System Focus

System Focus: Today’s Hi-Tech World Has given Birth to a New, Gleaming Grey Sonic Vocabulary

Cold as platinum and hard as glass, Adam Harper deciphers a new wave of dazzlingly alienated beats.

Photographer bine☃
August 06, 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.

Beats. It's a strange word for a kind of music. First of all, it's so deeply unspecific, like calling rock 'chords'—but that's the modest way people tend to like underground musical nomenclature these days. Oh, these are just some beats. The term hints at hip-hop, but really covers any electronic music with a repetitive percussive element. And ultimately, the open-endedness of the term is a great thing. It can mean so much and it can hardly be wrong. But look closer, and the chameleonic nature of beats shows itself, adapting to the colors of the times, techniques and sound-palettes coalescing and maybe, even without a rap or MC track, even without a scene or a network, saying something specific.

Beat-making is typically a low-concept process, and such styles emerge organically like storms over the sea. In the past few months, and in many ways over the past few years, one has emerged with a particular brooding, hi-tech, alienated feel, spanning hip-hop and more experimental forms. It's marked out by metallic or glassy sounds, spurts of cybernetic hi-hats, atmospheric synth pads washed in reverb, a downcast, captivated, sometimes almost depressive mood, and the vague but provocative suggestion of luxury and distant climes. It can be found in some of the work of bine☃, DYNOOO, Dutch E Germ, M-O-R-S-E, Sentinel, Subaeris, Weed Konducta, and of course, from that of artists like Fatima Al Qadiri, James Ferraro and Triad God (produced by Palmistry) earlier on. Not really reducible to 'trap,' it has its roots in what I once termed 'distroid' but is less overtly violent or satirical, and has branched out from the world of DIS Magazine to take root in the wider online underground. It's also a dark twin of 'indigo beats,' a euphoric, delirious strain of beat-making whose album covers were almost always coloured somewhere between blue and purple. Both indigo beats and its Mr Hyde are tech-friendly and weirdly imaginative, generally similar in tempos and percussion, but are emotional and coloristic opposites. Rather than blissfully intense and gregarious, this new wave of beats seem introspective and weighed down by the promise, pursuit and price of bliss. Rather than the rich, fun shade of an oceanic blue sky, these beats, with their albums covers often black, white or a combination of the two, are gunmetal grey.

If these beats were made of something, it might be platinum, the most precious metal. Platinum is the gold beyond gold. Rarer and a few hundred dollars more expensive per ounce than gold, an ounce of platinum will set you back around a grand and a half [GBP]. Gold is sun-like and eye-catching, but cold, grey platinum drives the desire for wealth and status beyond these appeals to the point of a hollow victory. Technically, yes, it would be worth more, but who wants a platinum engagement ring? Like a symbol for a kind of empty wealth addiction, platinum is a lonely, joyless metal, somehow more inhuman than all the others. It's highly unreactive, but that's just another way of saying it won't tarnish, remaining intimidatingly perfect. Like the music of Drake, The Weeknd and Kanye on Yeezus, platinum beats bring the golden bling associated with some more straightforwardly entertaining hip-hop beats styles into a grim, heavy, flawless, extreme, post-human and, eventually, downright weird greyness. I don't mean to say the music I'm talking about here isn't interesting or moving—quite the contrary. The sublime melancholy and dazzling alienation of platinum beats is a compelling and uniquely contemporary feeling, a kind of 'luxury gothic,' elegantly expressing a deep ambivalence towards modern lifestyle ideologies and the curiously cursed lives that might ensue.

In any case, there's certainly a lot of metal in these tracks, clanging and gleaming between the struts of percussion like commodities laid out all nice in a window display. But these tracks also suggest cars on the assembly line, pieced together by the stop-start movements of robotic arms. Tuned metal percussion (or 'metallophones') has been used by both Ferraro and Al Qadiri since 2011 (the latter most prominently using steel pans on Genre Specific Xperience). Ferraro used several different kinds of metallophone on NYC, Hell 3:00am and they're also a part of his latest release, the Soundcloud-based collection SUKI GIRLZ. With its series of unassuming loops in a hip-hop mould, SUKI GIRLZ is more like a beat tape than any other Ferraro release. Metallophones are audible on tracks "3" (listen below), "5", and "16", often sounding like chemical drums or rusty oil cans beaten as if seized in an industrial dispute or by the occupants of a polluted area.

Metallic timbres are also a key element in the sound of US producer bine☃ (the snowman in the moniker reflecting a certain chilly quality in her/his music), whose two recent Bandcamp albums, IT HURTS 2 INHALE and THINGS WILL BE BETTER FROM NOW ON offer a particularly accomplished mix of icy hooks, bracing synth, robotic drum machines and tantalising luxury vistas. IT HURTS 2 INHALE's cover features a particularly drab grey image of an escalator and a glitzy ceiling, while THINGS WILL BE BETTER has an equally drab picture of a fancy necklace in a store window and the reflection of the mesmerised photographer. But while the sublime qualities of bine☃'s music are neither warm or particularly human-scale, they're not entirely negative. Rather, it achieves something more beguiling, building a new sonic vocabulary of hi-tech spaces that are as genuinely seductive as they are cold and impersonal—like the lifestyles of the super-rich, perhaps.

Metal is the stuff of bullets, tanks and drones. Now it’s what beats are made of too.

There are metallophones in "WATCH ME" and "GET 2 U" on THINGS WILL BE BETTER and track 9 of IT HURTS 2 INHALE. There are a range of metallophones to explore, and bine☃ uses the smaller glockenspiel (see also tracks "13" and "14" on SUKI GIRLZ), a gamelan in "3" and "CHANGED." Elsewhere, steel pans appear in Sentinel's "Sliiingbraid," bells are featured in SUKI GIRLZ's eleventh track, and even music boxes are part of the sound-palette, on DYNOOO's "Even Drones Fly Away and Will Do So Eventually" and Weed Konducta's "POLITICS." Even twinklier sounds turn up on Dutch E Germ's "Black Sea," and SUKI GIRLZ's "10" and "18." The latter is my favourite track in the whole collection, its sparkly bell tree blossoming as if unveiling some spectacular luxury product on a slowly rotating pedestal, while android voices provide inscrutable commentary. Metal is cold, electrical, valuable, technological—it makes up the nerve fibres of international communication systems and artificial intelligences alike (sometime's it's difficult to tell the one from the other). The acquisition of metals like platinum are increasingly a source of exploitation and conflict in less economically developed places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Indeed, metal is the stuff of bullets (as in many other beats styles, gun noises are a regular occurrence), tanks and drones. Now it’s what beats are made of too.

Yet so is that similar sound, one that is just as close to the spirit of today: glass. The sound of smashed glass has been common in electronic beats lately but the sound of tuned and ringing glass is also frequently heard. See bine☃'s "PATIENCE," Subaeris' "Paradise (Poolside)," DYNOOO's "3nvy," "Beyond M3" and "CR X," or Weed Konducta's hidden bonus track "SMOKEY." M.E.S.H.'s "Imperial Sewers" (on the recent EP Scythians) has a sound reminiscent of brushed glass, while M-O-R-S-E's "Slow Carbon" seems to feature nuggets of glass or metal being banged together. Glass (at least traditionally) is what screens are made of and it's been a popular office-block building material lately, it divides and shields people from the outside world—or the inside world. Glass can be both beautiful and dangerous, it's delicate, precarious; hitting it, even for music, is asking for trouble. Or maybe the glass sounds are really diamonds. In any case, it's often difficult to tell the sonic difference between glass and metal, so musically speaking they merge into the same substance: hard, cold, inorganic, mirror-like.

Another major component of this beats style is the hi-hats, derived from a hip-hop style known as trap. Rather than using it as just another beat-making tool, these producers really seem to understand the inherently strange qualities of this percussive structure. It's a thin, rapid-fire sound that at first seems too pervasive and mechanical to be pleasurable, but soon makes a compelling contrast to the smoother material beneath it. The sound's technological connotations are many—it could be a robotic hummingbird, a detailed manufacturing process using a tiny drill or jackhammer, a money-counting machine, or even the taser (trigger warning: violence) that police forces and militaries all over the world are now armed with. UK producer Subaeris (who sonically and by label-association comes from a vaporwave direction) and Baltimore's Sentinel (who's developed a collage-like avant-grime) seem to use it most creatively—try Subaeris' "Shiva" or "Ancient Winds," where they come in two layers, or Sentinel's "MELT-BUGATTI_," where they compliment the stuttering time-stretching of other samples (on other tracks the hi-hats' rhythm is generating using completely different stuttering sounds). In DYNOOO's "Gyal Dem T U," the hi-hats click and teeter provocatively, like a building on the point of collapse.

