In dance music, anonymity used to be a currency as stable as gold. To be a “mysterious techno artist” was to present an alpha confidence about the only thing that mattered: the music. For some, it was an anti-commercial gesture. Detroit’s Mike Banks held that concealing his face emphasized the durability of his talent, “because as a man you’re frail, but your work can stay in humanity forever, like the Egyptians,” the Underground Resistance member told The Wire in 2007. But somewhere along the way, self-effacement among techno artists became an increasingly silly cliché, a Shutterstock image for a Berlin DJ starter pack. The pursuit of facelessness has occasionally cannibalized dance music’s Black heritage; some white producers have adopted racially ambiguous pseudonyms in the name of cultivating mystique. At a moment where Black techno artists are spotlighting their identity to re-center their position in dance music, a stronger desire for attribution is, to borrow a good line from Twitter, probably the energy we need right now.
If secrecy’s stock is plummeting in electronic music, it’s been interesting to see Shinichi Atobe, a famously mysterious techno artist, beginning to open up. His new album, Yes, arrives with the same sunny disposition of its housey predecessor, 2018’s Heat, and a rare headshot of the Saitama-based producer—included, possibly, as a response to rumors he is actually his sometime Chain Reaction labelmate Vainqueur. Sloughing off the dub techno of Atobe’s first two records, Ship-Scope and Butterfly Effect—between which lay a 13-year gap and not a single word from the artist—his latest LP is closer in style to house aesthetes like DJ Sprinkles or the late Boston producer Callisto. Where Yes stands apart is in its inherent optimism—in a couple cases, the mood comes close to a deep contentment. On “Lake 2,” piano and organ keys skate with the ease of Moon Safari-era Air or Italo house producer Don Carlos. In the hands of an extrovert, “Yes” might have been called “Yay!”—its descending, major-key piano chords evoke an everyman joy, while a whistling harmony seems ready to swing open a studio door and say, “Honey, I’m home!”
However much Atobe’s music has changed, it’s still recognizably his in at least one way: those sharp, throat-tickling trebles that could make a stone cough. They’re an acquired taste. Matt Colton, the mastering engineer for most of Atobe’s records, admitted treating Butterfly Effect’s “bright,” “cold-sounding” pre-masters with warmer mids and fatter lows. Even if we accept that Atobe’s nettling claps and rimshots are a feature rather than a bug, Yes’s hi-fi polish intuitively seems like a less forgiving environment. Somehow, though, it comes together, thanks to some nice contrasts of space and texture. “Lake 2”’s shaker has a satisfying safety-match scrape, and works as a gentle brake on Atobe’s cruising keys. And the mallets on “Rain 3,” which might remind you of a cartoon spider scrambling out of a bathtub, are set amid floaty, holographic synth figures. You may notice that the trebles are slightly softer than usual. With a couple of comparable tracks on Heat—especially “Heat 4”—the effect could be like having your skull scratched from the inside.
Where Heat introduced warmth to Atobe’s music, Yes has made it smooth. (Only “Ocean 7,” a Drexciyan étude of questing chords, and “Loop 1”’s echo of Scion’s early Chain Reaction classic really break from the theme.) Nothing makes the case as emphatically as “Ocean 1.” As it opens with an irresistible g-funk bassline, the scene quickly assembles itself: palm trees, Venice Beach, lowriders on an endless boulevard. “Ocean 1” fills out nicely with honeyed wafts of synth and Atobe’s typically elegant piano accents. But the trilling guitar that suddenly struts through, a third of the way in? A real chef’s-kiss moment, best enjoyed on a dancefloor—although the point at which we can safely share little moments like these is, for now, dance music’s most pressing mystery. As for Atobe, it’s funny to wonder whether he’s taken cues from Burial about seclusion and productivity. Reasonably secure in the knowledge that he isn’t the figment of a German man’s imagination, we can probably abide the not-knowing of his life story. But there are still so many questions, the most immediate of which might be this: After all those years of inactivity, how is it that Atobe came to be this reliable, this prolific, or this good?
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