Orphx: an Extended Review

Orphx

Driving west from Detroit to Chicago or east to Toronto, you see a lot of the same thing: the vast stretches of land, empty but tamed by decades of economic activity; the uniform developments of gas stations, convenient stores, and fast food establishments; the struggling small towns; the occasional mid-sized to sprawling post-industrial city. Radio and cell phone towers arise in the distance and pass by, only to be replaced in the field of view by an agricultural storage container or perhaps a dormant or ruined reminder of the former manufacturing economy.  If you want music and art and dancing from and for the place you live, you might have to look for it. You might have to make it.

This landscape, the upper rust belt, was and arguably still is the homeworld of techno. Certainly Berlin has distinguished itself as the real capital of techno since the wall came down, but it was precisely the resonance between Berlin and Detroit as cities of ruined modernity that allowed techno to take up residence there and as, Altstadt Echo’s recent article A Night out in Brooklyn made clear, Detroit remains techno’s imaginary capital for many in Berlin (as just one interesting example, check out Kathrin Kuhn’s art on the Detroit-Berlin techno connection). Panning back from Detroit, we see this whole landscape of the upper rust belt, techno’s real and imaginary homeworld. And from its eastern reaches, from what is arguably Canada’s portion of this region–the stretch of southern Ontario between Detroit and the Golden Horseshoe of the Toronto-area–comes Orphx, the techno producers whose music is, to my ears, the most tangibly engaged with this landscape.

grainsilo

Sonic Groove’s February 18th release of the Orphx compilation CD The Sonic Groove Releases Pt. 2 brings together the three superb EPs that the Toronto-based producers have released with Sonic Groove since 2012, Hunger Knows No Law, Boundary Conditions, and Sacrifice, and adds to their nine tracks one new original. These three EPs represent some of the best work that Orphx has done. I see them and the album that these two collaborators released in 2011, Radiotherapy, to be a kind of culmination of their sound.

I appreciated the way this compilation gave me the chance to compare these already familiar EPs. It made me aware of their unique qualities while also highlighting the masterful consistency of their sound. The new track too, Hungry Ghosts, is immediately recognizable as Orphx but develops into a shifting structure of rhythmic sound that is markedly distinct from the equally distinct sonic topographies of each of these three EPs.

The ways in which all of Orphx’s work stands out within the broader field of techno music are pronounced. The palette of analog and digital synths and samples, with which Rich Oddie and Christina Sealey work, gives their music a uniquely rich and varied sonic signature. Also making their work unusually recognizable is the way that Oddie and Sealey construct tracks that shift, develop, and change. The tracks have parts or sections, but they aren’t discretely distinct from one another, nor are they divided from one another with conventions like the drum fill or the breakdown and drop. They arise out of and disappear into one another as the tracks seem to follow their own emergent logic. This unusually morphic and shifting structure is the element that most distinguishes Orphx’s work, and, in my opinion, it can be experienced at some of its best in the tracks compiled for this release.

This process of suggestion, anticipation, and realization that I often experience with the music has always intrigued me the most about Orphx. Most other techno gives us more regular repetition and predictable conventions for structuring the different parts of a track. Once an Orphx track gets started, it often suggests to me, rather clearly, certain specific sounds, sonic alterations, additions, or subtractions that seem to emerge from the song’s own internal logic. As the track progresses, the elements shift and the sounds and structural changes that were suggested but not yet present emerge into perception. The track Outcast is a case in point: the way the synth line arrives like an expected transmission at 2:11, the way the fuzzy synth hits at 3:27 and the ragged hihat roll follows, and the way that these new elements of the track come together in a rolling juggernaut of sound. It all sounds like what had to happen in that track–the fulfilment of its inner logic.

I asked Oddie specifically about my perception of their work, and he proposed that it might have something to do with their work process. As he explained it, they generally start with some simple loops but then produce polyrhythmic patterns that change over time in response to what they are hearing, lending the music more of a developmental and often narrative structure. Additionally, Oddie describes how the work in progress will even suggest certain sounds, almost to the point that one imagines hearing them already in the existing patterns. He tries to identify these imaginings and create them in sonic reality. This process of creating sounds that seem to emerge from the track itself mirrors the experience of hearing them emerge, seemingly out of their own necessity. Building on that, I think it’s this experience of feeling involved as a listener in the same creative process from which the music comes that makes Orphx so engaging.

Thus far, I’ve been concentrating on the purely formal characteristics of this music, but intimately bound up with Orphx’s uniquely developmental and emergent sound is the most singular and significant aspect of this variant of techno–the social, cultural, and physical landscape that it conjures up and occupies. While most good techno indexes the more ideal geometries of the mind or of space-time or explores the systematicity and glitches of technological order through a kind of cyborg body-political discourse played out on the dancefloor, Orphx’s music seems to me to be engaged in a critical mapping of the actual and experienced geography from which this music comes–the rust belt. Hamilton, the steel town from which Orphx hails, is both an urban center of southern Ontario’s shrinking manufacturing base and on the edge of the Toronto metro region’s more diverse and successful post-industrial economy. Orphx’s music bridges this industrialized landscape in the process of decay and demolition with the semi-virtual spaces of the technolgically mediated service economy that partially replace the industrial, and it travels through the more vast post-modern spaces that are left desolate between.

desolate

The shared cultural, socio-economic, and physical geography that spans the rust belt has been the space out of which, arguably, most of North America’s most significant contributions to deep techno have come. Especially the I-94/Hwy. 401 corridor linking Detroit, Chicago, and southern Ontario has been the central nervous system along which the innovations that shaped this music have traveled.

Initially facilitating the transculturation of Detroit’s techno and Chicago’s house music, club, and party cultures through the eighties, the highway to the east also invited innovators from across the international border to take up the language of techno in the early nineties and make music from and for the shared socio-economic landscape that arcs across the Great Lakes (see Dan Sicko, Techno Rebels, chapter 5). Added to the sonic landscape were the hard sounds of Chicago industrial, such as from the label Wax Trax!, which infused the techno of the early nineties, recognizably so in the work of Jeff Mills and Richie Hawtin, and solidified the techno vernacular of rust belt modernism that Orphx speaks with native fluency.

The manner in which the different elements of an Orphx track emerge, morph, and pass by give the music a sense of developing according to the contours and constructs of a real and complex topography rather than conforming to an ideal geometry. One gets the sense of travelling through a landscape, a landscape that is mapped out for us in its many layers–the physical, the ecological, the technological, the cultural, the socio-economic. We hear the vast open spaces of terrain subdued by human activity mostly gone by–the old factory, the industrialized agricultural fields, the gas stations…so many gas stations. We travel through and past the sites of technologically interpolated civilization casting their frantic signals across the great stretches. Everything is in varying states of building up and breaking down. We meet the Hungry Ghosts that are an abiding theme in Orphx’s work, the restless, wanting, and unsatisfied souls who haunt the place. And sometimes we follow along in fascination as a few of them, a few like the two artists who make up Orphx, create majestic sonic landscapes and constructs that project this homeworld into its dystopic and utopic extremes–techno’s real and imaginary homeworld.