Topdown Dialectic: Vol. 2

Six years after Topdown Dialectic put out their first limited-run cassette, we still know little about them besides what can be gleaned from the crackle and throb of their recordings, which take the facelessness of techno to Vantablack levels of opacity. Anonymity in music is often a ploy, but it can also be a form of world-building, a tactic for letting the work speak for itself. In Topdown Dialectic’s case, it’s tempting to speculate that mystery may be just a byproduct of their process.

Peak Oil, the label behind this LP and its 2018 predecessor, has said only that the music is the result of feeding unidentified audio materials through unspecified procedures. How much human input goes in, we don’t know. Perhaps Topdown Dialectic are attentive sound sculptors, their fingers in constant motion on the controls; perhaps they’re more hands off, akin to a digital dance mom shepherding around her talented AI offspring in the virtual minivan. Doesn’t really matter, because the music is as ceaseless as it is cryptic, a mesmerizing swirl of vapor and grit.

Topdown Dialectic’s aesthetic was already fully formed on that first, self-titled cassette, and it hasn’t really changed much since. All of their output remains untitled, except occasionally by date or catalog number; most of their tracks are exactly five minutes in length. The music is clearly descended from a dub-techno lineage that includes Basic Channel and Vladislav Delay; it contains traces of Vainqueur’s churning pulses, Dettinger’s elliptical loops, and Pole’s white noise. But if most dub techno already sounds like dance music that’s been exposed to bleach and a power sander, Topdown Dialectic’s music is further dissolved, further eroded.

For fans of this style, Vol. 2 is that rare, perfect scenario: It sounds exactly like its predecessor, yet each of its tracks carves out new territory. All of Topdown Dialectic’s music is remarkably similar, and even the most attentive listener might be hard-pressed to tell two of their early tracks apart. But the music grew decidedly heavier on their Peak Oil debut, with beefier drums and denser clouds of fog; Vol. 2 continues that trajectory. With its rippling arpeggios and hard, bright conga thwacks, the opening “A1” summons the most crystalline sound Topdown Dialectic have ever made, and so does the clanking “A2,” its blasts of radiator hiss sculpted and sharpened to a fine point. The sound evokes a zone of confusion between lo-def and hi-def, where the individual grains of static are thrown into vivid relief.

Everywhere you listen, there’s some detail clamoring for your attention. In the drum’n’bass-paced “A3,” it’s a looped voice recalls the pinballing samples of Massive Attack and Mad Professor’s No Protection; in “B1,” a plaintive, wordless vocal permeates the murk like a tendril of memory. There’s a weird, three-dimensional quality at work, reminiscent of holograms or lenticular images, as bits of sound pop out of the mix; the relationship between foreground and background is in constant flux.

For something so dependent on generative processes, Topdown Dialectic’s music is remarkably expressive, and it’s tempting to want to peek behind the curtain at its makers. But I suspect that the who, how, and why aren’t really the point. Topdown Dialectic neither exploit their anonymity nor fetishize obscurantism. Perhaps they simply want to invite us to pay closer attention. We are surrounded by secretive processes; do you really know how your router works—or eyeglasses or gravity or THC, for that matter? Yet we never second-guess their functioning. Beauty is mysterious business too, and perhaps an arbitrary one.

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