About five years ago, an American couple began working on a film to document the European techno scene of the '00s. Called Speaking in Code, it recorded the struggles and victories of rising stars like Modeselektor and Monolake, the duo who invented the Ableton software used by most electronic musicians today.
Around the same time, local electronic music fans started Signal, The Southeast Electronic Music Festival, to feature local electronic music producers, DJs and touring musicians and to provide a snapshot of the local and regional scene.
Now in its fifth year, Signal, a festival held in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, continues to attract local producers, DJs and fans who want to hear more electronic music in the Triangle. Signal is their party, with an all-caps invitation for the curious to join them and hopefully leave the festival with a fondness for the vibrant music they love. Indeed, the festival often lures those unfamiliar with dance or electronic music from their usual territory of rock concerts or hip-hop shows—although Signal offers hip-hop, too. And as with many enduring festivals, there will be a mix of new faces, scene veterans and converts who attended previous festivals.
At Signal, what clicks could be the DJ who plays the club around the corner, an electronic experimenter or an acclaimed dance music innovator. When Kid 606 cancelled his Friday night slot due to illness, one of his old Tigerbeat 6 partners, Rjyan Kidwell, became the fill-in. Kidwell started as a pasty but charismatic emo-punk kid from Baltimore doing drill 'n' bass techno on his laptop. At 20, he had already made a record with heavy nods to his friends Matmos and early Aphex Twin, and he quickly ran away from that sound into hip-hop and B'more bass (and getting gold fronts with the letters CEX). He also teamed up with Roby Newton, a musician and artist formerly based in Chapel Hill, and formed the looped-out band Sand Cats. This fall, Kidwell appears to be returning to those early roots with a new release of techno and club music.
Another artist who recently reappeared in force is Roy Davis Jr., a Chicago house music veteran who is also on Friday's bill. In the '90s, Davis was a member of legendary house group Phuture and had a solid hit of his own with "Gabriel." Davis comes from the mold of his touchstones like Farley "Jackmaster" Funk and Lil Louis, whose ecstatic mix of diverse styles, from breaks to mellow jams to banging house, is the key to good-time music. Davis finds his stride in soulful house music marked by the characteristic bass-driven beat and a pure sound.
While Davis may produce remixes for some big pop stars, like Mary J. Blige, his home is mixing in a club. Last year, he released a new album, putting him back on the minds of Chi-town house lovers, and he played in Chapel Hill on the tour to an enthusiastic crowd of dancers.
While these days house music and techno are enjoying a revival and being absorbed by the mainstream, the rapid-fire beat retooling of jungle and drum 'n' bass remains in its own cubbyhole in the states. DJ Odi, whose career began in New York City, still thrives in this scene today. Odi's style is marked by vocal samples that launch a track and are gradually interspersed into the click-clack of beats breaking around it—the so-called "Amen," one of the original sampled break beats—which remains the core of drum 'n' bass music.
This genre owes its longevity to its high energy and crackling sound. Overseas, it's a vital, thriving scene, and its roots can be found in dubstep and grime. DJ Odi knows this stuff, and his set will have its own particular vibe with the drum 'n' bass heads.
Fans of ambient and psychedelic music should check out Robin Storey, who co-founded the pioneering British industrial-ambient group zoviet france in 1979 and continues his own work under the name Rapoon. Key influences include the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and the early Krautrock giants (he subsequently collaborated with both Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Can's Damo Suzuki). Storey's work often uses ethnic sounds alongside soaring drones and caustic, crawling percussion, setting an entrancing mood.
On the same Saturday bill, Daniel Burke brings his long-standing project Illusion of Safety to the stage. Burke's sound and collaborators are often in flux, and he's been classified under ambient music, along with the industrial and power electronics camps. The group once included Jim O'Rourke, among many others, and involved collaborations with folks like Ben Vida and Kevin Drumm.
After five years, Signal has surmounted the pitfalls that cause so many festivals to fold. For this, the Triangle has something to celebrate. Walking around Chapel Hill and Carrboro over Signal's extended weekend, one might just learn something about this music and about the people who love it.