Gyoza District – Gyoza District

Adhesive Sounds (AS119), 2017

The first release from Gyoza District doesn’t sound like a debut. On one hand, this isn’t surprising, because it’s a side project from veteran vaporwave producer Cvltvre, but the sound design is something new. While this self-titled album retains the Asian influence marking a good deal of vaporwave, Gyoza District has captured an elusive sense of concept and place while also providing a quality listening experience.

The atmosphere is the strongest feature of Gyoza District. The album can perhaps be best described as a laid-back combination of minimal IDM and lo-fi trip-hop, and remains consistent throughout its ten tracks. A strong rhythmic foundation forms the base, but it’s a fragile and skeletal thing, filling the role of outline for the music-box chime-work and analog-Asian melodies that give Gyoza District its unique dreamy urban feel. Adding to this are a series of vocal Asian-language samples that provide additional character. This is neither a dense city-sourced ambient experiment nor edgy street-wise Asian-gangster soundtrack, but an exercise in a relaxed and reflective vibe; urban yet never aggressive, fringed with melancholy yet consistently wistful.

Gyoza District isn’t a long album, but that’s not a mark against it. As its template is quite specific – the beats, instrumentation, and general structure of the ten brief tracks remain largely unchanged – it runs the risk of becoming repetitive. Fortunately, the tracks are cleverly planned, encouraging looped listens, and the creativity is allowed to flourish within the intentionally limited template. Despite the singular sound and sparse instrumentation, the music is smooth and stylish while retaining an elegantly understated edge. The title track is a leisurely meander accompanied by cricket-song and buried crowd noise, with a muffled twinging string as your guide; “Shibuya” plays off this template with a decidedly urban vibe, but without resorting to grit and grime, while “Yodo-Gawa” takes a quieter path along small-village fairways. Details coloring the world are noted by the listener, gauged against their backdrop, contemplated, and ultimately appreciated; Gyoza District, for all its minimalism, is headphone tourism at its most effective.

At the start, Gyoza District is purely electronic, its minimalism deliciously restrained. The miniature clockwork taiko-glitch of “Dimensions” is echoed by the hidden music-box chimes of “Yumeno Park,” the similarities perhaps made more admirable due to the reused musical elements; the tracks feel nothing alike. The album’s last few tracks move the strings into the foreground – “Setonakai” and “Rei” are particularly effective – while the electronics bubble peacefully underneath. The album closes with the surreal and beautiful “Lonely God,” the strings and synths working together in quiet harmony to produce a more amorphous and spiritual aesthetic.

Gyoza District is remarkably grounded, neither too airy nor too melancholy, and is wisely balanced thanks to Cvltvre’s veteran touch. It switches gears from a somewhat mechanical beginning to a more organic feel as the album progresses, all the while staying close to its foundation. The ambient samples add depth to the sparse but deft instrumentation, but the nebulous urban subtlety is never compromised. This was an album that settled into my consciousness easily and gradually, and once it did, it nestled comfortably, as if it had found a new home, and I welcomed it.

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Skalpel – Transit

PlugAudio (PL02), 2014

Generally, I applaud when artists decide to release their own work. Going independent allows for more freedom, of course, while shouldering the burden of the entire process. The only reservations I have are about the material’s quality and direction; perhaps the artist was splintering away to such a large degree that any new music will sound nothing like the past works I enjoy.

With Skalpel, there were no such reservations. Once they left the pioneering label Ninja Tune, I figured Skalpel dropped off the map for good. Not so. Marcin Cichy and Igor Pudlo released their 2014 album Transit via their own label, PlugAudio, preceded by the Simple EP, which hinted at evolution rather than rebirth. Following the lauded albums Skalpel and Konfusion, two of the finest examples of future jazz to date, Transit reduces the sampling and increases the original production, resulting in arguably the duo’s best release.

