Saturday, 4 October 2014


Three-fourths of 2014 is allready gone, and it's obvious that the golden age of poststep is at its end. Brilliant music is still being released, and I'm sure the year will eventually be a “great” one, but it's mostly because there's still an abundance of futuristic energy left from the high tide (2010-2012) that needs to find an outlet. A lot of started developments have to run their course, and a lot of the main artists are far from finished with being inspired. I do fear, though, that this will be the last year where these remnants are still strong and plentiful enough to be seen (if – like me - you're so inclined) as the sprawling manifestations of a hyperactive musical climate, rather than isolated glimmers of light in an otherwise tired and backwards-looking landscape. I suppose it's never possible to say exactly when that blurry line is crossed, but the way things are going right now, it's hard to believe that yet another year will pass without it happening.

The decline was already evident last year – plenty of great records came out, but the sense of constant surprise and opening of endless new possibilities was somehow gone. Rather than continuing the restless drive for even further explorations into the unknown, the best music was mostly exploring the already established new possibilities in further detail – which is obviously not a bad thing in itself, it's just a bad sign when that is most of what's going on. Furthermore, the few examples of something really strange and previously unheard that the year did produce, were new and unheard because of unique oddball approaches, and not because they discovered fertile new areas open for all: On D'zzzz, Misty Conditions took the rhythmic dementia of the best footwork (but luckily none of the clichéd “street”-samples that always come off as lame and regressive), and used it to create a murky, 21st century scrap heap music all their own. 
En2ak's 3 got rid of (almost) all of the down tempo and alternative-hip-hop vestiges that made his two previous albums a bit too uneven to be completely convincing, and instead he embraced a kind of playful para-rave, where elements of bitstep, Rustie-style maximalism and even stadium-EDM didn't-quite-coalesce into quirky, almost pop-like microforms.

Though far more minimal and understated, Coco Bryce's Club Tropicana also offered a weird hodgepodge of melodic miniatures - 8bit-mangled pseudo-skweee, electroid dream step and zomby-arpeggiated break beat-contraptions -,  while David Kanagas soundtrack for the experimental video game DYAD dissolved its miniatures into a liquid kaleidoscope, where fragments of melody and rhythm constantly melted and merged into a colourful virtual goo. Even further gone into the digital ether, the spindly, transparent voicescapes on Co La's Moody Coup seemed to have lost any connection to organic reality or known musical forms, much like on R+7, where Oneohtrix Point Never finally completed the process of eliminating the last traces of synth pastiche, and instead offered an eerie, transparent non-space, that seemed equally untouched by both human hand and human mind.

The last three sort of belong to the entropic camp, at least when it's made wide enough to include the whole “new synth”/virtual dreampop/vapourwave crossover area – Adam Harper territory, basically. Though not as uniquely strange and of-its-own-kind as Kanaga, Co La and Oneohtrix, there's much, much more of this stuff to choose from, but most of it I'm only tangentially interested in – there’s a lot of potential and some great creations (in 2013, Ikonika and The-Drum made a couple of good contributions in the “new synth”-camp), but far too often it'll end up as eighties pastiches, or dull indietronica, or slightly off-kilter atmospheric pop. It's a fine line – on one side we'll find someone like Minerva, who have never really been able to convince me that she's more than a dreampop/synthpop-hybrid, but then on the other side there’s Fatima al Qadiri, sounding exactly as strange, new and otherworldly as you could hope for. Her long awaited debut LP for Hyperdub, Asiatisch, is among the 2014 highlights so far – by no means a sino grime pastiche (as the concept might lead you to believe), but rather a much more ethereal beast, a transparent and unreal maze of slowly morphing, digitally rendered dream-fragment simulacra.

