Ensemble Skalectrik Trainwrekz

[Editions Mego; 2013]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: industrial, ambient, dub, improv
Others: Nick Edwards, Ekoplekz, eMMplekz, EkoClef

When I spoke with Nick Edwards, a.k.a. Ekoplekz, about last year’s remarkable LP, Plekzationz, he indicated a sense of detachment between live creative processes and material output. His analogue improv sessions were laid down in the heat of the moment before being treated and edited as a means of refinement. This made for a sharp and adventurous listen that adhered to the stylistic approaches of previous efforts, but even then, the Bristolian artist designated a chunk of the record, “Part 4: A Pedant’s Progress,” to maintaining a rough and rugged feel; he described it as an “in your face” method for finishing the album off. The resulting sound was scattered and hazardous; the effects were steeped in harsh, industrial tones and idiosyncratic dub references that illustrated the imaginative lengths Edwards was willing to go for his influences — and all this with an indisputable feeling of elation he clearly finds in making music. On his latest outing, those influential boundaries are stretched even further as he builds on analogue experimentation under yet another moniker. Trainwrekz is one of his most excellent offerings to date, and it operates as a vessel for exploring the fringes of electronic improvisation and chance while exposing a pensive and compelling approach to turntablism.

When a musician as prolific as Edwards says he is “dusting off a stack of old LPs” as part of a new recording, there is no immediate telling as to which direction he might be heading. Although his most reputable blog contributed substantially to unraveling the dubstep scene just as it began to spiral, he also maintained an affection for bands such as Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle, acts that remain prominent reference points throughout his work. In addition to that, he has collaborated extensively with Hackney-based trombonist Bass Clef, not to mention the crazed urban poet Baron Mordant, as EkoClef and eMMplekz respectively. Back in November 2012, Ekoplekz pried open the floodgates for Feral Tapes with his outstanding “diseased split” cassette, which featured a track by something called Ensemble Skalectrik. The piece played out as a homage to Italian noise pioneer Maurizio Bianchi, and it propelled Edwards’ admiration for industrial music across a 17-minute assault course of aural carnage — traditional turntablism, this was not. “The Bianachi Code” permitted yet another blistering finish and went well with the highly obscure Snuff Mill Tapes that had previously been dropped on Bandcamp. These were bold moves, and they left a question mark lingering over this most recent project, which arrives as a full-length Ensemble Skalectrik album through Editions Mego.

The label cites Edwards’ display of “extreme performance based electronic music” on Trainwrekz, and that seemingly complements the Snuff Mill Tapes aesthetic, which pitted an eccentric blend of improv techniques up against grating noise. These revelations had me exercising a degree of caution on approach, partly because I found Snuff Mill tricky to engage with, and partly because the artist is so productive in his own personification of musique concrète/dub/industrial music, which makes keeping track of any creative shifts a strenuous feat. It was also noted that his most recent LP exemplified the meager efforts of “a man at play with his machines,” lacking any particular direction or consistency, which I find difficult to comprehend. There remains little doubt that making music is something Edwards enjoys, and as odd as his quips about killing grey squirrels might appear, he can’t be masochistic enough to continue adding to his thoughtful and daring catalog without deriving sincere pleasure from it. Regardless, Trainwrekz exists as a tactile assertion of that very coherence otherwise deemed as absent — despite the sporadic name change — and the album sounds absolutely incredible. Not only has Edwards upped the ante in crafting a smooth and textured production, but on his debut as Ensemble, he has taken on a fresh format and reinforced the atmospheric strengths brought to the fore on Plekzationz.

An interesting place to start is at the very end of the record, on “Wrecksikz (for Louis Johnstone),” where Edwards takes his sound to an entirely different realm altogether. Editions Mego describes the work as “ornithological,” which is basically another way of saying there are bird patches laced throughout the body of this splendid little number. It’s a huge leap for Edwards, in that it combines a soft, euphonious synth pattern with delicate vocal samples and volucrine chirping. Even though there are hints of a deep, bassy resonance towards the mid-section of the track, it remains fragile and melodic, if not a tad creepy, and a fine display of how the musician has taken steps to further refine his output through stylistic development. It also embodies an excellent example of the production heights he is capable of reaching, where even the finest of clicks and grooves in the vinyl are picked up and presented here, just as they are on the tracks that precede it. Indeed, the mood of this piece allows for a dazzling contrast to the contorted meandering of “The Bianachi Code,” the twisted tropics of “Sootcliff Eggend,” or even the rest of the album, which still manages to maintain admiration for the echoic bass sections and industrial clangs of earlier offerings. But this time it’s conducted in a manner that is wonderfully well mastered and a perfect instance of our artist conjuring the mystical entity that makes each of his records so enjoyable: atmosphere.

This is accomplished by building on a number of layers that allow for sonic backdrops to pull in and out of focus, while additional sequencing is processed through splitter cables into multiple channels. On “Wreckfore,” the effect is both eerie and intense, where maniacal glitches are carved across high-pitched tones surrounded by a jarring synth that loops and weaves throughout. As an improv piece, the structure consists solely of whatever premise the artist had in mind at the time of choosing his technical setup and sample material; in this case, it relies heavily on repetition. The results are breathtaking, though I found that intrinsic level of severity diminishes somewhat when playing the music back through headphones; despite the meticulous detail within, the final product is that much more powerful when played through loud speakers, when it fills the room with its fearsome aura. Those sporadic glitches and laser-beam flashes prove equally as punishing on “Wreckfree,” which retreads some of the older Ekoplekz territory through dubby motifs and crushed vocal samples, highlighting an enthusiasm for the tunes that led him to begin writing music in the first place.

Edwards’ approach to turntabalism is seemingly void of expectation, where he allows himself to be guided by sounds that appear intuitively as opposed to asserting a determined route. This is a rather risky business, because these pieces lack any distinctive strategy in their initial formation, but they also permit the calculation of divergent stylistic results that are incredibly engrossing, particularly on a track like “Wrecksank,” which builds on bleak loops of delirious vocal samples that many listeners will find undoubtedly challenging: Crumpled low frequencies and unhinged screeches are dragged along the artist’s sonic stream that ultimately test the boundaries of his new angle. There is no doubt that it remains as unsettling as anything on Plekzationz, but it also retains that sense of delight and suspense, and if a twisted aural journey through the mind of the unconscious is what you are after, you would be hard pressed to locate a better entry point. Trainwrekz fully demonstrates Edwards’ desire for adventure and experimentation, which may have provoked mixed reactions in the past, but on this occasion, he manages it with unparalleled tact and an exquisite production program, which he surely had a bloody good time executing.

Links: Ensemble Skalectrik - Editions Mego

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