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Album of the Month: Kode9 ‘Escapology’

Album of the Month: Kode9 ‘Escapology’

On his new album based on a work of sonic fiction, Hyperdub founder Kode9 creates a strange, uncertain vision of the future, brimming with ideas and club genre mutations

There’s been a conceptual thread running through much of Steve Goodman’s output since he first adopted the Kode9 name. Though the Scottish artist’s DJ sets and most of his productions have been aimed at club audiences, he’s also explored how sound impacts us in other ways. 

Founder of the Hyperdub label and a former lecturer at the University of East London, in 2009 he published ‘Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear’, a book examining how noise can be used as a psychological or even physical weapon. His albums with long-time friend and poet The Spaceape (the late Stephen Gordon), meanwhile, scrutinised our conflicted ideas of the future and media manipulation through the lens of dystopian societies, while meshing elements of dubstep, house, techno, footwork and more abstract electronics together.

In the last two years Goodman has repositioned himself as a multi-disciplinary artist, and ‘Escapology’ is his first major work in this field. Part of the wider two-part Astro-Darien project, comprising this album and a sonic fiction forthcoming in October on Hyperdub offshoot Flatlines, the album sprang from two audio-visual installations: one at Corsica Studios in 2021 and another with the 50-speaker Acousmonium at the INA-GRM in Paris. In Goodman’s fictional work, Astro-Darien is a computer game that simulates the breakup of the UK; the name refers to a Scottish space station. ‘Escapology’ is the soundtrack to the game and finds Kode9 creating a suitably astral atmosphere while dipping into the futuristic genre mutations that have become a staple of the Hyperdub club-nights, and his sets in general.

Opening track ‘Trancestar North’, with its whooshing sound design and metallic sweeps, sounds like docking at the space station, with all the anticipation and nervous excitement that might involve. On ‘The Break Up’, speedy toms and claps suggest a footwork beat, but they’re disrupted with sweeps of industrial weirdness and juddering effects, while chrome bass tones bubble up underneath. The rushing noise of ‘Angle Of Re-Entry’ feels like rockets passing overhead, while the beats slip between time zones and sub-bass drives the rhythm forwards. ‘In the Shadow of Ben Hope’, meanwhile, imagines a launch from the Scottish spaceport below the mountain in the song’s title, the crackle of takeoff muffled in the speakers as a vocal sample begins the countdown. 

‘Uncoil’ is especially good, a turbo-charged leftfield techno piece of chopped vocal snippets, clanks and fuzz that opens out with warm Detroit chords and a shuffling rhythm that hints at a breakbeat that never materialises. ‘Astro-Darien’ itself is a glide of celestial ambience and weird synths, but ‘Lagrange Point’ is the album’s highpoint, finding Kode9 drawing on one of his earliest influences: jungle and drum & bass, with skilfully shredding breaks and clipped FM bass tones. There’s a touch of 4hero circa ‘Parallel Universe’ here — an album that also sonically traversed space. Then there’s ‘Torus’, where scampering rhythms collide with abstract loops and psychedelic layers of synthetic noise.

If ‘Escapology’ can be considered a space record, it’s far more original than the usual sci-fi tones and alien drones we’ve come to expect from electronic artists exploring the final frontier. Kode9 manages to evoke the weirdness and weightlessness of what jetting off into the stratosphere must be like. Again, he’s offering a vision of the future, though in this instance, it feels like a place of uncertainty and strangeness, rather than a dystopia or utopia as such. It’s also a record brimming with ideas and novel sounds, departing from genre exercises to offer something genuinely different. Now that’s futuristic.