to play out chronologically (as far as can be determined from the outside), but are spaced out so words often start just at the beginning, or finish at the end of, individual measures. Incidental rhythms are thus ferreted out of speech which doesn’t seem to have been delivered in a specifically rhythmic cadence, and the overall effect is often uncanny. The success of sparse synth work like this often hinges on finding original ways of wringing tension from a minimal (and by now well-established) toolkit, and Mirror nicely fits that bill.