“I don’t think of music as cathartic or a release,” Dominick Fernow once told me in a cover story about his former band Cold Cave. “A release implies that something is leaving you. It’s not that so much as a transformation.”
Whether he’s whipping up whirlpools of noise as Prurient or delving into the darkest corners of dance music as Vatican Shadow, Fernow has always followed that path — music as a purification process, only instead of the poison being drawn out of his productions, it’s harnessed in the form of distorted tape decks, chain-linked synths and rust-encrusted samples.
He’s not alone either; while house producers have been revisiting their rave cave roots as of late, underground techno has turned 50 shades of grey. Literally and figuratively, as melodies get maimed, tempos get turned on, and rhythms embrace the very notion of electronic body music.
In the following guide, eMusic breaks down 12 essential avant-dance albums that will flood your endorphin levels (or plunge you into a pit of despair) faster than a midnight screening of Spring Breakers. Think of it as EDM’s evil twin, music that makes you move without resorting to crowd-pleasing power chords or answering the question that seems to be on everyone’s minds these days: “Where’s the drop?”
And as a bonus, we’ve also included a secondary set of recommendations and a “Panic Room” collection of deviant downtempo tracks…
Matthew Dear was way ahead of the current deviant-techno curve with the debut album from this dearly missed alias. In case you couldn't tell from oh-so-subtle song titles like "Titty Fuck," "Just Fucking" and "Your Place or Mine," Suckfish funnels Dear's darkest fantasies through hardcore techno tropes, ravenous rhythms and hypnotist hooks that are the polar opposite of "you're getting sleepy, very sleepy." If anything, you'll be wired as hell after hearing this record.
A cursory look at the Black Dog's mixes page (especially the aptly-titled "Dark Wave" series) is all it takes to understand how one of Warp's earliest (accidental) IDM adopters has only gotten more ashen with age. Sometimes that approach reveals itself in ambient stunners like the Eno nod Music For Real Airports — arguably an improvement on the original — and sometimes it lands directly on the dancefloor, as is the case on this masterclass in metallic, muscular techno.
A student of Throbbing Gristle's "industrial music for industrial people" teaching — Factory Floor's Nik Void -- meets two of its founders — Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti, also of the incredibly influential Chris & Cosey — in a one-night-only collision of bowed guitar chords, metronomic melodies, HAM radio harmonies, and rhythms that won't let go. No wonder why the capacity crowd — part of Mute's celebratory Short Circuit festival in 2011 — couldn't help but responding with resounding cheers at the end.
Ren Schofield is not as well-known as his fellow noise defectors — people like Prurient, Nate Young and Pete Swanson — but in a perfect world, he would be. Maybe even more so. Both of his Spectrum Spools albums are simply called LP, which makes them sound more vanilla than they really are. If there's any dance full-length worth a floor-punch or slamdance, it's this one, from the bendable basslines of "Paralyzed" to the loony vocal lines of "Perforate," which might as well be considered the terrifying, long-lost twin of Cajmere's house classic "Coffee Pot (It's Time for the Percolator)."
As in "Not for the...," Miles Whittaker's first solo album under his own name is a three-car pileup of the highest order. Not quite as noisy as his Suum Cuique alias or witchy as his work with Demdike Stare, but demented dance music nonetheless. Even the most serene moments (the galaxy-hopping ambient loops of "Loran Dreams," the deep listening drones of "Sense Data") sound like they're seconds away from veering off the tracks, and everything else is increasingly erratic and engrossing, as if Whittaker is trying to break on through to the other side — or at the very least, your living room wall — with his skittish samples.
A couple of strange things happened after Yellow Swans broke up. On one side of the aisle, Gabriel Saloman went the cobweb-y neo-classical route with his Adherealbum. Pete Swanson swung to the other extreme, expressing his basement punk roots through mangled techno opuses like Man With Potential. Not exactly the kind of thing you want to blast at 1 a.m. when you're landlord lives right across the hall, but when you need a reality check that's fallen from the same rotten apple tree as Surgeon and the Sandwell District fam, this is a decent start.
Minimal techno doesn't get any more murderous than Karl O'Connor's flawless run as Regis. Maybe that's why he formed BMB (a.k.a. British Murder Boys, a recently reactivated project with Surgeon) a little over a decade after delivering the steely slabs of sound that hammer away at the core of this chaotic compilation. Definitely one of the godfathers of gloom — cool, calculated and calm like a bomb.
When Sandwell District — an audio/visual collective that counted Function, Silent Servant and Regis among its ranks — "repressed" this limited double LP in digital form a few years ago, its growing cult following interpreted it as a mission statement. Turned out it was more of a death knell. For the label at least; the group continues to tour and work together, from Regis's executive production credits on Silent Servant's first solo album to the sprawling mix Function and Regis recently cut for Fabric under the now-familiar Sandwell District name. Witness the origins of it all right here, as truly underground techno takes on the form of tractor beams and centrifugal forces.
Let's say you're really excited about finally getting into a secretive dance spot like Berlin's epicenter of underground techno, Berghain. The night's going great, but then this Shifted guy goes on, starting with nearly seven minutes of mood-manipulating drone tones, then dropping into a black hole of clouded chords and beats that murmur and moan like a heart in desperate need of a transplant. Maybe you should head home before things get too bleak? Why does the door appear to be locked? Looks like you'll have to wait until the storm passes.
Four songs, 40 minutes — zero bullshit. Bow down to the one of the undisputed bibles of club music that literally makes you want to club things. (Please don't; we're just making a point here.)
So this is why Dominick Fernow suddenly left Cold Cave last year — so he could perfect the tranced-out Muslimgauze tributes with the project that was quickly eclipsing his endless stream of Prurient releases. In many ways, Ornamented Walls is a transitional record, using Side A to hint at the next direction of Fernow's infamous live show (with frenzied rehearsal footage of "Operation Neptune Spear") and showing us what's up his sleeve studio-wise throughout the chemtrail cuts on Side B. That the record came out on Modern Love — the same label as Miles, Demdike Stare and Andy Stott — sealed the deal even further for Fernow's emerging role in the sadomasochistic techno scene.
Considering he's been doing the whole shadow boxer thing since 2006's Merciless LP, the recent attention foisted upon Andy Stott is long overdue. That, and understandable considering how far he's raised the bar with Luxury Problems, a gorgeous exploration of electronic music's Darth Vader side, complete with melancholic melodies (from Stott's old piano teacher!), an endless supply of murky fog machines, and beats that'll make you break into a cold sweat. Think of this as the blissful breather you're gonna need after having your head bashed in by the rest of these records.