Gabe Gurnsey and Rebel Yell
Maybe I, I just don’t need you anymore
Have you ever thought?
Gabe Gurnsey’s voice has a desultory tone. His words, half-sung, half-spoken, are saturated in Jamaican dub echo effects as he repeats:
Maybe I, I just don’t need you anymore
Have you ever thought about it?
Crystal (give me algorithm)
Ultra (give me algorithm)
Clear sound (give me algorithm)
Give me (give me algorithm)
Just 90 seconds into “Ultra Clear Sound” – the opening track of Physical, Gurnsey’s first solo album – he has already staked out his turf. Drum and bass rhythms are overlaid with a kind of disjointed internal monologue, hallucinatory and fragmentary, reflecting the shifting moods of a clubber out for a night on the town. The track listing of Physical has been structured as a literal evocation of that clubbing experience though the songs actually spring from an imaginary landscape. Gurnsey is also the drummer of noted British industrial techno duo Factory Floor, and traces of that band’s brutal minimalism are very evident here, but the stronger vocal emphasis and sophisticated production of Physical sets it apart from his previous work. His solo album is an immersive, hypnotic experience that will take listeners on a different journey every time they listen.
The second track, “You Can”, finds Gurnsey at home preparing for the night ahead as he provocatively sings, “You can dance while I get high”, and segues into an actual drug trip on the next song, “Temazzy”. For the uninitiated – and I assure you I’m one – “temazzy” is one of 30 different street names for temazepam, a psychoactive drug that’s medically used to treat sleeping disorders and sometimes misused by clubbers.
When I spoke with Gurnsey last week he was candid about the overt drug references that pepper his lyrics. For the Manchester-based producer, there is nothing remarkable or shameful about the association between drugs and nightclubs, and he wanted these songs to acknowledge that. “I wanted to bring in a lot of the actual reality of going out, covering everything involved, like drugs, sex, everything,” he said. “It’s a celebration of it, you know? Because it is a reality and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be spoken about.”
A different kind of reality was on Gurnsey’s mind when he first began work on the album. It was originally conceived as a kind of virtual reality experience – an idealised super club where listeners would feel as though they were wandering from room to room, each one with a unique atmosphere and rhythm. When he finally pieced the record together with mixer Erol Alkan he found there was an entirely different narrative. The songs seemed to be telling the story of a typical night out clubbing, from sunset to sunrise. “It’s quite weird that happened,” Gurnsey told me. “I think the VR thing with the different rooms is there … threaded through the record, but it’s now a night out, and entering those rooms midway through … They’re definitely connected to the various kind of mind states that you go through when you’re going out.”
Physical’s story begins with Gurnsey getting dressed and high at home (“Ultra Clear Sound”, “You Can” and “Temazzy”), then cruising through the city in a friend’s car (“Harder Rhythm”, “Sweet Heat”) before stopping off at a variety of different venues throughout the night (“New Kind” and all the songs that follow). There’s even a ciggie break, in the form of the short interlude on “Version” and, later, perhaps a quick bump of speed in a toilet cubicle (“AM Crystal”).
The trajectory of this techno pilgrim’s progress is also mapped onto the tempos of the various songs. “Ultra Clear Sound” opens proceedings at a leisurely 103bpm, while “You Can” and “Temazzy” step up to a still-relaxed 110bpm – unbelievably slow by club music standards these days, which rarely dips below 128bpm. “Early on, it was quite an uncomfortable thing moving away from that fast bpm… I’ve been used to doing 130, you know, 133, whatever,” Gurnsey told me, with a laugh, “[but] as a drummer you start to wanna explore different things after you’ve been doing the same thing for a long time.” This is stretched almost to breaking point later on with “Heavy Rubber”, which comes in at a preposterously slow 92bpm, Amazingly, it still feels eminently danceable.
The erotic aspect of clubbing was another theme Gurnsey wanted to explore on the album. “Heavy Rubber” has intimations of a sex club, “Eyes Over” is a very blatant come-on but, for the most part, the steamiest action takes place on the dance floor. I don’t usually find techno music particularly erotic – its overbearing, blunt instrument beats don’t exude much warmth – but Gurnsey’s fleet-footed grooves are strangely arousing. The stripped back rhythms, stingy synth arrangements and heavily processed vocals should be alienating but there is something sensual about Physical which, frankly, confounds me. “It’s a weird mix, innit?” Gurnsey replied when I brought this up. “It’s not hostile. I definitely wanted to get away from the hostile sound of techno that I’ve been doing for a long time.”
As the album’s journey concludes the tempo slows once again. “The Last Channel” is ethereal, ragged and shapeless, like the frayed ends of the evening unravelling. Physical leaves its listeners metaphorically blinking in the early morning light.
