I've always loved this quote from Derrick May, which is quite crisply evocative of the rich undercurrents of depth and mystery running through techno music. Actually, I'm worried I might be paraphrasing somewhat (in fact, it's rather likely, since I can't seem to find the interview I heard it in anywhere). But what the hell, it's a great quote and really ought to be in wide circulation. I'm willing to risk it... so there you go. Needless to say, if anyone can point me in the right direction for the original interview, I'd be most grateful...
Anyway... Techno. Born in the shadows of Detroit's 1980s progressive scene and forged in the unforgiving crucible of the global stage, it's truly one of the key building blocks of modern music — alongside house and hip hop — in the post-disco diaspora. One could trace a thin line leading back to 1970s Düsseldorf, all the way back to the Autobahn and Trans-Europe Express, when excavating its prehistory.
As Kodwo Eshun brilliantly put it, Düsseldorf is the Mississippi Delta, and expanding on that idea, Kraftwerk are to Techno as Muddy Waters is to The Rolling Stones.1Detroit is where the sleek German engineering of Computer World got rebuilt like an American muscle car, souped up for its joyride across dancefloors the world over. Juan Atkins just plugged it all in.
To further extend the metaphor, Atkins' Metroplex was to Sun Records as Derrick May's Transmat was to Chess (with Fragile standing in for Cadet), with Kevin Saunderson's KMS corresponding to Atlantic Records. Ok, ok, I realize that the timeline is inverted, but please believe the comparisons are airtight! You've got the laboratory on one hand and the conservatory on the other, with the proto-Motown assembly line of KMS/Atlantic waiting in the wings. And at that point, it's time to play domination.
Very quickly, it becomes a global affair. You've got vibrant forms springing up all over the place, from Sheffield bleep 'n bass to Belgian new beat and elegant Dutch techno to London ardkore. Auteurs start springing up everywhere, untethered to any sort of centralized scene (albeit often in orbit of crucial outposts like Warp, Sublime and R&S). The meme spreads and mutates and spreads and mutates and spreads... it's a beautiful thing.
The interesting thing to note with techno is how nearly everyone knows the term but so often they haven't actually heard any. Has there ever been a genre so misunderstood? Images of 2 Unlimited and Dance Dance Revolution hang in the public consciousness, even if neither have nothing much to do with techno qua techno. If you tell someone you listen to techno, chances are what they're hearing in their head isn't techno at all but some caricature drawn in broad strokes (the phrase boom boom boom springs to mind).
So at some point I just started saying Detroit Techno when the subject comes up. Not because I'm some sort of purist (I've actually got no time whatsoever for the impulse), but because it short circuits all the pitfalls that might wrong-foot whoever I'm talking with. Suddenly, you're starting from scratch rather than working against a bunch of assumptions. And you've reimbued the term with a sense of mystery which was its birthright all along...
I'd dug dance music in it's various forms going back to Janet Jackson circa Control (hell, Michael Jackson circa Thriller), running alongside the new wave of Depeche Mode and the Talking Heads on through what you'd call early indie dance (New Order and Big Audio Dynamite). Plus the obligatory swingbeat and hip hop, things like Tony! Toni! Toné!'s Sons Of Soul, Wreckx-N-Effect's Rump Shaker and the Jungle Brothers. All of which seemed to flow naturally into things like Massive Attack, Underworld and The Prodigy.
Still... I can remember like it was yesterday when I got hit by the straight stuff.
It came in the form of Kevin Saunderson's X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio, and it quite simply blew my mind wide open. This was like everything I'd ever loved in music, only more so. Pure, uncut. I remember wondering about all the names on there: Who is this mysterious Outlander (R&S sorted me out right quick)? What sort of crew is Octave One (for whatever reason, I imagined them as a gang of Germans)? Why are half of these tracks credited to Dobre & Jamez (because they're awesome)?!
From there it was a short step to discovering techno strongholds like Submerge, R&S and Studio !K7 (surfing a rather hardcore crest at the time). I was set for life. I still remembering placing my first mail order, getting things like Kevin Saunderson's Faces & Phases compilation, Octave One's The Living Key (To Images From Above) and Drexciya's The Quest on a hot summer afternoon. Give all those to a high school kid in the late 90s and see what happens!
As a kid, I grew up in various apartments with my parents — who were actually quite young in retrospect (usually around a decade younger than the parents of my peers) — and later my brother Brian once he came along. We moved once a year for the first five years of my life before sneaking into the suburbs once school started. I remember nothing quite made sense again. The kids were different (some awful kids, truth be told! But some cool ones too... it all evens out), etc. Whatever. I suppose I should have adapted, and I suppose that in my own way I did, but then I always was a dreamer...
I used to dream to books, movies, video games... whatever I could get my hands on. I remember just laying on my back looking up at the sky, imagining other worlds. Then, around junior high music hit me full force. Before that I'd been into music at the level of osmosis, the ambient sounds around when you're young, but suddenly it was everywhere! I was feelin' it MAN!!
Like I said, stuff like new wave, hip hop, r&b, certain alternative records. I suppose deep, rhythmic music always appealed to me at the most basic level. Intercut it with a heavy sense of harmonic mystery, and I'm sold.
So when I came across techno it was a match made in heaven.
Walking around town, it wasn't the sound of Nas or Nirvana that would swirl in my mind, but things like 69's Ladies & Gentlemen, Mental Cube's Q and Jark Prongo's Spadet (that and Tricky's Aftermath, Primal Scream's Trainspotting and Bomb The Bass's One To One Religion (Skankapella Mix) on the downbeat flipside). It all seemed to move at the speed of life. At the end of the day, the vibes just synced up with my frequency I suppose...
So what do I like about techno? For one, it's the frequency, the vibe. Amiri Baraka's changing same. That low-slung groove, the scratchy high-end funk chopping between the beats, the compression of ideas. It's the Bug In The Bass Bin, the ever present spectre malfunktion that nevertheless pulses faithfully on. It's the ghosts of jazz and funk and kosmische and disco and industrial and juju lying just beneath the surface.
Not to mention the sense of longing, the alien wonder running through its core. It's Stranger In A Strange Land music, so naturally it made sense to me. Connected to the earth, the stones beneath my feet, but always surrounded by strangers. Something like Theme From It's All Gone Pear Shaped by Digital Justice makes the point better than I ever could... I mean where the hell else are you gonna find something like that but in techno?
It all routes back to a time when I used to dream about living alone on Mars (ha, used to he says!), riding some ancient starship with vast corridors and digital readouts in vivid crimson, three-year-old dreams back on Mollison in the hazy afternoons of late summer. Come to think of it, that was the last time I had a room of my own until college!
Space in both sense of the words. Room to think, room to breathe! That's what I found in techno. No matter what was going on, I could put on some headphones and play Dark Energy's Midnite Sunshine and everything would come into focus (or drift out of focus, if need be).
Put simply, it was an escape route into the rest of my life, when things would begin to make just a little bit more sense. Future music that gave me the gift of a future. Its beat pulsed faithfully like lights along a runway, guiding that starship into the pitch black darkness of the midnight sky. And all along, without a doubt, it helped a young brother find his way...
1. Eshun, Kodwo. More Brilliant Than The Sun: Adventures In Sonic Fiction. London: Quartet, 1998. 100. Print.
2. Bova, Ben. Visions Of The Future: The Art Of Robert McCall. New York: Abrams, 1982. 107. Print.
The legend of Andrew Weatherall already loomed large when I first tumbled like Alice down into the wonderland that is dance music. This was back in 1996, at the cusp of my high school years. When I'd buy records, the name Andrew Weatherall would crop up with some regularity — on a remix here, an album credit there — and eventually I put two and two together and deduced that this was something worth looking into.
You know how it goes, one tends to travel the world of music from node to node: Bowie to Eno to Can in three moves. In this case, it was even simpler than that. I remember the first time I ever caught Weatherall's name was on the CD-single for The Future Sound Of London's Papua New Guinea, which featured the ten-minute Andrew Weatherall Mix, a widescreen tour de force in the progressive house style of the day.
Not long after, I started picking up his records — released under crazy names like Two Lone Swordsmen and The Sabres Of Paradise — while actively keeping an eye out for more remixes that he might have done. The deeper I got into music, the more I'd pick up about its history along the way — connecting nodes and joining the dots — which is how I discovered that he was one of the founders of Junior Boy's Own (thinks, hey, they put out Dubnobasswithmyheadman!) and helped to spearhead the whole rave zeitgeist in the first place.
All of which came to light as I listened to the music, working my way backwards from what was — at the time — his latest record (Two Lone Swordsmen's Stay Down). Needless to say, it's a process that has continued for me right up to the present day. So take this as an avowed fan's attempt to weave a semi-historical narrative around 30-odd Weatherall records. We've got albums, EPs, 12" singles, comps, mixes and even a single-sided 7" in this monster breakout, all of which were either produced, mixed, compiled or contain remixes by the man himself.
I accumulated these records gradually over the years — in no particular order — so whether it was during the electronica 90s, the post punk/grime/r&b/everything 00s or even last week, my impressions of these records were informed as much by the era that I first heard them as they were by the circumstances from which they had initially sprung. As such, this is a deeply personal list. Someone else might very well pick different records (although I suspect at least half of our choices would overlap). Perhaps I haven't even heard his best record? (If not, please clue me in!)
However, I do believe that this particular list does get to the heart of not only why Weatherall's music was so special to me growing up (and why it remains a Parallax touchstone to this day), but also its seismic importance in dance music's continual drift over the years. I also believe that it paints a useful portrait of the various currents that were flowing in and out of each other along the way. So without any further ado, I give you the Warehouse Weatherall XXX.
But first, a little background:
Andrew Weatherall was born in 1963 in the small town of Windsor, located twenty miles west of London. Perhaps it was inevitable that punk and all that came in its wake would have such a profound shaping effect on young Andy, coming up as he did in the 1970s so close to the scene's epicenter and at an ideal age to soak it all in. Apparently, he was a huge fan of Bowie and The Clash,1 which makes perfect sense to anyone who's ever heard one of his records.
In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Weatherall's influence on dance music parallels the impact that The Clash had on punk (and everything that came in its wake). More specifically, I'd say he directly corresponds in this metaphor with none other than Mick Jones. Like old Mick, he's careened through many faces and phases over the years, covering that wide expanse of terrain between rock and dance music in singular fashion. For our purposes today, that journey begins in the mid-eighties.
In 1986, Andrew Weatherall started the Boy's Own fanzine with Terry Farley, Pete Heller and the rest of the Boy's Own posse, which were essentially a crew that hit the clubs and the record shops together. Covering everything from music to football, fashion and more, with loads of in-jokes only understood by 200 people living in London2, Boy's Own's twelve issue run happened to coincide with the arrival of acid house on British shores and the subsequent dawn of the rave era.
The Boy's Own circulation ultimately ballooned across the country, reaching far beyond its humble beginnings. At one point, Paul Oakenfold even published an article about Ibiza titled Bermondsey Goes Baleriac!3 As the Boy's Own gang got swept up in all the excitement around the Second Summer Of Love, they were also elemental in spearheading the whole Balearic phenomenon4 (with the more conservative tastemaker Farley playing Joe Strummer to Weatherall'sMick Jones) even as they spread the sound of acid house across the country.
This is when Weatherall started to become known for his wide-ranging, free-form sets, described tantalizingly by Sean Bidder as eclectic mixes which would freely cross Italian piano monsters with cut-and-paste indie and dub breakdowns.1 You can just sense the roots of what would come to be the man's trademark sound lurking in there somewhere, and within the wide-ranging sonic mash-up, his warped, dubbed-out claustrophobic vision was beginning to take shape.
After years spent burning up the clubs on the wheels of steel — and developing an ear tuned to the sounds of the nascent rave culture — it was time to put that vibe on wax. Much like Walter Gibbons, Larry Levan and François Kevorkian over a decade earlier, he was called upon to remix other artists' material for the dancefloor. This is the context for Weatherall's initial forays into the studio, and as such, where we get to talk about the music. Oh, and apologies for the rambling commentary... I found it nearly impossible to be concise today!
And Now For The Records
Early on, Weatherall's story is written entirely in remixes. In fact, I'd posit that there have been three distinct phases to Weatherall's career, the first of which is the wild-eyed era of discovery, stretching from the early Boy's Own days on the club circuit through his ascent as a producer and remixer, right into the reign of The Sabres Of Paradise. So, roughly speaking, 1986-1994. The constant running through all three eras — but established right here at the outset — is his fluidity between the worlds of dance music and rock, as an ambassador of sorts, bringing countless indie kids into the world of dance music (and vice versa).
Case in point is Weatherall's first true foray into the studio, which came in 1989, where he was reworking indie dance hooligans the Happy Mondays' Hallelujah alongside Paul Oakenfold. The Club Mix cools out the original version's sloppy junkyard hustle and winds it down to a low slung, 4/4 pulse, fleshing out the band's lumpen Madchester sound with Italo-esque pianos, chanting monks and just a snatch of gospel.
The sense of space in the mix — knocked out with a heavier bottom end — make it the undisputed highlight of the record, grooving miles better than anything else here and sounding like a glimpse of the future waiting just around the bend. Indeed, I'd mark this out as the moment when the Mondays got down with rave and got with the program, resulting a year later in Pills 'N' Thrills And Bellyaches, their absolute masterpiece.
Weatherall's first solo remix was Loaded, an epochal reworking Primal Scream's I'm Losing More Than I'll Ever Have, which came out shortly after Hallelujah. Sounding something like a post-rave Sympathy For The Devil, it defined the freewheeling spirit of the times. It's a stone classic and the 12" would make the cut for this list in a heartbeat, but since it figures into the band's 1991 album Screamadelica, we'll scoop it up that way.
We'll get to that one in a minute... but first, it's time for My Bloody Valentine.
Here we go! This came out well before MBV's Loveless, and found Weatherall reworking the track that would ultimately close that album into the band's biggest dancefloor moment. Stretching the tune out to 7½ minutes, he yokes the band's ethereal vocals and sheets of guitar to huge crashing beats from Westbam's Alarm Clock, transforming the zen-like original into a driving big beat groove.
This — along with Loaded and Hallelujah — perfectly encapsulates what indie dance is all about, scrambling together the disparate worlds of post-post punk indie rock, hip hop and acid house like a mad scientist and winding up with a new psychedelia. As much as anyone else, Weatherall was a key architect of the sound. You can hear the germ of The Chemical Brothers in here somewhere, which is borne out by their endless caning of the record at the Heavenly Social.
Indeed, this is one of those records that'll never stop getting played in clubs.
In the midst of this whole Terminal Vibration trip we've been on, I alluded to Wobble's work in the nineties and this is our first port of call at the turn of the decade. Apparently Wobble had spent time sweeping railroad stations during a particularly dry spell in the late eighties, even announcing over the P.A. occasionally, I used to be somebody, I repeat, I used to be somebody!
This record, however, finds the man with a new lease of life (one that he's maintained more or less continually since). Interestingly, this 12" was actually released on the Boy's Own label in the wake of the first Invaders Of The Heart full-length, as if the lads were saying you are one of us, yes you are. Accordingly, Wobble got swept up in the moment, guesting on a whole brace of dance records, including things like Bomb The Bass' Clear and The Orb's Blue Room.
The Nonsonicus Maximus Mix of Bomba is a sublime bit of gently chugging Europe-endlessness, of a piece with the ambient house of The Orb and Sun Electric. There's an ancient quality to these synths — recalling the kosmische seventies — as they blend with intensely plucked guitars and the vocals of Natacha Atlas. And of course, Wobble's throbbing bassline front and center.
This connects latterly with Weatherall's post punk roots (indeed, one suspects that Metal Box would have been a huge record for him) and — jumping forward twenty years — to the cosmic electronica he's spent this past decade exploring (more on this to come). Around this time (back to 1990 now), he also turned in a remix of Saint Etienne's Only Love Can Break Your Heart (A Mix In Two Halves), which was largely cut from the same dubbed-out ambient house cloth as this (if slightly less brilliant). The first half is where it's at.
4. Bocca JuniorsRaise & Substance
(Boy's Own: 1990/1991)
These two taken at once. This the first attempt at working something up from scratch. The Bocca Juniors were essentially the Boy's Own gang in (if I'm not mistaken) their first studio guise. There's this great period video on Youtube5 that features the crew getting interviewed on Snub TV. Particularly funny is when old Andy casually remarks I don't really like techno. Goodness me, how times change!
Raise pulses along at a mid-tempo pace on a cycling feedback-soaked bassline, with flashes of synth brass, Italo-house pianos and a commanding vocal from Anna Haigh, essentially laying out the blueprint for the sound that Fluke would ride through the rest of the decade. It's a big room sound, almost indie dance by default (albeit coming at it from the other direction).6
Substance is a rather different matter, with ethereal vocals from Haigh and a sixties-style fuzz box guitar riding atop a rolling breakbeats and a gently meandering bassline.7 The sixties rock thing was in the air at the time (see also Inspiral Carpets and Art Science Technology), culminating in Fatboy Slim and The Chemical Brothers about five years later. Funny enough, I first knew this as a Dot Allison track and didn't find out it was a cover until somewhat recently.
Interesting the way both of these records prefigure large swathes of the decade, even if within a few years they might have sounded dated to most ears at the time. With the benefit of hindsight, perspective shifts and old becomes new again (thinking of Nuggets here), and one has the opportunity to hear things anew. Hearing them nearly thirty years later, both tunes remain excellent slabs of ambassadorial post-rave pop, shot through with the idealism of the era and capturing the excitement of the times infectiously.
Back to the remix. The Solar Youth Mix of Perpetual Dawn was quite possibly The Orb's greatest pop moment, polishing the sprawling album version into a glistening groove that burned along at a ragga pace. Everything shimmers with the unmistakable feel of the dancehall, even introducing a nagging vocal refrain to what was originally an instrumental.
Weatherall contributes two Ultrabass mixes on the flipside. Ultrabass I is a breakbeat-driven affair, punctuated by orchestra hits and outer space sonix, while Ultrabass II rides a deeper 4/4 pulse with more than a little tension, fattening up the sound considerably. Dread vibes for real! Weatherall's approach here in thrall to the digidub of Mad Professor's Ariwa imprint and Adrian Sherwood's On-U Sound, the presence of which will be felt even moreso as we continue.
The fruit of Primal Scream's extended dalliance with rave culture, this is the culmination of 12" singles like Come Together and the aforementioned Loaded (singles that Weatherall happened to have a profound hand in shaping). As an LP it excels, mixing machine rhythms, post-acid house electronics and a rootsy, pentecostal flavor in a heady cocktail of blissed out perfection. With a couple exceptions (Movin' On Up and Damaged) everything here has Weatherall's fingerprints all over it.
The aforementioned Loaded anchors the album, providing a midpoint between rootsy numbers like Movin' On Up, post-acid dancefloor burners like Don't Fight It, Feel It and the blissed out dream pop of Higher Than The Sun (co-produced with The Orb). The latter is an obvious highlight of the record, with a deep, spacious sound cloaking Bobby Gillespie's half-whispered vocals over a bed of electronic percussion. It's all quite moving, and when the climax hits — with those pile-driving slow-motion breakbeats — it's as if you're breaking through to the heavens.
A large portion of Screamadelica is dominated by gentle, atmospheric numbers like Inner Flight (sounding like The Beach Boys scoring 2001: A Space Odyssey), the absolutely gorgeous I'm Coming Down and Shine Like Stars (the album's signing off moment). The record's most psychedelic tunes are some of its finest, including Weatherall's deeply spiritual marathon mix of Come Together, his reprise of Higher Than The Sun (A Dub Symphony In Two Parts) (which features dub-wise harpsichords and an unforgettable bassline from Jah Wobble) and a slinky cover of The 13th Floor Elevators' Slip Inside This House (co-produced with Hypnotone).
Also worth checking out is the band's freeform cover of Dennis Wilson's Carry Me Home, another Weatherall-helmed moment, which can be found on the Dixie Narco EP (released the following year).
Ultra-extended dancefloor versions of Flowered Up's Weekender. With a running time of 31 minutes split between two marathon dancefloor excursions, Weatherall's Weekender is something like the soundtrack to your wildest all-night adventures. This is an absolutely incredible example of the possibilities inherent to the 12" single, with the Audrey Is A Little Bit Partial Mix riding a river of bass and rolling breakbeats in its funky clavinet workout before — without any warning — mutating at its midpoint into a stomping 4/4 groove.
The flipside's Audrey Is A Little Bit More Partial Mix opens with a looped disco diva singing, gonna have a good time before dropping directly into a resolutely percussion-heavy 4/4 pulse anchored by a rude bassline, cascading clipped vocals and moody piano architecture. The mirror image of the a-side, it eventually slows down to a crawl before breaking into a downbeat coda for the song's second half. The whole affair emblematic of Weatherall's restlessly creative flair for conjuring up thoroughly absorbing vibes in the studio.
Another album culminating from a series of Weatherall-helmed 12" singles, Morning Dove White is a spellbinding collection of blissful dream pop that prefigures the likes of Dido and Beth Orton by a few years. The focus here lies on dubbed-out, almost pop-reggae stylings (think Maxi Priest and Bob Khaleel) rather than folktronica, but the effect remains the same. Alongside Billie Ray Martin's 4 Ambient Tales, this is the unsung precursor to that whole sound.
Scottish group One Dove8 were led by Dot Allison, whose breathy vocals haunt these recordings. Weatherall's production is deeply atmospheric, with plenty of weightless moments like Sirens and Why Don't You Take Me drifting gracefully off into the horizon. Throughout, there's an almost undisclosed heaviness to the proceedings (see Transient Truth, for example), which are frequently drenched in dub effects and bass pressure.
Nevertheless, breezy chansons like Breakdown (Cellophane Boat Mix), Fallen and White Love (Guitar Paradise Mix) are the order of the day, showcasing Weatherall's fetching way with a pop song. In fact, I'd single this out as one of the great hidden gems in early nineties pop. Lastly, I should note that — like fellow Scots Primal ScreamDot Allison will have a recurring role in this story...
Alongside Gary Burns and Jagz Kooner, Weatherall finally delivers his debut album. From the outset, The Sabres Of Paradise were an underground proposition, signing to Warp Records9 and specializing in a unique brand of dub-heavy techno shot through with thoroughly dread vibes. The closest comparison would be Bandulu, who were quite clearly fellow travellers operating at the intersection of dub and the dancefloor.
