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Christoph De Babalon - Hectic Shakes EP Music Album Reviews

The German producer tests the balance of bleak ambience and diamond-tipped breakbeats on an introspective EP that remains true to his own idiosyncratic style.

A faraway foghorn calls out a warning in the first minute of Christoph De Babalon’s new EP, Hectic Shakes. The air is thick with echoes of “Opium,” the veteran German producer’s 15-minute opener to his 1997 opus If You’re Into It, I’m Out of It, which got a fitting reissue last year. Two decades on, he restages its theatrics for a more distracted generation: the dense atmospherics of the five-and-a-half-minute “Harakiri” are intermittently sliced open, spilling jungle’s glistening entrails into the gloom. (The track’s title is another word for seppuku, the Japanese form of ritual suicide by disembowelment.) Back in the late 1990s, when a dozen imported and home-grown permutations of house, trance, and techno ruled the main rooms of many European clubs, jungle and drum ’n’ bass were often viewed as the murkier alternative. In the context of De Babalon’s heavy ambient sound, however, it’s the breaks that let in the light.

Now into his 25th year of releasing records, De Babalon has never made music with the rave in mind. As he explained to his one-time label boss Alec Empire in a 2008 interview, he was influenced by jungle and techno rhythms, “but the atmospheres I wanted to work with come from deep within me. Some sort of melancholical [sic] longing. A sea of tears, a universe of sadness, a romantic apocalypse.” Outside of a long hiatus in the 2000s, De Babalon has released pretty consistently over the years, but as critics have long noted, he has never strayed far from his sonic palette of chaotic breaks and horizonless ambience. That’s not a slight: Some artists paint the same scenic view their whole life, finding deep satisfaction in the shifting of time.

Hectic Shakes might suggest a departure but its arc is familiar. From the perforated despair of “Harakiri,” the four-track EP moves through themes of introversion, thaw, and solace. “Endless Inside” sends synth flares into a sky of white noise before erupting into anxious drum breaks and towering bass. The hi-hats cut through, the crispest feature in a dubbed-out world. Things get even livelier on “Shivers and Shakes,” which has both feet in the ambient drum ’n’ bass world, but it’s the EP’s closer that’s the real scene-stealer. “Raw Mind” sits somewhere between the original Solaris soundtrack and a worn-out copy of Orbital’s “Belfast” in spirit, almost wholly ambient with just two short runs of breaks. The forward motion is palpable and poignant.

“Musically, I am mostly exploring the past,” De Babalon said in 2015. “Generally, I have been trying to make as much music as possible while staying as far away from the music scene as I possibly can.” The producer’s relative self-isolation from the revolving door of the music industry has no doubt contributed to the stalagmite-like growth of his sound. As he quietly created his doom-laced discography, around him others have stepped into the foreground. Fellow German producer DJ Healer, for example, has enjoyed underground success in the last year or two with his own ambient recontextualization of the hardcore continuum, albeit occasionally straying into Enigma territory (incidentally, another German act with a history of cheesy appropriation). What makes Hectic Shakes feel fresh in comparison is its dedication to introspection. In a landscape saturated with well-worn tropes, it’s an artist’s willingness to embrace their own idiosyncrasies—no matter whether the sounds they work with are trending or not—that makes for truly satisfying work. The devil, as they say, is in the details.

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