Lena Willikens Phantom Delia [EP]

[Cómeme; 2015]

Styles: techno, post-punk, genres that end in -wave but are not chill
Others: Ben UFO, Ana Helder, Christian S

Lena Willikens is a selector through and through. I don’t say that as a pithy one-liner to demean her debut EP by filtering it through her DJ career, but rather as a reverential way to approach her production output. She exists in a universe parallel to DJs’ DJs like Ben UFO or Bake, able to equally inspire and intimidate with every transition. It’s not just about cratedigging in that sense — a lot of people could find a cool string of tunes by spending an afternoon in a dusty record store — but cratebuilding: the internal logic that ties it all together? When I listen to damn near anything Ben UFO touches, it’s all about subtlety, brushing together different grooves into an impossibly coherent whole; with Bake, it’s audacity, as he jumps from techno straight into 20-minute free-jazz epics. But with Lena, it’s all about the vibe.

Perhaps that’s a dangerous word to wheel out in a time when Mood Hut and the Canadian Riviera seem to have a monopoly on those deep selector vibes, but Lena’s playing an entirely different game. Where the whole city of Vancouver has embarked on a quest to figure out how many different kinds of laidback one can be (current count: 59), Lena’s vibes are far more about paranoia and unease. Live, like at her residency at Düsseldorf’s much-touted Salon Des Amateurs, she’s a firecracker behind the decks, dropping Krautrock bombs and post-punk gems left and right. In some spooky alternate universe, “the magic mushroom shaped vacuum cleaner” of Vessel’s “Red Sex” was the hottest dance cut of 2014, but when Lena hits the decks, if only for a moment, a portal is ripped between that one and ours. On the radio, for her monthly “Sentimental Flashback” show on Radio Cómeme, she uses the home-listening environment to explore everything from Delia Derbyshire (also the inspiration for the name of this EP), to her own interpretation of cosmic disco, to my personal favorite: a “spring fever” session that comes off far more like an uncanny fever dream than anything having to do with spring.

It’s with Willikens’ experience as a DJ in mind that Phantom Delia begins to make sense, for this EP is nothing if not a collection of DJ tools. The trick is that the DJ in question is Lena Willikens. Each track is crafted like a cratedigger’s paradise, hacked together from only the best bits of a certain vision of yesteryear, informed by minimal wave, early electro, Halloween, Can, and malfunctioning electronics. The A-side kicks off with “Howlin Lupus,” an EBM-y tune that wastes no time in firing things off with clattering percussion. The bouncing bass line and stumbling kicks make it the closest thing to a “banger” on the release, but the real star is all the strange breaths, sighs, and howls that ensure only the darkest of dancefloors could stomach the tension. “Noya Noya” and “Mari Ori” are similarly (dis)functional in their relationship to the ‘floor: the former slowly stalks some unsuspecting prey through dark alleys, as it builds toward a noisy, clap-filled climax that could shut down your senses on a proper system; the latter is all jitters and nerves. Sure, they’ll make you dance, but you won’t be happy about it.

The real gems on this EP though are the ones that don’t even aim for the club at all. “Asphalt Kobold” is an odd beast, a snarling dog tragically leashed to a pole. It’s like a party in the Jetsons’ basement, as a blast of electro energy in one channel battles the glassy melodies in the other; but just when things feel like they could take off, George and Jane come down and pull the plug. “Nilpferd” is simply baffling, a queasy, trippy, pulsating bed of synths accompanied by Willikens herself performing a spoken word piece. Since I don’t know a lick of German, I can’t pull any meaning from the words, but that hardly detracts from the intense affect of the vocals. The title track, the final on the release, is cut from the same cloth as the “Nilpferd” instrumental, creepy and beat-less, functioning like the comedown to the bad acid trip that is the whole EP. I’m not sure I’ll ever hear any of these tracks in a club, but hats off to the DJ with the guts to even throw it in the record bag, and doubly so to Willikens for having the guts to make them.

Links: Lena Willikens - Cómeme

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