SSFB radio #19 with the amazing Mark Knekelhuis.
The paths Black Merlin’s music has taken him are just like the movie-magic he loves to inject into his productions – filled with a healthy dose of uncertainty and intrigue. We follow the work of this master of suspenseful dreamscapes as he leads us sleepwalking down some unfamiliar yet enticing roads. With playlist contributions by Thomas Reijerkerk.
Tropical showers, distant waves, exotic tribal instruments played against restless island chatter – on any given day one might find these background noises accompanying some soothing New Age music; except this ain’t such a day. Rather, this is the sort of reality one unwittingly stumbles into in a somewhat altered state of consciousness. Here, a sense of urgency lurks close by; the sonic map of the surrounding acoustics is building up to one of quickened heartbeats and bated breath amidst an uncomfortable and unfamiliar humidity, as if an ancient civilization is on the verge of awakening. One could almost feel the damp heat of the rainforest replacing the air with the advent of each uneasy beat.
Hipnotik Tradisi, an album Black Merlin compiled with field recordings from his month-long immersion in Bali, Indonesia, was released last summer on Island Of The Gods as part of its Island Explorer series. Featuring traditional instruments such as gamelans and gongs woven into pulsating techno basslines, it established a new modus operandi for George Thompson – the artist behind Black Merlin. Indicating a refreshing departure from the oft-superficial treatment by many electronic musicians when adapting foreign sounds to their music – a process termed “postcard soundtracking” by Baptiste Girou – Thompson had instead opted for an approach that gave as much weight to the Balinese culture as he did to finding a sound from within that bears his own signature.
Hipnotik Tradisi went on to sell out in 48 hours – a height not previously achieved by Thompson’s previous releases. The positive reception was shared by both critics and audiences alike, who responded in kind to the rare fruit of a respectful and truly collaborative exchange between the East and West; one that happens just once in a blue moon.
If, like many others, your introduction to Black Merlin began only from the point of the highly successful Hipnotik Tradisi, your curiosity might have been piqued enough to attempt a little digging of your own, only to be gobsmacked once you realize that you’d been missing out on 90% of a highly productive, almost a decade long career that had preceded the Black Merlin stage name. By the time his jungle-infected LP arrived, Thompson had already carved out several niches for himself in various corners of the electronic music world.
Way back in 2008, Thompson was already making music as one half of Spectral Empire, a duo act with fellow Brit Kyle Martin. Since then, and in between his solo creations as Black Merlin, he has collaborated with partners under no less than two other guises (Kommune, Karamika). His musical catalogue is nothing short of spectacular, having released on such diverse labels as Bird Scarer Records, LN-CC, Common Thread, Crimes of the Future, SORN, ESP Institute, Boysnoize Records and Jealous God, among others. The recurring theme here appears to be one of constant reinvention, as the genres he has dabbled with oscillates from warped spacey disco, synth-driven krautrock, droney minimal wave, retrogressive EBM, to the hypnotic dark techno of recent years. If there is a Black Merlin signature at all to be found throughout Thompson’s work, it has got to be his love for 80s film scores; more specifically, the kind manipulated to full effect in thrillers and horror movies. Evoking visceral Giallo scenes in much of his productions, there is always an ominous presence making itself known in mysterious ways.
From the outside looking in, Thompson’s career trajectory thus far appears to have been less dictated by fickle industry trends and more intrinsically motivated. Running on his own internal clock, he’s been releasing music and reinventing himself at a steady and relentless pace both before and after Hipnotik Tradisi brought his name to the forefront. Few musicians would be tempted to stray from a formula that has tasted success. Not Black Merlin. Following hot on the heels of his 2016 tour de force are already two completely different, new records by Thompson, all within the span of a year. Clearly, he wasted little time basking in past glory.
Any bid to decode this artist and reduce him to a mere label for one’s own categorizing convenience would be a futile endeavor; it’s akin to a cynic’s vain attempt to deconstruct and unravel one magician’s trick: you’ll likely come off none the wiser and risk missing out on the pure and simple appreciation of his art form. Much better to let each of his music pieces speak for itself.
Below we share a selection of tracks by the prolific London producer.
“Brunswick Drive” (2009, Brunswick Drive, Bird Scarer Records)
Between 2008-2009, in his pre-Black Merlin days, Thompson had already released two EPs as Spectral Empire – his intermittent collaboration with Kyle Martin of Brain Machine and the Land Of Light. Greatly influenced by 80s New Wave and Krautrock, the duo created a distinguished sound with heavy baselines, industrial downtempo beats and a dash of leftfield disco.
A trip to Dusseldorf in 2009 introduced Thompson to the local electronic scene, as well as the idea of a solo career. It wasn’t till a couple of years later, after a chance meeting to sell an old synthesizer to Andrew Weatherall, label head of Bird Scarer Records, that his solo aspirations were brought to fruition. Under the stage name of Black Merlin, Thompson debuted his 12” single Brunswick Drive in December 2012 on Bird Scarer Records; a rather ironic label choice, considering that “Merlin”, while alluding to the wizard of Arthurian legends, happens to also be the name of a small, dark bird. With slap bass and playful synth stabs, Thompson’s mid-tempo atmospheric tribute to the 80s makes for a generally smooth ride that keeps us ever so slightly on the edge of our seats with some horror movie tension.
