Label Feature: Concrete Records [CNC]
One could say that techno is a global phenomenon that resides predominantly in two homes: Detroit and Berlin. Yet, this adage is quickly dissolving before our eyes. Music migrates, scenes develop, cultures merge and spill… For years there have been unsung heroes among the stalwarts and pioneers behind social and cultural change. In this case, Rotterdam and the Hague, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Brussels, Milan and Rome, have all had their part to play, and continue to evade relative mainstream attention in the absence of a handful of history lessons. If we look a little closer, the sheer geographic diversity of these urban environments brings with it enclaves of even greater individualised cultural productions and processes.
Concrete Records is a relatively young electronic music label that operates out of Rome. For those who are not aware, the capital is the locus of techno and electronic music in the country. With venues such as the venerable Goa Club, artists have been able to forge a powerful scene and a passionate following, and is showing no signs of slowing. The daily staple is minimal techno, and within it are some of Europe’s most talented musicians. The greater region boasts artists such as Giorgio Gigli, Chevel, Lucy, Donato Dozzy, Tale Of Us, and Joseph Capriati, to name just a handful.
Concrete Records already support a couple dozen artists on their roster and are shaping a sound that is impressive in its breadth as well as its creativity, constantly nurturing the desire to challenge the status quo. Generally, the label’s sound can be vernacularised under two prevalent genres: deep minimal and footwork. Productions are to a greater or lesser degree influenced by experimental processes and the musicians’ diverse backgrounds bring to the table individual, nuanced sounds and perspectives.
2014 has already been a busy year for the label, with six releases already under their belt. This feature will cover a few highlights from the label both old and new, and explore the sound that this Rome-based collective have been cultivating for the past four years or so.
Newer releases include more techno-focused productions such as the Kaona EP from Damaskin, which also includes an equally eldritch remix from techno duo Cassegrain. Released just over a month ago, the EP offers up three tracks that progressively increase in intensity. The opening track, Kaona I, sets the scene with an eerie chill, slow, distant melodies wander through the night fog, while a murky bass-line animates an otherwise disconcertingly vacant landscape. Shadows lie just below the surface, always watching but always hidden from the fragile, pale light. The uneasy suspense of this track leads us ever deeper into the unknown ahead, always two steps forward, one look back.
A2, Kaona II, enters with heightened senses. Equally dangerous in its faceless taunts, the grinding, croaking features that characterise this track are met with distant echoes that re-affirm the stark loneliness of this deserted place. Perpetual fear seeks to overthrow us at any moment, as we try urgently to keep a grip. The looping interval, the creature-like croaking and the background sirens collectively pull at the psych, inching its way toward whatever remains of our sanity.
The Cassegrain remix is evidently club-ready and adds some much welcomed traction to the original Kaona II. The duo remain largely faithful to the original, simply taking it and notching everything up a couple of levels. Cassegrain pull on existing anxieties, really utilising the characterised effects of the original to a near-franticness, the creaking of hidden passageways and groaning hinges confining the listener to straight-jacket torture.
On similar terms, Uncode‘s Vision Of Hate EP treads through waters akin to the Kaona EP. Also dropped earlier this month, this six-track release boasts evocative soundscapes and a wonderful rustic finish. Tracks such as District 249 embark upon a guide-less trek through a post-apocalyptic aftermath. Journeying through the derelict vista, remnants of previous life still litter the scene, evocative of a not-so-distant past that fell mercy to a foregone conclusion, perhaps. Modula adds a nice analogue touch to the EP, with its electronic bleeps and androgynous trance-inducing deepness. The track stomps ahead with a heedless, mechanical fervour. Under The White Flag provides for a suspenseful intermediary stage, the sidling chord progression reverberating purposefully, but with all the added bit of caution. The title track, Vision Of Hate, trundles through the rusting debris with an air of bitter knowing; that such a dark and selfish vision was ever actualised is a self-inflicted punishment of foolish decisions and shortsighted outcomes. 1977, the mighty machines awaken from their slumber. The future is now, the past irreversible. A smog suffocates the city, life is dwindling, like a flickering candle. While factory lines continue their ceaseless activity, nameless souls trudge through the side-streets in perfunctory emptiness. Dub production is clearly a big influence here, and the powerful narratives coupled with the pleasingly dirty, gritty coat over this EP makes it a pleasure to listen to.
Evidently May has been a busy month for Concrete and another brilliant release to hit record shops just a couple of weeks ago is an ambient techno five-track from Francesco Belfiore and Alex Tea. Entitled Nostalgia Of The Infinite, the album delivers on the same dank, noir vibe, offering up some more 4×4 oriented minimal – as found in the third track, Satismi. However, the duo have also put great care in dove-tailing the EP with two excellent tracks to open and close the release. Requiem concludes the release with a really atmospheric five minutes of deep reflections on the past, flavoured with dark, almost languid, melancholy.
