Helena Hauff is a woman of dualities. The title of her latest release on Ninja Tune, ‘Qualm’, is just that – a duality. The German for qualm (kvalm) translates as fumes, or smoke, while the English edition refers to a feeling of uneasiness or doubt.
This feeling is unearthed from the moment you plunge into ‘Qualm’. Helena is a master at finding melodic romanticism amongst the usually harsh, grey techno landscape. ‘Barrow Boots Boys’ begins melodically uneasily, with basslines threatening to boil over as stabs of tribal energy make themselves known amongst the hysteria. There’s a general primal feeling to the slow energy that sways from side to side, an energy that has lay within us since the days of dancing around fire and hunting woolly mammoths.
‘Lifestyle Guru’ encapsulates the electro/techno hybrid that has become a staple in Helena’s productions and performances. The Hamburg artist is quoted as saying that she was “trying to create something powerful without using too many instruments and layers” when creating ‘Qualm’. Less is more, indeed. Acid-tinged, engrossing and raw.
‘bdtr-revisted’ and ‘Entropy Created You And Me’ are both moody statements, with the latter sounding like a deconstruction of your favourite Gameboy cartridge in the best way possible. The former maintains an intellectually complex aesthetic, with a groove to be found for those that can find it, as echoing reverbs bounce around a room that the walls won’t stop moving within.
I’ve always thought that there was a close relationship between robots and electro. The two just seem to blend perfectly together. In fact, “You’re a robot, man machine” is a direct quote from a track that Helena cites as a major inspiration – Miss Kittin & The Hacker’s fantastic ‘1982’.
‘Hyper-Intelligent Genetically Enriched Cyborg’ begins exactly as you’d hope, with plenty of acid electro. As the track continues, as does the evolution of said cyborg. It’s as if you’re looking on, behind the protective glass, as scientists get closer and closer to their goal of a completely self aware AI. Think Ex-Machina, if there was a rave involved.
There are a couple of tracks on ‘Qualm’ that don’t quite get out of second gear. This has its advantages and its disadvantages. ‘The Smell of Suds and Steel’ clocks in as the record’s longest track and, at that, it’s most forgettable. Relying on sheer grunt and the emergence, then re-emergence, of intense atmospherics, the piece just doesn’t quite get going.
‘Qualms’, and its sister production ‘No Qualms’, on the other hand, use this slow progression to their advantage, maintaining a romantic melody that lends itself beautifully to the initial beatless piece and to its bouncy electro evolution. ‘No Qualms’, in many ways, is a therapeutic hike through an otherwise distorted dreamscape.
In ‘Panegyric’ we see a complete meandering from the raw aesthetic of the record. Helena’s post punk influences shine through on a track that sounds like it has come from the past, all be it with a distinctive futuristic edge.
We reach the climax of the record with another moody statement in the form of ‘It Was All Fields Around Here When I Was A Kid’. I’m unsure if the title of track is a direct inspiration, but given its wording you can almost see a time-lapse unfolding before you as concrete emerges from what once lay bare.
With ‘Qualm’, Helena Hauff has created the record we both wanted and needed. It’s a statement of romantic infatuation amongst an otherwise hash, twisted and raw landscape. A glance into the past and a look to the future. There is nothing apologetic about this record, and that’s what makes it so great.
Words: Andrew Moore
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