Shifted – Appropriation Stories LP [Hospital]
Guy Brewer’s no new face on the scene. He’s been pushing a distinctively dark and gritty flavour of techno via his own imprint AVIAN, based out of Berlin, for several years now. The imprint has proven to be an effective platform for some fast establishing artists, such as SHXCXCHCXSH, Sigha, and Pris, while also a space for his own musical explorations.
However, like just a handful of others, he first made his name in a completely different genre of music. Operating under the moniker Commix, alongside George Levings, he was responsible for spearheading a second wave of drum and bass from the UK. His work in tandem with other producers such as High Contrast, Logistics, and to some extent Marcus Intalex, gave rise to a widespread movement that brought about it a huge mainstream-crossover audience and a number of labels during the mid-late 2000s.
Incidentally, Marcus Intalex went on to turn his hand to house and techno under the alias Trevino, and likewise George Levings as Endian. Including Brewer, all three have pulled it off with great flair and individuality, flourishing in their new domains. This shouldn’t be understated, making such transitions is a huge risk for artists, especially when they’ve already reached a certain level of success; genre-hopping, as enriching as this might be for an artist, can often lead to both commercial and identity suicide. But it seems that it’s in Brewer’s nature to consistently move forward in search of something new. His endeavours with AVIAN have pushed the fold of techno to further experimental heights, and entertaining features such as cassette releases on the label shows his willingness to go against the grain.
His new LP, entitled Appropriation Stories, presents the latest iteration of the Shifted project. It’s his third album as Shifted (after 2012’s Crossed Paths, and 2013’s Under a Single Banner) and follows his journey of continuous refinement. Released on Vatican Shadow’s inimitable Hospital Productions, Appropriation Stories proves to be a fine addition to the label’s sprawling catalogue (one that stretches back just shy of 20 years). It’s perhaps not as provocative as recent releases by Prurient or Ron Morelli, for example, but it still carries with it elements of experimental and noise/industrial, and provides much curational value for the label’s current remit.
While Crossed Paths was a slick presentation of linear techno done right, Appropriation Stories shows an almost ruthless consolidation of his sound. Ever more reductive, the album further distils his aesthetic into something strikingly bare, yet still somehow substantial. In place of memorable hooks and hard-hitting kick drums, one’s attention shifts to the detail and intricacy of the textures, and a recalibration of focus is required in order to appreciate the long contours found in each track and across the album.
Like opening up a rusted iron door, its hinges swinging open, ‘This Passage’ yawns awake to a droning bass-line beneath and damp reverbed details. Shapes begin to slowly form as the mist subsides, a tense, almost electric, suspense lingering in the air.
The album moves swiftly on whereby Brewer notches up the BPM for ‘Vacive’. Like a lot of the tracks on the album, the mix is vivid and substantial. There’s a meticulous management of sounds here. What’s perhaps one of the most difficult things to achieve in four-to-the-floor music, Brewer does with seeming ease: understanding the rhythmic relationships between voices, track structure, drum and percussion programming – you can tell he used to be a D’n’B producer. The percussion is on point – timbrally and rhythmically, with ‘Vacive’ gaining most of its momentum from the hats and percussion in the higher register, allowing the bass drum to roll underneath. This is an example of techno-Brewer at his best, and is illustrative of his long-arching style. Slow and gradual progressions are marked by the arrangement of voices, and small synth figures particularly towards the latter part of the track. It’s only in the closing seconds that a guiro-like instrument is revealed, exposing the subtle layering of sounds that Brewer has put together.
‘Flatlands’ continues, more capacious, more relentless than before. Effervescent textures are woven together by percussion reverbs and splintering hats. People who are still waiting for drops and breakdowns here are kind of missing the point. While there’s arguably progression and character throughout, noticeable evolutions are much more subtle than one might be used to, but again, the focus should be more on the vibrancy of the soundscapes, and the trip-inducing nature of this minimalist framework that Brewer is using; yielding to the repetition will open up a whole new experience.
Tracks like ‘Resin & Lacquer’ and ‘For Closure’ capitalise on the more drone-informed side of techno, but again it’s the rhythmic subdivisions of treated noises that provide the energy, rather than a typical 4×4 beat – this is especially true for the latter. Contrasts between textures are well formed – ‘Resin & Lacquer’ boasts effervescent timbres up in the high end, while the distortion and dense background textures in ‘For Closure’ give off a very different character.
Momentum is carried forward into ‘Flatlands’, similarly pointillist textures cumulate into rhythmic collages of sound, soaked in well programmed delays and reverb. Brewer’s convincing in his design, attaining a cohesion with his sound-sources that is usually very difficult to reach. Hats are distorted to the point of being more of a pure sound-source than an instrument, much like the rest of the sounds used in the album. Repeated listens will expose other little details that were simply too submerged to notice before. The ostensive product may often seem somewhat dull, cold, empty, but attenuating one’s ear to the micro-details will open up a world of subtle shifts and satisfying sound palettes.
For such a unified body of work, there’s still a great diversity of sounds and influences that come together on this album. ‘In Respect of Tactics’, the album’s shortest piece, harks toward the sound of Samurai Horo or Stroboscopic Artefact’s MONAD series. There’re more mechanical dark-room leanings too with ‘Watchers’, akin to the aesthetic established by artists like Luke Slater. Elements of Abdulla Rashim and Northern Electronics are present for sure in tracks such as ‘For Closure’ and ‘Resin & Lacquer’ – their androgynous, perhaps perfunctory tenor a typical feature of that strand of Swedish techno. This is also true of Brewer’s rhythmic structures, often operating on syncopation and polyrhythms (as in ‘Life Backwards’).
Overall, for such stripped back and debatably reductive treatment of the music, Brewer still makes it engaging for those that are willing to listen. Intricately crafted soundscapes are enough to explore during the relatively short duration of these tracks, and Brewer approaches their structure with a restrained maturity that doesn’t rely on cheap drops and colloquial frivolities to draw in its audience. Although in some cases, his meticulousness and primacy in sound design can become overbearing, to the music’s detriment. As the title might reflect, Shifted’s evolution has been one of continuous self-appropriation, a distillation of ideas and principles almost to the point of collapse.
‘Appropriation Stories’ is a far cry from the releases of Commix (polarised in almost every possible way to the high-octane drum and bass of the latter) and even early Shifted releases; but thinking about it, this makes Shifted’s latest work all the more a success.
Despite the rather inward-looking mood that spans the album, it’s simultaneously expansive and panoramic too. The detail and substance of the sound should not be confined to the at times limited format of bedroom listening, and one would do well to seek the experience of this sound within larger spaces. One wonders though, where next for Guy Brewer?
[ Links – Shifted – Hospital Productions – Vinyl – CD ]
[ Images – Wallpoper – Neil Leighton ]