Croatian Amor: Isa (LP, Posh Isolation, January 2019)

Oh my gosh. I can’t quite get over how awesome this is. It’s also kinda hard to describe, so [takes deep breath].

Let’s talk about the vocals first. There’s some semblance of a human voice on all eight tracks here. Some are spoken word, ranging from bits that sound synthesized (but may not be) to bits that sound like they’re sampled from a documentary about UFOs (but almost certainly aren’t). Some are sung, in a mix of styles that include everything from mutated R’n’B to dream-pop. All are heavily processed: cut up, filtered, sped up, slowed down, pitch shifted all over the map, and then abruptly stitched back together again. We rarely get the same thing for more than a few words at a time. On paper, this seems like a terrible idea. But it’s incredibly skillfully done, so that it seems not only seamless but somehow perfectly natural, and I admit I am a bit of a sucker for this kind of thing when it’s done well.

The lyrics feel like fragments of some kind of millenarian prophecy shot through with a heartbreaking ballad of loss, nostalgia, and regret. (The sleeve says that the record is “inspired in part” by philosopher Michel Serres’s Angels: A Modern Myth, which makes a certain amount of sense.)

Alongside this, the music largely consists of big fat slabs of fuzzy synth that slam into place, floaty ambient washes, and strange little flourishes. Sometimes there’s a kind of industrial beat, but often there’s not, or there’s just an occasional thumping or clanking in the background. Again, all these disparate and jarring elements are assembled into a brilliantly coherent whole.

So, it’s intense and it’s strange, but it’s deliriously infectious and primally satisfying. I fell in love with this at first listen, and I think I love it a little more every time.

I bought this from their Bandcamp page.

Efdemin: New Atlantis (2LP, Ostgut Ton, February 2019)

Phillip Sollmann throws us a curveball at the start of this album: opener Oh, Lovely Appearance Of Death consists of a sort of ambient wash under an a capella rendition of the (predictably cheerful) Funeral Hymn For A Believer sung by visual and performance artist William T Wiley. It’s simple and affecting and certainly not what I was expecting from my last encounter with Efdemin, 2010’s Chicago. (He’s released one record in the meantime, 2014’s Decay, which I didn’t pick up.)

The rest of the album is more conventional dance fare — though thankfully not too conventional. As you might guess from the move from Dial to Ostgut Ton, this is a little less deep-housey and a little more straight techno. It’s also a fair bit more experimental. A pleasingly bouncy beat weaves its way under a rich palette of synth noises which nicely balance melody with abstraction, and there’s a sparing use of some unusual instrumentation, including a “sing-drum” and Konrad Sprenger’s “motor-controlled guitar“. I guess you could characterize it as Berlin minimal seasoned with equal measures of second-generation Detroit and avante-garde invention (perhaps most strikingly in the moment near the end of Black Sun where it suddenly slows to about half speed, which sounds outrageous but somehow works). And the whole thing is done with precision and flair and it works rather brilliantly.

Incidentally, the title is a reference to Francis Bacon’s 17th century utopian sci-fi novel, which also provides the spoken word element of album closer The Sound House.

I bought this from Juno. They call it Techno.

Julia Kent: Temporal (LP, The Leaf Label, January 2019)

There’s always a danger with music based around looped strings: get it wrong, and it can stray into annoying-busker-outside-shopping-centre territory and there’s no coming back from there. Well, I’m pleased to report that we’re in far more appealing terrain here. Julia Kent is credited with cello, electronics, and sounds. Most of the tracks have the cello front and centre, looped and layered and textured. Occasionally, as say on Conditional Futures, there’s a more ambient electronic feel. There are a few other instruments, seemingly: a piano on Floating City, chimes on Sheared, something that sounds almost music-box-ish on Through The Window (I guess these qualify as “sounds”?). The mood has a blend of lyricism and urgency, in varying proportions. I’m not surprised to discover some soundtrack work on her CV. I don’t think it’s setting out to change the world, but this is a very charming record.

I bought this from Juno. They call it Ambient / Drone.

Nkisi: 7 Directions (LP, UIQ, January 2019)

I have to admit that I underestimated this record on my first casual listen through. Take the first track, called simply I: the thing that leapt out at me was the floaty synth line and the distorted vocal sample that scream Artificial Intelligence era IDM; which lazy pigeon-holing misses the vital fact that something very different is going on with the drum programming, which brings together two rival heartbeat-like pulses, a skittering Geiger-counter click, a bassy throb, a couple of sci-fi laser-type noises, and a bunch of other things, all built into a polyrhythmic structure that is complex without being showy. (I’m not quite sure how I missed this first time around, since it’s the drums that dominate the track for its first 90 seconds until the main melody kicks in. I guess I just wasn’t pay close enough attention.)

The rest of the album is along similar lines. Elements of II remind me of Autechre, III of perhaps Polygon Window-era Aphex, and so on. The synth on V is pure …I Care Because You Do. And yet these obvious early-to-mid-nineties Warp influences are paired with these crazily fresh drumlines.

And so to the bio. I’m often ambivalent about the abstract concepts said to inspire dance music records, but this really seems to make sense to me. Nkisi, aka Melika Ngombe Kolongo, is Congolese by birth and Belgian by upbringing. Her moniker refers to a spirit in the Kongo religion (or, perhaps significantly, an object inhabited by a spirit). And the album is dedicated to Kimbwandende Kia Fu-Kiau Bunseki, a scholar of Bantu culture and cosmology and someone who has written about Africa’s relationship with western values and structures and the role the continent has in shaping the future of civilization. (To its credit, there are no theses in the liner notes, only the dedication. Following that lead is strictly an optional extra, but I found it kind of fascinating.)

It is a truism, of course, that modern dance music is a layer cake sandwiching together many strata of European and African heritage. What this album does is make that concept come thrillingly alive. It’s got the familiar notes that draw me in and then something fresh and utterly compelling that keep me coming back. And if this is the sound of the future then I say “yes, please!”

I bought this from Juno. They call it Experimental / Electronic.