Monday, 24 February 2014

Black Light Spiral

The influence of Jack Dunning aka Untold over British dance music of the past few years is hard to deny. Creator of some of the most twisted and forward thinking beats of recent memory and head of the influential Hemlock imprint, his legacy is already imprinted in bass warped stone. Tunes like Anaconda and Stop What You’re Doing showed how the slogged dirge of dubstep could have the same rhythmic complexity as old hardcore and jungle (an influence that his guest appearance on the Hessle Audio show last October made crystal). Recently he’s joined the path of people like Blawan and Pariah in leaving the ‘nuum aside and traveling down a twilight road of phat, heavy techno that pounds your body and soul in the same way that Liquid Room era mills used to. Being the patriot that he is, Dunning’s new music isn’t looking overseas for inspiration but aligning himself to a British music lineage that has roots further north. His recent start up Pennyroyal has showcased artists from the harder edge of techno, with ear bleeding noise influenced releases from people like Boner M and ex-junglist J Tijn. All this makes the lead up to Black Light Spiral rather exciting because it feels like Dunning could head in any musical direction for his first full length effort. What we've got is as surprising as it is satisfying.

Before I get on to the rest of the album I want to talk briefly about the state of contemporary techno and it’s position between the past and the future. For a music that’s de facto faceless and theme-less, it seems remarkable that after nearly three decades since the music was originated, it’s as popular and widely talked about as it’s ever been. The Berghain manifesto of ‘true techno music’ that once seemed so fresh has descended into cliches of sub-standard, reverb heavy beats that seem all too hollow outside the infamous, cavernous walls. The clinical, high definition minimal sound pioneered by Robert Henke and late 90s Plastikman has entered into an inverse curve of popularity versus creativity. The music seems split now between the introspective, emotional sound pushed by labels such as Prologue, the dirty distortions of neo-noise techno found in the deep underbelly of Boomkat and the modern-IDM of people like Answer Code Request, Ingio Kennedy and Kangding Ray.  Untold enters this war-in-the-machine state at a pivotal time. As an artist who has a proven track record as a producer, and a widely disparate and eclectic range of musical influences, what can Dunning add to the genre at a time when a strong voice is so sorely needed?

The first thing that’s noticeable is the lack of traditional club friendly material. Doubles is the only tune that could be considered a reasonably easy song to drop in a set, but even this one isn't conventional by any means. Dunning’s take on techno is similar to how he approached dubstep and grime influenced music. He takes musical ideas and conventions that are synonymous with the genre, but choose specific details and pushes them to the complete extreme. Turn of the millennium grime has rhythms that managed to both tighten the chest and bop the head. Anaconda took these two aspects of the music and took them to breaking point. Doubles is a similar response to hard techno with a kick that morphs and folds into the heavy sub bass pulsing underneath. The drum and the bass become two parts of the same sound in an illusion of sonic metamorphosis. A rampant disregard for traditional techno mechanics is a continuing trend throughout Black Light Spiral. 

Dunning attempts to fuse together his previously mentioned influences (jungle, dubstep, grime, techno, noise etc) to create an end product that feels like it could break into anyone of those genres at any point. Sing A Love Song has a deranged vocal sample and a bass that sounds like it's been re-sampled through a distorted tape and then over-driven to 11. The song constantly seems like it's going to break into a rave monster but  instead holds the tension and gives off a paranoia that seems reminiscent of ‘93 darkside before it developed into the gangster rude boy swing of jungle. Elsewhere, album opener 5 Wheels begins proceedings with sirens that are like the coming of post-apocalyptic ghosts complete with fluorescent whistles and rave air horns. Drop It On the One has heavy drones that cut through the tune in missile-esque fashion before dropping into the inevitable explosion that comes near the end of the track, with a gun fingers transition into Kevin Drumm inspired noise. This tune is one of the most successful on the album and is evidence of Untold's experience in sound design curating. 

All these are admittedly great tunes but a full length album needs a mix up of themes and emotions. Luckily, Dunning shows his range with the album’s calmest point, Wet Wool. Traveling in reverse like an extended rewind, it preps the listener for the final half of the album. The only real flat note is the 7 minute Hobthrush which that’s the only tune that’s verges towards pastiche. It’s reminiscent of a diluted and under-produced version of Surgeon's tune Radiance but it’s a worthy experiment and shows how Dunning is still interested in exploring rhythmic complexities within electronic music. The album ends on a high point as you get to the the final track Ion. This cut is proof that the albums strengths lie in his mastery of sound design and taste for balancing eclectic sounds and influences to produce a product that feels very much of the now in the post-everything musical landscape. The lasting impression of this album is how he’s brought in classic ‘nuum signifier's (junglists horns, rudeboy culture, wall shaking bass) into techno and noise music. It's a signal of a new step in Dunning's career that's a move away from the dancefloor into something more cerebral. It's time to stop looking back at tunes like Anaconda and look forward to whichever avenue Untold chooses to wander down.

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