As its name implies, Transit is a transition; a moving from one place to another. It can be seen as a departure, but with an uncertain destination. The album is cleverly named, for it is akin to a tour of places as they pass by, like a series of snapshots from a vacation. As with Skalpel’s previous work, you’ll still hear the same plucked bass strings, deft percussion, and looped vocal samples taken from dusty jazz recordings (vinyl-sourced static present and accounted for), but there’s more going on now. Programming touches such as synth sequences and glitch-studded percussion enhance the tracks rather than demanding attention; Skalpel is interested in creating a solid product rather than showing off technical skill, which the duo has tastefully displayed since their first release.

There’s a sun-drenched and distinctly European road-trip flavor in the music that gives Transit newfound appeal and vibrancy. It’s immediately apparent in the opening track, “Siesta,” with its combination of strummed harp-strings and plinking xylophone that create a laid-back, somehow coastal vibe. The horns and spliced vocal samples are present as well, but the feel is a far cry from the black-and-white dance kitsch of classic Skalpel tracks from the past (“1958”).

Skalpel doesn’t entirely abandon its roots, however. Tracks such as “Simple” and “Switch” fit comfortably with prior material, but one of the best things about Transit is how smooth the transition has been. “Snow” is calm and meditative, and the plucked guitar of “Saragossa” is playfully engaging. The vocal samples remain the focus in places, such as the lovely female croon of “Sea” and the soulful male loop of “Surround’; while this technique isn’t new for Skalpel, the effect certainly is. (And yes, in case you noticed, the names of eleven of the thirteen tracks begin with the letter “s.”)

Skalpel is still cool, hip, and slyly self-aware, but their idea of the self has expanded beyond the art-deco dancefloor to the outside world. While the added electronics may turn off some electro-jazz purists, Transit is an example of accomplished artists who have committed to expanding their sound while preserving their identity’s core. Skalpel can no longer be pegged as strictly electro-jazz. Transit announces there’s more to them than mere cut-and-paste panache.

Perturbator – The Uncanny Valley

Blood Music (BLOOD 160), 2016

Ah, the 21st century, where everything old is new again. I never thought I’d see a cassette revival – vinyl I get, but cassette? – but here it is. While the merits (or lack thereof) of that archival format is a topic that can be debated elsewhere, there’s been an explosive resurgence of retro-styled electronic music in the last decade or so. Owing partly to the ease of emulation (though many retro artists insist on using original equipment) and partly to the creative rearrangement and recombination that many of these albums are built upon, it’s been quite an interesting phenomenon to watch unfold.

James Kent’s alter ego Perturbator is one of the more noteworthy retro projects, combining the sound of 1980s analog synthesizers with the keen edge of modern production, and the finer art of enhancement through modern styles. The Uncanny Valley is Perturbator’s fourth release, courtesy of Finnish label Blood Music, and it’s arrived in multiple formats, including digital, CD, a few magnificently designed vinyl limited editions, and yes, cassette. The 1980s were a showy and decadent decade, and it’s fitting that The Uncanny Valley has been given a corresponding treatment, especially since the album’s artwork is already draped in succulent neon hues and boldly slashed writing – not to mention the blantantly R-rated image gracing the cover.

Perturbator’s music matches the presentation. It’s brash and energetic, the love-child of Tangerine Dream and modern hard techno, with DNA contributions from 80s synthpop and Vangelis. The opener, “Neo Tokyo,” announces The Uncanny Valley with turbo-charged synthwork and glitched-out percussion. It’s an exhilarating fusion of classic tinny-sounding analog keys and manic electro percussive rhythms. As opening credits go, this one’s a stunner.

Kent is a clever alchemist, however. While it’s clear he could have stayed very comfortably within this glowing zone where Wicked City meets Tron (the original, of course), he’s got more tales to tell. “Weapons for Children” slows the tempo and kicks up the drama, its fuel-injected synths intertwining organically, tempos breaking and resuming in thrill-ride intervals. “Death Squad” is a few degrees heavier, both in structure and atmosphere, with a perfectly placed sequence adding an edge of anxiety befitting the track’s title. There’s an undercurrent of the cinematic, as if The Uncanny Valley was the soundtrack to an 80s tribute film; “Femme Fatale” is thick with backlit urban smoke and sensual intrigue, and is clearly influenced by Vangelis’ classic score for the influential film Blade Runner. “Venger,” a neo-future pop anthem featuring the sultry vocals of Greta Link, is irresistibly catchy and full of interlocking synth hooks; if The Uncanny Valley was a soundtrack, this would be the chart-climbing hit single.

