Jaša Bužinel shares his thoughts on the ongoing debate regarding the divide between Central and Eastern European dance music and Western media, and reviews some jaw-dropping club goodies from Rhyw, Joy Overmono, Shanti Celeste, TRAKA, Naphta and more
Authentically Plastic by Darlyne Komukama Thermoplastic Molding
Last weekend, I was invited to Prague as a guest of the symposium of Lunchmeat Festival, the annual international festival dedicated to advanced electronic music and new media. Apart from seeing some wonderful AV performances by the likes of Karenn, Cocktail Party Effect, Paraadiso and Holy Other, I also took part in a debate on the topic of Central and Eastern European Music and Western music media. It included The Wire’s Editor-in-Chief Chris Bohn, independent journalist and label manager Łukasz Warna-Wiesławski and my dear tQ colleague Miloš Hroch. We talked about music geographies, decentralisation and the music industry's glass ceilings for people from the Central-Eastern European region.
This was just one of the many post-pandemic debates that have been taking place at various conferences across the Eastern half of the continent ( similar round tables recently took place in Ljubljana at Sonica Festival and Bratislava at Next Festival, and another one will soon be happening in Kraków at Unsound). We could almost talk about it as a trending topic, which was already covered extensively by Miloš Hroch here at tQ about a year ago. It seems like we are experiencing a kind of renaissance in terms of how to contextualise and promote our separate Central and Eastern European dance music scenes, which are still deemed part of the periphery – not futuristic (or if you wish, exotic) enough, but also not as "trendy" as the scenes in the established centres.
Despite agreeing on the fact that things have gotten better in the past two years, some of us were not so optimistic about the idea of overcoming these cultural divisions in the near future. The various forms of systemic bias and gatekeeping are making it objectively harder for artists from our regions to break through in the West. As exposed by occasional tQ writer and curator Lucia Udvardyová in the above-mentioned article, the scenes from our region tend to be framed in very specific ways which do not necessarily reflect reality, be it through political struggles, (post) Soviet aesthetics, socialist heritage, fashion, brutalism, poverty, war and so on. In all truth, tQ and The Wire have always been beacons of hope when it comes to informed music journalism with a global perspective, so this debate should be extended into the wider dance music media landscape, especially when we consider global trademarks, such as Resident Advisor, Mixmag and Pitchfork.
At least, though, there is a sense of forward movement. I guess we are in a period of self-exploration and soul-searching on all our regional scenes. Ultimately, I truly believe that we, people from these regions, must first get to know and appreciate each other’s dance music scenes better. We must establish networks, collaborate with one another, maybe even unionise. It is obligatory to increase the number of artists from the CEE region playing our festivals and club nights. We must do everything in our power to create and develop our own dance music "stars". And instead of finger-pointing at the West, we should engender a sense of unity between our own separate scenes. How can we expect "the West" to notice us when we do not even care about cherishing our own and our neighbours’ talents?
We must not look at it through rose-coloured glasses and pretend everything is fine, just because we get to talk about this topic at festivals. There is a lot to be done on both “sides”. And yet, I have the feeling that we are only at the beginning of a new better era for the Central and Eastern Europe dance music scenes (and at least when it comes to the Balkans; I know this for a fact, as there is a lot of ground-breaking stuff soon to be released).
While I was in Prague last weekend, I had a really nice experience after putting on the new EP by Avalon Emerson and Anunaku (a collab I was not expecting, but which really pays off) while strolling through the city. Imagine a scene of 500 Days Of Summer-type cheesiness, observing the city’s stunning panorama from Stalin Plaza on the first day of October, listening to the duo’s melancholy jam 'Eternal September' and reflecting back on the past months. It was one of those moments in a foreign city that is etched on your heart. Compared to Anunaku’s other moniker TSVI (reserved for bassy cutting-edge club bangers), this is a completely different affair. The two artists have managed to find a fine balance between Emerson’s joyful aesthetic, as found on her Whities/AD93 releases, and Anunaku’s dreamy techno/house hybrids from the 2021 EP 042. 060 takes me back to the early 2010s when a more sentimental house sound had momentum. The sunshiney track 'Felice' (Italian for "happy") is a lovely device to lift up your spirits. The B-side, 'North Star' will provide the setting for blissful dancefloor excursions, while 'Rite At The End' is one of those schmaltzy closers with the ability to bring tears of joy to a dancer’s eyes. These simple and comforting dance tunes with will speak to you in the most straightforward way possible.
