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Scratching the Surface: The Disco Beat Goes On

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In this month’s Scratching the Surface column, Scott Wilson looks at the increasingly maligned nu-disco genre, and some of the labels and artists who are using its legacy to create fresh sounds.

Last month I decided to put aside thoughts of the kind of stuff I’d usually cover in this column, and make the pilgrimage to Sonar festival in Barcelona. I actively avoided most of the more cerebral stuff (with the exception of the brain-warping Bee Mask) in search of more direct thrills, with DJ Harvey and Theo Parrish DJing at sunset, 2 Many DJs and James Murphy’s Despacio concept, and even the weaponised techno of Boys Noize all offering the kind of fun I had no idea I’d been missing for so long. Of all the things I saw at Sonar however, it was Todd Terje’s live set that had the most profound effect on me. Objectively there wasn’t much about the performance or sound quality to make it memorable, but as far as I was concerned, at 3.45am when “Inspector Norse” got dropped in the balmy late night heat, it was the moment of the weekend. Sometimes you just need to dance to a tune with thousands of other people to make you realise you’ve probably been taking dance music a bit little too seriously.

The fact that I enjoyed Terje’s performance so much probably has as much to do with nostalgia as communal spirit. In a previous life for a blog that no longer exists I wrote extensively about nu-disco and the music that circulated around it, and Terje’s edit of Chic’s “I Want Your Love” still pushes all the right buttons in my head. Watching Terje, it didn’t seem to matter that he hasn’t really changed all that much since he released the “Eurodans” single in 2004. What he was doing just felt contemporary – no mean feat considering the nu-disco scene he was collected up with over the past decade no longer has the same presence in Europe’s clubs, and has all but dropped out of the critical discourse. Albums from nu-disco’s great white hopes, Aeroplane and Tensnake, tanked critically, and DFA Records, a label that was arguably the figurehead for much of the most interesting music of that type, has forsaken a high volume of singles for fewer album projects. In 2009 it was impossible to move in London without coming across some kind of disco night in Shoreditch. Now, with the exception of the long-running Horse Meat Disco, they’ve largely been replaced by equally nondescript house nights in Dalston.

Some of the bigger and better labels still exist, and still put out some great music – Full Pupp, Permanent Vacation, Golf Channel, Endless Flight and International Feel are a few examples – but the number of new labels and projects springing up since 2010 in the post nu-disco field is pretty tiny. Those that are doing new things however are offering real creative hope, and with that in mind, this month’s column is an attempt to explore the legacy of nu-disco, and try to collectively shine a light on a few artists and labels taking it in interesting directions. Despite the term nu-disco thankfully dropping out of the critical lexicon, and arguably less attention being paid to the music that makes up that category, the popularity of Terje’s recent debut album demonstrates that there’s still an enthusiasm for innovative contemporary disco at the moment that equals that of most underground house or techno.

Duster Valentine/Jamal Moss – Brasserie Heroique Edits Pt 1 (Berceuse Heroique)

berceuse-200Arguably one of the main reasons the bottom end fell out of the nu-disco train was the oversaturation of lazy edit 12”s that began flooding the market towards the tail end of the last decade. For every Todd Terje edit of Antena’s “Camino Del Sol, there were five questionable edits of Chic from various unscrupulous “producers” with a cracked copy of Ableton, the ability to hit CTRL + V, and the cash to press up their illegitimate wares on vinyl. At its lowest point, edit culture was no longer about digging to find the most interesting or obscure cuts and making them easier to mix, it was simply about putting a 909 kick drum underneath to make something suitable for club play. There are still labels that do it well – see Golf Channel’s recent Mangiami series for proof – but on the whole the edit has been consigned to the digital wasteland.

Probably the last label you’d expect to be spearheading the resurgence of the disco edit 12” is Berceuse Heroique, perhaps best known for darker club sounds from the likes of Ekman, Vereker, Beneath and Gesloten Cirkel among others. However, the label is also known for its lighter side – a split 12” featuring Max D and Dego proved that – and if the soon to be released Brasserie Heroique Edits Pt 1 featuring cuts from Jamal Moss and Duster Valentine is anywhere near as popular as its other releases, it could well be one of the most sought-after edit 12”s for some years.

It’s an unexpected concept but it makes sense in the context of what the label has been doing since it emerged last year. Moss might be known to most for his abrasive work as Hieroglyphic Being but he was also responsible for the Members Only series of Muzik Box tributes that saw classic tracks from his deep archives of Chicago classics given a makeover in his own wild style. If you’ve seen Moss DJ you’ll know that his approach to mixing is free to say the least, and that’s exactly how he edits on his contribution to the label, which at the 5:30 point, threatens to break down into complete saxophone free-jazz chaos, a moment that shows this disco edit 12″ has more in common with the label’s first frenzied 12″ from Ekman than you might have first thought.

As Duster Valentine, Paul Bennett was one of edit culture’s more reputable scalpel wielders, being responsible for a number of great 12”s on the now defunct Moxie label, and his approach to editing was always more interesting than the average producer. Bennett’s cut is a little less abrasive, but it has that same chaotic edge that Moss’ edit does, primed for the floor with its unpredictable sense of funk. It seems fair to say that disco edits largely fell into disrepute because most of them just became too dull, but this record approaches the disco edit in much the same way Berceuse Heroique approaches techno – giving it a shock back to life with a pair of rusty defibrillator paddles.

