Essay: “Messy” Techno and the Resurgence of Musical Abstraction

Adam Harper takes a look at the current wave of quasi-techno artists, from Ital to Actress, who are united in their abstract approach and pure sonic sensuality.

Sporadically, over the past few years, artists from several surprisingly distinct corners of pop music’s underground have been converging on a particular method: a messy, rough-edged, restless churn of sonic material that’s often associated with techno, but only suggests that genre the way a pile of twisted metal, ash and melted plastic suggests some kind of joyridden and abandoned vehicle. Classic techno is, or was, futuristic in a very late-twentieth-century way – sleek, shimmering, robotic in the Kraftwerkian sense, metronomically regular, often funky and typically sparkling clean. This more recent kind of “techno” is like turning on a wood chipper and forcing into it several bunches of roses (flowers, stems and thorns), a suite of furniture (wood, fabric, padding and rollers), a collection of Hawaiian shirts (together with the wire hangers), a set of cutlery and crockery (and whatever else was lying around the kitchen), and three decades’ worth of magazine subscriptions to Wallpaper, The Architectural Review and Good Housekeeping.

This techno’s numerous layers of beats rarely line up with the pitched elements conventionally, and often don’t sync with each other either. Exceeding the inner and outer limits of a conventional groove, this techno expresses everything from a maelstrom of tiny, rapidly cycling cells to Great Red Spots of slowly swelling drones. It most often operates at a high bpm, though in many cases it might be more accurate to say there are several bpms operating simultaneously. This techno makes a virtue of acoustic space and aural proximity – it could be tightly packed and delicately balanced on the tips of your nose and eyelids, or sweeping into the auditory sphere with all the sublime grandeur of an avalanche filling a three-mile-wide valley. This techno incorporates the soot and grease and materiality of the electronic audio signal, as well as effects such as heavy compression, as part of its sensual palette in ways that surpass the necessary evil or distancing devices of “lo-fi”. This techno ignores the normal rules of structure, of build-ups, drops and breakdowns, constantly reinventing itself as it rushes along. And forget your 80s synths and drum machines – in this techno, you can barely predict the timbres, colours and textures that wait around the corner.

“There are countless musical and artistic styles throughout history that came across, at first, as disordered and unhealthily addled in relation to previous norms. And if it ever was, this techno has increasingly little to do with the forms of the past.”

This style comes from a number of artists who seem to be working relatively independently, but the similarities in their work is undeniable. It’s not as if the artists who make it are all from the same city, or country, or record label, or even the same generation. They probably listen to some of each others’ music but don’t seem to be particularly networked or associated with each other. Ital, originating in DC post-hardcore, has become one of those transversal producers, found on both stalwart electronic label Planet Mu and handmade hypnagogic-ish label Not Not Fun and its dance-focused sub-label 100% Silk. Tlaotlon, from New Zealand, seems to come from a psychedelic dance background but revs it up to ferocious levels for Irish label Trensmat. Underground hit Gobby is associated with the New York scene surrounding UNO NYC and Dis magazine, having done mixes for the latter, remixing Exo, and providing backing for rapper Mykki Blanco. AyGeeTee is a rising Bandcamp talent based in London, producing for one of the larger labels in that platform’s underground sector, AMDiscs. Slightly further afield sonically: Lee Gamble is a British producer with a history of avant-techno and a background in rave, recently praised for his jungle elegy ‘Diversions 1994-96’. American musician Bee Mask has been getting well-deserved attention for his imaginative and brightly lit juxtapositions in the past year. Pete Swanson, formerly one half of Yellow Swans, comes at this from a noise background and is as popular as ever in avant-garde circles since injecting some techno into his method. And although not often frenetic enough to be located at the epicentre of this new take on techno, Actress and Laurel Halo have been among the most critically acclaimed new artists of recent years, and they can probably take a lot of credit for bringing indie and dance music fans and musicians into experimental electronic music with a techno feel.

Now of course, a characterisation of this musical style as “messy” or “restless” or similar shouldn’t be read as some sort of put-down, even one that comes from good intentions. I’m not implying that it results from a lack of attentive care, control, or artistic deliberation. Even without going that far, however, some will read this messy style of techno as a sort of aesthetic malaise, a sorry mixture of ‘the death of rave’ and a specifically contemporary, modern-life, internet-induced fever that melts down all proper restraint and coherency and stops musicians from keeping their house in order. At best a tragic headstone to the Golden Age, at worst a stunted modern mutant deviating from the True Path of the Dance Future. You almost conclude that such people mostly listen to the tidy classicism of Mozart, even if they do like to tweet about Drexciya. There are countless musical and artistic styles throughout history that came across, at first, as disordered and unhealthily addled in relation to previous norms. And if it ever was, this techno has increasingly little to do with the forms of the past, except for in the most basic, almost pre-stylistic layers – elements as fundamental as the use of kick drums or synthesisers. There are fewer and fewer musical objects within it recognisable as fully or even half-formed representations of familiar bits and pieces from previous genres. The interpretation that this techno is formally innovative but nonetheless cobbled together by retromaniacs from pre-given musics, and thus is little more than hauntological (i.e. a mournful deconstruction of the past), is getting weaker and weaker. Instead, this techno is headed into the realms of abstraction.

