As any DJ or dancer who grows anxious when the kick drum disappears for an extended period of time can tell you, dance music places extraordinary importance on that steady, predictable pulse. It’s not too great a stretch to compare this to most couples’ focus on each other’s genitals while having sex — it’s what most of us expect to keep the activity interesting. By calling his latest project Sensate Focus, a reference to sexual exercises eschewing the emphasis on genitals and orgasms, Mark Fell seems to call into question what we take for granted in dance music. The first record under this guise overhauls a track the Sheffield-based artist recorded with Terre Thaemlitz for their forthcoming EP, the Complete Spiral EP. While that collaboration has a decidedly “old-school flavor,” as they put it, Sensate Focus finds one half of SND dicing its sounds at an atomic level and remodeling them as 10-minute slates roughly compatible with contemporary UK dance tracks.
Part of what’s striking about this record is that neither side makes concessions to fit into DJs’ sets; and while their arrangements do include troughs, they avoid recognizable builds and peak payoffs. Instead, shifts in unconventional percussion patterns laid out with vintage-sounding drum machines and the slight extension of vocal samples invite listeners to enjoy the tracks from moment to moment, whether following along closely or tuning in or out throughout. The more insouciant “X” lets a voice cooing “love” send ripples through ravishing liquid synth tones, dotted with sprightly progressions and jutting organ chords while the kick flickers in and out of view. “Y” puts the drums through their paces, sending them tumbling down a chasm as the chords form more vigorous stabs, still pooling at dancers’ feet once they land. This side makes exaggerated use of the kick drum, almost teasing audiences for craving it so much. Despite unconventional structures and a nearly sarcastic relationship with kicks, this challenging Sensate Focus 12″ has all the makings of a coveted record for a broad range of DJs and home listeners.