Alex Smoke

By Benjamin Lehmann

Soma have been quietly modernizing of late, and so far this year their output has been exceptional, with the wonderful Robag Wruhme and Wignomy Bros. mix of This World already hard to find since its release last month. Their first artist album of ’05 comes courtesy of Alex Smoke, the man behind the massive Chica Wappa single of last year. Hyperbolic rumours about the quality of this album have been flying around for some time now, and ‘proven tastemaker’ Damian Lazarus has just drafted him in for a remix of Andrei Kraml’s Safari on Crosstown Rebels.

Incommunicado is the latest attempt to craft a minimal techno album which can feasibly exist in the living room. Tempting as it is to make a half-hearted jibe at the death of clubbing, and to point out why that makes albums like this so apt, nobody ever really knows what is dying or in the process of resurrection until years after the event. Nevertheless, as more dance music lovers are introduced by their idols to the joys of instrumental/band music, so their appetite for musicality grows. On this front Alex Smoke excels. The flamenco guitar which features on 6am is accompanied by detailed harmonies and clear production, riding on a crisp electro break. Great care is taken to balance the electronic and acoustic sounds, such that they seem to occupy the same acoustic space and respond to one another in meaningful patterns. As an accomplished cellist, it must come as no surprise that strings and pads are among Smoke’s fortes. The brilliant Passing Through features a highly realistic string section, the parts convincingly orchestrated and well written. Its intricate arrangement of clicks and pops makes it the most rhythmically interesting piece, and the album’s strongest. No Consequence and Don’t See the Point are eerie, beautiful works which build rich chord sequences out of minimal percussive elements and airy electro riffs. The influence of Ricardo Villalobos and Matthew Dear is most obvious on these tracks. The heavily processed vocals on the latter are interesting, if a little lacking in conviction. A more revealing and pertinent point of reference for the album is the ‘95-‘98 drum and bass of labels like Metalheadz and Good Looking, which features in the metallic dub of Jah Future and the heavy hoover-bass of Brian’s Lung. If Brian’s lung sounds anything like this we should all beg him to stop smoking.

Alex Smoke’s debut is an exciting, and at times entrancing record. It encourages us to look at techno again as a highly expressive genre, and to enjoy the intricacies of the careful sound design that features at its more minimal moments. It is most successful when it is most experimental, when it addresses acoustic and electronic sounds together and when it layers opposing rhythms and patterns. My only criticism is that it does not fully push the envelope in this direction. Incommunicado deserves to be explored by a wide audience.
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