If Charli XCX’s “Vroom Vroom” is the sexiest electro-pop track about driving, Danny L Harle’s “Car Song”, a collaboration with MC Boing, is the most furious. “We are driving in a car/Playing music in a car” shouts an unnamed vocalist over horns and pounding synths. The track is only a minute and a half long, but with its relentlessness and breathless energy, it’s remarkably distinct. This fervour means it’s a surprise when the vocalist, briefly a cappella, stops halfway through a verse, unable to fit the intended lyrics into the rhythm the song dictates. “No, I can’t do that, because the ‘we fly’ has to come before if I wanna do it that way,” they say, shedding some light on the simple methodology that plays a part in all songwriting. The vocals may have stopped, and the song is about to end – but still a drum beat throbs on.
Harlecore is the debut album from the British electronic producer Danny L Harle – but it is by no means an early collection of his music. Since 2013, Harle has earned his place in the UK avant-garde electronica scene via his association with the cult label and collective PC Music, founded by AG Cook, and his production work for artists including Charli XCX, Rina Sawayama and Caroline Polachek. The latter – formerly of the US synth-pop band Chairlift – featured on Harle’s glitchy 2016 single “Ashes of Love”. Harle, always one of PC Music’s poppier acts, has also had a taste of the mainstream: in that same year he collaborated with Carly Rae Jepsen for the high-octane track “Super Natural”, while 2017’s abrasive “Bom Bom”, featuring Australian rapper Tkay Maidza, quickly became an internet sensation.
On Harlecore, Harle conjures an environment many of his listeners will have been pining after for 11 months now: the club. The album has been in the works since before the pandemic, and was dreamed up as a celebration of the dance nights Harle has long held himself; now though, that evocation is more desired than ever. His instinct for snappy pop rhythms and heavily dance-able basslines remains, while some of the more idiosyncratic sonic textures with which he made his name are absent, lost to his brash club drive. (Notably, Harlecore will be released on 26 February on LA-based label Mad Decent, not on PC Music; with this move, Harle has left behind some of his earlier verve.)
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The club Harle leads us into is expectedly sweaty, bass-heavy, its music wildly different at every turn. It’s not simply that this is music for a club setting – although the euphoric peaks and troughs of “Do You Remember” would make it a perfect blissed-out 3am number – but that the album itself doubles as a mysterious “virtual club experience”, which will launch with the record and keep its doors open 24 hours a day. What’s more, the album plays with aliases: Harle himself appears as DJ Danny, while Polacheck steps in as DJ Ocean. The acclaimed Scottish producer and Warp signee Hudson Mohawke is DJ Mayhem, while Lil Data – the PC Music artist who uses live-coding and pattern programming software in their speedcore – brings the incessant energy as MC Boing.
Each track also features an unnamed vocalist, evoking the cool anonymity of a DJ standing behind the decks in a dark underground venue, their form not quite recognisable in the haze. “I literally can’t stand the sound of my own singing voice,” Harle told Highsnobiety in 2018. The anonymity he gives to his vocalists here, then – a significant step away from the “feat.” of his previous singles – suggests a desire to embrace a collective sonic union where the end goal is simply to be carried away by the rush of the track (the glistening propulsion of “On a Mountain”, for example) and not to be too concerned with precisely who is singing on it.
The result is an immersive record on which Harle has given each of his collaborators a “floor” of the club: DJ Danny’s tracks are the true crowd-pleasers – “Take My Heart Away” is a pummelling dance-floor anthem that plays with all the tropes of typical club music (four-to-the-floor beats, gradual builds to delirious highs), yet each synth rhythm snags a little, as though it’s got one of its cogs stuck, and in doing so lifts the track free of any cliché or obviousness. DJ Mayhem’s basement-friendly tracks such as “Interlocked” and “All Night” approach with a vengeance: all juddering rhythms and background growls. The remaining two MC Boing tracks are disappointingly similar to “Car Song”: “Piano Song”, which features a chopped-up vocal line and harpsichord-like synths, rings with much the same frenzy – simply with a change of subject matter. These tracks punctuate the record with blasts of high energy and little more.
The riches lie in DJ Ocean’s pauses for thought. “Ocean’s Theme” is a slow, ethereal lullaby, where the synths have the texture of lapping waves and the vocal line is trance-like. On “For So Long”, the vocalist – likely Polachek herself – acts as one part of a many-stranded thread of synths, all woven together in deep, sometimes unsettling harmony. There is no obvious beat to jump up and down to here. Together, Harle and Polachek find a freeing place where euphoria comes in the form you least expect it. It is here – where Harle is least obsessed with turning clichéd dance tropes on their heads – that Harlecore feels most true to the best club experiences: moments of unanticipated revelation.
“Harlecore” is released on 26 February on Mad Decent