Donato Dozzy – Plays Bee Mask
If it’s not clear by now, I’ll say it plainly: remixes, versions, and dubs are the heart of this genre. It’s not just wholly original works; the magic often lies in the effects these songs have been put through, the way they’ve been warped, like the way a person reacts to different psychedelic drugs. Its essence lies in the very act of transformation. That’s what dub did to reggae and what dub techno did to its progenitor. And that’s precisely what Italian techno master Donato Dozzy did to experimental composer Bee Mask’s startling Vaporware/Scanops album.
While the original Bee Mask record comprised a pair of twenty minute shape-shifting cyberpunk updates on modern composition, with radical dynamic shifts, noisy bursts, and hauntingly gorgeous synth arpeggios – think Steve Reich or Terry Riley merged with an extraterrestrial hive-mind from the future – Dozzy has broken everything down and rebuilt it in his own image. The structure here recalls his own work with Neel on the epic Voices From The Lake album, all naturalistic buildup and sublime payoff. There are none of the jarring reversals or trapdoor surprises from the original; instead those shocking elements are placed in a more recognizable techno foundation and allowed to flourish in their new environment. By the third track you may be wondering why this is on a dub techno list at all, but by the time Plays Bee Mask reaches its peak and the bass kicks in, the truth will feel undeniable. This may stray from the dub techno blueprint in many important ways, and it brings an air of classical music prestige to the genre, but it’s an essential listen for anyone into hypnotic sounds like those found throughout this list.
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Shinichi Atobe – Butterfly Effect
Shinichi Atobe released one of the final records on the Chain Reaction label, a 12″ called Ship-Scope, before disappearing into the aether for over a decade. Urban legends apparently posited that it was another secret guise of label head Moritz Von Oswald, but history eventually told the real story thanks to superfans and fellow musical pioneers Demdike Stare. As longtime fans of that 12″ the duo decided to track down its creator in Japan, eventually finding Atobe with an album’s worth of completely unheard material. Thanks to their work, this set of experimental, abstract, and often thrilling techno became one of the hottest releases of 2014, years after most of it was actually recorded.
Some of the music here hums with the amorphous energy of artists like Actress or Lee Gamble, guys who began crafting beguiling, deeply experimental music long after Butterfly Effect was made. It skirts around the edges of techno, using some of its classic toolset for truly unorthodox purposes. Other parts rip like jagged, tearing-at-the-seams deep house, too slow for the dance floor but too noisy and weird for the chillout room. It’s all tied together with droning sequences where any semblance of rhythm floats just out of reach, a mere hint or suggestion rather than part of the music. The whole thing climaxes, however, with a title track that sits somewhere between the delicate end of dub techno and its smoky, dark, dreamy, bass-heavy heart. It may be too experimental for genre diehards, but to me it’s a grand example of how far a well-defined sound can be stretched and even broken while retaining its original spirit.
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Acronym – June
Acronym is one of the biggest mysteries on this list, at least as far as I know. In a genre known for anonymity, constantly changing stage names, and hazy background details, his work for the groundbreaking Northern Electronics label stands out purely on its own merits. And what staggering merits they are. This is patient, approachable, widescreen dub techno designed for whole-album listening and nothing else. June is a sit-down-with-headphones listen, a drive-until-it’s-over listen. It’s a hit-repeat-as-soon-as-it’s-done listen, too. Every time the final track, “Letting Go of it All” ends, I’m left curious about just how we got there. That’s because the album begins with a solid ten minutes of ambient swelling before so much as a synth arpeggio enters the mix. This slow build grants the album a massive sense of payoff when the beats finally hit, though.
After a wide-eyed introduction that ushers the listener into a lush, welcoming sound world, things start clicking into place. Early highlight “No Exit” feels more like a descendant of Tangerine Dream than Basic Channel. But then sub bass bumps from down the hall, getting closer and heavier as an equatorial warmth flushes through it all, indicating a massive wave approaching. Finally it happens: that trademark dub throb pushes right through the mix, taking over and carrying the rest of the album off on its colossal momentum. Like many albums on this list, the songs are mixed like a DJ set, as one unbroken flow of sound. This helps foster its incredible sense of cohesion and sustain propulsion right up through the final seconds, the feeling of clouds parting and light pouring all around. This may in fact be the brightest, most hopeful sounding album on the list. In place of ominous dread, there’s a sense of cybernetic optimism here, a vision of a better tomorrow through hard work and perseverance. Or maybe I’m just putting too much of myself into this. Perhaps one of the lesser known releases here, June deserves as much attention as any of the best dub techno albums ever made.
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Dino Sabatini – Omonimo
Omonimo brings a rare ambition to the dub techno genre: a grand sense of narrative. This is an album’s album, crafted with distinct movements and a wordless story arc ferrying the listener through a range of emotions and environments. Beyond crafting a suite of tracks that are each individually stunning genre workouts, Sabatini has produced a low-key lyrical epic that plays best when heard in order, in full.
The first three movements form a logical progression that blooms organically, like a tightly wound jazz band riffing in slow motion. Then it feels like Sabatini is taking a deep breath, inhaling the little universe of sound he’s just unraveled, but it’s just an ellipsis. The final stretch opens to shimmering synth curtains billowing over a beatless plane of existence; it’s the sound of ascension, speckled with flutes and distant chants, urging the listener upward. As these fresh elements dance through a brighter atmosphere, colossal beats re-enter the frame, muted by distance to a gentle roar. If the album feels like marching through a torchlit jungle at night, the final passage is reaching a temple, entering a zen garden, and seeing the stars, knowing intrinsically that it’s home.
