Exotic ésotérique Vol.2
Jungle Judgin' / Holypalms remix compilation
The Wire, June 2017
by Simon Reynolds
A visually pleasing palindrome, “Artetetra” also secretes within itself a clue to the concerns of the Italian label of the same name. “Tetra” means “four” and the Fourth World, Jon Hassell’s Eighties term for audio hybrids of West and non-West, is the placeless place out of which emanate Artetetra musics. The label goes one better at its bandcamp page, claiming citizenship of Quinto Mondo: the Fifth World. That slight escalation points to the internet’s impact on a new generation of music makers whose creative headspace is utterly deterritorialised, omnivorous audio-tourists able to scavenge influences galore without ever leaving their desks. Indeed INTERNET HOLIDAYS™ is the sly title of a joint project by Artetetra artists Hybrid Palms and Cheap Galapagos.
The “Mondo” in Quinto Mondo further winks at the Italy-spawned Sixties genre of exploitation films: documentaries whose voyeuristic enjoyment at ethnic curiosities paralleled the exotica boom of faux-Polynesian easy listening and tiki bars. Blithely unbothered by issues like exploitation and misappropriation, not just refusing to fret about the danger of ethno-kitsch but actively enjoying the ersatz and fictitious, Artetetra inhabit a free-for-all world where time and space, history and geography, get guiltlessly jumbled up.
Officially based out of their Adriatic coastal hometown Potenza Picena but operating mostly from Bologna these days, Artetetra is a little over two years old. During that time it’s released eleven single-artist albums and two compilations: Exotic ésotérique Vol.1, which launched the label, and the polemically-themed collection My Goddess has a Crazy Bush, a protest against pubic depilation and a celebration of “the natural look”. Now come two more compilations: Exotic ésotérique Vol.2, and Jungle Judgin', on which the Artetetra roster rework tracks from labelmate Holypalms’s 2016 album Jungle Judge.
A Moscow-based producer whose music is a frenetic, glittering meshwork of West African and South Asian rhythms, Holypalms is a typical Artetetra outernationalist. Other names seem like they might be alter-egos for the enigmatic duo behind the label. And still others come with colourful back stories that may have you wondering if they’re fabulations. King Gong’s Erhai Floating Sound, for instance - the label’s stand-out release so far – was supposedly recorded on the Chinese lake Erhai from a fishing boat connected by underwater cables to four other boats each carrying a speaker. “Pull the other one!” was my instant thought, but it seems that King Gong really is the alias of independent ethnomusicologist Laurent Jeanneau, who roams the Far East archiving vanishing folk musics and then electronically modulates the source sounds ( voices, gongs, Chinese mouth organs, etc) into creations like Floating Sound.
King Gong is oddly absent from Exotic ésotérique Vol.2 (although he does contribute one of the more low-key moments on the otherwise rambunctiously energetic and entertaining Holypalms remix album). Indeed Vol. 2 is as much a foretaste of signings and releases to come as it is a showcase of output to date, featuring unfamiliar names like The Mauskovic Dance Band and Los Siquicos Litoraleños. Described as a wunderkammer, a sonic cabinet of curiosities, and blended seamlessly in the mix-tape style, the compilation is far more assured and intriguing than its predecessor (now regarded as a juvenile stumble by the label). The first side “Exotic” is – as the title suggests – blatantly worldy in vibe, a beguiling safari through ethnological forgeries and far-fetched hybrids. Afropop guitars are fed through postpunk flange; Wally Badarou synths quiver and shimmy; gnarly fuzzed acid-guitar rears up against a skyline of minarets; Hassell trumpet direct from Possible Worlds or “Houses In Motion” woozes like smog draping itself over a tropical megacity. Now and then things verge on full-of-Eastern-promise cheese: BICIKL’s “Penga” features belly-dance percussion, gong-crashes, scimitar-flashing Arabian guitar. But mostly the cosmopolitanism is scrambled, the sonic cartography suggestive of magic-realist extensions to the map rather than actual existing countries. Sometimes the music suggest off-land strangeness: Los Siquicos Litoraleños’s “Misterios del Amazonas,” all glassy tinkles and bobbing splodges of keyboard, moves with the absurd-yet-effective underwater gait of a manatee.
“Esoterik”, the second side, is less ethnodelic, more abstract. Tracks by Vacuum Templi and Tacet Tacet Tacet recall the amorphous grey zones of industrial’s ambient-leaning outfits, such as Zoviet France. Other artists intersect with recent online-underground styles like vaporwave, or that texturally splattery, event-crammed style of digital experimental composition associated with labels like PAN. Electro Summer Arcade’s “ラテックスキリスト” is beached yacht rock, the hull corroded and pocked with holes. Jealousy Party’s “Polymorphic stomp” describes itself perfectly: Deleuze & Guattari’s body-without-organs trying to shake its floppy ‘n’ oozing stuff on a crowded dancefloor. As the track devolves further, imagine a musique concrète jam session involving actually sticky stuff - preserves, syrups, marmalade – as sound-sources.
Recently there’s been a discernible uptick of interest in the Fourth World concept: from Optimo’s Miracle Steps (Music From the Fourth World 1983-2017) compilation, through labels such as Discrepant, to music-sharing blogs with a penchant for the “neo geo” Japanese style of Eighties exquisiteness that blurred the borders between ambient, new age and exotica (think Midori Takada). Indeed “nat-geo 3.0” is another word Artetetra deploy on their bandcamp page, but less as a nod to Sakamoto’s neo-geo concept, they say, more as a play on National Geographic, the periodical that brought the aliens already on this planet into suburban homes and dentist waiting rooms across the West.
You could place Artetetra as the latest outcrop of a long, discontinuous tradition. Most recently, there’s been Sublime Frequencies and hypnagogic tape explorers like Spencer Clark, Sun Araw, and Lieven Martens Moana. Before that, the Nineties techno-travelogue school of Loop Guru and David Toop. The Eighties, decade of the world music boom, teemed with tourism: Holger Czukay, Malcolm Mclaren, Aksak Maboul, Byrne/Eno, Lizzy Mercier Descloux, to name just a handful. But even in the Seventies you had Joni Mitchell sampling a Burundi beat on Hissing’s “The Jungle Line,” ethno-tinged side-projects by progressive musicians like Steve Winwood, not forgetting Ginger Baker’s godawful Africa 70. Artetetra acknowledge many of these predecessors but point to the original exotica of Les Baxter and Arthur Lyman as a deeper affinity.
Exoticism – or to phrase it less problematically, an openness to sounds, instruments, and rhythmss from outside Western pop and unpop traditions – seems to come in waves, linked most likely to lull phases when renewal through external influx seems necessary or alluring. You could easily critique these practices as a hipster version of globalization: an End of Geography to match an alleged End of History, in which xenomania joins forces with retromania in a desperate ransacking drive to fill up our voids with the reinvigorating riches of other cultures, other eras. But in the disorienting new context of a world that’s furiously reterritorializing itself – I write as Le Pen and Macron face off to determine the future of Europe - the light-hearted cosmopolitanism and Other-directed curiosity that characterise Artetetra and their kindred spirits starts to seem not only valid, but valorous.