[19 May 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Just how underground is Alex “Omar-S” Smith? He hand-writes the labels on his white-label 12” singles. While even the most esoteric DJs usually record for a plethora of labels, Omar-S records for one, his own FXHE Music. Instead of taking advantage of international distribution channels, he distributes FXHE by hand, literally.
Given this level of self-imposed obscurity, the release of an Omar-S mix as part of the vaunted, popular Fabric series is something of a breakthrough. There’s a catch, though. Most of the previous 44 Fabric releases have been multi-artist mixes, each compiled and sequenced by an individual DJ. Fabric 45, though it is a mix, features one artist only: Omar-S. Why? Well, it’s not Fabric Records stepping out in a new, single-artist direction.
In his few published interviews, the Detroit native comes across like Billy Walsh, the arrogant, defiant, incorrigible film director on HBO’s Entourage series. Walsh is deluded, for sure, yet he somehow manages just enough charisma to be intriguing. Omar-S has a similar effect. He’s well schooled in the early techno and house music of the 1980s and ‘90s, but he doesn’t buy records anymore because “most of [the current] shit is garbage.” He still lives in Detroit but doesn’t DJ there because “Detroit is just a bunch of playa haters.” He distributes his own records because even independent labels “basically … don’t give a fuck about you.” He’s the self-proclaimed “Grand Son of Detroit Techno.” Accordingly, says Omar-S, “I don’t need other people’s music; I got over 100 songs released.” With hand-written labels, no less.
16 of those songs unspool over the course of Fabric 45. Many are remixed and some are brand new. Omar-S’s music is unique. It draws heavily on the classic Detroit sound pioneered by Derrick May, Juan Atkins, and Kevin Saunderson. Omar-S even uses some of May’s old equipment. The template is stretched and twisted and melded with other styles, however. Omar-S doesn’t seem too interested in establishing a mood, getting a vibe going, or reaching any peaks. Though the mix is very well-controlled, it seems all about introducing you to the different tricks in Omar-S’s book.
Billy Walsh’s big film, Medellin, is by all accounts a pretentious failure. Fabric 45 is not. Omar-S shows he has plenty of talent beneath that blustery ego, and he’s put it to good use. The classic Detroit signifiers are all here. The high-end, chattering hi-hats and electronic handclaps, is favored. Flanged synthesizers provide most of the bass notes, while staccato stabs punctuate the rhythm. The overall sound is sparse, minimal even, but not in the self-consciously arty way that a lot of contemporary “Minimal house” music is. No, this is techno, unabashedly so.
Several tracks come so close to the classic Detroit mark that they’re almost homage. “Polycopter” launches the mix with an accelerating low-frequency oscillator whir, before “Flying Gorgars” comes on with loud hi-hats and almost subliminal bass. “U” is a fine representation of the Omar-S aesthetic, a disembodied voice mumbling through the hissing hi-hats and throbbing synths. “Psychotic Photosynthesis”, probably Omar-S’s best-known track, is all glimmering, reflective synths, sprung along by the most basic of rhythm patterns.
Omar-S is an admitted video game enthusiast, and doesn’t hesitate to sample games, either. Sometimes, the bleepy effects annoy and overwhelm, as on “Strider’s World” and “Oasis 13 ½”. And several tracks are so understated, so unchanging, they’re hardly there at all. “Simple Than Sorry” is the sound of a rhythm box scatting while someone makes microwave popcorn in the background. But these more obscure moments are balanced by some surprisingly soulful, near-pop tracks. The melancholic yet inspiring “The Maker” suggests Omar-S has more heart than his interviews let on. “Day” could almost have come from Ibiza in the late ‘80s, while “Set Me Out” is stark and striking.
The inconsistent parts of Fabric 45 may suggest Omar-S’s music is perfectly suited to the underground, 12” format. The strongest parts, which are in the majority here, prove he is indeed a unique and noteworthy talent. With tunes like this, he really doesn’t need to be so grumpy.