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Stenny - Upsurge Music Album Reviews

Following in the path of his label-mates Skee Mask and the Zenker Brothers, the Italian producer’s debut album continues to provide a loose-limbed counterargument to more rigid strains of techno.

The celebrated techno label Ilian Tape doesn’t actually release all that much techno—at least not in the traditional sense. Founded in 2007 by brothers Dario and Marco Zenker and centered on a small crew of producers, the Munich imprint has always been something of an outlier, a loose-limbed counterargument to the rigid industrial stomp that characterizes so much Berlin techno. For Ilian Tape, broken beats have long been the norm, and in recent years, the label’s path has diverged even further by embracing the sounds of the UK hardcore continuum. Swinging garage rhythms, dubstep bass weight, ’90s rave breaks, brain-rattling jungle—it’s all become part of the Ilian Tape formula.


Few artists have embodied this ethos more than Skee Mask, the longtime Ilian Tape contributor behind beloved, genre-melding albums Shred and Compro. Before last month, only he and the Zenker Brothers had released full-lengths on the label, but they’re now joined by Italian producer Stenny. Part of the Ilian Tape roster since 2012 and based in Munich since 2014, he has been sparing with his output, generally releasing no more than one EP per year.

In 2019, however, he’s upped his game. Back in May, he released Stress Test, an EP whose title track paired skippy 2-step garage with menacing synths and the same sort of thick, syrupy basslines that powered old DMZ records. It’s been one of the year’s biggest tunes. Now, he’s followed that up with Upsurge, his debut album, which includes some similarly sharp club heaters. With its crunchy electro rhythm and seriously brawny bassline, the insistent “Swordfish” is likely the toughest—and best—of the lot, while “BFRB” combines a nimble drum attack with a booming low end that hits like a sledgehammer to the chest. The moody “Psygraph” ramps up the tempo even further, unleashing a fervent jungle beat amid a lingering fog of diaphanous atmospherics, and the drum’n’bass calisthenics continue on “Fast Fade,” its slinky purple melodies shimmering like a sportscar on a moonlit night.

Yet despite this cluster of club-friendly fare, Upsurge frequently operates outside the strict confines of the dancefloor. After years of crafting jagged techno, Stenny has elected to showcase his softer side; large swaths of the record feel notably pensive. Album opener “Water Maze” is a wide-eyed ambient number, its lush environs and colorful synth blossoms tempered by the sound of light rain. Darker but similarly introspective is “Sensitive Habitat,” which keeps its head down as a melancholy drone hovers amid rapid-fire percussion. In contrast, the tranquil “Dew” looks skyward, its twinkling melodies and wafting woodwinds conjuring images of remote Asian monasteries.

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There’s a wondrous quality to Upsurge that frequently harkens back to the clumsily named post-dubstep sound that redefined the UK’s electronic-music landscape a decade ago. With his predilection for dreamily glowing melodies and stuttering rhythms, Stenny does occasionally seem to be channeling the early work of artists like Joy Orbison and Mount Kimbie; a song like “Blind Corners” could easily have been released on Hotflush back in 2010. Yet it would be unfair to describe this warm, delicately textured album as a nostalgia exercise. A big part of what made post-dubstep so exciting was its willingness to experiment; producers raised on garage, dubstep, jungle, and other bass-centric sounds expanded their vision, pulling from house, techno, ambient, R&B, IDM, and whatever else they could find while crafting new, mutant forms of electronic music. Stenny, like the rest of his label-mates, has taken the same hybrid approach, only with techno as a starting point. Ilian Tape’s evolution has been gradual, but few outfits outside of the UK have so constructively engaged with the hardcore continuum without falling into shallow mimicry.

Techno has always been rooted in notions of futurism, yet the music itself has often proven to be rather rigid. As recently as a few years ago, the thought of an artist like Stenny dabbling in drum’n’bass would have seemed almost unthinkable, but now, songs like the playful “Whyrl” and the brooding “Cursed” feel like natural extensions of his sound. Things are changing, and Upsurge is an impressive document of Stenny’s ability to flout genre boundaries while delivering introspective and highly personal music. Slowly but surely, techno is moving into the future—even if it doesn’t necessarily sound like techno anymore.


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