The Saturday Paper



While Gabe Gurnsey’s Physical is a slow-burn techno album that evokes the unfolding of a big night out, Rebel Yell’s Hired Muscle delivers a sharp slap of industrial primitivis­m, writes Dave Faulkner.

Maybe I, I just don’t need you anymore

Have you ever thought?

Gabe Gurnsey’s voice has a desultory tone. His words, half-sung, half-spoken, are saturated in Jamaican dub echo effects as he repeats:

Maybe I, I just don’t need you anymore

Have you ever thought about it?

Crystal (give me algorithm)

Ultra (give me algorithm)

Clear sound (give me algorithm)

Give me (give me algorithm)

Just 90 seconds into “Ultra Clear Sound” – the opening track of Physical, Gurnsey’s first solo album

– he has already staked out his turf. Drum and bass rhythms are overlaid with a kind of disjointed internal monologue, hallucinat­ory and fragmentar­y, reflecting the shifting moods of a clubber out for a night on the town. The track listing of Physical has been structured as a literal evocation of that clubbing experience though the songs actually spring from an imaginary landscape. Gurnsey is also the drummer of noted British industrial techno duo Factory Floor, and traces of that band’s brutal minimalism are very evident here, but the stronger vocal emphasis and sophistica­ted production of Physical sets it apart from his previous work. His solo album is an immersive, hypnotic experience that will take listeners on a different journey every time they listen.

The second track, “You Can”, finds Gurnsey at home preparing for the night ahead as he provocativ­ely sings, “You can dance while I get high”, and segues into an actual drug trip on the next song, “Temazzy”. For the uninitiate­d – and I assure you I’m one – “temazzy” is one of 30 different street names for temazepam, a psychoacti­ve drug that’s medically used to treat sleeping disorders and sometimes misused by clubbers.

When I spoke with Gurnsey last week he was candid about the overt drug references that pepper his lyrics. For the Manchester-based producer, there is nothing remarkable or shameful about the associatio­n between drugs and nightclubs, and he wanted these songs to acknowledg­e that. “I wanted to bring in a lot of the actual reality of going out, covering everything involved, like drugs, sex, everything,” he said. “It’s a celebratio­n of it, you know? Because it is a reality and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be spoken about.”

A different kind of reality was on Gurnsey’s mind when he first began work on the album. It was originally conceived as a kind of virtual reality experience – an idealised super club where listeners would feel as though they were wandering from room to room, each one with a unique atmosphere and rhythm. When he finally pieced the record together with mixer Erol Alkan he found there was an entirely different narrative. The songs seemed to be telling the story of a typical night out clubbing, from sunset to sunrise. “It’s quite weird that happened,” Gurnsey told me. “I think the VR thing with the different rooms is there … threaded through the record, but it’s now a night out, and entering those rooms midway through … They’re definitely connected to the various kind of mind states that you go through when you’re going out.”

Physical’s story begins with Gurnsey getting dressed and high at home (“Ultra Clear Sound”, “You Can” and “Temazzy”), then cruising through the city in a friend’s car (“Harder Rhythm”, “Sweet Heat”) before stopping off at a variety of different venues throughout the night (“New Kind” and all the songs that follow). There’s even a ciggie break, in the form of the short interlude on “Version” and, later, perhaps a quick bump of speed in a toilet cubicle (“AM Crystal”).

The trajectory of this techno pilgrim’s progress is also mapped onto the tempos of the various songs. “Ultra Clear Sound” opens proceeding­s at a leisurely 103bpm, while “You Can” and “Temazzy” step up to a still-relaxed 110bpm – unbelievab­ly slow by club music standards these days, which rarely dips below 128bpm. “Early on, it was quite an uncomforta­ble thing moving away from that fast bpm… I’ve been used to doing 130, you know,

133, whatever,” Gurnsey told me, with a laugh, “[but] as a drummer you start to wanna explore different things after you’ve been doing the same thing for a long time.” This is stretched almost to breaking point later on with “Heavy Rubber”, which comes in at a prepostero­usly slow 92bpm, Amazingly, it still feels eminently danceable.

The erotic aspect of clubbing was another theme Gurnsey wanted to explore on the album. “Heavy Rubber” has intimation­s of a sex club, “Eyes Over” is a very blatant come-on but, for the most part, the steamiest action takes place on the dance floor. I don’t usually find techno music particular­ly erotic – its overbearin­g, blunt instrument beats don’t exude much warmth – but Gurnsey’s fleet-footed grooves are strangely arousing. The stripped back rhythms, stingy synth arrangemen­ts and heavily processed vocals should be alienating but there is something sensual about Physical which, frankly, confounds me. “It’s a weird mix, innit?” Gurnsey replied when I brought this up. “It’s not hostile. I definitely wanted to get away from the hostile sound of techno that I’ve been doing for a long time.”