In some ways Asiatisch could be the ultimate Adam Harper-album, bridging the slightly vaporwave-leaning part of the new synth territory with the current wave of abstract, atmospheric “cryo-grime”, which was one of the few successful examples of something resembling a broader movement within the 2013 poststep landscape, where it perhaps reached its apex with Logo's Cold Mission. A completely alien, empty and groovelesssly stuttering beatscape, it didn't actually sound like grime at all - not even like the cold, grey instrumentals of early Plasticman or Mark One. If anything, it was the aesthetic of Jam City’s Classical Curves taken to its logical conclusion, a trail followed by many others in 2013, and source of some of the best EP-releases in a year where that format seemed in decline. 

Highlights in this department were Rabit’s Double Dragon, Mssingno’s Mssingno and Wen’s Commotion, the latter followed in 2014 by Wens debut album Signals, which sort of took a few steps backwards towards a - slightly - more warm, groovy and full sound. While definitely containing some brilliant tracks (as well as a few fillers – an EP would have been better), it does seem like a regressive development, but perhaps it's not really possible to take cryo grime further after Cold Mission. You could certainly argue that the best developments of the style in 2014 (Filter Dread, Air Max '97, Beneath, Mock the Zuma) have pretty much gone entirely into omni-experimental “beat music”, the monochrome, inorganic art music that is Adam Harpers current favourite soundcloud-and-bandcamp-zeitgeist. Clearly related, yet much more ground breaking and unique, SD Laika's debut LP That's Harakiri has mostly been classified as a kind of “avant-grime”, but pretty much remain unclassifiable, a claustrophobic stress-scape of bizarre digital debris, asymmetrically twitching march-rhythms, and disturbing, dirty-yet-clinically-synthetic sounds – basically one of the greatest, strangest and unfathomably newest records of 2014.

The only slight drawback of That's Harakiri is a few tracks, like “Meshes” or “Remote Heaven”, where the ugly, punishing harshness seem to almost regress into a kind of minimal techno – a problem that is not uncommon for many current practitioners of beats-experimentalism. The root of this may be Actress, whose minimalism occasionally fell back into some of the most unimaginative repetitive art-techno clichés, and far too much music did the same in 2013 – an even more annoying tendency than the countless, dreadfully pretty dream pop/trip hop-hybrids. And even worse, hitherto brilliant poststep practitioners suddenly decided to make boring minimal crap, perhaps the electronic equivalent of a rock musician going back to the “mature” “essence” of “song writing”. The worst offender in this respect was Montgomery Clunk, who made one of the greatest, maddest EPs of 2012 with Mondegreen, but in 2013 minimalized his name to Clnk and released an album of tasteful, restrained and deeply dull dub techno – not unlike that on Single Point Edge's SPE album, which the otherwise peerless Rwina-label for some reason released in 2013. Also disappointing was Egyptixx, who followed 2011s brilliant Bible Eyes with A/B Till Infinity, an album that seemed to consist almost entirely of not-that-interesting ambient interludes, mixed with a couple of excursion into pounding, pointless techno, and Dam Mantle, who haven't made much recently, but the little we've got – mostly remixes and tracks on split EPs – seem to be stuck in a minimal-house-with-slightly-more-lively-percussion groove, light years away from the brilliance he used to be capable of.  

Going back to “serious 4/4-techno” is of course nothing new in the arty end of dubstep – it was pretty much what people like 2562, Scuba and Shackleton did back before arty dubstep had really become post dubstep yet – but it's always sad to see a straightforward regression. Luckily, a lot of poststep artist still moved forward in 2013, even if it was mostly within the territory of already well-defined frontiers. Some of these included the maximalist hypergrime that took Rusties Glass Swords as a starting point and ran amuck with it, the expansion of footwork into a more and more deranged form of head music, and still-going-on-outside-the-limelight styles like skweee and bitstep. The hyper-maximal stuff was perhaps a bit of a hangover from 2012, and was best in the beginning of 2013, where Slugabeds Activia Benz-label released brilliant EPs like 813’s Recolor and Eloq’s C'mon, occasionally reaching the same level of ridiculous, sugar-overdose madness as Montgomery Clunks aforementioned Mondegreen . Since then, the style has been slightly in decline, a symptom perhaps being that Activia Benz apparently has given up on vinyl and now apparently is a digital-only label. The best attempts at actually doing something new with a maximalist approach have more or less been from the trapified wobble camp, which in 2013 delivered some good EPs in in the intersection of populist EDM-bombast and weird avant-brostep; good examples being Joney's Illowhead or Blue Daisy/Unknown Shapes Used to Give a FK. As for 2014, Rusties much anticipated follow up to Glass Swords, the messy Green Language, doesn't really seem like a convincing revitalisation of the style.

