This isn’t going to be a conventional music article because I know the two musicians I am about to discuss. So, from the get-go, I have probably already broken a bajillion journalistic standards (as God intended). This article is anything but impartial – this is a celebration of music by friends that deserves far more recognition. It’s also part and parcel of a general legitimising project I try to do with all my friends’ art. In analysing their work I hope it goes from being the toil of some random youth in a small cold city way up north, to serious creative works that deserve to rich interpretations.
On that note what I really want to articulate here is Aber-disco, my name for electronic music that has emerged from Aberdeen in the waning years of the ‘10s, into the present day, and then who knows. I’m quite the fan of using “Aber-“ as a prefix. It was originally a tongue-in-cheek gesture I used for pretentious Facebook event descriptions, but in retrospect it is useful for signifying culture that comes from this city which has a unique set of experiences, melancholies, frustrations and glimmers. Aber– sounds like after, so I conceive of it as an Aberdonian aftermath. Aber-disco, then, is the music of the comedown, music to be played in afters until 5am, out-of-club, the music for stumbling on to dawn-hit streets, soundtracks for those long walks down the spaghettified roads of the Granite City, its byways and tarmac. Aber-disco lives in the aftermath of oil industry (or at least its wane), the hospice-years of (post)modernity backlit by climate crisis, and – on a more personal note – the strange feeling of being here for only a brief while, four or so years, in then out of university, always looking outward. The struggle to self-define, and be defined by where you are not.
Because Aberdeen is a temporal city. Glasgow, Edinburgh and beyond have spaces you can go to knowing there will be something on, something at the CCA or National Gallery or HOME. Aberdeen’s gallery has now been re-opened, obviously, but for a good long while these kind of stable cultural institutions either did not exist in Aberdeen, or were obscured. Thus the exciting events of this place passed and slithered through a variety of pubs, basement spaces, churches and ridiculously cheap and large apartments on King Street. In Aberdeen cultural activity captivates the space it emerges from. It is not cultivated. Hence the particular DIY ethos of a lot of the culture in Aberdeen at the moment, its mid-fi flavour, a strange mix of high technology and digital production embedded within a lo-fi context and ethos.
Aber-disco speaks to these displacement and ambivalences. But what does it sound like?
I was introduced to Erskine Lynas by the poet Molly McLaughlin. In 2017 she sent me a link to his Soundcloud, specifically the single ‘Craiger Caught the Sleeper’. “For your bleepy bloopy radio show”, she said. “FFO LCD Soundsystem, New Order, Hot Chip”. She had a good sense of my musical tastes. “Craiger Caught The Sleeper” quickly became one of my favourite songs of all time, one I’d ceaselessly replay over the next three years. In my mind it is the anthem of contemporary Aberdeen. Our ‘Blue Monday’, our “Enjoy the Silence”. Well, maybe not, but it’s fun to say.
From the title to the lyrics and even the artwork, this song emphasises the itinerant life of a young Aberdonian, the twenty-something always at the point of exit, off on long journeys that swallow days for brief escapes and visits elsewhere. The production is sleek, elements and warbles introduced in quick succession like the grunts and soundscape of an electric train, falsetto synth notes falling like raindrops. The vocals, meanwhile, are ghostly, always reverberating. I parse the lyrics in snatches like glimmers from a window, but the pathos is evident with or without understanding. There’s the hint of heartbreak – the most clear vocals are from a sample of a woman saying, “we’re just friends” (unknown source, according to Lynas).
(Side note: the use of samples in Aber-disco also speaks to that desire of exiting Aberdeen, but this time trough the Internet, where one can pinch from sample-libraries, or just simply observe the outside world from a screen.)
All over the six-minute song is the whistle of static, the sonic residue from envelopes and filters. One of the things that makes this song stick, for me, is that it is essentially the same track doubled, which makes it peak twice. It gives the listener a second chance, in a sense, the landscape seen from a train, always that similar east coast, but changing, slightly. Scottish artist Miaoux Miaoux does something similar in his 2015 track “Star Sickness” (also one of my favourite songs, ever).