Tracks like Still Fighting, Inter-Lergen-Ten-ko and Smokebelch I find the group at their most progressive, albeit with the oppressive presence of dub creeping in at all corners and a harder 4/4 pulse, offering a more claustrophobic take on the sound showcased by Weatherall's remix of Papua New Guinea. The symphonic Beatless Mix of Smokebelch II borrows large swathes of Chicago house don Elbee Bad's The New Age Of Faith, echoing the angelic spirit of Morning Dove White.
Still, it's in the deep end that the record's sympathies most obviously lie, grasping at ever harder shapes and sharper edges in a headlong rush into oblivion. It's a sound that still needed to stew awhile, having yet to reach its true potential. And yet somewhere in the paranoid atmosphere of the album's finest moments, alongside the dark, spectral shapes of Clock Factory, one could find an apocalyptic glimpse of the group's future.
Which is an absolute classic. A quantum leap from Sabresonic, Haunted Dancehall shakes things up considerably, distancing itself from the progressive house tendencies of the debut to dial everything down to a smoker's pace. Like FSOL's ISDN, it's almost a trip hop record by default, imbued with spectral shapes and a strong sense of paranoia. There's a clear debt here to not only dub but also post punk and industrial, marking it out as a Terminal Vibration record.
With liner notes from Trainspotting novelist Irvine Welsh offering up a rough outline of a smoke-steeped storyline, the whole thing came off like The Parallax View by way of Babylon. With the lion's share of the record given over to electro-tinged breakbeat workouts like Ballad Of Nicky McGuire and Bubble And Slide on one hand and moody atmosphere pieces like Flight Path Estate and Theme 4 on the other, the record's dark heart was undoubtedly the three track run that lie at its very center.
Wilmot was built around the horn motif from Black But Sweet by Wilmoth Houdini & The Night Owls, working up an downbeat skank that translated Trinidadian calypso for the smoked-out nineties. It had previously appeared in a stunning live-sounding version on the 12" single, with pile-driving breakbeats and scorching slow-motion surf guitar backing the singer Wonder, who sounded like she was channelling loa in the dancehall (Haunted Dancehall, indeed!).
Low-slung rockabilly six-string also lie at the center of Tow Truck, a proto-big beat burner. This is big beat the way Depth Charge did it,10 in slow-motion and a couple years early (ts ten ton beats prefiguring certain corners of The Chemical Brothers' sound).11 This big beat trilogy was rounded out by Theme, which found the crew rewiring a Mission Impossible-style refrain years before U2's rhythm section thought to do it.
This is the point where Weatherall's signature sound really begins to take shape (rather appropriately at the nexus of electro's latent futurism and trip hop's sense of dread atmosphere), carrying with it all the attendant imagery of Radio Clash, the Black Ark and beats laid down in moody half-light. The word that constantly springs to mind when hearing the man's music is physicality: there's a very real sense of weight to these muscular grooves (and all of the sounds swirling in their orbit), as if they were three-dimensional objects of metal, wood and stone occupying physical space. In other words, what they used to call substance.
A selection of Sabres sleeves
At this point, you also begin to see the unmistakable Weatherall visual flair beginning to take shape, an aesthetic that continues right up to his present day linotype imagery. All of these sleeves from contemporary compilations and EPs, which I've included not as part of the golden thirty but because their sleeves are so perfectly evocative of the music contained within. Love that style! Somehow elegant and rugged, like wrought iron.
11. Deanne DayThe Day After & The Long First Friday
(Emissions Audio Output: 1995/1996)
And then at the midpoint of the decade, it's as if a switch had suddenly been flipped. The Sabres Of Paradise went their separate ways and Weatherall setup a new label: Emissions Audio Output. These two records were among the label's first releases, seemingly coming out of nowhere. Deanne Day was actually a collaboration with David Harrow (who, among other things, had played with the Invaders Of The Heart), the moniker a play on their first initials (say it out loud, D. and A.).
This kicks off the second phase of Weatherall's career, an era when he was operating at the peak of his powers. Turning on a dime, he seems to have stumbled upon the sound that would define his work for the next five years. The moodiness is still in full force — and the sonics still dwelling deep within the shadows — but suddenly it's as if everything has come into focus. There's a strong comparison to be made with Basic Channel's sound — I suspect Andy had been listening closely — and, as with B.C., you can unmistakably hear the early stirrings of the micro-house sound (Isolée, Villalobos, Kompakt et. al.) that would hold sway at the dawn of the 21st century.
The Day After EP is clearly on the minimalist tip. Horicho's spartan soundscape is the twin sister to Model 500's Starlight. Imagine Kraftwerk making house music circa Computer World. Brittle drum machines tick out the rhythm while gentle textures reverberate into the distance. The story is told in the echo, the spaces within the spaces. Body Control amplifies on this hall-of-mirrors effect, with a whirlpool synth in orbit around its central rhythm, while Honk (If You've Seen The King) fixates on the clickety-clack, metronomic rhythms, with just a hint of texture at the edge of the mix. That lonely, whistling synth a particularly evocative touch.
However, the The Long First Friday is where its at. In our timeline, this slots in between the first two Swordsmen records. I included it here because these two Deanne Day records make such a perfect pair. With both tracks here clocking in at over ten minutes, this is a tantric excursion into razor-thin, dreamlike techno. Once again, think Kraftwerk gone house, or better yet Juan Atkins' Infiniti output.12 They both seem to just stretch out into infinity.
The Long First Friday is impossibly lush, moody techno, its brittle drums cradling a wistful synth melody as its junglist bassline pushes out from within the mix. On the flipside, the fourteen minute Hardly Breathe is a motorik groove that splits the difference between techno and house. Ethereal synths drift aimlessly over an unchanging rhythm — encircled by hi-hats flanging in a double helix — as some disembodied diva (caught in a time loop) repeatedly intones the song's title.
Both sides full of gentle longing, in the recurrent Detroit tradition.
The triumphant return of Primal Scream (after their oft-dismissed Give Out But Don't Give Up),13 featuring Weatherall back in the producer's chair. This lazy downbeat groove — sounding like something from some lost seventies OST — is the perfect counterpoint to Danny Boyle's film of the same title. From the Augustus Pablo-esque melodica to the loping breakbeat and those languid, sun-glazed guitars, the whole thing is just stoned slacker perfection (and cool as ice).
Notably, Trainspotting later showed up on Primal Scream's excellent Vanishing Point (which came out in — surprise, surprise — 1997), albeit in slightly edited form. Trust me though, this is the version you want. As with Haunted Dancehall, the atmosphere is thoroughly smoked-out, but here the rough edges have been bevelled away and rendered elegant. Like The Parallax View with an Oak Park strut, it just rolls on and on. You can't help but get lose yourself in its casual sway. Just hearing it is like spending ten minutes in the mid-nineties...
Part of a loose trilogy alongside the The Third Mission and The Tenth Mission EPs, all of which translate the rude shapes of Haunted Dancehall into something approximating the 21st century. Two Lone Swordsmen finds Andy jamming in the studio with Keith Tenniswood, who happened to be sitting behind the boards during some Sabres Of Paradise studio downtime.
When discussing the new 2LS sound, one can't underestimate the importance of Keith Tenniswood, who brought a glitched-out sensibility to the table that hadn't previously been apparent in Weatherall's work. Andrew himself once remarked, some of Mister Tenniswood's drum programming takes my breath away. Seeing as their production partnership has continued to this day in one form or another, it's clear that Tenniswood was a crucial part of the equation.
With nearly two hours of music, The Fifth Mission is a veritable treasure trove of warped machine soul. The crux of this this record lies in both the post-electro's rhythm matrix and the overcast atmosphere of abstract hip hop. One need look no further than tracks like Two Barb Quickstep, Switch It and The King Mob File for a perfect illustration of the new sound. Gone are the grimy back alleys of Haunted Dancehall, and in their place is the chrome-plated architecture of electronic soul. With every surface seemingly polished to crystal-clear perfection, even the record's most shadowy moments glisten in the moonlight.
The one exception to the rule is Rico's Helly, a Basic Channel-esque excursion into oneiric house, which surfs an improbable wood-bassline on a cresting wave to the sublime. Definite shades of the Deanne Day records, and a presence that would become increasingly felt over the course of the next few entries as the Swordsmen delve ever deeper into house music.
However, my absolute favorite moment here is the lurching downtempo reverie of Glenn Street Assault Squad. Its malfunctioning drum machine seems to stagger beneath the weight of those warped textures, while a renegade boogie synth squiggles the whole affair into the filmic. The effect is — as with the rest of this record — something like Kraftwerk jamming with Timbaland in lunar orbit.14
Following swiftly after The Fifth Mission, this is a roundup of remixes and new material15 that fixes on the deep house axis of the duo's sound. Glide By Shooting is an ethereal slice of deep, minimal house that just shimmers. The mood here quite reminiscent of the atmosphere-soaked deep house output of the Svek label (particularly Conceiled Project's D-Weqst). Other tracks, like Flossie Wears Paco And Ralph and Bim, Jack And Florence, continue to mine the minimal vein laid out by the Deanne Day records.
The highlight, however, is undoubtedly the remix of Rico's Helly (Retailored by Nourizadeh & Teasdale, as it says on the label). This version is almost completely unrecognizable from the one on The Fifth Mission, taking a dubbed-out, skanking angle on the original that swings so much it almost ceases to be house and becomes something more like a discomix vision of the blues. With ethereal synths drifting across a mahogany bassline, it grooves along for nine minutes as delicate electronic pads hint at a melody. At one point, the bass even drops into a descending blues pattern like it's a Cab Calloway record!
The other core aspect of Swimming Not Skimming lies in the re-emergence of the studio kinda cloudy ambience of Trainspotting, bringing a distinctly trip hop flavor to certain corners of the record.Azzolini And The Branch Brothers Meet Being sets the tone, kicking off the record with a strongly atmospheric slice of downbeat. Gentle pads16 reverberate through the soundscape while a wood bass plucks out a melody and a beat keeps threatening to take shape (but disintegrates just as quickly). The Ob007 Mix picks up where the brittle downbeat of The Fifth Mission left off, with dulcimer synths that always remind me of Nitemare 3D (an old PC game that my brother and I used to play).
Just bubbling under the surface is a sense of electro decomposition, in tunes like Don't Call It Jerk and Rico's Hellectro (almost sounding like a So Solid Crew backing track!). It really comes to the surface in Two Lone Swordsmen vs. The One True Pod (Jakey In The Subway), which is a malfunctioning take on electro proper, a sound that would increasingly come to the fore over course of the next few years.
The big surprise is In The Nursery Visit Glenn Street, which finds the neo-classical duo In The Nursery reworking Glenn Street Assault Squad into a symphonic piece of soundtrack music in search of a film. There's even a spoken word bit! One detects an aura developing around the whole Two Lone Swordsmen project around this point, a real sense of mystique. Dig those song titles! The whole thing seeming to take on the shape of a sub-culture at the micro level. Intensely local, and just as the era of globalism is dawning.17
Tucked away on Humboldt County Records is The Role Of Linoleum, a curious double-EP by the Swordsmen in a guise named for Weatherall's other art form of choice. A one-off, although Andy asserted in a contemporary interview that the project would stay around.2 A shame we never heard more from the Squares, as it's a compelling sound they've struck upon here, but then that makes what we do have that much more special.
This record finds the duo moonlighting with a unique strain of moody, minimal techno vaguely reminiscent of Deanne Day. However, what marks this out as unique is the unusual nature its chosen instrumentation. That and its thoroughly ramshackle atmosphere! The drums all have this dirty, mangled quality to them, paired with clamoring metallic percussion and decomposing synth textures. Imperfect music made with machines. It's all very Atari 2600!
