We're posting our favorite Bay Area albums of 2018 every weekday through Dec. 14. Check here to see who else made the list.
For some, going to a rave is an opportunity for healing, a way to cultivate a mind-body connection by moving to the rhythm with friends and strangers in the dark. But for Oakland producer Russell E.L. Butler, it's deeper than that.
On their November release, The Home I'd Build For Myself and All My Friends (Left Hand Path), Butler (who prefers the pronoun "they") uses techno as a language to grapple with the aftermath of the Ghost Ship fire, which they narrowly escaped. Throughout the album, Butler's jagged beats, with thudding bass lines and tempestuous synths, give voice to the painful process of recovering from trauma.
As many have pointed out, the artists who perished at Ghost Ship gathered in the unsafe warehouse out of necessity amid Oakland's lack of affordable spaces to live, create and perform. With The Home I'd Build For Myself and All My Friends, Butler imagines a society that prioritizes the well-being of queer, trans, black, immigrant and low-income artists. But, as Butler told me when I interviewed them in November, there's no getting there without a fight.
Fittingly, the music Butler created to articulate these ideas is rife with friction. After ambient intro "Tuning Fork," "Builder" cuts in with a pounding break beat. Its yo-yoing synth-lines lull listeners into a hypnotic state before the thwack of each snare jolts them awake. "No New Neighbors," another standout track, pulses to a funky bass line as increasingly suspenseful synths build tension that never resolves.
Though the album's tense mood rarely shifts, the song titles on the second half of the record suggest new growth and regeneration. On "Cure Water," sparkling synths bubble up out of a long, drawn-out bass line like seedlings sprouting from moist soil. On "Garden's Gift," which evokes a bit of Detroit techno, Miami bass and punk rock, fast-and-loose cymbals invite the listener to shake everything off.
Not every producer can imbue wordless techno with a tangible concept, but Butler pulls it off by infusing their beats with the visceral feeling of struggle and unease that accompanies going through a period of growth. The Home I'd Build For Myself and All My Friends is a fascinating work that returns to techno's roots as a liberatory genre, where rhythm allows humanity to unite and work towards a better future.