As dancefloors stand still across the world due to the ongoing pandemic, underground dance music is facing an existential challenge like none other seen previously. While DJs and producers are struggling to find alternative income streams to make up for lost live music revenue, it’s also a weird time for the listener, as it doesn’t seem right at times to listen to the same music you would hear in the club while locked down in your house for months on end. Cosmic Transmission, the second LP from Zenker Brothers, released on their own Ilian Tape imprint, understands this and steps away from their usual leftfield techno sound to something more organic, full of warmth and marbled with psychedelia, as befits the colourful album art.
Ever since Skee Mask’s Compro, the full-lengths put out on Ilian Tape have flirted with atmospherics and aesthetic influences from 90s IDM, dub and breakbeat, but they have been still grounded in dancefloor-friendly techno. On Cosmic Transmission, this has taken a backseat, and there are few straight-forward tunes on offer, with even the more danceable tracks shying away from simple four-to-the-floor rhythms or song structures that would easily slot into a mix. A skittering, restless energy pervades the music on the record, where instead of settling into an expected groove, tracks will take on flights of fancy, introducing big hooks where you’d expect a track to be winding down or transitioning into an outro where an usual track would ramp up intensity. The tracks with the most conventional structures end up being “Transforming Well” and “Transcending”, both of which sound far closer to the cinematic trip-hop of Wagon Christ rather than typical Ilian Tape fare.
On the album, Zenker Brothers show themselves to be masters of deconstructing dance music, decontextualizing tropes by using them in ways where they are least expected. This produces some of the most joyful moments of the album. “Let Loose” takes a lead straight from the hook of a trance anthem, and uses it not unlike Barker or Christina Barbieri, where overt percussion is stripped out and the synth itself makes up the foundation of the track. “One for All” is like a bizarro world version of piano house, where the low end is a burbling wall of synths and the piano stabs pop out of a dayglo haze of gliding, swirling pads. This tongue-in-cheek approach is seen on the more traditional tracks as well, take for example how “Intense Incense” breaks the tension in its rolling broken beat techno by introducing a wonderfully over the top cowbell.
Another strong suit of the production duo is their ear for a melody. From the aforementioned synth workouts, to the beautiful ambient intro “When Nothing Is Safe” which sounds like how waking up in a patch of sunshine feels like, all of the album is suffused in gorgeous pads and a hazy warmth. It is not just the synthwork where this stands out, “Natural Connection” is a techno number structured around an earworm melodic bassline that commands the track to the point where the dancing hats and Detroit-esque spacey melodies around it are barely necessary. The only misstep on the album is “Who’s in Control”, a dub number that leans too hard into the psychedelia more subtly explored on the rest of the album, leading to a track that seems simplistic and somewhat unnecessary compared to the rest of the album.
Ilian Tape has had a fantastic 2020, with a number of releases that should be considered among the best of the year, from Andrea’s album to EPs by Surgeon, Pessimist, Skee Mask and others. While Cosmic Transmission might not immediately align with them sonically, it is just as high quality, and the more one listens to it, the more obvious it is that it is a perfect statement of the label’s ethos in its own right.
Cosmic Transmission is out now on Ilian Tape. Preview the album on Soundcloud below: