Review: Lemna – ‘Figure and Ground’ (Sacred Court)

Around five years ago, a clutch of producers began exploring one of the most exciting ruptures in the dance music continuum. Mainly coming from the more esoteric fringes of Drum and Bass, artists like ASC and Sam KDC arrange tracks by mutating shape-shifting polyrhythms into an entirely new genre, ‘breaking’ the code that linked 170 and 128 bpm. A collaboration between Clements’ imprint Auxiliary and Presha’s Samurai Horo was started, and the ‘Grey Area’ project came to life.

Since then the Grey Area label itself has seen 5 releases, anonymously credited but widely thought to have involved more-or-less that same circle of producers. The majority of ASC’s prodigious output show a dedication to impossibly spacious, zoned-out pieces of music, while recent months have seen Samurai Horo take a more industrial turn, putting out an array of abrasive-sounding releases grounded in Techno. Both of these approaches can be seen as two sides of the same coin: a newer answer to the age-old question characterising dance music. What is our future, and what does that future sound like?

One of grey area’s most dynamic renditions comes from Tokyo’s Maiko Okimoto, aka Lemna. Originally an MC on the Japanese underground circuit, Lemna’s exclusively live performances resonate deeply with faster, abstract tastes. Her 2017 EP on Horo, Urge Theory, paired Spartan sound design with a uniquely feverish ritualism, probing some truly uncharted territory that really didn’t sound like anything else produced before. 2018 was quiet, seeing her embark on a low-key tour of the EU, contributing just one track to Samurai Records’ tenth anniversary compilation. Two live sets were published online, leaving plenty of potential material for another full-length release.

Figure and Ground, sees Lemna stepping up once again for a long-anticipated EP on Sacred Court. This being an imprint curated by SNTS, she could easily have opted to go down a more familiar path and toe the line with a set of techno battle-tools coded with industrial functionality. What we have instead is something much stranger: four tracks of pure, uncompromising Lemna.

Whilst ‘Urge Theory,’ and ‘Oerea’ – her collaborative project with Sam KDC – saw Lemna explore a more ponderous, slower version of the grey area sound, ‘Sacred Court’ sees her go full-throttle into pure gyrating occultism. Polyrhythmic, strange and deeply combatant throughout, the motive behind this EP seems to have been to soundtrack the discovery of unknowable existential plots, at the neon edge of some forbidden cosmic plane.

‘Projection,’ features a slick transition from a straight 4×4 kick into a syncopated, faster signature, nicely complimented by the the paced-out drones on Convergence,’ yet both retain a simplicity that makes them malleable DJ tools. ‘Bicameral Mind,’ pulsates with the very same abyssal sense of depth that is taken to dizzying extremes on ‘Incoherent,’ the centrepiece of the EP and a highlight from Lemna’s Horo Vision podcast released at the end of 2017. Nowhere else has grey area been pushed somewhere so alien and feverishly intense, or been made to sound like such an existential rupture.

‘Futurism,’ is a well-trodden cliché in electronic music. It’s also a theme that is almost always approached retrospectively, especially on the Techno-Electro spectrum, the rust-belt nihilism of ‘80s Detroit still being unmistakably present in most floor-ready music made today. As the 21st Century unfolds with a growing sense of progress without utopia, of technology without enrichment, will the musical tropes inherited from thirty years ago still serve to describe our own, very modern dystopia? Lemna’s music is essential listening for anyone trying to answer this question, a truly modern dystopian soundtrack, a cosmic rupture with the past.

Words: Alex Davidson

Figure and Ground is out now on Sacred Court. 

Buy it here.

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