Starring (sort of): Karma Fields, Pylot, Headless Horseman, Anklepants and the mysterious Halflight
Daft Punk, Deadmau5, Marshmello, Redshape, Bloody Beetroots, Jaguar Skills, Claptone, Camelphat, Black Tiger Sex Machine, DJ Stingray, UZ, Dr Lektroluv, SBTRKT, Bear Grillz... whatever the genre, whatever the era, dance music bloody *loves a good mask.
Some masked crusaders stay more or less silent behind their iconic face-props (Daft Punk), some are so active and outspoken you forget they even wear a mask (Deadmau5), some give interviews and casually chat about themselves but just don’t want people to see their face (Jaguar Skills), others are serious, dark, mysterious and only talk in weird fonts (UZ)
Whether it's a way to drive focus away from the personality and onto the music, a way to create a character and ‘brand’ (shudder) that’s more memorable than any dude-behind-decks scenario could ever be, or a way for an established artist to start afresh, the fusion of anonymity, theatre, character and imagery has helped to create some genuinely exciting artists and concepts, not just in DJ culture but across any modern genre you can think of. MF Doom, Insane Clown Posse, The Knife, The Residents, GWAR... the list goes on.
But what if a mask isn’t enough? What if we’ve reached peak mask?
We possibly have already. Look at crossed-eyed, bin-headed Marshmello. Fans, followers and blogs have been so obsessed who’s behind the mask, speculating that it must be an established artist due to his meteoric rise, the music seems to come second place. Where once the idea of a mask was to ‘let the music do the talking’ (certainly if we look at the Daft Punk approach), in Marshmello’s case his identity is being discussed more than the music itself.
For some artists this any-publicity-is-good-publicity approach is fine. For others, it isn’t; in fact it’s the complete antithesis to why they’re making electronic music in the first place. So for these artists – those who long for anonymity, and truly *do want the world to focus on their music and not themselves – they have to do a lot more than hide behind a mask.
And this, too, is already happening. Thanks to the internet and the prolieration of media, technologies and platforms, we’re starting to see some genuinely unique concepts emerge. Concepts so strong the issue of identity takes a passenger seat to the music and project itself. So, from disco graphic novel fiction to dick-nosed experimentalists to headless techno, here are five conceptual artists that make masks look like a Band-Aid covering a machete wound. Get to know...
So here’s the concept behind Karma Fields. Karma Fields is artificial intelligence: no one knows where it’s based, no one knows how it was created or what its intentions are. But it appears to want to understand humans... and it’s communicating with us via music.
Karma Fields’ debut was as bold as the concept itself. On 24 February 2015, it ‘hacked’ Monstercat’s Twitchcast. The chat thread – which included Twitch staff who hadn’t been informed of this plan – went bezerk as a program box popped up with code streams before the video to Karma Fields’ video appeared. Even the most computer-savvy users were thrown for a moment or two.
The video was revealed a week later as Build These Cities. Its visual aesthetic was just as important as the music: created by artist Raven Kwok, the randomised 3D reactive mapping animation has set the sparse graphical language and imagery that represents Karma Fields, a graphical language that is beginning to show more detailed shapes and signs of human form with each Karma Fields video.
At first, once the hack hullabaloo had passed, most people were interested in discovering the person behind the concept (because it is an actual person, and probably an already well known producer person at that - it certainly isn’t really AI) but that level of chatter has died down and now fans seem to be happy with the mystery as the story, concept and music are so well executed.
Karma Fields’ debut album is proof. Entitled New Age | Dark Age, it sits somewhere between the widescreen synths of Deadmau5, the crunchy electro of Justice, the emotional dubstep of Seven Lions and MitIS, and the blustering, cinematic breakbeats of Hybrid. It also features some pretty heavyweight collaborations including actor Juliette Lewis, rapper Talib Kweli and British synthpop band Monarchy. Each collaboration adding mystery to AI’s interaction and relationship with human beings.
The next step in this evolution will be live performances, which will apparently develop this year. Quite how this will be done we’re unsure but it’ll be interesting to see how this concept develops.
Another completely fictitious character, but this time a human one, Pylot is a man who’s suffered amnesia after what seems to be a pretty nasty mugging. The story starts as he comes to his senses in a motel room with no recollection of his life or identity and only a handful of things that appear to belong to him: a motorbike, a helmet, a notepad and vague memories of his past. As he chases those memories he’s faced with clues, coded messages and the hope he can work out what the dickens is going on.
This is Pylot’s story and it develops with every track he releases. Everything you see, hear and read is a clue to Pylot’s identity. The artwork, the music, the journal updates... everything is loaded with little clues and codes that he’s actively asking fans to solve before he moves forward, creating an almost choose-your-own-adventure-style layer of immersion.
Most importantly, the music that the Pylot narrative is built around is impressive. It’s a synth-driven sound that nods to Daft Punk, Vangelis, Moroder and elements of Italo while the illustrations leap off the page like a Frank Miller graphic novel. Does this mean the story itself is also based in the 80s? Many fans believe so, but in a recent interview with Belgian retro radio station Drive, the man behind Pylot suggests the era might not be all that it seems.