By a slight turn of the hand, Concrete offer up contrasting vibes with their first individual artist album release, which came out at the close of 2012. Evidently the label has chosen to widen their palate through the LP medium and Thelicious’s Gray Tropical Club album is a wonderful outing of blissful downtempo and sleepy Sunday sunsets. The opening title track says it all; laid-back ivories totter above the simple synth texture, mirrored by snatched, sporadic percussion. Female vocals act as an airy blanket, void of any language and unnecessary exertion. The second track, It’s A Secret, gives off a wonderful sunset ambience. Great sound programming highlight the delicate clatter that echoes in the foreground, while a quiet serpentine bass-line dips calmly beneath. Trivial matters are uttered in meaningless small talk… nothing too heavy here. Gray Ocean Club is a more placid extension of its preceding track. Incorporating the same alternating motif, the track moves and breathes, yet never ventures further than the immediate vicinity. Tnx For The Cactus twists the energy into something a little more cheerless. We can’t help but think there’s a story or some narrative behind this song title. Nonchalant but ever so slightly hung up on a relationship gone bad, is the title bitter sarcasm or the point of acceptance? This is followed by one of the strongest tracks on the album, Microspore. Sumptuous suspension chords set the scene while a simple alternating sequence treads lightly on top, accompanied by polite kick drum and co. The air grows chill as the evening draws in, the vanishing light consumed by the horizon. Half-way in a singer assumes the role of protagonist, though his words are censored, as if still sensitive to freshly formed memories. Nostalgic notes attempt to comfort or at least numb the afterglow of unwanted outcomes and situations beyond our control, perhaps unsuccessfully…
Gray Tropical Club is a beautiful album to listen to, and becomes especially powerful when one can fully assimilate with the music and the potential narratives it offers.
Concrete’s third ever release, a great little EP from Gabriele Cella, rides on this same ambient tip, illustrating a soft glitch-style percussion arrangement that seems to be ubiquitous in the Concrete discography. The second track, Get Lost (undoubtedly the highlight of this release) is an excellent number that floats gingerly along the twilight line, its snatched voices fighting their way through for fleeting moments of glory, before they withdraw without a trace. The unusual treatment of sounds and motifs in this track make it a refreshing listen. The final track, Inside, is an ambient slow roller with delayed guitar lines that bounce along through a mild Spring evening. You can tell Cella is a sound engineer by nature, spacious imaging and a great treatment of texture adds a spark to these productions.
In Addition to Cella‘s Granular Instinct EP, releases such as CNC011 and CA001 really demonstrate the label’s aptitude for expressing different sound-worlds. The former, the Onlyou EP by native Italian MSTK, is a seemingly disparate episode of UK Bass that appears on the label. Somewhat of a wildcard in the back-catalogue, this release emulates wonderfully the very particular style of “deep house” that was canonised back in 2012 (or thereabouts), drawing heavily upon the movement that artists such as Jacques Greene spearheaded and the contemporary sounds of Henry Krinkle‘s hit Stay. If there were a handful of sounds to consolidate the recent ascent of cross-over mainstream “deep house”, those synth chords found in the opening track Untitled would be one of them. Another would be the treated vocals that decorate the EP’s title track, Onlyou – now an unmistakable earmark of the genre. The sweetened shuffle of this wistful ballad does not feel too artificial despite its inherent appeal, and this may be down to the absence of crass “drops” and distasteful tropes of an already corroded genre. Track three, More, follows suit, that skipping hi-hat and once again treated vocals provide the keystones to the track’s foundations, further embellished by its typically quiet, contemplative breakdown. There is nothing ambitious about this release, yet is still wonderfully produced and could easily make it into the chilled Summer playlist. The final track is somewhat of a curveball, but still pervades in exercising the UK style. Entitled Woba the track is a skilful mesh of UK idiosyncrasies, its bass-line reminiscent of UK Garage, and it’s overall dominating framework derived of footwork, an intriguing genre that the late DJ Rashad pioneered. An entertaining and well-crafted pastiche work that would not be amiss on Hyperdub‘s catalogue.
