Helena Hauff: Qualm

Helena Hauff: Qualm

One of 2018’s most bombastic and memorable dance music releases.

Helena Hauff: Qualm

4 / 5

The lead singles from Helena Hauff’s new album (the title track and “No Qualms”) were an odd teaser towards the final product. By itself, “Qualm” suggested that the German DJ had abandoned her techno-leaning roots in favor of industrial synthesizer music. “No Qualms” flips the main melody into a more familiar Hauff-style track, but the music felt like it was restraining something bigger and bolder. The delicate drum programming has a subtle strut to it, and listening to the two tracks together is a great show of Hauff’s skill at making the most out of a little. Still, there’s nothing in either cut that could’ve signaled how explosive and torrential the rest of Qualm ends up being.

Hauff’s music pushes techno to its minimalist extreme, at least in terms of surface-level sonics. The album has a uniformly noisy texture, and rarely does it feel like there are more than three or four competing lines happening at once. “Lifestyle Guru” is mostly built out of a few arpeggiating synthesizer ideas put through some minor variations, but Hauff allows the track to remain interesting across its nearly six-minute runtime through her constant upending of the track’s DNA. There are points where all the bouncing rhythms create a sense of confusion, others where a monstrous four-on-the-floor kick reasserts the primarily body-moving purpose of this music.

This quality of limited construction makes Qualm a record that has seemingly nothing to prove: No look-at-what-I-can-do studio trickery, no overly dense instrumental writing. The music is only as busy as it needs to be, and often that amounts to nothing more than a string of harmonies atop a pounding drum machine. The awe of it all, then, comes from how much diversity Hauff manages to squeeze out of this framework. Never is the album as blatantly aggressive as it is on the opener “Barrow Boot Boys,” and never is it as sinister as on “Fag Butts in the Fire Bucket.” The former is an onslaught of distorted percussion and harsh static, while the latter uses some of the album’s most complicated beats and a series of eerie drones to offer a moment of dank, unsettling music.

There are a few shorter cuts that drastically stand apart, like the noisy ambient excursion “Entropy Created You and Me” or the strange low-end pulses of “Primordial Sludge.” While these tracks are enjoyable on their own and help add some breathing room to Qualm, it’s the longer, more traditionally techno tracks that stand out. “Hyper-Intelligent Genetically Enriched Cyborg” is a maniacal combination of bubbling basslines and gargantuan synths, and it offers an unforeseen moment of ecstasy on a record that often feels unforgivingly bleak.

“The Smell of Suds and Steel,” an eight-minute giant of a track, distills the album’s personality into one fantastic whole. Immediately opening on an oozing, super-distorted bass tone, the energy levels are turned up to a maximum. Not only does Hauff sustain these peaks, but she builds on them towards continually grander heights. Sometimes, music this repetitive can lose its dance-oriented focus and fall into a placid state of soothing loops, but the tracks on Qualm are constantly demanding an alert mind from the listener. Each synth swell on “The Smell of Suds and Steel” adds another layer of tension, and the erratic drum patterns are too punchy to ever lead towards a meditative mindset.

After these, two of the most exhilarating pieces of music Hauff has released to date, Qualm uses its final 20 minutes to slowly ease the listener out of the state of fervor it just induced. The music on the back half features much of the same material as the front, just without the sense of complete recklessness. By the time the sultry “It Was All Fields Around Here When I Was a Kid” rolls around, the same kick drums and jabbing synths that felt so powerful earlier have settled into a relatively laidback mood. Even though this track would still sound obliterative next to more saccharine techno, it feels like the perfect wind-down from one of 2018’s most bombastic and memorable dance music releases.

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