Untold, Black Light Spiral

[Hemlock Recordings]

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Black Light Spiral is the sort of album that gets music critics salivating. Not to peel the curtain back too far, but it shouldn’t be all that difficult to ascertain why. The debut full-length from London’s Jack Dunning is just that, a debut. An artist’s first release is meant to be a mission statement, a means of informing the uninformed of intent. The issue with that definition as it pertains to Untold is that many keen to electronic music are already well-versed in his wares. He’s been around. As the head of Hemlock Recordings, Dunning has been producing and promoting cutting edge dance music since 2008. But the Untold of that year hardly resembles the Untold of Black Light Spiral. And therein lies the lust: few things tickle a journo’s fancy more than charting evolution, and Untold is currently operating as a mangled-spine specter of his former self.

This isn’t a dig, nor is it unheralded. Not to harp on the over-documented trajectory of bass music during that six year period, but Hemlock’s history as it relates to the grand-scale shift is too rich to forgo commenting on. Difficult to envision now, but before maturing into a mopey sad sack and musical mouthpiece to New York, James Blake had a single single out via Hemlock, the transparently warbling “Air & Lack Thereof.” Even further, Cosmin TRG once made clawing, low-end-driven tracks like “Tower Block”; now it’s boisterous big room stuff. Hell, Ramadanman doesn’t even have the same name anymore. Larger point looming, the stanchions of bass have moved on — many to more recognizable pastures.

Aside from a knack for breaking intrepid artists, Hemlock’s other choice attribute is its proclivity for weird. So while some of the above mentioned have jumped to more commercialized locales to better suit their normative adjustments, Untold and peers charge on for the cause. It’s why austere oddballs like Joe and Randomer favor the imprint and it’s why Black Light Spiral is seeing release there. Given his diplomatic track record, he likely could’ve outsourced the release to any number of labels. But Hemlock is the house that Untold built, a house currently sporting decayed walls, a graying lawn, and a deceptively pristine welcome mat. Inside, the album plays on a loop.

As mentioned, the debut differs from Dunning’s early output. The lazy trope proclaims he was making bass music, but is currently making techno. It’s not necessarily wrong, but somewhat a disservice to the maligned magnitude of his current output. Just as his bass music was frayed and demented and never reminiscent of that of his contemporaries, his techno is likewise unkempt. It’s rarely linear and it’s rarely driven by anything resembling a 4/4 beat. Instead, momentum is dictated by police sirens (“5 Wheels”), turbine huffs (“Drop It On The One”), and cleaved dancehall snippets (“Sing A Love Song”), each writhing on top of increasingly nuclear scraps of lacerated drum bursts. And those are merely the first three tracks, laying groundwork for a dread-soaked 40 minutes that plays as one of the more morose albums in recent memory.

From that opening trio, Dunning drops the bottom out. “Doubles” is a sunken-chest heartbeat accentuated by cozened buildups, a harsh reminder that he’s operating on his terms here. And “Wet Wool” further forces the listener down the sewer pipe, reversing loops through lumbering synapse shocks. Some levity appears to arrive during the opening moments of “Strange Dreams” before the upticked drums are given a run through the meat grinder and heaped into a pile of soppingly distorted waste. Brutish, it’s the most unnerving selection amongst the lot, the audio equivalent of reaching the light at the end of a tunnel before having a pile of rocks dumped on your head. The closing coda of “Hobthrush” and “Ion” build on that jolted drum programming, pulverizing everything in sight and closing the effort amid the chaos, never offering the slightest gleam of reprieve.

Reportedly recorded over the course of a single July week in 2013, Black Light Spiral is a remarkable feat of squalor — the sort of stuff that would lead one to contemplate Dunning’s well-being during the creation process. Recent anarchistic reference points include the likes of Powell and Demdike Stare’s Test Pressing series. But neither has made the effort to machinate their wares into the full-length format, crafting something that grinds with quite the sustained ferocity of this album. Some will scramble to replicate the effort, but knowing Dunning, he’s likely already onto his next phase.

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