During Oslo’s 2018 Musikkfest there was one stage that caught my attention. In one of the first years that DJ sets and club concepts dominated the free city festival (to my knowledge), this particular stage had broken with the conformity sweeping contemporary club music. Drifting between elements of Breakbeat, Techno, Dub and Deep House, they set a tone apart from the draconian sound of Techno that was monopolising Europe’s dance floors at the time. I had stayed the duration, but it would take another few months before I had heard the name Uteklubb again. Ever since they’ve been a prominent part of Oslo’s extended nightlife, hosting club events outdoors in summer, regular nights at Blå and DJing as a collective and separately at some of the city’s pre-eminent venues and parties.
After successfully establishing Uteklubb as a DJ collective and event’s series, they turned label in 2019, with Oprofessionell’s (unprofessional) startling debut; a record that delivered that same sonic versatility that they brought to their events around Oslo through four distinct tracks. Elements of Drum n Bass,Trance and Electro occupy the minimal space that the modern dance floor dictates, which Oprofessionell cultivates from a stark and effective DIY aesthetic. It set the tone for a label that sought to break down barriers between musical subsets, building on a contemporary zeitgeist amongst club music enthusiasts, and tailoring it to the melodic disposition of mid to late nineties electronic music. Two records followed, with Oprofessionell contributing the most significant part, but it’s with this latest, a compilation CD forged in sounds endemic to European Trance of the nineties, that they’ve established a new take on an old sound and a trend in Norway’s electronic music scene.
There are some of the familiar Uteklubb names present, alongside a host of unknown (or ambiguous) characters and the increasingly popular Fakethias. In fact, besides Fakethias, who produces a brutalist hardcore track for the occasion, saturated in distortion and noise, Groundwork‘s foundation lies in the rich melodic disposition of 1990’s Trance. A common thread emerges between these tracks, forged within the ranks of an organisation that have played a fundamental role in making these sounds popular again. Although Uteklubb seem to have narrowed their sound to a finite aspect of their extensive purview, diminishing some of the versatility they showcased on the earlier records, Groundwork doesn’t necessarily come across like it’s pandering to a revisionist trend or nostalgia, but rather re-evaluating a sound that had been gathering dust in bargain bins for far too long.
Across the 14 artists that have contributed to the label, there’s a concerted, collective effort to bring melody back to the dance floor with the unbridled enthusiasm for rhythms that eek out tempos well over 140BPM. Groundwork avoids the tawdry aspects of the sound, and while tracks move at incredible pace through stoic four-four kick drums, there’s a softness in the rich melodies they create that favours a more mature subtlety over blistering oppressive exposure. Rays of expressive motifs, stretch their tendril-like harmonies to celestial heights, bursting through cloudy pads haunting, hoover synthesisers and the occasional acid riff. Everything is restrained and refined, and even during a track like Hyperforce’s Supermax, which moves at a hyperbolic rate through the progression, it’s subdued in the ethereal atmosphere that envelopes the excessive kick drums.
All over the compilation, it’s that dichotomy between the harsh brutalist kick drums of modern Techno and delicate sonorities that prevails. The perfunctory demand of the beat is muted in the placid melodic counterparts. During one of the compilation’s finest moments, Erlenmeyer channels the mood into a progressive arrangement called Sleight Of Hand, where bubbling synthesisers and stochastic stabs at synthesisers, unfurl across an onslaught of kick drums. Evolving through the temporal field Sleight of Hand picks up fragments of acid and recycles them into retro riffs as it develops through extensive phases. At times a crescendo reaches the precipice of self-indulgence, before it quickly dissipates into a single note ringing out in a cavernous atmosphere; assuming a more minimalist approach as the kick drum protrudes in metered kicks through hazy echoes of lost melodies.
There’s a definite element of kitsch that frames Groundwork, but you don’t get the sense that there’s any kind of insincere intent behind Ute’s approach. They might be working on the fringes of some larger trend-informed development in electronic music, where nostalgia is currently re-assume old archetypes of House, breakbeat, Trance and Techno, but Ute have made it their own. The kitsch value might be a bit hard to ignore for some of us that might want to put those years firmly behind us, but Groundwork has endeavoured something unique, offering a modernised slant on those sounds, which makes for something interesting in the face of banality. Rather than simply rehashing the past, they’ve found something worth re-evaluating in a style of music that has been largely dismissed.