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Have you ever dreamed of a music that combines the DIY swagger of hardcore and grime with the swing of garage, the bump of UK funky, the ineffable jack-factor of house and the surgical precision of techno? Yeah? Me too. Well, here’s some good news: last week I took delivery of Tenement Yard, the new album from Altered Natives, and it looks as though our dream may have come true.

It’s the first of two albums that Altered Natives, the one-man army of London’s Danny Yorke, is set to release this year on his digital label, Eye4Eye. Yorke has been in the game a long time – earning an estimable rep within the broken beat community before breaking (brukking?) out into the wider world last year. It made sense that Yorke would be adopted by the UK funky scene, for whose dances his swaggering, dancehall-inflected but assuredly housey productions are perfect firepower, and he enjoyed a well-earned crossover hit with ‘Rass Out’ – an addictive number showcasing the core Natives sound of slinky, rave-ready melody and tough, live-sounding drum fills looped and layered to the point of delirium. What really stood out about ‘Rass Out’ was its sense of timing, and its shapeliness: the way it managed to pull off sudden shifts and handbreak turns without losing liquidity of groove or coming over all skittish.

Tenement Yard is a truly British techno, born of, and for, the deep-rooted but ever-mutable soundsystem sensibility unique to these shores.

I for one assumed ‘Rass Out’ was a one-off by a new producer, and at the time didn’t think about exploring any further. My colleague Tom Lea, however, got in touch with Yorke and found out about his career prior to this release, interviewing him and commissioning an Altered Natives FACT mix along the way (one of the best we’ve ever had). Since then many more people in the dubstep and nouveau UK house scene have got wise to Danny’s sound –  Kode9, who has actually been spanking Altered Natives dubs in his DJ sets for ages, recently invited him to remix Ikonika’s ‘Idiot, and I believe Night Slugs have him lined up for a 12″ release later this year.

But Altered Natives, and his new album, Tenement Yard, deserve to find an audience outside of the UK bass-chasing community as well. For me, Tenement Yard sounds like what Horsepower Productions were heading towards on 2002’s bottomlessly brilliant In Fine Style and passages of its breaksier, proto-dubstep follow-up, To The Rescue (2004) – a truly British techno, born of, and for, the deep-rooted but ever-mutable soundsystem sensibility unique to these shores.

The spry garage-techno path which Horsepower started upon but eventually abandoned (in order to help forge the new Croydon style with Hatcha, Skream et al) is but one of several aborted or forgotten underground narratives that Tenement Yard seems to pick up, dust down and carry forward across its zippy duration. It marks an obvious continuation of the broken beat tradition, a thread running from Nu Era and Maddslinky through to more recent fare from Dave Huismans (2562, A Made Up Sound) and Martyn, yes, but it also tugs some much-needed new life (ooh-er) into the Funky thread.

The insouciant, “high-upon-high” spirit of ‘ardkore reverberates throughout this album

One of the reasons I got so excited about the kind of funky being pushed by Marcus Nasty two years ago was because I imagined it would lead to music like Tenement Yard – house and techno with London pirate character. Turns out it did – it just took a year longer than expected; to be precise, roughly six months months after I’d completely given up hope. Better late than never and all that. On Altered Natives’ ‘Body Gal’ and ‘What Life Once Was’, the evolutionary leap is almost literal – their pinched dub-chords recall both Roska’s ‘Elevated Levels’ and the frost-bitten Berlinism of a Radio Slave or a Shed, but Yorke takes the drum choppage to a level of dirt and disorientation that none of those esteemed producers would be willing or able to countenance. ‘Afterlife Riddim’ sets out as a bashy Afro drum work-out a la Perempay, before unsettling the equation with deep-scooping bass, Benny Ill-style voodoo FX and a creeping undercurrent of xylophone dissonance that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Aphex record.

The insouciant, “high-upon-high” spirit of ‘ardkore reverberates throughout Tenement Yard, more balls-out authentically than in, say, the more streamlined breakbeat techno tranmissions of recent Shed and Millie & Andrea. It’s there not just in the big bad Belgian vamps (though ‘Oh My Zipper’ delivers those in spades), but in the liberal use of samples – not least the vocal fragments, from squeaky feminine pressure to tetchy badman chat,  which combine to sound mad as a London high-street at 25 degrees C . The drum-sounds are largely sampled too: “I’m a serious lover of finding drums to hack up,” Yorke told FACT last year. “Personally I like using samples as opposed to drum machine kits. I like dirt in my tracks.”