Strange times, or strange relationships to time, pervades Erskine Lynas’ debut album Lease of Youth (2017). The opener, “Feather Fall” begins with an organ-esque fanfare, before a harpischordic synth delivers the melody. ”New Concrete” speaks to the ceaseless development of Aberdeen City Council. I like to think of it as a pre-emptive ode to Union Street Gardens, before the grass was drowned in concrete for a car park/shops/God knows what (I know this was not the case, but it is a nice thought). The guitar line here reminds me of My Bloody Valentine, with even some Loveless-era white noise in the mix, and even though the track eventually opens up it’s hard to fight past the melancholy. “20 Years” starts with a faux-hopeful fairground-ride sound, like a robot trying to sing “Happy Birthday” to no avail. Later in the album things get properly ambient with “Forever Rain”, a title which, again, epitomises Aberdeen.
The biggest ghost to haunt this album is nostalgia. The twilight of 90s rock, wistful instrumentals, the hauntological evocation of a small Scottish city… I see a musical childhood glimpsed through the fog of production, here, Aberdeen represented in iced electronics, soft, ethereal and winding. Most art concerned with the north-east of Scotland tackles rural Aberdeenshire but what Erskine Lynas gives us in Lease of Youth is, frankly, a masterpiece for urban Aberdeen.
Being friends with an excellent musician is a convenient thing. Not only do I get to hear myriad versions of a song as it grows and develops to its shining final form, I also get to interrogate said artist about the “meanings” and context behind each song, dissecting the lyrics to see what truths I can gleam. Even if said artist insists most of his lyrics are chosen for the sound, not their meaning – that just makes the process more fun.
Matt Gibb’s latest EP, Lips Destroy Suns (2020), is a strange poem sorts. That’s how I read the lyrics read on his Bandcamp page, at least. Based off iPhone Notes, samples and overheard quotes, they’re the product of digital cut-up, an ambient literature. Which makes for a kind of subconscious listening – they map out feelings, not a story. Is this searching for the spring-light, or the darkest grey Aberdeen can find? Is it holding on to the sun, even as it goes? The title speaks to some kind of hope, at least. The sun isn’t drying out lips; rather, that humongous ball of gaseous fire and heat above the world is under threat from human language.
The EP’s other poetic gesture is its brevity. The running time is under 10 minutes, all in four tracks. The first half is composed of detailed songs, while the last two are ambient near-instrumentals, electronic tone-haikus. “Unknown Number” sounds like an anthem for the final year of university, a triumphant ode to self-care. “I don’t pick up unknown numbers anymore”, Matt sings through Vocoder. “I listen to my body when it’s sore”. This isn’t the awkward furore of Fresher’s, partying out of obligation; this is refusing the little inconveniences of life, getting to the end of a strange four years feeling grown, bittersweetly resolved. All this while brassy synths and retro-patches chug along, until that bustle fades to one single synth I can only describe as Animal Crossing-ish.
(Fun fact: when I first heard this song, at Re-Analogue’s Subliminal music festival, the audience had decided to sit down. The beat was so infectious that I turned to my friend on the right, asking if she wanted to dance. She said no. My friend on the left concurs. So I stood up and, feeling awkward as all hell, and bopped along).
“36 x 2” brings out Matt’s playfulness, but also his existentialism, latter being a constant subtext. His first short film Myth of Sisyphus (2019), for example, was based on the eponymous essay by Albert Camus, and he loves Michael Hanke. Also, Super Mario Odyssey. “36 times 2” refers to the amount of window sears on a plane. In a leap of imagination Matt observes “little thought bubbles” above each passenger – the rush of multiplicity, alone together, pairs of chairs half-filled. And again, like Erskine Lynas, the desire for exit, here in the loci of public transport. “Tiny haloes of frost” refers to the condensation that forms on aeroplane portholes when they reach proper altitude, though I would semantically link the image to the thought bubbles – opaque, perhaps fringed with melancholy, but also angelic, purely human, beautiful.
