Over the last decade, Samuel van Dijk has been crafting his murky sound-world of dub techno and electro under the cryptic moniker of VC-118A. Characterized by liminal grooves, spheric ambience, and barely-there bass, his music is as cryptic as his moniker. Sometimes it suffers from being too icy and robotic—the sound design is so meticulous and the rhythms so razor-sharp that it can feel a little too sanitized for its own good. That’s the classic trapping of dub techno records; it’s one thing to be able to make compelling music out of clicks, cuts, and glitches, but it’s another to do it in a way that sounds alive.
On Spiritual Machines, Dijk’s latest LP for Delsin records, it’s fair to say that the Dutch producer has come alive. These tracks still bear his signature submerged, half-awake quality, but they are endowed with a human element that often felt missing from his previous records. They succeed where 90% of dub techno fails in their playfulness and elasticity.
The first track, “Endless”, is built on a gentle electro groove and a modulated vocal sample that almost seems to breathe rather than sing. “Soft Spot” fuses sputtering IDM with swirling ambience and a series of hissing FX that, in their own way, also seem to mimic the sound of human breath. Whether or not these effects are intentional, they add layers of warmth and depth to Dijk’s music. Every tiny element on Spiritual Machines seems to breathe, purr, scratch, and sigh, a testament to the Dutch producer’s love of tactile sounds.
But don’t be misled: Spiritual Machines still knows how to groove. Whereas past VC-118A albums were often weighed down by their languorous, slow-burn pace, this LP dials up the intensity. While this may be the most atmospheric album in Dijk’s discography, it still packs a powerful punch. There is no lack of 808s and breakneck kick drums, especially on “Aurora” and the title track, where helter-skelter electro rhythms pair with sinister dub chords. “Serge Extract” may be the punchiest moment of all, with its springy bassline, scattershot percussion, and Kraftwerk-like bleeps and bloops. Still, an underlying wall of feedback gives the track an unsettling feel, ensuring that this is not exactly music for the club.
It’s no irony that the LP is titled Spiritual Machines. It feels intentional. The “machines” on Dijk’s latest LP are far from mechanical—they are imbued with an airy, ethereal nature, hovering and echoing over each other like spirits. On the closer, “Machina Overloop”, echoey drums glide over a delicate sub-bass groove and an eerie, wordless vocal sample. There is nothing robotic about such a track because nothing is squeaky-clean—the corroded electronics and incantatory vocals give it a ghostly feel, like dub techno from another dimension.
If Shift Register showcased Samuel van Dijk’s mastery of sound design, Spiritual Machines is where he pushes his skill into more definitive and purposeful directions. It’s not that the music itself is better; it’s that the songs are better, more fully-formed and free-flowing, wresting life out of the infernal regions of dub and techno.