Between 2008 and 2010, the Knife’s Olof Dreijer—under the alias Oni Ayhun—released some of the freakiest dance music that this century has yet to produce. On eight untitled tracks spread across four cryptic 12"s, he veered between clean-lined techno and squalling white noise, slow-motion industrial and beehive drones, folk melodies and shards of shrapnel—sometimes all within the span of a single 15-minute track. Then, having carved his iconoclastic mark across a stagnating European techno scene, he went dark, at least as a solo artist. Beyond his work in the Knife, he put out little beyond the occasional remix or collaboration.
But in recent years, Dreijer has gotten busier. He has produced a few rising artists (as well as a handful of tracks on his sibling Karin’s last album as Fever Ray) and remixed a few more; earlier this year, he and longtime collaborator Mt. Sims put out a beguiling ambient-adjacent record made entirely using Trinidadian steel drums. Now he returns with Rosa Rugosa, his first major solo release since 2010. The EP’s three tracks are, in one sense, textbook Dreijer: He’s still using the same eerie, pitch-bending synth riffs and jittery arpeggios. But a distinct shift has taken place. Where Oni Ayhun’s records felt like they emanated from some demonic dungeon, Rosa Rugosa comes exploding into the sunlight.
All three tracks feel like variations upon a single theme: They’re all in the same key, and their side-winding melodies feel like funhouse-mirror reflections of one another. The title track sounds the most like Dreijer’s previous work, punctuating a lean, snapping drum groove with staccato synth stabs that hark back to some of Carl Craig’s floor-filling anthems of the mid ’00s. The syncopated lead takes the high-strung energy of a song like Fever Ray’s Olof-produced “What They Call Us” and dials up the nervousness; bright and colorful, it dances like a butterfly caught in a gust of wind, whipped around by tight spirals of echo. It might take a number of listens to realize just how minimalist the song actually is: There are almost no drums, save for a steady kick and some slippery shakers, yet every inch of the spectrum bursts with kinetic energy.
Dreijer is clearly influenced by contemporary African and Afro-diasporic electronic music; his recent collaborators include artists from Tunisia, Morocco, Sudan, and South Africa, and his DJ mixes are peppered with the sounds of kuduro and batida. Those influences come to the fore on the EP’s other two tracks, with their loping log-drum rhythms. “Cassica,” like the title track, is mostly empty space, with a mosquito synth lead buzzing drunkenly through a dappled canopy of glancing chords and quivering accents. “Camelia” might be the most ebullient thing here, and not just because the drums are a riot of dizzyingly syncopated rimshots and crash cymbals. The synthesizer melody positively sings, imbued with an expressive sensibility I associate with virtuoso R&B vocalists; that might be due in part to the peculiar qualities of the synth patch, which feels like a strangely organic hybrid of woodwind, brass, and wordless voice. As the song crests toward its high-flying climax, it transmits an unmistakably giddy sense of joy. Whatever its echoes of other contemporary global dance-music styles, it couldn’t be the work of anyone but Olof Dreijer. Fifteen years since the first Oni Ayhun record, he’s still in a class of his own.