This time last year, Skee Mask put out a pair of EPs that felt like dueling reactions to lockdown blues, then stretching into month five in much of Europe and North America. In the sudden and prolonged absence of nightlife, ISS05’s unruly club cuts seemed to kick against the strictures of enforced downtime. On ISS06, on the other hand, a succession of beatless ambient tracks succumbed to numbing torpor. While some frustrated DJs distracted themselves by baking bread, the Munich producer just kept cutting up breakbeats. Mere weeks after the release of those records, Skee Mask, aka Bryan Müller, tweeted that he had yet another album in the can. At long last, Pool, released without advance warning in May, is the promised fruit of that harvest.
Particularly in the case of dance music, a style predicated upon sweaty bodies swapping aerosols in close quarters, it’s hard not to read any given new release as a response to the pandemic year. But despite the timing of its completion, Pool isn't a report on the doldrums of 2020. Its 18 tracks, totaling an hour and 45 minutes, are drawn from the past four or five years of his daily studio regimen. Combined with its surprise release on Bandcamp, the record’s length and semi-archival nature—some of these songs predate the release of 2018’s Compro—might suggest that Pool is a clearinghouse of orphaned tracks meant to bide time before the next proper album. But Müller calls it “a fully conceived project,” the intended successor to Compro. (For now, there are no plans to make the album available beyond Bandcamp: “I just don’t get positive energy from [streaming] companies, and I wanted to send a message to other artists that they didn’t have to put their music on these platforms,” Müller recently said in an interview with Pitchfork contributor Shawn Reynaldo’s First Floor newsletter.)
Where Skee Mask’s last EPs split his output between rhythm and atmosphere, Pool brings those elements back together. Müller continues to work with the types of sounds that have animated his work from the beginning: scabrous breaks and clean-lined 808s, seismic subs and airy pads, smoldering overdrive and dub delay. In the past, Skee Mask’s genre experiments have sometimes felt like he was checking various styles off a list, but Pool shows his work becoming more holistic, moving toward a kind of ur-dance music—as though the disparate continents of drum’n’bass, footwork, techno, electro, and downbeat were all merging back together into a spongy musical Pangaea. Twisting acid sequences give otherwise gentle ambient tracks a steely edge; funk basslines wriggle worm-like through drum’n’bass grooves; rugged jungle breaks and ambient dub flicker like two sides of a lenticular image.
As on Shred and Compro, the sequencing is everything here. Both of Skee Mask’s previous albums followed a distinct arc, moving from gaseous intros through mellow warm-up territory before plunging into beefier fare, then coming full circle with languid, contemplative finales. Pool does something similar, but it covers more ground and entertains more switchbacks along the way. (For a while, the album felt scattered to me, more like a hard-drive dump than a cohesive full-length; then I realized I’d inadvertently been listening to the songs in alphabetical order. Once I corrected my error, the whole record snapped into focus.)
An opening trio of pulsing, quasi-ambient cuts builds to an early highlight with “CZ3000 Dub,” a fast, opalescent techno track whose bassline channels the spirit of Kevin Saunderson’s 1997 classic “World of Deep.” On “Collapse Casual,” a feint into ’70s funk (via what I could swear is a sample of Scooby Doo’s bark) flips into a bruising drum’n’bass roller, sounding like vintage Photek being ground beneath a rusty stylus. After extending the peak-time energy with another unrelenting breakbeat track, Müller eases off into a passage of sentimental, supremely chilled-out tunes, including “Ozone,” among the most unabashedly beautiful things he’s ever recorded. He keeps zig-zagging all the way to the end, sometimes within the space of a single track: “Testo BC Mashup,” another career highlight, starts out sounding like a sat-phone intercept of an old-school gabber rave, morphs into Aphex Twin-grade drill’n’bass, teases a winsome breakdown, and finishes—after an honest-to-goodness key change—by sinking into inky murk, like a corpse beneath a stone slab.
There’s a thrilling physicality to Pool. Skee Mask’s 808s run as hot as a laptop laid across your thighs; omnipresent dub delay gives the feeling of pushing through viscous liquid, actually swimming through the music. But even in its heaviest moments, what distinguishes Pool is not so much power as finesse. Müller says that many of these tracks have origins in live hardware jams, and that energy comes through. Though many songs are largely based on 16-bar loops, their elements are constantly morphing. Drum patterns never play quite the same way twice; shifting synth lines twist and turn with uncanny naturalism, less like programmed sequences than living things. Whether in the wanton G-funk portamento of “60681z,” the faux guitar solos of “Harrison Ford,” or the shape-shifting textures of “Pepper Boys,” you can feel Müller’s fingers on the knobs at every turn. It’s a virtuoso display of control made all the more remarkable for its seeming lack of calculation. Skee Mask gives the impression that his music is a flowing current, and he’s just the channel.
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