µ-Ziq – Scurlage (2021) – Album Review

Much of Scurlage was written while Mike Paradinas spent a family holiday on the Gower Peninsula in Wales, during lockdown in 2020. Rather than an idyllic get-away in one of the most scenic parts of the country, from the opening bars of first track, Blakers Loop, you might think Mike had a somewhat nightmarish time on the Gower. An eerie vocal sample does battle with ricocheting drums and frenzied synths, plunging us straight into a horror-movie chase scene where every element is competing to sound as taut and tense as possible. I would’ve been tempted to dub it ‘witch house’ had I not discovered such a genre already exists (and sounds pretty close to this).

This is the first album of new material from electronic music stalwart and head honcho of the Planet Mu label since 2013’s Chewed Corners. Like many of his contemporaries, he’s put out a trove of previously unreleased archive material in the interim, largely under his search-engine defying µ-Ziq alias. I must confess to having always felt kinda bad for Mike Paradinas. Despite his longevity; the consistency of his output; and ability to shapeshift between dozens of sub-genres, moving with the times and always managing to sound like himself, he still seems to be overlooked in the so-called ‘Intelligent Dance Music’ scene.

There’s no doubt that becoming friends with Richard James (aka Aphex Twin) back in the early days must’ve boosted Paradinas’ profile as a young artist – and got his debut album released on James’ now legendary Rephlex Records label. But the ongoing association with such a revered and chameleonic figure must have been trying at times, to have your work constantly compared not only with another artist, but one of the most gifted producers of a generation.

But in terms of influence, Paradinas’ could arguably be more far reaching than Aphex Twin’s. The much-respected Planet Mu Records – initially set up by Virgin as an imprint for µ-Ziq’s releases on the label back when the majors improbably thought ‘Intelligent Dance Music’ was going to be the next big thing – has acted as tastemaker and champion of new artists for the last two decades. Planet Mu was an integral part of the early 00s ‘breakcore’ explosion (introducing the twisted genius of Venetian Snares to the wider world), a torchbearer for dubstep and grime in the late 00s; then moved with the times again in the 2010s when juke and footwork became flavor du jour. Under Paradinas, the label has blazed a unique trail and promoted dozens of artists responsible for developing and evolving electronic music into its myriad forms.

This maximal ‘more is more’ approach has always tended to characterise Mike Paradinas’ own music, which he’s released under a ton of pseudonyms, µ-Ziq being the best known. Recognisable for his often goofy and light-hearted approach, and for building dense tracks out of layers upon layers of melodic loops and distorted percussion. Although there are a couple of tell-tale contemporary signifiers on Scurlage, much of it feels like could’ve been produced at almost any point in Paradinas’ career. I’m sure for many listeners this will be a resounding strength, although it does have the effect of making the album seem like something of career-highlights romp, condensing 30 years of musical evolution into 45 minutes.

After the frenzied opening of Blakers Loop, we pivot to Preston Melodics, which instantly sounds like classic µ-Ziq – a funky electro bassline juxtaposed with a fidgety beat and uplifting synth melody. If you disregard the professional production, it could sound like an offcut from his 1993 debut – the iconic sounds of analogue synths playing an optimistically carefree optimistic. This, along with a couple of other tracks that sound like vintage Paradinas (albeit with a 2020 production finish), is what constitutes Scurlage’s strongest moments. Blauwasser has the same retro feel; apparently named after the shopping centre, it’s easy to imagine it soundtracking a brightly coloured 80s TV commercial featuring smiling shoppers in neon outfits, greeting a new decade of late-stage capitalism. And the penultimate track, Bentley which with its perky electro drum hits and simple keys melody sounds like something unearthed from the hard-disk inside a miniature Casio keyboard (in the best possible way). The chirpiness of these tracks belies how tricky they are to pull off, but Paradinas manages to strike that balance of being retro and fun without resorting to cheesiness.

Another third of Scurlage consists of harsher, darker tracks, which do a good job of preventing the mood from ever becoming cloying but ultimately in my view, are the weaker spots. Sketty is a rehash of Blakers Loop – trappy percussion fighting it out with haunted synth stabs in a tense hellish rave-off. A midway breakdown introduces new melodic components, which suggest the track will meander somewhere more interesting but then we’re sent spinning back into the frenzy. Slade Teacher makes up the third member of this spooky trio with electric piano and strings, again sounding as though pilfered from a horror film, atop some by now very familiar overdriven breakbeats. Proceedings do at least end on a highlight, in the shape of Strawberry Aero; incidentally not the first Paradinas track to be named after an unlikely foodstuff (see Organic Tomato Yoghurt from his 1994 album, Bluff Limbo). Rather than being sweet and bubbly, Strawberry Aero is a downtempo ambient piece that fades things out beautifully in muted tones of string, piano and what sounds like a metronome that’s been lowered into a mineshaft, its ticks reverberating in a cavernous space.

It’s characteristic of the album as a whole, and in fact much of µ-Ziq’s discography – that his best moments come when he plays it a bit lighter and doesn’t overcomplicate things. Of course, someone with the career achievements of Mike Paradinas has nothing to prove. And for anyone who’s already a fan, Scurlage will surely be a welcome addition to a storied collection. The combination of retro melodies, trademark breakbeats and quirky mood sounding like so much that’s come before, yet at the same time, like µ-Ziq and no-one else.

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