- The much-loved German artist returns with an uneven second album.
- As a producer, Helena Hauff practices a style of music that's conceptually romantic and sonically anything but. She's a student of the Bunker Records school, the long-running label from the Netherland's West Coast whose artists record raw jam sessions using limited gear. The electronic music scene has a soft spot for these types of artists. It's dance music production at its most quixotic, and the results are sometimes thrilling. "They truly believe that is the ultimate sound," Hauff recently said about Bunker. "It might not have changed in 30 years, but it still sounds more futuristic than anything else." On Qualm, Hauff's second album (if we don't include the extended 2015 release A Tape), she continues to tread this mucky path, showing us both this music's appeal and its limitations.
Hauff is, of course, currently one of dance music's best and most celebrated DJs, known for bringing unfiltered electro, techno and EBM to audiences large and small around the world. Actio Reactio, her 2013 release on Actress's Werkdiscs, seemed to set in motion this dizzying rise, but it's otherwise felt like her success isn't based on the usual correlation between releases and bookings, leaving her free to get weird in the studio.
With Qualm we get the strange but tender melodies that Discreet Desires, Hauff's 2015 album, did so well. "Qualm" and its beat-driven counterpart, "No Qualm," are based on a triumphant synth line that soars both alone and with a tough electro drum pattern underneath it. (You can imagine playing both in sequence as a neat trick in a DJ set.) "Entropy Created You And Me" and "Primordial Sludge" are musically rudimentary but push a similar retro-futuristic button, like old video game soundtracks you haven't thought about in years.
These tracks offer a point of connection that feels far off when the record relies on sheer grunt and attitude. "Barrow Boot Boys," "Lifestyle Guru" and "Fag Butts In The Fire Bucket" are no more than the sum of their distorted parts, churning on the spot with nothing much to say. But, equally, this same approach sometimes conjures a bit of magic: "btdr-revisited" simply threads a modulated synth tone through chattering drums and achieves a druggy form of hypnotism. "Hyper-Intelligent Genetically Enriched Cyborg," meanwhile, makes a good case for developing ideas beyond a first take. A simple arrangement, with a cluster of synths playing off each other, gives things a sense of purpose, especially as a chord blossoms near the track's final chapter. There are less successful versions of this elsewhere: the album closes with a pair of synth-led cuts that never get out of second gear.
It's tempting to roll with the idea that, by its nature, straight-to-tape dance music will come with hits and misses. Sometimes producers catch a wave, sometimes they wipe out. But this theory is quickly rubbished by Hauff's own back catalogue. She's released consistent albums and EPs that said a lot with a little. Qualm achieves the same, but only in moments.
01. Barrow Boot Boys
02. Lifestyle Guru
04. Entropy Created You And Me
05. Fag Butts In The Fire Bucket
06. Hyper-Intelligent Genetically Enriched Cyborg
07. The Smell Of Suds And Steel
08. Primordial Sludge
10. No Qualms
12. It Was All Fields Around Here When I Was A Kid