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In a studio behind an unremarkable roll-up door in rural England, two men are creating delirious mayhem for the world’s dancefloors. Since 2011, as Dense & Pika, these men – Alex Jones and Chris Spero – have garnered an enviable reputation for making devastating club ordnance that finds the sweet spot between dark, mysterious house and roaring, brawny techno. Not that Chris does anything over than baulk when it comes to trying to “intellectualise” or post-rationalise the creative aspect of making their music, preferring to open it up to individual interpretation. “The whole point of writing music is it does the stuff that words can’t,” he says defiantly.
There’s no denying how adept they are at making music that talks to people. Together, they’ve released over 40 tracks – spread across more than a dozen EPs – and nearly as many remixes, and been associated with some of the biggest labels in dance music, like Hotflush, Drumcode and Hypercolour, the celebrated label that Alex runs. Meanwhile, the label they run together, Kneaded Pains (an anagram of their name), has had its biggest year to date. And they still travel the world together, DJing at the world’s best clubs and biggest festivals, keeping themselves sane during down times by reciting Alan Partridge sketches – the title of 2015’s ‘Lynn EP’ references the long-suffering PA of North Norfolk’s favourite son – and jawing about movies.
But the two friends of 16 years standing, and musical partners for the past nine, have never released an album. Until now. With guest appearances from Matthew Dear, Leftfield and Igor Cavalera, drummer with Brazilian metal deities, Sepultura, ‘Colour Burn’ was devised with Dense & Pika’s live show in mind, swooping and soaring like a set in microcosm. “There’s stripped-back tribal stuff,” Alex explains, “and it gets ravey in the middle, with more peaceful moments. It’s not ten club bangers.”
An album was far from their minds back in 2003 when Alex, then working as the creative director at a Soho design agency, would spend lunchtimes hanging out at Mad Records across the road. Chris was the other side of the counter, serving. They quickly discovered a mutual background in the arts – after a foundation course, Alex won a prestigious D&AD design award for his work while Chris studied sculpture at Central St Martin’s – to go alongside the shared love of music.
Chris, an aficionado of the acid techno scene, was already making music under the name Glimpse, while Alex was steadily building a career as a breakbeat DJ that would culminate in a residency at Brighton’s legendary Big Beat Boutique. Soon, weekends were spent clubbing together, which eventually turned into weekends in the studio as Dense & Pika were born.
“If we were into exactly the same thing back then, the music wouldn’t have sounded like it did now – two worlds colliding,” says Alex. For his part, Chris readily acknowledges that within the Dense & Pika DNA lies the raw and dirty aesthetic of the early acid techno records by the likes of Chris Liberator and D.A.V.E. The Drummer that he loved. It in part explains the crunching, heavy ‘thump’ that makes their music so readily identifiable, although that heaviness, says Alex, is always tempered by a feeling of space. Dig out the lead track from 2013’s much-lauded ‘Colt EP’, with its grinding kick drums tempered by ghostly, emotionally-wrought piano and you’ll hear a prime example – a track that Noel Gallagher, no less, compared to ‘Strings of Life’.
Fast forward to 2020 and it’s a very different rock ’n’ roll star that Alex and Chris engage with on ‘Hidden’ – one of the standout tracks of ‘Colour Burn’ – which features the drums of Sepultura’s Igor Cavalera. A fabulous frenzy of percussion and a driving rhythm that threatens to run off the rails at any moment, the collaboration was the result of glorious happenstance, after a Brazilian driver who ferried Dense & Pika about turned out to be an old friend of the legendary metal sticksman.
“I’m not exaggerating that we did around 32 versions of it – probably more,” says Alex, highlighting a perfectionist streak. “We tried wildly different ideas with it but decided they just couldn’t do his drums justice – so we decided to strip all the decoration out and concentrate on just a simple tribal-type sound.” Such was Cavelera’s own commitment that he destroyed a set of drums recording it – and then joined Alex and Chris in demolishing a shish in an Acton kebab house for lunch.
Another highlight came about via a more traditional route – although it was that master of sensual, slow-burn techno, Matthew Dear, who made the first move on them at a Hypercolour showcase. “He is a genius, our hero, and yet he was fascinated by us, asking how we made our sound, how we did this, how we did that.”
The Detroit DJ and producer’s contribution to ‘Honey’ is a vocal one – a breathy, typically coquettish plea that’s typically enigmatic. It helps turn what Alex calls “a headsy, dusty piece of housey tech” into something sensual and beyond the usual. Wild and smouldering, it seems to the suck the air out of the atmosphere around it. The heroes don’t stop there either, with the heavily robotic vocoder of Neil Barnes – Alex collared the Leftfield man at a small boutique festival near his Buckinghamshire home – aiding and abetting ‘Remote Control’ in its quest to be a high-octane, twisted rave jam that sounds bang on-trend.
‘Colour Burn’ is prefaced by a two-track EP – the duo’s first new music for two years – that is prime Dense & Pika. Part witching hour techno brain scrabbler, part hyperactive flamenco, ‘SSD’ grabs you by the lapels and gives you a thorough shakedown; ‘Wisdom Of The Crowd’, meanwhile, is a sharp-elbowed strut of abrasive synths and breathless, taut percussion that builds, releases… and then loops back on itself. Other personal D&P faves include the beatless, portentous opener, ‘Entropy’, its celestial bass keys acting like some heavenly onslaught, and ‘Slender’, a hyperactive, pummelling techno workout whose fidgety, multi-layered composition is clear evidence of Dense & Pika’s prowess at sound design.
Alex and Chris, as experienced performers, are already working on taking ‘Colour Burn’ out on the road. Luckily, Dense & Pika’s artistic background gives them a headstart over others – a preview of the visuals hint at a fluid version of the trippy, melting faces that adorn the album cover. “The days of it being just a strobe and curtains are gone,” says Alex. “Music is only half the battle. They want more than just two people huddled over doing something. We are in the age of the spectacle.”