Monday, 13 October 2014

System Focus: Bridging the Singular Sounds of Lisbon's Underground

My most in-depth System Focus essay yet involved a trip to Lisbon in search of Portugal's electronic underground (click here to read). It focuses mainly on the AVNL and Golden Mist record labels and includes artists such as RAP/RAP/RAP, Old Manual, Marie Dior, Conan Osiris, Lake Haze, Onto Hek, Hajtand, Ana3, Purple and Pedro o Mau. But it also looks at the way influences and genres (kizomba, tarraxo, kuduro) work in the emerging scene, and particularly the role the URL vs IRL relationship plays in connection with global, post-colonial and local forces.

How does a musical community form? What binds it together and keeps it going? Where is the overlap between personal and musical connections? And does it really matter where you're from, or where you're going?...
Golden Mist flyer
Something certainly seemed to be going on in Portugal this year, and it wasn't limited to the new Afro-Portuguese sound either. What I found by chasing hyperlinks until I reached a physical city—unsurprisingly, perhaps—was a curious and unique mixture of URL and IRL. As the above writers couldn't fail to observe, Lisbon's Afro-Portuguese and white communities are highly separated by geography and culture, considerably more so than in London or New York. Where Príncipe and friends had formed a very local scene, albeit one with global roots, the (as it turned out) relatively whiter and wealthier musicians in the network I sought, many of whom had art-school backgrounds, had one foot in the physical necessities and local musics of Portugal, and one foot in global new-music culture. For them, the internet is both thousands of miles away and right next door. This community had almost unconsciously used this duality to develop an unusual and distinctive flavor, one that's now beginning to leave bedrooms and laptops and, perhaps, Portugal altogether...
 Manuel Robim (Old Manual) and Tiago Miranda (Conan Osiris)
Similarly, the name 'AVNL' is a gothy, MNML-ised version of Avenal, a part of town where they all lived as students, and the Bandcamp label formed as an informal platform to put out their different projects and collaborations. Manuel tells me that the three would go "driving around at night in a car, outside the city and it was like fields and endless roads, and we did that listening to contemporary music, and I daresay that's how things started." Cars do seem to crop up repeatedly in the imagery around Tiago R and Manuel's music...

Tiago Rodrigues (RAP/RAP/RAP)
As befits someone whose YouTube avatar is an internet explorer symbol, Tiago R always seems to originate from the information superhighway. Earlier this year, the result of Gonçalo's Facebook message was Killing, one of RAP/RAP/RAP's most comprehensive records to date, a panorama of club tics, console percussion and cosmic stares with a faint luxury theme that could make it platinum beat going lounge. Another album, Matisse Graveyard, appeared on AVNL and was shortly followed by an album of field recordings capturing nocturnal crickets in Viseu. Notably prolific, Tiago R admits that he's "obsessed with making tracks. I'm doing it for me." And it's not just sounds but "the aesthetic—the video, the image. For me the music doesn't work just for itself, it has to be related with an image or a video..."
Manuel Robim (Old Manual). Image by Francisca Tadeu.
At the centre of [Manuel Robim's] sound these days are synths—heavy synths, grand staircases of them, varying in their closeness to club styles such as anthemic house, trance and hardstyle. "I wish I had a house made of synth," he jokes. "I would sleep in a synth bed if I could." He's especially into trance pop from around the turn of the millennium—acts like ATB, whose kitsch status is about due to expire and get remade as an affectionate reference point for underground tastes. Earlier this year, Old Manuel's most comprehensive release, リング ('Ringu'), landed on Aural Sects (one of the labels I interviewed for the second System Focus column) running a gamut of rock-hard synth club styles and exploring Afro-Portuguese rhythms in tracks such as "Pump" and "New Goal..."
 Diogo Lima (Lost Tapes) and Tiago Miranda (Conan Osiris)
Marie Dior has cycled through several kinds of club sounds, including the exploratory, subterranean loops of Minimalist; Repetitive; Slow; Sad; Dance; Music, the hard house of House is Where the Beat Is (again, on Aural Sects) and the deep oceans of "6' 2"." His most unique flavors appear on releases like 0061565377-(F), Encore, Again, Encore, and the baffling Euphrates—works whose contours seem to be generated by unfathomable non-human logics, and yet they gently caress you with anemone tentacles...
Gonçalo Salgado (Lake Haze)
Golden Mist, however, has been dancefloor-focused from the beginning. Gonçalo has produced under the name Lake Haze, releasing EPs of London-flavored grime and garage for Unknown to the Unknown (Force of Nature EP) and inventive techno for One Eyed Jacks (Ruff Cuts EP). He founded Golden Mist as a genreless home for Portuguese and Portugal-based musicians: "I thought [of] the label as a catalogue, a variety of styles, not like a grime label, a house label, a techno label. I wanted to show the world what our artists were and the internet was the tool to communicate to the world." Ironically, by keeping things Portuguese, the label becomes more diverse. And the label's extremely diverse: alongside RAP/RAP/RAP's Killing, Ana3's Street Clamor has exhilarating, high-energy, syncopated house, Onto Hek's Object Oriented Ontology moodily explores lo-fi techno soundscapes, and Hajtand's Electric Boulevard offers three beauties of immaculately composed synthwave. May's Lisbon Underground Catalogue Volume 1 collects a number of other artists, and Shcuro's upcoming Black Mist EP takes on a cybernetic stance...
Cover of Marie Dior's House is Where the Beat Is
I ask the group what they think a Lisbon sound might be, but for them it's largely that of someone else. What they emphasize instead is the diversity of their community—a collective of individual artists rather than one working on a particular sound. "It's very hard to create a movement in Lisbon based on what one guy created," explains Gonçalo. "Not like London, London is a city of movements in electronic music. Lisbon is not as good to create movements, but it's great to create diversity. Everyone is singular, artisans." Tiago M, sat at the end of the table with his long black hair in two braids, agrees. "Our relationship wasn't borne out of musical connections. Our music is really different but it collides on some vortexes that make us common in some way, even if it's not in the hearing sense. Our sameness is that we all do this alone, we do it ourselves."

