For an acronym that appears to have once meaningfully contained the words “dance music”, the increasingly vague umbrella of IDM extends over quite a lot of wholly undanceable, relentlessly un-funky material. In fact, a lot of the best experimental electronic music succeeds on the same traits that render it unpalatable to DJs. It’s often too fast, too spastic, too abrasive, or just too unpredictable to settle into a groove the way more tightly standardized genres like breakbeat do, but these motives need not be mutually exclusive. Though admittedly still far from dance-floor designed, up-and-coming glitch maestro Ra successfully infuses his noisy, jittery compositions with a striking dose of actual funk and an occasionally bigbeat-esque level of rhythmic cohesion, all while reserving the right to completely wreck the structures he’s assembled where needed.
If Ra’s sound seems surprising, it is perhaps fitting, then, that he hails from such a surprising label. In its first three years of existence, Winnipeg, Mannitoba’s Sublight has managed to become one of the leading outlets for independent electronic music in North America, picking up slack from Tigerbeat6’s drift towards more rock-oriented sounds and apparent troubles at other smaller indies (Orthlorng Musork shut down two years ago, Coredump closed down after the tragic loss of its founder, Zod is only just coming back from hiatus). In the process, they’ve managed to repatriate a range of North American artists previously releasing overseas on labels like Britain’s Planet-Mu and Germany’s Ant-Zen, bringing back contemporaries from Winnipeg itself (Venetian Snares, Fanny), from over the border in the Midwestern U.S. (000, The Flashbulb), and beyond (Julian Fane from Vancouver, Datach’i from Brooklyn). Most impressively, they’ve managed to pull over a few names from Britain itself, including The Gasman and Somatic Responses. Ra, a visual artist and musician hailing from Paris, is not only one of the latest examples, but one of the more promising new arrivals.
Ra’s strength lies in his ability to imbue his angular, overdriven compositions for bristling synthesizer, electric guitar, and processed noise with an insatiable swing and momentum. Virtually all have a clear direction and some kind of satisfyingly climactic moment or two pinning their parts together. Sometimes this means ironing the kinks out of the rhythm section and allowing breakbeats to loop uneventfully for a time, but there are enough chaotic fills and stretches of rapid drum chopping to prove that he’s no slouch in that area either: he’s simply opted to allow the tracks space to breathe, and to fall into true groove once in a while. The effect may seem dull to some listeners more used to 300 bpm drill strikes, but it tethers Ra’s work to a commendably visceral appeal.
A key example arrives early on in the form of opener and almost title track “Wxfdswxc”, which begins by tweaking thick, bass-heavy beats across a lurching guitar riff, somehow managing to sound thoroughly catchy even without yet making any concessions to consistency. That slight concession comes soon after, though, when, with a cinematic cymbal shimmer, the track is inundated by a crush of bass synth. From here on out, the drums assume a swaying hip-hop loop, but further embellishment to them would simply be lost in the the apocalyptic chord progression, gloriously seething and clipping out with a restless force and constant textural variation. Later, “Fake Poetry” spends its first 1:20 on a DSP workout that culminates and shatters to reveal the album’s finest melody, glowing-yet-yearning on hazy guitar to a loping two-step drum kit. And “Dr. Merdewerkdichliebe”, which would perhaps be best suited to serve as a single, slings mutilated guitar hits and hacked-up vocal samples into a barrage somewhere between Jason Forrest and Prefuse 73. (I mentioned dance music before? Well, this is the track I can most envision excelling as such in the right remixer’s hands.) On the other hand, there are points where entropy seems to take over, the tracks roaming restlessly in search of suddenly unavailable hooks, but fortunately these stretches are relatively few, and more often do in fact give way to driving purpose (see: “Gray Fox”).
Sublight has been holding to a feverish release schedule for a while now, but Ra is a testament to the continued high quality of their output. Wxfdswxc2 is a solid sophomore effort, and comes tantalizingly packaged with a DVD showcasing Ra’s visual work as well, in this case in the form of a set of music videos, both for his own tracks, and for fellow Parisians dDamage, in queasily combined live action and animation. It seems that certain types of classic breakbeat technique went out of vogue with bigbeat (for some, with its advent; for others, with its demise) so it’s a welcome surprise to find them reappearing here, a decade later and tastefully couched in ominous modern editing and noise. Scattered electronic artists have been eschewing pure machine music for human elements for awhile now (Jamie Lidell’s turn at soul, for instance), so the combination isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but hearing IDM dare to be funky is nonetheless satisfying, and Ra’s tracks manage it without ever feeling dumbed down or over-simplified.
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// Notes from the Road
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