CA001, the latter release of the two mentioned above is Furthersets‘s Holy Underwater Love LP (the second of three solo albums to currently feature on Concrete). The album is twelve tracks of cavernous expanses, quirky features and surreal narratives. The opening track, A More Comfortable Place, is a longing; it opens the album ever so slightly perturbed, submerged ripples echo off the walls while an apathetic kick drum trudges along over the top. The opening energy lures us into the uneasy clutter of the next track Doute (Uncertainty), dictated by a plodding piano line. The style here is remarkably similar to that of Lucy‘s most recent LP Churches, Schools And Guns, with a lot of the album’s material evidently inspired by this dark, industrial sound-world. Slow Unhappy Feelings is characterised by a looped vocal line that floats over steady bass stabs and rising synth figure that all weave into a dreamy synthetic ensemble. There is a nice atmosphere created by the resonant sounds of percussive hand claps, juxtaposed with the full-bodied low end that washes the listener in airy, delicate embrace. The next track, entitled Pleurer, glistens and fizzes in jubilation; the juke-styled number layers manipulated samples to gradually build into a cacophony of rapid hats and jolting synth lines. The ensuing tracks, or sound collages, She Can See In Her Eyes, Hidden Rêves, and A Line Has Four Sides are similar experiments, pushing the more abstract sound on the album with it; heavy-handed footwork meets industrial rock-infused downtempo. Continuing the footwork tip A Kind Vision Of Possibilities cascades into the multiplicity of possibility, imbued with an internal energy that is exciting to the touch. The album comes to a close with penultimate track And Suddenly (Multiplies And Disappearances), an ocean symphony of organ ripples and immersive currents. The eponymous final track Holy Underwater Love drifts aimlessly in the deep water expanse, as indecipherable voices stray into the cold unknown, underpinned by a pained yearning.
The album is a strangely beautiful long-play of ambient vibes that is infused with jaunts of footwork and twisted electronica. A great first solo album for the label that has offered a platform for the label to further shape certain facets their sound.
Since its inception in 2010, the label has been impressively consistent. Now heading toward its thirty second release, the collective have established a flexible music policy, while the ‘minimal’ genre bracket provides a continuing point of reference, aggregating their output nicely. Many labels concentrate their sound through a narrow, sometimes oppressive stylistic parameter, but Concrete have opted for both sides of the coin and can boast at times anaesthetised sleep-walks and sun-drenched reveries, while at other times offer up pretty bleak, remorseless cuts of deep minimal.
A compilation release back in November 2012 hosted a total of twelve hand selected singles from various artists on the label, and is an excellent montage of the label’s initial sound. Suitably entitled Concrete, the album takes us through from ambient glitch to quiet iterations of dub techno and breaks-dubstep inspired grooves. Highlights from this album include Joe Cassagrande‘s Hologenesis, MSTK‘s Iwannaluv and Unstable Compound‘s Dopamine.
As we drift away from dream-states and distant memories, we enter into the starker edge of the spectrum with a handful of excellent releases that have come out over the last few months. First up is the Kantun EP (CNC017, 26th November 2013), produced by the Berlin-based, Italian-born musician, Malandra jr. Great, dark content here, with sweeping soundscapes that keep the listener entranced in the individual tracks’ narratives. The EP opens with a track called Galgota; a soft kick-drum dances menacingly in the foreground while the winds howl with a disquieting influence. A bass drum enters after the introduction to commence rituals of ancient times past, with the track really grooving by around the four minute mark. One could elude to the Biblical connections of the title, Golgota, the very place where Jesus was crucified; the possible imagery paints a bleak image of a decaying landscape, where the dead haunt the abandoned hilltop and where no life dares to inhabit. Echoes and ominous wisps blow with weighty magnitude, as the track unfolds into a military jaunt, death marches to the beat of the drum. The second track Krom, is just as foreboding, with its muffled voice and venomous hats rippling above the hissing and crackling texture. The EP ends with Newborn, a calm but equally desolate venture, our complete isolation iterated by the distant pan-flute. As with the other two tracks, great sound design help in making this release especially atmospheric; there is no doubt that Malandra’s previous orchestral experience has helped in his cinematic take on his productions, and has surely filtered into his music in various ways.
Released a few months prior to the Kantun EP is another three-track produced by the emerging Roman duo Idé Fixe. Indeed, the name of this release has nothing to hide; given the title, Disaster Is A Natural Part (CNC015), we can already assume some degree of apathetic, passionless sentiment. The EP starts with a punchy opening, where Idé Fixe lay down a slick groove and a rigid off-beat to get things locked. The second track and possibly the best on the EP, Pass By Catastrophe, unfolds with another minimal groove, that simmers under simple rhythmic claps. Shortly after, sublime voices spill into the texture, a holy choir derived from the very divine hand that conjures hurricanes and earthquakes. The utter beauty of the elegiac seraphim is immediately juxtaposed with a gritty bass-line that interjects with a stripped back interlude – perhaps a reminder that Nature will continue her course regardless of our self-assumed right to inhabit her lands. After the short episode the voices emerge once again, mourning the faceless landscape following such natural, unforgiving tragedies. The final track, Structures Visible From Space, follows a similar formula; opulent suspension chords pulsate over a minimal techno loop, with rich harmonies filter through the flickering hats and throw-away snares. This is a really amazing EP and definitely a standout release on the label, along with Malandra jr.’s release.
