​​Sam Barker possesses the kind of restless intelligence that’s best expressed within a set of parameters. The Berlin-based producer and Leisure System boss is fond of approaching music through the lens of behavioral science, both to reevaluate our collective cognitive biases and to locate his own blind spots. ”We’ve developed a lot of rules for how to make people dance,” he observed in an interview. “I don’t want to dance just because there’s a kick-drum telling me to.” His creative breakthrough as Barker came about by eliminating that seemingly core component of techno on his 2019 debut, Utility, resulting in a set of shimmering, ultra-propulsive tracks.

In the immediate wake of Utility’s release, Barker made pains to stress that he wasn’t entirely opposed to the kick drum; in fact, he had privately begun making tracks exclusively from the instrument. His latest EP, Unfixed, began as an inverse of his original standpoint, before abandoning the strict confines of that trial. Almost all of its tracks are allusions to the idea of “functional fixedness,” the mental block of only using a tool for its traditional function. If these concepts sound lofty and foreboding, Barker handles them with a casual, funny immediacy. He makes a motto of philosopher Abraham Kaplan’s Law of the Instrument: “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.”

The EP can be roughly divided into two camps, ones that seamlessly weave kick drums into Barker’s weightless sound and ones that make controlled cacophony. The same glassy textures and vaporous synth washes that Barker perfected on Utility appear on “Wick and Wax,” which sprawls for nine minutes and establishes such an atmospheric, well-integrated groove that the kick-drum is barely perceptible at first. “Golden Hammer” and “Percussive Maintenance” hinge on a more dramatic contrast, as Barker’s shifting, uneasy rhythms are pierced without warning by jagged synth shards.

Lead single “Birmingham Screwdriver” is the most brutal track on the album, and possibly Barker’s back catalog. A fistfight of sour acid house breaks out as the atomized parts of a sampled bass drum ricochet through the track. It’s an incredibly unstable piece of music and an incredibly inventive one too, reminiscent of Autechre’s defiantly varying “Flutter.” The artist noted in the press release that in the process of working on the record, “tracks were started and then left unfinished, only to be approached again and again over lengthy intervals.” One’s left to wonder if the song’s build-up of caustic energy indicates a merciless new direction for the artist, the start of a brand new experiment.