The cover art of Sleep Complex, the debut album from Drumcell (a.k.a. Moe Espinosa) echoes another one of this year's big techno releases, Function's Incubation. Juan Mendez (a.k.a. Silent Servant) is behind both cover designs, and it's hard not to suspect that he noted a few similarities before the general public got a chance to do the same. These are a couple of long-brewing, full-length debuts from established names: Function's album took nearly 20 years to emerge, Drumcell's just under 10. Sonically, Drumcell and Function both play off of standard techno tropes, creating satiny, grayscale sound worlds out of familiar, purist sounds. However, the comparison fractures in an interesting way under scrutiny. Sleep Complex leisurely cuts a wandering path through a nighttime world that, like Espinosa's home base of Los Angeles, is sprawling and unwieldy when seen from afar. It's not as thematically concise as Function's album, but even its nondescript moments have a seething, stripped-to-the-bone energy that propels listeners onward.
This album's centerpiece is "Forgotten Guilt," a kick-drum dirge minimally adorned with a submerged, electronically altered voiceover. The track isn't far off from Plastikman's "Ask Yourself," which also played mind games with worn-down ravers—it's a braindance for people whose brains are struggling back to full functionality. Espinosa leaves open the question of whether it's a pitiless taunt or a psychic road to redemption, and this ambiguity infuses the remainder of the album, which is instrumental save for the creepy police-scanner ambience of "Dispatch." It's an old-fashioned touch, and one that lends a certain coherence and drama to interstitial tracks that might otherwise pass by with minimal notice, much like LA's vernacular architecture of cinder block and stucco housing. These unassuming tracks, in turn, set Drumcell up to do some serious damage with songs like "Behind You" and "Departing Comfort," which don't dazzle but nevertheless build up a formidable, locomotive-like inertia.
It's rare to hear stripped-back machine music audibly preoccupied with such human concerns. The listener hardly needs a title like "Rooted Resentment" to pick up on the internal strife couched in its smoggy, droning background. The kick drum is Sleep Complex's protagonist, and it never falls in square four-by-four patterns. Kicks are instead grouped into off-balance masses, but they're constant in a way that allows us to almost identify with them, as if they were a surrogate maternal heartbeat. Apart from that, we're lucky to get anything but the most subtle hi-hats rising out of the murk, while the LP's synth lines maintain a steely alienation from their surroundings, even as they stay in lock step with the rhythm. It's a good sign that such tightly controlled sonics rarely feel limiting, promoting instead a hypnagogic state. Protected by its hammered-metal contours, Drumcell's Sleep Complex finds sly ways to express its earthly concerns. It's easy enough to make machines sound alienating, but allowing a breadth of emotions to play out amid pounding kicks is something special.