Focal: Polarity
Ultimae Records

The French label Ultimae Records has truly distinguished itself with its latest release: with two CDs and a sixteen-page booklet packaged in a sleek three-panel sleeve, Polarity is one of the classiest presentations of a compilation I've seen in a long time. With its discs split between ambient and techno mixes, the release sees Arnaud Galoppe, known as both Focal and Kinosura, behind the decks, expertly weaving thirteen tracks on each disc into thoroughly engrossing wholes. Interestingly, his initial association with Ultimae came about when he was brought on board in 2011 to manage its Lyon record shop; having last year contributed a remix to James Murray's Ghostwalk EP, Galoppe now steps out with a superb release of his own, even if its contents largely feature the work of others.

Dub's the prevailing style in both cases, something one might glean from a mere scan of the participants. Resoe (Dennis Bøg), Variant (Stephen Hitchell), Deadbeat (Scott Monteith), Beat Pharmacy (Brendon Moeller), and CV313 (Hitchell again) are some of the producers featured, while Galoppe himself appears under the Kinosura name. Though many artists appear in both mixes, they're represented by different tracks in most cases, with only a couple repeating in ambient and techno versions.

In the first half, the dub-ambient template is established instantly when “Inverted Spring” by Aes Dana (Ultimae co-owner Vincent Villuis) ushers in a creeping landscape of sweeping metallic noises, evocative synth atmospheres, and low-slung beats. Yes, beats do appear in the mix's ambient half, and not just in the opening cut either, but they do so without betraying the general ambient character of the whole. Merovee (Alexis Nemtchenko) builds upon Aes Dana's intro by adding rattles and creature noises to “They Own the Night,” after which Valanx (Arne Weinberg) slyly works a smattering of jungle into “Dance of Death.” Listeners familiar with Hitchell's productions won't be surprised that the thickest of winds blows through his Variant outing “Distant Shadows”; Area's “Malefactor,” on the other hand, strips away much of the density to let a simple keyboard figure chime sweetly—until, that is, Deadbeat's “Entonacion Chilena (Atacama Mix)” and Beat Pharmacy's “Cape May,” all steely sheets of reverb-smeared sound, arrive to build the layers back up again. Each piece on the hour-long disc flows into the next, resulting in an expertly crafted mix that's elegant in design, cool in character, and modulated with precision.

Naturally the techno ‘side' is the more muscular of the two. It takes but two minutes for bass throb to intensify the rhythmic thrust of Kinosura's “Paradoxical Escape,” after which a pulsing kick drum surfaces to further mark the material as techno. The mix builds from there, growing ever punchier with Claudio PRC's “Hyacinth (Remodel),” while the dub vibe also intensifies in corresponding manner. By the time the third cut, Beat Pharmacy's “Tone,” arrives, the mix is motoring at full steam and even, with Alexandre Lehmann's pumping ZZZZRA cut “Aquilonia,” getting funky. A mid-mix apex is reached with the arrival of Deadbeat's “Entonacion Chilena,” a prototypical Monteith production whose slippery dub-techno groove lunges forth with fierce determination, while another occurs five cuts later when Hitchell's towering CV313 contribution “Beyond Air” materializes. One final peak arrives near the end when the tribal thunder of Merovee's “A Call to Worship” paves the way for Aes Dana's hard-grooving outro “Otherness.”

Much of the booklet, by the way, is dedicated to images of artwork created by Suzy Lelièvre and Raphaël Kuntz, ‘plasticians' who, using a sphere as a starting point, generated countless variations that suggest hard-surface substances of a geological and vegetative nature. The through-line from the artwork to Galoppe's mixes concerns the way the artists involved dramatically shape their respective base materials to produce dynamic new forms.

July 2017