Essay: London’s hi-tech noise

Adam Harper navigates the UK capital's surprisingly subtle underground noise network, with K/A/L/E/I/D/O/S/C/O/P/E, Astro:Dynamics and Mantile.

Noise doesn't have to be noisy. Well, not in that way. The genre is sometimes feared as representing the ultimate in challenging sonics, brain violence and all-round multimedia horror, but it can be amazingly subtle too - really it's about seeing over the horizon of musical possibility in all its forms. And though noise and its sibling industrial music have been famous for distortion in excelsis, a new breed of noise producers is putting raw analogue alchemy to one side in favour of a hi-tech palette.

Just as some techno, once clean and hi-tech, is becoming more distorted and hissy (which I looked at in another essay) and thus more like noise music, this faction within noise and industrial music is becoming a bit more clean and hi-tech. It's a particular network headquartered in London (with an annex in Taiwan) and it's been slowly cooking over the past few years, with focal points provided by labels such as K/A/L/E/I/D/O/S/C/O/P/E, Manile, Astro:Dynamics and No Pain in Pop. It's coming to resemble something of a counterpart to New York's own abstract hi-tech crew - the likes of Oneohtrix Point Never (and his Software Label), Laurel Halo, Ferraro, Gobby and Arca. Like these artists and like noisy techno, the London-centred network doesn't have much to do with retro-futurism or pop-cultural exploration, instead putting the sensual delights of gorgeously detailed pure sonic forms dead centre, and with refreshingly few of the clichés and formulas that have accrued to noise over the decades. What's more, the music comes surrounded with some stunning visuals, since a few of the producers are also artists on the bleeding edge.

A few months ago, K/A/L/E/I/D/O/S/C/O/P/E sent me an email containing nothing but this picture. Naturally, this got my attention. It could have been a webcam selfie, but over the head there was a mask-like... abstraction. I recognised a pair of inverted green horns at the bottom of the image, but I couldn't begin to see the derivation of the other complex forms. Further images I subsequently saw depicted some digital Arnold Böcklin's vision of hell under London-Bus-standard scratched perspex and, um, the Croydon skyline menaced by a fragmented manifestation of some colossal Playstation 2 boss. All this heralded a double album from London-born, Taiwan-based producer Yearning Kru called 'Cracked Lacquer / Vanadium.' It turned out Yearning Kru's music was a lot like her/his face - a busy collage of samples sewn together into a baffling fabric, exceeding mere surreal juxtaposition and summoning a detailed alien environment.

"If you listen to only one thing from this article, listen to the 'Cracked Lacquer/Vanadium' remix EP. If just one of this album's bucketfuls of new techniques made it onto London's dancefloors, it'd be a transfiguring moment."

Sometimes 'Cracked Lacquer / Vanadium' is dense, angry and demented, pulling up clods of God-knows-what from the roots, pressing them together and twisting the whole bunch. Other times it's searching desperately for something deeper as its surface trembles with latent anxiety. Aethrr Wvlf starts off like a pocket call from a friend shopping for groceries in other dimension, but a mournful refrain slowly rises out of its centre with a halo of broken glass and crockery in its orbit. In The Confines, a handful of scrunched-up tones is cranked like a mad hurdy-gurdy. While the 'Cracked Lacquer' section is usually grander and slower-moving, 'Vanadium' is a series of smaller sketches featuring the signature tones of shifting high-resonance phasers, like wine glasses as they scrape and scoop up water, soil, stones and other all-frequency sonic components, most dramatically in effect on the final track. 

K/A/L/E/I/D/O/S/C/O/P/E is run by London-based producer patten, who in 2011 put out a promising debut album, 'GLAQJO XAACSSO,' that in retrospect prefigured the likes of Ital and Huerco S. The label has put out four cassettes so far in ultra-limited releases, with digital downloads for free on the website. One was Karen Gwyer's 'I've Been You Twice,' released last year - not noise so much as pristine, tonally-led electronics with vocals, abrasive saw-waves, mellow square-waves, trance states and a finale to rival attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. American but based in London, Gwyer has had further releases out this year on Opal Tapes and No Pain in Pop, the label that put out 'GLAQJO XAACSSO'. Opal Tapes has 'Kiki the Wormhole' - techier, with an extended ambient goodbye - while No Pain in Pop has the wondrously diverse long-player 'Needs Continuum.' K/A/L/E/I/D/O/S/C/O/P/E followed Gwyer with Vanilla Hammer's 'Retreat,' a tour of the shimmering surfaces of the New Industrial: automated flying-car factories, carbon-fibre bazaars and weird-ass clubs for the denizens of Hyper-Shanghai. Highlights include the nanotechnological Garbage Juice and the cybernetic repair-shop-come-abattoir of Alabaster Circuits. KCC004 is 'Retakes' by Orphan, a live recording of assorted synthscapes whose Hours has a memorable heaviness of mood and whose 169 is a masterclass in alt-house.

