The most interesting dance music right now isn’t coming from house and techno; it’s happening in the margins, where producers are unafraid to fuck up a steady groove every now and then. Where mainstream house and techno (and their standard-issue “underground” variants) are concerned with getting everything just right—the right EQ on the drums, the right compression on the bass, the right number of bars leading up to the climax—the really interesting stuff right now takes its pleasure from getting the right things deliciously wrong.
The UK label Don’t Be Afraid is helping lead this charge leftward. Even its clubbiest records are wobbly and moth-eaten, and with artists like Karen Gwyer, one of its most unpredictable talents, it has blazed new trails into the unknown. The debut album from the Berlin producer rRoxymore continues that trajectory: The French-born artist has spent the past decade crafting an increasingly idiosyncratic take on classic club styles, wrapping unvarnished drum machines in analog squelch and treating dance music’s most cherished rules with blithe disregard. Her early single “Wheel of Fortune” slows precipitously halfway through, threatening to derail any DJ who might be attempting to mix the record. On Face to Phase, she gives her experimental tendencies free rein.
Face to Phase is still plenty forceful, and even danceable in places: “Passages,” which kicks the album into full gear following a dreamy ambient intro, wields its broken rhythm with serious strength, its burly kick drums landing like blows to the sternum; “Forward Flamingo,” which follows, boasts the kind of skulking, mysterious groove you could imagine hearing from a Lena Willikens set. Throughout, the music has all the hallmarks of sci-fi intrigue—shimmering Detroit pads, eerie chromatic progressions, Theremin-like tremolo squeals—with none of the self-consciously retro affect that’s customary in electronic music. The label says that most of the album was produced “in the box”—that is, primarily on the computer. So while it may sometimes sound analog, she’s clearly not much concerned with repeating old glories.
Even at its most powerful, the music seems less interested in forward motion than in carving out space for exploration—the freedom to try out a knotty drum groove or an unusually iridescent palette—and then move on without looking back. By track four, “Energy Points,” which drizzles soft marimbas over irradiated background noise, dance music’s touchstones are beginning to dissolve. “Someone Else’s Memory” hints at the shakuhachi intro of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” before launching into a stern, industrial march and then dropping the beat out just as abruptly, as though led by an absent-minded drum major. By the closing “What’s the Plan,” the slow-motion beats have succumbed to fatal enervation, stumbling and falling back into the glistening ooze.
That might not sound like it’s supposed to be exciting, but it is; not many artists are this willing to short-circuit dancefloor function in the service of more idiosyncratic ends. It all adds up to an unusually expressive album, one that disregards clubland’s status quo in favor of far more imaginative terrain. The opening track, “Home Is Where the Music Is,” sets out to map that territory: a beatless synthesizer fantasia as tender and moving as a piano ballad, it sounds like old certainties being melted for scrap and turned into something new.