From here, The Uncanny Valley does little to slow its delirious momentum. Inertia-laden tracks such as “Disco Inferno” and “Diabolus Ex Machina” provide a hint to the sexy succubus of the album’s cover, and the unspoken plot reaches a climax on “Assault” and “The Cult of 2112.” It becomes clearer that The Uncanny Valley – named for the strangely detached inhuman appearance of computer-generated human faces, representing things that are not as they appear – is a conceptual work, but the true nature of its meaning is left for us to contemplate. “Souls at Zero” and the closing title track (as in closing credits, of course) are the culmination of the events, the hymn of the wreckage left by the conflict, and the glimmer of hope among those who survived.

Perturbator is not satisfied with mimicry. While Kent does have a special fondness for the era that has influenced his sound, his work isn’t just about nostalgia. The Uncanny Valley is a tribute to the curious edge of the 1980s, when experimentation and pretension began to join hands, but the album is more than this. It’s a period piece drowned in modernity, crowned with heavy doses of creativity and panache. Kent casts a knowing eye on his influences, analyzing them then molding them anew; embracing the original spark and coaxing it to burn with fierce new light. Perturbator is riding the crest of 21st-century synthwave, and The Uncanny Valley is proof that Kent has cemented his place.

Flint Glass – Hierakonpolis

Brume Records (BRUME 03), 2002 / Funkwelten Records (FW 005), 2003

Gwenn Tremorin, the man behind the dark electronic instrumental project Flint Glass and the French label Brume Records, is the most talented producer of electronic music I’ve ever heard.  The sounds he comes up with are unlike anything else; I don’t know where this guy gets his stuff from.  It’s as if he’s drawing these bits of sonic bizarreness out of the air and experimenting with them however he sees fit.  The most admirable thing about Tremorin’s innovative productive talents is despite the wide range of creativity on display, his music always sounds like Flint Glass.

Hierakonpolis, Flint Glass’ debut, was released on Brume in 2002 with several remixes, then re-released in 2003 on Germany’s Funkwelten Records with the Dashur EP added in place of the mixes.  Tremorin has often stated that the work of horror author H.P. Lovecraft is a primary inspiration for his music (Flint Glass’ 2006 album was titled Nyarlathotep, and was full of tracks titled for Lovecraftiana), and his music is certainly reflective of Lovecraft’s cloying and amorphous atmosphere.  Flint Glass is formless and difficult to describe, but undeniably powerful; like Lovecraft’s writing, the music gets under your skin and leaves a lasting impression that sticks with you long after you remove your headphones….but it’s strangely detaching, like a half-remembered dream that vanishes upon waking, imparting only a vague but visceral echo.

From the dramatic looped echo and empowering distorted buzz of the title track, to the open spaces and baffling aquatics of “Heliotrop” and the muffled tribal pummeling of “Amenemhat,” and the amount of innovation on Hierankopolis is almost overwhelming.  There’s typically enough rhythm to head-nod (or even dance) to Flint Glass, but the tempo is off-kilter enough to produce a serious challenge.  On the other hand, Tremorin’s ambient sense is extremely keen; it’s deep, dark, and skewed enough to warrant description as the aural equivalent of Lovecraft.  Try on the warped metallic clangor of “Dust Particles,” the bent air of “Throw About,” the sand-choked “Middle Kingdom”, or the various short interlude pieces separating the longer tracks.  Tremorin is indeed a mad scientist of his trade; the best way to describe his music is rhythmical dark ambient, but even that doesn’t tell the whole tale.

My personal choice between the two versions is the Funkwelten release; the Dashur material outdoes the remixes on the Brume original.  Dashur provides a smooth transition, resulting in a 17-track album that’s really an extended Hierankopolis.  The vocal samples of “Al Hasard (Live)” segue smoothly into buzzing percussion and looming ambiance, while “Closer” and “Philae” both contain more strange percussion backed by backing waves and swaths.