Recently K/A/L/E/I/D/O/S/C/O/P/E released an EP remixing tracks from 'Cracked Lacquer / Vanadium' with appearances from other key members of this hi-tech noise network: Brood Ma, recsund, Swivelized Sounds, Ornine and Felicita. If you listen to only one thing from this article, listen to this EP. The opening track, Oxidiation Fix by Brood Ma, takes the cake, an essential future-groove of chiming icicles and kick-drum fists. You may then want to listen to Brood Ma's album 'F I S S I O N,' a stunning, sharp-edged diamond, a classic of the modern sound that seems to have languished in woeful obscurity for roughly a year (it can be found as a free download here). It shivers with snares and flexes claws as it hurtles forward, now mutantly misshapen yet oncoming, now on-the-beat and sleek like a lightcycle. Not Going Home probably features the most terrifying use of the 'Ha Dance' sample out there, resculpting it as an eyeless bug scuttling down from the hive to feast on your pituitary gland. Disconnect From This & That takes some tonal sample or other and just wrecks it, rabidly shaking it in its jaws and sending flecks of acidic saliva in all directions. If just one of this album's bucketfuls of new techniques made it onto London's dancefloors, it'd be a transfiguring moment.

Noise and cassettes go way back to the beginning, and Mantile, the label that put out 'F I S S I O N', operates in the same way as K/A/L/E/I/D/O/S/C/O/P/E - cassettes to order, digital to download (in this case, for a discretionary donation). Mantile is more often closer to arcane analogue noise, with releases exploring saturation, filtration and other effects boxes, extended microphone techniques and hypnagogic pop. One of its other highlights is Kayaka's diverse 'Operation Deep Freeze,' with some tracks offering standard garage skronk, others, like the ominous Bomba Bonus, studies in contrast between brushed metal and analogue matter.

The second remix of 'Cracked Lacquer / Vanadium' comes from recsund, aka London's Clifford Sage, and it's a brainstem injection of mostly beatless cryogenic house. Like Brood Ma, Sage is primarily a visual artist who has long worked with 3D virtual environments (even collaborating with Brood Ma on one), but he's fearsomely prolific as recsund, a project with over sixty releases to its name that stretches back as far as 2001. recsund is the missing link between the rhythmic synth-industrial of Throbbing Gristle, Chris & Cosey and Robert Rental and the latter-day, alien strains of acts like Nguzunguzu and Arca - he might have played an early role in the aesthetics of what I called "distroid". Though Sage has albums from the mid-noughties that still sound vital today, albums from 2010-11 serve as a good point of entry. 'Nvidia GTX' is an ode to new graphics card whose hi-tech industrial harshness anticipated BODYGUARD and Gatekeeper's Exo by a year - try Desteni investi [INSTRUMENTAL] or FAILING FORGER. 'NEW AGE GRIME' (not what the name might suggest) and the noisier, dronier, shimmering 'A GUIDED DISCOURSE'  (listen to DIMENSIONAL PLOT CHANCE or FALLING WITH THE OLD SEEDS) are also worth checking out, and there's a SoundCloud account too, where you can melt beneath the detuned synths of Lure Me In.

"Pop vitally needs its avant-garde sectors, and this London-centred noise network represents the hi-tech weirdness currently sweeping the underground in its most distilled form."

The third remix, which subjects 'Vanadium' to the weird intimacy of the human digestive process, is from Swivelized Sounds. Like Yearning Kru, Swivelized Sounds is based in Taiwan, and comes from the States originally. Her/his tracks are often abrasive but also inhabit an attractively large acoustic space and sometimes bring this to an airy, almost dreamy vibe - my favourite release is probably 'ÐROΩΞ BΞΔT' which sounds like the tuning and calibration of some vast 23rd-century musical instrument. Ornine's remix layers multiple loops feverishly, and though small-scale repetition is often the producer's technique s/he's one of the more diverse of the bunch. The SoundCloud account suggests that Ornine is usually to be found in collaborations, but one of the strongest tracks is solo - the gorgeous Draco has an irregular groove with drones and vocal samples and that's all I can manage to say in defining its minimalist grace and oddly affecting mood. 

The last remix is by London's intriguing and unclassifiable Felicita, and it's probably the most surprising of the bunch - one second it's save-point video-game music, the next it's cold tech-y drone. Felicita's own releases are just as absorbingly unpredictable. His EP '(>'.')>#' ranges from missions through bamboo forests to pointillist puzzle-solving and majestic clowning. Even better is the recent Soundcloud set '(>'.')>~~,' something like a single, with the lolloping climb up eh and the rapidfireworks of bring it, which is like a duel between martial arts masters portrayed in superimposed diptych - two highly contrasting time periods represented simultaneously, one immediately before and one during the battle.

Also worth a mention is London-based label Astro:Dynamics, who have released cassettes as well, and tend to approach the lighter side, somewhere between noise, ambient and abstract beats. DYNOOO's 'Mesh N2 Air' is hi-tech glittering hypnagogia, LEDs winking through the dry-ice and hybrid devices slowly spinning on plinths, with the whole thing mournful like a neglected museum. Much of the rest of the label's catalogue is hissier, small-scale electronics of a more familiar sort, but there are some beautiful items in there.

Pop vitally needs its avant-garde sectors, and this London-centred noise network represents the hi-tech weirdness currently sweeping the underground in its most distilled form. If you don't normally consider yourself a noise person, it's worth giving it a try in this case - this is not something gurgling away as a static sub-sub-culture, but an insight into the modern sound.

 

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