“Black Magic Mushrooms” (2013, Trans-80, LN-CC)
Once Thompson got his feet wet as a solo artist, there was no stopping him. Within a few months of his solo debut he followed up with the release of multiple records on three different labels – LN-CC, World Unknown, New Jersey – leaving little time in between. Even though Thompson stayed true to his love for the synth on all three records, employing them to great effect for some dark cinematic aesthetics, they were able to stand alone individually as showcases for his versatility in crafting musical pieces of varying styles and moods.
Less than a year later, Thompson put out his first ever album Karamika, a 12-track collaboration with Düsseldorf’s Gordon Pohl. The 2xLP, released on ESP Institute in June 2015 was three years in the making and an undertaking that saw Thompson jetting back and forth between London and Düsseldorf. Using expansive instrumentation to convey contrasting moods, the soundscapes evoke the more organic and analogue aesthetics that is reminiscent of a bygone era. An experience that grows more intense and complex with each track, the tension is palpable and at times hair-raising.
“Ton 13” (2016, Karamika, Neubau)
Picking up from where they left off, the duo Karamika teamed up again in March 2016 to release another three new tracks on Vienna-based label Neubau.
“Burn It” (2015, Common Thread)
Barely two months after Karamika’s first album came out, Thompson and his old partner Martin hooked up again for a new Spectral Empire release. Goloka Dhama (2014) taunts with a deep tech sound and overlapping tribal beats that marks a departure from their typical New Wave guitar riffs. This newer sound also finds its way into Black Merlin’s solo work. With Burn It Black Merlin puts the snooze button on the downtempo beats, playful synths and Krautrock found in his earlier work. Instead, this is an electrifying, chaotic, warm mess made for dancing. The release was an instant hit and is proof that a broad taste in music doesn’t always translate into average results.
“Reef Play” (2016, Hipnotik Tradisi, Island Of The Gods)
Dan Mitchell of LN-CC, with whom Thompson has worked for his Trans-80 release, had decided to start a new label called Island Of The Gods, to be based in Bali, Indonesia. He approached Black Merlin in the beginning of 2014 with an idea for a new conceptual series. That summer, Thompson set off for Bali and returned to his London studio with a month’s worth of field recordings made on the islands and in its secluded jungles. The result is Hipnotik Tradisi, filled with natural and primal sounds of bird callings, rain falling and the rustling of leaves interwoven with the human sounds of laughter, chanting, throat singing and passing motorcycles that together formed an acoustic map of the background. The intricacy with which Black Merlin seamlessly blends together these elements, coupled with a pulsating beat and traditional Balinese instruments makes for a listening experience that elicits all five senses.
“Reef Play” is one of the most danceable tracks in the 14-track album. The traditional drums and the bird calling demonstrate that the use of electronic instruments is not always a necessary component of a thrilling track. The pandemonium of jungle sounds and the slightly menacing bird calls pairs up with the mystical Indonesian chanting and traditional drums to provide a rhythm almost resembling techno, giving the track an ancient vibe that’s both hypnotizing and energizing in a neurotic way.
“Fire Dance” (2016, Hipnotik Tradisi, Island Of The Gods)
The rich sounds of percussion, chanting and clapping men, accompanied by Thompson’s distinctive reverberating bassline is one of the highlights of “Fire Dance”. As one of the more uplifting tracks of this album, it serves as the perfect transition as we delve into Thompson’s much darker productions.
“Blindfold” (2016, Control, Boysnoize Records)
Before the end of 2016 Thompson released another handful of tracks plus another album on several different labels. Control, released on Boysnoize Records, lets you meet the more shadowy side of Thompson’s alter ego. It is made up of purely dark, occasionally downright frightening techno tracks; “Blindfold” being one of those. The record Issue N. Fourteen, released in the same year on Jealous God, includes tracks that are reminiscent of Black Merlin’s earlier slower-paced cinematic works. The marked difference between these two releases displays the ease by which Thompson switches between styles.
“Spirit House” (2017, Proto World, Berceuse Heroique)
2017 has only just arrived and Black Merlin is already out with two new EPs. Both of them fall closer to the techno spectrum, and are aesthetically different pieces. Proto World, provided by the label Berceuse Heroique, holds four tracks. Two of those are characterized by Thompson’s earlier Indonesian experience. Listening to “Hope”, one can still hear the impact the Balinese adventure had on him. There is no doubt that “Spirit House” belongs on the dancefloor, though the resemblance between the track and those on Hipnotik Tradisi is uncanny. The gamelan featured in the previous album has an entirely different role here. This is because all the warm and vivid background sounds are gone and you’re left with an eerie looping percussion that makes it a lot darker and colder. The title track “Proto World” pays homage to Indonesia in the form of a nine-minute long tribal drum. This beat is combined with a synth, which has made its way back into Black Merlin’s studio, adding a vintage sound to the mix.
“Phase One” (2017, Phase One, Pinkman Records)
In the beginning of February the Dutch Pinkman Records released Thompson’s latest production, Phase One. The robust sounds of the two-sided vinyl is full of exploding high-hats and sneering synthesizers; some straight-up club bangers to be found in here.
Black Merlin will be performing at Strange Sounds From Beyond festival on Sunday, June 25 2017. Tickets are available here.