There are times when a beat can save your life, and others when it's the last thing you need. For the past three weeks or so, the sound of drum machines has mostly felt numbing — dissociative from the reality of the culture, and not in a good way. The music that has best soundtracked the current feeling of confusion and embattlement is mostly dark, ambient and atmospheric, though not without hope.
The curious wonder of living in an era of minimalism, digital technology and jarring juxtaposition is that the stories electronic musicians are free to tell can reflect the times. And the plotlines DJs create can weave any tale. So here's a personal and a mostly beatless one.
Recovery is a must, and next month, to mark the year's end, the rhythms have no choice but to percolate in seasonal celebration. Until then you can follow us on Twitter at @Sami_Yenigun (Sami), @raspberryjones (Piotr) and @spotieotis (Otis) for our day-to-day listening selections and coping strategies.
Dedekind Cut, "Descend from now" (Hospital/Non)
Operating the past few years under the name Lee Bannon, Fred Warmsley was making fading instrumental hip-hop (he was once touring DJ to the Joey Bada$$ Pro Era crew) then a sludgy, barely rhythmic music that felt like an embodiment of digital foreboding. With his new name, Warmsley's fully given in to feelings of dread, but peeling back the lo-fi shadows that may have hinted at indecision. This opening track to his excellently intense ambient work, $uccessor, is all about clarity and the shaping of a future vista, treated guitars folded lusciously into keyboards that sound like strings, looking ahead bleary-eyed but unwavering. Music for the beginning of a next chapter.
Visible Cloaks (feat. Motion Graphics), "Terrazzo" (RVNG Intl)
This Portland-based duo first made their presence felt via a 2010 mix entitled Fairlights, Mallets and Bamboo, an hour-plus pastoral exploration of soft rhythms and timbres, somewhere between new age jazz and Fourth World minimalism. The second single from their album debut (due in February) brings this blend into an original space. Layers of woodwinds (some from Gunther Schuller, others from Kitaro) float into an atmosphere where playful organ drones and electronic bugs — and, by the end, koto-like strings — create a sonic zone easily recognizable as an artificial construct, pushing and pulling at authenticity.
Tycho, "Division (Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith remix) (Ghostly)
Few electronic musicians have had as productive a year as synthesizer composer Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, and if she needed one more highlight before bidding 2016 adieu, this "remix" is a helluva way to go. All that remains of Tycho's lurching post-rock tune with mathematical drumming is its sinuous rise and fall, with the band instrumentation now alive inside Smith's synthesizer. The result is a claustrophobic chaos, with melodies, guitar feedback sections, modular synth FX and organ drones uniting in a crossfire hurricane of microtonal love. God only knows how this turns out to sound like hope, but — incredibly — it does.
Yussef Kamaal, "Yo Chavez" (Brownswood)
It's OK to call "Yo Chavez" — one of a few great tracks from one of the year's finest albums — a jazz record, since Yussef Kamaal's origins lie the highly amorphous London electronic groove/improvisation scene built on musical infidelity. Centered around drummer Yussef Dawes and keyboardist Henry Wu (nee Kamaal Williams), Black Focus is a post-In a Silent Way/Yesterdays New Quintet trip, and this is its cooling off moment. The swing is understated with a mildly yearning futurism that — in the gray gloom of late November — feels nostalgic. Can it be that it was all so simple then?
MJ Guider, "Evencycle" (Kranky)
Melissa Guion's sprawling track is the only one of our selections with a backbeat. But listen to how that kick is built as a contextual bed for the tides of drones and echoes. It's a heartbeat and a calming effect to avert freakout. About two minutes in, a looped voice appears in the deep murk of the mix, intoning "in control" for the rest of the 10-minute track, Guion deeply dubbing the proceedings until the whole thing becomes a survivalist mantra.
Burial, "Nightmarket" (Hyperdub)
"Come with me!" demands a spoken voice a few times during this narrative sequence (can you call it a song?) that, under the layer of old vinyl crackle and pop, is part John Carpenter film, part John Carpenter score, whose money shot is a simple, tension-filled synth line. Like many great stories, you feel like you've heard it all before, and yet ... the horror.