System Focus: Bridging the Singular Sounds of Lisbon’s Underground

Chasing hyperlinks to a physical city, Adam Harper traveled to Portugal to meet the people behind the mysterious AVNL and Golden Mist labels.

September 08, 2014

In his monthly column System Focus, The FADER's favorite underground music critic Adam Harper stares deep into the internet's gloom to unearth emerging musical forms.

How does a musical community form? What binds it together and keeps it going? Where is the overlap between personal and musical connections? And does it really matter where you're from, or where you're going? For decades, the big centers of underground music, emerging music, new music—whatever you want to call it—have been New York, London and Berlin. Coming in closely behind are Chicago, Paris, LA, Tokyo and other major capital cities. But then there are some places that for one reason or another have made an impact that might seem larger than their relative size or population, or surprising in light of their distance: Olympia, the small city in Washington State that practically gave birth to indie pop; Reykjavik, a key centre for indie around the turn of the millennium; Cologne, which regularly rivals Berlin in electronic music; and Bristol, only the tenth largest city in the UK yet highly active in grime and dubstep. These are places that seem to find precisely the right mixture of whatever forces it takes to create a scene, and they capture the envious imaginations of listeners around the world.

Portugal and its capital Lisbon seem to be the latest contender for a focal point of new underground sounds. In particular, this year has seen a spotlight fall on the city due to the hyper-fresh Afro-Portuguese sounds coming from its exurban ghettos and artists such as DJ Marfox and DJ Nigga Fox. Music journalists Ryan KeelingCharlie Robin Jones and Andy Beta all visited the city and wrote extensive reports on a scene which is building rapidly after nearly a decade with some help from the Príncipe label. Although Beta's article suggests that the style might be called 'batida' (modifying Keeling's and Jones's observations that neither a name for the sound nor the impulse to name it was there, and Keeling's indication that 'batida' was one of the many styles on the table), the ghetto sound is really more of a rapid flux of elements that might be attributed to particular styles. Its textures and rhythms vary widely over the course of an EP between a raft of different templates—kuduro, kizomba, funaná and tarraxinha or tarraxo—all forged by the interrelation of Portugal's past economic and linguistic colonialism in places like Angola in Cape Verde with the subsequent African diaspora. It's one of the richest beat cuisines ever to have come from a single place: frenetic, unpredictable, inventive, lurid, raw and always crazy.

Having been covered so well so far, I have little to add on this scene. And in fact, I came to Lisbon largely for a different reason. I had been curious as to why Portugal seemed to come up over and over again in the online networks I like to frequent. Three artists in particular had caught my attention—RAP/RAP/RAPMarie Dior and Old Manual—and they converged on the mysterious experimental label AVNL Records. Then in May I noticed that another label, Golden Mist, had recently been putting out EPs and putting on parties at which RAP/RAP/RAP and Old Manual had played, and there were many other artists involved too. Something certainly seemed to be going on in Portugal this year, and it wasn't limited to the new Afro-Portuguese sound either. What I found by chasing hyperlinks until I reached a physical city—unsurprisingly, perhaps—was a curious and unique mixture of URL and IRL.

As the above writers couldn't fail to observe, Lisbon's Afro-Portuguese and white communities are highly separated by geography and culture, considerably more so than in London or New York. Where Príncipe and friends had formed a very local scene, albeit one with global roots, the (as it turned out) relatively whiter and wealthier musicians in the network I sought, many of whom had art-school backgrounds, had one foot in the physical necessities and local musics of Portugal, and one foot in global new-music culture. For them, the internet is both thousands of miles away and right next door. This community had almost unconsciously used this duality to develop an unusual and distinctive flavor, one that's now beginning to leave bedrooms and laptops and, perhaps, Portugal altogether.

