5. Surgeon – Breaking the Frame (Dynamic Tension)
Though Surgeon’s last full-length album was released in 2001, he continued to make massively influential tunes with Regis as British Murder Boys until 2005. Still, the six years since those last releases have seemed like a lifetime in terms of the proliferation of the kind of deep bass music, drone techno, and industrial-tinged house Surgeon’s Anthony Child was instrumental in popularizing.
Not one to resist a chance to polarize, Surgeon sounds little like his old self throughout most of Breaking the Frame. The centerpieces of the album are the adjoined edifice of “Radiance” and “Presence”, each competing with Surgeon’s peak moments while representing complete breaks from his earlier work. “Radiance” shifts in small circles, never quite able to keep up with the centrifugal force of its peripheral parts. What makes it truly, well, radiate, though is the track’s dynamism, which stands in contrast to the even-leveled disquiet of the hollow drone tune “Power of Doubt” and the loose-limbed silicone prog dazzle of “Remover of Darkness” preceding the song.
Breaking the Frame is an album composed of individual songs, but ones that think in album-length terms. Just as the shifting volume of “Radiance” awes in the context of the absence of such before its arrival, “Presence” captures a flood of lush reverberating harp whose consonant bounty is even more powerful when following a taut volley of rhythmically tense and melodically sparse antecedents. Despite a title that suggests deconstruction, Surgeon’s album sonically portrays the act of creation, erecting a frame that’s both unique and intriguing in the world of 2011 techno and in the impressive catalogue of Surgeon himself. – Timothy Gabriele
4. Machinedrum – Room(s) (Planet Mu)
Twenty-eight-year-old Travis Stewart has been releasing wonderful music since he was a high school senior, but he has yet to gain full mainstream acceptance in the electronic community. It’s a shame, but if I had to guess, it is because he is, for the most part, a chameleon, assuming the characteristics of better-known artists instead of going Magellan-style into unexplored waters. (One big exception is Now You Know, which predated Prefuse 73’s career by several months.) Room(s) doesn’t change that; it’s a fairly faithful rendering of the funky side of dubstep, which peaked around 2009 and has been declining in ubiquity ever since.
But the record confirms a number of truths about Stewart and Machinedrum, his flagship project. It continues to demonstrate that he is a superior musician, working harder and utilizing greater skill than nearly all of his peers. More importantly, however, it shows that he is a perfectionist, who plays endlessly with sounds until they pulse and glow with pleasure. And, perhaps more than any album to his name, it reveals that his “imitations” are often far better than the blueprints that inspire him. Room(s) may be as derivative as all hell, but it matters not a wink. This is Machinedrum at his most soulful and ecstatic, and the songs reflect his labor of love. And though it may be too soon to say, I’ll say it anyway: Room(s) feels like the last great pure dubstep record — at least until the genre’s next revival — containing all the attitude and emotion of the style at its best. – M.R. Newmark
3. Tycho – Dive (Ghostly International)
Much to the dismay of the “instant gratification” advocates among us, examining Dive for any sort of immediacy is pointless. Illustrator and musician Scott “Tycho” Hansen was drafting the initial concepts for this instrumental, psychedelic fusion of live sessions and electronics for years, and it shows. Several pre-album singles emerged while the San Francisco artist collaborated with a drummer and bass player, expanding the scope of the heady outcome: a ten-track statement that captivates in spades, defying shorthand descriptors at every stroke.
Early techno and experimentalism in ambient sound underscore Dive, and although Scott Hansen might occasionally generate visual ideas by mining the late ’60s and early ’70s album covers, magazines, and film promotion materials, inspiration at the recording level also comes from the era’s ambling progressive rock. Tracks like “Melanine” simmer slowly — they’re filled out with stringy keyboard lines, but they’re rooted in folky guitar, where Hansen begins to develop most of his pieces. “Daydream” and the pristine, Avalanches-esque “Coastal Brake” were also both sketched in guitar, but heavy processing and multicolored aural flourishes unwind here and for the duration, yielding playback that’s refreshingly reluctant on returns. – Dominic Umile
2. Perc – Wicker & Steel (Perc Trax)
Soaked in gray like the post-punk daubed hues of the Blackest Ever Black releases, Perc’s Wicker & Steel is album that doesn’t just luxuriate in the austerity of dread; it wields a knife behind its back and occasionally gets violent with its brutalist cuts. In a year fraught with riots, street occupations, joblessness, despair, austerity, and an increasingly cozy relationship between the apparatuses of state and business, Perc made an album that sounded like rage depersonified, clangorous meddling produced by shadows without bodies, bodies without organs. “My Head Is Slowly Exploding” opens with factory pounding morphed to sound like rounds being fired and shells being reloaded, but its target and its assailant are absent and vacant respectively, withdrawn from the record and smudged beyond recognition. The “Wicker” of Wicker & Steel is an allusion to The Wicker Man, while the steel resounds throughout the album in an industrial cacophony.
