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Mr. Tophat - Dusk to Dawn Music Album Reviews

The Swedish producer and frequent Robyn collaborator offers an ambitious three-album suite of understated, occasionally disquieting techno nocturnes.
Hardcore Robyn fans already know the work of Swedish producer Rudolf Nordström, aka Mr. Tophat. He co-produced “Baby Forgive Me” and “Beach2k20,” two of the gorgeous, gently filtered house-pop tracks from last year’s Honey; his own 2017 release Trust Me, a three-song, 35-minute EP of throbbing, desaturated grooves, featured Robyn throughout. His latest solo release, Dusk to Dawn, is an ambitious three-album suite of understated, occasionally disquieting techno nocturnes. More melodic than the distortion-warped A Memoir From the Youth, two and a half hours of mostly chill, mid-tempo house conceal interesting moments within slack expanses. At its best, it’s a triple-album endurance listen that rewards partial concentration; at its slowest, it’s an illustration that Tophat’s signature long-format tracks don’t scale.

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DJ Richard - Dies Iræ Xerox Music Album Reviews

DJ Richard - Dies Iræ Xerox Music Album Reviews
The Rhode Island native’s second album of noisy, downbeat techno is a cocoon ringed with razor wire—the kind of music that’s perfect for headphones and subway journeys when you’re in a foul mood.

DJ Richard’s music is as understated as his name, and that understatement extends even to the way it flits between extremes. The Rhode Island native was raised on noise and dance music, and his own productions fold in elements of both, existing in a liminal space between the two genres. From noise he gets his sullenness; from dance, his steady pulse. But there is nothing harsh or grating about the textures of his sad, coppery foghorn synths, and there is nothing particularly festive about his grooves. He didn’t invent this interzone, of course; especially in the underground, moody, downbeat techno is a busy lane. But DJ Richard navigates it far better than most. There’s a commendable depth to his forlorn atmospheres, which refuse to lapse into maudlin caricature or shift into industrial techno’s grayscale default mode.

His debut album, Grind, was about as moody as dance music gets, and probably for good reason. It was written in the space of three months, in the aftermath of having his home burgled and his computer stolen at the precise moment when he was backing up what should have been his debut album to an external hard drive. He had quit drinking, wasn’t going out much, and was beginning to contemplate leaving Berlin, where he’d been living for the past few years, and heading back home. (“That is definitely the state of mind that somehow was really conducive to music making for me,” he has said.) His new one, Dies Iræ Xerox, was created after his return to the Ocean State, but that old undercurrent of unease remains. From the very first note of the opening track, the music sounds perpetually on the verge of slipping out of tune. But this isn’t the nostalgic tape warping of Boards of Canada; it’s more like the groan of a mortally wounded beast, or a soul heaving beneath a great psychic weight.

Like its predecessor, Dies Iræ Xerox balances beat-driven tracks with drum-free synthesizer sketches whose mottled colors and blurry outlines suggest bruises. On their own, the five beatless tracks would have made for a pretty spellbinding ambient EP. “Crimson Curve” turns a gravelly, minor-key bass progression into a black-lit aquarium populated by strange, billowing shapes. “Ancestral Helm” is elegiac and becalmed. “Dissolving World” is a seven-minute investigation of two restlessly morphing chords, its emotional tenor inscrutable.

In the drum-driven tracks, the mood has darkened. You can feel the anger and defiance in the cutting sharpness of DJ Richard’s drums, the sheer force of his beats. On Grind, there were still echoes of the twinkling strain of house associated with Dial, the Hamburg label responsible for both albums. But there’s no trace of that legacy here. “Pitfall,” the album’s first drum track, is part trap beat and part bear trap, with hi-hats like rusted metal teeth. “Vanguard” advances, slow and mechanical, in rigid movements shorn of every last vestige of swing. “Tunnel Stalker” arrays bass squelches in triplets over a snapping drum groove and blackened, sizzling electronics. “In Broad Daylight” is equally stern, with brooding synths over lacerating drum programming—no mercy, no apologies, no bullshit. Simultaneously cushion and armor, this is the kind of music that’s perfect for headphones and subway journeys when you’re in a foul mood—a cocoon ringed with razor wire.

But even here, he cannily holds back. It’s not about pulling punches; DJ Richard is simply too crafty to let you see more than a flash of the blade before he draws blood. In the album’s most powerful tracks, there’s the sense of something partially obscured trying to break through—some awful presence, an indistinct background noise clawing its way into the foreground. The album’s title pairs the Latin term for “Day of Wrath” with “Xerox,” in a cryptic phrase that suggests calamity repeating itself in progressively degraded form, like Marx’s dictum about the revolving door of history as an endless cycle of tragedy and farce. The photocopier reference evokes punk zines, which feels fitting. The album doesn’t sound punk; it’s too elegant for that. But its spirit is evocative of a cut-and-paste Kinko’s missive from the 1990s, juxtaposing contrasting ideas and sources to render its own grim truth in stark black and white.

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