Skee Mask’s music thrives on the friction between opposing impulses. The German producer fuels storming club rhythms with jungle breaks, distorted kicks, and whip-cracking electro syncopations, then swathes them in wispy atmospheric tones, soft as baby’s breath. The end product is a dramatic pairing of force and aura, like an earthmover haloed in dust clouds and rays of sunlight, or an iceberg cleaving in slow motion, throwing off huge plumes of frozen debris.
The balance of those two impulses may shift from track to track—Skee Mask’s EPs lean harder on muscular club cuts, while his albums allow him to stretch out and explore more ethereal zones—but rarely does the needle tip all the way to one extreme or the other; the dichotomy remains fundamental to almost everything he does. With a pair of new EPs, however, Skee Mask (aka Munich’s Bryan Müller) splits his work down the middle. ISS005 is reserved strictly for big, bruising club tracks, while ISS006 trades the drums for pure, beatless ambient. (ISS is short for “Ilian Skee Series,” Müller’s own imprint under his hometown’s Ilian Tape label; as is frequently the case with his EPs, the titles are the same as the catalog numbers.) The drily functionalist tags make the contents appear to be mere DJ tools; the outsized sounds inside protest mightily at such a condescending description. Spinning off club tackle and sofa stuffing into two separate divisions might seem like an unremarkable strategy, but in Skee Mask’s case, it’s productive: Taken together, the two EPs suggest an artist uninterested in lingering in his comfort zone.
ISS005’s five tracks showcase rugged club rhythms that go for the jugular. Like “RZZ” on last October’s ISS004, the opening “IT Danza” casts a glance back at decade-old dubstep: Insistent congas tumble forward at 140 BPM, while dub sirens and murky DJ chat suggest a fever dream of dancehall reggae. Just over hallway through, Müller lets rip a sample of jazz saxophone that he flips into careening runs reminiscent of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee”—if, say, the Russian composer had been plagued by murder hornets. The next two tracks take up ISS004’s grime investigations, collectively marking a new frontier in sheer ugliness for the German producer. “Meal” thrashes like a poisoned beast, with garbled bass throbbing unsteadily beneath shrieking cuica and the occasional spray of bullets. Even more disorienting, “Reefer Madness” is just drums and snarling bass, but the beat feels inside-out. The pulse doesn’t land on the downbeat, leaving you perpetually off balance; it’s like standing on the windy edge of a precipice. The EP finishes off with an attention-deficit drum tool and some razor-sharp electro. The nuts-and-bolts cuts are still a hoot: all killer, no filigree.
In the past, Müller’s softer instincts often tended toward sentimentality, but there’s nothing pretty about the six ambient tracks that constitute ISS006. “Dolby” opens the EP with chugging dub-delay feedback, before a bright tone rises like a rocket through smog, illuminating a vast expanse of featureless ground below: faint synth pads, rumbling bass, the ghost of a chord change. It sounds like William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops run through a battered rave soundsystem on a ruined planet—an elegy that has outlasted its mourners. “Frogsplash (Reshape),” on the other hand, marks the record’s emotional apex: Faint chords with an almost guitar-like feel cycle back and forth, like the memory of a love song turning to dust at the bottom of a dry well.
The next three tracks turn more indistinct. Their movements are slow and unpredictable, with muted synths or string-like textures that twist aimlessly. The blissfully numb “Henk (Version Whatever)” is particularly lovely; its deep, subdued drones would make the perfect accompaniment to a documentary on the ocean’s cold, dark abyssal zone, where dead organic matter falls like ghostly snow and the bioluminescent lures of anglerfish bob in the blackness. But if this stretch is abstract to the point of emotionlessness, “Mbass123 Excerpt” is deeply expressive, with forlorn synths tracing sad, graceful curlicues against an inky backdrop. It amounts to a powerful coda to the whole diptych. Skee Mask has always expertly sequenced his albums, using pacing and contrasts not just to set a mood but to tell stories, tales full of twists and turns, climaxes and denouements. With ISS005 and ISS006, he arrives at a fork in the road, and the plot thickens.
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