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The Magnificent 7: gqom, a winter soundtrack & Polish retromania

From Durban’s GQOM, through an acid-fuelled soundtrack to winter, to Polish retromania from the 90s. – I’ve compiled a selection of music that is danceable, fun, and many more things to boot.

Translation: Aleksandra Szkudłapska

FOQL & Fischerle, Personal Wastelands, Paralaxe Editions

When two artists, each with a very distinct style, meet in the studio, it’s hard to avoid looking at the effects of their work as first of all a musical synthesis. However, it wouldn’t make sense to treat Personal Wastelands as a concoction of two clearly distinguishable elements, but as a coherent whole, filled with evocative, absorbing music. Justyna Banaszczyk (FOQL) and Mateusz Wysocki (Fischerle) have created a resonating club room filled with pulsating beats and a vast array of glitches, microsamples and different sounds. The result? A foley room verging on dub and industrial, at times muted, with its never-ending trance that leads you by the ear, extending an invitation to dance. Their joint work could just as well serve as a psychedelic soundtrack to an acid-fuelled, surrealist animation – or a good introduction to hit the dancefloor when night comes. The duo brilliantly nuances their deep sound, full of ornaments and carefully developed motifs. Personal Wastelandswas recorded spontaneously on two identical drum machines, during an improvised studio session – and the freedom and casual atmosphere of this meeting comes through in the music. At no point are they overdoing things either; this synthesis of Fischerle and FOQL’s work is an intriguing new chapter of their musical explorations.

Universo, How To Convert Human Bodies Into Synaptic Smoke Screen, Zødiaque Tapes

I still remember the time when I kept playing a certain red vinyl to the point of wearing it out. Kixnare’s Red was a record where hip-hop grooves interlaced with synthesiser passages, at times even venturing into 90s disco or footwork rhythms. After subsequent albums released under this moniker, their author, Łukasz Maszczyński, started drifting in another direction as Universo. Following his EPs recorded for Transatlantyk and a few other imprints, he finally released a full-length album: a trance/cosmic collection of tracks that make room for industrial textures, raw electro, minimal wave and even dark house. How To Convert Human Bodies Into Synaptic Smoke Screen is permeated by an air of mystery, oscillating between horror and sci-fi, and designated inasmuch by synthesiser pulsations as by simple and attractive beats – either dense, like in “Energy Of All Empty Space Brings Quantum Silence Violation To Life” or lighter, with more space, like in “Little Big Heads”. I hear a touch of retromania here, a concentration of musical ideas that works in favour of the album. As Universo, Maszczyński opts for a different direction than Kixnare. This music is thought-out, but still quite danceable, although probably edging towards the more obscure end of the spectrum. What we have here is a sensibly arranged plan and an alluring effect that makes you want to return to this material.

Menzi, Impazano, Hakuna Kulala

I made a little introduction to GQOM in January 2019, on the occasion of the release of Sho Madjozi’s debut album. Of course she, the Durbanese pioneers of the genre whom you can hear on the Gqom Oh! The Soundof Durban compilation and Menzi on Impazano each explore their own take at gqom, but the common denominator – the percussion that gave gqom its name – is clearly present in all of these records. Incidentally, the EP is released Hakuna Kulala, one of the most interesting African labels, which offers a fresh take on contemporary electronic music. These six tracks, with their synthesiser-powered darkness and raw, slow beats, inching forward like a steamroller, clearly form part of the genre. On the other hand, though, Menzi is keen to explore the various limits of gqom: industrial, sometimes mechanised (the great “Minimal Surge”), raw, stripped-down, with drone passages or buzzing noise for added texture (“Underground Abaphansi”) or the somewhat muted ones, with the beat shifted to the background and humming, mantra-like vocals taking centre stage (“GQOM Tera” ft. Ecko Bazz). For me, an avid listener of the aforementioned Durbanese compilation and latest GQOM OH releases, Impazano is a refreshing experience. Rhythmically, the pattern is similar, but it’s the rest that’s important here: dark passages, dense, electronic sounds and ornamentation galore – these elements really prove that Hakuna Kulala is a mine of innovative musicians. Especially if, in addition, the record ends with something as brilliant as “Zulu Warrior”. I guess we’ll be seeing each other at Unsound festival?

Saroos, OLU, Alien Transistor

Saroos release their albums at more or less regular intervals, more or less regularly exploring their krautrock and folktronica inspirations. If this brings to mind Lali Puna or The Notwist, this is not an accidental association, since the trio’s musicians often form part of the concert line-up of these two bands. After the trance-like, speeding Return and Tardis, their latest album interestingly revamps their ideas of playing together.Again we’ve got the distinctive pulse and trance, more danceable than oneiric, which come to light in the atmospheric, toned down “Quarantaine” (talk about prophetic titles) that opens the album or the brilliant, samplodelic and psychedelic “Cord Burn Pt. 3”. In turn, “Tatsu Jam” is a dreamlike, electronic passage, while “Looney Suite Serenade” sounds like a  post-rock variation on ethnic percussions. “End House Mario” is non-imposing electro number, and “Scratch Pets” recalls the golden era of Lali Puna and The Notwist. After their success in the early 2000s, these two groups seem to have slowed down, but Saroos stepped into the breach, getting progressively more intriguing from record to record. In the press info, we read that OLU is like a hip-hop mixtape – indeed, the array of inspirations, ideas and various styles is very broad, but Saroos, graciously leading us through body-moving rhythms and beats, combine them into an evocative, hypnotising whole.

