Album Review: Christoph de Babalon - Hectic Shakes

I hesitate to say Christoph de Babalon spent, like, a decade toiling away in obscurity, but following the release of his 1997 opus, If You’re Into it, I’m Out of it, his recorded output began to dwindle around the year 2000—not really picking back up again until 2008, with the release of the absolutely nightmarish Scylla & Charybdis.

Following the dissolution of the ‘digital hardcore’ movement in the late 1990s, de Babalon continued to walk that sonic line between what is commonly called ‘dark ambient,’ and the frenetic, unrelenting break beats, and developing a cult following while doing so. At the beginning of 2018, de Babalon celebrated the 20th anniversary of If You’re Into it with a vinyl reissue, garnering ‘Best New Reissue’ from Pitchfork, with a review that reminded readers that were maybe too young for de Babalon’s music the first time around that Thom Yorke once called the album ‘the most menacing record I own.’

With renewed interest in his back catalog of material—a bulk of which is available via his Bandcamp page, de Babalon ended 2018 with a bit of a victory lap in the form of Exquisite Angst, a small collection of his earliest works, some of it being released on vinyl for the first time.

Provided this career resurgence, and more than likely having access to a slightly larger audience thanks to mainstream coverage, now seems like a wise time to return with new material—spanning four tracks, Hectic Shakes is de Babalon’s first collection of new songs in nearly two years.

Hectic Shakes is structures so that it’s as precise and concise as possible—each track is roughly five minutes (and change) in length, and de Babalon really wastes no time plunging the listener back into the murky, chaotic depths he perfected 20 years ago—and he proves that point right out of the gate on the cacophonic opening piece, “Harakiri,” which juxtaposes both of those sounds he’s best known for; it opens with a long, slow moving drone—a sound that seems like it’s calling to you through very thick, and very dark fog. He continues to build that up until about a minute and a half in, when the unrelenting drum breaks begin tumbling down around you.

“Endless Inside” is, more or less, an actual audial assault; opening with an eerie, otherworldly piano sample that is manipulated to the point where it sounds like it may disintegrate right in front of you, de Babalon lures you into the song by playing the silence in between the notes like an instrument; then, he literally pummels you with a torrent of fast paced and aggressive drum breaks, one after the other—while the sounds swirling around them grown more and more dissonant and threatening in tone.

Perhaps the effort’s most accessible, or maybe least ominous and confrontational, is “Shivers and Shakes.”

There was a part of my life, around a decade ago, where for a few years, I was in a band—we were a self-described ‘electronic noise’ band; my friend Dan and I started it, and it worked as a duo thing for about a year, then our friend Adam joined to play live drums. The thing about me being in band, no matter what genre it may have been, is that I don’t really know how to play an instrument. A lot of what I did was make laptop beats, or very simple things on the keyboard or the guitar. Mostly it was just feedback and dissonance—Dan was the one who, like, knew what he was doing.

The reason I even bring this up is that, while the band hasn’t played together since 2011, I still think about it, and occasionally, I hear a song—usually an instrumental, primarily electronic song—and I daydream about what it’d be like to try to cover it.

“Shivers and Shakes” is a song like that.

Relatively simplistic in its set up, the song is powered by, as anticipated, absolutely frenetic and jittery drum sampling—from there, “Shivers and Shakes” is about the give and take between two main sounds: bassy undertones that bounce and roll into the rhythm, and unsettling, distended tones that glide effortlessly in and out, from one to the other.

Hectic Shakes concludes with its most evenly structured composition—“Raw Mind” may also be the EP’s most energetic. Not to say the other three pieces on this release are lacking in energy by any means, but here, the level of energy is palatable, and not designed to be so intense that you feel like you may have a heart attack while listening.

Built around two competing synthesizer patterns—one sounding like it’s straight from the 1980s in its warmth, the other a little more rough around the edge, “Raw Mind” then gives away for the hyperactive skittering of cymbal and snare hit samples—though something about the gradual pace with which the synthesizers oscillate keep the percussion from overpowering the piece.

A number of de Babalon’s older pieces have the ability to test your patience—he did, after all, open If You’re Into it with a 15 minute, codeine slow droning piece called “Opium.” And even if isn’t testing your patience, the harshness and intensity of the more hardcore tracks are certainly not for the faint of heart. Hectic Shakes is a collection that doesn’t overstay its welcome, and it, in turn, is a welcome return for an artist that never really left—his profile is just a lot higher now thanks to the sudden interest in his older material. These four tracks remind you that de Babalon still has new musical ideas to share as well.

Hectic Shakes is out now as an extremely limited edition LP and a digital download, via ALTER.