Opal Tapes doesn’t really work like other labels. Aside from their pitch-black aesthetic and signature narcotised sound, the UK imprint helmed by Stephen Bishop (aka Basic House) put out all of their releases on cassette only until recently. Even when Bishop joined the online wagon he did it differently: every so often, seemingly when another batch of cassettes is ready to sell, he uploads a fistful of LPs onto the label’s Bandcamp for paid download. Considering that this is a label with a fanbase as slavering as any in the underground electronic spectrum, it all plays out a little like the long starvation before a feast.
So when it’s that time of the year, we pick our way through the latest offerings, many good, some great, secretly hoping to find another masterpiece like Patricia’s Body Issues LP from 2013. It might not be quite up there, but an album from the unknown (to our ears, at least) Michael DeMaio stood out from the pack this January. His LP Half Cross is an impressive work: swampy underworld sonics, crossed wires and profane frequencies.
Half Cross offers music as ambiguous as its cover art: is that a grimace of pleasure or pain? Across its six tracks, DeMaio establishes a strong central sound and explores it deftly, different paces and moods occupying the same ominous halflight.
The 11-minute title track is a real trip straight out of the gate. It takes its time to build over a shimmering ambient wash, before mutating into a murky house tune, with clashing hi-hats, desaturated chords and a pummelling kick that comes out in ragged bursts. Yet this is no outsider house by numbers: there’s an impressive range of rhythms that emerge and recede, generating real momentum where so many others would fall prey to inertia over ten minutes.
Nor is house necessarily the only order of the day. Across the album DeMaio proves adept at twisting sounds conventionally associated with IDM, ambient and experimental music to his own warped agenda. South is a stark construction of hi-hats like needles skating over echo-chamber handclaps and a diving bass hit. Each sound is crisp, isolated as if suspended in a vacuum. Then it all gives way to a distorted growl, where a ghostly vocal, brutalised beyond recognition shifts from threat to full-on horror. And then it’s gone. There’s a real flair for drama here, making for a very engaging listen despite the menace and humidity of DeMaio’s sound.
Each tune is remarkably distinct for an album with such a coherent sound. The Blunt is a tougher trip, snares and hats cutting like daggers through a nervy ambient wash: this is more of a muscular club number, with a dreamy synth melody bringing it to an unexpectedly pretty close. Across Shatter and North DeMaio somewhat loses his energy. The former is an Actress-style meander into noodling synths and hollow snares, while the latter sports a hair-raising intro but gives way to industrial piston kicks and insectoid chittering. They’re atmospheric but disappointingly lacking in progression – though it could be argued that stasis is kind of the point here.
If those two tracks don’t quite seduce like the album’s first half, DeMaio certainly saved something special for a finale. Let me step out of my journalistic shoes for a moment and say how great the track title Knives Like Dresses is: the simile first works on the level of the visual, the corresponding shapes of the two objects bringing up a striking parallel. In terms of meaning, the reverse idea of ‘dresses like knives’ would already be great, unearthing the violence in a symbol of lightness and femininity. But by twisting it DeMaio conjures something more brilliantly unsettling – the elegance and beauty in an object of violence. The track is the album’s coup de grace, opening with a soup of corrosive distortion and mutilated vocals and having all appearances of continuing in the same vein. Then out of nowhere a shuddering kick arrives, frenetic, tripping and stumbling over itself but not shifting or letting up. There’s a raw brutality to it, an uncompromising ugliness which proves utterly consuming. As suddenly as it started, it’s gone, leaving only echoes.
If this album is a building it’s a haunted castle: full of trapdoors, corridors at acute angles, surrounded by acres of twilit marshland. There’s a real power lurking here. Come and find it.