There’s never really been dub techno like this.
The anonymous Seattle project Topdown Dialectic makes eight-track, 40-minute albums of spidery, loose-limbed dub techno, packaged in formidable gray sleeves that basically show us a box inside a box. Each track is five minutes long, a decision that accomplishes three things. It gives the tracklist an aesthetic symmetry to go with its cover. It implies these tracks could go on forever and that five minutes is an arbitrary constraint. And it allows us to develop enough of an idea of what five minutes feels like that four minutes or so in we get excited for the track to fade out so we can hear what’s next.
There’s never really been dub techno like this. The closest analog might be the music Vladislav Delay started making in the late 2000s: albums like Vantaa and Kuopio, which were only occasionally ambient and always restless, their aqueous substance perpetually being shifted and stirred by loud, sudden metallic noises that dominate the percussive stratum rather than your usual kicks and hi-hats. It’s hi-def and diurnal, the kind of music you could listen to on a balmy day rather than saving for proper dub techno weather—which is cloudy skies and, if you can find it, fog.
Most of what can be said about Topdown’s second album Vol. 2 can be said about their first, last year’s Vol. 1, though this one distinguishes itself through what sounds like snatches of voice. The percussion on “A2” (of course the tracks are untitled) sounds like someone whispering, and there’s a moaning, bluesy sample deep in “B1” that resembles the distant snatch of Robert Johnson on Coil’s “Theme from the Gay Man’s Guide to Safer Sex.” “A4” sounds like a vaporwave track, and the gated snare crash that runs through the song is the album’s most familiar sound.
But this doesn’t make the music sound any more human. In fact, the extent to which humans are even involved in Topdown’s music is unclear, and there’s a good chance this music is made at least in part algorithmically. The idea of music that creates itself is a little worrying to me, but I’m not sure it matters in dub techno, whose best examples are often the songs that change the least and could’ve been made in the shortest amount of time. Would Basic Channel’s genre-defining masterpieces be less worthy were they made with a more hands-off approach?
That said, Topdown is no Basic Channel. Vol. 2 isn’t about very much. It has no spiritual aspect, no sense of something staring at you out of its chords and pads. It’s really the sum of its sounds. And though there’s something admirable about Topdown’s Ramones-like commitment to the one thing they do well, it’s hard not to get the feeling this music would be improved if it broke out of its own confines and drifted a little longer in space so we could get lost in it. Topdown tracks are like specimens in a lab, sloshing around within the confines of their five-minute jars. What would happen if they were set free?