Longer than a single but shorter than an album, the EP has long been the preferred medium for releasing electronic music. 2019 proved to no exception to this rule, with some of the year’s most exciting music coming via the format.
MDR’s favourite Extended Play releases from 2019 are as diverse as they are awesome, reflecting the ever increasing diversity found within dance music itself. 2019 saw some immensely creative dance music produced as artists, more so than ever before, challenged a combination of rhythmic, artistic and ultimately dancefloor conventions. From the emotive techno of Clouds’ Sharp Like a Razor, to the subversion of classic rave motifs found on Infrared’s AQXDM, there’s plenty to dive into in our round up of our favourite EPs of the year…
Clouds – Sharp Like a Razor (Headstrong)
Chosen by Jack Charnley (Altered Voltage)
For this there’s a couple that just missed out, being released at the tail end of 2018; Vladimir Dubyshkin – Cheerful Pessimist & Randomer – HS002, which, when combined make up my most played blend of 2019. Honorable mentions also go out to Stenny, Jabes, Yak, Kalli, Stratton, Tape Fear & of course Special Request for their wicked contributions. My EPOTY comes from a label called Headstrong, formed up of Clouds and Randomer. The label serves up highly functional peak time techno, expertly crafted sound design with kicks so fat they’ve put a crack in my wall (no joke).
After teasing the first batch of new material since their 2018 album ‘Heavy The Eclipse’ with clips on their Instagram, they dropped a 90 minute mix of 100% Clouds productions. Only 2 tracks from the mix ended up on the EP, so within 4 months they put out an album, 90 minutes of material + an EP, solid work rate right there.
Each track seems to resonate with me for different reasons, the title track is straight-up made to soundtrack kicking a door in with their riled-up vocals, likewise with ‘Arkhangelsk Nightmare’. ‘Fantazia 2003’ & ‘Another Day’ get you right in the nostalgic feels, but does so viewing it through a razor-sharp, hyper-realistic lens. Bringing a tear to your eye never sounded so good.
The way they’ve managed to tap into these emotions on every track, with no filler in sight, is what makes it my EPOTY. HTID.
Infrared – AQXDM (Houndstooth)
Chosen by Joe Stephenson (Test Press)
A masterful subversion of classic rave motifs, brought into clarity by clever programming and a refined pallet of sound. AQXDM is a collaborative project made up of Aquarian and Deepmash. Their debut EP, ‘Aegis’, provided us with an insight into the hyper-realistic intricacies of AQXDM’s sound without any compromise over effectiveness in a club setting. ‘Infrared’ is a continuation of this idea.
The title track sets a luring, expansive atmosphere. Driving drum sequencing and rising synths tighten the coil of the spring. The kinetic energy stored from the first track transfers over to the second, ‘Tunnel Vision’. This time round there’s a release of tension in the form of a decelerated Amen break. Before this, listeners are adeptly guided down a rabbit hole of syncopated drum patterns and brooding metallic drones as chopped samples of the break are teased in and out; foreshadowing the carnage that awaits at the end of the tunnel.
The flip side features ‘Leisure Techno’, a track which lives up to its name. An enormous break sits comfortably as the backbone of the track whilst stabbing chords form an agitated melody. Horns punch through this unease, rather comically, defining the ‘leisure’ element wholeheartedly. The final track, ‘The Good Old Days Are Tomorrow’ plays off of old jungle affiliated motifs. This track speaks volumes about AQXDM’s sound. It is not simply the recycling of old ideas but the ability to evoke nostalgia using innovative methods that makes their sound so provocative and refreshing.
Kokoroko – Kokoroko (Brownswood)
Chosen by Toby Taylor (MDR Producer & Good For The Soul)
It was Kokoroko’s appearance on We Out Here, last year’s excellent Brownswood compilation that first brought them to my attention. Amongst an all star line-up of the capital’s finest jazz acts, it was the gentle meditativeness of “Abusey Junction” that stole the show, earmarking the group as one to really keep an eye (and an ear) out for.
