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Jorge Velez - Roman Birds Music Album Reviews

Inspired by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, this five-track ambient wonder finds the New York producer letting pulses and motifs overlap until the tracks resemble the inside of a lava lamp.
Jorge Velez has long been prolific, but that’s been especially true in the past few years. Like many underground electronic musicians, the New York producer has taken advantage of the internet’s self-publishing opportunities—in particular, the direct-to-fans platform Bandcamp—to sidestep label gatekeepers, streaming services, and crowded retailers. (Velez’s Bandcamp page currently numbers 26 releases.) Velez first gained recognition a dozen years ago with blippy disco derivatives for labels like Italians Do It Better, but his output has gradually become more esoteric and inward-looking. He’s still capable of ebullient club tracks, as last year’s excellent Forza attests, but many of his long, undulating machine jams sound like late-night missives to himself.

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Helena Hauff - Qualm Music Album Reviews

The Hamburg musician’s second album is a spartan mix of techno, acid, EBM, and coldwave. Even at her most damaged, Helena Hauff’s take on noise is nothing short of opulent.

High fidelity has never been Helena Hauff’s bag. Once, in what she’s described as her most disastrous DJ experience, an angry clubgoer berated her from the crowd, shouting, “Can’t you hear how fucking shit all your bass drums sound?” But as any fan of Wolf Eyes or Black Flag or the Jesus and Mary Chain could tell you, for many listeners, “fucking shit” is the whole point. And the German DJ and electronic musician has crafted her entire career around precisely that: techno at its nastiest, gnarliest, and most ragged—as bracing as a mouthful of bees or a toaster on the edge of the tub.

The irony is that Hauff’s bedraggled beats are actually exquisitely crafted. Spend some time with her new album on both headphones and a proper sound system and it quickly becomes apparent that cans won’t cut it: Her bass and drums, degraded as they are, cry out for big, fat speakers. This is lo-fi music, made on battered analog gear, and swimming in the sounds of line noise, tape hiss, and tube distortion. But translating all that muck—the spring reverbs, the janky patch bays—requires a hi-fi listening experience. Making those sounds sing calls for speakers capable of pushing serious air. Like a ruined building in a vacant lot, her wreckage needs to breathe.

Qualm is the Hamburg musician’s second album, and it is largely of a piece with everything she has released over the past five years, including 2015’s A Tape, a sort of pre-debut LP collecting early sketches and stragglers, and her proper debut, Discreet Desires, from the same year. Her productions stem from her tastes as she honed them as a resident at her hometown’s Golden Pudel, a notoriously go-for-broke underground club. (DJ Koze told me about the time he jumped from an outdoor staircase onto the roof and fell clean through the ceiling to the dancefloor; the one time I went, I ended up in the emergency room with a gash in my head.) Working largely with hardware instead of computers—classic machines like the Roland Juno-60 synthesizer and TB-303 bass synth—she turns out a whorled mix of techno, acid, EBM, and coldwave with no obvious hallmarks to date it. Most of it could be from any point in the past 30 years.

Hauff has called Qualm “a kind of strong, weird, one-drum-machine-and-one-synthesizer thing,” and that description pretty much nails it. The album is grimy, her coldwave influence has largely burned off to reveal a brutal, incandescent core. At points, she may even be overstating her album’s range: On the opening “Barrow Boot Boys,” it’s not one synth and a drum machine; it’s pretty much just one damn drum machine—a slo-mo blast of hammering kicks, toms, claps, and cymbals, all run through distortion until they crumble like the white crust of a burned-up briquet. “Lifestyle Guru,” which makes use of the same drum sounds and adds searing acid squelch, is more agile and less corroded but just as grimly focused. Unlike a lot of grayscale techno, though, Hauff’s tracks are also lots of fun (no surprise that she cites the Stooges as a teenage fave). There’s a real knuckle-dragging sense of abandon in her music; this is primal stuff, its alarm-bell buzz designed to trigger the same fight-or-flight instincts that have been bubbling through our collective blood since long before homo erectus got wise.

It’s not all so hardcore; some tracks are more like mood pieces. “btdr-revisited” is a three-minute fugue for bleeps and claps that careens like colliding space debris, and a few cuts are purely ambient fantasias or chiming studies in counterpoint. Others, though, are proper journeys. “The Smell of Suds and Steel,” an eight-minute 303 workout, bangs incessantly away at a barely varied drum pattern, yet coming out the other side still feels like emerging from some kind of dancefloor wormhole with your atoms subtly rearranged. The same goes for “Hyper-Intelligent Genetically Enriched Cyborg”: Acid might be dance music’s most done-to-death subgenre, yet she still manages to find something fresh in a mix of textures that’s evocative of gargling thumbtacks and diamonds. Even at her most damaged, Hauff’s take on noise is nothing short of opulent, and it’s that alternatingly grating and sparkling attention to detail that makes Qualm so exciting. What might at first sound retro turns out to be simply timeless.

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