(Modern Love; 2009)
By George Bass | 30 September 2009
Let me tell you how techno pioneers Modern Love are like eighties rock uncles Iron Maiden: they both turn to witchcraft when naming. The medieval Iron Maiden was a kind of spike-filled phone booth used for mutilating hags, and Modern Love—not sounding too ghostly on their own, I know—have had all recent signings name themselves after infamous black spots in Lancashire. Earlier this year saw the debut twelve-inch from newcomers Pendle Coven hill at the centre of the Lancashire witch trials, long since spruced up for the bus route—and now, Miles Whittaker (one half of Pendle Coven/one whole of MLZ) has formed Demdike Stare with vinyl nut Sean Canty (one half of Finders Keepers). So what was a Demdike Stare, I hear you ask? She was a witch put to death at the aforesaid trials, a grandmother hanged with nine allies; she’s also a significant leap into the unknown from Modern Love’s dub comfort zone, incorporating Iranian background music, Arctic winds, King Kong drums, and eye of newt. It’s all guaranteed to unnerve anyone in earshot but also compel them to bob—think Sean & Miles’s Bogus Journey but minus the comedic Reaper. Evil stuff indeed.
Compiled from two vinyl EPs which sold out quicker than functioning iPhones, Symbiosis is probably one of the most interesting, if unlikely, instrumental records you’ll get to enjoy this year (unless you’re used to living in a solitary basement with malevolent pipes for company). Whittaker and Canty—dubplate evangelists and champions of local history—bring a fresh element to the usual Modern Love agenda. Meaning: fright. Now, most casual listeners out there don’t mind the occasional drop of piss shaken out of them, but only a few rogue collectors will gladly lie down for the stuff that turns quiet nights to chlorine. So it’s a good job, Team Demdike, for keeping things coolly regulated, throwing out queasy, pad-happy techno sketches that drip with Middle Eastern static. The pieces of Hell they hide in “Regressor,” for example, are alluring in a Stockholm Syndrome kind of way—hookah fumes and scrambled radio; a hammer writing “K” in Morse code—and certainly show off the depths of the library Canty’s sourced for his fucked-up FX.
Canty’s focus on Iran only blackens the shadows Whittaker’s Lancashire synths help cast; after all, what kind of union could be better made but that between an unforgiving cluster of blurred marshes and a country with nukes in its mountaintops. It’s geography gone wrong, I tell thee, and if you’ve got the same kind of volatile speaker that I have to hear all my shit through, you may want to amp down from time to time as you scrabble your way round the weird parts. Part one, for instance: the abominable breathing on “Suspicious Drone” that sounds like the Devil rolling over. Or the “All Hallows’ Eve” mescaline rush that resurrects your childhood nightmares. By now, though, the Stare’s spell is starting to hook. OK, you can remake The Prisoner if you have to, so long as this CD is the only one that ever gets played on The Island.
Like all good skin-crawlers, Symbiosis is clear-headed and trades popcorn shocks for a sombre, intravenous tension. If you haven’t been bred on nights in the boiler room I’d be surprised if you can have a full listen, not without having to check the front door and come back when things ease up. “Nothing But The Night” bubbles with gypsy warmth—the good kind, that is, the campfires and ponies; none of that arson-to-caravans nastiness—and “Jannisary” opens with a Bhangra molecule that develops into almost a tune (yowsers). The images of ghost stories told in underground generators and walk-to-the-gallows drumming take a back pew for that one, letting you get on with your stoned shuffle without having to look over your shoulder. The Iranian stitching is in full flight here too, decorating programs like Moby did when he first sampled Southern States soul. Not too little, not too much; in fact, if there’s one word to describe Symbiosis it’s brooding. Then comes your electric compensation on the “Ghostly Hardware” finale as wax rumblings pour every bit of everything into another dimension.
But by and large Demdike Stare stay very true to their cloudy roots: exotic things from whispers and ritual, cold winds you gradually numb to. Play it to a veteran coming back from Iraq you’ll kick-start another Coffin Joe moment play it to yourself while walking at night and you’ll feel like you’re out trick-or-treating (the proper kind, where you sneak cigarettes and take turns carrying the air pistol). Just play it, in short. It’s different.