Their self-titled EP, released in March (also on Brownswood) cements the 8-piece ensemble’s status as one of the most exciting acts currently plying their trade. The EP itself is an intricate fusion of jazz, afro-beat and West African folk, all underpinned by percussionist Onome Ighamre and drummer Ayo Salawu’s deft touches and improvisational flair. Melodies have a tender emotionality to them, as exemplified in (but by no means limited to) “Abusey Junction”. These, backed by infectious interweaving percussive rhythms, create a groove that flows flawlessly throughout the record. The level of musicianship on show is staggering, yet no instrument is ever overbearing as they deftly entwine to create a warm, rich sound.
There’s not a bad track on the record – it’s really hard to pick a favourite because it’s a bloody great EP from start to finish. If pressed I’d probably go for the empowering “Uman”. The track celebrates female positivity (particularly for female POC), doing so in glorious foot-stomping fashion (just listen to that Rhodes glisten… pure bliss!).
I for one am incredibly excited by the news that an album may just be around the corner…
Logos – Fifth Monarchy (Berceuse Heroique)
Chosen by Chris Cooper (Roadside Picnic)
Conceived as an ‘Ode to sound system culture’ (alongside two stellar releases by Pinch and Ossia respectively) Fifth Monarchy sees Logos, real name James Parker, apply the weightless ethos and sci-fi sound design he’s been honing over his last two albums to more conventional dancefloor forms with devastating results.
Over the course of three no-nonsense, precision crafted dancefloor bombs Parker demonstrates his uncanny ability to bend traditional genres into new and exciting shapes. Opening track Eska leads the charge with a high definition take on ’03 era grime. A classic Korg Triton synth line is combined with a heavy yet minimalist drum workout proving the age old axim of less is more.
On the B side the frazzled, free form dub of Ghosting proves the most daring of the three tracks. Sounding like a super heat treated take on late 90s UK steppas (think Abi Shanti, Earthquake etc.) that’s been left out to dry and in the process been warped almost beyond recognition.
However, the stand out track has to be the nervous swagger of Dust. A sparse 2-step rhythm punctured with rasping chords creates a noxious energy until its heavy as lead bass line finally hits to deliver the EP’s coup de grâce. All this is backed with a killer remix of Eska by Bristolian sound system provocateur Ossia. Using a 4×4 rhythm to flip the track on its head, the result is a writhing techno dub monster that is sure to whip any dancefloor into a frenzied mass.
Molinaro – What The Future Was (Apron)
Chosen by Chris Barker (Deep Space Orchestra & Spaced Out)
Molinaro’s 2017 release on Steven Julien’s ever-reliable Apron imprint passed me by at the time, for no reason other than my own unfortunate lack of attention. Thankfully I didn’t make the same mistake when the follow-up was released this year; this EP is an absolute belter from start to finish.
Throughout the six tracks there’s no filler – the mood and style constantly change, but it all hangs together beautifully and manages to be that rare breed of EP that is best listened to in its entirety from the beginning to the end. Highlights are hard to choose: The Pneuma sounds like the mutant result of Lone and Omar S having babies on a space station; Aevea Forest wouldn’t be out of place soundtracking the opening credits to a film depicting some kind of techno Narnia; Entity could well be Dam-Funk and Joe Zawinul locked in a cupboard. Categorisation isn’t easy, in the best possible way of course.
Ultimately, this is an EP that truly deserves to be an EP – it’s not the standard four to six non-descript bangers artlessly bundled together without any context or cohesion. What The Future Was feels like a mini-album and my only regret is that it doesn’t go on for longer.
YAK – Termina (R&S Records)
Chosen by Benny Maths (Black Beacon Sound)
My three favourite EPs of the year all belong to the one artist: Yak. This ridiculously talented young producer has had a phenomenal 2019, with his creative output as both a producer and a DJ seeing him deservedly take his delightfully intricate percussive sound to receptive dancefloors and ears around the globe.
