If the shady Russian spies from “Stranger Things”’ telekinetic netherworld made electronic pop, it might sound a little like nikolai reptile, Shadowax’s debut EP for Nina Kraviz’s Trip: mysterious, disorienting, and faintly ridiculous. This is a record that dares you to understand it, safe in the knowledge you will never quite get the measure of its shifting sands.
For some, initial confusion may be shaded by the Russian-language vocals, the work of Mirabella Karyanova, whose recordings as Ishome mix ambience, techno, and IDM. But there is something in nikolai reptile’s wonderful whirl of disorientation that goes beyond language into the very timbre of the voice. The chorus of the brilliantly topsy-turvy title track uses the call and response between a somber, apparently male voice and a clipped female tone as its understated but powerfully sticky hook. “What About Me” wrings maximum discomfort out of a ghostly whistle and stuttering vocal effect; “Ochen” is an exercise in the rhythmic potential of the larynx, with vocal samples clipped, layered, and shifted until they spray like hits from a drum.
This vocal manipulation is reminiscent of Shadowax’s previous excursion on Trip, “I Want to Be a Stewardess,” a sulphurous, coiled highlight of the 2018 compilation Don’t Mess With Cupid, ’Cause Cupid Ain’t Stupid. But where that track built to a frenzy of boiling breakbeats, the first three songs on nikolai reptile are marked by an economy that is comparable to the best minimal techno—yet here that precision is compressed into four-minute pop songs rather than stretched paper-thin over k-hole epics.
These three tracks consist of little more than vocals, bass, and drum machine, each element there because it has to be, rather than for unnecessary effect. Such restraint allows the listener to revel in the brilliance of the individual ingredients Karyanova has assembled: the undulating bass tone on “nikolai reptile” that swarms like a cloud of hungry locusts; the shuffling drum pattern and percussive bass echo on “What About Me”; the gulping kick drum on “Ochen.” Each creates its own sublime, if unlikely, hook; each is just the slightest bit silly, like the best pop music should be.
Just as you think you’re getting to grips with nikolai reptile, though, it changes gear abruptly. Closing track “Mortal Talking” sounds like a mischievous clone of 1990s acid trance: all galloping kick drums, clattering snare rushes, sinus-clearing hi-hats, and spiraling TB-303 lines. Dusted with an inkling of Karyanova’s vocal trickery and rhythmic invention, it’s sufficient to suggest the song belongs on the EP even without a clean connection with the other tracks.
Such a radical left turn may come at the expense of the EP’s overall listenability—my fingers tend to hover over the skip button as “Mortal Talking” comes into view—but after “I Want to Be a Stewardess” and 2018’s A & B EP, where Karyanova covered old-school Russian hip-hop in a skeletal tech style, it only enhances the producer’s burgeoning reputation as a mastermind of beautifully erratic moves. Much like “Stranger Things” itself, nikolai reptile is a brew of unlikely individual ingredients, but its heart bleeds pure pop.