This past week some friends and I took a road trip and on the way we revisited some Melbourne Deepcast mixes to pass the time. I recognized the name Arcarsenal, a group I hadn’t stayed caught up with since their first few EPs.
The car was filled with soulful and sparse percussive passages, deftly mixed. Not surprising, seeing as Alan Mathias and Etienne Dauta have been making deep house, dub techno cuts, and ambient stretches since their Brotherhood EP in 2012, released on their own Bass Cadet Records. They’ve put out eight 12”s in five years, on labels including Rue De Plaisance, Inner Balance, and Funhaus, been supported by heavy hitters like Fred P and Ben UFO, and their label’s Orbit series has had two stellar showings of choice takes by Ron Trent and Jenifa Mayanja. More than mere hobbyists, these two French natives run the Bass Cadet shop and eponymous label, while keeping their fingers in the crates and their productions increasingly thoughtful and foreword thinking. I picked up FH:03, my favorite EP of theirs and the third release from Germany’s Finest Hour Records. It may be around three years old, but it is as serene and appealing as it was on first listen, and is a great document of a group finding their sound together while pushing to stretch their limits in subtle ways.
FH:03 pays such close attention to its use of space and energy. Each song is between six and seven minutes and designed for a prolonged mix. No element here is jumpy or distracting, everything is meant to drive the floor but leave room for interpretation at both ends of the tracks. With pads both thick and thin flying over dubby percussion and skittering hats, the loosely hugging low end holds the bottom with two tired hands. Duata and Mathias let their pieces meander on the floor, only to hypnotically increase tension. Bass sinks into the mix as the loose wrist of the hi-hats tighten, revealing the slight and stepping rhythm at its core. Arcarsenal has a knack for seemingly simple production that bubbles and crowds upon repeated listens. Steady concentration and familiarity reaps the benefit of anticipation. The layers of shaved and icy percussion keep the whole affair from aimlessness. These four songs could equally fill a long car ride or the early hours in a dark club, where music is best suited to evoke moments of isolation and introspection before you reach your destination.
The opener – “Perpetual Workout” – is initially focused on flexing the core kit’s voice. Before an understated vocal sample and splashes of detuned keys drift into view, Arcarsenal gives the percussion room to breathe. The vibe is roomy and chilled, a good indication of things to come. A classic sounding dub rim claps and waves in a haze. Hats both crisp and fuzzy flick over a solid sub line that does its best to corner the bass drum’s flopping roll. At moments the cymbals slow almost to a halt as their edges are rounded and sharpened simultaneously. The male vocal sample begins by saying “I am quite aware…” in an assured tone, and it’s no wonder. “Perpetual Workout” is a great example of world building in music, where elements familiar and alien align to create a foundation for a cohesive sound across two sides.
After A1 sets the stage, earnest pads lead the way as the progression rises in “Ancient Language”. A chatty synth stutters its way around delayed chunks of thin drum fills while distant rims and bells ring out in soft slaps. The most meditative and personally affecting of the four, chunky clips of hi-hats propel the heartbeat rhythm over a sampled piano loop, caught on a note somewhere between somber and hopeful.
The B side opens with a more direct electro swagger that bolsters the most floor-ready cut on the EP. Anchored by a bouncy bass line that stalks the shoulder clapping kit “Quoth” growls but never shows its teeth. Still a heady serving, horizon length pads and some standard hi-hat work are punctuated by stuttering accents spun into distorted highs. It’s not a particularly slamming track by any means, but its disparate elements accentuate the more driving moments without veering too far from the album’s wide, swaying energy.
A determined bass line keeps the EP’s closer rolling to the end while the shining and slinky major pads of “Like Leftovers” fill the room, sticking to the edges and dripping down the walls. Soft stabs of breathy highs and a tight, cutting kit makes for a calming warmth and a perfect bookend to an EP that lets the flames flicker and lick in its dryer times, but smolders with little grit and no smoke.
So much of this album seems to spend its time in the middle of itself. The pads make the landscape; the drums, a path. You are free to walk through, taking in differing elements and briefly considering them before moving on. Like the car ride where I rediscovered this album, Arcarsenal’s FH:03 is streamlined and free of collision or rough patches. When I listen to this album now I can’t help but think of driving on the highway. When you look out the window the buildings move so slowly in the distance, the sky is flat on the horizon. The cars seem to slow next to you, matching your speed, and in that moment it seems that they stop moving completely. You can’t feel the whipping wind or see the end of the road. It’s the same in a dark crowded dance floor, in those moments where elbows are tucked but loose, hands are free, and eyes are closed. You look around, no end in sight, far from the beginning, moving so much that you almost feel completely still.
Wax Runoff is a weekly feature that will showcase new finds and crate favorites. Josh Gruder lives in Buffalo with no cats or dogs. Buying records gives him such joy, while moving boxes of records into cramped apartments haunts his dreams.