Review: Anja Zaube - Sylvan Structures & Thicket

2015-09-14
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Despite growing up in Sydney with blue skies and balmy twenty-degree beach-days in July, my childhood dreams were filled with European winters: with frozen lakes and icicles glistening dangerously before they fell, all images stolen from my picture books. The visceral fear of my recurring nightmares was me running through impenetrable ancient woods, being chased by something sinister as the shadows closed in all around, choking me, taking me deeper and deeper into the forest where the light never shone. In these dreams I was submerged in the foliage, with blank faces staring back from behind the daunting gnarled trunks of ancient trees. To enter these dreams was a journey, to be lost in a maze of undergrowth. It never felt like I would make my way out alive; time stopped in the shadows. These are the images that are recalled involuntarily by the titles of Anja Zaube's evocative first two EPs, Sylvan Structures and Thicket


Those who have listened to her clinically-precise mixes on soundcloud, or have seen her hold the crowd in suspended silence as they let themselves be taken on a sublime journey by her DJ sets at ://about blank or Berghain, will expect a lot from Anja Zaube's first recordings. Prior to these EPs, one single track was released on the first ://about blank compilation. These new works mark the emergence of a new name in techno. If there is a new Berlin sound after Sandwell District, this music is a part of it.

Sylvan Structures is a showcase of Zaube's brooding style.  A sense of anticipation that pounds like a frightened heart dominates the first track of the EP. Zaube's sophisticated sonic palette takes us far from the familiar sounds of old school drum machines: she uses a broad array of new tones, the unfamiliarity of which makes her sound unique. She keeps her music moving with convoluted dronings and hissings worming their way around the beat in a sinister fashion until we are lost in the tangled paths she opens up through the music. When we are deep in this dreamland, she wraps us close with soft chords, dislocating our sense of time before it starts to get dark. And then, layer by layer, she peels away the structure of the track to show you that the harsh sounds are not so harsh, and the terror you felt wasn't so terrible. This opening track is the best on this release. 

The other tracks deliver too. A2 is a metallic drone destined to blend into disassociated ambient sets. B1 is more of a dance track, with a hard kick drum mired in grainy, drifting chords where Zaube lays her hypnotic touch with the droning sound of organs. B2 is comforting like an amniotic heartbeat. It's easy to imagine the Berlin scenes where these tracks would sound best. There's enough going on in this music to hold your breath to.

***

With its classical structure of a theme and two variations, Thicket is the more coherent of the two recordings (the first release from new label, Nemorous Records). The EP starts abruptly, like walking into a club mid-set. There is no build up to the title track - you are there, running, moving, getting away from your life with a desperate sense of escape. Her sound is truly original.

The title track is littered with precise messiness; scratched sounds that recur, drawing you deeper and deeper into that hole burning in your consciousness. Tinkering bells flicker as the layers get thicker, struggling deeper into this overgrown vacant lot, lost and scratched as Zaube's unwavering rhythm drives through each episode. This is the track to take us away from life and sink us into a darkroom of pleasure.

After "Thicket" is Grebenstein's remix. It is less urgent - more like a re-telling of some primal scene to a therapist. The elements that Zaube uses to explore the darkest places of Berlin techno are recounted in a slower tempo, letting us linger in these deep holes a little longer before the track wakes and sets off again in furious pursuit.

"Branches" is Zaube's pensive reflection on the same elements that Grebenstein drew out of thicket. It is a much slower track, drifting in Doppler effects over a deep rhythmic drumming that is as sparse as the beat in "Thicket" was driving. Everything is disassociated through the droning; we are miles away from the frantic pace in which we started. I've been circling around the same forest, a labyrinthine path that leads me deeper into the spaces I first dreamt about. This is fantastic, hypnotic techno. It has a looseness held in check by Zaube's clever rhythmic articulation. It drifts into some terrifying soundscapes, and intelligently keeps moving through them. These are the same strange, desolate places that she explores in some of her experimental soundcloud mixes.

Anja Zaube is not afraid to go deep into the darkest places in contemporary music. These two EPs will be the first of many releases, I hope, as Zaube continues her original explorations in the avant garde fringe of experimental electronic music, bringing back the best of it and giving it to us in a danceable form in her sets and in her recordings. This is techno to get lost in. Let her take you into the woods.