VA: Underscan Records

Given that compilations invite listeners to speculate on a label's signature sound, the 78-minute Underscan Records collection provides the ultimate opportunity to do so, culling as it does two tracks from each of the label's first six 12-inch and two 10-inch releases. The Berlin-based label (established by Mark Wagner and Ralf Pytlik aka Menu:Exit) mines electronic territory similar in style and robust spirit to that of Spezialmaterial in general and artists like HP Stonji and Traject in particular. Both labels' artists aren't afraid to work analog sounds into their electronic mix but never do so to express a nostalgic desire for the exhumation of eras past. Instead, their vision is thoroughly fresh and contemporary, their focus firmly fixed on the here and now.

Wagner and Pytlik have scored contributions from some of the bigger names in the field, with 10-inchers from Robin Rimbaud aka Scanner (Lost Without Light) and Frank Bretschneider (Party of Two Parts) already available and those from Tonne and Rechenzentrum planned for the future. In “Canton Lathe,” the better of his two pieces, Rimbaud layers seething rattles and signature voice samples over a scurrying, metallic dub base, while the too-long “Backwood” seems standard-issue Scanner (ominous tones floating over percolating beats and voice garbles) by comparison. Bretschneider, known for his extremely deliberate and clinical Raster-Noton constructions, sounds liberated here, with both tracks (the bass-driven broiler “Party of Two Parts” and “And It Comes Out Here” with its swaying scissors rhythms) oozing an African-tinged oomph not typically associated with him.

The other participants are credible if less well-known. Dalezy (Berliner Ronny Engmann, also known as rngmnn) unleashes a relentless attack of dark thrumming throbs in “Face On Mars,” their dramatic portent leavened by crystal glistenings, while “Apparently Infinite” is suitably spacey, its galaxial glimmerings anchored by squelchy beat stutters. Somshit (Japan-based Akira Sawada) favours deep, lurching grooves of Autechrian skitter, with “Illposed Problem,” buoyant sway anchored by bass throbs, making the stronger impression. As “Simple Funk” shows, Gram's (that's Graham Love, not Jan Jelinek aka Gramm) sound is noisy, twisted, and at times abrasive, while Simon Petre's Onethema tracks prefer to meander than settle into straightforward structures.

The strongest Underscan material, though, comes from Menu:Exit whose Profiles and Vool tracks are simply stunning. Profiles' massive “Selection Backspace” begins (I believe) with a young Kyle Machlachlan voice sample lifted from David Lynch's Dune and then slams into crunchier territory, with oscillating synth lines draped over blazing beat splatter. With its glistening analog melodies and Scythian slivers, the dreamy “Set Locator” is more relaxed. “Vool” and “Cherslic” are equally strong, the flamenco-tinged former all mournful melodies and snapping beats, the latter crunchy funk.

An outstanding collection, then but there's only one problem: the comp isn't a formal release but a label sampler, and so isn't available for public consumption. However, as all sixteen tracks are pulled from the label's collection of EP releases, the music's readily available if in a different format than the one described here. As a start, the Profiles and Vool discs sound indispensable to these ears, while the Bretschneider and Scanner outings seem like natural and worthy additions to the artists' discographies.

February 2005