2011 was the year I discovered Levon Vincent (I think so anyway - it could’ve been late 2010, but let’s not dwell on that). It’s certainly not the year when most people discovered Levon Vincent. But then that’s part of the point of this blog - it’s a space where I can choose to ignore journalistic orthodoxies, one of which dictates that people should discover and discuss music in a measured and linear manner. We are encouraged to foster the myth, in our writing, of there being a uniform route through music which we all take - ‘this is the record that everybody’s talking about’ - when in reality things have never been so fragmented. Sometimes I find it empowering, in a passive aggressive sort of way, to ignore ‘important’ records when everybody else is raving about them. Similarly, it can be nice to trawl trough the waters of the middle-past: the confused wake trailing behind the surging wave of the ‘new’, in which things bob about, waiting to be caught up in the undertow of some retrospectively titled ‘musical movement’ where they can then be archived, picked over and venerated.
It’s one of the (few) benefits of getting involved in music writing just as the last slim possibilities of earning a decent living from it are squeezed out: there’s no real imperative to participate in the rat race, unless you have some burning desire to do so. Why toady up to PRs you don’t like, or give positive reviews to records you’re indifferent about, when your writing is never likely to ascend beyond the status of low-paid hobby? Even if you feel you should try, you can be fairly certain that there’ll be some industrious blogger out there who actively enjoys applying the term ‘networking’ to his interactions with musicians. He will do it better than you. If your writing is too impenetrable, self-indulgent or irrelevant for a wide readership (ahem), you could always just start a personal blog.
I first discovered Levon (he’s become mononymous, which is the sign of true success) through a repress of his first record on the Deconstruct label, 2009’s ‘Invisible Bitchslap’. It’s a record I liked enough to buy (I still play it sometimes), but not a life-changer. An idle Discogs trawl, though, instantly threw up some gems - in particular ‘Solemn Days’. That was my Levon epiphany.
The more music I’m exposed to, the more I find myself becoming aware of an uncomfortable tension which I think all ‘critics’ must experience: between the unspoken acceptance that there is such a thing as objective quality (‘this is a good record’/‘Buble is shit’), and the creeping understanding that, in aesthetics, relativism runs deep. People’s tastes will differ wildly from your own, and they’re not always simply ‘wrong’.
I don’t think either of these perspectives can, or should, win out over the other. The process of opinion-making around music (whether it’s in writing a review or simply deciding whether you like something) involves a balancing act, a tightrope walk between the two: is this record rubbish, or am I missing something which other people are getting? Lean too far one way and you become dogmatic, close-minded: your tastes become territorialised by a narrow set of criteria and preconceptions. You will find that, increasingly, the majority of music doesn’t interest you. You will stop seeking out new things and become disillusioned. You will feel stagnated, and perhaps bored with music. Lurch to the other end of the spectrum, though, and you lose altogether a sense of your own relationship with music. It will always be mediated through the opinions of others as you try to understand what makes something ‘likeable’ by second-guessing the criteria by which your chosen tastemaker(s) are judging - be they the collective actions of a scene, the pronouncements of a magazine or the selections of a particular DJ.
I’ve been in both of these positions in the past, and will probably be drawn to one pole or the other at points in the future. The trick lies in finding some kind of equilibrium. Deleuze and Guattari would, I imagine, describe this process as destratifying your tastes; constantly probing the geography of your own likes and dislikes to find escape routes into the beyond - plotting a line of flight away from the familiar towards the unknown. But this destratification should be controlled - strip away the layers of meaning too fast and you lose your orientation completely.
‘Solemn Days’ was just such an escape route for me. Those long, dead synth notes, dropped over the mix like so much lead halfway through the tune, crushing the life out of everything they touch, are like bugle calls from house music’s atavistic past. As with all of Levon’s productions, it’s assembled largely on hardware - something which is almost tangible in the stilted, asymmetrical way it works through its ideas, soupy spring reverbs surfacing and disappearing, synth motifs materialising suddenly or petering out at unexpected junctures. Levon seems to break - or more likely just ignore - any rules you might hold about what makes dance music sound ‘good’. It can be alienating and ugly (give this a spin) as often as it is unexpectedly beautiful. I’m reminded of Ewan Pearson’s description of a recent Caribou track: ‘It sounds like embodied people interacting in real-time with machines and it gives me goosebumps every time I play it.’
Beyond the halfway mark, ‘Solemn Days’ reconfigures around the gentle lapping of that most familiar of dancefloor signifiers, the Berlin dub-techno chord. Levon’s repeated use of this sonic trope seems a bit odd coming from a New York cat - he freely admits that, ‘the dubbiest I’ll get [in my sets] is one of my records...that’s the furthest out I want to go.’ Levon’s deeper excursions bear comparison with the much-bitten Basic Channel formula, but what sets him apart from BC’s legion of sterile Teutonic imitators - and, more generally, the vast majority of producers making house at the moment - goes beyond some vague recourse to the ‘warmth’ or ‘authenticity’ of analogue sound.
Levon has his own criteria, however unknowable they may be to a more standardised conception of house. For example, he’s mentioned structuring tracks according to the golden ratio (I’m certain I’ve read this somewhere online but can’t find it...anyone?), which accounts for some of the more mindfucking breakdowns in his discography. His tracks are often four-square only obliquely, in a way which calls to mind other proponents of hardware like the Analogue Cops: measured 16- or 32-bar structures, and sometimes even the first beat of the bar, can be difficult to pinpoint with any certainty. What these artists share isn’t simply a technology-fetishism (though it might be partly that), but a fundamentally different perspective on the constituent parts of the music. Rather than hearing ‘one-two-three-four’ - the closed, symmetrical rhythmic form from which higher order structures can be built with mathematical consistency, striating the music with regular, predictable patterns of tension and release - they seem to hear ‘one-one-one’: the sheer force of a kickdrum breaking the air, a constantly repeating ‘now’.