With footwork, the hype is also slowly fading, it's not really the new thing anymore, and with the death of DJ Rashad, just as he was beginning to get the attention he deserved, the scene also lost its most obvious figurehead. Rashad’s first Hyperdub-album, Double Cup, was released shortly before his death, and was anticipated as sort of the definitive footwork statement, but sadly it wasn't quite the milestone it was supposed to be. On the other hand, 2013 also gave us Lil Jabba's Scales, arguably the best footwork album yet (second perhaps only to DJ Diamond's Flight Muzik), where the jittery rhythms turned weirdly cold and arrested, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere further enhanced by murky drones and demented, oppressive-yet-catchy fanfare-melodies. 

Also worth mentioning was Hade+Dwfl's The Healthiest Man in Chicago, which, despite being a bit uneven, did have some brilliantly weird tracks on it, and Ital Tek, who continued to expand on the hybrid style developed on his 2012 Nebula Dance-album. He benefited from working with much shorter formats – the EP Hyper Real and the mini-LP Control – where his super smooth production style and the lack of attention grabbing melodic material didn't create the same problem of sameness as on a full length album. Especially Control had just the right balance between ideas and length, atmospheres and inventive structures, and it’s probably his best release so far. His 2014-EP Mega City Industry pretty much follows the same path, but still works as great little entity in its own right.

Footwork is only in the first phase of losing its status as the new hip style; for bitstep this happened years ago. The “golden age” was approximately from 2009 to 2011, which is a long time ago by today’s standards, but nevertheless, surprisingly many of the best releases in 2013 could be classified as either bitstep or, in cases like Zomby and Desto, bitstep-derived. The latter’s Emptier Streets is mostly a kind of somnambulist ghost-trap, containing only a few scattered remnants of the archetypical “bit”-signifiers (angular arpeggio-patterns, diced computer game sounds), but it also comes off as an obvious, almost logical development - the empty, spectral city where harder, rave-aligned poststep goes to die. Equally haunted, but clearly bitstep proper, Clouds double EP USB Islands sounded like the (mini)-album Dam Mantle or Darkstar should have made, which means that it’s obviously one of the very best poststep releases of 2013. In a way it's the perfection of bitstep-as-entropic/psychedelic-melancholia, like wandering further and further into a dark maze of hopelessness and despair, all stumbling, fractured beats, seasick laments and cascades of vertigo-inducing 8bit-debris.

In the opposite, more wild and colourful end of bitstep, 96wrlds mini-LP Private Language and Eprom's Halflife both offered diverse curio cabinets of popular club-forms turned into grotesque and lopsided, yet still oddly groovy, monsters. Especially Halflife, as a follow up to 2012s not-completely-successful Metahuman, was pretty much exactly the album you'd hope Eprom would make – bare boned, raw and wonderfully ugly, containing both brutally rave-oriented behemoths and completely bizarre experiments, as well as a few more relaxed pieces – which were thankfully as unpolished and direct as the rest of the album. I could be wrong, but it seems to me like Halflife was done much faster and in a much more intuitive manner than its predecessor, and is all the better for it.