House of Spirits – Holding On/Jaakko Eino Kalevi – Yin Yan Theatre (Beats In Space)

holding-on-200As DFA’s official DJ and the man behind the seminal Beats In Space radio show, Tim Sweeney has been one of the most important figures shaping the landscape of modern disco, and his radio show still feels as relevant as it did seven years ago when I first listened to it. Given the fact that Beats In Space is 15 years old in 2014, it’s amazing he only got around to starting his own label in 2011, but in the two and a half years that have passed since, it’s grown into what feels like the rightful inheritor of DFA’s crown. This is mainly thanks to an A&R approach that, like DFA in its heyday, is just as happy to put a record by a synthpop band like Paradis as it is putting out a house record from Jee Day, giving little-known artists the chance to shine on lovingly-designed singles. The fact that I’m choosing to write about two Beats In Space records here just proves how good the label is right now.

House of Spirits’ “Holding On” is the first, and probably the first time I can remember hearing anything since Midnight Magic’s retro “Beam Me Up” that I was left unsure as to whether I was listening to disco that was genuinely old or an incredibly good imitation. The strings, the gospel-inspired vocals, the piano, the chorus – everything about it sounds like it should be pressed on a lost Salsoul 12”, but it’s actually the work of respected digger and Superior Elevation boss Tom Noble. While his previous productions have taken a sample-based approach, “Holding On” saw him asking musicians to interpret his ideas in a live context; the result may not be as instantly gratifying as Hercules and Love Affair’s “Blind” or the aforementioned “Beam Me Up”, but it’s as good as either of those modern disco classics, and perhaps more importantly, feels more authentic to the period that Noble is so clearly obsessed with.

yin-yan-theatre-200Finnish artist Jaakko Eino Kalevi is quite different. He was recently compared by The Guardian to Ariel Pink, but the sound present on Yin Yan Theatre is nothing like that kind of hazy hypnagogic pop. Rather, it’s an EP of bright, driving synth-based disco that recalls the more punk-influenced moments of DFA’s catalogue. “Speak Out” could be mistaken for a lost LCD Soundsystem track if it weren’t for the more dreamy vocals, but the jittery drums and angular basslines owe a clear debt to the mind of James Murphy. “Pass The Cat” on the other hand is like Nights Out-era Metronomy, albeit with no wave-inspired spoken word vocals and freak-out synths. There aren’t many labels that put out disco anymore, let alone labels that put of stuff as weird as this. Quite frankly, Tim Sweeney needs to get more credit for what he’s doing with his label than he does.

Odd Numbers – Break Even (No ‘Label’)

break-even-200“Balearic” is one of these terms that has been thrown about so much that it no longer means quite what it used to. While it originally was used to describe an eclectic style of DJing that developed on the Balearic isles, it’s since become a byword for synth-heavy disco-influenced music with a more experimental or esoteric outlook, a branch of the genre that has been collected admirably by Mark Barrott’s International Feel label for years.

While International Feel’s output is undoubtedly solid, it’s just never given me enough of the freakier side of the Balearic sound for my liking. One label that has been delivering on that front is Rush Hour Distribution’s No ‘Label’ operation, whose broad output includes the kind of singles that would have sold like hot cakes five years ago. APC’s APC Edits Vol. 1 and Leisure Connection’s Jungle Dancing are two great examples, but the recent Break Even EP from Odd Numbers is one of the most luxuriously weird Balearic throwbacks the label has put out.

Odd Numbers are an unexpected but logical team-up, consisting of psychedelic synth wizard Secret Circuit, breezy disco house producer Suzanne Kraft and the prolific William Burnett, whose recent work under the Black Deer moniker displayed the kind of lush organic synth textures and delicate guitar work you’d associate with the nebulous Balearic term. It’s probably no coincidence one side of this record features an image of a yacht, because this record is predominantly shameless yacht rock-goes-synth vibes. “Sliding Door” is the record’s high point, marked out by the sort of languid keys that make you feel like you’re happily locked in a flotation tank, sailing down the Mediterranean on a cushion of valium.

Tornado Wallace – Circadia (ESP Institute)

circadia-200As curator of the defunct Lovefingers site, Andrew Hogge was one of the more knowledgeable figures posting regular music on the internet back when there was still a healthy spread of independent blogs. Since 2010 however he’s been running the ESP Institute label, which is very much the logical extension of the esoteric music he posted on Lovefingers. Hogge’s site was never really a disco blog per se – it was much more eclectic – but it always felt like what he was doing had become caught up in that wave. Similarly, it would be inaccurate to call ESP a disco label, but the artists he releases – which include Tambien, Young Marco, Michael Ozone and Land of Light – all feel like the much weirder ancestors of the disco lineage, even if some of their music is occasionally closer to experimental house and techno.

One of ESP’s regulars is Lewie Day, whose productions as Tornado Wallace have always been inspired by the intersection of house and disco. He’s been active since 2010, but in recent years his productions have become arguably much more wild, moving away from the kind of 110BPM chuggers that probably had as much of a part to play in nu-disco’s decline as the surplus of lazy edits. The heady, psychedelic cosmic sounds of last year’s Desperate Pleasures record on Beats in Space and Thinking Allowed on ESP showed there was more to his sound than the arguably derivative sounds of his earlier material, and it’s a direction that he continues on the forthcoming Circadia 12”. Going through the lush tropical rhythms of the title track, the new age textures of “Time of Nectar” and chunky lo-fi disco percussion of “Soft Light”, it’s clear that the best from the producer is yet to come. Tornado Wallace might not be performing on huge festival stages like Todd Terje, but like the other producers and labels mentioned here, he demonstrates that as far as contemporary disco goes, there’s still plenty to be excited about.

Scott Wilson

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