Yof you believe the accompanying press release, Glasgow-born, LA-based Ross Birchard has spent the six years since his last album as Hudson Mohawke engaged in a variety of intriguing activities. The sometime Kanye West and Drake producer has variously set up barbecues outside clubs, ready to feed bleary-eyed ravers at 7am; running “Bob Ross-style” art classes for his fellow electronic auteurs and conducting a 12-step program designed to rid people of irony. The reality seems to be that he’s spent recent years thinking about his past. In 2020, he put out three mixtapes of previously unreleased archive material, some of it dating back to the mid-00s. His new album, meanwhile, harks back even further, to the kind of bouncy happy hardcore popular in Scotland when he was a kid, which presumably trickled into his life via radio and rave tape packs.
In truth, it’s an influence that Birchard has never really got away from. He’s periodically resurrected his teenage DJ persona Mayhem and sampled happy hardcore producer Darren Styles on Shadows, from his 2015 album Lantern. That track also featured a writing credit for another hardcore legend, Gammer, with whom Birchard has regularly collaborated. Under the circumstances, it’s hard not to hope that he has spent at least some of his time in the court of Kanye West trying to interest Ye in the oeuvres of Hixxy and Dougal.
But if a love of hardcore is a thread that runs through Birchard’s work, it’s never seemed quite as explicit as on Cry Sugar. Despite the appearances of hip-hop heavyweights including Tayla Parx and the Neptunes’ Chad Hugo (they appear in the album credits alongside someone called, marvelously, Ayatollah Hogmanay) hardcore’s influence is everywhere, from the mint-inspired “hoover” synths that explode behind the heavy-lidded female vocal on Dance Forever to the sampled yelps and whoops that punctuate the beats on Tincture and Rain Shadow – recalling the light-speed adaptations of the breakbeat from Lyn Collins’s Think that powered umpteen old rave tracks. There are warped homages in the shape of Intentions – ecstatic synth stabs, a sped-up vocal sample from an old house track, in this case Copyright’s I Pray – and Bicstan, with its gibbering acid line and punishing four to the floor hardstyle kick drum . There are tracks that join the dots between hardcore and latter-day hip-hop via their shared love of squeakily accelerated vocals. Behold is welded to a trap-inspired beat but, with its fantastic clutter of helium voices, you somehow keep expecting it to suddenly double its speed and start gurning at you, bug eyed. Even gospel samples and devout lyrics – “God has smiled on me! He has set me free!” – appear under the distinctly raver-ish title Some Buzz.
You get the feeling that Birchard may have doubled down on his teenage passion because of its feverish, panicky quality: there was always something white-knuckled about happy hardcore’s approach to inducing euphoria. There’s an edge-of-chaos tone to Cry Sugar, an album on which almost every sound fizzes with distortion and the music occasionally sounds on the verge of collapse: Bow features a lovely Curtis Mayfield-esque vocal from Clarence Coffee Jr, better known as part of the production and songwriting team the Monsters and Strangerz, but the beat behind it limps painfully along and the synth lines clash against it. The beatless tracks arrive teeming with sound, too busy to be described as chilled: Lonely Days is choked with electronic noise and what sounds like a string section. Its mood swings dramatically from a kind of frenzied joy to something much darker, as on the grinding, sickly noise of KPIPE.
If you were so inclined, you could read all this as Birchard’s response to the last couple of years, an era that has felt overloaded with events and thick with intimations we’re on the verge of terrible disaster. But, just as Lantern seemed to attempt on short-circuiting preconceptions of Hudson Mohawke – murky, trebly and weird, it didn’t sound like the work of a producer to the hip-hop elite or the unwitting EDM superstar Birchard had become as a result. of side project TNGHT – there are tracks on Cry Sugar that don’t fit with that interpretation at all: Is It Supposed? slowly unfurls from deep after-hours house with a beautiful synth line into fizzing uplift by way of hands-in-the-air piano; the fantastic Come a Little Closer, with its gentle morning-after melancholy that recalls Orbital’s Belfast or Daniel Avery’s Lone Swordsman.
So what to make of Cry Sugar, an album that comes wrapped in a frankly horrible sleeve depicting two thong-sporting bums, one belonging to a topless lady, the other to the Ghostbusters’ Stay Puft Marshmallow Man? Perhaps it’s best not to worry about it. Just succumb to its unique invention, curious shifts in tone and plethora of weird juxtapositions: something that’s easy enough to do.
This week Alexis listened to
Stephen Sanchez – Until I Found You
It’s unlikely that a handsome TikTok-friendly pop boy would turn his attention to 50s rock’n’roll by way of the Everly Brothers and Ricky Nelson; more improbable still that it’s this good.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism