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Joy Orbison - 81b EP Music Album Reviews

This six-track EP from Peter O’Grady is moodier and more penumbral than anything he’s done before, with a much wider range of tempos and rhythm.

Peter O’Grady has not had the career that most people might have expected from him in the nine years since he turned UK bass music on its ear with a tune called “Hyph Mngo.” Didn’t matter that nobody had any idea what the title meant or what its pitched-up vocal lick was supposed to be saying, if anything: Arriving just when the dubstep scene was getting stale, the song offered an escape route to greener pastures, and fans (plus legions of imitators) eagerly followed in its wake. “Hyph Mngo” exerted massive force on shaping the bass/techno/house hybrids that continue to dominate large swaths of underground dance music, but O’Grady—better known as Joy Orbison, and sometimes simply Joy O—has never made anything like it again.

Instead, he retreated into a world of progressively sterner, murkier beats, many of them released on his tiny labels Doldrums and Hinge Finger. He’s given us plenty of bangers—just see “Ellipsis” or virtually any of the tracks he’s made alongside Boddika for the SunkLo label—but it’s as though, having gone full Icarus on his debut single, he decided to strap on a lead apron and welder’s mask. There’s a heaviness, a sluggishness, to all his subsequent work: Even at their most powerful, his beats often have the feeling, familiar from nightmares, of trying to run but finding the limbs unwilling. And in the past couple of years, his productions have only gotten foggier, more abstracted, and less forthcoming as they’ve come swatting their way through a muggy haze.

It might be surprising to realize that in all this time, O’Grady has yet to release a proper long-player. (The lone entry under the “Albums” tab on Discogs is actually a sprawling DJ mix for the Tokyo streetwear label Cav Empt.) 81b, a six-track EP for his own Toss Portal label, makes for his fullest and most satisfying statement to date. It’s moodier and more penumbral than anything he’s done before, drums glinting like mica amid dark swirls of synth and static.

It’s more versatile, too, with a wider range of tempos and rhythms. Although three tracks lie comfortably within his fleet-footed broken-techno wheelhouse, “COYP” and the title track both fall back to 100 beats per minute. The latter’s a hypnotic, slow-motion house jam that sounds a little like some of Andy Stott’s slow-motion experiments of a few years ago, just flooded with color; the former relaxes into a springy, dembow-flavored groove without going overboard on overt dancehall references. In fact, it’s not very overt about anything: The track consists mainly of scratchy drums and charcoal bass shading, with some iridescent synth pads smeared across the surface. It’s a smart choice of tempo, allowing him to get the most out of his textures without worrying too much about whether or not people are dancing.

Like “Faint” and “Ellipsis,” tunes made instantly recognizable by their striking spoken-word vocal samples, the opening “SEED” uses a short but potent snippet as a calming center of gravity amid shuddering kick drums and needling bleeps. “You’re falling,” intones the voice, reinforcing the vertiginous feel of his lurching groove. It’s a fine track, particularly for the way he teases out the tension across its buildups, breakdowns, and one killer false ending, but it’s also the least surprising cut here. He’s better on “SIN PALTA” and “BELLY,” the tunes where he ventures the furthest afield from his previous work. Last year’s TOSS PORTALEP had a track called “98 Koln” in which, if you squinted, you could hear a callback to Cologne’s Kompakt label (cf. Dettinger, M:I:5) at the end of the 20th century; “BELLY” sounds similarly enamored of classic minimal techno, this time emulating the modular squelch and crystalline hi-hats of Ricardo Villalobos. In its wandering melody and long, undulating groove, it might as well be an homage to Villalobos’ 2004 masterpiece Thé Au Harem D'Archimède.

The most unusual cut of all is “TENNOV6TEEN,” a glowing miniature nestled at the heart of the record. It bubbles along at his habitual 132 beats per minute, but there are no drums, just nervous bass pulses and staccato synth counterpoints that rattle like pebbles in the tide. It’s at once plaintive and stoic: There’s a melancholy undercurrent to the melody but a stone-faced character to the way it just rolls on and on. It marks a major shift from both the ecstatic overdrive of “Hyph Mngo” and the screw-faced swagger of his peak-time anthems. In its refusal to do any of the things dance music is supposed to do, it might be the most true-to-form thing that Joy Orbison has released yet.


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