Today’s techno scene is a boy’s club of insufferable self-seriousness. Owens, on the other hand, finds pop and pleasure from a genre that needs to learn how to smile again
Before it got taken seriously, in every sense of the word, dance music didn’t have any standardised conventions. With no manual or rulebook to speak of, people made it up as they went along, a level of impulsive caprice that could be reasonably traced back to the whims of maverick DJs: you were just as likely to hear cheesy Italo-disco or European synthpop in Ron Hardy’s sets or the Hot Mix 5’s mythic radio shows as old disco cuts and what became house music staples. Then, sometime in the 90s, when the term “intelligent dance music” was coined – much to the chagrin of all the artists on the Warp label saddled with the tag – certain expectations and concepts were formed.
You weren’t supposed to show your face in press photos, let alone stick it on your album covers (which Aphex Twin famously flouted). You weren’t supposed to smile. You were supposed to assume an air of granite-hard sobriety, presumably a nod to early techno’s penchant for stentorian vocals and aggressive, forceful rhythms, forgetting its roots in funk and electro. Your music wasn’t even allowed to set foot in an actual club, all these elements subsequently giving rise to glowering coffee-table techno, entering the 21st century helmed by a rash of electronic musicians who seemed to regard a night’s partying at Fabric with as much enthusiasm as a root canal, best enjoyed in an armchair complete with mandatory furrowed brow. On the cover of her 2017 self-titled debut album, Welsh producer Kelly Lee Owens wore a similar look, albeit one tempered by a slightly bemused expression, as if wondering why all the wilfully long faces.
Owens clearly wasn’t a fan of all this gloomy posturing, her album packed with sensitive pop melodies, techno floorfillers and ambient passages, all beautifully held together by her intriguingly dreamy songwriting power. With one foot in the world of unalloyed techno, working with Daniel Avery on 2013’s Drone Logic, and the other edging into pop, she sounded the most authentic of her peers at recapturing early techno’s adventurous spirit. While her invariably male contemporaries stiffened into lifeless electronic machismo, Owens included textures that subtly hinted at her time as bassist for indie-pop outfit The History of Apple Pie, a woman as comfortable covering Aaliyah as she is collaborating with John Cale, as she does here on Corner of My Sky. As such, Inner Song repeatedly defies expectation.
It’s an album that opens with an instrumental cover of Radiohead’s Arpeggi/Weird Fishes, blossoming slowly into muted 90s breakcore, and follows that with a thoughtful pop song called On, where synths comfort and soothe, exactly the sort of thing a former cancer treatment nurse with an interest in gong baths and music’s healing properties ought to produce: a bed of hazy, almost shoegazey sound. But On changes course around halfway: in come rushing waves of synth, swooping backing vocals and an acid line – dialled down so as not to disturb the neighbours or the overall tranquil mood – that modulates into a beefily distorted riff, taking you from the armchair into the club. Coffee-table techno this isn’t.
In fact, it cocoons, eschewing empty detours into “IDM” ambient noodling. There’s something genuinely calming and palliative here. She’s not a hippie-dippie New Age pixie, however, never once forgetting to deliver the bangers, even if they’re cleverly subdued and more meditative than most. She avoids techno’s severe, dispassionately utilitarian side on Jeanette, whose machine kick-drum beat seems a little too fast for the rest of the track, obliviously moving forward without the rigidity of quantisation. Everything’s off-kilter – broadened by reverb, the gorgeous polyphonic synth leads bounce off one another mesmerisingly – until the sonic deck of cards shuffles and the whole thing gains a sense of equilibrium: everything thumps accordingly, swept occasionally by Kraftwerkian gusts of electronic whooshing.
You wouldn’t call Re-Wild trap or R&B, but the beat – prodded by booming sub-bass vibrations – oozes at the same slackened lope as, say, Travis Scott’s sorrowful dirges, while her seductive topline owes a debt to, well, Aaliyah. There’s another impossibly pretty pop song in the form of L.I.N.E., the fact that it may be inspired by the detrimental, toxic-sounding relationship Owens endured before recording (“Don’t speak up too much, stay in line … Less of who I am for you in case I offend you”) given cathartic release by the swooning, near-anthemic tune, like a tide reaching the shore. A similar thing happens on Wake Up, reportedly about the climate crisis, the sense of urgent panic ameliorated by the soaring, expansive melody and hint of optimism. Picturing imminent ecological collapse elsewhere, Corner of My Sky is incredible, the junction between Suicide and 70s kosmische musik. It doesn’t feel like being handed an Extinction Rebellion leaflet, though. Like Thom Yorke’s grimly awed response to a 21st-century Biblical flood on 2006’s And It Rained All Night, Cale forlornly narrates a series of beautiful if disquieting images – the moon “curdling in the sun”, children wheezing, disruptive seasonal change – sounding, ultimately, elegiacally enraptured: “Thank god, the rain”.
When most techno presently only seems able to have fun through gritted teeth, as if what’s happening behind Berghain’s doors is an austere lecture about financial deregulation in the neoliberal era, Owens submits to carefree joys. Melt! bubbles away with loose, enticing joie de vivre. Night saunters into view invitingly, her voice levitating above the clattering rhythms, hardening into a dancefloor-beckoning delight. Beckoning is the right word: none of Inner Song’s clubbier songs try to coax you into a darkened room like some desperate street-tout promising two-for-one drinks in the VIP corner, very obviously an “inner” record; it’s dance music for the listener who prefers to be seated: Flow, for example, crawls peacefully à la Boards of Canada or early Aphex Twin. Evidently, you only really achieve those carefree joys by throwing out the rulebook. You’re glad Owens has.