This debut album from British techno artist James Shaw skips flirting with any of the funky bass music often found on his label Hotflush, and heads straight for the dark heart of Berghain, the Berlin club whose tough, minimalist aesthetic has so dominated early 21st century techno. Largely eschewing any traditional sense of melody, this is a record built on percussion, sub-bass, and intricately detailed sound design, and destined primarily for the dancefloor. The album is split pretty evenly between three types of tracks. There are creepy ambient-industrial soundscapes like opener "Mirror," a dank, grating affair that sounds as though something is alive in the air conditioning; midtempo shufflers like "Ascension," where pattering, brushed snare swings over ghostly, whistling drones, and out-and-out club monsters like "Scene Couple," where a thick, malleable bassline worms its way into your skull as piercing metallic tones phase in and out, or "Puritan," where a thunderous kick drum pounds throughout, while crispy leaves rustle in an insistent wind and distant moans build to a howling, metallic gale. On a number of tracks, the kick drum is tuned to a specific bass tone so that it becomes part of the bassline -- or, in the case of "Translate," literally is the whole bassline. Midpoint interlude "Suspension" has one of the record's few traces of melody, as languid, almost soothing ambient tones lap at the listener before the brutality starts again with "Dressing for Pleasure [Ideal]," whose crashing waves of white noise sound like you're being drowned under a waterfall of static. Several of the tracks repeat the same sequence of eight or so bars with little or no variation for upwards of six minutes; some elements do evolve, but almost imperceptibly, so that one only notices on repeat listens. But to criticize this music for being repetitive, tuneless, or monotonous -- as some have done -- is to completely miss the point; this is music designed to be unstoppable, relentless, hypnotic, and trance-inducing; an aural assault course for the listener. The album's latter half is dominated by this raw dancefloor material, before it closes with one of its best tracks, the chilling "Aokigahara," named for Japan's infamous "suicide forest" where hundreds of people go to take their own lives each year. Seeming at first a respite from all that has gone before, its soothing ambience soon manifests as something more sinister; as crackling static and dissonant bell-like drones swell and mingle, there's a sense you can see out of the corner of your eye the unquiet spirits flitting between the trees. Ultimately, this is a challenging and exhausting album that is not for the faint of heart. While its more minimalist and percussive tracks are perhaps too slight to hold up to intent listening, ultimately that is not their aim. As a dance album, this succeeds with a punch, and then some.
AllMusic Review by John D. Buchanan