Neuphrique rides in on a minute of clanking rhythm before deep, organ-ic synths just ooze over the track like a river of vibe. The whole thing's held down by a decaying, 8-bit synth bassline that drives the tune forward, giving it a logical sense of progression. Here Come The Squares continues down the same path, this time bringing the ray of light vibes of Deanne Day into this record's ramshackle aesthetic. There's a tactile sense of physicality that sets this all apart from what's come before.
Blue Pole Dancer plays out its melody on a sparse cluster of electronic tones, while grimy detuned percussion taps out a counterpoint melody of its own. Tidy Unit is practically a rumination on these same warped sheet-metal drums, rhythm and melody nearly atomized by distortion. The reticent music box reverie of Raider would be soothing but for the rickety percussion running right through its center, while Phrique Out unfurls a distant rustling, underwater atmosphere as a single hi-hat bores through the mix with metronomic precision.
I can't think of another record remotely like it. Despite the twisted abstraction, there's a real human dimension to this record, a beating heart at its motorik core. You can hear a lingering 80s influence creeping into view here, one that would be increasingly felt as the decade winds to a close; also the first real shades of post punk. In fact, this record sounds something like if some Sheffield crew in the orbit of Fast Product time-travelled to 1997, heard Basic Channel for the first time, and then tried to show the blokes back home what it sounded like when they returned.
Back to home base, where those early shades of electro have begun to creep in at every corner to the point that they've come to define the sound. Plunge does just what it says on the tin, with well-deep textures bombing through a slithering electroid rhythm. We Love Mutronics (Keith Boy Remix) is nearly straight up electro, giving a tantalizing hint of things to come, before breaking into a junglist canter for its last couple minutes. Spraycan Attack gives a rare glimpse of the duo's deeply warped take on drum 'n bass, a sound they'd return to on their next EP before abandoning it altogether for electro's android rhythm matrix.
Still, there's a very satisfying amount of deep house in effect here.
The shimmering Turn The Filter Off is a jazzed-out exploration of the nascent micro-house sound, now just starting to be felt as a presence out in clubland. Kickin' In (Part 3) and Spin Desire both revisit the haunting house-music-played-on-a-double-bass sound of Rico's Helly. It's one of the most recognizable sounds in house, up there with the crystal clear synths of Larry Heard's Ammnesia and the warped filter-disco psychedelia of Moodymann's Silentintroduction.
Standing in for loads of electro-tinged 2LS remixes around this time (many of which are collected on Peppered With Spastic Magic: A Collection Of Two Lone Swordsmen Remixes). This is my favorite of the bunch, almost accidentally prefiguring the whole eighties revival years before the fact (see also I-f and Little Computer People). The third and final appearance of Primal Scream in this list. Weatherall maintained a continual relationship with the band, reworking tracks from all their albums up to and including Exterminator.
This an under-the-radar rework of the strangest (and my favorite) track from 1997's Vanishing Point (inspired by the 1971 amphetamine road movie starring Barry Newman). The original was a warped dub endeavor, with all levels overdriven into the red and Bobby Gillespie's vocals distorted beyond comprehension. Here cycling electro beats propel the tune at an uptempo double-time, while the dub signifiers of the original swirl all around. It all sounds so unforced, so natural, that you manage to forget the original while it's playing.
Sounding like an Arthur Baker remix of Mark Stewart + Maffia, it's a sound that should have existed in the eighties but never did. But now it does, and one can feel the next decade slowly begin to take shape...
This last gasp of The Sabres Of Paradise is essentially a straight-up dub track (the title is Dub easy spelled backward), albeit one with a strong post punk flavor about it. Like much of Weatherall's dance music, this is heavily inflected by echoes of post punk, memories of rock past. This an unreleased tune (it says recorded May 93 on the label) that washed up on the Dubnology 2: Lost In Bass compilation in 1996. Andrew must have decided it wouldn't hurt to press up a few copies onto wax. As a single-sided 7", it excels.
Whispering hi-hats and the occasional clanking drum fill tap out the rhythm as a towering bassline provides the foundation for the track. Morricone-esque harmonicas peal through the soundscape and a vibrating guitar figure sails across the sky. A vocal bit from an old Count Ossie record intones, ever since I was a youth, I've always been searching for the truth.
And that's it. So simple, but so necessary! Once again, all remarkably physical (that word again). This would have fit right in on Haunted Dancehall. I'm glad it saw the light of day (makes you wonder what's still in the vaults!). Pictured above is the flipside, which features an etching of some trademark Sabres imagery. Intimidating and sleazy!
This is great! The dark horse of this list, featuring Weatherall at his absolute jazziest. In an interview, he once singled this out as his favorite remix that he'd done up to that point.2Red Snapper were a band that split the difference between trip hop and electronic jazz, and here their juke joint original gets reworked into an insouciantly dread-soaked delight.
A strangely beautiful synth refrain unwinds over rolling breakbeats and a two note organ vamp, all while squealing electronic textures wind their way through the mix. You want to hear a an MC freestyle over this beat. I'm reminded of some of the great Terranova b-sides, tunes like Sin Bin and Millennium Bug, where they're just running the machines as they unspool strange melodies over cascading breakbeats. Perhaps a shade more lighthearted, but still overcast, conjuring up images of late night taxi rides and third floor apartments overlooking the naked city.
You also get the Two Lone Swordsmen Blue Jam Cologne Mix, which plays out the record like a beatless coda.
This is where I came in at the time, and the first Weatherall record I ever picked up. As a teenage fan of Drexciya and Kevin Saunderson, it made perfect sense.18 The lovely vintage sleeve art by James Woodbourne a perfect encapsulation of the arcane sounds contained within. Deep sea divers. The Nautilus. Two Lone Swordsmen go aquatic! Upon reflection, there always was an Ocean Of Sound quality to their work, so I suppose here they're just making it official.
In this interview2 that I keep referencing, which was conducted just after the album's release, Weatherall talks a great deal about what influenced him in putting this record together:
During the making of the album I was mainly influenced by library records, Italian b-movie soundtracks and early synthesizer records. Just basically anything that was funky and had early keyboards on top. A lot of those library records sound like the studios have just invested in synthesizers. They're just jammin' away on those records.
Which paints a better thumbnail sketch of what you're getting into than I ever could. At the time, I had no idea what library records were, but gradually I discovered things like the KPM label and Sam Spence's records. Music that was recorded with the intent to be used as bedding music for television and the like. At the time, I can think of only Boards Of Canada being tuned into the same frequency. This years before Ghost Box turned it all into a way of life!
Weatherall also talked of wanting the tracks to be on the shorter side, with the record clocking in at the 45 minute length of classic LPs. Of time spent really crafting the album as a cohesive set of songs, an experience. Truthfully, I think he'd always had a knack for it, but with Stay Down it's taken to a whole other level. This is the point when — even as he's submerging himself in the ocean's depths — Weatherall's work arcs gracefully toward the heavens. When you put the record on, you can immediately tell you're witnessing something special.
Hope We Never Surface begins the proceedings on a note of oceanic tranquility, with a sequence of lustrous analogue tones (sounding as if they were submerged underwater) unspooling in a state of ambient bliss. This mood endures into Ink Cloud19, its crystalline synths sounding like the gates opening to an underwater palace, introducing a scraping trip hop beat and ancient electric organs as the record begins to ever so gradually pick up some steam.
The Big Clapper wires a 303 bassline to an ungainly dub rhythm, whistling synths and trebly tones zig-zagging across a sullen string section, the whole thing striking the perfect balance between zaniness and melancholy. A short sharp shock. Just as you begin to work it out, it stops.2Ivy And Lead takes this notion to its extreme, with a mischievous vibraphone loop strolling across a wood bassline and rewinding electronic percussion, despondent strings sawing out beneath the underwater jazz.
There's a quite a bit of aquatic electro to be found here as well, picking up where A Bag Of Blue Sparks20 EP left off. We Change The Frequency recalls contemporary Drexciya (especially The Return Of Drexciya EP), while the dark, delicate shapes of Light The Last Flare predict Keith Tenniswood's Radioactive Man project. The pronounced swing of Mr. Paris's Monsters even bears a passing resemblance to the nascent sounds of UK garage.
No Red Stopping is the record's one concession to the 4/4 beat, and it's a murky house masterpiece, one of the album's true highlights. Ethereal synths float across a DX-100-sounding bassline imbued with a moody glow as an uncomplicated kick-snare groove rolls out beneath it, teeming with re-triggered clicks and trebly hi-hats. Apparently, it was inspired by a local taxi driver who'd come from war-torn Sarajevo, who wouldn't stop at red lights because you'd get shot at by snipers at traffic lights back home.2
The austere downbeat of Spine Bubbles provides a hint of things to come on the A Virus With Shoes EP,21 even if this album's take on trip hop is far more unique. In its home stretch, Stay Down diverges into a couple idiosyncratic breakbeat workouts. The seasick strings and tricky rhythms of We Discordians (Must Stick Apart) recall peak-era Black Dog, while Alpha School's staggering breakbeats underpin another music box melody and a bass progression straight out of the new wave playbook.
Like a strange, pleasant dream — the sort of dream you wake up from in a state of intense emotion, with inexplicable tears in your eyes — coming to a gradual but inevitable end, the record closes solemnly with the aptly-titled As Worldly Pleasures Wave Goodbye... A glitched-out rhythm tap dances in treble across the surface of the most mournful underwater strings since Gavin Bryars' The Sinking Of The Titanic. It's the perfect conclusion to an arcane record, teeming with mystery, as eccentric and inscrutable as Weatherall himself.
After the elegiac heights (and depths) of Stay Down, this record initially came as a shock. Sure, everything was still remarkably tactile and of-human-dimension, but with none of the humanity, like a dusty circuitboard from 1984. Gone are the dreamlike shades of wistful melancholy and the mesmerising underwater visions drifting in and out of focus, lost now for all time. In their place stands an unforgiving matrix of pumping sinister electro. After all, the nineties are over... it's now the 21st century. Watch your back, partner.
Instantly, we're submerged back into the seething paranoia of Haunted Dancehall, but with all of the dub-derived warmth sucked out with a vampire's precision. This is the sound of The Parallax View's conspiracies hidden in plain light, the claustrophobic noir of The Manchurian Candidate and Max Cohen's tortured descent into the secrets of Pi. The record even opens with the first in a series of Tiny Reminder interludes, electro-acoustic passages scattered throughout the record like a string of clues to a mystery with no solution.
Menacing electro is the order of the day, traxx with short, functional names like Neuflex, Solo Strike and Brootle. A tune like Akwalek sounds like a memory of some finer day that's been digitized into the machine, all the joy lost in its pixellated, 8-bit approximation of reality. These tracks are no less varied than what's come before, it's just that they're all played out on one solitary, twisted game grid, defined by its nasty computer sounds.
One thing that the demented techno of Death To All Culture Snitches, Foreververb's derezzed hip hop and Rotting Hill Carnival's skewed music box funk have in common is that they all sound like some barely-comprehended nightmare, unfolding in a frieze of gradually revealed horror. The one moment that's even vaguely comforting is the technoid micro-house of The Bunker, it's resolute groove seeming to dig deep within its memory banks looking for a reason not to give up.