Taken on a certain level, the music of Flint Glass is particularly schizophrenic and meandering, and resides within a very limited range of focus despite the range of styles on display.  I should point out it’s less music and more a collection of experimental sounds held together by a common elements; the actual chord progression is either minimal, or completely nonexistent.  Fortunately for Tremorin, the mood remains consistent; Hierakonpolis does have a certain flow and cohesion to it, but it comes from the overarching sound design rather than any narrative quality or sense of progression.  If you took all if Flint Glass’ work – album tracks, remixes, compilation tracks – and mashed them all into one big pile, then chose ten randomly, you’d likely have a listening experience very similar to any other random group.  Listened to attentively for extended periods, the music tends to blur together into one slickly produced mass of sound.

Not surprisingly for a man of his talents, Tremorin is a contributor and a collaborator to many dark electronic projects, most notably the Aztec-influenced project Tzolk’in where he teams with This Morn’ Omina member Nicolas Van Meirhaeghe.  Flint Glass is also an accomplished remixer; many of his best remixes have been released together as an album, titled Circumsounds.  I get the sense Tremorin works very well with the right people; his chaotic foundations are arguably more effective if given additional structure in collaborative projects, or if he applies his unique sense to preexisting material as a remixer.  What Tremorin may lack in direction and songwriting for his own work, he more than makes up for with pure style and awe-inspiring technique.

Die Sektor – To Be Fed Upon

NoiTekk Records (NTK 023), 2006

For all its psychoses, this is an album of splintered grace and razor-edged lace.  Die Sektor’s debut is electronic aggression scorched by beautiful flames.  With its relentless and frantic energies, wildly distorted vocals, and haunting melodies, To Be Fed Upon conveys dislocation, uncertainty, and power to an unnerving degree.  It’s heady stuff, catharsis that’s powerful to the point of exhaustion; an emotional deluge that is hard to resist.

Let’s get one thing out in the open: musicians and programmers Scott Denman and Alan Smith are ridiculously talented.  For every tortured hymn (“The Beating of Broken Wings”, “When Porcelain Bleeds”), there are moments of almost stunning beauty (“All Turns White”, “Revelation None”, “Through Glass”).  It’s these latter tracks that are the real showcase: they’re slow, delicately spaced instrumentals where the duo’s songwriting prowess is given full focus.  The piano of “All Turns White” is particularly heart-rending, providing much-needed solace from the whirling storm of needles characterizing most of the album.

This is not meant as a condemnation of the vocals.  John Gerteisen’s mangled delivery is something to hear.  Filtered to the edge of misinterpretation in the style of classic Mentallo & the Fixer, the vocals are both a juxtaposition and an enhancement to the music.  They are the bullets fired from the barrel of the music; the smoke rising from the inferno.  Thank goodness for the included lyrics, which might have otherwise been lost behind the veil of distortion.  Most of them fall under the topic of first-person serial-killer poetry; before you groan, here’s a sample from “When Porcelain Bleeds”:  her lips so sweet / every word cuts like knives / i feel the wounds as if self inflicted / broken porcelain beauty / i still long to touch / i prick my finger to paint her lips.  When Gerteisen delivers these mantras, fueled by the driving chord-shifting chaos produced by Denman and Smith, the effect is intoxicating to the point of overwhelming.

Some tracks (“Deathkill”, “To Be Fed Upon”) reduce the tempo to slow-motion intensity without compromising an ounce of the album’s mood.  When all systems are go, however, Die Sektor’s ash-choked wings spread to their fullest.  “Follow the Screams” is a particularly potent example, unfurling in its first few moments with a wonderfully evocative bass sequence that’s soon bordered by a high-pitched techno-inspired melody, crashing percussion, and fractured vocals.  As the track careens forward, elements fall away while others emerge, but the highlight comes around four minutes in:  the beats disappear and we’re left with an echo of the melody, only to have the energy return, one layer at a time, until all is on glorious broken display.  It’s the album’s prime example of what Die Sektor is, and what it’s capable of.