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Huerco S. – For Those Of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have)
This is dub techno as it sounds after being atomized and carefully, slowly, delicately brought back to life one electron, one proton, one neutron at a time. It is the ambient miasma, the primordial soup of techno bubbling up with echoes of its former beat structures and cascading rhythm. The bass is there, rumbling through the crackle and hiss of old vinyl. The neon synths struggle to coalesce, forming melodic shapes through the hardship of time. Rhythm tumbles in fits and starts before hitting stride mid-track for most of the album, a grand fadeout in reverse. In a way, it’s all about time; these songs take their time to come into focus, for the listener to realize what it is they’re hearing. Often by the time a proper loop has begun, it will spin for minutes with only the subtlest of changes taking place – only to abruptly end without warning. I believe this jarring tactic was used to draw attention to the very effect that looping, hypnotic music has on us. We’re rarely aware of how subsumed we become inside music like this until it’s over; by shifting faster than the music can catch up, Huerco S. highlights the sedative, somnambulent quality of his sound without actually, you know, putting us to sleep. Besides, this music is far too active and disorienting to serve as a goodnight listen.
This album is intoxicating, hallucinatory, forever falling back through memory and time, recognizable shapes rise and fall and blend into a continuous stream of feeling. Like almost everything on this list, it sounds like virtually nothing else around. Although I’d place it spiritually closer to artists like Leyland Kirby and William Basinski, it is undeniably rooted in the tools and philosophy of dub techno.
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Prince of Denmark – 8
How do I even begin to describe this sprawling, three hour album by Prince of Denmark, aka Traumprinz, aka DJ Metatron? It uses nearly every word in the language of dub techno across its eight sides of vinyl, from twinkling ambient pulse music to nearly twenty minute dubbed out behemoths. It crosses and re-crosses every intersection and permutation of the genre’s core elements at high speed, its twenty three tracks adding up to a truly unique big picture unlike anything else on this list. 8 lays out a grand arc encompassing darkness and light, mountains of bass and airy textures, crisp drums and decaying synths, roaring with unwavering intensity all the way through. No one who hears the whole thing can deny its power.
Even cooler, almost no one has ever heard the “full” thing. That’s because the album was originally released on eight discs of vinyl only, with a trick: shortly after release listeners started realizing that it was full of variations on a number of songs, with no indication as to which version they were hearing. Some tracks were expanded or minimized, some remixed, and some sounded completely different than their counterparts on other owners’ vinyl. It meant that there is no definitive version of the album. Even the eventual official digital release came with its own variations, lining up with none of the vinyl sets. Part of me is bothered by never experiencing it all. But a bigger part of me is in awe of the way this created a temporary dissonance in listener experience – were fans actually hearing it differently? Was it a mistake? How many versions are really out there? By now the internet has cataloged it all, but I prefer to stick with the original copy I’ve got. I can’t find the same version of “Planet Uterus” on youtube, so here’s another.
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SW. – The Album
This album joins the small pantheon of techno albums I would consider to be sentient beings. Seriously, hear me out. These albums begin and end on a continuous wavelength, heaving and bending and erupting and dropping, but never ceasing. They enjoy an endless, freefalling mood that is modulated at will but never brought to a halt. It’s a ride, a singular perspective, rushing onward. Its brethren include a variety of sounds like Omonimo by Dino Sabatini, Deepchord Presents Echospace’s epochal Liumin, and even Global Communication’s 76:14, one of the 32 best ambient albums ever made. Like these prior masterpieces, The Album is an absolutely timeless, seamless, continuous flow of music that never once interrupt the listener’s trance – despite the fact that it actually shifts things up between tracks, with sudden jumps that draw the listener’s attention to track changes. It’s rare enough for a DJ-mixed-style album to feel so cohesive; SW. has conjured the effect with a set of blinding, brilliant discrete pieces, each evoking the classic touchstones of the genre’s birth while updating them for truly here-and-now feelings.
The Album made the top ten of the 50 Best Albums of 2017.
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DJ Python – Dulce Compañia
DJ Python calls his music “deep reggaeton” and I can’t imagine a better descriptor. Dulce Compañia brings the humid, human, deeply alive sounds of reggaeton into the hypnotic, meditative, nocturnal synth space of dub techno. It’s a blast of warmth from end to end, with syncopated rhythms and sneaky percussion sounds framing a nearly droning sense of color and texture. The speed of the beats often contrast with slowly drifting psychedelia, the music simultaneously propulsive and comatose; it’s an arresting effect on the brain, caught in a disorienting but deeply pleasurable limbo. In a way, it brings my fascination with dub techno full circle, back to the shoegaze and ambient sounds that led me to discover it in the first place.
The album may be only a few months old, but it’s handily earned its place among the greats of this genre for its beguiling take on the sound, a unique flavor that’s helping create more branches on the great techno family tree.
At this point, I know it should have made the best of the year list, but Dulce Compañia did appear on the 50 More Must-Hear Albums of 2017 list.
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So that’s the list. I hope you found it fun and informative. Please leave a comment with any thoughts, questions, and most of all suggestions – I’d love to know if I missed something imporant!