Demdike Stare have returned with a full length release over four years after their last with a quietly radical shift in sound. After exploring all the hidden spaces beneath the world of techno, they seem to have finally let some light in.
Wonderland is a revelation from any direction, surprising longtime fans and cracking open unexplored depths for the uninitiated. The timing couldn’t be better: this album hits an apocalyptic fever pitch right as 2016 winds to its dystopian end.
For a year that opened with the death of David Bowie and gave us the disastrous US election, an appropriately jarring sendoff was necessary. If anything was going to set me reeling after the long, hard road of this year, it had to be this album.
Wonderland may be the first full length release since 2012’s sprawling 2CD / 4LP Elemental, but the duo of Sean Canty and Miles Whittaker have spent the meantime exploring all the damaged corners of techno through a series of Testpressing singles. These songs erupted far adrift from the oppressively dark caverns that Demdike Stare had spent years painting. They were strange in a new way, brittle, disintegrating, even blossoming into something more recognizably rhythmic, if not exactly danceable.
Over the course of seven short releases, we saw Demdike Stare grow more open, more vulnerable, and a little less claustrophobic. Their sound was reaching outward, grasping in every direction. It left me breathless and mildly concerned. Where were they headed? Were they out of big ideas?
I should have asked if I was just being impatient. Looking back over the nearly two hour arc of those singles, a path appears bright and obvious. Wonderland is proof that they had been working toward something huge all along.
With this album, Demdike Stare approach a more straightforwardly modern tone, existing somewhere outside of time, but at least glancing at the last couple decades. No longer do their songs rumble with the anguished ghosts of the industrial revolution. Now the music evokes its own time, twisting dancehall, jungle percussion, and urban field recordings of 1990s techno through a signature maelstrom of headfuck production techniques. Every familiar tick and groove has been subsumed in something fierce and unpredictable. It’s a hot weapon in friendly hands.
Canty and Whittaker are still experts at flipping a catchy beat into something weird and menacing, turning rigid to dreamlike so subtly that you’re left scrambling to figure out how you got here. They still craft shamanistic trips with chest rattling bass. Most importantly, their music is still deeply human.
The oppressive black shell that’s kept these guys tucked in the dark over the years finally has a few cracks. More than the pinprick dots of moving stars from their earliest releases, these are full, bright shafts of daylight pouring into the set, spilling over expanses of skittering percussion and scorched ambient pads. With the light comes a new warmth and an implied embrace. While just as defiant as ever, this is Demdike Stare at its most approachable.
After an opening track that bridges the gap between the experimental Testpressing environment and the inviting glow of Wonderland, the album settles into an off-kilter groove. Followed by a funhouse mirror of beats called Animal Style, time distorts several times before the centerpiece track arrives in surprise.
That song, Hardnoise, winds up like an old engine roaring to life, an ancient energy that rises and falls before pivoting in its midsection, flipping over some invisible fence into a crystalline dreamscape of glowing synth bells, playfully shuffling percussion, and brightly colored lights. It might be the Wonderland of the title, a space just outside the membrane of this sound world. Demdike Stare continues to pierce the veil through the rest of the album.
After twisting through some of the most aggressive drum programming of their career and exploring alien ambient landscapes, the duo reaches another bold peak. Oceanic synth pads emerge, rising up through the compressed, jagged noise percussion of late album track Airborne Latency, finally overtaking the cloudlike static wrapping the production.
The final piece, Overstaying, feels like a relentless search for an opening, pressing against the atmosphere, finding a crack to pry open and escape completely. It’s an eject button, a final push through the darkness into unknown space. It’s the kind of ending I like best, satisfying an internal arc while placing a giant question mark on the horizon.
I know that some fans might consider this newfound approachability to be some sort of betrayal, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. This is a natural evolution of Demdike Stare, the latest dispatch from a strange flight that keeps aiming higher.
So there’s my review. Here’s a second taste of Wonderland, mid-album track Sourcer.
You can purchase the album on vinyl, CD, or digital from Boomkat. After an initial run of 500, the vinyl is sold out for now but will be repressed in January. There’s still hope, so keep an eye on that page next month. As with all Modern Love recordings, it probably won’t come a streaming service. The official release date is this Friday, December 2, 2016. At that point, you’ll see it on iTunes and other digital stores.