One wonders how much the Nine O'Clock Drop compilation that Weatherall put together around the same time had coloured the Swordsmen's sound in the studio. There's definitely a sense of the same baleful grooviness here that one would find in the post punk of A Certain Ratio's Waterline, The Normal's Warm Leatherette and Colourbox's Looks Like We're Shy One Horse (all of which figure into Nine O'Clock Drop's tracklisting), the same sense of deranged physicality one hears Memories by Public Image Ltd. or latterly Radiohead's Idioteque.
In a fascinating turn, the record-closing trudge It's Not The Worst I've Looked... Just The Most I've Ever Cared sounds as if it were played on live instruments, the strung out bass and stumbling drums carving out a literal connection to post punk's sense of dislocation. It stands as a great question mark punctuating these proceedings, offering an unexpected glimpse into the direction the Swordsmen would take in a few years time...
But first, they set up the Rotters Golf Club label and spent a few years making deliriously retro-flavoured electro. Kicking off with the two-part Machine Funk Specialists EPs, featuring a flurry of names like Klart, Aramchek, Decal and Rude Solo (most of which were actually the Swordsmen in disguise), the label specialized in a playful, eighties-inflected sound that veered from the Gothic synth pop of Remote to Radioactive Man's punishing electro and even the ghetto-tech influenced speedfreak frenzy of Klart.
In many ways, RGC parallels the contemporary music of figures like Anthony Rother, ADULT., Andrea Parker's Touchin' Bass label. Arty figures getting in on some tasty, no-nonsense electrofunk action. The eighties were undeniably in the air, percolating underground for a spell before hitting the mainstream in the twin forms of electroclash and the post punk revival. As a child of the 80s who never stopped loving the music (even in the grungy 90s, when it was thoroughly out of fashion), I was in heaven.
At this point Keith Tenniswood produced Dot Allison's sophomore album, which turned out to be a dazzling blend of bubbling electronic pop and blissed-out synth/guitar architecture, and one of my absolute favorite records of the era. Embarrassingly, I'd misremembered it as a joint Weatherall/Tenniswood production, and almost included it in this list! Fortunately, on double-checking the liner notes I caught myself just in time...
All of which is a roundabout way of introducing From The Bunker: A Rotters Golf Club Mix, which was compiled and mixed by Andrew Weatherall. Opening with the demented swinging electro of Radioactive Man's Uranium (very nearly a cold-blooded 2-step track) to the throbbing madness of Aramchek's Driver and Klart's Raver (coming on like an old video game theme played on a big rig), it's an unmissable romp through the label's back catalogue.
I've got a whole bunch of the RGC records from back in the day. It might have been cooler to single out that golden 12", something like Machine Funk Specialists Part 1 or Aramchek's Benicassim EP, but that wouldn't give you the full scope of what the boys were up to here. Besides, my favorite moments on the label both happen to be non-Weatherall moments: Remote's Remotion and Radioactive Man's Uranium.
So take this as a choice way in to the Rotters Golf Club, and if you dig what you hear... feel free to indulge further. A detour perhaps, but a whole lot of fun.
Now this was a surprise when I first picked it up. Why, this wasn't electronic music at all! From the opening creaky horns of Stack Up, with it's loose drum beat and Peter Hook-esque bassline, it was clear we weren't in Kansas anymore. I was so disappointed! And yet, that feeling gradually gave way and it became one of my most-played records of the year, right alongside Wiley's Treddin' On Thin Ice, Moodymann's Black Mahogani and Brian Wilson's Smile.
With the transition into real deal post punk — decked out with guitar, bass and drums — complete, you get these great crunching instrumentals like Formica Fuego and The Lurch, songs that are just waiting to appear in the inevitable Repo Man remake. My absolute favorite moments the roiling black hole of Damp and the exhausted misery of the album-closing Driving With My Gears In Reverse (Only Makes You Move Further Away). What can I say, I was a sad lad.
But the big surprise here is a whole raft of vocal tracks featuring vocals from Andrew Weatherall front-and-center, like the dessicated glam rock of Kamanda's Responseand Punches And Knives. There's even a cover version of The Gun Club's Sex Beat! And I exaggerated somewhat when I said this wasn't electronic music at all: tunes like Faux and Sick When We Kiss are more-or-less straight-up electro, albeit electro played by caustic post punks.
So how did this happen? Well, like KRS-One, I was there, so let me tell you. Whereas in 2001 it felt like dance-culture-as-we-knew-it was going to soldier on forever, a dozen-odd months later it just seemed tired, worn-out. Warning signs included the over-saturation of minimal techno (I remember downloading a set where every track sounded like Aril Brikha's Groove La Chord) and the splintering of every genre into sub-genre into a million different pieces. Bummer, man.
I remember a distinct shift, when by the end of 2002, I'd started listening to more vintage techno and house (followed by soul, funk, jazz, hip hop, glam, prog, etc. etc. etc.) than the latest releases. The unifying force, ever more tenuously holding the culture together, just seemed to break apart beyond repair. Everything seemed so simultaneously balkanized and sterile that there was a distinct desire to rude it all up again. Punk rock!
Prefigured by the rise of retro-electro (see #22), electroclash and post-disco-inflected house like Metro Area, it all seemed to flow naturally into a reinvigoration of post punk (the original abstract rude music). Hence things like DFA and Richard X. All of which happened to coincide with the latest in rude boy noise, the rise of grime in the U.K. The zeitgeist had irretrievably shifted, and there was no going back now...22
Consequently, this marks the beginning of third and latest phase of Weatherall's career, where we enter the upside down and everything is inverted: rock and post punk become the prime architecture, inflected by the faded memories of dance music past.
The Big Silver Shining Motor Of Sin EP followed shortly after, a companion piece to this record featuring a remix of Sex Beat, but more importantly two new tracks: the electroid Showbizz Shotguns and the awesome post punk stomp of Feast!
Not so much a remix as a complete reworking, this is essentially a cover by the newly-minted live band version of Two Lone Swordsmen. Taking one of the key micro-house records23 — up there with Isolée's Beau Mot Plage — and turning it into a post punk dirge might sound like a bad idea on paper, but against all odds the crew forge ahead and wind up with another unlikely minor gem.
The sound here comparable to The Lurch, with dulcimer tones playing the original tune's melody over a burning drum/bass workout. The highlight is the elegiac guitars twisting above it all like a cargo plane in flight, creaking in the slipstream. All of these instrumentals revel in the very sound of post punk's sonic vocabulary, the way one looks at a faded photograph and truly cherishes the memories it holds; memories of — what were at the time — just another day.
25. Two Lone SwordsmenWrong Meeting & Wrong Meeting II
(Rotters Golf Club: 2007)
A couple years go by and the Swordsmen are back, this time on the newly re-animated Rotters Golf Club label, heralded the prior year by Andrew Weatherall's The Bullet Catcher's Apprentice EP (his first solo release). The label no longer synonymous with electro mischief but a brand of sleazy rock 'n roll defined by its grimy guitar buzz and low-slung backbeat.24 As strange as it may sound, by this point the Swordsmen have practically becomeThe Clash!
These two records released a couple months apart before coming out in the U.S. as the Wrong Meetings double-album, so I'm counting them as one. I know it's a dirty trick, but hey, it's my list and I tend to get untrustworthy when having to eliminate things. I'll use every trick in the book to sneak them in! Besides, they complement each other so well that it'd be a shame to keep only one.
If there's one thing that sets this record apart from From The Double Gone Chapel's year zero, when the duo first started messing around with live instruments, it's that everything now sounds lived-in and balanced. Where the seams once showed between the electro beats and the post punk burners, the vocal tracks and the instrumentals, and the live instruments and the machines, they've now all been fully integrated into a symbiotic whole.
Whereas much of Chapel felt like loose sonic sketches, there's no getting around the fact that each of these tunes are full-fledged songs.
This newfound comfort with the form also frees up the space for new emotions to come pouring in. Weatherall's vocals have developed by leaps and bounds, picking up a ragged fragility miles beyond the cold deadpan of his earlier delivery. Patient Saints — with it's tumbling drums underpinning a sad, stately tale of The patient saints of selfless acts, the more they gave the less they got back — is a perfect illustration of the changing stakes.
The first Wrong Meeting record — which Patient Saints opens beautifully — is basically a straight up rock record, which nevertheless retains the overcast mood that we've come to expect from the MKII Swordsmen. Tunes like No Girl In My Plan and Evangeline ply a sort of sinister rockabilly that's a worthy successors to The Cramps' own voodoo-soaked garage punk. This is truly phenomenal stuff, and at the time I used to cane Evangeline in the mix every chance I got. I remember tales filtering back from the U.K. of Andy spinning rockabilly seven-inches in the clubs, sporting a handlebar moustache!25
Think this is just a retro-nostalgia trip? Well, No Girl In My Plan rides this great throbbing bassline that sounds like something from a contemporary grime record, and Weatherall hurls couplets like, The angel on her right says beware of her advances, while the demon on her left has seen the way she dances. with a venom that sounds utterly of-the-moment. Like the Arctic Monkeys, this is a rock 'n roll that feels right at home 21st century.
Wrong Meeting II picks up where the first record's Get Out Of My Kingdom leaves off, with the jagged guitar downbeat shuffle of Mountain Man tracing its mood with a jagged line into the electro-punk-disco of Shack 54. The whole midsection continues this heavier dance angle, with razor's edge synths and racing electro threading elegantly through the clanking guitar cacophony.
The Ghosts Of Dragstrip Hollow seems to fuse both sides of the record, before it all gets tied up in a bow with the slow-motion stomp of Born Bad/Born Beautiful, winding the proceedings back down to a slow-burning rock for it's protracted denouement. The gently unfolding, stoic mood of If You Lose Control Of Yourself... (You Give It To Somebody Else) ends the record on a strangely contented note, as if the austere, foreboding atmosphere of the last few records had only just begun to lift.
These remains the final Two Lone Swordsmen recordings to date (although the duo still collaborate in other forms). Still, it does set the stage for everything to follow...
After a protracted break (reading between the lines in this interview,26 it sounds like he was cleaning up and working through his demons), Weatherall returns with his first true solo LP after over twenty years in the game. A Pox On The Pioneers finds him ploughing a rich furrow at the intersection of kosmische and dark new wave, with brittle drum machines and ancient synths intertwining with the ghosts of Wrong Meeting's raucous rockabilly.
It's a classy sound, evocative of an eighties where Bowie's Heroes and Iggy's The Idiot — and by extension Harmonia Deluxe and Neu! '75 — had an even grander influence blazing through the decade, changing the path of everything from to new wave to alternative in the process. There's a lot of what ifs that start to crop up when one listens to these late-period Weatherall records:
What if punk hadn't sought to tear down everything that came before it, but to build upon that foundation, injecting a strong sense of futurism into everything it touched. A few years later, new romantic's DNA intertwines with post punk's cold grey landscape — rather than seeking to replace it — and the ancient organic synths of kosmische bleed even deeper into the eighties. Imagine the aural equivalent of Repo Man's spacier, mellotron-inflected moments, or the whole of Beyond The Black Rainbow. It's the sound of a few variables shifted, subtly changing every moment as time marches on, making all the difference in the world.
The first record I remember that conjured up this sort of image was another refugee from dance music, Death In Vegas. In 2005, their fourth album Satan's Circus, with its leather-clad kosmische/post punk hybrid, sounded as if it were beamed in from a parallel dimension built from similar parameters. It cropped up again in the Minimal Wave series of compilations (which came out on Stones Throw, of all places!), full of old music seemingly beamed in from this alternate reality.
