For as long as there's been techno, producers have pondered and imagined visions of the future. Enticed by the 1970s rise of science fiction films and the musical world-building of acts like Kraftwerk, Parliament, and Yellow Magic Orchestra, the pioneering works of Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson set the tone for a sound whose impact is still reverberating some three decades later. Despite existing in alternate versions of the future contemplated by Philip K. Dick and Detroit pioneers alike, there's still artists today adhering to a sort of digital samurai code that honors the sonic past of a genre born of forward-thinking.
Denver's Ryan McRyhew takes his futurist bushido very seriously, something his Thug Entrancer project conveys with its devoted use of tried-and-tested electronic music gear and thematic exploration of dystopian worlds. Under that unique moniker, he released his well-received debut album Death After Life on Oneohtrix Point Never mastermind Daniel Lopatin's Software imprint in 2014. "Everything on that record is like a one-take," he says. "I wasn't really concerned with developing a sound. It was more the practice of making the tracks with the machines."
Now he's back with his follow-up effort, Arcology, another album that relies heavily on hardware at its core. Yet while stylistic touchpoints including juke and footwork were at the forefront of Death After Life, this time around McRyhew used his Roland TR-808 and SH-101, among other equipment. The result is something aesthetically closer to classic techno, albeit often skewing towards beats-per-minute on the speedier side. The acid-informed basslines and snappy rhythms on tracks like "Arrakis" and "Ronin" reach back to Richie Hawtin's early Plus 8 records and the work of the aforementioned Atkins-May-Saunderson triumvirate. "I don't feel out of place, but I don't necessarily think I'm touching on anything nostalgic," he says.
While his gear choices link him to techno's history, he's not composing in some retro bubble. A night at Berghain in Berlin or The Bunker in New York certainly doesn't feel like some stilted throwback to those sweatily dancing the hours away, but chances are likely that a DJ could drop a twenty-year-old Robert Hood or Kenny Larkin track into a set without anyone checking their Apple Watch. Techno remains vital as a contemporary global genre, and Thug Entrancer represents the latest progressive iteration.
One key way in which Arcology proves innovative is in McRyhew's collaboration with Milton Melvin Croissant III, a visual artist who produced a series of videos and stills that gives the music a contextually significant and rather fascinating post-human world. "We had conversations first kind of broadly about what we think about creative things, what it means to be a creative person," says Croissant. "We both kept coming back to sci-fi." He turned their discussions of shared interests into the stylish monochromatic landscapes, objects, and enigmatic characters that populate the album's artwork and corresponding video clips.
Ironically, the duo come at creation from seemingly opposite ends. The improvising musician hunches over his tangible gear, the technically proficient artist uses software to construct virtual 3D animations. Yet, when prompted to discuss the respective methodologies behind their parts of Arcology, in practice and ethos they hue much closer to one another.
Their shared rejection of sampling in their fields proves the most obvious commonality. "When you see a lot of work out there, you can see something sampled," Croissant says. "It has this sort of generic thing to it." Instead, he hand-modeled all the objects that became the visual components of the album.
A comparatively more ascetic creative, McRyhew deliberately excludes samples in his process as well. "Everything is analog but it's all hand-derived," he says. "That's something I strived for with this record, to really get into world-building."
And though A/V projects like this can often result in clunky or derivative storylines, the clips for "Curaga" and "Ronin" drop viewers into painstakingly-detailed architectures, without handholding or exposition. There are no voiceovers or intro cards to provide the year or the circumstances or any other leading statements to help with acclimation. This isn't a damn comic book movie.
"It's up to you to interpret," says McRyhew.
Arcology is out now via Software.
Gary Suarez is on Twitter.