What do I mean by this? Well firstly, in learning to appreciate this new breed of techno, I found it helped to look at abstract paintings, and particularly their contemporary resurgence. Without wishing to be overly specific, Ital reminds me of the work of Franz Ackermann, Tlaotlon of Rosemarie Fiore, Gobby of Matthew Ritchie, AyGeeTee of Julie Mehretu, Lee Gamble of Joanne Greenbaum, Bee Mask of Beatriz Milhazes, Pete Swanson of Fabian Marcaccio and Actress of Tomma Abts. There is much similarity to be found between the music and the paintings in their use of forms, colours and textures – small and large scales simultaneously, curves and irregularity rather than straight or simple order, elements overlaid to give a sense of space and yet also the creative machine’s materiality to impart a visceral sense of surface, and overall, an undeniable energy flowing from the combination of the sheer quantity of elements on display and the extroverted gestures that bring and bind them together. The formal and sensual interest of these works is of such a degree that their relative lack of direct reference to or connotation of already culturally loaded concepts (such as objects of art/music history or everyday experience) is practically irrelevant.


Artwork by Rosemarie Fiore.

This latter point raises a more complicated question of the comparison between music and abstract art, and here the aesthetic nature of these quasi-techno artists comes into focus. It’s often assumed that the medium of music is inherently abstract, but this is not quite the case. Non-abstract art is usually described as “representational” or “figurative”, and music can certainly represent, or evoke, a great deal, from recognisable aspects of the outside world to the use of certain musical styles to suggest areas of human culture, and to the movements and gestures that embody emotion. In fact, thanks to electrical recording and sampling technology of the sort often used in classic techno, music can be quite starkly representational, closely reproducing objects from elsewhere in ways comparable to photography.

“Abstract music, you could say, is music that not only lacks clear representation of objects and ideas ‘outside itself’, but also lacks any kind of familiar or recognisable complex musical objects”

We can go further than the opposition of abstraction and representation, however. Abstract music, you could say, is music that not only lacks clear representation of objects and ideas “outside itself”, but also lacks any kind of familiar or recognisable complex musical objects (“figures” if you like) that might not be in themselves directly representational. For example, an electronic dance track might contain objects such as a main riff, piano house chords, a drop structure, a regular 4/4 groove, an R&B-like vocal sample, a breakdown or garage percussion loops, and these elements do not directly represent outside-world objects in themselves (e.g. you don’t go for a walk around town and find some piano house chords). But they’re recognisable and familiar to most people in the same way that the representation of a complex object such as a face is within a painting. Conventional dance music, therefore, in that it relies to a significant extent on recognisable structures and figuration, is less abstract.

This recent style of techno is more abstract because such “figuration” is much less evident, if at all. Its constituent objects are usually too small or basic to register as recognisable elements imported from elsewhere. So instead of making some sort of cultural commentary or offering itself as an easy dance structure, this music, like the painters mentioned above, is about pure sonic sensuality. This conforms to a recent and broad-based shift in the aesthetics of underground pop music. Around the turn of the decade, much of the most popular music was evocative first and foremost, whether it was Romantic, hauntological, retro or conceptual. The culturally and historically distancing effect of lo-fi sonics often played a significant role. Now however, underground pop seems to be moving away from this and slowly rediscovering, with some help from Actress, Laurel Halo and similar artists, the intrigue of pure sound independent of clear, pre-established meaning.

A couple of provisos: firstly, neither art nor music is ever either completely abstract or completely figurative – the two are ends of a continuum of mixtures between the two, and art or music may respond to a greater or lesser extent to either approach over the other. If music was completely abstract there would be nothing perceptible to grasp within it at all, even emotionally or formally – it would basically be white noise. This messy techno still has rhythmic and sonic objects within it, they’re just not familiar complex structures like piano house chords. On the other hand, an entirely figurative music would be completely identical to what it represents, a field recording or a pure choreographical sequence. My argument is only that more conventional producers are less abstract and that Ital, Tlaotlon etc are more abstract. Abstract to the point where notions of the music being evocative might be put aside in favour of the appreciation of pure sound and form.

