Anonymity is a funny game. For every shy, retiring bedroom producer who claims “it’s just about the music, man” there may well be a celebrated artist attempting to cash in on a hyped new style without the shackles of their reputation, or someone else equally well known hiding their own connections and position from plain sight. For whatever reason, nascent US cassette label /\\Aught, interested in “cassettes / data / ephemera” according to its Soundcloud page, has decided to forgo biography entirely with its artists. Thus far the label has quietly releasing fascinating tapes from Elizabethan Collar and Topdown Dialectic (who has previously released on Tailings and Further). Their latest tape comes from De Leon.
Juan Ponce de León was a Spanish conquistador who joined Christopher Columbus on his second expedition to the “new” world. After some unsavoury subjugation of indigenous peoples in what is now the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, he travelled to Florida in search of the Fountain of Youth. There is a town in Texas named after this man, and Google searches lead to a forthcoming Tequila of the same name. Whether any of this is tied to the artist in question is impossible to say, but such is the nature of anonymity that the reviewer or listener is free to indulge his or her own fantasies, applying an imagined history on to incorporeal sounds with no apparent origin. When pressed, the label’s spokesperson would say nothing more about the release than that “its source is a series of Gamelan compositions that were later electronically treated and mixed”. For the uninitiated, Gamelan is a style of Indonesian (predominantly Javanese and Balinese) music, largely based around a series of percussive instruments.
What we seem to have here are Gamelan rhythms chopped and looped to form a steady 4/4 electronic pulse. “01” (the tracks are untitled, of course) opens with a thrilling rattle of drums occasionally punctuated by upper-register hums and a wide, deep throb of bass. That rattle ebbs and flows until a point midway through when each element comes together in time and rhythm. Sporadic blasts of that bass take the listener away from the Gamelan context, a synthetic reminder of the artifice at the heart of this presentation. “02” builds upon seemingly “original” percussion around the mallet-laden harmonics of the recorded instruments. The blunt beauty at hand is delicately offset by the restless energy of the drums and the searing terror of a bassline seeped in dread. Bells clank and muffled groans appear throughout, adding an extra layer of bizarre disquiet. The brief judders of “03” feature Gamelan sounds stretched and layered, while a kind of harmonic percussion skiffle jerks forward in unending motion. Things get deep again with “04”, the nervous rattle of drums and sci-fi soundtrack bleeps surrounding a gentle thrum of gongs. The closing track, while just as mysterious as the rest, offers a glimpse of brightness, a hint of the rising sun after a dark night. Melodic bass and drawn-out samples meet brash strikes, repeated on beat for an effect both chilling and reassuring.
Recontextualising those foreign elements could be seen as a violent act – cultural appropriation by a western conquistador, just like this mysterious artist’s namesake. That said, there seems to be no fetishisation at work here, no parody of Indonesian dress, no lush forests depicted for the sake of portraying an “other” world. Just a blank cassette tape on which appear five pieces of intriguing experimental music that comes housed in a clear zip-lock bag.
De Leon – De Leon is out now