Distal's electronic odyssey

Retrograde Space Opera builds a conduit for freeform expression

To the unacquainted, East Cobb's Chimney Springs seems like an insular North Atlanta suburb. However, in the late '90s this conventional neighborhood was the site of underground death matches that left a permanent mark on at least one survivor. "When I was in school we'd have these LAN local area network parties; there would be 15 kids sitting in a dark basement with our computers hooked together, playing first-person shooters Unreal Tournament and Quake," says DJ and producer Michael Rathbun, who operates under the name Distal. "While running around shooting at each other in these modified games, we'd trade music, and listen to all kinds of stuff including hardcore breakbeats, techno, and Coil.

"The games, the soundtracks, the ways we had to dial in, the technology in general was all glitchy, not perfect, but that influenced me," he adds.

All of this computer-centric behavior bred a legacy of DJs and electronic music composers who have come a long way from learning about rave culture through Internet Relay Chat forums, and are now themselves the subjects of threads, playlists, and shows. Rathbun has taken the confluence of bass-fragged samples and long nights of dilated pupils, mixed in a love of science fiction, comic books, and polyrhythmic interfacing, and produced Retrograde Space Opera, his latest album and first release for his new label, Anarchostar. The label is a canvas for a psychedelic story to be told, and the album an outlet for evolving the synth-glazed and stuttering electro-funk Rathbun has been debugging since 2007. There was a long period, however, that informed his sound after electronic music helped him leave behind a typical suburban prog-rock and hip-hop upbringing.

"I DJed for eight or nine years before I started production," Rathbun says. "I knew it was time to create original things when I started turning my sets into free-for-alls. I'd get kicked out of clubs for playing breakcore, mixing gabber with Southern rap. I made promoters cry, got in fistfights."

Among the more ragged genres Rathbun etched into battered subwoofers were happy hardcore, Detroit techno, and drill 'n' bass. They were augmented by tracks from the Warp Records and Planet Mu continuums, including Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, Venetian Snares, and Atlanta's own Richard Devine. Then, just as party stagnation and DJ aggression set in, dubstep opened a wide sonic palette of entries for fans of styles from jungle to tech-house. Finding resonance in the distending bass, tribal skitters, and reverb of artists such as Bristol, UK producer Pinch. Rathbun turned to digital audio workstation Logic, as well as his bountiful sample collection, to reverse-engineer the sensation of maximized minimalism.

"I had been playing with all this noise, these walls of sound, and then I stumbled on 'Underwater Dancehall' by Pinch, as well as 'Kingdom' by Untold, and I became obsessed with how these guys made mixes that were so open but so dominating," Rathbun says. "I remember sitting in my bedroom studio surrounded by speakers and controllers, making the whole house hate me as I had the same track looping for hours while working on mixdowns that replicated that command of space."

Experimentation, software manuals, and a subscription to British audio technology magazine Future Music led to a less complicated mix for Rathbun. All those hours carving deviant bass paid off when Pinch approached Rathbun to release singles and then Distal's debut LP, Civilization, via Tectonic Recordings. Along the way Rathbun promoted the fluctuations of low-end on the scene through releases on numerous international labels, co-founding promotions group Atlanta Dubstep and Embassy Recordings, and getting locally produced tracks into the hands of radio-show tastemakers such as Baltimore's Joe Nice and the UK's Gilles Peterson.

However, much like drum 'n' bass years before, dubstep codified around a central, more industrial style (derided as "brostep" by the underground). Rathbun drifted away from the glowsticks and toward more percolating facets of Chicago house and juke/footwork, as well as contemporaries such as ambient, refracted Oneohtrix Point Never, scorched techno sequencers Vatican Shadow, and Andy Stott. Locally, Rathbun cites Tomahawk Chop Squad, HYDRABADD, and Makonnen as a few recent names in bass saturation to watch.

He also embraced the idea of being an album/long-form EP artist rather than someone putting out more disposable singles online. This evolution culminates in the high-concept umbrella that is Retrograde Space Opera and Anarchostar.

The narrative — to be revealed slowly online and across CD and vinyl packaging — is a dystopian vision of a civilization's destruction/advancement. Set on an unknown planet thousands of years in the future, the story describes a world ravaged by bureaucrats that have squandered all natural resources. Sequestered on a dying, overcrowded planet by the uncaring upper echelon, the inhabitants are galvanized by a hero determined to lead them from tyranny, toward the planet's center and through a portal leading to the Anarchostar.

This plotline evolved out of a journal of sorts, collecting swatches fueled in part by the real-life revelations of NSA programs, drones, ISIS, etc., that populate the Nineteen Eighty-Four-like news. It's born on Rathbun's lifelong love of sci-fi and acid western films such as Star Wars, Dune, Akira, Blade Runner, Dark Star, and The Holy Mountain, among others, as well as his love of French illustrator Moebius and graphic novels that touch on issues of spirituality, society, and personal liberty.

The visual aesthetic is a collaboration with Argentinian vector artist Freschore, who met Rathbun when he booked him for a South American gig. Their politicized, universe gets fevered sonic color from the filtered bounce of 8-bit leads, acid house, and shifts of dizzy, spliced percussion that awaken catatonic senses. Despite the lists of genres navigated and dark corners illuminated, there's cohesiveness to Retrograde Space Opera, as it launches a period of consistent artistic output.

"I hate how some labels have been around for just two years and are on their 50th release; the signal-to-noise ratio is way too high because they're pushing just to get their logo, their brand, out faster," Rathbun says. "I'm just going to be releasing three to four albums a year, and I'm going to work those hard, really nail it home."

Anarchostar takes as inspiration labels such as London's Hyperdub, a decade-old outlet for dubstep, grime, UK funky, future R&B, and footwork artists that have a balanced regiment of left-field releases. The common thread: A governance of bass, space, and quality. With Retrograde Space Opera as a template, Rathbun will champion sounds that range from dub-swallowed floor-fillers to tropical space music, but share a greater quadrant of fluid expression.