It has been an interesting couple of years for the former holy trinity of the UK’s blackened and gloom-shrouded post-industrial dance deconstructionists: Raime picked up guitars and turned into a post-hardcore band, Haxan Cloak started collaborating with Björk and composing film scores with NIN's Atticus Ross, and Demdike Stare doubled-down hard on their techno roots with a series of extremely beat-oriented 12" singles. Sean Canty and Miles Whittaker’s latest full-length roughly picks up right where the extremely varied Testpressing series left off, leaving behind most of the duo's more indulgently bleak and bombastic tendencies for something considerably more visceral, pared-down, and propulsive. While I almost always favor the more abstract/drone side of the spectrum to the dancefloor, Demdike Stare prove to be the rare exception to that rule, as they are a hell of lot more listenable when their darkness is more understated and spectral. Some more melody admittedly would be nice, but Wonderland is quite a strong, striking, and beautifully focused work.
I have long had a complex and shifting relationship with Demdike Stare, as they can be quite bombastic and ponderous at times and their more club-themed material is very much a snapshot of this moment in dance music's evolution, presumably dooming it all to obsolescence within a few years. Also, there is not any one Demdike Stare song or album that I can point to and say "this is brilliant." Nevertheless, Canty and Whittaker seem to have unerring great taste and intuition. Most obviously, that taste manifests itself in their excellent DDS imprint, but Demdike Stare's music (particularly recently) manages to seamlessly draw in inspiration from many disparate and cool sub-genres and spit it out into perfectly chiseled and visceral percussion work-outs that sound distinctly and recognizably their own. That is no simple feat with starkly beat-based music. Though the most memorable part of the opening "Curzon" is the brooding synth crescendo, the real magic lies in the complexity and dynamic vibrancy of the groove. There is nothing consciously ostentatious or virtuosic happening, but the beat makes many wonderfully shuffling and percolating transitions and they all feel beautifully organic and necessary. The following "Animal Style" is even more rhythmically inspired, gradually transforming a fun and stuttering loop into something sounds like an off-kilter and wonderful skittering Muslimgauze at his most aggressively polyrhythmic.
Aside from being so single-mindedly propulsive and beat-based, the other real surprise with Wonderland is just how incredibly varied those beats can be. For example, "Sourcer" sounds like clattering, off-kilter, and out-of-control drum n' bass mashed together with stuttering pitch-shifted snatches of reggae toasting. Elsewhere, "FullEdge" feels like a maniacal futurist polka. In general, however, Canty and Whittaker's primary aesthetic is still quite industrial-damaged, as the duo are clearly very fond of harsh metallic textures. My favorite piece in that vein is "Airborne Latency," which sounds simultaneously blown-out, grinding, relentless, and weirdly Latin. Also: quite precarious, as the beat has a wonderful tendency to seamlessly shift gears between simmering, explosive, and buried, as well as a penchant for fills and textural flourishes wild enough to threaten to derail the groove entirely. Aside from that, the pieces that stand out the most are the ones where the duo take a break from their relentless momentum. "Hardnoise," for example, unexpectedly dissolves into a cheerfully burbling and woozy synth coda. The most significant and intriguing curveballs come at the end of the album though, as the brief "Fridge Challenge" eschews beats entirely for a densely squirming and warped synth motif and some amusing and disorienting field recordings of airport flight announcements. The closing “Overstaying” is yet another gem, as it unexpectedly kicks off with a strong and sexy hook, then perversely truncates and deconstructs it into a hissing, pulsing, and stumbling "locked groove" beat.
If Wonderland has a fault, it is only that Canty and Whittaker are master craftsmen and resourceful sonic magpies working within the somewhat rigid and ephemeral realm of contemporary dance music rather than legitimate visionaries. Given the dearth of true visionaries around, it is hard to complain much about that. Anyone well-versed in the UK dance underground can probably spot Demdike’s influences quite easily on this particular album, but that does not make these pieces any less visceral or sharply presented: Canty and Whittaker have a singular knack for vibrant, crisp, and inventively multilayered rhythms as well as a newfound talent for aggressively trimming away unnecessary clutter and fat. While I suspect that Wonderland is too single-mindedly contemporary and beat-focused to have much longevity, it certainly sounds great for now. Perhaps the next album will offer a bit more in the way of hooks, depth, and soul, but the duo's recent departure from brooding gloom is a very big step in the right direction: this feels like the work of a beautifully engineered and perfectly calibrated machine, which is fine by me. While I have yet to fully process the Testpressing series, Wonderland sure as hell seems like a focused and concise distillation of those explorations, resulting in the most listenable and immediately gratifying album of Demdike Stare's career.