It might not feel like it, but electronic music in Britain isn’t in a great place right now. Yes, they may be opening new mega-clubs in old Ikeas, and yes, Calvin Harris and Charli XCX are still doing huge numbers, but outside of the mainstream, things are far from rosy. As covered in Resident Advisor, DJ Mag and a study by the University of Sheffield, the past decade has seen a notable and rapidly accelerating decline in the diversity of dance music in the UK. Not long ago, even the smallest provincial town could offer at least a smattering of club nights and raves to break the monotony. It often took a bit of doing, but if you knew where to look, you could find anything from pinger-fuelled happy hardcore parties to sweatbox ragga nights, all within a bus ride of your front door. These days, though, the variety has gone, overwhelmed by a relentless parade of cookie-cutter house nights and paint-by-numbers techno.
You can blame the creeping homogenisation of dance music on many factors. Certainly, the rise of streaming platforms and the dominance of popular genres at the expense of other, more esoteric styles are all playing a role. Yet the fact that it’s getting harder and harder to be economically viable as a small artist is causing a slow evaporation of regional scenes and a clogging up of the pipeline of new sounds. Apart from a handful of vibrant underground scenes, predominantly located in major cities like London and Manchester, the scarcity of venues becomes a roadblock to the birth of micro-genres and musical experiments that historically fuel innovation and reinvention. Fortunately, there are some noteworthy exceptions (or should that be holdouts) to be found, so long as you’re willing to do some digging.
The rolling hills and freshly renovated mills of Lancashire may not instantly spring to mind when you think of vibrant, expressive dance music (despite a remarkable under-told history – see L&Q contributor Fergal Kinney’s recent work on the Blackburn acid rave scene as published by Rough Trade Books); yet in the face of economic headwinds and a shortage of venues, it’s the cradle of a small but vital scene that is nurturing artists and pushing the boundaries of innovative electronic music. One such artist is Rainy Miller. Hailing from Preston, his music reflects the memories and experiences deeply ingrained in his hometown, paying homage to Lancashire’s hidden stories. In the oversaturated landscape of UK electronic music, Miller appears hellbent on forging an authentic path, less concerned with mainstream recognition and more focused on creating a distinct voice. Fellow travellers Space Afrika, a Manchester-based electronic duo renowned for their inventive fusion of ambient, techno, dub and experimental sounds, are similarly on a mission to create music that resonates with the emotional fabric of post-industrial Britain. What sets both acts apart is their unique ability to channel the spirit of their urban surroundings, encapsulating the emotional and atmospheric subtleties of post-industrial Britain. Through a spattering of releases and mixtapes, including Space Afrika’s critically acclaimed 2021 full-length Honest Labour, both sets of artists have made a name for music that serves as auditory diaries of their towns, neighbourhoods and overlooked communities in the North West.
A Grisaille Wedding is the first official collaboration between Rainy Miller and Space Afrika and signifies something of a step change moment in their respective artistic journeys. Merging Miller’s knack for storytelling with Space Afrika’s expansive sonic landscapes, this record boasts ambition and a profound desire to immerse the audience in an ethereal realm. Using a diverse range of artistic tools to conjure the emotions and atmosphere of their home, this is no mere collection of moody dance tracks. A concept album designed to juxtapose the oppressive grey monochrome of grisaille painting and the colourful joy of an occasion like a wedding, the fact that this is a reckoning between two different styles and approaches to music production should be obvious straight from the start. However, rather than spending the run time trying to resolve this creative tension, Miller and Afrika just run with it, transforming the listening experience into something resembling a Werner Herzog documentary; a fusion of fantasy and reality that beckons you into the distinctive psychogeography of Lancashire.
Billed as an intricate blend of Rainy Miller and Space Afrika’s signature styles, A Grisaille Wedding finds common ground through an emphasis on a profound connection to place. Building on the sense of post-industrial decay evident in both artists’ work so far, this album similarly employs a musique concrète-like approach to composition. Manipulating recorded sounds and layering sparse melodies on top of hazy atmospherics, the songs feel like they rise out of detritus, assembling themselves into collages built from found sounds and background noises. Similar to how L. S. Lowry would paint bleak townscapes that somehow fizzed with charm and humanity, this technique also has the effect of injecting the essence of Lancashire straight into the music, echoing the dichotomy between the isolated moorlands and the urban chaos of the city. This fractured approach to songwriting is perhaps why this album feels oddly accessible for what is – mostly a cold, pulsing techno record.
This emotion becomes apparent right from the start with the mournful organ in the opening track, ‘Summon The Spirit’ which evokes longing and introspection. As you listen further, you’ll notice subtle elements like a digital tape hiss, reminiscent of rain gently tapping on a windowpane. These details underscore the delicate balance between the stark realities of modern Britain and the ethereal, almost psychedelic allure of natural soundscapes. While these connections might not be immediately obvious, this record masterfully balances being profoundly relatable and spiritually uplifting. It’s akin to taking the bombastic, faux-spirituality of pop songs like Madonna’s ‘Like a Prayer’ and reimagining it through a minimalist, stripped-down electronic lens. Nowhere is this interplay more evident than in ‘The Graves of Charleroi’, a track featuring the haunting vocals of Coby Sey. A quick Google suggests that the song’s title likely alludes to a lone graveyard near a bustling Belgian airport, a setting where the urgency of modernity collides with the timeless and the unchanging, and Sey’s whispered and fractured vocals evoke the feeling of quiet, contemplative isolation brilliantly. The result is a hymn-like experience that defies traditional song structures. It’s like a gospel song without a chorus, an invitation to the sublime.
In fact, it’s in the vocals that Miller, more known for his ability to infuse positivity into his songwriting, makes his presence most felt. Until now, Space Afrika’s previous work has often played with the idea of imaginative semi-fictional world-building, an approach which on paper at least feels slightly at odds with Miller’s kitchen-sink realism. However, on the record, the trio strike an intriguing balance between their two styles, landing on a place that feels mystical and deeply human. While the compositions often feel expansive and sometimes ridiculously lofty, lyrically, the album keeps its feet firmly on planet Earth. Delving into themes of resilience, the joy of seizing opportunities, and emerging stronger in the face of challenges, the album’s relatively more buoyant tracks, like the singles ‘Sweet (I’m Free)’ and ‘Maybe It’s Time To Lay Down The Arms’ have a spine-like spirit of resilience running through them. These songs provide a window into an internal dialogue, delving into the complexities of accepting love and dismantling emotional barriers. They capture the wonder of recognising untapped potential while acknowledging the weight it carries.
A sense of a community carrying on against the odds seems to be the glue that holds A Grisaille Wedding together, and this may explain why Miller and Space Afrika chose the contributors to this record. Packed to the rafters with guest vocalists, the album brings together a diverse group of musicians who are all pushing the boundaries in their own way, including independent and forward-thinking electronic artists such as Mica Levi, Coby Sey, RenzNiro, BobbieOrkid, Iceboy Violet and Richie Culver. This feels more than just a gathering of friends and fellow artists; it’s more curatorial and intentional than that, art rendered through the collab.
In addition to infusing their unique styles and artistic touches into what could have been just another frosty-sounding drone record, this gathering of artists hints at a broader message hidden behind the album’s overarching theme of resilience. These artists embody the spirit of innovation, thriving despite the challenges that cast a shadow over the UK’s shrinking dance music scene. This diverse mix serves as a testament to the unwavering spirit of electronica – a reminder that even in what might seem like a harsh musical landscape, creativity can flourish, a solitary flower in a desert.
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