The problem with them, and by extension with reviewing them, is that they’re compilations. They’re disparate pieces of music presented as a whole. At their best, they work much in the same way as collages do by using these separate parts to create a meaning beyond the sum of those parts. At their worst they’re lost and meandering.
Having said this, if ever there was a label with an aesthetic and vision strong and clear enough to pull such a project together, it would be NON. The prolific and young net label – founded by Cape Town’s Angel-Ho, US-based Chino Amobi and London’s Nkisi – has already been home to a steady release of challenging and varied – yet wholly consistent – music. There has of course been much talk of the lofty ideals and aims of the art they produce. In the end, though, the music itself exists on its own plane and, for the most of this record, the curatorship exhibited is as well defined as that of every other element of their operation.
A perfect example of this is the second track on the compilation: the aptly titled ‘GQOM Originators’ by Durban’s RudeBoyz. Their most recent SoundCloud output has taken the stark GQOM template that they’ve help to define and embellished it with their sense of percussive melody (in a genre that often sees melody as an afterthought). Their best work this year has been lush, dense, even warm, and moving ever towards the more traditional elements of South African house (it doesn’t get better than their brilliant ‘Moriah Walk‘). On this track they do the opposite – doubling down on the colder, less forgiving elements of their trade and moving back towards their more stark roots. It may seem slightly strange in isolation but in this context the move is entirely appropriate.
This song only helps to further ingrain the atmosphere introduced in this tape by 1127 (and online by most of NON’s releases). Its mood is similarly cold and defiant. ‘It Never Drops’ feels like something familiar, but it never quite satisfies as such. It exists beautifully in modern bass music’s uncanny valley, with enough hints to styles like trap to almost make one overlook how strange the record is. In this, it shares a lot with Gaika’s closing track ‘Chrome’; it has all the parts needed to be something much more familiar, but the assembly strives for something more. There is a palpable energy at work, at it weaves its way through the best music on the compilation.
Nkisi’s ‘Collective Self Defence’, for example, is kinetic at every level of granularity. Each minute loop seems charged with momentum, while the overall arrangement of the track belies prediction. It’s dense stuff, but in the moments where some of the layers are peeled back one can almost feel the type of percussive groove found in UK funky and Pretoria house, albeit in fast forward. As good as it is, though, this song acts as an overture to the compilation’s most striking, mesmerizing passage. It comes in the form of the 1-2 punch of Mhysa and N-Prolenta’s more electro-acoustic leaning contributions. The first, ‘Power Cuts’ is underpinned by a steady, throbbing bass sample while everything above it is nebulous. Samples are filtered, time-stretched and processed beyond recognition, until the moments where the producer allows them to rise above the walls of sound to reveal their voices. It has a moving effect. N-Prolenta further advances on this heavily processed approach to deliver work that is all at once abrasive, unmoving and entirely engrossing. The walls of sound it kicks off with are practically alive and white hot with motion, giving way occasionally to synth arpeggiation that wouldn’t sound out of place on Oneohtrix Point Never’s R Plus Seven (if it had any edge). Repeated listens here are a requisite.
“It’s relentlessly forward thinking, inviting analysis while at the same time not needing to be ingratiating in its approach.”
On this record, genre is not even an afterthought. What holds the music together is the air and ethos of it all. It’s relentlessly forward thinking, inviting analysis while at the same time not needing to be ingratiating in its approach. Yes, some stylistic similarities exist here and there (such as the various uses of disembodied vocal parts), but it’s something beyond these that makes the best cuts on this compilation worth their salt. Unfortunately, it is also something that makes the lesser songs on the compilation seem even more static in comparison (such as FAKA’s input). A few moments of ‘Umdidi Oyingcwele’ feel ambling and middle of the road, missing the incisive definition of purpose seen elsewhere, which is a let-down that should be fully expected. This is, after all, a compilation.
On my fifth listen to this record’s vivid core my sound was abruptly cut off by a robot’s voice telling me to “turn left in 100 meters.” I was genuinely taken aback, not by where I was physically at the time, but by how far into the record’s world I had gone. I might have genuinely driven for hours more, repeating these best parts. My only wish is that more of it made me feel this way. In the end though, from a set of artists as widespread in subculture and sound as this, the coherency of purpose is a phenomenon to behold.