Wiktor Stribog, Lutym, self-released

Wiktor Stribog would definitely find a common language with Felix Kubin. His music, like the German’s oeuvre, is based on electronics that, in terms of style, is strictly rooted in Central and Eastern Europe; still shaking off the dust of communism, its analogue synthesisers still covered in a hauntological cloud. Last year, Stribog’s acid, slightly psychedelic sound was noticed by Bandcamp’s editorial board, and now the audiovisual author took to releasing conceptual EPs dedicated to the seasons of the year. We’ve had Latem (‘In the summer), now comes Lutym (‘In February’) – and, if we believe the prophecy contained in the titles, given the ongoing climate change – we might soon be limited to just these two seasons. This is introverted, warm music, sometimes taking a turn to more acid-fuelled realms (“Sanki”); it could serve as the soundtrack to an episode of “Sonda” or a children’s story about playing in the snow. Stribog does an amazing job building the audiosphere of individual moments of these snow games, all the while sticking to lo-fi aesthetics. The dirty, languid synthesiser evokes the atmosphere of a frosty snowstorm (“Wichura”), and when participants of the escapade return home to warm up and dry their clothes, we get micro-melodies that aptly build the appropriate mood. Lutym is a soundtrack to a non-existent fairy tale or a time machine, which uses delicate, electronic sounds to transport us back to the childhood. This reminds me of watching The Moomins in a local cinema as a kid; in fact, Stribog comes close to Graeme Miller and Steve Shill’s soundtrack to the series recently released by Finders Keepers. Bartek Chaciński also points to Ghost Box – I think the Polish artist would fit the roster of both these labels. There are many more stories left to tell in his sound-filled box.

The Ah, Mere Husk, NNA Tapes

Jeremy Gustin plays drums in the concert line-ups of such bands and artists as Okkervil River, David Byrne, Marc Ribot or Albert Hammond Jr. However, he sometimes takes a break from his “day job” to release solo albums. Mere Husk is a follow-up to Common Bliss from 2017, a peculiar sound box with a set of alternative pop songs. As befits a drummer, his instrument plays a distinctive part in all the tracks, often deliberately emphasised (“Far Away”), but Gustin is equally eager to engage in unassuming, delicate electronic variations.The melodies are frivolous as the artist takes to the microphone to sing his ballads. Take “Just Relief”, for example – looped sounds, polyphonic melodies, and slightly blurred, yet no less charming vocals. The rhythm, either played on the drum set or created on the basis of beats, is the trademark here – it has a very evocative, groovy character, to which Gustin adds catchy melodies and other subtle touches to create his peculiar micro-world. The drummer adheres to the rule of maximising ideas, but when he combines everything together, introducing subsequent layers, they sound coherent – slightly psychedelic, but charming nonetheless. This is a peculiar type of 21st-century quasi-pop, which might not top the charts – nor does it aim to do so – but what it does is draw listeners into Gustin’s world of glittering sounds, synthesiser passages and brittle melodies. Fairy-tale like and unreal just like the cover image.

Pejzaż, Blues, The Very Polish Cut Outs

Bartosz Kruczyński would definitely make it to the top of the “busiest Polish musicians” list, if someone were to make one. Last year, he released three records, two of which I managed to review – and now I’ve got to take my pick again. He first used the moniker Pejzaż two years ago – with his album Ostatni dzień lata, he tried to evoke the atmosphere of holidays in the 1970s and 80s, quoting Polish pop, soul and hip-hop and doing it so well that he came first in the beehype ranking. No wonder – I cannot think of anyone else who’d be able to combine, in a long-playing formula, the spirit of Polish retromania with easy listening and hits as if taken straight from the past, on the basis of which Kruczyński creates his own variations about that era. Bluesemploys the same methodology, but this time, we’re moving in time – to the 1990s, right after Poland’s systemic transformation, when the country enthusiastically opened up to a free-market economy. From spa towns, we are transported to night clubs, and Kruczyński brilliantly conveys the spirit of those times. However, instead of using the same trick he did in the debut, he creates his own soundtrack to discos and teenage house parties, built using Polish pop samples most natives would recognise after the initial notes. These may be the breaths of singers, individual syllables or phrases that – juxtaposed together – create a peculiar mosaic of the turn of the century. Kruczyński does what was once the domain of Skalpel, but at the same time paints a sociological picture of Polish discos, using music to analyse not just the songs that topped the charts, but the image of 1990s Poland.