August 10, 2017

LP: Karen Gwyer - Rembo

Karen Gwyer asserts herself as one of the UK's most exciting producers.

Karen Gwyer uses techno to tell stories. These stories are sometimes from prehistorically ingrained biological functions - Prophase, Metaphase, Anaphase, Telophase - or are sometimes told from a paranoid space of depravity in the modern world. But they always follow a rather direct arch-plot. Gwyer has never shown interest in disintegrating structures that are known to her. She spends more of her energy on determination and vigor, building a ceaselessly energetic and fast-paced body of work that, much like a John Wick character, focuses less on diversification and more on relentless attack. But never, and most certainly not now on her first full-length LP in three years, has this retention of structure kept Gwyer from tuning a craft as progressive and exploratory as it is consistent.

Rembo, released this year on London’s Don’t Be Afraid, breaks Gwyer’s stories into chapter after heart-pounding chapter. Or perhaps level is more the right word there, because Rembo’s arch bears a kind of character: one that must overcome crisis in the existential industrial age time and time again. Question and answer, question and answer, question and answer. Rembo feels at most points frustrated and pissed off, like a teenager asked to make their bed. Even the record states, “It’s Not Worth the Bother.” As the tracks progress, these duets of question/answer tracks reveal themselves as codependent. “The Workers are on Strike,” the album’s panicky first single, unfolds like a tough, gritty techno single should. Its careening, clipping percussion contrasts with the echoing splashes of microhouse, Jelinek-esque rumbles. The track is excellent, although overall claustrophobic, but its punch is amplified many times over once paired with its prologue: the spacious and thoughtful “Why Is There a Long Line in Front of the Factory?”

This chemistry rears its head again on the coupling of “Why Does Your Father Look so Nervous?” / “He’s Been Teaching Me How to Drive,” the first of which is the album’s most brilliant offering. Though it doesn’t drop the record’s fast-paced energy (few moments throughout really do), it scales back the crowded-ness for a delicate composition. The set of three percussive sounds dance and play with each other like an excited street band, almost unaware of punctuation from the blissful, euphoric two notes of synth that chime in ever so many bars. Central to the track is its subtle, building crescendo of background noise that comes in for the song’s midsection. The effect overall is astounding, and again doubly emphasized when it fades into its ripping, flashy counterpart. Again, the strict adherence to a starting conflict, building plot, climax, and closure arch becomes signature of Gwyer’s game on every one of the four sets. The formulaic-yet-gorgeous prose that her music weaves are as subtly strange and unsettling as the tracks’ titles themselves. The contemporary dogma of the “experimental” tag and how it relates to club music demands organic chemistry. Sounds related to the human corpus and a certain level of random, idiosyncratic violence are necessary.

The remarkable thing about Rembo is that it challenges that dogma by turning out experimentation and epistemological critiques through immersion, rather than rejection, of conservative song styles. The stories from inside Rembo come from a place of overwhelmed industry, from a contemporary narrative of someone too flooded with labor possibilities to find any escape from constant motion. The chemistry she works with is not organic. In fact it is rigidly automatic, creating solutions of a cold and calculated nature. It’s a scary story, really, but it’s one that resonates with necessity. Ever since “Hippie Fracca,”  Gwyer has been on the radar as a competent and tasteful music-maker. But with a deeply intriguing and thrilling work like Rembo, Gwyer has asserted herself as one of the UK’s most innovative and exciting electronic producers.

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Listen to Karen Gwyer on soundcloud.

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Elijah Fosl is a freelance music and culture writer who's really bad at describing themselves. They hail from Louisville but live in Chicago where they work, ferociously devouring cassette tapes and local produce. Find them on Twitter at @elifosl