Killer Sounds From the Chicago Underground

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Chicago’s underground has been on fire the past few years. Every other week seems to deliver a new batch of releases from the Hausu Mountain label, purveyors of madcap electronics and cyborg-bopping eccentricity. The shadowy Beau Wanzer, whose icy and forlorn productions disintegrate the divide between post-punk and techno, is nearly as prolific—and that’s just one dude. And then there’s Jaime Fennelly’s always progressing Mind Over Mirrors project: his latest album, the critically lauded Undying Color, wanders dense, rippling expanses of pastoral art folk and baroque électronique.

Of course, “underground” means a lot of different things to a lot of different heads. For denizens of the city’s thriving avant-garde jazz and hardcore punk scenes, it conjures up a significantly different cluster of artists. So for this playlist, we focus primarily on musicians, bands, and oddball geniuses who stalk the back alleys, linking DIY electronics, industrial, droning experimentation, and mutant dance music. At first blush they may seem too far apart to link, but in Chicago, where musicians from different disciplines have always mingled freely, the overlap between them is substantial.

This idea is reflected in the growing catalog of Midwich Productions, a label specializing in “electronic music from the urban wilderness of the Midwest.” Founded by longtime resident and musician Jim Magas, it’s home to both HIDE (pictured at top), who unleash mechanized nightmares that carry forward the city’s electro-industrial tradition, and Alex Barnett, a composer whose quirky, bubbling pieces ooze a cozy sense of nostalgia for ’70s synthesizer music.

As you can probably guess, a lot of this music gets awfully weird—Fire-Toolz’s collision of boom-box EDM and grindcore rasp makes zero sense. Yet a good deal of it is deeply beautiful: Quicksails, an alias for multi-instrumentalist Ben Billington, crafts flickering avant-pop that bridges DIY electronics with the city’s deep reverence for jazz and free improv. It’s music that could only come from Chicago.