Secondly, I’m not implying that these artists are doing something grandly original by being abstract. Abstract electronic music has of course been a constant tradition since the Second World War, and abstract instrumental music existed decades earlier at least. Hundreds of producers and composers were working on pure sound with little care for representation or evocation while the taste for non-abstract music reached its height in the underground. What I am saying is that an aesthetics of musical abstraction is having something of a fresh resurgence in underground pop music.

Thirdly, by characterising this music as somewhat removed from conventional dance structures, I’m not suggesting that it’s deficient or even undanceable. On the No Fear of Pop blog recently, in reference to AyGeeTee, Trey Reis put it wonderfully: “At some point in time, beat music blared over speakers at dance clubs, while textural ambient music blared through headphones around the world, about as far apart as possible on the spectrum of electronic music. Since that point, there have been a number of artists who have managed to draw out the similarities between the two ends of that spectrum, finding the middle ground which proves the two aren’t as different as we thought in the first place.” Abstraction, and with it, danceability, is a continuum in dance music. Even if this music is not conventionally danceable, though, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a lot to do with movement, psychologically or physically, or that it can’t be a dynamically live or collective music.

And fourthly, naturally, as always: this is only one of many possible and valid ways of looking at things, listening to them, and drawing connections.


Actress – Lost

The roots of this resurgence in abstraction go back several years. Popular avant-rock bands like Animal Collective, Black Dice and HEALTH always had a huge abstract streak to them. The weirdness of lots of the music formerly known as “wonky” pushed beyond the stylicity of beats and dance, especially on Zomby’s self-titled EP (2008) and ‘One Foot Ahead of the Other’ (2009), Hudson Mohawke’s ‘Butter’ (2009), for artists like Shlohmo and those on the Leaving Records label. But when Actress’s breakthrough album ‘Splazsh’ came out in summer 2010 and Laurel Halo’s breakthrough EP ‘Hour Logic’ came out in summer 2011, the retro lo-fi moment was in full swing and UK dance was beginning its climb back down to more conventional idioms. These releases didn’t fit in too badly, resonating with the order of the day well enough – at first listen, ‘Splazsh’ was a series of lo-fi sketches made from odds and ends of house, techno and garage, and superficially again, ‘Hour Logic’ offered the sort of quasi-nostalgic twentieth-century planetarium music popular with Oneohtrix Point Never’s growing listenership. But what made these releases so successful was that they turned out to be much deeper, less predictable and more intriguing than the latest serving of London mongrel house or hypnagogic cosmic synth. The clue was on the covers: designs unrecognisable as anything other than beguiling, abstract shapes.

“You find yourself adoring [Splazsh] less and less because it’s a hazy memory of bygone musical styles, and more and more because the sounds’ envelopes, timbres, surfaces and textures do something amazing to your brain.”

‘Splazsh’ gets twice as deep with each new listen, its minute detail and veiled care becoming increasingly apparent. You find yourself adoring the album less and less because it’s a hazy memory of bygone musical styles, and more and more because the sounds’ envelopes, timbres, surfaces and textures do something amazing to your brain. Similarly, ‘Hour Logic’ is not gorgeous because it sounds like it was composed on a console in 1973 (which it ultimately doesn’t), but because it’s like glimpsing an alien city, because it pushes retro futures until they become real futures. Actress and Laurel Halo have continued to explore this territory, becoming if anything even less retro and lo-fi and more abstract. Actress’s ‘R.I.P.’ was tidier, less cloaked, and much more confident with experimental sonic objects, while Laurel Halo’s ‘Quarantine’ reinvented vocal pieces for purely sensual, emotional, and darkly mysterious experiences. Her recent ‘Behind the Green Door’ EP is a partial return to techno conventions, but the agenda is still squarely on the sonic imagination before stylistic homages.

Yet there are now artists who have gone even deeper. While Lee Gamble’s ‘Diversions 1994-6’ was the latest in a long and increasingly tiresome line of classic-rave eulogies and burials, his ‘Dutch Tvashar Plumes’ had a more enterprising approach – droplets of synth on steamy surfaces of noise, rough but strained beats like blood coursing through a dehydrated body. The label that put both records out, Pan, has been going from strength to strength in releasing messy electronic abstraction, one particular highlight being two volumes of ironically named ‘Dance Classics’ by Japanese producer NHK’Koyxen. Irregular and fractious but not notably messy or frenetic, they’re nonetheless powerful models of modern techno production, oriented towards the abstract, practically unburdened by the history of the genre. Pete Swanson has been covering similar ground to much greater, more distorted extremes on ‘Man With Potential’, the excellent ‘Pro Style’ and ‘Punk Authority’ (for Oneohtrix’s Software label): walls of noise, urgent dynamos and synth rumble sprinkled with shards of bleep. If anything deserves the description “noise techno” it’s this.

