Review Summary: Inspired by Pre-Columbian North America, Huerco S.'s debut album combines warm and mammalian sounds with a sense of encroaching dread.
Huerco S.'s debut album, Colonial Patterns, is not the best dance album of the year; in one of the best years for the genre since the 1990s, large-scale works like Daft Punk's Random Access Memories or Disclosure's Settle are more deserving of the appellation. But it wouldn't be a stretch to say it's the best ambient album I've heard so far this year. Though the Kansas City producer (who would prefer his real name be detached from the project) makes music anchored by 4/4 kicks and throbbing bass, the cues and tricks that make his tracks succeed are taken straight from the dense, dreamy world of ambient music.
Superficially, S.'s music is closest to dub techno, the extremely-niche genre pioneered by German acts Porter Ricks and Basic Channel. But while dub techno producers often forego melody to create mechanical textures from drums and bass, S. focuses more on the fleshy middle--samples, sheets of dense drone, occasionally things resembling hooks and riffs. Combined with his love of organic, almost folky textures, this results in something far more warm and mammalian than most music that could be considered "techno."
Furthermore, I couldn't imagine most of these tracks moving club crowds. Colonial Patterns is a headphones album in the purest sense, an intensely introverted listening experience that feels like a misty space for the listener to get lost in. As a front-to-back album, it feels less like a spacious dance album than a highly planned-out, conceptual ambient opus. Many of its best songs are short, meticulously sound-designed interludes, similar to those on ambient epics such as Boards of Canada's Geogaddi or Tim Hecker's Harmony In Ultraviolet.
Colonial Patterns fits in this lineage. S. has stated that the album is chiefly inspired by the pre-Columbian landscapes of what would become the United States. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to identify this theme based on the music alone--song titles hint at it, utilizing Native American words and referencing North American archaeological sites. Yet there's a sense of encroaching dread to all the songs here. Though the textures are gorgeous and often pastoral, nearly all the tracks are in the minor key, and the oily coats of reverb with which Huerco slathers his productions make everything sound distant but ominously and unimaginably huge. The North America of Colonial Patterns is one that functions peacefully without the knowledge that, on the other side of the great ocean, invasions are being meticulously planned out.
Much of the music's ominousness also stems from Huerco's knack for creating evocative yet unplaceable sounds, a skill rare in dance musicians but vital in ambient music. Turntablist Philip Jeck is a key touchstone in his use of indeterminable audio snippets to create the illusion of fear of the unknown. The eerie dragging sheet-metal sound on the standout "Plucked From The Ground, Towards The Sun" is a key example; it's close to you, it may be approaching, but you sure as hell don't know what it wants. At times, the geography of Colonial Patterns is less Monks Mound and more Blair Witch Project, with unidentifiable sounds coming at you from all sides.
But as tense as it can be at points, Colonial Patterns is a weirdly comforting listen. While contemporaries such as Andy Stott use the four-on-the-floor dance thump to convey the relentless progress of machines, Huerco's kick drum is more like a massive, beating heart. Stepping into Colonial Patterns can feel like entering the belly of some gigantic beast; but rather than slowly digesting you, it just carries you for a while and drops you off somewhere else.