2018 has continued, in our corner of the musical world, pretty much as 2017 left off. The sheer number of new releases has meant that for this site at least – a one person endeavour, in the main – it has been difficult to keep up, and pressures of real life (job, other commitments) have made all the more trying of late.
"im rhythmus bleiben": stay in the rhythm
But, I do my best to find time to write about music that inspires me to do so. This can be very good (or very bad) releases, or it could simply be ones that have something that intrigue me about their composition, sound or meaning.
Two albums that came my way recently fit into this nicely. Both are from artists who’ve amassed quite a body of work, work in different sonic realms to a point, but to my surprise, have more in common than you might think, particularly on their latest releases, where both use rhythm to underpin everything that they do. So, I thought it appropriate to cover both on the first But Listen of 2018.
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Twelve years and seven albums already under the ESA name, three albums and one EP with iVardensphere, a side-project under the name Voster and countless remixes, Jamie Blacker has been a busy man over the past decade and a bit.
But as I complete this write-up, the UK is still being ravaged by “the Beast from the East”, a Siberian-originating weather system that has brought the coldest and snowiest conditions to the country in some years. But as it recedes, it is due to be followed by another Beast, a nameless one coming from the north of the UK, and it brings with it a blizzard of hard-hitting electronics and the odd squall of samples. That Beast is his first ESA album in three years or so, since he completed his Themes Of Carnal Empowerment trilogy with Pt. 3: Penance, and right from the off, it is clear that Blacker is not in the mood to take prisoners.
I Have Clarity is a mid-paced stomper that absolutely batters out the rhythm, but that’s nothing compared to the faster, harder, heavier techno-noise assault of Look Down Below that takes over from it, but one that is far more complex than it first appears. There are sections that phase across the speakers, others that dissolve into static, before dropping away for a breakdown that seems to have synths from hardcore (in the house sense) building things back in, beats that get chopped up in the mix, even, eventually, staccato vocals from Blacker in the closing minutes too. An unexpected, exhilarating headfuck.
By the time we’re thrown headlong into Carry The Noose – an equally uncompromising track that features vocalist Massenhysterie alongside Blacker and the dual English/German vocals give an interesting dimension to it.
The first single from the album, that was released before Christmas, is perhaps one of the most fascinating diversions on the album. Bad Blood Will Out sounds most unlike ESA for the most part – the drum programming in particular has a different sound, and then there are the French vocals that pop up during it, that I’m still unclear whether they are samples or specially recorded – as it more sounds like an exceptionally tight and powerful nod to French techno titan Gesaffelstein.
The pace and sonic power of this album is, though, absolutely relentless. Where on previous albums, there were frequently entire passages or even whole tracks that were more restrained, experimenting with atmosphere, there are precious few here – indeed the first of note comes with the late-album dark-ambient interlude of Passing Over.
The title track might have a child’s voice intoning the refrain from time to time, but otherwise it is jagged, unusually constructed industrial beats, and just when you think that there might finally be a breather on album centrepiece Then Follow Me (exactly ten minutes in length), what feels like a straight-up techno rhythm takes over, later joined by what sounds like a south-Asian vocal sample, used in a way that iVardensphere have done so well over the years – it sounds like it fits here.
I Know is another track that fucks with perceptions, quasi-drum’n’bass that gets thrown around and dusted up by vocal samples and all kinds of distortion and percussion, and it flows fairly neatly into I Want It Now, that is perhaps the most obviously “ESA” track here – built around a simple, pummelling beat, a fast pace and Blacker’s bellowed repetition of the refrain. What’s interesting is that in the varied company it keeps here, it seems like a relic from the past, more a signpost of where Blacker has come from, and this excellent, lengthy album feels like it offers any number of routes into the future for his work, whether under the ESA name or something else if he chooses to change tack again.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Out Out have continued their perhaps unexpected renaissance since last album Swan/Dive? that was released in 2016. That album was a scorchingly angry, political industrial album that was the first album released under the Out Out name in eight years, and came at a good time. After some years on the likes of Metropolis in the nineties, Mark Alan Miller had stuck with releasing on his own label until choosing to release Swan/Dive? through Artoffact Records, but has returned to self-reliance for this latest release, and the outspoken politics therein perhaps suggested that Miller had seen what was coming in US politics rather clearer than many of us. While not naming Trump as I recall, it was obvious that his crosshairs were on him and the-then impending administration that has indeed proved such a shitshow (and indeed still is).
When I first heard that this album was coming, though, it did make me wonder exactly how this album might sound. Was it going to be more of the same angry outbursts, and guitars tearing holes in the fabric? Intriguingly, it is nothing of the sort.
The first influence that came to mind was actually not an industrial band at all. The sinuous grooves, lengthy tracks and gravelly vocals all ring of the reclusive electronic group Fluke, who had a lengthy career producing interesting electronic/techno music that rather went under the radar for many with the exception of a couple of notable hits.
Much like Fluke, then, this is an album that is all about the rhythms. Songs flow into one another, and if you’re not listening closely it is easy to miss the joins between tracks, not that they are particularly important markers. One early highlight is the pounding, seven-minute workout of Escape Hatch, which has a surprisingly melodic chorus that rises out of the sweat-drenched beats like it has been caught by the rising sun, while when the pace is dropped, like on the brooding, shadowy Panic Button, there is the distinct feeling of malevolence just ’round the corner.
The continous flow of the album also highlights another thing – that this is a release expressly designed to be listened to as a whole, and even some of the transitions are worthy of note. After another slower track in the form of Fatal Flaw, the last few seconds see the tempo of the remaining drumbeat gradually increase until it morphs into the groovy breakbeats of Wall Flower, and then the tempo builds again into the bubbling techno cauldron of Close Shave, probably the most straightforward 4/4 track here (but no less thrilling for it).
More than anything, though, this is an album notable for how different it sounds to everyone else right now. Sure, there is lots of techno calling itself industrial right now (or at least trying to show they have a passing knowledge of it), but there are few artists in industrial experimenting in the deeper, darker progressive techno pool like this album is. There is the bite and kick of the Out Out that I perhaps knew and loved beforehand that still bursts to the surface from time to time, but almost they are the exceptions and I found the experimentation with the longform here the most fascinating parts.
I liked Swan/Dive? an awful lot. I like this one even more, and in fact is so good that I’ve no doubt that I’ll be considering this album when it comes to the best of 2018.