Untold – Black Light Spiral

In dance music, the full length LP is always a tricky one. The last twenty years is littered with poor examples of albums from otherwise respected acts: the piecemeal collection of 12s; the ‘two big hits and a bunch of cookie cutter filler’ collection; the ‘so many collaborations it’s not even your own album any more’ album.

Are 8 tracks an album? What if track 1 is just a muted, metronomic tap with police sirens and the occasional sub? What if track 2 is an almost beatless soundscape – admittedly deep in texture, but more an exploration of textures? What if the album never gives up what you might think of as a straight ahead dancefloor banger?

While Untold has had releases on Hemlock since HEK001 (Yukon/Walk Through Walls), the first time he really blew me away was the ‘I Can’t Stop This Feeling / Anaconda‘ 12″. At a time when chainsaw brostep was taking over, it was a delightful left turn; the sharp, transient heavy hits, the space in the groove. Tracks like those, and the garage flex of ‘Dante‘ on Hotflush, were perfect signifiers of the change in the scene – moody without being banal, swung and edit-heavy without being impenetrable DSP workouts. A friend commented, half jokingly, that if the album wasn’t 10 versions of Dante he didn’t want to listen. In all seriousness, that was never likely – 2012’s ‘Change In A Dynamic Environment‘ EPs, and last year’s Targa/Glare 12″ on 50 Weapons showed a move towards more 4/4 templates. Even so – sorry Terry, there’s no pitched up garage vocals to be found.

Starting with the aforementioned siren-heavy ‘5 Wheels‘, you could be forgiven for expecting full-on beats Armageddon to unfold. Instead, the sirens fade away, leaving only remnants of a pulsing sub before ‘Drop It On The One’ comes in. A delayed percussive stab gets rapidly smothered in filtered swoops, sonar beeps and fragments of ragga. Bass joins the fray, creating a dense, foggy mess of noise, but there’s nary a kick to be heard. Tension undoubtedly builds, but there’s nothing even close to a drop or a dancefloor beat.

When ‘Sing A Love Song’ finally brings in a harsh, distorted loop, the atmosphere of dread doesn’t lift. The dubstep heritage is notable – not only in the West Indian vocal snippets, but the syncopation to the rhythms and the loops of piano – more reggae than rave. Yet there’s no simple sine wave bass, noises are distorted and industrial. If you can imagine Perc accidentally sending one of his beats through a dub delay, you’d be close. The kicks could almost be gabba-esque, but smeared and fuzzed until they merge into one.

Doubles‘ reintroduces some cleaner, sharper hits and something more recognisable as a 4/4 beat, but layered under pneumatic hisses, with a heartbeat kick that seems to threaten rather than command. ‘Wet Wool‘ is another to sidestep the dancefloor, with dissonant early-Aphex swells and white noise opening up to reversed hits and a rave stab that nonetheless provides atmosphere rather than groove. While there’s undoubtedly rhythm, it’s not a headnodder. As with a lot of the album, I find myself thinking back to Lee Gamble’s recent work, taking early rave and jungle tropes and recontextualising them in an utterly undanceable way.

It’s somewhat of a relief then, that the last three tracks provide the most recognisably “danceable” of the album. ‘Strange Dreams‘ utilises a looped and re-pitched bowed double bass riff over a vicious, distorted loop. The compression squashes everything in a horribly unpleasant way, but as with, say, Actress, there’s no doubt that this is the intended effect rather than a result of poor production. Even through decent monitors, I want to hear this on a loud system. In fact, I specifically want to hear it on Dillinja’s Valve Soundsystem. This is not music for Funktion One – that’s far too clean and precise. This deserves to strip the hair from your scalp.

Track 7 – the 7 minute+ ‘Hobthrush‘ – is probably the standout tune. A distant foghorn is rudely interrupted by a harsh, distorted stab, before several layers of lo-fi glitches all descend at once. The combination is atonal, messy, and utterly thrilling, never letting up on the doom-laden ambience even when heavily panned elements introduce something vaguely resembling a breakdown. Album closer ‘Ioni combines elements from previous tracks – layers of hissing field recordings, rising siren tones, stabs and bleeps so smothered in crackle that they remain just beyond your ear’s reach, and hollow, dominating bass tones with a constant percussive loop giving just the faintest of reference points. The sense of relief when the album suddenly stops is palpable – and yet on first listen, I wanted to go straight back to track one to make sense of what I’d just heard.

Anyone who can name their favourite Untold track from the past may be disappointed to find that there’s no carbon-copy repetitions. I was definitely expecting something very different, and the experimentalist in me loves the fact that I was wrong. While there seems to be a trend right now away from the sharp, professional production of recent years towards murky, claustrophobic work, I can’t imagine too many DJs mixing out of Scuba or Max Cooper into this. This is oppressive, dense material that will likely confuse a main room crowd, and stands outside that sphere of dance music, threatening to glass anyone that looks at it funny.

That’s a good thing, right?

Well, if not, it should be.