Release Date: Oct 14, 2016
Record label: XL
Genre(s): Electronic, Pop/Rock
The conventional wisdom says that punk and electronic music aren’t supposed to mix, but the two genres have a long, proud history together. Suicide, Devo, Throbbing Gristle, Big Black: All of them put electronics at the center of their practice and made a fearsome racket while doing it. And why not? Electronic instruments are the ultimate DIY tools.
This first time we heard news of Powell’s debut album was through emails he sent to fans, who had obtained his contact info through rants he posted on billboards in New York and London. That nugget of background alone is enough to give you an idea of how likely Sport is to favor unconventionality, but when paired with Powell’s historically bizarre sense of humor, it would be odd if Sport was anything but a wild ride. Powell fulfills that promise.
Powell is the Mr Robot of electronica, hacking its code to create an idiosyncratic style that’s truly off-grid. On his debut album, bizarre elements that shouldn’t make sense – looped bass guitar thrums, Skype calls, 8-bit bloops, static and distortion – knot together to make wilfully obstreperous tunes, coming as much from ATP-era noise-rock (he sampled Nirvana producer and Big Black member Steve Albini, much to Albini’s chagrin) as they do computer wizardry. Here, melody takes a backseat to punk drums and bass.
Dance music made by bands can often lead to pretty average outcomes. Electronic musicians with a penchant for punk, on the other hand, often yield far more interesting results. This is where Powell and his debut LP for XL Recordings come in.For all intents and purposes, Sport is a punk record: It's got simple, catchy bass lines, nods to counter-culture and the ability to get you thoroughly riled up.
Powell's promotional antics have earned him a reputation as an unpredictable provocateur. Just as he straddles genres, drawing in elements of techno, EBM, post-punk and no wave, his persona seems driven by an impulse to do whatever other people are not doing. By plastering pissed-off emails from Steve Albini on billboards, putting his own email address on public display and running a promotional campaign based on crushing watermelons, he's created a series of surprising, cryptic and at times grating spectacles that have forced attention onto his music.
Sport is the debut full-length from Oscar Powell, a London-based producer and DJ who earned a considerable amount of acclaim for his early EPs, which were primarily released on Diagonal, the label he co-founded with Jaime Williams in 2011. Powell creates gritty, disjointed experimental techno that has far more in common with '80s post-punk and industrial than any prevailing dance music trends of the 2010s. He delights in bringing non-club music to the club, and his tracks feature grubby drums and guitars as well as buzzing, broken-sounding synths.
You can’t fault Oscar Powell for trying something different. The darkly humoured, almost troll-like producer has been crafting increasingly challenging dance music for the best part of a decade, drawing influences from the most experimental of post-punk and the headiest of techno. He most famously “broke the internet” with a Billboard of an email rant he received from Steve Albini on club culture, and news of his debut album ‘Sport’ arrived via emails he’d sent to fans.
I like Powell. I like his dry humour, and more importantly I like his music. Back in 2011, I heard his debut release, ‘The Ongoing Significance Of Steel and Flesh’, and was enticed by this weird little release, with it’s seedy, noir-y, post punk atmosphere - it made total sense that Karl O Connor was on remix duties, and the Downwards lot were into it too, as it was dark, brooding dance music which owed more to grimy post punk with images of run down council estates of Eighties Britain than anything else.
The underground electronic producer Powell has caught some sun in the past year with a couple of playful/terrifying singles, as well as a commendable willingness to butt heads with his heroes like the dance-despising Nirvana producer Steve Albini. Sadly, the aggressive discordance of Powell’s kitsch-glitch aesthetic drags horribly on this debut. It’s all treble, no bass, all foreplay with no follow-through.
There is balletic precision to be found in the sport of Greco-Roman wrestling. As the two men grapple upon the mat, each successful move is conceived through prudent planning and then subsequently executed with burly dynamism. On Sport, Powell grapples with genres, live samples and mutated electronics before finally pinning to the floor a tumultuous and mind-bending cacophony.
During that opening blast of weird, muddy 12” singles in 2011 and 2012, one of the most intriguing things about Powell was his effective anonymity. You could hear that there was a person behind these knackered-sounding, Frankenstein’s monster beats roughly stitched together from drum machine, synthesiser murk and hotwired vocal samples, but whoever that necromancer was, he remained essentially faceless. There’s something precious about that degree of distance: it was what lent records like Body Music, ‘Rider’ and ‘Oh No New York’ much of their eerie charge, as they seemed to stumble, grey-fleshed and volatile, straight out of the same parallel-universe urban interzone as sonic kin such as the Skull Disco crew, the brittle-boned dub mania of T++, and those early Regis 12”s that sounded like they’d been mastered inside a wheelie bin.