Monday, 21 May 2012

Review: Upwellings - Crackles

Upwellings Crackles
It wouldn't be entirely fair to say dub techno is a redundant genre, but it certainly sometimes feels that way. After you've topped up your history by familiarising yourself with the output of Basic Channel and their eponymous label (and subsequent sub-label Chain Reaction), you can pretty much subsist on the modern releases of the Echospace label and their small roster of artists (most of whom are aliases of Rod Modell, it seems), occasionally dipping into some Yagya if you get bored. Dub techno is about as minimal and narrow as sub-genres get. While its exponents will suck on their jazz cigarettes and talk vaguely about "spatial dynamics" and "reshaping", this style of techno is, in practical terms, differentiated from minimal techno almost entirely by its use of muted dub bass and those signature "deep chord" stabs that will be instantly recognisable once you've heard a few dub techno releases.

With this in mind, it's quite remarkable that such an essentially limited style has garnered such a fanatical cult of listeners, and indeed why it does exist on more than about three labels in total. However, when done well (which increasingly means: "when done by Echospace") this is one of the deepest and most immersive sounds in music, pure headphone material that can completely envelope the listener in ultra-textured sound design. Echospace in particular pay a ridiculous amount of attention to timbre, sampling extensively and obsessively from field recordings to find the perfect textures for their tracks and then endlessly tweaking those samples until they've created a sound richer and more three-dimensional than seems possible. The problem lies when you don't have that level of audiophile perfectionism invested into the music. Stripped of the highly focused genius of its best operators, dub techno rapidly starts to sound as limited as it actually is.

Now, this may be a narrative I've completely invented, but the "pure" dub techno sound (as opposed to those who've merely incorporated it into broader sound pallettes, a la Trentemoller or Luomo) seemed to resurge all at once when Echospace released their critically acclaimed album The Coldest Season in 2007. An ultra-refined update of the classic Basic Channel template, the album was a smash hit amongst a certain type of listener and critic, and overnight seemed to spawn an entire legion of new dub techno producers, all making similarly grainy, misty, wintery shades of dub techno.

All of which brings us, at long last, to Upwellings, and more generally the ZeECc label, which was founded in 2009 and has been pumping out an enormous quantity of just-quite-good dub techno ever since. Crackles is a serviceable approximation of the dub techno template: it's got the dub bass, it's got the moody, low-key ambience, it's certainly got the chord stabs. And yes, listened to through a good pair of headphones in low light it's pretty atmospheric.  The trouble is that it doesn't sound nearly as rich or detailed as anything Echospace and co are putting out right now, and indeed it doesn't sound a great deal different to countless other ZeECc acts like Gradient, Nautilus Project or Textural Being. It is, essentially, a tastefully derivative record: nothing new, but it'll remind you of some of electronic music's most distinguished luminaries.

Now, this review may seem like more a review of a genre than of an artist, but that's usually a warning sign in itself. This is a review of dub techno because Upwellings is pretty much as generic as it gets, and there's almost nothing about his music, aside from the occasional sampling of live drums (most notably on Drum's River), that is unique. The amusingly pretentious promo-blurb may claim:

...these tracks draw from many club influences: tech-house, minimal-techno, dub, and they perfectly blend with the nocturnal current trends, without forgetting to bring some enigmatic and irradiant touches

...but when set against the utterly standard dub techno of the actual record, this ends up being an unintentional echo of LMGM's hilarious guide on How Not To Write A DJ Bio:

Glittersnizz’s musical style reflects his eclectic influences—from high-modernist integral serialism to jazz-funk fusion to Armenian epic poetry to 80s hair metal—all distilled down to pure, crystalline minimal techno.

To conclude, my verdict on this album is pretty similar to that I've often expressed about pleasantly bland and tastefully forgettable blog-ambient: it makes for good mood music, but with so much of it available and so little to distinguish each individual record, there's little to recommend this album in particular. You can effectively cue the newest ZeECc release the next time you fancy some dub techno that isn't quite top drawer, it'll be much the same.

Genre: Dub. Techno.
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

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