[26 February 2013]
Late one night, I was listening to a music mix on shuffle and a gigantic slab of contorted steely synth started coming through my headphones. The melody attempting to emerge seemed to be fighting against an endless array of filters dicing it and pitting simple cymbals mercilessly against swinging congas. Recognizing the sentiment, I instantly mistook it for Squarepusher, but as it turns out it was Ital, the dancefloor-inspired project of Daniel Martin-McCormick.
It was an odd moment of cognitive dissonance as my mind scrambled around the seeming disparities between the two that I had built up in my head. Martin-McCormick is one of several guitar-to-synth converts who’ve been bludgeoned with the critical pejorative hipster house. He started off making scrappy, noisy no wave slices, first in Black Eyes and then in Mi Ami, before branching off in solo electronic territory under the prostitution-themed Sex Worker moniker and Ital, eventually roping back in Mi Ami to convert its angular guitar-rush into lush techno sojourns on its most recent album (Decade) for hipster house homebase 100% Silk.
Tom Jenkinson’s Squarepusher emerged in the mid ‘90s as a welcome addition to the Intelligent Dance Music cannon, which was quickly shedding its “dance” namesake in favor of decentralized, destabilized, increasingly faster beats that shred in tandem with a blender-patched variety of styles ranging from jungle to Weather Report style fusion to freeform musique concrete.
Tom Jenkinson’s music was often viewed in disrespect to the concurrent zeitgeist, a counternarrative that seemed to poise itself as a superior skills-based alternative to what the rock crits were calling “faceless techno bollocks”. Yet, Squarepusher-style IDM was foremost an interpolation of contemporaneous scenes and existed largely in reference to them. Hipster House too finds its participants diving into other forms from an outsider’s perspective (often a noise or experimental background), but the difference is that they are rarely interested in interacting with the dance zeitgeist, instead focusing mainly on the past; sweat-drenched diva-wailing Chicago House, the icy sheen of Detroit Techno, and the breakbeat-based continuum of hardcore rave.
Whereas many of his peers have disowned any formal relationship to the dance and deejay culture they’ve uncovered on Youtube after the fact, Martin-McCormick bares the distinction of being a full-on convert, talking of electronic dance forms as if they’re now his favorite thing. Dream On is Ital’s second album on Planet Mu, a label owned by a big name in IDM (Mike Paradinas of μ-Ziq) who now puts out some of the hippest and hottest club sounds from around the globe. Ital on Planet Mu is a fitting pairing, even if Martin-McCormick’s brand of psychedelia isn’t exactly flooding the market with new ideas.
Ital’s music sounds freshest when it embraces lo-fi and marries it to hi-res sound. He doesn’t do this much, and does it less on Dream On than he did on Hive Mind, his other Planet Mu LP in 2012. The various hybridizations seem like pretty well-traversed territory in an age ripe with it, but when his alchemies strike the proper delicate balance, there’s no denying gold no matter what era it pops up in.
The double whammy opening punch of “Despot” and “Boi” fit this bill well. Both are meandering deep house travelogues built upon fragmented vocal snippets, molded equally for a shaking tail feathers at Oneman DJ set or zoning out in a late night headphone session. The Shep Pettibone-esque fragments are the hook, but nothing else on the tracks seems bolted down. Unlike Squarepusher and company, it’s not ambition and dexterity that impresses here, but flow and lack of expectations.
Where Jenkinson and company added pranksterish irreverence to their work, Ital is deadpan in both his respect for and disregard of dance music tropes. Mi Ami’s lyrics, artwork, and song titles often contained playful, if methodically appropriate in-jokes, but the jokester of those albums appears to be absent on Dream On, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
Still, when an Oklahoma woman pops up on “What a Mess” lamenting her uninsured husband’s injuries, the effects and mix sound uncaring and mocking. It’s clear the tenor Martin-McCormick wishes to strike is somewhere between Negativland’s “You Don’t Even Live Here” and one of Ultra-Red’s activist compilations on their Public Record imprint, but her chortled voice pitted against organ tones loses a bit of hubris as it gradually trails off into desperation. The ensuing track meshes other voices together in a swirl of sound, certain phrases popping out while others get drowned by background dissonance, the noisiness living up the song’s title and encompassing the disgraceful, dehumanizing muddle of the 2010 healthcare debates.
While “What a Mess” ultimately succeeds at the conceptual level, it’s not as exciting or impressive a construct as something like “Enrique”, another track where abrasion eventually cyclones in to overpower the mix. In this instance, the track starts out as a simple, crystalline drone daise is raised along an ambulatory crane of finely sculpted beats. Distortion blusters up the steady gait of the procession until the entire mix feels grimey, bleeding its residue onto your ears.
Like an IDM artist, Martin-McCormick never suffers from a paucity of ideas, but unlike one he never loses his focus or cool when exploring them. If IDM’s amalgamation mongrelizations were sworn to a can’t focus/won’t focus ethos, Dream On‘s gaze is intensely concentrated, refusing to surrender control no matter how high the tension rises. It’s music that is aware of the delicate balance required to create sonic visions that competes against source material, so much so that it knows that mere replication would be a disservice. Martin-McCormick at one time wrote reviews for Dusted Magazine, so he must know that quandary of referentiality is one that bothers critics more than listeners. Yet, he seems to compose with a sensitivity to both audiences, a fact not lost on either, who sometimes view intention as a crime against artistry. The core of Dream On though is an album, and a good, if imperfect, one at that. It’s an LP worth exploring with the cultural filters both turned on and off.