There was a subtle sense at this time of certain bands moving beyond the literalism of the initial wave of post punk revivalists to carve out unique sounds of their own. Groups like Blank Dogs and The Vaccines seemed to tap into the same gestalt, while The Good, The Bad & The Queen for all the world sounded like they sprung from this same eighties where kosmische was the dominant force in pop music. I suppose that Chris Corner might have beat them all to the punch, first with Sneaker Pimps' Splinter and then the IAMX record, in envisioning a 1980s in absence of sunlight.
All of which brings us back to Weatherall's maiden voyage as a solo artist. Launching with Fail We May, Sail We Must, it sets the scene (along with its sleeve) for a briny endeavor across the stormy surface of the same oceanic depths he'd essayed a decade prior. In fact, the vocals throughout have a real chanted, sea shanty quality to them (especially the title track).27 Strangely enough, Miss Rule seems to predict a whole brace of radio hits from the coming decade that would mine a similar concept (things like Elle King's Ex's & Oh's).
There's often a fragile delicacy to the record's nimble rhythms, unspooling gently beneath the record's waterlogged textures, and there are oceans of space within the songs themselves. The soundscape is awash in reverb, its mix literally drowning the sonic squall, conjuring up images of stormy skies and choppy waters. And there you find yourself, isolated somewhere within them, lost at sea.
Liar With Wings is a lonely, wide-open chanson that seems to with the sails, while All The Little Things (That Make Life Worth Living) features synths that seem to sway in seasick arcs across the pitter-patter of brittle drum machines before inevitably flowing into its frail synthesizer coda. The slow-burning Built Back Higher — punctuated by synths that seem to fall like droplets gathered from swirling ocean mists — sounds as if it might dissipate into thin air.
Like Stay Down, this record seems carefully crafted into a sonic journey, with every twist and turn guiding the listener toward its inevitably aching conclusion. In this case, that conclusion arrives on the wings of Walk Of Shame, carried along by vaguely discoid rhythms out into the horizon (and intimating the sound of Weatherall's next big project). It's a natural end to a natural record, an album that feels almost as if it were brought in by the tide.
As I was saying a moment ago, The Asphodells — which is the duo of Andrew Weatherall and Timothy J. Fairplay — seem to pick up exactly where the last record's Walk Of Shame left off. Beglammered glides in on a brittle disco rhythm, it's quasi-melodica melody and flowing sequences bringing to mind the Eastern motifs of Charanjit Singh's Jupiter 8 from Synthesizing: Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat.
There's an illuminating interview26 from a few years back (and which I mentioned earlier) that coincided with the release of this record, where Weatherall regales with stories from his long and winding journey through music's corridors, all while he carves out a brand new linotype image. In many ways, this record squares the circle between his most recent works of kosmische post punk and his earliest forays into dance music. At times, I'm particularly reminded of his Nonsonicus Maximus Mix of Jah Wobble's Bomba.28
One could read The Asphodells as Weatherall's own Metro Area moment, like Morgan Geist a veteran figure digging back into the world of disco. In this case, Weatherall seems to be plying a Teutonic take on cosmic disco's chugging, otherworldly rhythms. Or, to expand on my earlier metaphor, what if — language barrier be damned — Neue Deutsche Welle (NDW, aka German New Wave) had been as big as the second British invasion (Duran Duran, Eurythmics, et. al.). Images of D.A.F. filling stadiums, electro-punks wearing jackets emblazoned with the Geile Tiere logo and Andreas Dorau on MTV. This is the music that might have come in the wake of such an (unlikely) scenario.
A tune like The Quiet Dignity (Of Unwitnessed Lives) sounds like if 80s synth pop had retained Kraftwerk's sense of Europe-endlessness, with Low standing this time as the epoch-defining Bowie record (especially the instrumentals). Like A Pox On The Pioneers, this album is driven by loosely-sequenced 808 beats, albeit with a greater horizontal sense of linearity (although One Minute's Silence does seem, in part at least, to connect back with that record's prevailing mood).
If I'm being brutally honest, I've never been crazy about this record's cover version of A Love From Outer Space (but then the A.R. Kane original is one of my favorite songs ever). However, nearly everything else — from the proto-acid sounds of Skwatch to Another Lonely City's impeccably sequenced landscapes — meshes together to round out a winning record with a unique vision. If nothing else, this is an album to drift away to.
Tangentially, I was tempted to include Weatherall's motorik remix of Wooden Shjips' Crossing, which is cut from a similar kosmische-inflected cloth. Unfortunately, there just wasn't the space!
This vinyl-only release by The Woodleigh Research Facility features Weatherall working with sometime Swordsmen collaborator Nina Walsh. From the sleeve — which has the distinct, unadorned appearance of a vintage library record — on down, this seems to run parallel to the terrain essayed masterfully by Ghost Box in the 21st century. However, the surfaces here are pristine — clinical even — miles away from GB's crumbly electronica.
If anything, The Phoenix Suburb seems to pick up where The Asphodells left off, presenting the cold, deflated other to that record's warm cosmic grooves. The rhythms of this album share in the same linear 808 pulse, stretching endlessly onto the horizon. In many ways, I'm reminded of Ultramarine's Every Man And Woman Is A Star, from the era just before the ambient-leaning fabric of Artificial Intelligence was shredded to abstraction by the IDM brigades.
This record glides by on a chassis of pure electro, its austere electronic textures interacting with the rhythms in an uncomplicated manner. Some tunes, like The Question Oak and Dumont's Assistant almost veer toward a driving EBM atmosphere, while quieter moments like Osler's Crystal Fountain settle into peaceful cul de sacs of sound. The overall effect throughout is that of the duo donning lab coats and working the machines in a rustic cabin in the countryside.
A minor record, perhaps, but an interesting (and quite listenable) one nonetheless.
The first record credited solely to Andrew Weatherall since 2009's A Pox On The Pioneers came tumbling out with little fanfare seven years later, and it's a total classic. Convenanza's sound is teeming with myriad instruments and textures, from spacious slide guitar to eerie, echoing brass, ancient synths and (of course) that trademark combination of motorik beat and rumbling bassline that we've come to expect. It might just be me, but I believe that the sound that Weatherall has achieved with this record is quite simply sublime.
I'm reminded immediately of Holger Czukay's French horn, particularly on records like Snake Charmer (see the spooked mutant disco pulse of The Confidence Man) and On The Way To The Peak Of Normal. Also, the throbbing rhythms of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts.
Both of which put us in Terminal Vibration territory, and fair enough. This is the 21st century outpost of that sound, leaning bravely toward the future.
By far the fullest and most fleshed-out of Weatherall's more recent records, perhaps moreso than anything since Stay Down, Convenanza is above all else a pleasure to listen to. These lushly populated landscapes, full of ornate, sculpted sound, form the perfect foundation for Weatherall's disembodied vocals reverberating throughout. The opening instrumental groove of Frankfurt Advice — with its rolling bass sequences, arcing horns and low-slung guitar echoing beyond — offers a perfect illustration of this principle in action.
Now don't let me be misunderstood: this record is not one giant wall of sound. There's still plenty of space in the mix. Take the fragmented groove of Kicking The River, whose drum machines seem to gear up only to fade from view and back again. And that wandering guitar line — literally weaving its way through the song's fabric — always makes me think of the warped pop of seventies Eno.
One unexpected aspect of the record is how certain stretches of this record manage to excel much contemporary pop, which is often only notionally catchy. The dreamy shades of We Count The Stars have wrapped within them a remarkably pretty song, even as the horns go off on variations of their own in the distance. But then, old Andy has always had an ear for a tune, even before he started making them with vocals.
The Last Walk — another instrumental — continues Weatherall's latent tradition of forging connections between records, in this case stretching back through The Phoenix Suburb and The Asphodells, with its motorik rhythms, and shading directly into the dour vocal style of A Pox On The Pioneers. It's the one track here that seems to tie back to earlier styles, even as its monumental synth progression squares it firmly within the world of Convenanza.
However, where this record has them all beat is in its quiet passages of gentle beauty. The lightly tapping rhythm of Disappear is dominated by its heavily-reverbed vocals (including spectral female backing) as outer space sounds punctuate every bar and what sounds like a theremin winds searchingly throughout. The record's penultimate track, Thirteenth Night, unwinds with a circular synth pattern soaring across gently rolling rhythm boxes, offering a moment of tranquility before the record's stunning conclusion.
Ghosts Again finds Weatherall asking Please forgive this letter, from a shipwrecked soul, while a pair of guitars intertwine beneath in an elegiac duel. An acoustic strums out the rhythm while a Morricone-damaged electric dances across it's face. One lone tambourine keeping time as a searching cello twists its way into your heart. It's a stunning climax to a deeply affecting record, one that feels like the culmination of the man's work going all the way back to the beginning. Of all the 21st century Weatherall records, this is undoubtedly my favorite.
Clearing the air after the formidable heights of Convenanza is last year's Qualia, which closes out today's golden thirty (exit music, for a film). Weatherall's latest record features the man ploughing his own particular furrow, this time with an octet of motorik mood pieces. The sleeve, which mimics the cover art from Walter Wegmüller's krautrock stone tablet Tarot, a dead giveaway, and rather appropriate for this set of gently unfurling post-kosmische instrumentals.
The combination of live motorik drumming and rolling analogue sequences brings to mind (once again) Satan's Circus by Death In Vegas, but this time the production is sparse and immaculate. The uncomplicated groove of Darktown Figures, with its Spartan guitar line and ultra-fake sounding synthesized brass, sounds like something from an OST. At one point, the drums cut out and you're left with a rhythm box, pattering away. Everything here working as invisible soundtrack music.
Note the bearded Weatherall on the record's sleeve, a look he's been rocking for about a decade (if I'm not mistaken). I dig it, the sort of rugged mountaineer of electronic music... the man in the hills. It's the look of a man who's spent three decades at the coalface of underground music, and has earned the right to call himself a true original. What is it about electronic musicians that they age so much more gracefully than rocker stars? Perhaps Grace Slick was right about everything...
So that rounds out our little excursion across Andrew Weatherall's (roughly) thirty years in underground music. In thirty records. Ok, ok, I realize that technically this was actually 33 records, but like I said I'm a greedy bastard when it comes to music! If you want me to narrow it down to just three to start with, then check out Primal Scream's Screamadelica, Two Lone Swordsmen's Stay Down and Andrew Weatherall's Convenanza, each of which hail from the three distinct phases of the man's recording career (along with the ever-changing zeitgeist). Then keep on digging in, because at the end of the day, the records speak for themselves...
Balearic is, crudely put, a type of record that usually springs from somewhere at the interface of rock, soul and club music. Many of these records were brought over from Ibiza (one of the Balearic islands off the coast of Spain), where an open-minded policy reigned supreme: if the record grooved, then it got played. As such, all manner of records got swept up into the category, from the driving indie rock of The WoodentopsWhy, Why, Why to the slow burning funk of Richie Havens' Goin' Back To My Roots and Yello's Bostich. The concept was so useful that to this day new records are often described as Balearic in spirit.
In light of Terminal Vibration, it's interesting to note the swingbeat-tinged remix version from Tackhead on the Raise remix 12", making literal the connection between post punk and rave's early years. In the world of dance music, post punk wasn't a retro move ten years after, but very much in its DNA from the beginning.
