- Wraetlic is the latest project from Scottish producer Alex Smoke, and only the second pseudonym he's ever used, after the one-off Quixote project from 2006. This is more significant than it might seem: Smoke has long been a bright and adventurous techno producer, but he's rarely felt the need to shelter any of his more leftfield work with an alias. This means that Wraetlic is really different, the product of a fraught battle with both an unspecified illness and his own inability to make something that wasn't, in his own words, "shitty tech house." So what did he end up writing? A ground-up analogue reconstruction of the kind of fiercely antisocial music cherished by the likes of Minimal Wave.
Wraetlic is old Saxon for "wraithlike," a name that perfectly lays out his mission here: ghostly rattles that crawl underneath your skin and induce chilly goosebumps. The music is heaven for analogue fetishists: every brittle bassline has monstrous low-end, every foil drum hit cracks determinedly, though they crib signifiers from the tinniest of lo-fi synth music. But whenever his own vocals come in, there's something missing. It's not that he's a bad singer; his thin voice can hold his noir-ish tunes, and his scaly baritone suits the tracks to a tee. It's just that more often than not, his singing is more like mumbling. As physically powerful as the instrumentals are, they need more to drive them than apathetic mush-mouth. Almost every track is left feeling slightly unfinished and just a little underwhelming.
There are highlights, of course. Opener "Anothering" is promising, laying down sheets of prickly arpeggios underneath his Bowie-esque vocals, but the feeling of a hesitant intro never really leaves for the next 11 songs. The weepy "Skinflint" is like Seventeen Seconds-era Cure rendered by machines, while "Hymn to the Departed" represents Wraetlic at its most funereal, and it wears the corpse paint well. "Rats" shows where Smoke could go with his new mission with a little more elbow grease: his voice is still mostly unintelligible, but it's eerily processed. Twinned with his own chipmunked voice and harsh bursts of static, it's like prime Nine Inch Nails pared down to raw bone.
While Wraetlic is clearly meant to be a move away from techno, the few tantalizing glimpses of techno here are like nagging "what ifs." "Better The Devil" pulses with the genre's unmistakable chrome glisten. As if to fill out the album's scant sub-40 minute runtime, three remixes are tacked on after the closer. One is a thumping SCB rework of "Rats," one a trippy dubstep ride by dBridge, and best of all, a refix of "Scunner" by label boss Jon Convex. In beefing up the track's appendages but keeping its throbbing core of hybrid goth-electro, he offers a glimpse at how powerful the project could have been with some fleshing out. But as it is, Wraetlic has the lingering feeling of prematurity, offering snatches of brilliance too easily snuffed out by its own tendency to hide its features in the dark.
04. There Without
07. Hymn to the Departed
08. The Dearth
09. Better the Devil
11. The Watchful Eye
12. Scunner (Jon Convex's Deconstructed Mix)
13. Better The Devil (DBridge's Advocate Mix)
14. Rats (SCB Edit)