Three themes have come up repeatedly in Sound of Life articles of late. One is the hyper-detailed sonic explorations of artists around “deconstructed club” and “hyperpop”. Another is the way artists construct cultural identities for themselves in a globalised culture, as with the Ghanaian-Australian polymath Genesis Owusu or the Chinese electronica maverick Howie Lee. The third is how we connect to our past through reiterations of folk music.
All three collide in this album from Edinburgh producer Joe Power, aka Proc Fiskal. Power was already a distinctive producer when he arrived on the scene in 2017, aged just 19, with a unique take on grime. Since then, he’s diverged further from any genre constraints, speeding up and fragmenting his rhythms, and adding found sound and the free-associating voices of his friends to the mix: his debut album Insula in 2018 sounded like an intoxicated night ride through a Scottish city.
It’s clear that the desire to locate himself and his music is strong: on Siren Spine Sysex, his second full album, he delves a lot further into Scottish and wider Celtic identity, but not in a way that you’ll have heard before. Power’s grandparents were heavily involved with the late Sixties folk revival, and though his ambivalence towards folk is clear, he’s absorbed it into his digital complexities in this album to absolutely dazzling effect.
It’s a perfect storm, really. In the past, the strangely glossy sonorities, glitchy edits and posthuman visions of the genre of modern electronica broadly tagged as deconstructed club have at times felt like the territory of black-clad intellectuals or club cliques in Berlin. But as the sound has evolved, slithering free of rigid grids and scene demands, more and more maverick artists have proved the sound palette is suited to powerfully emotional and/or personal statements. Whether it’s the haunted torch songs of Lotic, the Radiohead-ish grand sweep of Yves Tumor, or the audio portrait of Cairo life of ZULI, the new electronica has become as expressive as any acoustic instrument.
The incorporation of folk sounds is anything but respectful: Power has ripped apart samples of the most kitsch and silly adaptations of Scottish traditional music. The effect is quite dizzying, feeling like an examination of the mythic aesthetics that Celtic nations have sold back to themselves – from the noble stags and rocky crags that fed into Victorian romantic ideas of the sublime, through twee easy listening, the earnest visions of the hippie generation, the expensive new age of Clannad and Enya, and on to the aggressive party monster self-image of the post-rave generation in Scotland, the latter embodied by both hoarse ravers shouting and by drum ’n’ bass mania in the beats.
All of this – mashed together with hip hop / trap, grime and large helpings of Aphex Twin circa “Windowlicker” – cascades towards you like a vision of a shattered multiverse in a Marvel story. But the miracle of this record is that it isn’t jarring. This is where the personal vision comes in: rather than an over-conceptualised cultural thesis, this feels very much like one specific person coming to terms with his own location in space and time, and his own relationships to the sonic and cultural baggage around him. Also, his approach may be irreverent – and it’s genuinely funny at times – but there’s also a palpable delight in his synth tonality that simultaneously emphasises the modernism of his craft, and appreciation of the folk melodies and harmonies on a much deeper level than the signification that he plays around with.
For all the mania, the effect is gorgeous. Though the glassy deconstructed club and grime synths are bang up to the minute, some of the beat edits recall turn-of-the-millennium “intelligent dance music”, and those melodies gesture back through decades or even centuries. This isn’t about reference points, retroism or modishness: it’s about sharing the experience of one person making sense of the world around him through music. And just like hearing a jazz soloist’s logic shifting in the moment, or a vocalist exploring the tone of a note, that’s a magical thing to be able to share.
Cover credit: Hyperdub
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs.