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If there’s one thing that electronic music excels at, it’s building (and sometimes dismantling) cities. Techno pioneers such as Juan Atkins superimposed the glittering megacities of Metropolis and Blade Runner onto the reality of post-industrial Detroit. Underworld’s album Dubnobasswithmyheadman was a stream-of-consciousness journey through 1980s Manhattan at night, as seen by a discombobulated Brit with a head full of booze and postmodernism. Burial’s debut reimagined London as a Ballardian drowned world where the only survivors are tower-block pirate radio DJs broadcasting to nobody. There is something about machine music that turns artists into architects.
The 32-year-old British DJ-producer Daniel Avery has seen a lot of cities in the five years since his debut album, Drone Logic. As the premature retirement and tragic death of Avicii have highlighted, a DJ’s life is starkly polarized between the almost spiritual communion of the dance floor and the dislocation and solitude of traveling between gigs. Like most DJs, Avery has spent too much of his life in airports and Ubers, in that blurry state brought about by a perpetually scrambled body clock. Unlike most of them, he has managed to translate this sense of cities in motion into emotionally satisfying music. He says in the press notes that his new album, Song for Alpha, was born on the road, in “those late nights and hazy mornings, finding inspiration beyond the fog.”
Avery recently described himself to Mixmag as “a quiet person in a loud business.” As a teenager in Bournemouth, on the south coast of England, Avery started out DJing post-punk and electroclash. In his twenties he folded those influences into techno under the alias Stopmakingme and became a resident DJ at Fabric, the home of London’s most formidable sound system, receiving co-signs from British techno elders Andrew Weatherall and Erol Alkan, who added Avery to his Phantasy label.
Since Drone Logic, a busy, impactful record which attracted comparisons to Nineties crossover artists like Underworld and the Chemical Brothers, Avery has been moving in a more hypnotic direction. His immersive DJ sets now run for as long as eight hours, and last year he teamed up with Nine Inch Nails touring member Alessandro Cortini on an ambient project. Hence Song for Alpha (perhaps a nod to Alphaville, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 sci-fi noir) is Drone Logic’s negative image: stealthy, minimal, cinematic, and saturated with melancholy. The track titles tend toward decline (“Diminuendo,” “Embers”) or have ominous dystopian undertones (“Citizen/Nowhere,” “TBW17”). Tracks as spacious and poignant as “Slow Fade” invite the hope that (a) there’s a sequel to Blade Runner 2049 and (b) Hans Zimmer is busy.
Song for Alpha may be considerably more muted than its predecessor, but it feels bigger, because Avery has a talent for evoking three-dimensional scale. When Avery was working on “Sensation,” one of the album’s heavier techno cuts, Alkan told him that the vast, engulfing drones needed to be five times louder, so he pushed them to the edge of distortion. “If you close your eyes in the club it sounds like the music is fifty feet tall,” Avery told Interview magazine. “Sensation” feels like standing in the street in a disaster movie, watching a giant tidal wave bear down on you in slow motion. “Diminuendo” collapses in the middle with a dull roar, like a demolished tower block, before snapping back into its metallic groove. Avery’s minimalism makes these moments of rupture all the more powerful: Not much happens until everything does.
An assimilator rather than an innovator, Avery has a shrewd ear for sounds that serve his world-building purposes: Burial’s phantom transmissions, the corroded, water-damaged drones of William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops, the Cold War chill that grips side two of Bowie’s Low. Most notably, in the chattering synthesizers of “Stereo L” and the primitive mechanical breakbeats of “Citizen/Nowhere,” there’s the legacy of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85–92, which built a bridge between rave and ambient, noise and absence, and whose tracklisting resembled a tour guide for a ruined civilization: “Delphium,” “Actium,” “Ageispolis,” “Heliosphan.”
Unlike its predecessor, Song for Alpha features just a single human voice, a breathy sigh that fills all eight seconds of “Endnote,” and its appearance highlights the album’s eerily depopulated atmosphere: a city with nobody home. “Projector” sounds like someone playing a rave riff on a fairground organ after dusk has fallen and everyone else has vanished. The chiming, meditative techno of “Quick Eternity” closes the album with an oscillating, Möbius-loop drone, like a machine that’s been left alone to run itself. While Drone Logic bustled with action, Song for Alpha is the sound of the in-between spaces in Avery’s life, where the mind frays and wanders. He sums up the album as “eyes closed as opposed to hands in the air,” but the best thing about Avery’s deep-dive techno is that it invites you to do both those things at the same time.