Heavee, “Unleash”
By Nadine Smith · March 21, 2024 Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)

Like so many before him in Chicago’s livewire footwork scene, Heavee was a dancer before he was a DJ. The dexterous and nimble rhythms—both sonically on the part of the producer, and physically on the part of the DJ—that define footwork form the backbone of Unleash, but Heavee hardly limits himself to his roots. The Chicago artist’s debut LP for Hyperdub is a mind-expanding journey through computerized sound, informed by his study of more advanced sound synthesis concepts like physical modeling and modulation; the squishy tones and booting-up chirps that form much of the album’s sonic palette sometimes recall early Moog experiments as much as 2010s Teklife. “Unlock!” sounds like a cyborg learning how to talk, as a robot’s indistinct mouth sounds dissipate into blasts of bass that radiate like tidal waves. But for all the machine assistance, the first sounds you hear on the album—the echo of crunching footsteps and jingling keys on opener “StarSeeker”—are very much alive.

Footwork is always there, but sometimes it’s a more subtle presence woven into the DNA, like the soulful “SearchN’4,” where dubby bass lurks underneath the surface of BABii’s warmly soothing vocals. After a glittering intro, “Bang Bang” pivots into straight-up juke, with a looping chant that drives you to move: “Bitch, I’m in my zone/ You know what the fuck I’m on.” On these more club-conducive footwork tracks, there are still stretches of quiet noodling as Heavee breaks off to explore unexpected patterns. Where other footwork DJs might use pitched-up vocal samples, Heavee distorts voices in every direction: there’s a tension between the almost chopped and screwed voice on the title track and the high BPM that feels like it’s pulling your brain in opposite directions. “Whiplash” aptly describes the experience the track induces, like trying to rave in zero-gravity, as metallic shards mutate into thumping hardstyle whomps that stutter and explode into a thousand sounds: squealing tires, chirping birds, and radar signals.

Heavee clearly has his eyes and ears tuned to the future, but he’s never one to forget where he came from: “CanUFeelIt” chops up a classic deep house vocal sample into a tight loop that shrinks with each repetition, until we’re left with a flurrying symphony of claps that wouldn’t sound out of place on DJ Rashad’s Double Cup. “Bounce Dat” recruits Teklife’s perpetually elusive cult icon DJ PayPal to go B2B on a hypnotic juke groove, as chattering hi-hats play Double Dutch with a voice that commands you to keep bouncing. For all of Heavee’s experimental flights of fancy, what keeps Unleash feeling so raw is that it’s unmistakably grounded in a human presence, whether that’s the mixing of a live DJ or the sound of human feet themselves.

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