A timeworn means of rebelling against one’s parents: loud guitar music. But in Evan Majumdar-Swift’s case, embracing rock’n’roll represented a rejection of another strain of music long associated with youthful hijinks. His father, Matthew Swift, is hardly your garden-variety Boomer: In the 1980s, he’d been one of the promoters of Jive Turkey, a beloved Sheffield club night known for its interracial crowd and cutting-edge mixture of funk, soul, and electro. Warp Records was born there; the club’s resident DJs, Winston Hazel and Parrot, were responsible for two of the legendary electronic label’s first three records. So how else for young Majumdar-Swift to declare independence than to choose stoner rock over his father’s hoary old acid-house 12″s?
Eventually, though, he came around. By 17, Majumdar-Swift was programming beats on a screen, and within six months, he’d come up with a song good enough to make it onto his debut EP the following year. That record, perhaps not coincidentally, had more than a little in common with those original bleep’n’bass anthems that his father’s club night catalyzed, 32 years prior. The magic of computer circuitry had brought Majumdar-Swift full circle.
You can probably tell that Majumdar-Swift—alias 96 Back—has a thing for the rearview mirror. Until now, most of his output has drawn sustenance from the 1990s in one form or another, folding elements of classic techno, electro, and IDM into elegant if slightly anonymous throwback jams. By last year’s Sugilite EP, he had developed some genuinely impressive chops, reeling off a pitch-perfect invocation of Aphex Twin and Squarepusher circa 2001. But 9696Dream, the first installment of a projected trilogy, marks a major step toward developing a style all his own.
Majumdar-Swift’s music remains rooted in dance music’s past, but it’s no longer fixated on it. Instead of recreating well-worn sounds, he seems more interested in stripping them for parts. “Sat In” opens the album with exploratory chords that fizzle expectantly; synths squiggle around a tentative boom-tick beat, not a million miles away from Isolée’s spindly etudes circa Rest. “Freepass for Them” begins with an insistent groove reminiscent of Carl Craig at his most emphatic, then pivots to a chilly, square-wave melody that hums like a fluorescent tube. Couching an unrelenting rhythm in soft swirls of static, it’s an unexpected anthem—an android wolf in electric sheep’s clothing. Another neat mix of opposites, “Phone” pairs the glistening timbres of Japanese ambient techno with the desiccated downbeat of Detroit’s Urban Tribe; “RJam for Harp,” a highlight of the record’s back half, smooths blippy grime synths into a slippery electro jam.
There’s a dreamlike quality to these songs, one reinforced by their brevity. Rather than the six or eight-minute runtimes so common in club music, 96 Back’s tracks last four or three or even two—just enough time to set the stage and then, frequently, pull out the rug. The title track, for example, begins with a silky flourish of pads, then tightens its focus around a juddering, spring-loaded arpeggio. Twisting and turning, the melody moves like an animal running a maze, confused yet undaunted. Two-thirds of the way through, it stops, sniffs, and changes direction. The song’s movements have an emotional pull that’s hard to define, with a lyricism to their ebb and flow that’s rare for dance music.
Ultimately, 9696Dream’s ambiguity—melancholy and mysterious yet also playful and a little rogue—is what makes it so unusual, and so satisfying. Sometimes it feels like an ambient record with teeth; elsewhere, it’s club music with puppy-dog eyes. “Hide_NGroove” is a beautiful example of 96 Back’s enigmatic expressive abilities. Made of little more than neon-tinged synths flashing around a 4/4 kick, it encapsulates the kinds of themes that have animated techno for the past…
Read More: 96 Back: 9696 Dream Album Review