Shaking Off the Armor: On 33EMYBW’s Arthropods

Michael McKinney explores the futuristic soundscapes of the Chinese artist's newest album.
By    December 19, 2019

Forming like Voltron since 2005. Please support Passion of the Weiss by subscribing to our Patreon.

Micheal McKinney‘s new look is called “Blade Runner chic.”

33EMYBW makes dance music for exoskeletons. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise: she’s part of Shanghai-based label SVBKVLT, a crew responsible for pushing hard, fast, and sneakily experimental club music on an increasingly global scale. (Fellow signees include Gabber Modus Operandi, a duo specializing in stapling 200-BPM gabber to gamelan, and Gooooose, whose music tends to be icy, piledriving, and stuffed with left turns.) Even among the fringes of high-energy dance music, though, 33EMYBW stands out. Arthropods, her latest record, shows why. Her kitchen-sink approach to production threatens to tear her songs apart at their seams; these tracks are as chaotic as they are unsettling and hyperreal.

Arthropods lives up to its namesake: this is skittering and erratic dance music that continually reveals new forms of old ideas. “Tentacle Centre” sets the stage: scurrying synthesizers, busted keyboards and clanging sheet-metal drums all seem to move of their own volition, with machine-gun snares and disarrayed bells working their way in and out of the mix in ways that are tough to track. But then a drum shorts and gives way to a high-voltage burst of slamming snares and synths, only for that to disappear and reveal a glittering high-end. Each track works like this: ideas that might be incompatible are made coherent through brute tonal force; everything is united under a steely-eyed gaze and thoroughly alien aesthetic.

This tonal consistency lets 33EMYBW get away with blending all sorts of genres and ideas together, to thrilling results. The percussion, which more often than not forms the record’s foundation, has the modern footwork’s skeletal energy one moment and bérite club’s whirlwind hand-drum motions the next. Some parts sound like dislocated marching bands; elsewhere, it’s all woodblocks and tri-toms endlessly accelerating. There are many moments of bizarre and sudden evolution on Arthropods, but “Arthropods Continent” might demonstrate it with the most striking contrast. In one moment, it’s a palmed-muted singing bell on top of circling kick drums; the next, it’s vocal pads cut up and scattered into a disorienting muck filled with dying screams and wails of feedback.

But critically, those drums and those piledriving rhythms never let up. Few tracks here are squarely focused on the dancefloor for their duration—they move too erratically and let a bit too much air in for that—but they all gesture in that direction. It’s not hard to imagine bits of these tracks showing up in sets by dancefloor deconstructionists like Manchester’s AYA or labelmate Zaliva-D. No matter how demented, this is body music.

This may be clearest in the highest-energy points on Arthropods, where 33EMYBW pushes her piles of instruments into a frenzied and barely restrained blur. There’s the staggering and clattering nail-gun percussion on “Induce,” which makes its operatic vocals strike harder via contrast. “Adam Bank” turns to a whirlwind using vocal chops and military-grade drumline that only grow closer, louder, and more deranged as the track progresses. Or there’s the hiccupping samples and spiraling drums that give way to a tidal wave of kicks, snares, and claps on “Seeds of the Future.”

The remixes at the end drive home the idea that these pulsing and mutating tracks are meant for the dancefloor. The Mexico City-based Lechuga Zafiro, another producer pushing unnerved and pulsing dance music into the future, makes a lot of sense here. “Adam Bank,” in their hands, becomes a mammoth DJ-set melter after just a few reconfigurations.

While both the remixes and original material here are room-fillers, they’re of two very different kinds. The former are uniformly great, contorting modern dance music in exciting ways, but they’re smart to take aim at a different space than the rest of the record. That’s because, on Arthropods, 33EMBYW shows a uniform commitment to moving her sounds forward in every way possible, and often simultaneously. She’s tossed a warehouse’s worth of drums and rusted synthesizers into a blender, and the resulting mutations would seem manic if they weren’t so meticulously planned out. These tracks skitter and crawl and tingle spines, working with a foreign logic that is both indecipherable and indelible. It’s hard to imagine a stronger representation of club music’s vanguard than this.

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!