A Guide to Dance Music’s Devious New Genre, Dark Disco
A Guide to Dance Music’s Devious New Genre, Dark DiscoFebruary 26, 2020
Dance music styles come and go quicker than garage tunes in a DJ EZ set. But why do some stick around longer than others? Broadly speaking, house, electro and techno are now in their late 30s. Disco is closer to 50. Sub-genres like tech, deep and minimal are somewhere in between. But there are probably a million micro-genres under those loose umbrella terms that burned brightly only to fade away faster than the crowd when the lights come up.
Over recent years, though, a new sound has emerged, evolved, and taken hold. It’s one that is too dystopian to be called disco, too melancholic for house, and too musical to be techno. It’s called dark disco, and it’s music for strobe lights and smoke machines rather than mirror balls and lasers. It’s rugged and raw, with oriental melodies and chugging grooves, tobacco-stained synths and angular riffs that appeal to biker boys and goth girls.
What dark disco isn’t is the indie-disco or nu-disco of Prins Thomas, Todd Terje or Lindstrøm. It’s a tense, heads-down mish-mash of guitar-heavy sounds and gloomy electronics. It’s also usually slower than original disco, loosely ranging from around 80 to 130 BPM. But importantly, it always remains very danceable.
“For me, the dark disco hymn is ‘Walk The Night,’” says Vamparela, one half of Local Suicide, about the Skatt Brothers’ 1979 track, which featured gauzy guitar licks, chunky, mechanical drums, and hip-swinging claps. “I think it’s what happened when the disco era was coming to an end, and new wave started flourishing. The high energy of disco mixed with the melancholy of new wave might have given birth to dark disco.”
“It’s the Mexican nu disco revolution, with amazing artists like Lokier, Iñigo Vontier and Thomass Jackson,” says the notoriously hard-to-define Moscoman, whose Disco Halal label has dealt in plenty of in-between disco and wave sounds. “I imagine it’s the incarnation of Carpenter genre music, but more sluggish with more snares. I guess the Israeli rock scene was very influenced by EBM and IDM and all the waves possible. I guess I’m a descendant of that, and the disco part comes from Michael Jackson.”
It was in Berlin a couple of years ago that someone first described the LA-based, Side UP Works associate Moderna‘s set as dark disco. She liked it, and now uses it as one of the tags for her Brave New Rave radio show. She reckons EBM, techno, acid, electro and rock all permeate the genre, but that it “still has the elements of a 4/4 disco vibe, which gives it a bit of a lighter, more groove-oriented flare, on top of those more serious sounds.”
Almost everyone mentions Luca V, aka Curses, as a key protagonist of dark disco. He’s heard the term on and off for many years, “but it wasn’t until I played in places like Saint Petersburg, Russia and Ankara, Turkey that people kept emphasising it. To me, the key roots are in early ‘80s EBM and new beat, as well as some psychedelic rock from places like Israel and Russia. These early subgenres, as well as acid, proto-house and electro, were all forms of rebellion against the mainstream disco movement, which I like. There’s something punk about it. It’s more ‘sexy dark’ versus ‘scary dark,’ and I think that works any time, any place.”
On dark disco’s Turkish roots, French veteran Damon Jee agrees. He first heard the term when in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, earlier this year. “But I think it’s more complex. There is a bit of rock and guitar in it, some energy from electroclash, a bit of techno, synth, new wave, cold wave, pop… I think maybe ‘dark, indie disco’ wave would be a more suitable name!”
Jee’s own music draws on everything from New Order to Nine Inch Nails, and Metallica to Rebolledo. “I don’t really have anything in mind when producing. I just want to have fun and make music as if I was on the dance floor. For me, dark disco feels more universal than other electronic genres, so it’s perfect for clubs, festivals, day and night, peaktime or warm up. You can now hear this genre mixed by everyone from Andrew Weatherall to Solomun to Adam Beyer, so it can be played anywhere.” Indeed, Vamparela reckons one of the most important parties for the genre worldwide is A Love From Outer Space, an event run by the late Andrew Weatherall and Sean Johnston. Those two chug-masters leaned toward the expansive and astral ends of the spectrum, with star-gazing melodies and kosmische grooves.
Local Suicide cohort Brax Moody refers to the sounds they make themselves as “techno-disco“ and “cobra wave,” but thinks a fair description is “uplifting gloominess.” And while dark disco is often described with these severe and moody adjectives, Moderna believes the genre works in more than dark, late-night spaces. “There’s a right time and place for every type of music, and knowing when and where is a significant aspect of being a good DJ. But I think dark disco is a diverse sound, so it has flexibility — there’s so much to it. I like to create a feeling of subtle excitement with my music and with my DJ sets. A toughness with a sophisticated style. I love to offer a feeling of restrained atmosphere ready to burst out at a certain moment, but without over-exaggerating it.”
It might have sonic roots in Belgium or Turkey, but right now the dark disco sound is thriving in Mexico, where a lot of interesting up-and-coming artists and labels are pushing things forward. The country’s Duro label has long been at the forefront of the scene — a fact agreed upon by nearly everyone I spoke to — and has released music from Younger Than Me, TYU, Theus Mago and Inigo Vontier as well as the boss, a DJ and producer also called Duro. Label co-founder Mateo Gonzalez, aka Bufi, is also a key player.
Hungary, too, has its own small but well-formed scene, spearheaded by the Secret Factory duo. Known as local legends, they’ve been throwing parties under their own name for the last 20 years. And since 2019, they’ve run their Secret Fusion label with SouveQ, pushing the sort of sounds they play in their tasteful yet experimental sets. “To be honest, the first time I heard this term was in 2019, although I’ve played many tracks in this style,” SouveQ says. “We are working on making it more widely known, creating a scene and connecting with others across the world.”
Berlin, too, of course, has clubs like Salon zur Wilden Renate, Kater Blau and Mensch Meier often championing DJs who play these post-disco and -wave sounds. Then there’s Local Suicide’s own We Are TOFU party, which has been a regular event in the city since 2015. It’s free entry and the door policy is relaxed, with guests like Zombies in Miami, Mor Elian, Khidja, Tronik Youth, Que Sakamoto and Mystery Affair. Elsewhere, labels like La dame Noir in Marseille have always defined themselves as dark disco, and champion the sounds in their own bar and club, while Phantasy Sound artist Terr occasionally dips into dark disco, as does long time Correspondent label boss Jennifer Cardini. On the more rugged end, there’s French dance punks like Ivan Smagghe and Chloè.
Like many of the artists who now make what we’re calling dark disco, Local Suicide grew up listening to rock, indie, new wave and Italo disco, before turning to early electronic bands like The Chemical Brothers and electroclash. Despite plenty of localised dark disco scenes, they say they’ve had “great times, received amazing feedback and had the pleasure to see lots of smiling faces in all four corners of the world playing dark disco at big clubs and festivals, as well as smaller locations, afternoon open-airs or back alley bars. We have played all-nighters and every possible slot from warm up to prime time and closing, which can be done very easily, as the genre is very versatile sound-wise.”
And that’s no doubt what means dark disco is here to stay. Unlike short-lived sounds with hyper specific aesthetics like the shimmering lo-fi of chillwave, the narrow predictability of donk or the nocturnal urban atmosphere of night bus, dark disco can be infused with a wide array of influences, while maintaining grit and charm at its core. House and techno, too, can take on myriad different shades, textures and colours but still remain true. Decades after their arrival, people still find fascinating new niches within the broader forms of these genres, keeping us coming back for more. Dark disco might only be in its infancy, but it could well be here to stay.
Kristan Caryl is a freelancer living in Leeds. Find him on Instagram.