- The Seoul duo's third LP is their most expansive to date, adding a depth of emotion (and shades of techno) to their curious rhythms and whimsical melodies.
- The plonky drums and plucked melodies of Yetsuby and Uman Therma have been bubbling up to a steady simmer over the past year. The duo, who collaborate as Salamanda, have long been staples of the booming Seoul electronic underground, but last year's Sphere felt like a real breakthrough. Like the title suggested, Salamanda's sophomore LP was a self-contained world of stuttering drum programming, warbled synths and strings, detuned and dubbed over downtempo beats. It blotted Rechian minimalism with acid and the sparkly sheen of K-Pop. Their latest album, ashbalkum, is both an extension and a departure. While the LP still has a hint of playfulness, it also feels like their most serious to date, crafted with a hint of melancholy and little accents of dance floor heft.
The big differences on ashbalkum are textural and emotional, not necessarily sonic. There's a nagging feeling of blue. In an interview this year, Yetsuby explained how their music tries to capture the magic of their childhoods: "I wish I could go [back to the fantasy worlds of my childhood], but I have [too much] realistic information now, so it’s really difficult." This oscillation between fantasy and reality is central to ashbalkum. Just as they start to build one of their trademark grooves on "Kiddo Caterpillar," for example, some string crescendos and a player piano melody add a bit of wistfulness to an otherwise joyous song.
The duo wring emotion out of indecipherable vocal samples, looping and contorting them. Vocals mix with swelling strings on "Melting Hazard" to make even the xylophone sound sad. The same is true of "Hard Luck Story '' where the wandering sags behind the sighing voices. Bluest of all are the gated rounds on "Living Hazard." Downright elegiac, the song falls somewhere between Ulla and Imogen Heap (and would work perfectly to soundtrack the inevitable Gen Z reboot of The OC).
In spite of the mood, the duo sound more attuned to dance music than ever before. Yetsuby put out an excellent EP earlier this year that explored drum & bass and house, much more sprightly than Salamanda's downtempo meditations. This is still a downtempo record, but If "Mat Cat Party," a collaboration with Ringo the Cat (who, as far as I can tell is the feline behind this Instagram account) was mixed differently, it could have been released on Timedance. The steely, precise polyrhythms of UK techno are present, though the high-end is probably just a bit too goofy for Batu (thanks to Ringo's mewls). Likewise, "Coconut Warrior and "Overdose" could work in a club setting—the former has a hint of dubstep while the latter is almost dub techno with its loose, bobbing hand drum patterns.
Together and apart, Salamanda have been responsible for bringing international attention to Seoul's experimental music scene. They have an NTS residency, and with collaborators like Yeong Die as Computer Music Club, they showcase local music on Seoul Community Radio and share the decks at clubs like Modeci and Cakeshop. ashbalkum expands their reach even further. Landing on New York label Human Pitch, the LP recontextualizes their sound at a global scale, putting their work in conversation with the likes of Tristan Arp, but also producers like Carmen Villain and Laila Sasiki, who aren't afraid to make experimental electronics sound light and fun. The duo's refracted melodies and rhythms make them a key part of a larger global cohort who are rethinking the fringes of clubland with a welcome sense of humor and whimsy.
02. Melting Hazard
03. Rumble Bumble
04. Mat Cat Party feat. Ringo the Cat
05. Living Hazard
06. Coconut Warrior
07. Hard Luck Story
08. Kiddo Caterpillar
10. Catching Tails