This now brings us to CLTD002, released 19th June 2013; Voices From The Lake, an exciting techno duo consisting of the mighty Donato Dozzy and Neel, debut on Concrete with their 531KHz 12″. The release is supported by an excellent twenty-three minute remix from KAB & Minilogue. Providing a firmer 4×4 offering, 531KHz proceeds in typical minimal fashion, with an offbeat pedal and a dancing kick drum. Gliding through the clouds, the introductory section establishes the mood; with our blurred vision obscuring the view, a distant melody emerges. The track builds steadily with faint utterances of a Balearic melody, accentuating the beat, while things gradually come into focus and the melody sharpens. The track lopes in a self-absorbed way, driving with conviction but never oppressive. The single is a great little minimal track, well-formed and self-assured in its design.
It must be said that the remix here takes the limelight for this release, however. KAB & Minilogue have turned the quiet, self-contained dusk-time venture and transformed it into a fully formed masterpiece. Adding little touches and a wealth of new melodic and textural material, the twenty-three minute jaunt unfolds under a beautiful, organic process. The track breaks like a deserted sunrise, introducing the main melodic motif of the original within the first minute. Beautiful pads seep in like delicate rays of first-light, filtered through slitted blinds and the crisp, morning mist. The form actually hasn’t been changed drastically, where the duo have decided to keep the structure relatively untouched from the original. The tropical feel of the track is carried further through sporadic woody drums and Balearic-styled percussion and instrumentation, with subtle embellishments that illuminate the hidden edges of the original. An intermediate second section enters after an introductory five minutes, the energetic gambol of a bleeping figure surfaces, while glittering hats are invited gently into the mix. It is actually magical how the first eight minute passes with such ease; the art of minimal is being able to engage the listener with the seemingly limited number of sounds and motifs available to you. The track manages to create a boundless energy that grows constantly and steadily from the track’s inception. The shift at the turn of the tenth minute is subtle but all the same a satisfying one, and the break around thirty seconds later is a moment we have been so patiently waiting for, as the rippling hats guide us graciously into the next phase of our journey. Barely intelligible voices plunder softly into the texture, further ratifying our altered state of reality.
By the half-way mark we are in full swing. Colours blur, forms shift and mutate. Often adding ad-lib styled drums is difficult and often fails to come off successfully, but the pair have managed to blend drum fills and spatters with great skill and understanding. Our rhythmic bleeping that first appeared in the first few minutes returns, heightening the cosmic feel of this journey. New material in the form of delayed stabs enter at around fifteen minutes. With such lengthy minimal pieces, it is essential to understand your own material. Many decisions need to be made about which sounds will be used and exactly at what point. The magic of minimal music is that a reconfigured reality is forged out of the prevailing norm of established loops. As we acclimatise to the wonted paradigm, the listener is then at the whim of any alteration to the existing pattern or any new material that is introduced. It is truly an art to be able to manipulate time and content in such imperceptible ways.
The track begins to descend incrementally from it’s peak, gradually subsiding for the final five minutes; an understated Rhodes drifts nonchalantly, aimless, entirely at peace in reverie. As the track diminishes into the intangible ether, the pace slackens as we meander in and out of our gently sedated consciousness. The track concludes with a whisper, “nothing”. And as if like magic, the world is under sleep.
An outstanding release from KAM & Minilogue, this 12″ is one of the strongest on the imprint (of course credit due to Voices From The Lake for such a spotless original too).
The works featured above are but a selection of Concrete Records‘s catalogue, and exploring the label’s other releases is recommended. Other particularly effective releases include the impressive Concave And Convex EP from Three_Angles, brooding deep house with influences of jazz and techno; as well as some other early releases in the form of Octad‘s fantastic techno EP Unreleased Archive Part 1, and his duo project with Phiorio as FORSE with the Horizontal Rain EP.
The discography is unified by a blanket of grey melancholy that has a strangely sweet, satisfying embrace to it. The label is a melange of different styles and somewhat successfully mirrors other diverse labels like BPitch Control and Warp Records. We have less troubled moments with albums such as Gray Tropical Club, but at other times the subject matter falls heavy and challenging. There are unmistakeable influences such as Kode9‘s aforementioned Hyperdub imprint as well as Lucy‘s ever vital Stroboscopic Artefacts. The label has been wise in expanding its palate and lifting rigid stylistic barriers. While there is a need for purist camps to keep the fire burning, it is also great for labels such as Concrete to pass through the limiting boundaries of sticking to a strict style; at the end of the day it is a matter of vision, and we should celebrate both those derived of fierce tradition and those who venture further afield.
A lot of the label’s content is suitable for quiet, individual reflection; if you’re in a strange sort of mood or are already lost in your thoughts, there is material here to completely zone out to. At the same time there are some tracks that would be equally suitable for the dance-floor or the movie screen. The imprint has had an impressive start, and with the fifth year anniversary approaching, we are sure to expect more quality pressings from the Roman label.