Techno is all about subtlety. In the sophisticated way an artist layers samples, synths and beats to the way in which they vacillate and oscillate between ideas, the very best techno artists understand that the devil is in the details. It’s a keen comprehension of this that will mark an artist out as something genuinely distinctive.
However, while some hone their skills through years of meticulous craft, laboring over every aspect of a track, others choose to go down a more improvised path. Placing their trust in their intuitions to see where the track takes them, totally in control but never sure what comes next. Like laying the track as the train is in motion it demands total confidence in the music being created. All of which is evident on New Yorker, UMFANG’s debut album for Ninja Tune.
Using basic equipment in the form of a Boss DR 202s, x0xb0x and Korg Volca FM synth, UMFANG has created an album recorded in live takes with minimal post-production and without any form of album narrative in mind. The mixture of old and new tracks that make up the album have UMFANG herself as the only unifying factor as they are characterized by her frame of mind at the time of recording. Rather surprising then that the whole thing fits together so fluidly as a cohesive whole featuring the ebbs and flows one would expect from a techno album.
The album begins on a more ambient, minimalist note with “Full 1”. UMFANG uses a single oscillating synth lick to anchor spectral flourishes of breezy notes as she gradually works to build then strip back the various layers. It’s a classic techno technique but one which sounds fresh and invigorating when used by an artist who clearly has a profound understanding and passion for the genre.
“Weight” is a much more beat driven affair but with a beat that snaps and spits rather than pounds and thumps. Washes of synths and keyboards canter around the beat, increasing in volume and tempo before subtly retreating. This understanding of when to up the tempo and when to gently pull things back is a sure sign of an artist trusting their instincts. This intuitive feeling is again evident on the title track where a syncopated, hurried, rolling beat quickens and recedes, at one time sounding like the thud of urban construction before becoming something altogether more tribal.
One of the strengths of the album is in it’s flexible and dexterous use of percussive elements. “Where Is She” opens with squelchy synths before the rhythmic hit and tick of persistent hi-hat propel the song forward like a predator gathering pace. Without doubt it will sound positively monumental in a club. “Pop” is another beat driven masterclass in techno. The thrust of clinical, poly-rhythmic beats is supplemented with mechanized blips accompanied by jabbering synths. It’s driven by a dynamic palpitating pulse as if posing an invitation to the listener’s own heart. This is again evident on “Wingless victory” which occupies similar uptempo, club territory with its occasional ticking, shuffling beat but cut with something altogether lighter to soften and brighten the edges.
There are two distinct sides to UMFANG the artist on show here. There’s the more beat heavy, edgier numbers such as “Where is She” and “Pop” that are perfect for the flicker and the glare of the club. Then there are the more ambient, gauzy and shapeless tracks. On tracks such as “Path” and “Sweep” UMFANG uses hushed, ripples of synths to produce something altogether more serene but with a little bite to them.
These feel like movements perfectly designed to soundtrack a video art installation. It highlights the fact that this is a collection of tracks rather than music written with a singular concept in mind. Additionally, there is a refreshing lack of intellectualizing on show here. UMFANG invites the listener to cogitate on the deeper meaning of tracks if they so desire or just let the music swell around them. Whether you want it to engage your brain or manipulate your hips is purely up to you, the listener.
On Symbolic Use of Light UMFANG has created a thrillingly live and raw techno album with the emphasis placed on capturing the moment. From the sophisticated way in which she layers sounds to the way in which she transitions between them, UMFANG demonstrates a profound understanding of the subtleties that define techno. This album is a testament to trusting your instincts and letting the music be your guide.