Nicolas Bougaïeff’s The Upward Spiral is a techno album that stands out from the crowd, not just sonically, but in terms of the spirit, technical skills and history that inform it.
Unintentionally released at a time of escalating crisis, its bold focus on optimistic, constructive innovation rather than apocalyptic stasis is extremely welcome. Described by the label as “nine metallic misadventures”, it doesn’t pull any punches sonically but remains agile and forward thinking throughout.
There’s also a playfulness and use of creative wordplay in titles such as ‘Inexadorable’. In this and other conceptual and sonic gestures, the album embraces or works through contradictions but never gets caught by them. Alexei Monroe spoke to Nicolas to understand more about this cutting edge techno release.
Remixes: sam KDC
The Upward Spiral, Embrace Hope All Ye Who Enter Here, Positive Altitude … you seem to be making a clear statement about the need for optimism at this time. Is this partly a reaction to the darker turn that techno’s taken in the last few years or is it more about the general world situation?
Nicolas Bougaïeff: The titles reflect the belief that we can make the world better. I subscribe to this belief. A working society requires healthy debate between groups that respond to different values. If we want to make fundamental changes in the structure of our society, we need to make fundamental changes in the structure of our music. The album is a proposition of how to do this.
The Upward Spiral is a musical metaphor for bridging groups. Dance music is about synchronising people and creating group unity. Tempo is a defining characteristic of dance music. Each track on The Upward Spiral travels between tempi associated with different genres. The different genres represent different groups. On each track, a synth plays at a constant pulse across the tempo jump. The synth lines act as common ground between two musical territories.
Style in dance music is often defined by surface aesthetics. Rather than proposing a novel aesthetic, the album is about creating high level commonalities. These are the melodic bridges between tempi. Let’s zoom out and craft positive messages that consider the perspectives of different groups. That is the thrust of The Upward Spiral.
Is there also some irony in the track titles perhaps?
Nicolas Bougaïeff: Now is the time for sincerity. The track titles are genuine. Even the most abrasive sounds can be viewed in a positive frame. Executing the album’s concept with challenging surface aesthetics is part of the point. Making music from noise is an act of creating order. Purposeful and energetic creation is life. I strive to extend knowledge within my field. New tempo structures are one small step in the forward stumble to a better tomorrow.
What causes do you see for optimism, either in the techno context or beyond?
Nicolas Bougaïeff: I am hopeful because I must. Hope is about agency. Jonathan Sacks explains it best: “Optimism is the belief that the world is changing for the better. Hope is the belief that we can make the world better.”
Let’s zoom far out real quick. Life is an emergent property of the universe. Sentient life is destined to harness the entirety of the universe’s energy output on the infinite path to creating ever more information, knowledge and wisdom. We have the opportunity to take on this role. We can accomplish anything that is not forbidden by the laws of physics. On the grandest of scales everything will be ok.
Let’s zoom back in to right now. Hope implies taking responsibility for making the world better within the scope of each individual. Our beliefs shape our words, our actions and direct our fate. Hope, the belief that we can make the world better, is absolutely necessary for us to make it actually happen.
If dance music is to be lively and futurist, it behooves me to come up with something new. Yesterday was polytemporal, today must be reconciliation. Unity by sharing ideas. We can unbox our minds, fix what is broken, proceed with hope and build the new world.
In many ways, techno is or can be a ‘blank canvas’ onto which listeners can project a wide range of meanings. How concerned are you to ‘guide’ listeners towards certain interpretations or moods or are you happy with whatever response is generated?
Nicolas Bougaïeff: The medium is half the message. The other half is the message itself. The third half is the interpretation. I always look forward to hearing about a listener’s experience. When someone tells me they like my music, I ask them how did the music make them feel and what did they see in their mind’s eye. I’ve had the uncanny experience of hearing listeners describe impressions that precisely echo my intentions.
Thalassophobia (fear of the sea) is a very specific and intriguing reference – could you say more about the concept behind it and how it informed the sound of the track?
Nicolas Bougaïeff: Thalassophobia is the first track I produced on the album. The title refers to the challenging process of looking to the depths beneath the surface. A music scene is more scene than music, a scene is often a microcosm of society. I took a long hard look at the values underpinning the dance music scene at large. I was shocked by what I observed. The flipside is that we can choose values and embed these into both sound and structure. This perspective drove me to use metric modulations as symbolic bridges between groups to create better days.
From Speak and Spell to Laibach.