Innershades: Expanding Horizons

    photo by Jente Waerzeggers

    It’s 2 am in far-out East London, and FOLD, the club which is hosting Cartulis’ huge 10th birthday celebrations, is blistering hot, despite the fact it’s mid-November. That’s mostly because the club’s been open for 27 hours at this point, allowing for a melting pot of dancefloor energy, dissolved egos, and world-class DJs to come together.

    Binh’s spinning some of the toughest music I’ve heard him play, before a bassline emerges, a bassline which I’m almost positive I’ve heard before. The drums are so heavy they feel as though they could burst through the speakers at any moment, and the bass is oozing a very distinct strain of melancholy. “This has got to be an Innershades track, surely.” my friend yelled into my ear, “If it’s not,” I replied, “All the drinks are on me the next time we’re in FOLD.”

    Turns out, it was an Innershades track, ‘It’s Time’, which would be released on Binh’s Time Passages a few months after that moment at Cartulis. There are few, if any, current artists which have managed to carve out such a distinctive and prominent sound as Belgian artist Thomas Blanckaert, commonly known as Innershades.

    With releases on scene-defining labels like Cartulis, Time Passages, and Cabaret, Innershades’ amalgamation of trance-infused techno has captivated dancers all over the world. Trommel sits down with the Altered Circuits labelboss to discuss the evolution of his sound, Belgian’s musical history, and how he’s so much more than those peaktime bangers he’s become known for.

    Blanckaert hails from Aalst, a city with a population of over 85,000, making it one of the more populous Belgian cities, but still someway lagging behind the likes of Antwerp and Ghent. “Aalst has always had a deep connection with electronic music, people were producing here even in the early 1980s,” He explains, and possesses a lesser-known fact to back it up, noting that Technotronic, who produced ‘Pump Up The Jam’, one of the most well-known electronic music songs of all-time, hailed from Aalst.

    “There’s also more underground acts like Fatal Error, T99, natural Born Deejays, labels like Target Records and Clip Records, who were there when New Beat had just started. DJs such as DJ TeeCee, who was one of the first to play fast records at 33RPM but at +8.” Aalst’s current music scene is a little different from the booming heydays now, “There’s a few people doing it at the moment but I wouldn’t call it a ‘scene’, because everyone’s doing different things, it’s not as vibrant as it was in the ’80s and ’90s.”

    photo by Jente Waerzeggers

    His musical backstory plays out like most, discovering electronic music through a friend named Mathias, who he runs his label ‘Altered Circuits’ within the current day, at a local skatepark when he was 16, before buying turntables and beginning the treacherous journey of those early days of mixing records. “There was a local record shop called ‘E-vinyl’, where I used to hang out a lot until the shop owner offered me a job on the weekend. I learned a lot from that, just listening to new music all the time that we’d get in, it helped me develop my taste for electronic music.” 

    Blanckaert, like most producers, is completely self-taught, “I didn’t touch a keyboard before around 2011 when I wanted to make tracks myself, so I just started practising non-stop on Ableton. I believe if you practice at something a lot, eventually, you will get pretty good if you’re willing to make sacrifices, every day I was producing and learning new things.” 

    His first release was on Nazar Propikov’s Wicked Bass label in 2013, “Some big DJs picked up the record and it boosted my confidence and gave me affirmation to continue what I was doing. Then came labels like Créme Organization, Pinkman, Unknown To The Unknown. The latter is an incredibly significant label in the Blanckaert’s music journey thus far, his record released on the label was his ‘A World That Matters’ EP, an incredibly solid release on all four tracks, but one stood out, A2’s ‘Inside Your Mind’.

    At the time of its release in 2016, I don’t recall hearing it out much, but in 2018, it was an unescapable anthem, played by the likes of Binh, DJ Koolt, Omar, and a strong portion of those closely associated with the digger sound. “Well to me I’ve been doing my thing the last 10 years, I really produce what I listen to and like. In 2019 I just saw Binh playing ‘Inside Your Mind’ and I decided to send him some tracks so he could play them out.” 

    A release on Binh’s illustrious Time Passages followed, ASZ, and a whole new audience was opened up to his sound. Another EP followed on Binh’s label in 2020, but there have been releases on DJ Masda’s Cabaret as well as Cartulis and EYA Records. With his sound taking a fairly distinctive 180-degree turn, the Belgian still looks back at those releases as formative experiences. “It was a learning period that I had to go through to shape the sound I’m doing today and also perfect it.” He explains, “It was a long process because I started with zero knowledge, it was all done on feeling at the time, but right now I would say my producing skills have improved to a point where I’m happy.”

    photo by Jente Waerzeggers

    Innershades’ sound is different now, which feels a given considering the labels that he’s releasing on. ‘Inside Your Mind’ has acted as a sort of blueprint, both from the viewpoint of what listeners expect when they see an Innershades EP but more so as an expression of Blanckaert’s taste.