spit and the surf (2017) was released at the end of 2017, and begins with Matt’s John Byrne Award-winning anthem for itinerant students, “home”. This song has more of a narrative arc than his more recent work. We jump from one image of sublimity (“Cosmia at dusk” refers to the Joanna Newsom song) to something more quotidian (“Staring out the window of a Megabus”). Again, public transport and youthful nomadism; again, the transparent portal of a window, the pane of loneliness where the mind wanders, near-mirror and rushing brutal Scottish landscape beyond. The music reflects this as well. “home” begins with a simple 808 pattern via MIDI and bassline, but later opens out to denser effects, echoing vocals and crashing hi-hats. Think of a lurch off the motorway, past the sparse tree-lines of Central Belt turning on to an expanse of heartbreak (“Don’t know if I can handle / Tomorrow alone”), ennui (“Keep a baggie in your wallet / Take a bump when you’re feeling down / I had to stop after February / Forgot what it was like to be bored) and the strange dawn of university (”I should already be home / But I. / I forgot something on the way here”).
OK, Be Good (2018) came out in the autumn of 2018. At the time I was in Dublin, but flew over for one single night in late September, when our arts collective Re-Analogue put on an event called “Liminal Space”. It’s hard to articulate the importance of this event for me: my friends, Matt Gibb and Samm Anga, had filled their flat with people dancing to music blasted from a full-on sound system, procured from nightclub technicians. Both residents played. The headliner was London-based Jennifer Walton, experimental DJ and current live drummer for Kero Kero Bonito. This is where I heard Matt perform most of the songs from OK, Be Good, lit by a projector playing music videos he has made for each track..
“OK BE GOOD” has become a kind of mantra, for me. The phrase comes from the track “Temples”, one of Matt’s most anthemic songs. Whenever I hear it on my own I usually crane my neck up and mouth-shout the words to the roof/sky/apophatic deity. The origin of “Temples:” is a good example of Matt’s digital cut-up. On the one hand, it details the intense emotions around a family funeral (“stay your hand, I’ll drive instead”; I’ll let you know which hand I shook / Cos I’m more worried about / The way that you spoke than what you meant”). On the other hand, Matt’s friend Jeeva was travelling at the time, and kept sending him pictures of temples. Both experiences merge to paint a mournful song full of quotes and driving instructions, resulting in some brightly elegiac moments (“Just listen to the lonely / They’ll tell you what you’ve done”). “Liminal Space” begins with a sample of a flight attendant giving the safety demonstration on a flight (ascendant, fleeting, escaping, think of the always-moving Aberdonian) and explores feelings around moving out of one flat, to another, but only for a temporary time (Matt’s second semester that year was to be spent in Copenhagen, on the Erasmus program). A flatmate nags (“Oh, it would be good / If you could stop that”) and the narrator resigns to life, of “a good third place”. An arp rises with violinic sawtooth waves and it sounds like lift off.
One of the most striking lyrics in this EP comes in the chorus of “Harder (Than Before)”. It’s deceptively simple: “I’m a real person / with a drawer full of stuff / and I don’t ask for much”. Maybe this speaks to the darkness of the human subject, the psychic clutter within an individual who needs to stress their existence in the time of globalised capitalism, as per existentialist whims, though I doubt it. It speaks more to Matt as a person. Despite his interest in brutal cinema, Kafka and dismal bedroom-pop, he’s a genial man, very funny, and perhaps one of the best storytellers I know. He is also startlingly modest. Which, as a Leo ascendant, sometimes infuriates me – early in our friendship (maybe the first time he every played me his work) I suggested he send his work to a record label. He laughed. Another time we were at a party in King Street where we had befriended a drummer. Amid our drunk impromptu plans for a dance-punk band (no, really) the drummer asked Matt, “do you think you will ever be famous?” He said no.
I hope that’s not the case – I hope his music goes far. Nonetheless, what we currently have from my friend is, ultimately, the emotional cartography of an undergraduate – the electronic distillation of Aberdeen.