Perhaps DKSTR's mini-LP Pleasures should be classified as bitstep as well – it definitely contains a lot of the aforementioned “bit-signifiers” – but in any case, it was the best skweee-release of 2013, and probably the best since the wonder year of 2010. Ever since the brief media-interest of approximately 2009-2010, skweee has lived even more outside of the limelight than bitstep, yet the style just keep going, and each year there seem to come at least a couple of great releases, showing that it's still worth keeping an eye on. In the case of Pleasures – apparently by a new skweee-recruit – it feels almost like a rebirth. All the best skweee-elements – the baffling syncopations, the raw, deliberately synthetic sounds, the abrupt, counter-intuitive melodies – seem intensified, turned up to eleven, and further enhanced by an onslaught of hysteric 8bit-shrapnel – an instant skweee-classic! 

In 2013 Pleasures was pretty much in a skweee-league of its own, but that said, the debut LP of one of the oldest skweee-practitioners, Easy & Center of the Universe, was definitely also worth checking out. Easy & C.O.U. is the prime exponent of “ethno skweee”, and on Aryayek Machine the fusion of rubbery square wave-funk and middle eastern elements had never worked better. It might seem a bit regressively organic compared to the futuristic madness of DKSTR, but on its own terms it's a brilliant combination, sort of the skweee equivalent of Débruit - who happened to release a pretty great album in 2013 as well. A collaboration with Sudanese singer Alsarah, Aljawal was also a meeting of organic and synthetic, but Débruits production was as colourful and inventive as ever, and seemed further inspired by the plenty of opportunity for vocal science offered by Alsarah.    

All in all, it should be obvious that 2013 was indeed a brilliant year for poststep-releases – there's even a few great ones that I haven't been able to fit in yet, but which definitely should be mentioned: Nguzunguzu made one of their best so far with the mini-LP Skycell, Burial made his most interesting release since Untrue with Rival Dealer, and Pascäal gave new life to the original Burial-sound by turning it into irresistibly catchy, heartbreakingly sad and yet weirdly bright and colourful pop-step on Fragile. So far – despite some really great releases, some promising ones on their way, and an apparent resurge of great new EPs – 2014 doesn't seem nearly as great. But then, in all fairness, that's probably also how I felt same time last year. A lot can still happen. But in the end, that's not the point. There's at least 20-25 EPs and albums from 2013 that I wouldn't be without, records that didn't sound like they could belong in any other era than this, and more than half of them still radiated the utter newness that has been so thrilling the last five years, still held the future promise. Perhaps there will be as many records of the same calibre when 2014 ends, but again – that's not the point.

The point is that all this is living on borrowed time, running on a hitherto unimagined reservoir of energy that was detected sometime around 2007, and unexpectedly erupted two years later. We shouldn't expect it to go on forever, and the transformation from out-of-control frontline research to slightly-refining-discoveries-already-made will happen as gradually and almost unnoticed as it did in the mid-nineties, the early eighties, the early or mid-seventies (depending on how you regard prog), etc. Except – this time it doesn't even seem like most of the people involved have even recognised it as a golden age, so perhaps they won't notice that anything's gone afterwards? It does leave a lot of questions. How did the original energy materialise, seemingly out of nowhere and in spite of all those people saying that it didn't exist – couldn't exist – and even now, saying that it never even did exist, that nothing have happened during the last ten years that haven't just been a regurgitation of all the real innovation that (of course) happened when they were young. Which leads us to the next question: Why was the energy never recognised? Even the ones who participated didn't seem to think of it as a connected thing – or a whole lot of connected things -, there was never really a movement, a common feeling of moving in specific, ground breaking new directions – even though that was what they did – and never any struggles as to which new directions ought to be followed. Everyone was left to their own devices.

These questions will take some time to answer, time I don't have right now. Obviously, it all has something to do with the time we're living in, a time where movements just aren't supposed to happen, and where the ability to recognise something new has been purged to such a degree that most people refuse to recognise it even if it's staring them in the face. Hopefully, I'll have the time to go into further detail later.