Bee Mask, though sharing the breadth, busyness and rhythmic looseness of the above producers, has a clearer, more elegant sound, and maybe more to do with continental 1970s kosmiche than straight-up techno. On the first side of ‘Vaporware / Scanops’, a high, fiddly techno squiggle formed the spine of a gracefully cetacean construction of synth pads, lasers and metallophones. On the second, a slice of late 1970s choral minimalism is swamped in computer traffic. More of the same was to be found on November 2012’s album ‘When We Were Eating Unripe Pears’, but with an even broader palette.

An ally of Mykki Blanco, Exo, UNO NYC and Dis magazine, Gobby is about as hypeable as a producer can get today, and offers a more energetic and freewheeling methodology than the Actress-a-likes. Though he can often be found using samples, they’re usually so miniscule, thickly processed, or so bizarrely contextualised that they don’t really suggest pre-established styles, though the speed and rhythmic lilt often points to the gentle influence of footwork. Each track on his ‘Lantern’ EP could almost be from a different producer, such is the variety of sound worlds accessed, and dozens more multicoloured tracks can be found on his Soundcloud page. A link to much more conventional techno is affirmed on ‘Fashion Lady’, a “techno ass album” [streamable below] and it remains to be seen whether the producer will stick with the past or the future on further releases.

The eye of the messy techno storm, however, is the sonic similarity between otherwise independent producers Ital, Tlaoton and AyGeeTee. Each superimposes several loops and elements of different lengths, creating what feels like a series of concentric circles with a vortex-like, tangibly rotational movement. The inner layers, almost always present and opening the tracks, are very short and rapid, while the outer layers have a slower or more unpredictable nature. Boldly, they sometimes even combine rhythmically unsynchronised layers of low-frequency-intensive percussive elements such as kick drums and tom-toms, seriously compromising any conventional sense of groove. It’s an expansive, continuous sound, and the fascination comes from witnessing forms, motions and flavours working together and against each other at so many different scales.

Ital received plenty of attention for his Planet Mu releases ‘Hive Mind’ and ‘Dream On’ last year. The former had plenty of roots in the circa-1980-euro-disco-come-classic-Chicago-flavoured ‘hipster house’ style that 100% Silk and others were putting out. But a lot like ‘Hour Logic’ it was more about slowly unfolding atmospherics than nostalgia or getting down to dancefloor riffs. ‘Dream On’ went further into abstraction, chopping the reference points up more finely and burying the traditional house and techno deeper beneath strange rhythms and squealing pitches until they came to resemble the pageant of paint, paper and splatter on its cover.

“Much like the famous painting methods of Piet Mondrian and Jackson Pollock, techniques that were once abstract can become a lot more cosy and familiar than they once were.”

Tlaotlon is involved in a number of different avant projects, but his fantastic ‘Squirt Image Flex’ and ‘Teeth Alphabets’ are the most worth checking out. He has the same relationship to psychedelic, trancy groove music as Ital has to hipster house – going so far with the energy, layering and imagination that the music becomes a different animal. Many of his tracks sound like two or three different dance cuts playing on turntables simultaneously, and progressively build in energy until they struggle to stay in balance like mile-high gyroscopes dipping in and out of the clouds and crackling with lightning. A highlight from ‘Squirt Image Flex’ is the aptly named Hive Mind, whose inner cells at the opening are so rapid they’re practically a drone. They evaporate to give way to a throbbing workshop of percussion, sacred intonations and templar chords, realised in incredible detail.

A timely exception to the recent lack of exciting new producers working out of London, AyGeeTee is one of the biggest, most original fish in the lively pond that is netlabel AMDiscs. The third album, ‘Fools’, was released at the end of April and shows the artist really blossoming. AyGeeTee’s appeal lies in the breadth and contrast operating within each track’s textures. In Pleasure Warrior, a super-smooth rhodes piano contrasts with (compliments?) a sandpapery gash of digital noise, and in Famous Gum two heavy layers of peculiarly time-stretched drums are pitted against high staccato tones like sun lighting up tubes of smoke from holes in the wall – choicely composed in the way any painting could be. The self-titled ‘Actress Pets’ is a side-project with a generally more playful, gurglier sound – try 8Ball StepDown Fetch and Park Shivers (Canine Skate).

If we really are moving into a period of greater abstraction it means a major shift in the way we listen, shedding our formulaic expectations and radically opening us up to new sonic experiences. If musical abstraction is based on lack of familiarity with sonic objects, though, it must be a constant, ongoing process. Much like the famous painting methods of Piet Mondrian and Jackson Pollock, techniques that were once abstract can become a lot more cosy and familiar than they once were, not necessarily testing our senses and perception like they used to. Sooner or later, then, it’ll once again be time to discover the life of pure sound.

Artwork by Rosemarie Fiore.

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