“I’m a serious lover of finding drums to hack up…Personally I like using samples as opposed to drum machine kits. I like dirt in my tracks.” – Altered Natives

And my, what dirt. The helicoptering breakbeats of opening track ‘Blackvibes’ and the later ‘4Four’ (a priceless slab of martial house brutalism) nod to early Rob Playford, particularly 2 Bad Mice’s ‘Waremouse’, but these breaks are just part of a more complex rhythmic make-up. That’s the thing with Altered Natives – he’s not content to settle for one beat pattern and bleed it dry over the course of a track, as pretty much every other artist on the planet is. There are at least three distinct drum parts running through each of his productions, and they’re made to collide and collude so tightly that the resulting tracks can be tracky, trancey, breaksy, jacking and rampantly bruk all at the same time.

The most potent examples of this are the Carl Craig-esque ‘Splintered’ and particularly ‘I’m…Sexy!’, which hitches ‘Show Me Love’ bass to broken, bogle-friendly yard rhythm and still manages to sound heads-down and tunnelistic enough to work the ‘floor at Berghain (well, sort of). The highlight of the album arrives in the shape of ‘It’s Just A Crush” –  a pulverising four-square club banger, driven by an unashamedly bombastic piano riff, bonkers cymbal crashes and a nagging, spine-catching rave motif that would keep even the most bug-eyed techno viking satisfied – indeed, this one jacks so hard that moshing feels like a more appropriate response than dancing.

‘It’s Just A Crush’ jacks so hard that moshing feels like a more appropriate response than dancing.

In what’s been a fairly dreary year for house/techno albums – the only essentials to my mind being Actress’s excellent but punishingly introspective Splazsh and Dettmann’s fierce but utterly frigid Dettmann – Altered Natives’ Tenement Yard comes from way, way underground to save the show. Rejecting wholesale the sweet-toothed synthesizer sounds that have become such a fixture of the Hyperdub-house era, it’s a wonderful return to the real raw, and not at the loss of depth or sophistication. As hectic, unpredictable and excessive as Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant, but far more crisply edited, Tenement Yard ought to win over all but the most purist and hard-hearted.

Oh, and when Danny got wind us of FACT’s plans to publish the piece, he very kindly offered to mix all of Tenement Yard’s tracks into a handy 35-minute sampler for you, dear reader, to enjoy free of charge. How diamond-like is that? So if my ringing endorsement has made you at all curious, do yourself a favour and get downloading. And if you like what you hear as much as I know you will, be sure to buy the album when it’s released through Eye4Eye later this month. Look out too for past and future releases on Eye4Eye not just from Natives but also Surra, Ceramic and others – more info here.

Download: Altered Natives – Tenement Yard Sampler Mix for FACT
(Available for three weeks)

Speaking of purist and hard-hearted, I’ve really been enjoying Horizontal Ground’s recent output, particularly that of 19 26 1 18 5, also known as Szare (for a while I assumed that 19 26 1 18 5 and Szare were different people, before my inner Alan Turing twigged). I’m hardly alone in my appreciation: HG and its sister label Frozen Border have been attracting a lot of attention from the techno community, admittedly much of it due to the part-anonymity of the producers involved, which for me is the least interesting aspect of the enterprise.

As Jeff, helmsman of the two imprints, intuits in a terse interview with Little White Earbuds, the idea of a techno artist being consciously “anonymous” is almost self-parodic in the wider context anyhow. “Even at it’s most revealed,” he says, “[the dance music world] is still really a bit of ‘micro fluff’ on the backside of the music industry.” Put another way, is the “anonymous” Szare really any more or less of an enigma to the man on the street than, say, Altered Natives? Exactly.

Is the “anonymous” Szare really any more or less of an enigma to the man on the street than, say, Altered Natives?

I was a big fan of the first Frozen Border 12″, a hard-hitting two-tracker that combined the Chicago and Berlin traditions beautifully, confidently conveying austerity and funk (as all the best techno does). 002 and 003 were solid as butter left in the fridge too long, but for me they failed to transcend their warehouse functionality – essential DJ tools, undoubtedly, but interchangeable with myriad other well-produced, Hardwax-friendly 12″s. Frozen Border 004 was a return to form, a more fragmented and dissolute affair, the A-side sidestepping the label’s signature style to date in favour of well-judged Echospace-style fizz and curtly syncopated beats.