Rhyw - Honey Badger (Voam)
It is thrilling to observe a producer’s sound design features and drum-programming methods (along with a knack for amusing track titles) evolve and crystallise over a series of EPs. This is exactly the case with Rhyw’s latest outing for Blawan and Pariah’s imprint Voam, which has already delivered some top-notch goodies this year. Following releases for Avian and his label Fever AM, Honey Badger brings forth a vision of convention-challenging "techno" which sounds just the way I would like it to in 2022 – frisky, unrelenting, innovative, unequivocally leftfield yet very accessible, and optimised to cause devastation on any dancefloor. His productions may partly be a response to the current trend of up-tempo club smashers in the 145-155 bpm zone, but it is not just about teeth-rattling speed. It is the intricate off kilter grooves and flickery details, such as the wobbly gut-twisting subs, piercing bubbly frequencies and hyperpolished synths that sound like Mazinger Z fighting Dr. Hell, that really give you the kick. Besides, he is quite daring when it comes to unexpected changes, which feel like mischievous winks to the listener. Turn your soundsystem on and play the monstrous title track with its blast beat-inspired single-stroke snare rolls, start-stop tricks and sudden faux shifts in tempo and you will see what I mean. I cannot wait to see people having those "what the actual fuck" moments in the club when these tunes come up.
Shanti Celeste - Cutie / Shimmer (Hessle Audio)
When it comes to Shanti Celeste’s productions, the best way to describe them is by saying that they always have that Shanti touch. The arrangements tend to be minimalistic, even stripped-down, but the gente pads, silky synth melodies, soft keys and distinctive vocal chops are always so delicately arranged that they make you feel like you are being hugged. Her tracks are imbued with a sense of serenity and hopefulness, as well as that special strain of nostalgia, typical of the early Italo house scene of the 90s. You may have heard her brilliant remix of Mathew Jonson’s all-time classic 'Marionette' at this year’s festivals, a track that can really move the masses. The two fresh house gems from her Hessle Audio debut are no different. With its simple chord progression and Sophie-esque vocal motif, 'Cutie' is one of those feel good cuts that makes you want to dance in silly ways (there is also an edited version for radio airplay). It is 'Shimmer', though, that really stands out as my favourite ever production from Celeste. She takes suffled beats from UKG, emotive piano rolls from deep house, and echoey synth lines from trance, and brilliantly combines them with UK-style female vocal samples. The track encapsulates the gist of her sound and Hessle Audio’s distinct definition of UK dance music in the most captivating way possible. A remix by DJ Central takes things even deeper.
A Serbian-Montenegrin AV crew collaborating with UK MCs and releasing music on a Czech label? Sounds like the right way to get things done on the global electronic music circuit in 2022. Traka is a Belgrade-based collective with four core members and many affiliates collaborators (some based in the US) invested in the making of urban music with a harsh and grimey character. Members take care of various parts of the production process, from crate-digging and sampling to field recording and sound design. People with different skills are brought together, each adding their own twist to the final collective formula. Marking the final part of their trilogy and conceptualised as a soundtrack-like experience, the EP drags us into a neo-noir vision of a bleak urban landscape (be it Belgrade or London or a fictitious composite of both) where the darker shades of the UK bass heritage (grime, dubstep, halfstep, drum and bass) reign supreme. The guest appearances by Killa P on the stomper 'Straight Wheel Up', Warrior Queen on the pensive roller 'Monstas' and Riko Dan, Manitou and Alek Leaf on the centrepiece 'Lead Spitter' add much flavour to the mix. It would be exciting to see TRAKA bring together British MCs and Serbian (or regional) rappers on their upcoming projects and see what happens. If The Bug’s Fire made you handbang hard, then you should not sleep on MONSTAS.