AVNL is one of those netlabels that really makes you go huh? Its releases are typically free and never predictable. Striking albums like RAP/RAP/RAP's STRANGE DAYS, with its brutally surreal house and hip hop beats, Marie Dior's diverse and gently odd electronica album Good Night and Old Manuel's pumping lazerfest HD would have been head-scratchers even if there hadn't been gaping silences under the tracks, where explanations could have been. After years of curiosity, I managed to meet RAP/RAP/RAP (Tiago Rodrigues) and Old Manual (Manuel Robim) in Lisbon and London respectively. Together with Marie Dior (Diogo Correia), they run AVNL and dominate its catalogue with their various monikers. The trio came together at the Escola Superior de Artes e Design in Caldas da Rainha, a small town in the centre of the country, just north of Lisbon, and Tiago R and Diogo shared a room at one point. "We really related a lot, the three of us," says Manuel, "because we have a way of thinking that's really similar in terms of creative things. We don't need to say a lot to understand exactly what we're thinking—it's like we're on the same brainwave." The three don't even need to check with each other before releasing anything, even by outsiders, and their sympatico gives the label its weird confidence, right down to in-jokes such as the ubiquitous 'autobus' that appears as the first Bandcamp tag in each release. A thousand miles apart, Tiago R and Manuel both laugh when I ask what it means, and tell me that although it's funny, they just can't explain it.

Old Manual"New Balance"

Similarly, the name 'AVNL' is a gothy, MNML-ised version of Avenal, a part of town where they all lived as students, and the Bandcamp label formed as an informal platform to put out their different projects and collaborations. Manuel tells me that the three would go "driving around at night in a car, outside the city and it was like fields and endless roads, and we did that listening to contemporary music, and I daresay that's how things started." Cars do seem to crop up repeatedly in the imagery around Tiago R and Manuel's music, appearing on an album-cover of one of the group's first endeavors, Manuel and Diogo C's electronic post-punk project CFT&CM (the two have since collaborated again for AVNL as pombos.jpg).

But before art school, Manuel knew Tiago R from an earlier era of the online underground: Myspace. It's from that website's way that artists would list their styles as a series of three preselected genres that RAP/RAP/RAP got its name. Tiago R is from Viseu, to the north, and with his experimental beats and enigmatic digital imagery, he is one of the most distinctive voices in the online underground at large. Having released several treatises in his minimal synth, drums and samples palette on his own Bandcamp page and on Interscape Records (whose M-O-R-S-E we saw in last month's System Focus), and more under monikers like CP2000 and ANGÉLICO88, his style is beginning to develop this year into something richer and more restless. Gonçalo Salgado, the creative brain behind Golden Mist, got in touch with Tiago R through Facebook to suggest a release on his label. Tiago R's beats "seemed like nothing else I had ever heard before," he says. But he adds that despite the local connection, "it was the internet that got us together, not clubs. Even though the city's small, we only got together via internet." As befits someone whose YouTube avatar is an internet explorer symbol, Tiago R always seems to originate from the information superhighway.

Earlier this year, the result of Gonçalo's Facebook message was Killing, one of RAP/RAP/RAP's most comprehensive records to date, a panorama of club tics, console percussion and cosmic stares with a faint luxury theme that could make it platinum beat going lounge. Another album, Matisse Graveyard, appeared on AVNL and was shortly followed by an album of field recordings capturing nocturnal crickets in Viseu. Notably prolific, Tiago R admits that he's "obsessed with making tracks. I'm doing it for me." And it's not just sounds but "the aesthetic—the video, the image. For me the music doesn't work just for itself, it has to be related with an image or a video." Some of his videos are mystifying, hypnotic examples of found video art - try "EXPLODE MUSCLES" (below) or "Mirage." Tiago R is also a street artist whose graffiti Gonçalo says is "raw like the music."

Manuel Robim was struck down with the flu when I arrived in Lisbon, but fortunately he was in London the day after I returned there. He's just as prolific an artist as Tiago R and branches out further stylistically, having tried arctic electronica as Eszena and pop songs as Niil Dymon and Manuel de Robim. But at the centre of his sound these days are synths—heavy synths, grand staircases of them, varying in their closeness to club styles such as anthemic house, trance and hardstyle. "I wish I had a house made of synth," he jokes. "I would sleep in a synth bed if I could." He's especially into trance pop from around the turn of the millennium—acts like ATB, whose kitsch status is about due to expire and get remade as an affectionate reference point for underground tastes. Earlier this year, Old Manuel's most comprehensive release, リング ('Ringu'), landed on Aural Sects (one of the labels I interviewed for the second System Focus column) running a gamut of rock-hard synth club styles and exploring Afro-Portuguese rhythms in tracks such as "Pump" and "New Goal." Golden Mist's Gonçalo used 3-D modeling software to create a video for the later, its roving gaze focused on a fancy car, and included his track "Godskitchen" on Golden Mist's Lisbon Underground Catalogue Vol.1, at around the same time as he played the first Golden Mist at Lisbon's Sagrada Familia club. Like Tiago R, Manuel (who is pictured on left of Tiago in the photo below) sees his music-making process as something that "follows an idea that's not a musical idea," and has a concept album in the works.

