Though I'm in the minority on this point, I think that Solvent (aka Jason Amm) peaked with his self-titled 1998 debut album. It remains an oddity in the Zimbabwe-born Toronto producer's catalog: a bold slab of weirdly textured and oddly angled IDM. Shortly after Solvent, a strong work with admittedly limited appeal, Amm staked out more retro-leaning ground, lavishing his prodigious skills on perfecting that candied strain of UK electro pop from the early '80s with fetishistic zeal. The man clearly adores OMD, Vince Clarke–helmed Depeche Mode, Gary Numan, and Yaz, and the bulk of Solvent's oeuvre can stand up to the lofty standards set by those synth jockeys. It's not easy to achieve the rigid, frigid atmospheres and cutely robotic rhythms that those artists mustered while still imbuing the music with moving sentiments, but Solvent's pretty much nailed it.
However, Solvent's new album, Subject to Shift (Ghostly International), signals a tonally darker and rhythmically harder approach. On tracks like "Formulate," Solvent ups the tempo and fattens the synth bass to more bulbous parameters, verging on DAF-like propulsiveness. And sly, anomalously ominous cuts like "No One Should Be Living Here" and "Take Me Home" make deeper impressions than anything Solvent's issued since his debut. This turn to less kitsch, weirder atmospheres is most welcome.
Seattle producer Relcad (Alex Duff) follows up last year's outstanding experimental-techno debut, The Dumb Thing, with Capitol Island (Pleasure Boat), another phenomenal excursion into unconventional dance music. Once again, Relcad proves himself to be an artist of fathoms-deep sound-design skills. He imbues the nine tracks on Capitol Island with singularly strange textures and beats that skirt fancifully around the 4/4 template you've heard in millions of techno tracks. Everything old sounds new in Relcad's hands. Many of the tracks here feature spectral voices haunting the periphery (see especially "Morning Breaks" and "You Bring the Juice"), adding intrigue to already fascinating pieces. The concluding title track—which meshes the most sublime elements of Detroit and Köln techno—contains possibly the most gorgeous electronic music you will hear all year. Pleasure Boat boss Ian Scot Price extolled Capitol Island to me in the strongest possible terms, and he wasn't hyperbolizing. This album belongs in all techno lovers' top 10 for '10.
San Francisco's Marc Smith heads the respected Auralism label while creating his own elegant brand of techno for it. He's not so much about the bangers as he is about the suave seducers, the well-wrought, understated charmers. In that worthwhile niche, Smith's golden.
Solvent and Relcad perform with Lusine Fri June 25, Electric Tea Garden, 9 pm, 21+; Marc Smith performs Sat June 26, Electric Tea Garden, 9 pm, 21+. Both shows members only.