And this is the most interesting dimension of the concept: the man behind Pylot does give occasional anonymous interviews and explains his methods and inspirations (without giving anything away about his identity) In a strange way, this actually gives weight to Pylot’s fictional realness. It’s clear that he’s already a jobbing producer/DJ and Pylot is a project that allows him to take his ego completely out of the equation and just focus on the concept of a narrative. He’s doing it so well that, like Karma Fields, the chatter about the person behind the project has shifted in favour of the story itself.
Unlike Pylot, Headless Horseman is very much real: the veiled man you physically see is the veiled man you actually get. Since he emerged in 2013 with what have become a highly collectable series of self-released, self-titled white label EPs, and a legendary live debut show at Berghain a year later, nothing has been known about him personally besides the fact he’s most likely German. Until now...
Last month, he gave his first (and potentially only) interview to Resident Advisor. Giving weight to his approach and mystique, he ran through the spontaneous approach to his live shows, his love for literature and narrative (his own character being inspired by Washington Irving’s The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow), how he wants the dancefloor to “focus on the aspects, not the deliverer” and how the starting point for this project was very personal and appears to be pretty bleak.
The music, which comprises seven releases so far - the last of which is an eight-track album - matches this desolate trigger point. Its austere aesthetic is as dark and mysterious as his persona - it clunks, clanks and buzzes with analogue weight and, refreshingly, doesn’t kowtow to anything else going on in techno right now (especially with his clear love for broken beats).
His releases, live show and moments such as his Boiler Room set are testament to the success of his concept, but the added dimension that can’t be ignored is techno’s long-established exploration of anonymity. No other genre has as many media/public opt-outs as techno. From the old ‘faceless techno bollocks’ adage punted by rock critics in the early 90s to the endless mythologies surrounding Drexciya to, much more recently, artists such as Redshape, 18.104.22.168.5/Szare or SHXCXCHCXSH and the constant flow of mysterious, handstamped imprints coming out of Hardwax, techno has embraced the freedom of anonymity and forced fans to form a relationship with the music. While Headless Horseman has created a character around this discourse, he ensures that our focus remains true to techno’s age-old relationship with anonymity.
From faceless-ness to one of the most recognisable faces in electronica... phallus-nosed Anklepants. He became a reality in 2008, but his batwing-wearing maker Dr Reecard Farché - who is also a fictional alter ego from the 17th Century - has been chipping away at the experimental coalface for 15 years. The bewitching brew of IDM, electro, bass, hacked Ataris and Squarepusher-level weirdness wholly complements Anklepants’ animatronic mask (the Facé Of Reecard Farché) and the mic-based device he uses to control the madness (the Facé_Control_wün)
Facé Of Reecard Farché is an iconic keyhole into a whole Anklepants’ costume-heavy, aigu-obsessed universe, but the Facé_Control_wün is the key; it controls both the working parts on his face, but most importantly it also manipulates the music itself by modulating track effects and voice control using self-programmed patches. This hands-on control allows him freedom to stroll out into the crowd during his performance. Winding up, dancing with and occasionally penis-squirting the audience, this is the crux of Anklepants’ motivation... he is a provocateur.
And a very intelligent provocateur at that: his day job is a special effects wizard for Hollywood blockbusters and many of his interviews, videos and posts contain obscure references to literature, science and religion. Most of his references – and indeed his insistence on switching from Anklepants to Reecard Farché while remaining in third person – are as bewildering as his music and performance technique. While his loyal fanbase are more than down with this approach, others aren’t: Anklepants was recently voted ‘Worst Boiler Room Set Ever’ by Reddit users. A fact he seems pretty happy about on social media.
While other characters and aliases in this list are just that - characters or concepts - what we have here is an entire universe, language and code of conduct. While that universe is hard for some to relate to, dance music needs more of this type of experimentalism if it’s to remain an exciting a hotbed of ideas and free-thought.
In contrast, Halflight is the antithesis to provocation. He/she/they hide from it. There is no universe, no dialogue, no mask, no identity. Besides anthemic, electrifying drum & bass, there is nothing, and there never will be.
While some shadowy aliases enjoy the mystery, but know it will never last and already have a developed outing strategy when the time/hype is right, Halflight’s manager tells us this is far from the case here. The artist simply wants to remain anonymous and make the music that inspired them years ago from old rave tapes: those WTF moments you’d get listening to a Helter Skelter tape when an unidentifiable tune would appear and bug the hell out of you – and the long-suffering record store staff you sang it to – until you’d deduced its identity.
If there is a concept here, it’s one that celebrates the simplicity of a time when music enjoyed more of the limelight over personality. A time when social media conservatism and cynical statistic porn where promoters regularly book acts based on their Facebook, Twitter and Soundcloud likes were inconceivable. Either that, or it’s just an old pro who can’t be bothered with the rubbish and simply wants to make beats for the love of it.
Either way, it’s working. Halflight emerged on UKF Drum & Bass in July 2015 and has since gone on to remix Ali B & The Jungle Brothers' Gimme That (which taps into old school revivalism with strong references to the classic Urban Takeover remixes) and, most recently, Diplo & Sleepy Tom’s Be Right Here, a track that’s currently the sole preserve of Annie Mac and a few other tastemakers.
Who knows? Perhaps the hype will make Halflight succumb to revealing themselves. But for now, the fact that they are a complete non-entity with seemingly no desire to market, promote or push themselves in the way most new artists feel they have to is refreshing.
Words: Dave Jenkins