Combining the two with such a gutted aesthetic suggests a correlation between the Ancient Methods of vestigial religious tradition and the involuntary reflexes of unsustainable capitalism — like the two are both dead relics walking the earth as if ghosts, creating a wasteland as they spread. This is not to discredit the album’s more thoughtful moments like the volatile ambiance of “You Saw Me” or the unsettling field recordings of “Pre-Steel”, but Perc’s album is one whose content seemed to shore up at the appropriate moment in history, providing a proper soundtrack to a world in turmoil, looking to the failed past and getting ready to “Start Chopping”. – Timothy Gabriele
1. Andy Stott – Passed Me By (Modern Love)
Arguably the most alluring and atmospheric electronic album of 2011, and inarguably a masterpiece of dub techno intensity, Passed Me By fulfills all the promise of Andy Stott’s excellent 12-inches for the Modern Love label while smashing his legacy to pieces. Originally an above-average minimal techno musician in the steely, workmanlike style of mentor Claro Intelecto, Stott not only subverts the familiar dub palette, he achieves Jeff Mills’ highest honor by giving us something we’ve never heard before. The sound of Passed Me By is, to put it mildly, remarkable. Unremittingly dark, suffused with pressure and blackened in soot, it makes you feel as if you’ve been pitched down a well 1000-feet deep and are hearing the music from inside. Samples pop suddenly out of the darkness only to furl back on themselves and leave you to remember them.
Yet Stott isn’t just creating sounds — he’s creating songs, each one haunting, confusing, and brilliant. In the reimagined lap-dance of “New Ground”, in the simultaneous serenity and paranoia of “Dark Details”, in the impossible blue depths of “Passed Me By”, not an inch of room is wasted, not a note is out of place, and every track presents itself as a vital piece of a monstrous whole. Records this good are one in a million. Blink and you’ll miss it, but if you don’t, it will suck you in, pulling you ever downward until all that remains is the thump-thump-thump of the kick drum, shaking you to your very bones. M.R. Newmark
Additional Staff Selections
Best EP: Raoul Sinier, The Melting Man
Best Single: Machinedrum, “Sacred Frequency”
Best Mix: FACT, Mix 276: SND
Best Reissue: Plastikman, Arkives
Best EP: Deadboy, Here
Best Single: Slava, “Dreaming Tiger”
Best Mix: MNML SSGS present Dash Forward Bravely
Best Reissue: Bruce Gilbert, This Way / The Shivering Man
Best EP: Ayshay, Warn-U
Best Single: Hackman, “Agree to Disagree”
Best Mix: Gold Panda, DJ-Kicks
Best Reissue: Boo Williams, Home Town Chicago
Best EP: Venetian Snares, Cubist Reggae
Best Single: Björk, “Crystalline”
Best Mix: Ghostly International, SMM: Context
Best Reissue: Black Moth Super Rainbow, Dandelion Gum
Best EP: Braille, A Meaning
Best Single: Holy Other, “Yr Love”
Best DJ Mix: Mala, XLR8R Podcast 200
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Isolee, Well Spent Youth
Robag Wruhme, Thora Vukk
Occam, My Rorschach
Infinitirock, Music for Primordial Recollection
Austra, Feel It Break
Vatican Shadow, Kneel Before Religious Icons
Virgo Four, Resurrection
The Field, Looping State of Mind
BNJMN, Black Square
Ambient News, Zweite Sendung
This article was originally published on 21 December 2011.