Review: Skee Mask – Compro (Ilian Tape)

Bryan Müller belongs to a rare cult of producers who were excelling before they could legally enter a nightclub. As ‘SCNTST,’ the Bavarian native found himself signed to Boyz Noize Records around the age of 17, and following some seminal albeit functional releases under this moniker, Müller got picked up by the Zenker Brothers, whose Munich-based label Illian Tape was quickly becoming one of the most unanimously respected projects in electronic music. Conscious of how the media exposure he’d garnered up until that point had focused obsessively on his young age rather than his music, Müller donned the moniker Skee Mask, and began to release prodigiously under Ilian Tape, trading SCNTST’s euphoric synths for Skee Mask’s signature hazy pads and twisted drums. Around that time seismic changes were being felt on the club circuit: tastes changed and diversified as moodier, Berghain-approved Techno loosened its grip, yielding to ‘revived’ styles from further afield. As Jungle, Breaks and Electro found more of an audience in European circles, integrating them into Techno became more and more alluring for European producers.

Müller’s first few EP-length releases as Skee Mask did just that, quickly establishing him as a kind of Techno Wunderkind – ‘one to watch’. Foreshadowing things to come, 2014’s ‘Serum’ EP boasted Müller’s potential as Skee Mask – its deftly programmed, stepping drum patterns and sub-aquatic, healing pads set a precedent for things to come. A year later, after his second EP ‘Junt,’ was released, people started seriously talking — Müller’s ‘mysterious’ Skee Mask persona also became the subject of more and more speculation. However exciting his music sounded, people thought they knew what to expect: hard-hitting, esoteric, bedroom-fantasist electronics focused on the dance floor.

This all changed in February 2016 when Müller totally exceeded expectations, putting out his first LP, ‘Shred.’ A mind-blowing tour de force, the album was met with universal praise from the moment it was released. With ‘Shred,’ Müller asserted to the world what he was capable of when given more room for manoeuvre on an LP-length release. Flawlessly waxing and waning in pace and intensity, underpinned by Müller’s masterful grasp of sound synthesis, ’Shred’ established a musical universe of its own; a never-ending landscape in monochrome.

In the two years since ‘Shred,’ Müller has put out another two EPs on his own ‘Ilian Skee’ series — ‘IS002’ and ‘2012’ – that further explored his penchant for sharp, floor-focused bangers. Adding his signature revitalizing touch to Jungle and Breaks, in an evermore ambitious range of tempos, tentatively trying his hand at a high-octane Jungle workout, ‘Skreet Level Dub,’ on his ‘2012’ release. While these releases were hinting at new directions for Skee Mask, Müller had also been working on his second, hotly anticipated LP, ‘Compro,’ on Ilian Tape.

‘Compro,’ shows off Müller’s signature dexterity in programming drum loops at an almost schizophrenic range of tempos. The majority of the album inhabits the 150-bpm-and-over category, whilst the few Jungle-influenced tunes with which the album is peppered (‘Kosmic Flush,’ being a highlight) contrast really well with slower ones like ‘Rev8617,’ (more of a hip hop beat than a floor-ready dance tune, complete with a meandering, blissful melody). Although definitely more melodic than his previous work, the album certainly isn’t short of harder sounds: incisive breaks make several appearances, most effectively in ‘Dial 247,’ a deadly club-ready, zoned-out heater at a functional 132 BPM. What is consistently stunning about ‘Compro’ (and Skee Mask’s music in general) is that remarkable grasp of distance. The 6th track of the album, ‘Soundboy Ext.,’ shows this off flawlessly, contrasting a claustrophobic, somewhat manic drum loop with a boundlessly warming pad – that’s makes a Skee Mask track so unmistakable, the 3 Dimensional depth.

Somewhere on YouTube there’s a video of Brian Eno sat in a studio with a BBC journalist, musing on a contentious topic: how exactly does a producer create a drum loop that doesn’t sound tedious, but ‘interesting,’ and ‘human?’ Still in his studio using some version of Logic, he demonstrates by splicing a generic stock drum loop into a more dynamic pattern, tweaking it to sound like a kind of free-form Jazz. This kind of human touch, that makes great producers so much better than good producers, really reveals itself in ‘Compro,’ both in the loose-wristed, uncannily ‘human’ feeling drums in ‘Calimance,’ and in the more regimented machine-rhythms of ‘Via Sub Mids,’ one of the most forward-thinking tracks on the album: a brittle articulation of the newer pastures European producers are exploring with 170 electronica (think Copenhagen’s Rune Bagge). In the midst of more and more nostalgic music that merely revives Jungle, Breaks or Hardcore, ‘Compro’ acts as a lesson on how to reshape those genres into something new.

When first listening to ‘Compro,’ it’s hard not to also have ‘Shred’ in your mind from the onset. Whether that’s a bad thing or not is up for debate. Something about listening to ‘Compro’ gives you that same awe-inspired feeling. With a project like Skee Mask, whose work comprises such idiosyncrasy, so many recurring motifs, it’d hardly be surprising if ‘Compro’ sounded more similar to ‘Shred’ than it does – the genius is that they’re not that similar-sounding at all. Listening to ‘Compro,’ it’s clear that Müller’s boundaries have shifted: polyrhymic, more UK-enthused, doused in blissful, colourful melody, Müller has taken that same uniquely fluent Skee Mask touch to exciting new places.

Highly recommended listening.

Compro is out now on Ilian Tape.

Words: Alex Davidson

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