The myriad genres and subgenres of electronic music can often seem like indecipherable languages to those not familiar with the various intricacies and subtle signifiers that differentiate them. This being the case, an album like Obscure Languages by Gacha Bakradze acts as something of a Rosetta Stone, connecting disparate styles and suggesting new ways they might relate to one another. Over the course of a little under 45 minutes, this Georgian producer incorporates light-footed techno, electro and breakbeats into elegant and spacious soundscapes; never lingering on any one style too long but managing to tie everything together with a deftness of touch.
Although he’s only been releasing music for a couple of years, it’s clear Bakradze knows his classics – the classics of 90s electronic music that is. The unconstrained approach taken on Obscure Languages recalls seminal releases from the scene’s ‘golden period’ of around 1991 – 1995, when experimentation and cross-pollination was rife, with artists rarely allowing themselves to be pigeon-holed into one specific genre. I’m thinking of the eclectic explorations of The Black Dog (before two thirds of them splintered off to form Plaid), who welcomed Eastern mythology and musicality into their distinctive take on ambient techno. Or the endlessly inventive German trio Mouse on Mars, who incorporated a ‘live band’ feel into their fizzing crackling electronic stew. Or the often overlooked Sun Electric, who effortlessly traversed the boundaries of ambient, acid, techno and trance; back when trance meant something much mellower and more spiritual than its subsequent incarnation in the hands of superstar DJs.
Having name-checked all those influences, that’s not to say Obscure Languages is a pure retro or tribute project. Despite the ‘classical’ bent, the production sounds bang up to date, and another more recent comparison could be drawn with Floating Points, whose album Crush was one of the strongest electronic releases of 2019. On Crush, Sam Shepherd utilised his classical piano training, and combined a love of jazz with club-oriented styles like techno and future garage. The result being something that kicks in all the right places and is engaging enough for solo headphone listening.
Bakradze’s ‘classical’ instrument of choice is the guitar, and while many crimes against music have been committed by acts combining dance music with guitars, on Obscure Languages it’s employed subtly and sparingly. There’s no trace of heavy riffage or face melting solos, instead the guitar adds a sense of depth and dimension. For example on the gorgeous Slow Heart, which closes out the album, the tentative opening notes are almost Sigur Ros-like, with their promise of some kind of epic crescendo. But after a few disjointed beats ricochet off one another without quite connecting, the track quickly evaporates like water in sunlight. Elsewhere on the experimental Driver, whose lead instrument seems to be a foghorn that booms out at steady intervals, dirgey guitar distortion fills in the blanks. It feels like a nod to another early 90s scene currently enjoying a renaissance, shoegaze. Like the album as a whole, both tracks are understated and leave you wanting more.
Talking of understatement, Gacha Bakradze does an impressive job of quietly smuggling dozens of ideas into his tracks. Almost to the point where you want him to follow through on a couple of them some more and find his groove. Indivisible heralds the opening of the album with airy ambient pads, melding into a lilting melody soon joined by soothing oohs and ahhs. Everything is very pretty and pleasant but undergirding all this pleasantness various metallic clicks, pops and clangs begin to reverberate, like the sound of a stage being built. The bass, when it finally kicks in, feels like it’s coming from far below and the whole mix opens up with a vertiginous sense of scale. All this toying with our sense of space is done quite effortlessly, and Bakradze pulls off a similar trick on Frame. An acid bassline and electro-inspired beat propel the track along, but it’s the sudden detours into weightless shimmering ambience, and distant clattering and tinkling in the corners that elevate the track beyond typical dance-floor fodder.
Bakradze is often described as a ‘sound designer’, and while I’m sometimes suspicious of the pretensions of such a term, it seems appropriate in his case. In fact a more suitable (but no less pretentious) description might be ‘sound architect’. With their luxurious sense of space, the tracks on Obscure Languages are characteristic of hulking structures that have been assembled by someone with a bird’s eye view of things.
I’ve tried to make it through this review without using the term IDM (intelligent dance music), which I try to avoid wherever possible. Partly due to the implicit negative connotations (is other dance music unintelligent?) and because it’s actually not particularly descriptive. However, the term is so commonly used that one knows the kind of sound, and stylistic approach, it refers to. So anyone who harbours a fondness for old school electronic music, especially those releases that first became associated with the IDM label, will find something to enjoy on Obscure Languages. As will anyone looking for a deeply engaging headphone experience, that will continue to yield new details on each repeat listen.