“All the records we’ve made give you clues, how to tap into your inner selves. We bring you right to that door and give you the key. We’re doing what we’re able to, dropping messages from day one without getting too deep and scaring people off. We can only hope that people will pick up on what we’re doing.”
Leading up to Grava 4
, Gerald Donald and James Stinson released seven full albums worth of material, dubbing this sequence the “Seven Storms”. During this period of astronomical productivity, a few similar albums were released into the world, all equally important in understanding the context in which the “Storms” came, and why Grava 4
stands proud with some of the best works electronic music has ever produced.
Autechre dropped Confield
in early 2001 on the same label that would go on to release Lifestyles of the Laptop Café
, the most well received of the “Storm” series. Aphex Twin released drukqs
, also on Warp Records, whose own label, Rephlex, would release L.I.F.E.
and an accompanying 12”, both also a part of the “Seven Storms” series (Rephlex had, at the time, an already established history of working with Drexciya). Boards of Canada dropped Geogaddi
in early 2002 on Warp Records as well, bookending this period as strongly as it began.
Now what, you might ask, do three UK IDM acts have to do with either Drexciya or Grava 4
? Well, the period between the beginning of 2001 and the end of 2002 was the apex of the IDM sound. All three of the previous artists, during this stretch, released the three best albums in the subgenre, albums which display all of the constituent elements of the style while simultaneously utilizing them better than any have done or would later do. Confield
left planet Earth behind and receded into the cold grip of artificial intelligence, drukqs
finally saw Aphex Twin realize the full potential his quirky mixture of drum and bass, acid, and ambient had always shown, while Geogaddi
perfected Boards of Canada’s hazy, fever-dream, off-kilter hip-hop sound that spawned entire subgenres worth of imitators.
The claim I’m going to make is that, of all the releases Donald and Stinson unleashed upon this lonely little planet called Earth, Grava 4
deserves to stand on the same hallowed ground as each of the three previously mentioned Warp giants. In fact, I would go as far as to say that this might be the most important of the bunch, because the sound Drexciya perfected with Grava 4
undoubtedly influenced the sounds of all three of the previously mentioned artists.
Drexciya stood out from their peers in the Detroit Techno movement for two major reasons. First was the strange worldbuilding used to construct an entire mythology surrounding Drexciya, a submerged world populated by the water-breathing offspring of pregnant slaves cast from ships during the trip across the Middle Passage. Second was that the music was, by and large, not really meant for the dance floor. Sure, along the way they released plenty of material that could be of use in a club mix (especially the earlier stuff put out by Underground Resistance), but their longform material was permeated by off-kilter 808 rhythms, tongue-in-cheek vocal samples and backing tracks, and liquid, subterranean synth work that many have tried and failed to match.
The point being, Drexciya were making IDM before IDM was really IDM. Their influence can be heard throughout Autechre’s debut album as well as the discographies of both Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada. As the years went on, Donald and Stinson would continue to hone their craft and flesh out the mythology of Drexciya to the point where the deluge of material included in the “Storms” series felt like an actual celestial event.
, however, doesn’t seem to be a part of the “Storms” series. In fact, it seems to have been purposefully left out, although the reasons why are always subject to speculation (check out the awesome Drexciya Research Lab if you really want to dive deep into the Drexcyen mythology). The theme of the album, while still tied to the Drexciya of past albums, sees the duo take a jump into hyperspace, no longer satisfied with exploring the depths of the Blue Planet alone. Included in the linear notes are star charts, navigation tools, and clues hinting at a possible cosmic connection between Drexciya and the world above the clouds.
In practice, Grava 4
is Drexciya’s sound perfected, and one that came at an important, yet bittersweet, time. James Stinson died unexpectedly that same year, closing the book of Drexciya for good whether it was planned or not. Donald would continue his work on projects like Dopplereffekt, Der Zyklus, and Arpanet, but Drexciya was no more.
Luckily, Grava 4
closes this little chapter of music history in a thoroughly satisfying fashion, giving closure to the world of Drexciya that couldn’t have been done better if it were planned (maybe it was, who knows). The album starts with the epic "Cascading Celestial Giants", a rhythmic ambient piece that has Gerald Donald’s spidery, synthetic fingerprints all over it. It then jumps right into more familiar Drexcyen territory, with off-kilter analog synth stabs, sizzling 808 rhythms, and transcendent ambience. If you’ve heard much Drexciya before, nothing on Grava 4 will come out of left field. The album's strength lies in its honing of Drexciya’s sound into a perfected science (using the Drexcyen R.E.S.T. [Research. Experimentation. Science. Technology.] Principle I’m sure). The albums two best tracks, "Ociya Syndor" and "Astronomical Guidepost", display every defining element of the Drexcyen cannon into 5 minutes of electro perfection. The groovy, deep basslines of the former and the funky arpeggios of the latter embody everything Donald and Stinson were attempting to perfect with Drexciya, and, as a result, should go down as some of the best electronic music ever recorded.
stands tall as the best Drexciya release, one of the best techno releases ever to come out of Detroit, and as a classic of the IDM subgenre. It’s an album that, unlike some of its previously mentioned peers, is meant more to be felt than it is to be analyzed from a distance. Stinson and Donald have crafted their own world, populated it with clues and hints, and dumped all that information into our laps, hoping that our thirst for knowledge can transport us, if for only the length of an album, into a place far removed from our own world. Perhaps, maybe we can even learn something along the way. I think that’s probably what James Stinson would have wanted anyways.