Grace Stevenson, aka Rebel Yell, is on a completely different trip on her debut album, Hired Muscle. It’s a power trip, or more accurately, a self-empowerment trip. The industrial-strength techno exhibited on 2016’s Mother of Millions EP has been leavened slightly this time, with the new songs veering closer to conventional pop structures. There is even the occasional hint of melody in the musical melee. Nevertheless, on Hired Muscle, Brisbane’s Rebel Yell (now Sydney-based)continues to be an uncompromising, in-your-face assault on the senses.
Opening track “Power City” takes an aggressive stance immediately. Many of its sounds have been fed through heavy filters and distorted for maximum orneriness. Stevenson’s voice sounds disembodied, like an airport terminal announcer, blank and emotionless.
I own the currency
I’ll buy a house or three
I’ll run this city
To even look at me
I charge a modest fee
I’ll run this city
Obnoxiously sharp percussion hammers and clatters while the savage synthesisers drone with belligerence.
I’m where I want to be
You can’t sit with me
Techno is known for embracing the latest technology but not in Rebel Yell’s case. When I met with Stevenson last week, she told me she uses comparatively basic equipment such as the Korg ESX-1 sampler sequencer, from the early 2000s. “I’ve just really gotten used to how it works, and it makes a lot of sense to me,” she said. “I like to do it all with my hands. I don’t use computers or anything like that, so it’s all hardware.”
Stevenson’s hands-on approach means that she builds every arrangement from scratch every time she performs. No two renditions are ever the same. “I’ve got a little bunch of notes,” she told me. “People will sometimes [ask], ‘What’s that your notes say?’ ” Stevenson laughs as she recounts her prosaic reply. “They say: press six. Sing. Take away seventh. Sing.” It’s a far cry from the prefabricated bells and whistles of laptop-based music.
Given that Stevenson has previously admitted taking inspiration from a Justin Bieber song, I wouldn’t be surprised if “Toxic”, the album’s second song, takes its title from the old Britney Spears hit.
There’s often a lot of wry humour in Rebel Yell’s music, but the defiance of “Toxic” sprang from a personal drama and having “to deal with really shitty situations”, Stevenson told me. Professionally, too. “Multiple times, I have had someone trying to set up their gear while I’m playing so, literally… ‘Yeah, get off the stage!’ ” she says, quoting a line from the song.
All the songs on Hired Muscle bang along at a cracking pace and Stevenson likes it that way. “I’ve tried to write slower ones – I’m incapable,” she told me. “I mean, slow, like, I don’t know, 110 or something. I can’t. I don’t know how to do it.”
Two collaborations add a lot of colour to the album. The first is with Sydney queer musician Gussy on “Stains”, who poignantly sings about standing up for oneself in the face of betrayal. There is a hushed, spoken-word chorus with sampled voices creating a haunting counter melody in the background. The other collaboration is with Melbourne synth pop duo Pillow Pro on “Let Go”. Over a stonking beat, Pillow Pro’s voices weave in and around each other as they feistily proclaim their independence.
To create both tracks, Stevenson sent beats to her collaborators and outlined her overall theme. But she was amazed by what each created. “It’s like my new favourite way of doing songs,”, she said. “I just get this nice surprise at the end, and I’m, like, ‘Ooh, I love it!’ ”
Every song on the album is strong but “Stains” and “Let Go” are two highlights. That said, my personal favourite is “Next Exit”, the only purely instrumental song on the album. Go figure.
Rebel Yell has been labelled dark tech, industrial techno and a few other things besides, but there is no simple category that really fits. Even Stevenson finds it hard to describe. Yes, it’s electronic music, and is definitely techno-inspired, but Stevenson’s primitive aesthetic and bare-bones arrangements coupled with the fucked-up sonics and rhythmic aggression reminds me of punk rock, albeit using a drum machine instead of a guitar.
Hired Muscle was mixed by Stevenson’s brother in London. I say “mixed” but there was very little he could do given the dense monophonic stems that were produced from Rebel Yell’s rudimentary set-up. Stevenson’s instructions to her brother were simple. “I’m always saying, ‘I want it to be ‘thumpy’, like, make it really thumpy.’ And he says, ‘It is really thumpy.’ I’m like, ‘More!’ ”
DESIGN Design Storytellers: The World of Broached Commissions
NGV Australia, Melbourne, August 17 – February
DANCE Le Dernier Appel (The Last Call)
Carriageworks, Sydney, August 15-18
QPAC Concert Hall, Brisbane, until August 18
SCULPTURE Anne Dangar: Ceramics from Moly-Sabata
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until October 28
VISUAL ART Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly Series
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until November 12
MUSIC Bernstein Classics
Hamer Hall, Melbourne, August 15
LITERATURE Bendigo Writer’s Festival
Venues in and around Bendigo, until August 12
SCULPTURE Daniel Buren
Carriageworks, Sydney, until August 12
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 11, 2018 as "Two of clubs". Subscribe here.