A two track EP on Version, featuring the steady flex of ‘Umbra’ and the woozy clamor of ‘Kaepora’, and the Gerduo EP on Phonica, with four off-kilter, broken beat bubblers, are both boss (you should defo check them out), but it’s the Termina EP on R&S Records that gets the nod as my EP of the year.
As ever with Yak, it’s a varied beast, but from the opener, rave inspired, peak time banger ‘Wide Eyes’, through the introspective gurgles of the darker, simmering ‘Skooma’, past the insistent thrust of the quirky ‘Stampede’, through the clinically beautiful and haunting ‘Termina’ and ending on the smoldering jabber of ‘Spore’, this is an arresting EP that has five tracks that’ll ensure you return to it again and again. Sensational stuff!
Jumping Back Slash – Animals (Club Yeke)
Chosen by George Maund (Cartier 4 Everyone)
In a year that found the South African thrum and churn of Gqom incorporated into mainstream pop production (hear DJ Lag’s track ‘Power’ for Beyoncé on the Lion King), the perfectly prolific Wigan-born, Jo’burg-based beat-maker Jumping Back Slash first appeared on the C4E radar with his Ggqom Bhengz mix five years back. (In case you’re unfamiliar: gqom comes out of deep kwaito house, SA hip-hop and first gen dubstep – that aforementioned 40min mix is still well worth dipping into for an intro to this [in]tense club music.)
Fast forward to now, and JBS is putting out records on Tash LC’s label Club Yeke, with the EP ‘Animals’ properly feeling as though the artist has poured every drop of those 60-plus months of experience and expertise into 7 songs that show where Gqom’s from and where it can go. Syncopated, tuned kick drum patterns flap out sub-bass notes on opener ‘Bhengfeelz’, with clave patterns and snare shuffles and a stylistic signature birdsong setting the tone for a soaring, processed vocal that could be an autotuned call to prayer. Elsewhere, guest MC Morena Leraba peppers two mid-way cuts with a Lesotho-rooted triplet flow, anchoring the pair to sound distinctly of that region and its traditions.
‘Blunt Blades’ provides the pumping close-out moment with an unavoidably large grimey lead line taking care of the low end, ensuring chaos in any front-left crowd moment. Dense party material blooms into gorgeously melancholic synth chords as we’re lead off the dancefloor and out into nature. Rich and varied and detailed and full of promise as to what internet-based cross-pollination of genre and skillz can offer in our mostly-online age. Not scary, unless you want it to be!
~~~ – Ana Roxanne (Leaving Records)
Chosen by Nina Franklin (Lupini & MDR Station Manager)
When this record was released in March, I doubled down and called it for my EP of the year on the spot. My opinion has not moved. In a two-year run-in where ‘ambient’ has entered back into the dance music vernacular ~~~ has stood the test against 2019’s stew of lukewarm droney bois.
By way of elucidation, Ana Roxanne is an intersex Southeast Asian musician based in L.A, coming from a background of devotional choral practices as a child, and later trained in classical Hindustani singing. The EP itself makes total sense in the context of Ana’s life trajectory. The sound is cathedraline, expansive, deceptively simple and utterly spiked with a clearly practical understanding of transcendence.
~~~ is compiled from what could be an eye-rolling list of everything we’ve come to fetishise in an ambient release (vintage Moog, delay-drenched vocals, overdubbed speeches about existential mathematics, field recordings of the ocean, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera) and yet it feels utterly balanced.
It is, instead, everything you could want from said ambient record; entirely transportive, warm, mutant enough to maintain constant interest, delivered with sensitivity and altogether beautiful. This EP has soundtracked my meditations, my Sunday afternoon meals shared with friends, my lonely midnight cigarettes, my empty club warm-up sets, my radio shows and several solemn stomps around a frosty park. I can only implore you to sample one or more of these uses for yourself.