In the closing chapter of Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 sci-fi psychodrama Solaris, the protagonist, Kris Kelvin, finally ventures out from his space station to explore the titular ocean planet—a sentient organism which seems to be testing its human visitors by mimicking their most powerful memories. He sets his course for one of the many “mimoids” the planet creates, towering constructions that rise from its depths before dissolving back into the sea. Upon examination, the structure feels oddly familiar, like an ancient city in ruins—a “twisting labyrinth of streets partially blocked by rubble: their steep winding descent toward a shore washed by clammy foam.”
This image of a funhouse reflection of life on earth, drawn out from the deepest layers of the subconscious and molded in a porous alien substance, kept coming to mind as I listened to Lee Gamble’s new album, Mnestic Pressure. Starting with the title (“mnestic” means “pertaining to memory”), the album casts an eye toward the past, which looms as imposingly as Solaris’ empty cityscape. Gamble drags a wide net across three decades of UK dance music’s hardcore continuum—acid house, rave, jungle, 2-step, and IDM—and wrests its raw materials into rugged, austere formations. The 13 tracks on Mnestic are like sculptures built from the fragments of a life lived in club culture. Isolating his peak experiences and liminal impressions in time, the album repurposes the momentum-based language of dance music to construct a shimmering, hauntingly frozen inversion.
This shouldn’t be news for Gamble’s followers. His 2012 LP Diversions 1994-1996 sampled breakdowns from jungle mixtapes, and since then he’s often approached techno with a conceptual, anti-club swagger. But Mnestic Pressure works more convincingly than much of his output up to this point. On 2014’s Koch, Gamble juxtaposed 4×4 kick workouts with gurgling synths and static bursts that seemed to creep invasively from a primordial swamp. On Mnestic, many of those same textures are present, but the album breathes and gels, opening up easily even at some of its strangest moments.
With many of the tracks hovering around three minutes or less, and often bleeding into each other, the sequencing suggests the ghost of a DJ mix. Like this piece made by “salvaging the sounds and images lost to compression via the MP3 and MP4 codecs” of Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner,” Gamble creates his eerie atmosphere by omitting most of the expected dynamics. Sounds layer without necessarily interacting, or push hard against the grain. “Istian” tumbles into a funky, swung groove but quickly deconstructs itself with a glitching, off-time melodic arpeggio, heaving chords, and collapsed drum programming. The whole thing lurches to a close, refusing to play anything straight for its entire two-and-a-half-minute runtime. It gives way to “East Sedducke,” which strobes and stutters in place, unable to decide if it wants to sink into the couch or leap into hyperdrive.
If anyone’s discography looms particularly large over Mnestic, it’s Autechre’s. The duo’s pioneering work integrated hip-hop, techno, dub, and breaks into an avant-garde opus that’s both icy and playful, opaque yet streetwise. Their spirit is palpable in the pulsating glassiness of “Swerva,” with its ping-ponging percussion, dissonant flickers of melody, and lone minor chord floating like mist, and in the zigzagging groove disruptions of “Ignition Lockoff.” Gamble’s palette, both chewed up and crystalline, directly echoes albums like Confield.
Not everything works. Often Gamble creates luscious atmospheres only to toss them quickly aside, or approaches a stunning melody and then veers away. That may be the point, but it would help, rather than hurt, his cause if his own motifs had a little more space. “UE8” drags at the album’s midpoint, its caveman drums neither flattering the intellect nor seducing the senses. Still, there are many moments of beauty amid the deluge of twisting and disjointed synthesis.
In Solaris, the characters grapple with apparitions of their lost loved ones, which the planet has created for reasons unknown. Meanwhile, out on the ocean, the mimoids riff on larger concepts, studying our earthly experience without context or apparent purpose. They are as spasmodic and emotionless as solar flares. So it is with Mnestic Pressure. Gamble’s world redraws dance music through a coldly exacting yet highly intuitive lens. It’s as if, long after the club has shuttered, the producers have moved on and started families, and the technology has slipped into obsolescence, these sounds still sputter, writhe, and skitter of their own accord, freed from any human agenda, compulsively enacting their own natural state of grace and decay.