I. An architect must simultaneously envision both the horizontal and vertical natures of a proposed structure. The flat floor plan and the erect building that will eventually emerge from it must be integrated with one another, must produce a sort of trans-dimensional contiguity — and, in his or her mind, the architect must fully understand how this feat might be achieved long before ground is broken, even before pencil first touches paper. Certainly, his or her work must also speak to other demands — the specificities of the location, the eventual function of the building itself, the structure’s eventual occupants — but these considerations derive from the architect’s initial idea, from his or her original plan, one that must be based on a novel (and, ideally, an aesthetically and intellectually stimulating) idea about how to relate the horizontal and the vertical.
II. Chicago reaches for the sky. Growing up, I split my time between the northern suburbs and the West and North Sides of the city. Admittedly, I spent more time in the suburbs, a place far removed — in spirit perhaps even more than in location — from the city itself. Still, I would cherish, and still do, any time that I was able to spend in downtown Chicago. There’s a flooring sense of upwardness to the city: in dramatic, aching gestures, the buildings seem to motion from the street level up toward the sky and beyond. Metal and concrete and glass erupt from the ground, bursting into a different realm far, far above. This dramatic divide between the horizontal and the vertical in downtown Chicago thus leads to an unmatched sense of sublimation as one walks the streets. Indeed, the horizontal — the plane that we, as bipedal creatures, feel most firmly rooted in — suddenly breaks into the vertical, and we are left suspended in some sort of dimensional purgatory, feeling as though we ought to ascend upward and yet being tied to the concrete beneath our feet.
III. One can compare the music of Traxman — a.k.a. Chicago footwork producer Cornelius Ferguson — to physical, three-dimensional structures. On his latest album, TEKLIFE Vol. 3: The Architek, Ferguson creates monuments that, while certainly not as clean or graceful as the structures that comprise Chicago’s downtown, adhere to the above principles. From its subtitle to its cover artwork — which depicts the skyline of the Chi ascending into the vertical from an overlain, horizontal grid — this album seems specifically attuned to these issues. Ferguson first lays down flat, regimented foundations for his compositions, usually in the form of percussion; seemingly ever-in-the-red 808 snares, kicks, and hi-hats rifle off in the hyper-quick, uniquely tactile way trademark to footwork. On top of these angular, mechanical grids, Ferguson deposits samples — ranging from disembodied vocals to orchestral music and even to new mantras recorded by members of the Teklife crew — and a variety of synths. The interaction between these elements creates distorted, morphing shapes that seem to rise and fall into contorted vertical structures, aurally perpendicular to the rhythmic, horizontal base of driving percussion.
IV. There is a physicality involved in one’s interaction with any work of architecture. When one places him- or herself in a three-dimensional space, he or she inevitably encounters a variety of stimuli that, whether immediately noticeable or not, have real, quantifiable effects on the body itself. Similarly, the music of Traxman — and, indeed, most of the music that we call footwork — is intrinsically linked to bodily experience. But while Ferguson’s last record, 2012’s Da Mind of Traxman, often seemed to provoke an erotic, sexual response from the human body, The Architek engages with the flesh in a very different sort of way. “Japan,” one of the first songs on the album, made me feel nauseous when I first listened to it. At a loud enough volume, the solo synth line near the end of the song is absolutely disorienting, almost sickening in a thrillingly visceral way. Nothing else on The Architek is quite as openly confrontational (thought the aptly titled “Manic” gets close), but the mixing and compositional structures of almost every song on the record are nearly guaranteed to force a physical reaction from the listener — one track after nearly indistinguishable track, Ferguson isolates two or three samples, turns them up to the point of clipping, and repeats, repeats, repeats them ad infinitum.
V. The link between all of this is as follows: Much like an architect, Traxman builds structures. Unlike most architects, however, he is an artist that thrives on the often problematic juxtaposition — rather than the reconciliation — of the seemingly contradictory elements inherent within these structures. Thus, my suggestion is that, much like in his hometown of Chicago, there is a disconnect between the fundamental components — in this review, the elements that I’ve been metaphorically referring to as the horizontal and the vertical — of Ferguson’s production, an effect that positions the listener in an intense, often physical relationship with the music. On “Hold It,” for example, frenetic drum patterns tug in one direction while a lingering string sample drags in another. During “We Can Go Anywhere,” a relentless, high-pitched synthesizer motif pushes the composition forward, while a leisurely instrumental sample pulls somewhere else entirely. And in almost every song on the album, similarly adversarial relationships are taken to the absolute breaking point by Traxman’s unflinching reliance on the use of sheer volume, low sonic fidelity, and hypnotic repetition.
V-ii. In these ways, TEKLIFE Vol. 3: The Architek explores an entirely different aesthetic spectrum of footwork than the increasingly streamlined, compositionally progressive, and stylistically inclusive works of Traxman-associate and Teklife don DJ Rashad. Making it all the way through this far-too-long album is truly an arduous task — the sheer length of the complete work in combination with its sonic intensity make it extremely difficult to tackle in one sitting while preserving one’s sanity. And yet, there’s a certain attraction to the unwavering rawness of the record. Put simply: it’s impossible not to feel it. It’s impossible not to physically react in some way to this album. Just like the way that the verticality of downtown Chicago completely floors one as he or she walks around the city streets, the constituent elements of this record combine to implicate the listener in a tangible way. With The Architek, then, Traxman has designed a structure that, despite its fundamental flaws and weaknesses, succeeds at fully engaging with the listener’s corporeality — in my assessment, the mark of a true work of architecture.