Cover of Ana3's Street Clamor
Kizomba is like the Afro-Portuguese R&B—slow, sultry, a little cheesy, ubiquitous. Whether exuding from cars or shops, you're never far away from its lolloping charisma. Later that evening, before visiting the city's leading club Lux, Gonçalo, Diogo L and I sit in a gently neon café with tiny cups of Portuguese coffee and glasses of Super Bock beer—apparently most clubbers have decided that drinking in the clubs is too expensive, and hit the streets for hours first instead—and we hear kizomba ballads one after the other, some eliciting an almost embarrassed grin of recognition from the guys...
Cover of Old Manual's リング
Tiago R describes one of his biggest influences as Rom Di Prisco, who wrote hi-tech video game music for titles such as racing game Need For Speed and sci-fi shooter Unreal Tournament over a decade ago. Manuel had mentioned ATB, whose hit "9pm (Till I Come)" provided the intro theme for the PS1 game FIFA Premier League All Stars 1999. It might go some way to explaining the prevalence of sports culture in his and Tiago R's work, and listening again I start to hear RAP/RAP/RAP tracks as disassembled video games playing themselves, and as Old Manual's tracks as garish yet unrepentant celebrations of championship hope and glory...
Cover of RAP/RAP/RAP's Matisse Graveyard
The weather couldn't be more different from that in Lisbon days earlier—the rainiest of rain, beyond a cliché of Britain. Manuel doesn't seem thrilled with the leaky stairs in his Brick Lane digs. I begin to wonder why anyone would want to leave sunny, beautiful, reasonably priced Lisbon, with its small but unique networks of emerging sounds seemingly on the cusp of something, for London's rat race of billionaires and insane rents.But of course the grass is always greener. Portugal's major problem is still the economy... Manuel felt limited in Portugal: "It's important to expand yourself. Portugal is difficult right now to find work and even internships. It's really difficult for them to pay. There aren't a lot of opportunities. Maybe the mentality of Portuguese people in general, it's... I don't wanna say they're closed, it's just different than what I personally need, and lots of people that are going out—we need different things..."

With URL increasingly dominating IRL, and not only the internet itself but the spread of musical style and technologies like video games all over the world, the only vestige of locality might be where a birth certificate was written. The tension lies between where you have come from and where you want to go—I wanted to go to Portugal, and many of the Portuguese wanted to come to London—and it can be difficult to find an artistic curiosity about where you have come from if where you want to go looks so much better, newer, or even just more practical. Or even just different...

'Cute Computer Chaos' (Boiler Room article)

I wrote an article to go with a Boiler Room gig featuring Hudson Mohawke, Oneohtrix Point Never and QT (click here to read). It takes desire as its theme, and excavates some of the history of the contemporary cuteogeddon.

This erupting soundworld is controversial today, blasphemously flaunting its colour and excess against the monochrome lo-fi minimalism of so much electronic music and provoking accusations of infantilism and overfeeding. A decade ago, among the guitars and disco and dubstep, these lands of cute computer chaos seemed scarcely imaginable. Like coal turning into gaudy diamond under immense pressures, these musicians seem to have metamorphosed the ‘twee’ of that decade’s nu-folk and indie, as well as the wry playfulness of its gameboy grime, into the infectiously crazy grin of ‘cute’. Kitsch, you say? Oh, you mumble sweetly along to Casio and gentrify cities with cupcakes? Here’s a lavish synthesiser panorama, glittering with HD twinkle and silky vocals. You like to put a little bit of 8-bit into your dubstep? Here’s a helium hardcore extravaganza blaring with preset simulacra and convulsing towards post-human ecstasy. Be careful what you wish for. Where has this pressure, this ever more lurid escapism come from?
Daniel 'Oneohtrix Point Never' Lopatin in the video for Ford & Lopatin's 'World of Regret'
As well as enjoying this music in itself – intensely, almost to the point of panic – you notice symbols of enjoyment represented within it, now crushed and squeezed into so many objectives of hyperreal desire and compulsive fantasy: soul, swagger, sex, sparkle and sweetness. The underground has spent decades avoiding pop – now it’s out-popping pop, seizing its thrills and simulations and partying with them as hard as possible because tomorrow never really comes.