KΣITO - Jakuzure Butoh (Sea Cucumber)
The intercontinental cross-fertilisation happening between various global electronic scenes is something to be cherished, especially when it becomes multilateral, creating an environment of creative interdependence. The latest release by the Tzusing’s label is a reflection of these current trajectories. On Jakuzure Butoh, the Tokyo producer KΣITO presents his own reimagining of South African gqom riddims and sonics. The EP includes seven no nonsense club tools, which are typically raw, minimalist and repetitive. Their sound image is quite spacious and immersive, and the atmosphere is explicitly sinister, particularly in the track 'Makimurathan'. KΣITO knows how to play with dramatic tension-building, though the tension is seemingly never released. It is like something bad or scary is always bound to happen, but never actually does. The tracks are defined by low end pressure and pounding percussion, a prime example being the opener 'Butoh' (a sophisticated and hypnotic Japanese dance, also known as 'dance of utter darkness', usually involving slow movement and white makeup). Another personal favourite that can wreak havoc on dancefloors is 'Shinkai'. Occasionally, the EP creates a kind of soundtrack-y vibe. The cinematic piece 'Simo Ima' evokes the image of an epic battle, just before the first cry is uttered. There is a sense of dread in the air, which is evoked by the militaristic undertones that permeate these tunes.
Naphta - Żałość (Tańce)
The Central and Eastern European dance music scenes are often neither "exotic" enough and nor far away enough from the centre to catch the attention of Western music media. The Polish label Tańce has been trying to make a difference in the region with releases that take inspiration from domestic folk traditions. It is encouraging to see new generations of artists take on ancient European forms and incorporate them into the fabric of modern electronica. The merging of contemporary trends and Polish folk music has been at the forefront of Naphta’s practice since his debut Dom Strawiło in 2020. On his debut album, he is joined by singer Mala Herba whose mesmerising voice brings to mind the surreal neo-medieval polyphonies found on the Polish experimental folk masterpiece Księżyc. The EP is interwoven with samples of rare folk finds and popular songs from various sources (regions like Polesie, Radomskie and Kozła are mentioned in the liner notes). The title track employs a particularly captivating female choir sample, 'Bruzdy w ziemi ryte' boasts an energetic fiddle theme accompanied by gqom-adjacent beats, while the droney 'Z pomienionym tańcowanie' is built around an ecstatic motif of quasi-mediaeval bagpipe melodies and clattering drums. Rather than merely providing folky club tools, Żałość (meaning "grief") leaves the impression of an imaginative collection of bass folk inventions for armchair sessions.
I have been wondering for quite some time now why no one is interested in revisiting tech house templates, injecting some new ingredients to the mix and repurposing them for a new era. There are certainly producers who have tried and still are trying, but in comparison with other genres there is definitely not enough hi-tek tech house around (as it is probably still deemed as the soundtrack of lad culture). The comeback EP from the Bristolian bassbin pressure maestro Lurka (his first solo release since 2020, not counting the collab project XRA with Bruce) feels like a godsend, especially the opener 'Powers'. Imagine Perlon classics (or productions by the great Margaret Dygas) squeezed through a Timedance or Hessle Audio mould – minimalist and clear-cut, but meticulously designed and muscular af. As a matter of fact, these have always been Lurka’s signature characteristics. 'String' revolves around dramatic grime-influenced string stabs and rolling syncopations, while 'Mystick Crystal' is one of those dub-indebted Lurka tekkers for adventurous DJs. His crispy sound image and hefty percussion programming, as found in the funked-up drum track 'Re Speak', must sound massive when played through a proper PA. It is always nice to get fresh club heat from one of the unsung heroes of the Bristolian scene.