And wouldn't you know it, Substance gets reworked by the Moody Boys (aka Tony Thorpe), who started out in post punk group 400 Blows and later made his mark on house music with the Warrior's Dance label. The Terminal Vibrations just don't stop!
Note that Junior Boy's Own put out the earliest releases by The Chems, records like Song To The Siren and the Fourteenth Century Sky EP. In retrospect, sort of funny that one of the era's most self-consciously tasteful label enabled the duo to wreak their havoc (much to the chagrin of music snobs everywhere)!
Juan Atkins is another one that hinted at the idea of micro-house long before it would become a going concern, with Infiniti's Flash Flood (1993) and Game One (1994), and M500's Starlight and Lightspeed (both from the 1995 Deep Space LP, recorded with Basic Channel's Mark Ernestus and Mortiz Von Oswald) all on the shelves by mid-decade. I should do a little feature on all of this someday...
[Blinks and does a double take, jumping back a couple inches in the process.] Was this the basis for Escape 120 by Joey Bada$$!? I'm 90% sure that it's a sped up sample of this tune. How did I never notice that?
Ink Cloud was omitted from the U.S. version of Stay Down released by Matador, which instead included most of the A Bag Of Blue Sparks EP. So strange, why not include one less song from the other EP? However, this was actually very common, and I have a whole stack of CDs that I had to re-buy to get the full version, things like Plaid's Not For Threes and Andrea Parker's Kiss My Arp.
A Bag Of Blue Sparks was released less than a month before Stay Down, and provided a stunning preview of that record's deep sea electro (along with a deliciously strange detour into drum 'n bass with Black Commandments). It's quite good (especially the island vibes of Electric 4 Bird), and comes highly recommended to anyone who can't get enough of Stay Down's electro side.
Coming out a year later, A Virus With Shoes found the duo delving as deep into abstract hip hop as they ever would, with seven tracks of slow-motion breakbeat noir (plus an ambient one). The Bogeyman remix beats it out for inclusion here, but it does have the distinction of featuring the first instance of a 2LS record with a fully vocal track (It Fits samples a large section of the acappella of Electronic's Prodigal Sun).
Strangely enough, a few years earlier I'd started mixing new wave records like Simple Minds' I Travel and The B-52'sMesopotamia. This actually long before I was even aware of any of this. Something was definitely in the air.
A few years earlier, Weatherall had mixed the Hypercity compilation for the Force Tracks label. A twilight run through the corridors of micro-house, featuring artists like Håkan Lidbo and Luomo, it's a solid little mix. I still have it lying around here somewhere...
See also the otherworldly synths of Screamadelica, which as often as not seem to reach into a time before electronic music had crawled onto the dancefloor. There's a fair bit of the old world even in Weatherall's earliest work. These records didn't come out of nowhere!
Where does one even begin?!? I've gone on record putting the man in my upper echelon — alongside Tricky and Adam Ant — with my absolute favorite recordings artists ever. That's a pretty odd bunch, I'll admit, but without question the figures that have done the most to shape my own musical path. In the twin worlds of house and techno, the man stands like a towering colossus astride the realms of chart-busting post-disco dance and the deepest recesses of the underground (both of which he's long ago mastered). So like I said, it's hard to know where to even begin...
Well, you could begin at the beginning: in the early 80s when he was mixing it up in the shadows of Detroit with the Deep Space crew (which included similarly storied figures like Derrick May and Juan Atkins, among others). Then, in the wake of No UFO's, venturing into the studio to begin a recording career (and his KMS imprint, which has been doing it's thing for nigh on thirty years now) in earnest: first with the Kreem record — Triangle Of Love in a post-New Order/Into The Groove-stylee — and then the minimalist techno of Intercity's Groovin' Without A Doubt (recorded with Derrick May). A preview of things to come, to be sure...
This kicked off a series of heavy underground records, raw traxx released seemingly from beyond the dawn of time like Keynotes' Let's Let's Let's Dance and the Reese & Santonio records — recorded with one Santonio Echols — rough-and-tumble tiles like The Sound, Truth Of Self Evidence and Bounce Your Body To The Box that surfed the interzone between house and techno before just about anyone else. This era was masterfully anthologized on the Faces & Phases compilation, a veritable treasure trove of the rawest techno one could ask for.
So at the dawn of 1988, the table was set for the Reese records — where Saunderson's knack for vibed-out productions really began to take flight — burning hot techno sides like Just Want Another Chance, Rock To The Beat and Funky Funk Funk. These were probably the heaviest electronic grooves laid down down up to this point, each of them were built on a towering structure of bass, percussion and the sort of strange, funky synths that one never forgets. Kevin Saunderson had a vision of massive, floor-filling electronic dance music before just about anyone else. It's his calling card, really... but then so is the undeniable sense of vibe that he imbues his productions with. And that, as they say, is what makes all the difference.
Just Want Another Chance seemed to be his take on the heavy-breathing atmospheric style of Jamie Principle (prefiguring the likes of Blake Baxter and K-Alexi Shelby), with spooked electronics and a ten ton bassline that remains one of the deepest to be found on wax and would go on to fuel decades of darkside excursions to come. Rock To The Beat took a left turn into cinematic territory, especially in its warped Mayday Mix, but the flipside's traxx like the pure acid frenzy of Grab The Beat and You're Mine's emotive Clash sampling epic were equally revelatory techno par excellence. And Funky Funk Funk is just sick, with that sawing bassline and whistling synths nailing the buzzing mayhem of the rave.
He continued down this path with the ardkore madness of the Tronikhouse records, with awesome proto-jungle tunes like Up Tempo, Spark Plug and Straight Outta Hell (Back To Hell Mix), anchored by the more straight up techno of The Savage And Beyond and Smooth Groove (techno perfection in 3½ minutes). The flipside to these rave excursions were the deep techno missives unleashed under his E-Dancer guise, with the (just as hardcore) stomping electric madness of Velocity Funk (which started life as a Cameo remix, doncha know?) and the killer digital disco of World Of Deep serving up dancefloor perfection.
Both of these tunes anchored Saunderson's epochal X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio, which essayed the Detroit-area broadcasts of no-nonsense techno that Reese and crew had been unleashing for the better part of a decade. Featuring DJ Minx as the master of ceremonies, it boasted appearances from Detroit techno stalwarts like Octave One, Carl Craig and Sean Deason alongside Outlander's Belgian techno, the widescreen garage of D.C.'s Deep Dish (in their Chocolate City guise) and a whole brace of tracks from Dutch techno mainstays Dobre & Jamez. The whole affair remains a high water mark in that interzone between deep, moody house and dirty Downtown techno.
It was during this era that Saunderson released E-Dancer's Heavenly LP, a stone cold classic that scooped up a decade worth of tracks like The Human Bond and Pump The Move (along with the aforementioned Velocity Funk), juxtaposed with new killer cuts like Banjo, Warp and Behold. There was even an awesome Juan Atkins Re-mix of Heavenly, which put a deeply moody high-desert spin on the original version's delicate electronic groove. This whole trip culminated in the widescreen cinematic techno of The Dream, which seemed to draw from the same filmic corners of Saunderson's sound as Rock To The Beat had: this was Saunderson scoring films yet to be made.
And then there's the matter of his remix work, which found the man redefining the possibilities of what could be achieved on the b-side of a single (much as King Tubby had done about a fifteen years earlier) with his complete reworks that crafted totally new grooves around a few of the song's original elements (as opposed to the more common edit-style remixes of the day). People usually point to the Acid House Remix of The Wee Papa Girl Rappers' Heat It Up as the moment where it all took shape, which found him transforming a little hip-house ditty into a well-deep slab of moody acid decked out with a monster bassline.
The man's most mainstream guise, Inner City (with dancefloor diva Paris Grey), took on a life of its own with killer pop-inflected cuts like Good Life, Pennies From Heaven and Praise, storming the dance charts again and again. I remember hearing dubs of Good Life on Jammin' z90's afternoon dance show, which would hold sway after the station's usual hip hop and r&b bread-and-butter, and the frisson of hearing Reese productions on the drive home from school (this before I even had a tape deck) was palpable. Be sure to check the awesome Power Of Passion (left off the U.S. version!) for a rare example of the man at his most delicate, with a singular take on r&b-inflected machine soul that's nestled somewhere between Kraftwerk, Roberta Flack and The Neptunes.
Inner City's cover version of Stephanie Mills' Watcha Gonna Do With My Lovin', which reached its sublime peak with the 8½ minute Def Mix by Frankie Knuckles and David Morales, was a masterstroke of impossibly lush house music that seemed to predict Massive Attack's Blue Lines in its languid, downbeat grooves. And then there were all those garage sides by The Reese Project, which managed to smuggle remixes by the likes of Jay Denham and Underground Resistance onto high street like a Trojan horse.
Bringing it all back home, the man unleashed the awesome Ahnongay, a techno outing of the highest caliber replete with remixes by Dave Clarke and Carl Craig. Still, it's the original version that remains the standout. Deep and spiritual techno soul, it's a prime example of Saunderson at his absolute finest. One could imagine slipping it on amid things like SA-RA, 4 Hero, Underworld, J Dilla and Moodymann without too much trouble, like it was the most natural thing in the world.
This is part of the reason why Saunderson's work means so much to me: he routinely squares the circle between the worlds of post-disco dance, rave, techno, r&b and even hip hop — worlds that are often treated as if they were light-years apart — folding one over the other like an origami crane as everything overlaps with the casual ease of a Venn diagram. He traverses these worlds like a man who's seen it all, expertly crafting those singular grooves with style and finesse.
Because above all else, that's what he'll be remembered for: conjuring up heavy, atmospheric, stomping sonix like no other (no matter how often the imitators may try to flatter sincerely). Take Esser'ay's Forces — a one off under that alias, no doubt for Saunderson just another day vibing out in the studio — and you'll find a wild, weird and deeply funky slab of killer dancefloor madness... techno as only the Master Reese could do it. Seeing him decked out in a sequined jacket, holding court last weekend at Movement (aka the Detroit Electronic Music Festival), it's clear that he's gonna keep right on doing it for years to come. And thank goodness for that.
After twenty years as a massive fan of the man's music, I finally caught Tricky live last Thursday at the Music Box. After work, I cruised down Harbor Drive, past Lindbergh Field and the Embarcadero toward the San Diego Harbor. I stopped off at the Fish Market to grab some fish 'n chips (soulful as Maxwell) for a solitary dinner overlooking the docks. Squeezing in a bit of writing, I washed it all down with the darkest beer I could get my hands on. From there, I parked at Lot 1023 — on the corner of Pacific and West Broadway — and walked through the American Plaza Station, continuing down India Street for a couple blocks before the Music Box appeared before me. I handed the doorman my ticket and was in the place before you could say Six Minutes, I'm On.
Walking through the front door, I was confronted with a truly evocative atmosphere: now this was a proper venue. The Music Box now inhabits the space that was previously known as Anthology, an after hours jazz club that I'd been to a few times in the past, before it unceremoniously shut down a couple years ago. Anthology was on the upscale, aspirational tip, like the South Seas Club meets Norman Connors sleeve art, which fit the late-period jazz vibes in evidence on the venue's stage and soundsystem perfectly.
The Music Box, in contrast, seemed to intimate a sort of post-industrial warehouse atmosphere, a million miles from the sleek surfaces of Anthology but still teeming with vibe. I could see the original stage in the distance as I made my way through the anteroom, where a handful of cocktail tables were scattered beneath the half-light in lapis lazuli. The bar was located to my left, so I got fixed up with a drink and made my way toward the dancefloor (which at this point was still empty).
