A Vancouver Electronic-Music Primer
by | August 30, 2012
Today's guest essay for Rhapsody's 2012 Dance-Music Spectacular comes from Resident Advisor staff writer and Vancouver resident Andrew Ryce, who's also contributed to Pitchfork, FACT, Little White Earbuds and such. Enjoy.
Though one of the past decade's most essential techno labels started there, people don't often associate Vancouver with electronic music. And that's understandable, given the city's "no-fun" reputation and strict nightlife laws. But the West Coast outpost has been and is still home to some vibrant characters. The city's location on the very far end of North America means that touring British and European talent is harder to procure than more geographically favorable locations like New York, Montreal or Miami. It's a two-way disadvantage, actually, as Vancouver artists have a tougher time breaking out from the tight local scene; I've always thought that the Rocky Mountains were some sort of musical barrier to the rest of the continent.
Everyone knows -- or should know -- that the Wagon Repair imprint came out of Vancouver, once home to techno giants Mathew Jonson and The Mole, but it wasn't long before most of that crew up and took the techno with them in a massive brain-drain to other climes, a symptom of the city's often-frustrating local politics and obstacles. But they didn't exactly leave behind a vacuum. Vancouver's LiGHTA! crew, for example, has been promoting the city's best bass-wise parties since the mid-2000s, and has grown a crop of worthwhile and promising artists in the process.
Bass music has had a hold on Vancouver since that mass exodus, a grip that remains firm even with house and techno on the rise again. Kode9 played here all the way back in 2005, when dubstep was still unknown to most outside the U.K., and we've always had a preoccupation with dub music, probably attributable to the considerable cannabis culture that permeates the arts community. Despite the relative difficulty in securing international acts, Vancouver has seen most of the important names in bass music pass through. The city's drum 'n' bass scene is small but tightly knit, a passionate core of people that has lasted well over a decade with consistent popular nights, while live music thrives with the Mood Hut group, who throw nights of all-live electronic music. Love Dancing, Leisure, Midnight City and Nordic Trax give the city proper house outlets, and Subversive bring names like Function to their esteemed techno parties.
But it's that aforementioned LiGHTA! crew, along with Kuma's Konspiracy Group, who have provided the city with its most fruitful nights of music, and they're a colorful cast of characters themselves. There's Michael Red, who creates gorgeous ambient as Souns and porous dubstep under his given name. Taal Mala is one of the city's most mercurial and viscerally thrilling DJs, mixing grime, garage and dubstep in with his love of IDM, breakcore and jungle, while Max Ulis -- easily the city's fastest rising star -- is a proponent of pitch-black, stripped-back techno and electro typified by his stunning and frigid remix of local duo Evy Jane's "Ohso." Self Evident is one of the city's most eclectic DJs and has an astounding library of productions that crib from innumerable U.K. traditions, while Calamalka -- a former dub head -- has an astounding live set of crunchy hip-hop that leans on analog gear but hits with a sound-system gut-punch. Meanwhile, HxdB produces the city's most colorful and playful garage music, and duo Daega Sound make techno-savvy dubstep that's as beautiful as it is heavy.
That's a pretty hefty list of names right there, but Vancouver's lacking release infrastructure is another reason why the city's brightest stars often languish in obscurity. Thankfully, that's starting to shift as well. Calgary-based Crude Records has released solid records from LiGHTA!, and Max Ulis started his 10Pin imprint earlier this year. Looming largest is multimedia venture Hybridity, with an already strong release schedule just two discs in.
Hybridity's biggest name is Humans, a Vancouver duo who incorporate guitar, drum machines, synths and live vocals into their set, and who got their start in the indie-rock scene before discovering dance music and evolving from there. Their taut beats hit hard like house, embellished with pop-caliber melodies and scratchy, hoarse vocals that are more sloganeering than lyrical. Also bridging the live/electronic divide are duo Evy Jane, who turn James Blake-style electronics into deeply sensual music, and Meek Odyssey, who incorporate harps and keyboards with angelic vocals for a lighter counterpoint.
These groups are emblematic of Vancouver's growing interest in electronic music from all sectors, creating a fertile field of cross-experimentation that blurs the lines between "DJ" and "live" and is the essence of the city's scene. It contorts and expands the dialogue between bass music and house and everything in between, and Vancouver's relative isolation means these artists are free to come up with their own mongrel hybrids, encouraged by their small but supportive community to be as weird and adventurous as possible. The result is a humble but still thriving scene that's played host to some of dance music's legendary names and some potential future heroes.