J-Shadow - Final Departure (Keysound Recordings)
These days, I avoid the adjective futuristic in the context of dance music as it has been abused ad nauseam and devoid of any meaning. Yet, the alienating experience of listening to the London bass producer’s long-awaited debut LP prompted me to think about it in terms of a parallel sonic world – one with plenty of references, indeed, but still quite singular. J-Shadow’s music is often described as "weightless". It shares a common ground with the likes of Mumdance, Logos and A Made Up Sound. Its uber-synthetic patina may not appeal to everyone, yet there is more "jungle soul" here than on any 90s throwback release. It is encapsulated in the euphoric pads and hypnotic diva vocals that harken back to the golden era. Despite its interstellar setting, it is a pure reflection of London’s dance music heritage, a musical melting pot of jungle, grime, UKG and UK bass traditions. Ethereal tracks like 'Final Departure' and 'Vital Essence' spark a sense of being propelled into the future (that rare power which we tend to attribute to jungle classics). Some of the rhythm-driven tracks could funcion on the floor, like closer 'DWN2RTH', though they can get rather jerky, sometimes even too abstract for most ravers. The record is both a tribute to pirate radio and old school junglism with spitting MCs as well as current trends in perfectionist sound design and deconstructed arrangement techniques. It is also one of the few releases in recent memory employing space travel themes which manages to catapult you on the outer boundaries of the atmosphere without relying on hackneyed sonic tropes.
Joy Overmono - Blind Date (XL Recordings)
It seems like the Russell brothers are able to hit a home run with every new single. One of the few hitmakers of their own kind, they know exactly how to position themselves in the sweet spot between commercial and underground tendencies. Last year, it was 'So U Kno', this year it was 'Gunk'. But despite all the earlier high-quality productions, their rise in popularity evidently began in 2019 with the collaborative track 'Bromley', an undisputed DJ’s favourite co-produced by Joy Orbison. Three years later, the trio delivers its follow up 'Blind Date' – another soul-stirring hit that will define the upcoming year's end lists of the best dance tracks. As always, it is the transfixing vocal manipulations, pitched and time-stretched female voices looped into bits and phrases, that make them stand out among their peers. The decision to sample one of my fav alt R&B artists in recent years, notably ABRA’s soothing vocal line from the track 'Feel', just makes it more celebratory. Even though the trio deploys tricks that we have all heard elsewhere in their discography, such as their majestically roaring synths and anthemic drops for those hands-in-the-air moments, the result is nothing but pure gold. 'Blind Date' has that rare ability to bring shoulder to shoulder both invested dance music fans and random consumers of Spotify playlists.
Authentically Plastic - Raw Space (Hakuna Kulala)
I conclude this month’s overview with the debut full-length by Ugandan producer, DJ, drag queen and prominent figure of the domestic queer scene Authentically Plastic. Having drawn accolades for their vibrant DJ performances at Nyege Nyege Festival, the Kampala artist presents their vision of hybrid percussive "techno", compressed into nine propulsive tracks with a sandpaper patina. In all sincerity, I did not immediately connect with this one, but it slowly grew on me as I fully absorbed its avantgarde framework. Comprising only percussion-driven tracks – harsh, heady, metallic-sounding drum workouts with a prominently abrasive tone – the record is an exercise in raw drum power and rhythmic hypnotism. Names like Container and Speaker Music immediately spring to mind. But while the latter attributes a lot of influence to jazz, the Ugandan trailblazer rather bets on the urgency of punk. The often irregular rhythmic pulses, which give the impression of being ever-evolving, occasionally sound like hands-on drumming. Even when the metre is regular, they introduce parallel pulses and percussive elements that run alongside the main rhythm, intertwining them into sophisticated polyrhythmic structures. Often, it is impossible to locate the so-called "first beat", which makes it all the more fun. Charged with activist undertones reflected in the track titles, this rough strain of East African industrial-tinged dance music is on a mission to disrupt the hegemony of four-to-the-floor techno stompers.
There is plenty more fresh music out now and coming out soon, which I could not include here above but I would still like to mention: the new Daphni (Jiaolong), Second. (TEMƎT Music), Vivid Oblivion (Downwards), Jorg Kuning (Wisdom Teeth), Nikki Nair (Astrophonica), Christian Kroupa x LCN (KRI), Om Unit (self-released), Pearson Sound (Hessle Audio), Hodge (Two Moons), Jabes (Timedance) and Loraine James (Phantom Limb).
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