"I wish I had a house made of synth. I would sleep in a synth bed if I could." ​Manuel Robim

The third member of the AVNL triumvirate, Diogo Correia or Marie Dior, was in Berlin at the time of my visit, having moved there several months ago. The Golden Mist guys fondly recalled the energy and enthusiasm he had during his last trip to Lisbon, and his work is certainly highly prolific and diverse even for AVNL standards. Marie Dior has cycled through several kinds of club sounds, including the exploratory, subterranean loops of Minimalist; Repetitive; Slow; Sad; Dance; Music, the hard house of House is Where the Beat Is (again, on Aural Sects) and the deep oceans of "6' 2"." His most unique flavors appear on releases like 0061565377-(F) (below), Encore, Again, Encore, and the baffling Euphrates—works whose contours seem to be generated by unfathomable non-human logics, and yet they gently caress you with anemone tentacles. Longer-form experimental works appear under his own name earlier in the AVNL catalogue, and Golden Mist would like to put out some Marie Dior material in the future.

More artists have been entering the AVNL camp lately, such as Red Bull Music Academy 2014 participant MMMOOONNNOOO, whose epic ZORN GOTTES could be the soundtrack to a neo-pagan silent film, and Mind Safari, with a club-ready EP of layered percussion called Simulacra. The label now have some Americans on board, with the exquisite, full yet airy beats of Makeup and Kabul on the chillingly lachrymose For Those Less Fortunate. Two Portuguese artists—Conan Osiris (Tiago Miranda) and BLASTAH (Duarte Lima)—have focused on beats particularly, taking a diverse approach that incorporates trap and Afro-Portuguese rhythms on the respective releases Silk and Gone. On Silk the sparse and elegantly strange hooks of "SECLUDED" and "RENUMERATION" rub shoulders with extended, almost symphonic sequences of surrealist drops like "EVAPORATE" and SELENOGRAPHIA."

Various"Lisbon Underground Catalogue Vol.1"

Golden Mist, however, has been dancefloor-focused from the beginning. Gonçalo has produced under the name Lake Haze, releasing EPs of London-flavored grime and garage for Unknown to the Unknown (Force of Nature EP) and inventive techno for One Eyed Jacks (Ruff Cuts EP). He founded Golden Mist as a genreless home for Portuguese and Portugal-based musicians: "I thought [of] the label as a catalogue, a variety of styles, not like a grime label, a house label, a techno label. I wanted to show the world what our artists were and the internet was the tool to communicate to the world." Ironically, by keeping things Portuguese, the label becomes more diverse. And the label's extremely diverse: alongside RAP/RAP/RAP's Killing, Ana3's Street Clamor has exhilarating, high-energy, syncopated house, Onto Hek's Object Oriented Ontology moodily explores lo-fi techno soundscapes, and Hajtand's Electric Boulevard offers three beauties of immaculately composed synthwave. May's Lisbon Underground Catalogue Volume 1 collects a number of other artists, and Shcuro's upcoming Black Mist EP takes on a cybernetic stance. Future releases could be more experimental—and if Max Renn's 'Cyborgs and Angels' is anything to go by [premiered below], even beatless.

Gonçalo soon befriended Diogo Lima, who became the label's "night guy," using his connections and gregarious personality to get Golden Mist parties happening, first at Sagrada Familia in May and then in July at Musicbox, the same place Príncipe have theirs, featuring London's Palmistry. He DJed at both events as Lost Tapes, and is now the yin to Gonçalo's yang, running the show with their complimentary talents. He recognises that Golden Mist is different from the normal status quo in Lisbon, where "people only go to club to party, not for the music," since "people come to our parties for the artists." He's also a fan of Príncipe, seeing them as bringing an identity to the city's underground culture, and the label's TIA MARIA PRODUÇÕES record Tá Tipo Já Não Vamos Morrer sits on the shelf in his flat next to some spray cans and two Playstation Ones.

