Like post-punk, neo-Expressionism, or New Labour, ‘hardvapour’ defines itself in opposition to a preceding movement. If vaporwave (the Tumblr-beloved microgenre of pitch-shifted lounge music that sounds like a chopped-and-screwed mix of the Windows 95 start-up tone) sounds like glossy mall muzak transmitted from a futuristic virtual plaza, then hardvapour sees that plaza hijacked by a group of Balkan cyberpunks, hacking into the tannoy and blasting out gabber as they throw shapes in the strobelight.
At its best, vaporwave exposes the artificiality below the utopic sheen of late capitalism. Hardvapour, by contrast, throws post-apocalyptic raves in defiance of dystopia. Or, as HKE (vaporwave luminary and hardvapour’s unofficial patron) puts it over email: “If vaporwave is painting alternate utopian realities through sound, vision and concept, then hardvapour is the antithesis to that, the hard parallel.”
Hardvapour tracks typically explore the dissonance between the ambient sheen of vaporwave and the relentless thump of gabber. But a sprawling 60-track compilation released by DJ Vlad of Bandcamp label Antifur displays a more diverse palette of influences. Techno-structured slabs of bass slide through tracks by Lord Mu and t e l e p a t h テレパシー能力者 - 脈拍, KMFDM-style industrial clatter and moments of Autechre-esque beauty recur throughout the album, and there’s even a mild undercurrent of trap bubbling below wosX and Blank Body’s Slurp This. Dark, sophisticated, and fleetingly melodic, hardvapour is genuinely exciting music.
The subculture, as much as the music itself, has proven bitterly divisive among vaporwave connoisseurs. Arcane backstories teeming with bionic Krokodil dealers and bitcoin-chasing Slavic bounty hunters have led many to view hardvapour as nothing more than an over-worn in-joke. In a move with chilling consequences for the freedom of artistic expression, hardvapour is effectively banned from the vaporwave sub-Reddit. “Some people can't take things with humour in seriously for some reason,” says HKE. “It’s closer to Dr. Strangelove – a serious message with a dark and humorous slant.”
In a late-2015 manifesto on the future of vaporwave, producer nano神社 (✪㉨✪) wrote: “Vaporwave seems to be having an identity crisis with all these child genres spawning off continuously… this conundrum will either lead to the death of vaporwave, or be the kindling for something much greater.” But for hardvapour enfants terribles HKE, wosX, and DJ Alina, the immolation of vaporwave and the ignition of its successor are one and the same event. “Now, in the beginnings of the end of the world, vaporwave is dead,” runs a spoken-word skit on HKE’S Vaporwave is Dead album. “From now on, it will only be… the hardvapour.”
With their help, we picked out five essential cuts from the micro-microgenre that’s being described as “fucking straight-up stupid”, “angry feel-bad rave music on shitty drugs”, and the essential sound of 2016.
WOSX – “KOKAINE”
Hardvapour’s ur-moment was wosX’s concept album End of World Rave. wosX concedes that “Hardvapour originally set out as a troll,” but maintains that the music has rapidly escaped its point of origin as a glorified meme: “It’s a complete antithesis to what vaporwave originally set out to be: fast music, non-sampled work, darker themes, anti-nostalgia, grim aesthetics, Slavic cultural influences in response to the majorly Asian culture within vaporwave.”
The album is packaged with an epileptic fit-inducing short story, and came backed by social media role-playing in the guise of Slavic drug dealers the Kroko Krew. Conceptual posturing aside, tracks like the grimly melodic, techno-textured “Kokaine” blow the late excesses of vaporwave out of the water. “Kroko Krew was the atomic bomb of vaporwave,” wosX says. “I’m happy with how things turned out.”
DJ ALINA – “BLOODLINE”
DJ Alina, allegedly a bona fide Ukranian, is heralded by HKE and wosX as proof of hardvapour’s genuine artistic merit. Asked to nominate one of her own tunes as a hardvapour essential, she gnomically declined: “If you want to try the music, you will listen. You may find out about DJ Alina, maybe not.”
The hoover-thump of gabber never sounded so melancholic as it does on “Bloodline”, the storming lead from her debut LP Maniax, which recently dropped on HKE’s Dream Catalogue label. The album glistens and roars by turns, soundtracking a mournful rave on the post-apocalyptic shores of the Black Sea.
SANDTIMER – “WELCOME TO HARDVAPOUR”
“After Sandtimer declared that ‘vaporwave is dead’ at the end of 2015, I had to back him up because he’s a deranged maniac and he terrifies me,” HKE says. What he didn’t mention was that Sandtimer is one of his own pseudonyms. Studded with bitingly ironic tracks like “Clichéd Midi Interlude”, his Vaporwave is Dead LP is an energetic fuck-you to the genre.
“Welcome to Hardvapour” bangs without cease for just over two minutes, barrelling toward unlistenability before abruptly ejecting into silence and the cloying twang of a music-box. Like the album as a whole, it is deliberately bad, jarring a response from the listener. HKE explains: “Ultimately, it’s taking some of the ideas from vaporwave and spreading them into new worlds and concepts and away from what has become the tired clichés of vapour.”
FLASH KOSTIVICH – “DIAL-UP”
But shock tactics only go so far, and hardvapour’s pionerrs are now diversifying their output beyond the initial onslaught of speedcore silliness. Released under his Flash Kostivich pseudonym, wosX’s Hacking for Freedom is one such effort, nestling in a unique sonic space somewhere between early Clicks and Cuts compilations and the Ghost in the Shell soundtrack.
wosX himself picks out “Coding @ Dawn”, a doleful post-chiptune collaboration with t e l e p a t h テレパシー能力者 - 脈拍, as the highlight of the album. But “Dial-Up” is nastier, cruder, and far more compelling, sweeping away the broadband-smooth sheen of vaporwave in a crunching racket of square waves and modem screeches.
NADYA DRAGHICI – “BUCUREŞTI 2084”
“Globalization is the next step of human development, and it should be a central theme within contemporary art,” wosX says. “Whether it’s apocalyptic Ukraine, the favelas of Brazil, or the ghettos of urban America, there really is no limit as to where you can venture.”
Of the 29 albums available to download from the Antifur bandcamp in a $4.20 bundle, Nadya Draghici’s single-track București 2084 is the most ambitious, the most abstract and perhaps the most impressive. The understated Balkan influence here is poignantly dystopic, as accordions wheeze alone among the street sounds of a ruined future city. It certainly doesn’t sound like a meme.
Follow Matt Broomfield on Twitter here @hashtagbroom