The prospect of Mark Fell applying his robotically incisive methods to the gloriously imperfect edifice of house music will be repulsive to some. Both solo and in collaboration with fellow Sheffield resident Mat Steel as SND, Fell uses generative systems to craft rhythmic patterns of perpetual flux, ceaselessly sliding through fleeting moments of dance floor efficacy as if zooming in on some exquisite, techno-derived fractal shape. It's a fascinating approach, but one which is perhaps prone to a fixation on dry technicalities rather than fluid intuition.
For his recent Sensate Focus series, though—three singles released on the Editions Mego sub-label of the same name—Fell put the algorithmic trickery to one side in favour of the rhythmic grid of a sequencer, drawing in patterns manually to craft crisp, hypnotically unstable loops which owe a debt to the mellifluous warmth of house music at its most smooth-edged. In Sentielle Objectif Actualité, Fell presents a series of remixes of those singles—which were themselves, in part, re-workings of material from a recent Terre Thaemlitz collaboration, the Complete Spiral EP. Plotted as an arc, the three projects see Fell accelerating away from a brief moment of deep house sensuousness in the direction of his more typically spartan fare—but still, this album represents an intriguing compromise between Fell's distinctive language and the friendlier environs of the contemporary dance floor.
The origins of the name are revealing: Sensate Focus is a kind of quasi-tantric sexual therapy which attempts to subsume the standard fixation with genitals and orgasm into a full-body sensory experience. At their best, the tracks on this album dodge nimbly around singular moments of gratification in favour of diffuse, asymmetrical patterns that tumble ceaselessly beyond your grasp—an experience which, much like sex with no climax, certainly has the capacity to frustrate, but also perhaps to reveal another, subtler kind of pleasure. When the right balance is struck, it's a quiet revelation: the airy "SOA-2" bobs and weaves tirelessly until its lopsided funk is worked thoroughly under the skin; "SOA-3" is both maddeningly insistent and compellingly floaty as if, like car wheels in a vintage film, its frenetic pace exceeds some invisible threshold, leading it to backpedal serenely.
At points, though, the equilibrium is disturbed. Fell's choice of sounds always teeters on the brink between crystalline clarity and plastic harshness, but "SOA-1" is built around a brain-boring synth drone that renders the thing almost unlistenably penetrative. "SOA-4," meanwhile, leans too far towards the hectic, while "SOA-6'''s slow accrual of energy and detail gives it the feeling of engaging in a knotty work-out rather than being suspended on some tantric plateau. Still, the finest moments here more than justify the misfires. Closer "SOA-7" is the strongest, its exquisitely poised loop of pillowy tom hits and lush, phasing chords recalling the glistening stasis of sun-kissed house music at its best—even if its framework is, by comparison, so utterly bizarre.