Later, I sat outside a cafe with Tiago R, Gonçalo, Diogo L [all pictured below, left to right] and Tiago M to talk music. Like many online musicians, Tiago M seemed mildly incredulous that I had actually listened to his music. But Gonçalo and Diogo, who don't yet know him that well, tell him that they love his stuff, want him to think about sending in tracks for Golden Mist one day, and that Diogo had dropped his tune "RENUMERATION" at one of the parties. AVNL and Golden Mist are beginning to bounce off each other productively. I ask the group what they think a Lisbon sound might be, but for them it's largely that of someone else. What they emphasize instead is the diversity of their community—a collective of individual artists rather than one working on a particular sound. "It's very hard to create a movement in Lisbon based on what one guy created," explains Gonçalo. "Not like London, London is a city of movements in electronic music. Lisbon is not as good to create movements, but it's great to create diversity. Everyone is singular, artisans." Tiago M, sat at the end of the table with his long black hair in two braids, agrees. "Our relationship wasn't borne out of musical connections. Our music is really different but it collides on some vortexes that make us common in some way, even if it's not in the hearing sense. Our sameness is that we all do this alone, we do it ourselves." The Golden Mist and AVNL groups hadn't met each other before the Sagrada Familia party, and even the ones that know each other tend to mostly communicate online. Their being in Portugal seems to be a convenience, even a coincidence.

"Lisbon is not as good to create movements, but it's great to create diversity. Everyone is singular, artisans." Goncalo Salgado

Or is it? A lively discussion about Afro-Portuguese dance styles and their connotations animates the table. When I ask what the syncopated rhythm I keep hearing in many of their tunes is, the answer immediately comes back as kizomba. Kizomba is like the Afro-Portuguese R&B—slow, sultry, a little cheesy, ubiquitous. Whether exuding from cars or shops, you're never far away from its lolloping charisma. Later that evening, before visiting the city's leading club Lux, Gonçalo, Diogo L and I sit in a gently neon café with tiny cups of Portuguese coffee and glasses of Super Bock beer—apparently most clubbers have decided that drinking in the clubs is too expensive, and hit the streets for hours first instead—and we hear kizomba ballads one after the other, some eliciting an almost embarrassed grin of recognition from the guys.

But similar rhythms, at different speeds and with different accompanying elements, also appear to different effect in kuduro (from Angola), funaná (from Cape Verde) and tarraxo. Tiago M, who has explored the style with Powny Lamb as well as Conan Osiris, sees the faster, more angular kuduro as a "thirst" and a child of Portugal and Angola, relating the impact that acts like Buraka Som Sistema and King Helder (especially the song "Frique Frique") had on him. "People don't know the real kuduro," he laments, and the group agrees that the music might be heard and enjoyed but isn't often taken seriously, perhaps due to a residue of racism. "Lisbon is kuduro as Berlin is techno—I consider that to be the sound of Lisbon," says Gonçalo. But "it's a class thing," he says—people "enjoy it but they don't admit it." Tarraxo might be closer to what some AVNL artists are doing, being a version of kizomba more focussed on synths and beats than vocals, and it has been explored by Bison and Squareffekt (below). But really none of these artists are doing anything that sits so comfortably into genre—kizomba rhythms are just in the air, part of what 'pop' means in Portugal. And since so much of underground music is a renegotiation of pop and pop culture, even kitsch, it makes sense.

This comes up when I ask them if they recognize the fact that to me at least, so much of the music on AVNL and Golden Mist seems notably dark, heavy, minimal and synthetic, and I wonder whether that might be what links them musically. Tiago R is quick to attribute that effect to video games, and all agree that console gaming had an impact on their generation, now in its mid-twenties. Tiago R describes one of his biggest influences as Rom Di Prisco, who wrote hi-tech video game music for titles such as racing game Need For Speed and sci-fi shooter Unreal Tournament over a decade ago. Manuel had mentioned ATB, whose hit "9pm (Till I Come)" provided the intro theme for the PS1 game FIFA Premier League All Stars 1999. It might go some way to explaining the prevalence of sports culture in his and Tiago R's work, and listening again I start to hear RAP/RAP/RAP tracks as disassembled video games playing themselves, and as Old Manual's tracks as garish yet unrepentant celebrations of championship hope and glory.

