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Mukqs’ New Tape Is a Collection of Nocturnal Electro Experiments

Chicago musician Max Allison has made noisy anthemics, 8-bit soundscapes, and sample-heavy collages under the moniker. ‘起き上がり’ is something totally different, again.

by Colin Joyce
Jan 25 2018, 8:00pm

Photo courtesy of the artist

On a warm May night in Detroit a couple of years ago, I accompanied the Chicago musician Max Allison on a long car ride between two seemingly disparate parties that were taking place in the shadow of Movement Festival, the city’s annual celebration of the history and legacy of techno. Trip Metal Fest, where we’d spent the early part of our night, was mostly disconnected with the bigger fest taking place across town. The local legends in Wolf Eyes had put together a bill drawing the connections between electronic music, out jazz, and rock music of all-stripes, but the emphasis was on the freakiness—the willingness of each performer selected to push beyond the boundaries of established forms into realms unknown.

No Way Back, the second party, was a bit more tied to the city’s dance music tradition, featuring a main room where people spun (admittedly out-there) takes on acid house and techno tropes. The music was loud, the night went late, I ran into old pals who were deep in the throes of psychedelic experiences—it was by all accounts a real-ass techno gig. I relate all this not because it is particularly admirable or noteworthy that a person would be into both noise and techno—especially if I, a relative pleb, was able to make my way to both shows—but because this straddling of boundaries and stylistic restlessness seems intimately connected to the music that Allison has made over the last few years as Mukqs.

Allison’s still probably known for his improvisational experiments with Doug Kaplan and Natalie Chami as Good Willsmith, but over the time that band’s been active he’s also generated a catalog of works on his own that’s at least as worth digging through. Part of the thrill of following him—as with so many underground musicians—is in his prolificacy. At this point I’m basically writing about a new Mukqs tape every six months. But it’s also in his unwillingness to stick to a single form or style, jumping from colorful kosmische, to psychedelic sample collages, to 8-bit ambience from tape to tape.

“I try think of the act of listening to an album, as a kind of equalized playing field across all genres / styles / whatever,” Allison says by way of explanation, over email. “Everyone has to experience music in real time, people can't scroll through a bunch of music like a social media feed and absorb it like text or images.”

So with Mukqs, he says, he’s trying to challenge the way that listeners might feel like they can get the gist of it by listening to a few songs here or there. So he flits quickly between styles, seemingly at random, “without ever giving a standard or a default to fall back on.”

On his new release, 起き上がり, for the up-and-coming imprint Doom Trip, he operates in a few different modes—neon-lit electro, aquatic sampler improvisations, and freaky drones—that are all united under a generally nocturnal spirit. It’s not just that the record is imbued with a darkness, though that’s there to a degree, but it has the liveliness of a city after dark, the sense of constant movement in hidden corners. “I would say that this album is a little bit more "dark" than the average mukqs release,” Allison says. “But then again there are some that are pretty harsh and industrial, so this one definitely falls below those on the intensity scale. I guess i think of it as kind of more of a night-time mood album, dark imagery that is still vivid, not washed out or too aggressive.”

From where I sit, the innovation with 起き上がり, is that there are tracks that could have played at both the parties we hit in Detroit bound together on one tape. There’s moments like the anxious, nauseating sample panning of “Marble Gallery”—which, per Allison, consists of samples of various video game soundtracks, including Legend of the Dragoon, Castlevania Symphony of the Night and Paper Mario. But there’s also “ベヘリット” which leans on several intersecting synth melodies to craft a slippery, dense electro exercise full of both dancefloor ecstasy and the wide-eyed fragility of the early synth pieces that populate the “MOOG” grab bag at your local record store. Somehow it feels natural to transition between these two modes, or at least as natural as it did to take a cab from one strange club night to the next.

Listen to 起き上がり here in advance of its release on Doom Trip on January 29.