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Album of the Month: 'Selva City' by Big Phone

Selva City
Big Phone
(Green Orb Artifacts)

No Decibel Festival this year is a bummer, but don’t despair: Seattle’s electronic music scene is stronger than ever. Year round, homegrown artists and labels flourish across genres and demographics. Wide-eyed newbies and weathered veterans alike flock to Monkey Loft’s rooftop deck, Kremwerk’s basement bunker, Substation’s offbeat sweatbox and other places unlicensed and unmentionable, for parties that consistently put local and international talent side by side. Just last month the Kremwerk folks opened a brand-new club called the Timbre Room with pizza, a patio and a house music weekly in the Denny Triangle. This month brings a new album by techno prankster-shaman Kenric McDowell, aka Big Phone, and it’s an epic.

When he’s not manipulating machine intelligence and user design for Google, McDowell haunts Seattle’s electronic underground. He self-released a wildly entertaining debut full-length in 2013, followed by a pair of EPs and occasional gigs around town. Selva City, his latest, comes out on his own new Green Orb Artifacts label, an endeavor he describes as “part of a grounded and technical 2,000-year business plan to support a form of consumerism that’s akin to magic, and thereby empower humans to co-create reality.”

McDowell’s art aims at a total paradigm shift and, as heard all over Selva City, the music is both catalyst and lubricant. It begins with disparate, concurrent strands—minimal techno and field recordings made during McDowell’s trips to the Amazonian rainforests of Peru—and weaves them into an immersive double helix as conducive to dance-floor debauchery as serene inner voyaging. This stuff heads straight for the pineal glad, that third-eye sweet spot that governs both the average human’s most basic animal functions and our capacity for spiritual transcendence.

Selva is Spanish for jungle (and is notably feminine); the album title juxtaposes nature’s most fecund factory against mankind’s fabricated hive. Throughout the record, McDowell disrupts the metronomic insistence of his four-four rhythms with the jungle funk of chirping insects and calling birds. Where opener “Celestial City” introduces a warm voice whispering an intimate mantra, “Void City” pares back to a ghostly, metallic echo that reverberates across a slowly accelerating beat. “Selva Breakdown” bubbles and simmers, its percussive edge rounded into an organic pulse, and “Basic Selva” is similarly liquid in its undulating tones.

Of the album’s six tracks—each of which hovers around the 10-minute mark—“Vision City” stands apart in its mellow mood, suggesting the languid meander of cannabis rather than the fractalized panorama of DMT. The song grounds the darker, headier sonics of the rest of Selva City, including the closer that follows, “Stripped.” Here McDowell melts structure into wonky minimalism as a voice intones, “There is no one path.”

Respect to Decibel for helping to lay a foundation for electronic experimentation in Seattle. Respect to Big Phone—and the rest of the new guard—for carrying on with unbridled imagination.

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