Languor and Clangor
Kid Smpl and Black Hat Embody Seattle's Electronic-Music Extremes
It's long past time that we amended the litany of Seattle signifiers that make Emerald City inhabitants roll our eyes: rain, coffee, grunge, the Space Needle, and... electronic-music producers. It seems as if there are more people making electronic music here than there are consuming it, which is a strange situation for an American metropolis, even with kids now going gaga for "EDM." Thankfully, Seattle is blessed with an abundance of excellent electronic musicians who need no artificial boost from that craze. Two of the most interesting such figures are relative upstarts Black Hat and Kid Smpl.
The emergence of Black Hat (aka 23-year-old Oakland transplant Nelson Bean) and Kid Smpl (aka Joey Butler, 22) testifies to the strength and diversity of Seattle's electronic-music scene. Both musicians' new releases lure you into distinctive aural worlds—albeit those that stand almost 180 degrees opposed to each other. Kid Smpl's Skylight (Hush Hush Records) is a stellar example of a new subgenre known as "night bus," a chill, gauzy, haunting strain of bass music. The tracks on Skylight are profoundly smoldering and tender—ectoplasmic wisps of R&B drifting through a nocturnal haze. Kid Smpl slows the music to a languid meander while pitching up the sampled voices to a smeared murmur, magnifying the songs' emotional grain. If tears could articulate, they'd sound like Skylight.
Butler started making hiphop beats near the end of his high-school days at Eastside Catholic, and then got into dubstep while at Seattle University. "What initially motivated me to start making music was going to post-hardcore and punk shows when I was younger," Butler says. "I used to go to a lot of shows at the Old Fire House in Redmond during the days that bands like the Blood Brothers and Pretty Girls Make Graves were big. Going from that music scene all the way to what I've done for Skylight has been a pretty long journey, but the connection is the DIY approach to the music. All of the music was composed entirely on my laptop and entirely by myself. I also don't approach music from an academic/music-theory-based perspective."
Kid Smpl's foremost motivation for making music is to trigger deep emotions. This he does with utmost subtlety. "When starting [Skylight], my primary intentions were to create something that was really honest and that I would enjoy. I also wanted the entire album to be a complete picture and paced well, not just a collection of songs." The unity of sound and mood in Skylight is undeniable. There's an almost sacred intimacy in these 13 tracks.
Kid Smpl has started working on new music, which he says "is still on the moodier side of things, but it's a little more upfront, extroverted. Nothing radically different, though."
What is radically different is Black Hat's Spectral Disorder (Debacle Records). The five-track EP is chaotic, clangorous, and jagged, taking inspiration from industrial, IDM, and experimental techno. If Skylight is a languorous lounge on silk sheets, Spectral Disorder attempts to scramble the heavens. Opening track "#00000" immediately thrusts you into a madly tumultuous, rotary grind; it's techno brut, filthily swerving off the 4/4 grid. But the next song, "Northwest Passage," flirts with wind-chimey new-age contemplativeness before shifting into a quasi-gamelan sojourn of Demdike Stare–esque dread and discord. This is but a brief respite, as the title track evokes a technological catastrophe in the underworld, like antimatter-disturbers Coil and Pan Sonic embroiled in a death match. "Foreign Bodies" continues the hell ride with a serrated brand of technoise that hints at unspeakable atrocities. All this darkness from a really nice guy who just wants to make people move.
Bean grew up in a musical family in Oakland, California. His father was immersed in the Bay Area's jazz scene, and Bean saw and met important players like Ron Carter, Jack DeJohnette, and Pat Martino. Trained on saxophone and acoustic and electric bass, Bean—who's also in the drone-pop band Thousand Statues with Micaela Tobin—has been creating electronic music for less than a year. "Black Hat began as a means for me to explore noise and rhythmic ideas that had been rattling around in my head for some time," he says. "Spectral Disorder is the first step in exploring those ideas."
It's an audacious debut, and there's more where that came from. Black Hat's issuing a tape titled Covalence on Portland imprint Field Hymns. "That release is going to be a continuation of some ideas heard on Spectral Disorder," Bean says. "I'm also [recording] a full-length during the winter months for release sometime in the spring or summer."
Roll over, Eddie Vedder, and tell Howard Schultz the news.
Kid Smpl performs Sat Nov 17 at Lo-Fi Performance Gallery; he and Black Hat play Thurs Nov 29 with DJAO at UW's Parnassus Cafe.