Electronic music is not taking Madison by storm, nor is it creating a new scene. This year, it's been grabbing ears and imaginations one at a time. No one group is responsible for this surge in popularity, and the artists don't rally around the same set of musical clichés. They make cheery synth-pop songs, gloomy avant-garde soundscapes and nearly everything in between.
Those who embrace synthesizers, laptops and loops come from all over Madison's musical continuum. Rapper-producer DLO's latest instrumental album, Pempstrumentals V: Space Ghost Sessions, uses more sleek synths than his previous work did, especially on the track "Flux Capacitor." Post-hardcore band the United Sons of Toil recruited DJs and electronic musicians to chop up their songs for the ambitious new remix album Forces of Production.
Much of Madison's electronic exploration can be chalked up to restlessness. For an example, look no further than Marc Claggett's solo project, the Cemetery Improvement Society, which moved to San Diego a few days ago. Despite spending years in local bands such as Middleworld and Butt Funnel, Claggett found he could only write dark, forbidding tunes for TCIS.
"I was actually going to write some happier-sounding dance music under a new name, but I just couldn't do it," says Claggett.
TCIS isn't all doom and gloom, though. It's outgrown its industrial beginnings. Claggett's songwriting on the new album The Scarye Book makes this quite clear. The hooks in opening track "Flammable Nightwear" are accessible, even bubbly, in spite of the album's grim mood.
There's also plenty of eerie atmosphere on Night After, a new EP from Jordan Cohen's solo project Chants. Here, Cohen's beats scuttle and crackle like orchestras of insects rather than thudding joyously like the bass drum he plays in Mama Digdown's Brass Band. On "Caduceus," this rhythmic deconstruction yields warmth, not spookiness, as he transforms wordless vocals into friendly melodies. Dutty Artz, a label co-founded by DJ Rupture, released Night After and will put out a full-length to follow up Chants' 2010 LP, Onlooker.
Problem Child, a duo composed of Lauden Nute and Eric Clausen, is a cheerier bunch. During live sets, they try to overstimulate the audience with strobe lights, fog machines and TVs that play fragments of cheesy thrift-store VHS tapes. One of their key instruments is Synthcart, a newfangled cartridge for an old-school Atari gaming system. It emits dated synth sounds but gives the musicians a surprising amount of control over their beats and melodies. On the new cassette album Ultra, Nute and Clausen offer more than 8-bit chintz. "Champion" and "Miracle Twerker" sport both a pumping beat and sweet, effusive synth parts.
"Happy medium" also describes Samantha Glass' new album, Mysteries from the Palomino Skyliner. Beau Devereaux's keyboards, guitars and distorted vocals might sound fuzzy and tinny on their own, but when he layers them with slow-paced beats, engaging louds and softs emerge, as do the tones of each instrument. The Los Angeles label Not Not Fun released Skyliner and will soon put out the debut album from another Madison act, my friend Joel Shanahan's eclectic electronic project Golden Donna.
Fans of abstract electronica are losing one important act but gaining another. Clay Ruby's project Burial Hex has melded brutal electronic noise with elements of classical music, black metal and more since 2004. Burial Hex shows teem with occultish charisma: Ruby commands the stage with his guttural vocals, wrenches walls of quivering noise from reverb units and extinguishes candles with his fingers. Though this project has been prolific, releasing dozens of albums, cassettes and splits with artists such as Zola Jesus, Ruby says it "was intended to be a finite body of work. I've always called it a 'cycle.'" He expects it to conclude in early 2013 with a three-LP set called Final Mysteries.
In time to ease the loss, Kathleen Baird of veteran avant-folk outfit Spires in the Sunset Rise recently began performing solo as Sapropelic Pycnic. During recent sets at Mickey's Tavern and the Project Lodge, she used a loop pedal to marshal the sounds of vocals, a flute and a Middle Eastern spike fiddle into frenzied, surging masses of song. At an August show in her east-side home, Baird played a synth and sang while a friend read a rambling treatise about Godzilla to the crowd.
"In both Spires and Sapropelic Pycnic, I feel a heavy deconstruction of music going on," she says. "It is becoming more about the process and throwing caution to the wind."