As in all major genres of music, dance music’s recorded history features dense, granular fragmentation — in part due to writers and listeners delineating categories and boundaries for its various sounds, and in part due to technological breakthroughs, actual rhythmic and textural variations, and artists’ pure search for novelty. For much of its recorded history, the anchor that grounded most of these subgenres was physical space: techno, for instance, developed out of a specific set of artistic identities working and performing together in Detroit in the late 80s and early 90s. Thug Entrancer’s Death After Life works on the archive that is Chicago’s dance music history, covering everything from early techno roots through acid house and finally juke. But rather than merely display these disparate developments as a pure historian, Denver-based producer Ryan McRyhew blasts these fragments into material for an avant-garde project, disrupting the continuity of rhythm to reveal the electronic dance landscape in its hypnotic futurism and its sinister beauty.
Continuity and repetition form two central tools for electronic dance music, and it’s precisely these tools that McRyhew most skillfully manipulates. But he flips them inside out: instead of continuous, repetitious melodies and percussion lines, McRyhew often creates discrete, broken phrases, repeating them only on the macro scale of a piece or too immediately in clock-synced echoes. The effect is both jarring and hypnotic in its own right. In Chicago’s history, these tools in their proper usage allowed the dancer to more fully integrate their movements into a rhythm, locking both body and mind into a fixed pattern that assumes the listener into a collective, social consciousness. Death After Life’s constant obstruction of these patterns reveals them as they begin to generate. The body struggles to move, and the mind senses its frustration.
Texturally, Death After Life draws the Chicago source material to excessive conclusions. For instance, acid house’s primary distinction, the squelching TB-303 bassline, features prominently on “Death After Life III,” but McRyhew drives its unique quality back and forth to extremes, transforming it from a subtle rhythmic component to a blast of mix-conquering noise. Handclaps, too, already a bit ridiculous, appear so frequently on “Death After Life V” that they nearly attain the status of applause, fading in and out of an echoing reverb. In effect, he scurries the codes to their logical ends, anticipating a future that pushes the limits of both machine and style, exploring on the way their full range of possibility in each track’s context.
But none of this explains the subtlety of McRyhew’s moves. As his moniker suggests, Death After Life is just as entrancing as its source material. Each break in continuity opens onto a new continuity; each transformation flows into the next zone. McRyhew is both a practitioner and an analyst, and it’s only his strong basis in the fundamentals of the history that allows him to fully integrate his innovations into these already existing structures. And beyond merely displaying McRyhew’s capability, Death After Life incorporates each of these moments of Chicago’s history into a temporary coherence, crystallizing an imaginary future.
In its most beautiful moments, Death After Life still menaces, like the intricate, neon cityscapes of Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void. It reveals the hostile welcome the machine offers us: as tools, equipment like the TB-303 and the TR-808 allow us to give form to imagination, producing beautiful tones and hypnotic rhythms; yet as we engage with them, they infiltrate both our ability to express and our ability to enjoy, organizing the structures of our musics around their technical specificity. Death After Life sees McRyhew straining against the perceived limits of these structures but also revealing their machine-conditioned particularities and their seductive undertow. It ensnares the listening consciousness, simultaneously revealing the trap and pacifying the listener. Perhaps resistance is futile.