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Topdown Dialectic - Topdown Dialectic Music Album Reviews

Topdown Dialectic - Topdown Dialectic Music Album Reviews
The anonymous artist’s rustling, swirling ambient techno is as immediate and enveloping as anything leftfield electronic music has produced this year.

The Topdown Dialectic project lies at the intersection of clarity and obscurity. The clarity part is self-evident: Most of their rustling, swirling ambient techno has come out on clear cassettes packaged in clear, plastic freezer bags—packaging so minimalist that it doesn’t include titles, credits, or any information beyond the artist name and catalog number.

That’s where the obscurity kicks in, because Topdown Dialectic’s identity is a mystery. The only confirmable fact is that they are part of Aught, a label collective whose members—Elizabethan Collar, De Leon, Xth Réflexion—are also anonymous (if they are even different people at all). This kind of mystique is hardly new in electronic music; it is part of a hallowed tradition that runs from Basic Channel through Burial. But Topdown Dialectic’s facelessness feels specific to the current moment. Trying to trace their trail back to the source, there’s a strong sense of being haunted by the internet’s recent past. They have not tweeted in more than three years. The Facebook page linked from their SoundCloud no longer exists; neither does their Tumblr. A Blogspot account associated with the label behind their debut cassette has gone inactive. It’s a trail of digital breadcrumbs ground down to dust.

That also makes for a pretty good description of Topdown Dialectic’s music. Since at least the release of a 2014 self-titled EP for Seattle’s Further label (it’s hard to know what their 2013 debut cassette sounds like, since it has disappeared from the internet without much trace), they’ve hitched their horse to the grainy, dub-techno aesthetic popularized in the mid-1990s by Vainqueur, Vladislav Delay, and other artists affiliated with Basic Channel’s Chain Reaction label. Topdown Dialectic’s sound is a graphite smear of static, clatter, and hints of whispers: textures of gravel and elastic, shoe polish and sand, all arrayed over a submerged techno rhythm. A loose weave of murmurs and wormholes, the music itself is bathed in mystery, its contours foggy and its provenance uncertain. Dub techno, with its emphasis on circuitry and spring reverbs, is a resolutely analog genre, but here it gets spun through a dizzying digital echo chamber of post-internet obfuscation.

Topdown Dialectic’s first album for Los Angeles label Peak Oil bears many similarities to its predecessors. It is also self-titled, and it does without track titles. These tweaks to industry convention seem designed to disorient and unbalance, to leave the listener bobbing in a grayscale interzone without reference points or compass. The music’s means of production have historically been another point of obscurity. Streaks of drum and delay pile up in an onionskin palimpsest of fakeouts and false endings; voices bob through the murk, and the occasional sharp-edged synth bass cuts through, but there’s no telling how any of it was made. With this release, we finally learn something about the artist’s methods, which the label claims entail unspecified “software strategies” and “captures and edits of various nonlinear sound-systems.” Whatever that means, it sounds like a kind of digital alchemy—a figurative black box that translates unknown inputs into a fountain of pulse and shimmer.

But the new album immediately feels more developed than previous work. The sound is fuller, the structures more composed. What once seemed incidental now feels more intentional, even expressive. In opening track “A1,” a blurry railroad chug of fractured breakbeats gives way to moments of crystalline definition, like a taut electric-bass note or the rosy chords of classic Detroit techno. In the Pole-influenced “A3,” fluttering chords and a hint of voice flash out over rolling sub-bass; “B3” takes after the chiffon-textured deep house of Vladislav Delay’s Luomo alias, with a beat as brittle as kindling offset by the occasional yelp, soulful and grounding.

Throughout it all, the music is governed by the tension between difficulty and ease. The sense of some hidden code at work is reinforced by the fact that all eight tracks are exactly five minutes long, with each song ending in medias res, in a simple fadeout—which surely is not a coincidence. (This isn’t the first time Topdown Dialectic has deployed such a tactic.) Ultimately, though, any subtextual riddles are secondary to the tracks themselves, which are as immediate and enveloping as anything that leftfield electronic music has given us this year, with sumptuous textures reminiscent of Skee Mask’s Compro—they’re just less melodic and less overtly melancholy, marked instead by a seductive kind of stone-faced cool.

On the album’s closing cut, having crumpled dub techno’s blueprint in any number of ways, Topdown Dialectic smooths out the wrinkles and sinks into a deep, bassy approximation of the style at its most quintessential. There’s no discernible percussion at all, just rolling waves of rumble and hiss. It’s the perfect capstone to the project: “B4” could have been made at any point in the past 25 years, and with a surface worn down like limestone, it luxuriates in its anonymity. Yet once you become accustomed to the quirks of Topdown Dialectic’s sound, the track couldn’t be mistaken for the work of anyone else.

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