Monday, April 13, 2015

album review: 'dark energy' by jlin

So as I said over this past week, it seems like the theme has been delving into musical genres and styles that are outside of my typical experience. And if that's really the case... whoo boy, we've got one for today from a genre that I've touched, but rarely explored in depth.

Yep, this time we're going to be talking about house music - and given its ubiquity, I'd be surprised if anybody couldn't recognize the sounds. Born in Chicago in the very early 80s as dance music returned to the underground, it would eventually pop up in scattered moments of popularity across the world, especially in the UK and especially in the early 90s. Or more specifically, especially over the course of the past couple of years, with the explosion of house-inspired EDM at the turn of the decade and the explosion of deep house last year. And like most house music trends, it always seems to be mutating too fast for most critics to catch up.

So when I started hearing about the newest Chicago-driven sound, nebulously defined as 'footwork', I was at least curious to find out what it was - only to discover that the term is something of a misnomer, more referring to a specific type of scene that included fast-paced dancing against some of the most aggressive house tracks you'd ever hear. I also discovered that like most house genres, it's been around since the 80s, most supported by DJ Rashad, and seems to be now making its comeback against the lethargic tones of deep house. Enter Jlin - affiliated with English electronic label Planet Mu, and initially sparking interest in the scene with the single 'Erotic Heart' back in 2011, her rise to releasing a debut album has won her a lot of critical acclaim and conversation, particularly for her near-complete absence of samples outside of vocal snippets. Regardless, given my general ambivalence towards chunks of deep house, I figured maybe something with a little more aggression and anger might work better, so I dove deep into Jlin's debut album Dark Energy - what did we get?

Well, we sure as hell got something unique, that's for damn sure. And it's also been one of the harder albums to put my finger on, because Jlin's fusion of ecletic percussion, off-kilter and ominous melodies, and judiciously sliced vocal snippets have led to an album that'll be unlike most of what you'll hear this year. And yet the more I endeavored to peel through it, the more I found myself wishing it hit a little harder than it does. It does deliver some terrifying potent songs, but there are other points where it just doesn't connect with the same visceral impact. In other words, I'd definitely call this a damn good album, but I'm not quite sure it's a great one.

So to explain this, let me try to explain what Jlin does that does feel so unique. As I said, the samples she uses are mostly vocals - and nearly always they're intended to make the audience feel off-kilter or unsettled, or fill up the melody line, from the operatic vocals of 'Black Ballet' to the howled screams of 'Guantanamo', samples from The Ring chopped to recontextualize them perfectly. It's all intended to draw together an atmosphere of tension, an anxious thrill punctuated by basslines that flow together effortlessly, relentlessly beat like anxious heartbeats, or rumble deep in the background like thunder or stifled explosions. And to accentuate it further are the synth lines, which for me are easily some of the highlights of the album - it's not precisely melodic as the progressions oscillate and intensify, but they manage to maintain an impressively memorable flow, thanks mostly to Jlin's impressive control of the mix's density and size. The use of reverb is tasteful in order to accentuate layers and depth - not strip away texture - and she knows how to modulate the mix depth to highlight both intimacy and a heavier size, density and moments of skeletal mimimalism. And to draw it all together is the percussion - excellently layered and varied, from crisp hi-hats to thicker handclaps and stomps to African-influenced drums.

And one of the biggest unsung strengths of this album will be its flow and modulation - for a record that holds together such a tight atmosphere, nail-biting escalation even in its subtler moments, keeping that flow is paramount. Much of this comes through superb mix balance and fragments of spacier effects that Jlin uses to smooth over transitions, either across synth tones or even time signatures. And with tones this dark, from the creepy symphonic swell of 'Black Ballet' to the insularity of 'Erotic Heat', less sensual romance and more a glimpse into someone experiencing a private fantasy, from the killer synth line on 'Infrared (Bagua)' that breaks into a great layered groove, to the wobbling yet incredibly tight line on 'Expand' with Holly Herndon that feeds into a seething, tangled mass of sound punctuated by vocal samples highlighting expansion and exhibition, a reveal that might bring more horror than wonder. Hell, it's highlighted again on the Objekt-reminiscent closer 'Abnormal Restrictions', where the abrasive whirring lines sputter and start again as a shrill haughty voice tries to vehemently denounce it. And of course there is 'Guantanamo', easily the strongest track on the record with industrials screws, distant echoes of bass, and vocal samples that allow the imagination to fill in the blank spaces of what's not being shown between the screams. All of that being said, there are a few moments that don't stick the landing quite as well - the deep vocal timbre of the Mortal Kombat samples might fit the confrontational atmosphere, but almost paradoxically it lightens the tone simply because for all of its graphic violence I can't remotely take the samples seriously. A more egregious problem is the usage of chopped and pitch-shifted vocals to drive the melody - for as much as Jlin doesn't really sample much, as she proves plenty capable of crafting her own compositions, there are a few tracks that don't quite have the same intensity. I get the purpose of 'Mansa Musa' as a mid-album breather with the fuller mix, hints of sleigh bells,  and rhythm shifts, but it did underwhelm a bit. The larger issues come on 'Unknown Tongues' and especially 'So High' - sure, the percussion did have some variance, but they're easily the thinnest and least developed tracks on the album and could have afforded to develop and evolve a little more.

But since there are so many vocal snippets on this record, is there some sort of lyrical theme that can be extrapolated? If I'm being honest, anything here would be a serious stretch, as with most electronica albums - but between the percussion choices and the track titles, there is a distinctive black African feel and energy to the record. And it's telling that there is a combatative side to this record, a coiled anger that feeds inward and outwards, perpetuated by a twisted system illustrated on tracks like 'Guantanamo' or 'Abnormal Restrictions'. Thus the moment of respite on 'Mansa Musa' makes a certain amount of sense, the name of the Malian king who was once one of the richest men in the world, a moment when Africa was propserous. But even the precious few moments of beauty on this record are feints, faded glories, ancient history that are set to evolve and expand into something new. And where the tension arises is what that new form might be - it's not like the whispered 'leave me alone' on 'Guantanamo' have been obeyed - and what it might mean for a white community that doesn't remotely understand it.

Now granted, all of this could be a reach - the words and statements are fragmented, and in one of a fair few parallels with Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly, the moments that strike the hardest are those that are the most visceral and complicated. And simply the choice to opt for more abstraction makes Dark Energy by Jlin harder to figure out. But I'm not going to deny that it's definitely a worthwhile listen, the sort of electronic record that manages to stay cohesive while still having variety and some truly potent moments. For me, it's an extremely strong 7/10 and a very strong recommendation, especially if you're looking for some challenging electronic music that has striking originality and flavour. There may be darkness here, but the energy is just as compelling.

No comments:

Post a Comment