Listening to Reflekzionz reminds me of flicking through a scrapbook of faded photographs of scenes from non-descript British towns: a kids’ playground on a suburban housing estate, a deserted bandstand in a park, a seaside pier and shuttered amusement arcade. I imagine the weather in these scenes to be cloudy and overcast – maybe a mist of drizzle – as it usually is in Great Britain. And although that might sound a bit bleak, there’s something comforting in the familiarity of that kind of day – just as there is something soothing and nostalgic in the grainy distortion of these 12 compositions, and the simple chiming melodies that pierce through the clouds of fuzz.
Reflekzionz is an understated album that doesn’t smack the listener in the face from the get-go. And in fact it took a few listens to decide whether I truly liked it, but having grown more accustomed to the haunting, curious little world that Ekoplekz has created, my appreciation has only deepened.
Ekoplekz, aka Nick Edwards, spent much of the 1990s producing his own music and playing in various bands, but despite his best efforts never ‘made it’. He then switched from making music to writing about it and went on to document the rise of the Dubstep scene in Bristol and beyond in the early 2000s as ‘Gutterbreakz’. And then in a final twist of fate surprising to him as much as anyone, the 2010’s saw him finally launch a career as a successful musician, going on to release a slew of albums on the legendary Planet Mu label, of which Reflekzionz is the third.
These tracks certainly sound like a product of an artist whose influences lie in the 1990s and earlier, rather than any contemporary genres. Everything is 100% analogue and there is distortion, delay and reverb aplenty – echoes of Dub, Industrial and the stew of experimental electronic pioneers whose roots can be traced back beyond rave to the post-punk music of the 1980s.
Ekoplekz has pulled off that enviable feat, surely the holy grail among ‘bedroom producers’, of creating a completely idiosyncratic sound, instantly recognisable as his own. There are certainly dubwise influences to be found, in that every track is bathed in a wash of hiss and reverb, and the dreamy way the melody occasionally threatens to drift out of sync with the beat – but this is definitely not a Dub record. Otherwise, it calls to mind the tunes Aphex Twin and µ-Ziq (Mike Paradinas) were releasing around 1993-94, before they incorporated the breakbeats of the burgeoning Jungle scene into their music and everything went all hectic and complex.
I Care Because You Do in particular, shares the same rugged organic quality as the tracks on Reflekzionz. The sounds have an earthiness and a rawness that gives the music a sense of timelessness – divorced from any contemporaneous musical trends. Tango’n’Vectif by µ-Ziq – although now considered a seminal part of the electronic movement that exploded in Britain in the early 90s – is another record that feels out of time, and bears little relation to the musical environment it was released into. Mike Paradinas was inspired by Detroit Techno and did his best to channel Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Carl Craig, but being a young and inexperienced producer with limited access to equipment, the result was something that sounded oddly off-kilter. The music press coined the term ‘electronica’ in an attempt to categorise the music Paradinas and others were creating, but to him and Aphex Twin, it was just ‘British Techno’.
So what of Ekoplekz? A Caustic Romance opens the album with a crunchy beat that lacks the propulsion of techno but plods along steadily and defiantly, accompanied by an innocent-sounding music-box melody. Everything is caked in distortion and fuzz and the tones Ekoplekz deals in are generally quite simple bleeps, bloops and plinking melodies, giving the album a pleasingly gritty lo-fi feel. But this simplicity belies the artistry in the way the sounds have been degraded and distorted; the way delay and reverb is applied to give every element a series of flickering shadows – a beat can become a melody, the echo of a bassline can come back as a beat, a synth line can distort itself into a percussive hit.
Ekoplekz’s compositions aren’t nimble – there are no sudden drops or dazzling lurches in tempo – but the wizardry lies in their insistence. Shielded in dust and distortion they worm their way into your brain; hiding under a cloak of familiarity they nestle among more deeply buried memories. Ekoplekz doesn’t tend to make use of samples, at least none that are recognisable, to pepper his music with cultural signifiers – no Hip-hop breakbeats, snippets from Funk and Soul or pirate radio MC shout outs – the common landmarks of urban electronic music. And his rhythms aren’t danceable as such; though there is always the sense of steady forward motion, a track like Canon’s Marsh doesn’t invite one to throw any shapes.
But that’s not to say there aren’t some ‘sick tunes’ on Reflekzionz. Seduktion opens with a twisted synth pattern that sounds like it could’ve been salvaged from an acid house track left to decay in a junkyard for several decades. Like the classic Dub producers who utilised the mixing desk as an instrument in its own right, manipulating levels on the fly to create new compositions, Ekoplekz uses reverb and echo to induce a cavernous sense of space, into which a sonar-like bleeping pulse takes over from the acid line. Though the beat proceeds at a snail’s pace, there’s so much delay on all the other elements it feels like the track is moving at multiple tempos at once as everything shuffles to catch up with itself. The effect is indeed Seduktive.
Elsewhere, on Downtone for example, Ekoplekz shows off his rare knack for painting highly emotive and haunting scenes from sparse elements. A simple but deeply melancholy chord pattern is overlaid with a staccato beat; aside from gradual tweaks to the filter on the beat there is little variation in the track, which evokes a windy, rainy Pennine landscape – desolate but beautiful. The aptly titled Midnight Cliffs follows in the same vein, again feeling like more than the sum of its parts, in the same way that Aphex Twin used ghostly tones and decayed and blurry melodies to induce a sense of dreamlike unknowableness on the monolithic SAW2.
Some listeners will no doubt be put off by Reflekzionz’s somewhat sombre vibe. But anyone who cut their teeth on classic electronic music from the early 90s, or prefers the warmth and fuzziness of analogue over the cold clarity of digital, should find something to enjoy here.