Available on: Planet Mu LP
As a label, Planet Mu has an impressive knack for following the uneven contours of contemporary taste. A decade ago, that was breakcore and the madcap outer reaches of IDM; in the mid-2000s, many of dubstep’s more extraordinary children found a home on the label; more recently, the imprint has become renowned for bringing Chicago footwork to the wider world, as well as hosting many of the resultant (and inevitable) footwork-inspired hybrids. Second only to its ever-developing identity, though, is Mu’s skill in keeping its eggs in multiple baskets, and the last couple of years have also seen the label make tentative steps into the nebulous DIY underground known, in some quarters, as chillwave. In 2011, Tropics’ Parodia Flare was a slightly unconvincing overture, but this year – through Boxcutter’s new project as The Host, Polysick’s Digital Native and now Konx-Om-Pax’s debut album – Mike Paradinas and co seem finally to have hit their stride.
Konx-Om-Pax is the musical alias of Glaswegian Tom Scholefield, likely better known for this graphics work. His artwork and videos for artists affiliated with Hyperdub, Brainfeeder and Glasgow’s own LuckyMe collective (among others) have played no small part in defining the visual aesthetic of the last few years: bright, synthetic, hyperreal, playful, sensual. With that in mind, Regional Surrealism may come as something of a surprise: if you’re expecting a dozen Hudson Mohawke knock-offs, think again. Instead, Scholefield has assembled a collection of odd, nocturnal jams: not ‘dark’ per se, but arcane and decaying, often obscure in intent, but never less than compelling.
In a sense this is recognisably Scottish music, drawing on the recent tradition of wistful, darkly humorous melancholia best articulated by Boards Of Canada. At points, the parallels are quite concrete – the neatly self-contained melody of closer ‘Let’s Go Swimming’, wombing in its softness, seems to have that bucolic-nostalgic glow about it. Elsewhere, though, what sets Scholefield apart from his forefathers is the magnification of his lens, the tendency to zero in on far smaller sonic objects – as in ‘Twin Portal Redux’, whose opening melodic fragment sounds like a transitional moment from some far larger piece (of Baroque chamber music, perhaps), looped and extrapolated into something deeply ambiguous in tone.
Contextualising his music along national lines, though, doesn’t do justice to the surprising breadth of Scholefield’s expressive range. Yes, there are the woozy, soft-edged synth jams, seeming to hint at a lost utopia hiding somewhere in the murk (‘Intro’, ‘Silent Reading’) – but they sit alongside far more volatile, concrete-ish constructions (‘Lagoon Leisure’, ‘At Home With Mum And Dad’), bedroom pastorales (‘Chambers’) and drier electronic experimentalism (the opening of ‘Hurt Face’). At their best, these tracks flirt with grandiosity, striking a curious balance between the enormous and the intimate, the cavernous and the claustrophobic: ‘Glacier Mountain Descent’, for example, seems to compress all the epic-ness of its titular scenario into a tightly squeezed, crepuscular surface, speaking more of skunk-fugged night-time haze than than the clear vistas of Arctic exploration. ‘Pillars Of Creation’, meanwhile, is a solid, unremitting wall of pulsating synth so densely layered as to lose all definition: heady, forthright, confrontational almost – but still deeply psychedelic, the kind of thing to get lost inside mid-jay, neglected ash dusting your bedsheets.
All this variety implies a slightly flighty M.O., and it’s fair to say that Regional Surrealism feels at points like a collection of sketches rather than a more involved construct. About two thirds of the way through Scholefield digs in for some longer work-outs, with mixed success: ‘Slootering’ stretches its slightly queasy percussive loop out over six minutes, building to a subtle peak before dropping back to a dub-streaked skeleton; ‘Lagoon Leisure’ juxtaposes one of the album’s most challenging passages with one of its most unashamedly redemptive. Generally, though, length isn’t a boon here: the science-doc-on-degraded-VHS arpeggiating synth line of ‘Sura-Tura-Gnosi-Cosi’, for example, shies away from meaningful development, instead (unwisely) reflecting attention onto the hackneyed iconoclasm of Steven Retchard’s monologue (“I am Jesus, I am the lord, I am everything”).
Still, for all its variety, this album succeeds in giving off an impressively unified vibe. Speaking to The Quietus recently, Scholefield described his music-making as a form of relaxation – creative respite from the labour-intensive stresses of 3D animation – and it’s as therapy, rather than as product, that this album makes the most sense. Regional Surrealism will leave you with a sense of the unresolved, but that’s no bad thing: think of it not as a neatly contained expressive statement so much as a window onto a deeply idiosyncratic meditative practice. Give it the right time and space in which to work, and perhaps it will help you meditate too.