Drew Hemment observes and describes this phenomenon in early house music - clearly a predecessor to Levon’s sound - where DJs like Frankie Knuckles would layer a regular 808 kick straight over the mix: ‘the metronomic pulse is transformed into a force of rupture when it is pushed to a limit of sheer, intensive repetition, the mechanistic grid of digital clock time is punctured by an intensity, the succession of abstract instants postponed by the arrival of the present...’ To modern ears (even, or maybe especially, those of a dance music connoisseur), this approach can be destabilising as your internal clock, semi-consciously clocking up 4s, 8s, 16s, measuring out levels of anticipation and reward, is repeatedly subverted by unforeseen structural pitfalls and alien sonics - until it’s forced to narrow its scope down to the most basic building blocks of the music. ‘One-one-one’.
The power of this approach lies in its ability to induce what Hemment calls ‘surface-affect’, a condition whereby ‘nuance and inflection are heard because of a reduction of indeterminacy on another level.’ In other words, ‘what we find here is that the expression of surface is heard not despite a rhythmic simplicity, but because of it. The subordination of time becomes a condition of the textural affect.’ As you learn to zone in on the repeating ‘one’, paring your perception down to the recurring present, your brain is, paradoxically, opened up to the uncanny textures spinning off its surface into synthetic space. In many ways Levon’s production is defined not by his percussion but by the richness and strangeness of the surrounding atmospherics.
When DJing, Levon seems to thrive on this destabilising effect. Sure, he can do ‘deep’ in a more conventional sense. He’s not incapable of seamless blends and the measured pacing with which house and techno crowds are familiar. But his sets often exhibit a taste for chaos. When I saw him play at Corsica Studios earlier this year, a friend summed it up neatly with a single word: ‘twisted’. It was a late slot in the main room, and the soundsystem had been pushed up to crushing volumes. Not only did the bass rattle innards, but snare drums could be felt beating against the skin, disrupting balance organs, making eyeballs jump in their fluid. Levon seemed flighty, shuttling between tempos with only passing concern for a smooth blend. But rather than simply feeling disjointed, the effect was unsettling - scary almost. The hour, the volume and his mixing conspired to make friendly old vocal house tunes sound alien and threatening, and barebones analogue beat workouts seem like the sweatiest shit you’ve ever heard. The bug-eyed morning crowd took it bravely but you could detect signs of angst in their movements. Their faces seemed to say, ‘I thought I knew what house was...?’
Another case in point is his recent Boiler Room set. He keeps things more reigned in (perhaps fearing the righteous condemnation of the chatroom, heh), but still delights in dropping out beats and cutting unpredictably to silence. Filtering is applied chunkily, in a way that demands to be noticed. At points, records are thrown on with a few bars’ introduction, yanking the contour of the set in unexpected directions.
If you look at DJing as a demonstration of the DJ’s power over the music they’re manipulating, then most house and techno mixing these days is a display of complete dominance. Tracks are seamlessly blended. The power of the record is totally subsumed to the will of the DJ. You only need to look at the use of the term ‘DJ tool’ to refer to the most manipulable of tracks to see the widespread acceptance of this aesthetic. Tracks become just that - tools. Perhaps that’s why the shift to digital was so painless in these scenes - digital formats are even more pliable and submissive than their physical counterparts.
Richie Hawtin in his minimal phase is probably the apex of this. He exercises total control over a homogenous pool of tracks (I’m sure I read somewhere that he no longer bothers to listen to individual tracks before playing them, so narrow is the range of possible variability). Don’t get me wrong, as an approach this has a lot of creative potential - but with the infinite power and flexibility of digital DJing software (something which Hawtin has championed), much of this potential has been explored. Constructing a flawless 60 minute mix doesn’t by definition demonstrate any creative nerve any more - the only thing it proves with any certainty is that you’ve got some nice software and a passable MIDI controller.
By contrast, Levon’s sets are a visceral demonstration of the voodoo-like power locked inside an inscrutable black slab of vinyl. He shows a willingness to be ‘dominated’ by the record, to reveal its seams, to allow its distinct dynamic contours to impose themselves on the dancefloor. It’s a genuine demonstration of the singular potency that music seems to wield when tied to a physical form, and a welcome counterpoint to the high-minded, pseudo-moralistic ‘digital sucks’ rhetoric which is often trotted out by deep house purists.
Dave from the excellent MNML SSGS blog recently touched on something similar in this piece on ‘post techno’. He identifies a collection of artists working with older gear, restricting their creative options and eschewing the infinite possibility of digital software, as being closer to the ‘spirit’ of techno: a relationship between man and machine. The music he talks about is fascinating and an education to me, although his thesis is frustratingly half-formed (I guess that’s just my taste for the 3k word quasi-academic treatise coming through). But there’s a parallel with what I’m trying to say here in one important sense: the trappings of this aesthetic may appear ‘retro’, a throwback, but for the artists involved this isn’t an endpoint in itself but a means to achieving a particular goal. As the technological options available to a producer shrink, the significance of each choice made grows in scale. Just as in the soundworld of Levon and others (in particular his NY compatriots Jus Ed and DJ Qu) the singular power of the kickdrum - these days so often denigrated or subjugated to the ‘higher’ imperatives of prescriptive, normative structures - is restored to a position of all-encompassing rupture: the beating heart of a never-ending present.