From the depths of Shanghai – a city that looks at night like Blade Runner’s L.A. – emerge the dark, churning, brooding sonorities of Arkaik. This gifted up and comer erupted on the scene in 2012 as the winner of an Octane & DLR remix competition hosted by Dispatch, this EP being his debut release for the label.
He has a very particular style of techstep, very digital in its textures, very sparse in its arrangements yet surgically precise in its subtle edits. His style goes against the grain of very maximalist production values that abound in the scene at the moment and I must it’s a breath of fresh air. Instead of going for the jugular with monstrous bass noises from the likes of Massive and Serum, and pummelling drums that smack you eardrums in, he prefers to tickle our senses with very minimalist, but extremely effective and detail rich sound design.
Throughout the four tunes on the “Shapes” EP, the basses are mostly clean and lightly effected and filtered, but the impact of those changes seems huge because of the minimal approach, like in the second track “Chu Kou”. It is however a bit murkier and more menacing in the opening title track, made in collaboration with Signal. Intentionally or not on the part of the artist, the first two tracks put more emphasis on the bass, whereas the latter two seem to focus more on the rhythms.
Speaking of the devil, the same process is applied in the selection of drum sounds, which are quite dry, short and snappy, but highly dynamic and very sharp in their timbres. The rhythms Arkaik crafts with them might seem simple at the macro level (kick, snare, etc.) but when you dig in you start noticing all the clever manipulations of percussion and all the intricate layers that are playing off each other. A prime example of this is the 3rd track “Steve” which puts a more emphasis on the frenetic percussion work, as well as the last track “No Playing” with its inventive fills.
The atmospheric and other incidental sounds that make up the soundscapes are also sparse, instead of being way too epic-sounding or drowned in reverb and delay, they are allowed to breathe and are well spaced out in the arrangements and do a wonderful job of filling in the cracks with being overbearing. The intros and breakdowns in “Chu Kou” and “Steve” illustrate this quite well.
Aesthetically this EP reminds me quite a bit of Icicle circa the “Under The Ice” album, when he was undoubtedly the king of minimal DnB, but moreso I would say that Arkaik is to Drum & Bass what Monolake is to techno (their earlier pre Ableton output as a duo) or IDM (post Ableton alongside T++ and just Robert Henke solo). Following this thought, we can see how every sound is precisely crafted and meticulously orchestrated into a very specific, tailor-made function, like in Robert Henke’s über-efficient, Bauhaus-like take on electronic music. If you don’t know Bauhaus, in a nutshell they are the German design school that emerged around the 30’s and basically invented modern, minimal design and architecture, where Form Follows Function and this M.O. becomes an art in itself.
Here is an example of Monolake, to better show the analogy:
I’ll stop my analogy here before this turns into the beginning of a college essay, put the technical jargon and dry writing aside and iterate how freakin’ awesome this EP is! I usually listen to, and also produce, DnB with the very maximalist ethos I mentioned in the beginning of this review, so listening to this brought a new perspective on how far the minimalist approach can be pushed in the genre and how terrific it can sound. It also reminded me how good minimal music, like Monolake, can be. You don’t need screaming basses and Koan Sound snares to bring a sense of power to the music; and you don’t need to make your tunes sound like big budget video game or blockbuster music for it to build tension and anticipation and a sense of wonder. Well-made tunes that sound deceptively simple can be quite commanding, especially since they let the sounds breathe and have a lot more dynamics to them.
So, yeah, no more words needed to describe how awesome Arkaik’s “Shapes” EP is, listen for yourself!
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