But the trappy hi-hats wouldn't work nearly so well in this style if they weren't played off against lush, more tonal material whose billowing, silky continuity, as in a sewing machine, serves as a substrate for the harsh, repetitive and rhythm-structuring needle-pricks running through it. These atmospheric synth-pads are the source of this style's more traditionally emotional effects. M-O-R-S-E's Empty (listen below), which shares the Interscape Records label with the like-minded Karmelloz is one of the moodier records in this regard (says the blurb: "Empty is a record of isolation, physicality, planned obsolescence. Empty is a Baby Phat-brand hijab, a Yo! MTV Raps t-shirt censor haze, a Haute-Savoie fiberglass kayak.") The Southern-French producer's vast gothic synthscapes seem to drag the speed of the tracks right down until the hi-hats become a painstaking, fatalistic clockwork mechanism, lugging the weighty moods onward cyclically, ever down and up. A particular highlight is "Keep Me," whose classy strings and flawless marble acoustics fail to alleviate, and probably compound, the deep melancholy.

Something else that marks out this style, underlining but complicating its theme of luxury, are the hints of ethnicity that run through it, adding a dimension of globalisation to its darkness. Like the variant of grime known as 'sino-grime,' many of these tracks suggest Asian musics in their use of pentatonic melodies (the black notes on a piano): see bine☃'s "TWELVE STARS," Sentinel's "Viperhold," or M-O-R-S-E's "Together." The chief example here is Fatima Al Qadiri, whose album Asiatisch dreams of the hi-tech Asia that frequently haunts the Western imagination as a sort of Ghost of Christmas Future. Ferraro also reflects the globalisation of luxury lifestyle on SUKI GIRLZ (the word 'Suki' has many different significances across Asia), many of its tracks (for example, "2" and "19") opening with synthesised female voices boasting simultaneously with Asian accents or in Asian languages about their status and decadent appeals, as if they were talking commodities made bilingual for sale to the travelling business class. One of them promises shadow dancing in this luxury life. Shadow puppetry is a frequent accompaniment to the metallophonic gamelan music of Indonesia, which appears in some bine☃ beats. While Dutch E Germ conjures a pentatonic feel on "Elephant," other tracks on the grippingly diverse recent album I.N.RAK.DUST, which features everything from hip hop to experimental noise, feature nearer Eastern singing ("Nami Nami") and something that sounds a lot like a Ukrainian lira on a beat called, appropriately enough, "Black Sea."

Yet the tracks in this style rarely amount to a clear pastiche. At the most they're a heightening of certain moods in popular music. With the Low Key EP (listen below), Mexican producer Weed Konducta has released an intriguing collection of tracks that seem to push smoking beats (a theme common in hip-hop to the point of being a genre) into some seriously bizarre territory, an extreme of altered states and paranoia. The effect would be comic if it weren't just as terrifying, with beats sounding almost as if they were made by avant-collagist Diamond Black Hearted Boy over obsessively looped weed-referencing rap vocals. "FVTXRE WARS" follows its standard-procedure police siren with conga and upward curling synth, all chopped up and shocked with taser percussion. Er, what's in this joint?

Alternatively, the style is comprised of hybrid forms (note the name of Sentinel's recent release) where technological context and emotional architecture take precedence over genre. DYNOOO's brilliant tape These Flaws Are Mine To War With is particularly rich in this way, each track a cyborg concatenation of fragments—not so much a beat as a bouquet of loops—that, like beats by Karmelloz, nonetheless suggest a coherent viewpoint, maybe that of an algorithmic science probe on the surface of an alien(ated) Earth. Alongside airy and glassy tones, DYNOOO places the cries of eagles, synthesised speech, laser guns, and what could be torn pieces of film music. The suggestion is of an intelligence that has great power but, frighteningly, is nouveau-information-riche and not yet fully mature.

These beats are unlikely to go platinum. They're less of an incursion into pop than an eerie echo of it. And, like other styles of beats, there are bound to be dozens more examples of it out there, their producers perhaps wholly unaware of the others, coming from different areas and genres to converge on this disquietingly contemporary flavor. Because these beats have evolved this way as a dark reflection of a world that might have made them, a world of gleaming grey.

From The Collection:

System Focus
System Focus: Today’s Hi-Tech World Has given Birth to a New, Gleaming Grey Sonic Vocabulary