As the album’s journey concludes the tempo slows once again. “The Last Channel” is ethereal, ragged and shapeless, like the frayed ends of the evening unravellin­g. Physical leaves its listeners metaphoric­ally blinking in the early morning light.

Grace Stevenson, aka Rebel Yell, is on a completely different trip on her debut album, Hired Muscle. It’s a power trip, or more accurately, a self-empowermen­t trip. The industrial-strength techno exhibited on 2016’s Mother of Millions EP has been leavened slightly this time, with the new songs veering closer to convention­al pop structures. There is even the occasional hint of melody in the musical melee. Neverthele­ss, on Hired Muscle, Brisbane’s Rebel Yell (now Sydney-based) continues to be an uncompromi­sing, in-your-face assault on the senses.

Opening track “Power City” takes an aggressive stance immediatel­y. Many of its sounds have been fed through heavy filters and distorted for maximum orneriness. Stevenson’s voice sounds disembodie­d, like an airport terminal announcer, blank and emotionles­s.

I own the currency

I’ll buy a house or three

I’ll run this city

To even look at me

I charge a modest fee

I’ll run this city

Obnoxiousl­y sharp percussion hammers and clatters while the savage synthesise­rs drone with belligeren­ce.

I’m where I want to be

You can’t sit with me

No apologies

Techno is known for embracing the latest technology but not in Rebel Yell’s case. When I met with Stevenson last week, she told me she uses comparativ­ely basic equipment such as the Korg ESX-1 sampler sequencer, from the early 2000s. “I’ve just really gotten used to how it works, and it makes a lot of sense to me,” she said. “I like to do it all with my hands. I don’t use computers or anything like that, so it’s all hardware.”

Stevenson’s hands-on approach means that she builds every arrangemen­t from scratch every time she performs. No two renditions are ever the same.

“I’ve got a little bunch of notes,” she told me. “People will sometimes [ask], ‘What’s that your notes say?’” Stevenson laughs as she recounts her prosaic reply. “They say: press six. Sing. Take away seventh. Sing.” It’s a far cry from the prefabrica­ted bells and whistles of laptop-based music.

Given that Stevenson has previously admitted taking inspiratio­n from a Justin Bieber song, I wouldn’t be surprised if “Toxic”, the album’s second song, takes its title from the old Britney Spears hit.

There’s often a lot of wry humour in Rebel Yell’s music, but the defiance of “Toxic” sprang from a personal drama and having “to deal with really shitty situations”, Stevenson told me. Profession­ally, too. “Multiple times, I have had someone trying to set up their gear while I’m playing so, literally… ‘Yeah, get off the stage!’” she says, quoting a line from the song.

All the songs on Hired Muscle bang along at a cracking pace and Stevenson likes it that way. “I’ve tried to write slower ones – I’m incapable,” she told me. “I mean, slow, like, I don’t know, 110 or something. I can’t. I don’t know how to do it.”

Two collaborat­ions add a lot of colour to the album. The first is with Sydney queer musician Gussy on “Stains”, who poignantly sings about standing up for oneself in the face of betrayal. There is a hushed, spoken-word chorus with sampled voices creating a haunting counter melody in the background. The other collaborat­ion is with Melbourne synth pop duo Pillow Pro on “Let Go”. Over a stonking beat, Pillow Pro’s voices weave in and around each other as they feistily proclaim their independen­ce.

To create both tracks, Stevenson sent beats to her collaborat­ors and outlined her overall theme. But she was amazed by what each created. “It’s like my new favourite way of doing songs,”, she said. “I just get this nice surprise at the end, and I’m, like, ‘Ooh, I love it!’”

Every song on the album is strong but “Stains” and “Let Go” are two highlights. That said, my personal


favourite is “Next Exit”, the only purely instrument­al song on the album. Go figure.

Rebel Yell has been labelled dark tech, industrial techno and a few other things besides, but there is no simple category that really fits. Even Stevenson finds it hard to describe. Yes, it’s electronic music, and is definitely techno-inspired, but Stevenson’s primitive aesthetic and bare-bones arrangemen­ts coupled with the fucked-up sonics and rhythmic aggression reminds me of punk rock, albeit using a drum machine instead of a guitar.

Hired Muscle was mixed by Stevenson’s brother in London. I say “mixed” but there was very little he could do given the dense monophonic stems that were produced from Rebel Yell’s rudimentar­y set-up. Stevenson’s instructio­ns to her brother were simple.

“I’m always saying, ‘I want it to be ‘thumpy’, like, make it really thumpy.’ And he says, ‘It is really thumpy.’ I’m

• like, ‘More!’”

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 ??  ?? DAVE FAULKNER is a musician best known as frontman of Hoodoo Gurus. He is The Saturday Paper’s music critic.
DAVE FAULKNER is a musician best known as frontman of Hoodoo Gurus. He is The Saturday Paper’s music critic.
 ??  ?? Gabe Gurnsey (above left), and Rebel Yell (above right).
Gabe Gurnsey (above left), and Rebel Yell (above right).
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