Back at Diogo L's flat, he, Gonçalo and I spend literally hours trawling through Soundcloud—played over Diogo L's soundsystem it's heaven. We discover grime war dubs from London that involve characters from the PS1's Tekken games and whose mad drops Diogo L likens to Unreal Tournament weaponry. Like many modern label managers, Gonçalo spends a lot of time searching for new material on Soundcloud, especially seeing what his favourite artists have liked. He takes the opportunity to lead me through dozens of Portuguese artists I'd missed. There are hip-hop acts like Musa and A.M.O.R. (describing themselves on Twitter as "rap's perfect daughters"). Gonçalo introduces me to the music of his longtime producer friends IVVVO and Purple, who are linked through the Terrain Ahead label and are now based in London and 'London / Berlin' respectively. Though coming from a dance context, Purple is a singer of stark synth-pop and high gravitas, plaintive songs like "Feel Alone" and "The Club" on his Salvation EP for the WEDIDIT label, and he's appeared on a Boiler Room line-up alongside Samo Sound Boy and Mykki Blanco. Also in London is Ana3's fledgeling Internet Bravo label, with an album of thickly churned mutant beats by Lisboner Pedro, o Mau.

​Pedro, o Mau"LONGO"

What with Diogo C in Berlin and these guys in London, it's beginning to look like half of Portugal's underground community is outside the country. Many of those I met in Lisbon were entertaining the idea of moving away. Now Manuel has moved to London, hence my meeting him in the city. Before we chat at an enormous twee fast-food café in the metallic monster that is Spitalfields Market, I show him Rough Trade, perhaps the city's most prominent record shop, reflecting to myself that the place doesn't have quite so much of what I'm into these days, even if I could afford any of it. "I don't think they sell netlabels here," I joke to Manuel. And the weather couldn't be more different from that in Lisbon days earlier—the rainiest of rain, beyond a cliché of Britain. Manuel doesn't seem thrilled with the leaky stairs in his Brick Lane digs. I begin to wonder why anyone would want to leave sunny, beautiful, reasonably priced Lisbon, with its small but unique networks of emerging sounds seemingly on the cusp of something, for London's rat race of billionaires and insane rents.

But of course the grass is always greener. Portugal's major problem is still the economy. As Príncipe's Pedro Gomes told Charlie Robin Jones, "400,000 young people have left Portugal since the 2007 crash. That’s from a country of ten million. That’s an entire generation." Diogo L explained to me that he liked Lisbon, but he didn't feel any particular attachment to the city over others in the world. Manuel felt limited in Portugal: "It's important to expand yourself. Portugal is difficult right now to find work and even internships. It's really difficult for them to pay. There aren't a lot of opportunities. Maybe the mentality of Portuguese people in general, it's... I don't wanna say they're closed, it's just different than what I personally need, and lots of people that are going out—we need different things." It seems that at a certain critical mass, any Portuguese scene has to risk breaking up, to be absorbed into those of more well-known musical centers, for the benefit of its individual artists.

Portugal's new music underground is an almost accidental mix of global forces and local connections. Had it not been for the mutual encouragement of the AVNL trio, living and driving around the same place until their tastes and practices were intuitively aligned, and had it not been for Gonçalo deciding to make Golden Mist a catalogue of local talent in all its diversity rather than another international house label, nothing 'Portuguese' might have coalesced at all. But with URL increasingly dominating IRL, and not only the internet itself but the spread of musical style and technologies like video games all over the world, the only vestige of locality might be where a birth certificate was written. The tension lies between where you have come from and where you want to go—I wanted to go to Portugal, and many of the Portuguese wanted to come to London—and it can be difficult to find an artistic curiosity about where you have come from if where you want to go looks so much better, newer, or even just more practical. Or even just different. But although Portugal's underground might be a series of individuals connected through convenience or coincidence, the impact they have had on each other—achieving that special mixture of darkness, kitsch, gravity, surrealism and technology—is nothing less than something singular, something to be nurtured.

From The Collection:

System Focus
System Focus: Bridging the Singular Sounds of Lisbon’s Underground