    The most prominent tracks from the Belgian producer are what have become his signature peak-time tracks. There’s a whole host to choose from, including Acid Never Dies on his Cartulius Music EP, and ‘It’s Time’ on Time Passages. “I’ve always been drawn to more high energy sounds, I really like to make these ‘peak time bangers’, and of course, it’s related to my influences and in relation to Belgian’s musical history.” Though he’s quick to add, “It’s not like I only produce ‘peak time bangers’, I have a huge folder of non-bangers that have never been released, but for some reason, people always pick those high energy tracks.”

    Blanckaert is incredibly in-tune with his native country’s musical history, more-so than the average DJ and their home country. “After a while, I started to understand that Belgium had a deep musical history,” He recalls “I went really deep into Discogs, I listened to every record from every label that was big from around 1988-94. After that period I had a clear vision of what direction I wanted to go production-wise. That’s why you can hear it a lot in my new stuff I released over the last few years.”

    It’s a difficult avenue to navigate, since Blanckaert’s most beloved tracks are his signature peak-time ones, but his musical output actually varies far more. “I hate it when people try and put me in this ‘bangers only’ category because I have so much music on my HD that is far away from that sound.” The Belgian goes on, “I think over the years I wanted to show that I’m a much more versatile producer than what people expect, in recent years I always try to have something different on the B sides.” He cites an incoming eight-track LP that explores the slower and more mellow side of Innershades than most people are used to.

    Upon reflection, peak-time bangers may be too simplistic to explain these signature tracks. Yes they often feature during the most high energy points of the night and there’s a special place in my heart for hearing one of his tracks during an early morning session at FOLD, but it feels like a disservice of sorts. Blanckaert seems to encapsulate a range of emotions whereas other high energy tracks can too often rely on a brand of coldness that robs them of being emotionally intense.

    “I really can’t explain why, but it always happens naturally.” He explains in reference to this high emotion, high energy tracks. “When I start out on a track it always goes in that direction very quickly. Maybe because of my influences, it’s implanted in my or something. Also when I play gigs, my selection will always be tracks that have a story to tell or have some spark of emotion in them.”

    photo by Jente Waerzeggers

    It’s impossible to talk about Blanckaert’s talent without mentioning his selection of alias’, which provide a key piece of Innershades’ musical puzzle. The Altered Circuits figurehead released his first EP ‘Emotive Response’ during the first lockdown of COVID, the release immediately struck a chord. In hindsight, the closing line of our Emotions ’95 review may have been underselling it a bit. “In a scene that’s rare with purposeful alias’, I don’t think it’s particularly hyperbolic to say Innershades’ Emotive Response project is the most interesting one for a while.”

    It goes without saying that things felt a bit stale during lockdown in the first few months of COVID, even enjoyable activities, such as digging for new music, began to repeat themselves to such a degree they lost a sense of surprise. With so much free time to listen to music, I personally became hyper-aware of trends and just how similar everything sounded, which is why the Emotive Response alias, with a backstory in exploring sounds from a specific year Belgium’s musical history, stuck out.

    “Before the pandemic, I was listening to a lot of early mixtapes from Phi Phi @ Extreme Mondays, from around 1994-98 or so,” He explains “Extreme was an afterhours club close to Aalast, Affligem to be exact, where they played lots of early progressive house and early trance in the ’90s.” Blanckaert is both a musical nostalgic and romantic, with the Emotive Response project being born out of a sentimental view of that fertile period of Belgian underground music.

    “Obviously I never experienced those moments in real life as I was still a kid at the time.” He explains, “I was quite surprised when it came out and It did so well. I guess people are still looking for that type of sound after all these years and I hit a sweet spot with the older generation too.” Even without the music speaking for itself, Emotions ’95 is now on its second repress and Emotions ’97 is being repressed again, hitting a sweet spot it clearly has.

    photo by Jente Waerzeggers

    Alongside Fatal Riot and Emotive Response, there’s also Palermo Disco Squad, an Italo Disco and synth-pop alias, which isn’t particularly unusual for synth lovers, albeit not many turn them into alias which releases music. “I’m a big fan of Italo Disco and have a big collection of those records that came out in the 80s. After a trip to Sicily, I decided to start this project and produce an EP from those influences.” It wouldn’t just be a one-off, with three EPs on Bordello A Parigi being released across four years. After a four-year hiatus, his Palermo Disco Squad moniker is being rebooted, with an EP on Bordello A Parigi set to come out in 2022. 

    For someone who releases as regularly as Blanckaert, who sets himself a weekly goal of creating three tracks a week, it’s unsurprising that he’s got a whole host of projects coming. “I’m talking to lots of labels at the minute, some of the usual suspects, and also other labels that are interested. I also signed an eight-track LP on my friend Palmbomen II’s label ‘World of Paint’.”

    “I’m also working on the development of my Altered Circuits labels, we’re currently waiting on EPs from Legowelt’s alias Polarius, as well as DMX Krew. I’m also working on my next EP for Altered Circuits, which will hopefully come out in 2023. There’s a lot to look forward to.”

    Considering his output, it won’t be long before I’m in a club betting that an unknown track is straight out of Thomas Blanckaert’s studio in Alast.

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