To Be Fed Upon is a draining listen for me.  Cathartic, but exhausting nonetheless.  The effect is like watching Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre:  it’s a film I love, but it makes me feel dirty, in need of something cleansing – a tribute to how well it works.  At eleven tracks, most over five and a half minutes, the album’s a lot to take in during one sitting (I find myself needing a break when watching Texas Chainsaw these days too).  The instrumentals ease the album’s grip, but not quite enough to allow me to catch my breath completely.  (I can only imagine what Die Sektor might be like when seen live.)  I also think the album’s quality drops a bit in the middle, as “Mother Hunger,” “In the Arms of Eternity,” and “Prey to the Razor” aren’t the equals of the rest, but “All Turns White” and the thundering closer “To Be Fed Upon” help bring it back to the rusted heights established by the opening moments.  A bit of lyrical and thematic variety would have helped ease the relentless atmosphere, but that’s my own subjectivity talking:  To Be Fed Upon is a grimly thematic work that just happens to be layered on very, very thickly.

The album’s artwork sums up the awaiting experience nicely: a trio of skulls pierced by spikes rest on a bed of roses, a human heart driven through by rusted nails and a knife, and razor blades and pills resting in the cracked palm of an offering hand.  To Be Fed Upon is an intense and uncompromising electro/EBM experience that surprises with its level of songwriting craft, but its strength really lies in how well it displays its tortured and complex core.  For me, it’s a bit too well.

The Retrosic – God of Hell

Tribune Records (TRIBUNE_003A), 2004

It’s always been a source of amazement for me that some electronic albums sound decidedly organic.  While many electro bands clearly embrace their synthetic sources – e.g. mind.in.a.box and Headscan – there are others that manage, somehow, to make their music not sound like the product of cybernetic intelligences.

The Retrosic is a prime example.  Yes, I’d still consider their music to be post-industrial electro/EBM, but the sound design is so far removed from others, it’s hard to believe that it’s part of the same genre (I would call it such, but others would surely disagree).  On paper, there’s little difference: the music is beat-driven, enhanced by twisting lines of sequences and chord-laden synths and keys.  You can dance to Headscan just as well as The Retrosic, but the feel is different; one is future-oriented slickness while the other is roughly hewn heaviness.

Not to imply that God of Hell, the third album from The Retrosic, is somehow lesser in execution or design; it is most certainly not, to my ears.  It’s crunchy, stompy, dark, heavy, and full of primal presence; just listen to the pounding beat, hypnotic bass line, snarling vocals, odd melody, and layered bell-like percussion of “Maneater” and try to avoid imagining some majestic creature stalking its prey under a smoking sky.  Like the best dark ambient, it’s incredibly evocative stuff.

God of Hell is overflowing with similar moments.  Despite its largely computerized sourcing, there’s a good deal of clearly acoustic instrumentation to be heard – pipes, wordless female vocals, Middle Eastern-style strings and horns – all of which serve to increase the album’s powerful mutated steampunk aura.  “Elysium” and “Passion (1st Sign)” evoke Dead Can Dance with their lamenting vocals, traditional percussion, and dramatic atmospheres; you don’t normally find creations like this in the realms of post-industrial.

Even tracks with a modern bent (“New World Order,” “Total War,” “Antichrist”) have a warped ancient sense about them, while the ode-like “Tale of Woe” and the bone-crushing instrumental “Dragonfire” could easily have been products of some alternate medieval dimension, a la Heimataerde.  Add the irresistible anthem “The Storm,” with its perfect barrage of bass, delicate pipe-like EBM sequencing, and fantastic vocals, and “Sphere,” a triumph of interlocking-gear vehicles steaming across an alien wasteland (it’s miles ahead of most like-minded cinematic pieces), and the album moves into a world all its own, carrying us along through its unique burnished landscape of rusted machinery, streaked by gouts of flame and boiling smoke, and populated with strange folk equally dangerous and artistic.