The Horizontal Ground imprint has been running in parallel to Frozen Border, delivering slightly more stripped techno variants. I was ambivalent towards the sour bleepage of 001’s A-side but warmed immediately to the B, with its full-frontal attack of closed hi-hats, trippy arpeggios and impertinently funked-up bassline. Both sides of 002 might have fallen victim to their own furrow-browed minimalism were it not for the simple, insistent bassline of the A and the unusually close, claustrophobic atmosphere of the B – that rave-heard-through-a-brick-wall vibe of vintage Porter Ricks.

The first Frozen Border 12″ combined Chicago and Berlin traditions beautifully, conveying austerity and funk (as all the best techno does).

Just when I felt I’d got a handle on Horizontal Ground and put it to one side, along came 003 and an unexpectedly sunny(ish) double-header from a different producer, 9.454. (God knows). The skippy drums of ‘All The Way Back’ recalled Mood II Swing and prime-time US garage, offset with post-Downwards industrial textures, a winning compromise to be sure. I duly threw my hat back into the Horizontal Ground ring, and the attention was rewarded with a devastating production on 004 from Szare entitled ‘Snake Cave’. But in truth I didn’t realise quite how devastating ‘Snake Cave’ was until I heard the mix Szare recorded for LWE. Do yourself a favour and download it before you read on.

Download: Szare – LWE Talking Shopcast

The first part of the LWE mix (actually a live set) constitutes the most righteous and elegant 18 minutes of new techno you will hear all year, and features four of Szare’s own productions (another five appear later in the mix), three of which are as yet unreleased. He, she or they (I’m going to say they from now on – that’s what the picture seems to suggest) set the tone for these with an intro track from Munafir – a group of Rajasthani musicians led by tabla player Hameed Khan who combined Muslim qwwali chant, North Indian raga and gypsy devotional and dance music (cheers Wikipedia). This isn’t eclecticism for its own sake; traces of all of the hypnotic cyclical musics espoused by Munafir  inform and disturb the 4/4 grids of the ensuing Szare tracks.

The rolling, tribalistic ‘Kinshasa’ with its tough congas and spectral textures made me think of a less exuberant Altered Natives, and of Nick Hoppner’s 2009 Ostgut cut 12″ ‘Makeover’/’Foundling’, and especially of Sam Shackleton. Heavy-duty as ‘Kinshasa’ is, it’s scant preparation for the onset of ‘Snake Cave’, a tough but supremely shifty excursion into desert-dried steppers’ techno, Arabian bump and clap tattoos combining with livid tabla lines and a whirl of psychotic chants and whispers for disorienting but compulsively danceable effect. The ruffneck Heart of Darkness percussion persists throughout the trackier ‘Break East’, which really does sound like Shackleton making peaktime techno, and ‘Beatdown’, which comes over like a more ruthless and linear A Made Up Sound, and is not dissimilar to Peter Sutton at his broken best. By the time we reach ‘Mendeleev’ (also unreleased), it’s a sure thing: Szare is the single most promising, hope-giving techno production outfit of 2010.

The Horizontal Ground and Frozen Border personnel are wise and characterful enough to take some inspiration from outside of endlessly self-referencing dancefloor orthodoxy.

While clearly embodying techno at its most pure and uncompromised, one of the reasons that Horizontal Ground and Frozen Border tackle sounds so characterful, and has such gravitas, has largely to do with its personnel’s willingness to inspiration from outside of endlessly self-referencing dancefloor orthodoxy. In their LWE session, Szare draw upon not just Munafir but also David Bowie’s gloriously dainty ‘Moss Garden’ (from “Heroes”), and include their own remix of ‘Rainstorm Blues’ by South-West psych institution Flying Saucer Attack; meanwhile Jeff, in his interview with LWE, confirms that the labels’ names are references to Nico (prompting much comical, if dispiriting, ‘Who’s Nico?’ chat in the comments section – I mean, to think that there are people out there who’ve heard, I don’t know, Motor City fucking Drum Ensemble, but not The End or Camera Obscura. A skewed world indeed).

Last night I got hold of Horizontal Ground 005, due out in July – I have no idea whether or not it’s the work of Szare, it’s hard to say. Both sides seem to have Szare’s flair for melody and swing, if not quite as pronounced as on ‘Kinshasa’ or ‘Snake Cave’, and are dressed with rugged warehouse chords a la the Manc school of MLZ, Andy Stott and Claro Intelecto’s Warehouse Sessions. Whoever’s responsible, it’s gripping stuff, and along with Frozen Border 004 and Frozen Border 005 (out in June and July respectively), totally worth your attention. Though not before you’ve bought your copy of ‘Snake Cave’.

Until next time, take care of yourselves, and remember to say no to boring, artless shit.

Kiran Sande

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