The album does fall prey to genre cliches.  Most of the vocal samples are unnecessary and disruptive in an album of such crafted power.  Similarly, some may find the band’s vocals – aggressive chants delivered in a rasping, delicately distorted fashion – to be at odds with the music.  I love the understated rage and menace in the vocals, however; they’re powerful without being overdone, and provides a human and thematic connection for us.  God of Hell contains a good number of songs, after all, and vocals are a vital element.  Without the vocals, ragged and growling as they are, God of Hell would lose something; they add to the primal blood coursing throughout the album.  The lyrics themselves aren’t as effective as the confident throaty delivery, mostly concerned with well-worn themes of apocalypse, war, suffering, and conspiracy, but the genre is home to far worse.  Even the slow-paced dirge “Tale of Woe” manages to avoid being completely embarrassing; in lesser hands, it would have been.  Also, the last two minimal tracks are completely throwaway, adding nothing but unnecessary length; God of Hell is better without them.

God of Hell seems to be the pinnacle for The Retrosic, as prior and following releases haven’t come close to its high level of potent creativity and aesthetic sense.  However, for this album, the band conjured a powerful and versatile vision of dark grandeur that also satisfies the high-octane demands of industrial dancefloors across the globe.  God of Hell is one of the few albums that is also able to move beyond the 4/4 foundation to provide a listening experience that surprises with its depth, variety, cohesion, and strength of songwriting.  Such albums are rare in general, but when you consider its genre, God of Hell becomes elevated to classic status.

Polygon – Images

Polymorph Records (POLYMORPH 06), 2001

Ingo Lindmeier’s genre-hopping Polygon project spanned ambient, dark ambient, electro, and IDM over its various releases, but Images, released in 2001, is perhaps the most assured.  While Refuge (1995) featured an emphasis on vocals and a a clear electro foundation, and Omnon (1999) was assuredly dark ambient, Images is both of these, spliced together, with the vocal element removed.  Containing the interstellar themes and ice-clear, meticulously mixed electronics that give the project its identity, Images is a transfixing journey through a realm of outer space atmospheres and programming prowess.

“Incoming Distance” opens the odyssey with a series of garbled vocal samples concerning the mind’s inability to accept full reality (a common theme for Lindmeier) while whirs and pulses create an otherworldly sense of unease, and of undiscovered realms.  It’s a step beyond the bizarrely alien ambiance of Omnon, for there’s more direction and variety on display now, while retaining the strangeness that has always marked Lindmeier’s work.

“Isolated Memory” follows – yes, all the track begin with “i” – and is much more structured, with interlocking beeps and lightly glitched percussion, while electro-influenced elements fill in the crystalline space.  There is foundation and purpose here, harkening back to the song-oriented Refuge, and before long, the sounds fall into place and melody emerges alongside a brittle IDM beat.  Images has a powerful sense of space, but dots and dusts its panoramas with minimal points and blushes; there’s a void here, but sparsely and precisely inhabited.  “Irrational Behave” follows a similar template, with staccato stutters and an odd shuffling beat that wobbles uncertainly as a forlorn melody floats in the distance.

The beat-free zero-G ambiance returns for “Introspection” before we’re grounded once again by the frigid aura and particulate beat of the title track, with another trademark minimal Lindmeier melody spiking the EBM base with needles of ice.  The pace is slow, as on most of the record, but this is a vital part of allowing the vistas to gape wide enough for the listener to ascend into with little effort.  “Idealism” is perhaps the most tuneful and hyperactive track on the album, with a hesitant piano edging its way into a mix of splintering fractal fragments sent into the distance in tight formations under Lindmeier’s close attention.  After “Icing,” another ambient foray, we’re treated to the bristling energy and old-school sequencing of “Imprint” before the deliciously frigid loops and head-nodding down-tempo groove of “Illustrated”; this is space-travel gone cool, and not necessarily due to the temperature.  Type finishes the album with a remix of “Image” that is a good deal more mechanical and heavier, not to mention a tad more foreboding, showing how close Polygon’s own work comes to not sliding into that tantalizing pit.

Image is aloof and distant, but it’s not emotionless.  Lindmeier’s fingerprints are all over the clicks, rhythms, buzzes, and synths; yes, he’s got something of a clinical, antiseptic precision about his arrangements – it’s easy to listen to this and imagine wandering through spotless white corridors and featureless rooms – but Images never becomes fully detached.  There’s a sense of the organic throughout Images, because machines could never create something on their own that did not carry the feelings of wonder, purpose, and self-awareness so clearly present.