The plush booths of Anthology had been cleared out on the ground floor (although they appeared to have been retained on the upper floors), replaced by high chairs hugging the right wall in semi-circles around narrow cocktail tables in order to maximize floor space on the dancefloor. On the left was one long bench hugging the wall, much as it always had. The dancefloor spread out between. There was a giant video screen behind the raised stage displaying coming attractions (Slum Village, She Wants Revenge, George Clinton with Parliament/Funkadelic, Mark Farina, etc.), and the walls were emblazoned with the shades of rust and iron. In other words, it was the perfect place to catch a trip hop show, especially in an era where the music seems to make even more sense than it did in its own time.
That time was the nineties, which is when I first dove into the music in earnest. Tricky's Angels With Dirty Faces was one of the first dozen or so records that I ever owned. In truth, I'd wanted to catch the man live since way back then, but for various reasons it never really happened. In the first instance, it was down to being too young to get in the door (circa Angels With Dirty Faces) and then it was because — in an era when I was going to school, working to pay for school and digging ditches — I was broke and (truth be known) living the trip hop life a little too fully. After that, it just never really came together. Sometimes it just goes that way...
So it was thrilling to be in a venue like this to finally get to see see the man live in person. I'd bought two tickets back in January, but unfortunately as the day rapidly approached no one else could make it. I was somewhat disappointed at first, but ultimately realized that it was rather appropriate to be at this show alone: this is just as it would have been back in the day, when no one else I knew that was into this sort of thing. As much as Detroit techno or ragga jungle, this was a music that I'd had an intimate relationship with, and it hit me at the deepest level. I suppose that picking it up in a way so totally out of step with my prevailing surroundings only made me love it more. So not much has changed, then.
A selection of trip hop's greatest hits were playing over the soundsystem as people started to stream in, and damned if it wasn't a cross-section of a certain corner of my record collection back in the day. I'm talking about Massive Attack's Unfinished Sympathy, Portishead's Sour Times (and Glory Box *cough* even though Hell Is Round The Corner is better *cough*), DJ Shadow's Midnight In A Perfect World and Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt, Björk's Headphones and Radiohead's Talk Show Host.
Talk Show Host was especially a real surprise, much as it had been when I first heard it — on seeing Romeo + Juliet in theaters — and placing it immediately as Radiohead, even if it was drastically more beat-oriented than anything they'd done up till then (this just before their new direction was mapped out with OK Computer). Perhaps the demanding trip-hopper in me would have loved to hear some Smith & Mighty, Nicolette and Terranova as well, but then you can't have it all. In truth, it was a bit of a rush hearing these songs together in one place again, all swirling around the black hole sun that lay at its center. And make no mistake, I'm speaking of Adrian Thaws.
Where I'm coming from, it simply does not get much better than Tricky. He's on my short list with Adam Ant and Kevin Saunderson, those musical figures that had the biggest impact on me growing up (indeed, right up to the present day). You hear songs like Aftermath, Hell Is Round The Corner, Poems and 6 Minutes as a teenager and it's bound to leave an impression. I suppose that for me, he was something like David Bowie, Rakim and Howlin' Wolf all rolled into one. Upon reflection, I'd admit that — once again — not much has changed!
After a bit of waiting, the opening act took the stage. They were a three-piece called Young Magic, and they plied a sort of hallucinatory dream pop with slightly menacing overtones, centered around ethereal lead vocals. They filled the digital backdrop with a stunning Buggy G. Riphead-esque video loop projected behind them as they played. Exotic imagery and 3D terrain clashed in sometimes rapid fashion, much like the indoctrination video from The Parallax View. The whole experience was a perfect point of entry into the evening, setting the mood brilliantly. Young Magic: definitely one to look into.
In between Young Magic's exit and Tricky taking the stage, a bunch of peak-era hip hop like Nas, Mobb Deep and The Pharcyde played over the P.A. I looked around at the crowd, which seemed to be an interesting mix of people, ranging across every spectrum imaginable. I was reminded of Detroit's progressive scene of the early 80s, where a sort of adventurous anything goes spirit ruled the day, resulting in a fantastic mash up of futuristic funk, synth, disco and new wave music that ultimately coalesced in the sort of lightning-in-a-bottle phenomenon that happens once a generation (if you're lucky).
I purposefully hadn't checked prior setlists from other shows, because I wanted to be taken completely off guard by whatever would unfold tonight. Would the set be full of older material from the Maxinquaye/Pre-Millennium Tension era, or would it lean heavily toward his more recent material (drawn from an era where he seems to have reignited the old spark with a vengeance)? Would he go off on some unforeseen variation? In truth, any such possibility would have been fine by me: just being here tonight was a dream come true. After all, it had been a long road that took me here...
When Tricky hit the stage, he strolled out with his band to the sound of Vybes before kicking into an instrumental rendition of You Don't Wanna (from 2001's Blowback). What it may have lacked in Ambersunshower, the band more than made up in live crunch, with the song taking on a sort of Alice In Chains feedback-soaked voodoo. Tricky faced the drummer, his back to the audience, just vibing out on the music. That Sweet Dreams synth, sawing through the track in deliberate slow-motion, was absolutely monolithic in a live setting.
Without warning, the band dove headfirst into the clipped raw stylings of I'm Not Going (from 2016's Skilled Mechanics). At this point, they were just getting started, vibing up the room as clouds of smoke began billowing all around. A familiar fragrance coursed through the room and Marta walked out of the shadows to take the lead. The song has always come on like one big build up, and in this case it was building up to what would be an incredible night.
In passing, I must say that I really dig the way Tricky seems to have taken a left turn at some point, veering down this winding path of blues-soaked Gothic without hesitation. One suspects that he's revitalized himself on the arty, new wave-inflected sounds of his youth, particularly things like Japan's Tin Drum, Melt-era Peter Gabriel and The Cure. Where Massive Attack faltered (losing their identity in the crystalline architecture of 100th Window), Tricky excels. Bringing his own considerable voodoo to the table, he reshapes the sound in his own image. The results sound unlike anything that's come before... a genre that should have existed (you can almost feel the distant memory of it), but never did. Well, now it does...
The crew dropped into three songs from Tricky's latest, Ununiform, starting with the staggering twilight dirge of New Stole. Firmly in the tradition of post-hip hop blues like Broken Homes and Singing The Blues, it finds Marta in fine form, taking on the vocal duties from Tricky's latest foil Francesca Belmonte. It manages to be cinematic and totally stripped-down at the same time, something that Mr. Thaws has handily mastered by this point. The Only Way followed swiftly, rounding out the first trio of songs from Ununiform, and finally Tricky was front and center.
I wasn't prepared for the man's intensity in a live setting, which often took the sound in a significantly different direction from what had previously appeared on record. He was a man possessed, moving wraithlike and punching the air as he delivered his words, often in a shrieked punk-singjay tone that he rarely employs in the studio. He grasped two microphones, one with heavy slapback echo and the other more-or-less straight-up-clean, singing into both of them at once. He moved the mics at various distances and angles to manipulate the sound of the room, dragging their stands with him across the stage as he moved. A tune like Parenthesis was ideal in this setting, with its dirge-like pounding chorus offering Tricky the perfect storm to inhabit like a spectre. All week, I'd been envisioning him playing Money Greedy live (which wasn't meant to be), but he did imbue each of these songs with that same sense of barely controlled fury.
The one cover version of the evening was an awesome take on Courtney Love's Doll Parts, delivered by Marta, and it was an incredible reading. It's actually another one from the new record, which isn't totally surprising. One of the many things I always dug about Tricky was his musical omnivorousness — you could picture him vibing out to Smashing Pumpkins, Gregory Isaacs, Gravediggaz and Kate Bush back to back — and the way it could be felt on his records. It was something that I noticed increasingly as time passed by (although in retrospect it was always there), and circa Mission Accomplished (if not For Real and Contradictive on Juxtapose) I remember feeling this strange post punk/new wave element taking shape in the sound. In truth, it had probably been there since Black Steel...
This shadow buried deep within the sound reached its apotheosis on 2014's False Idols, which against all odds turned out to be his finest record since Maxinquaye. Rather appropriately, the setlist focused on this post-reinvention period, only occasionally digging further back into the past. All but three songs were from the last five years, and a solid third were from last year's Ununiform. False Idols is clearly the point of inflection. The sparse, desperate sound of Nothing's Changed submerged these proceedings deep into the doldrums before the 4/4 pulse of Here My Dear pushed back above the waterline, only for it all to sink back beneath the sub-zero bass pressure of Running Wild.
Digging into My Palestine Girl (from the Adrian Thaws LP) made perfect sense in this context, it's slithering guitar figures sounding like a distant cousin of Massive Attack's Dissolved Girl. Of course, the guitar presence here is far more informed by post punk than the quasi-metal shapes of Mezzanine. Another slashing, bluesy guitar figure drove the no-nonsense 4/4 pulse of Dark Days, its killer hook taking the room by storm. And then, just as quickly as it had begun, the tune concluded and the band left the stage.
I should mention that the crowd was going absolutely crazy at this point. It was clear that this was a room full of die-hards. It turns out that I wasn't the only one here who Tricky's music has had a serious impact on... not by a long shot. And all of us were up for anything. Everyone began chanting, Tricky, Tricky, Tricky! in unison. Then, the band came back out — sans Tricky — for the encore, kicking into Overcome. Needless to say, Marta took the lead. The results were positively psychedelic, with the drunken, dizzy sway of the chorus crashing like waves across the room. Sun Down followed, with Tricky back in the mix now, it's staggering beat flowing seamlessly into When We Die. On record, it's a gently unfolding chanson, featuring the triumphant return of Martina over its filmic drift. Live, it was a guitar-crunching epic, with Tricky drawing the full power of his punk-singjay vocals.
Then, the mother of all basslines starts rolling across the stage, and a drastically reworked version of Vent is upon us. Tricky's going crazy, the music's flowing through him at this point. Just like when it kicks off Pre-Millennium Tension, heard by me for the first time all those years ago, everything feels wrong. She's the one, makes me feel these ways. Sheer paranoia creeping in from every angle, unstable drums threatening to collapse beneath the track even as they propel it forward like a lurching soldier. She hides my Ventolin. It all cuts out for a moment before the band wheels it back again for the climax one last time. That bassline rolls on...
Then, it's all over. Like a true gentleman, Tricky thanks the crowd before retiring backstage for good. Everyone seems somewhat stunned, clearly blown away by what they've just taken part in. I weave through the crowd, through the anteroom and out the front door (where the doorman is asking if anyone has seen Korben Dallas), down India Street past American Plaza Station, slowly making my way back to the car. In the crisp night air, I can hear an echo of every spin I've given Tricky's records from day one right up to this morning. There's a lifetime in there...
At the flipside of darkside hip hop's ragged breakbeat architecture lies the elegant beat matrix of electro. Simon Reynolds once opined that electro was to rave what the blues were to rock 'n roll, and Kodwo Eshun famously quipped that Kraftwerk were Detroit's Mississippi Delta. In other words, it all started with Kraftwerk. Their influence stretches outward to touch on everything from techno and electro to post punk and synth pop, from electrofunk and hip hop to rave and r&b; it's all been subject to the influence of this besuited bunch from Düsseldorf.
After four records of hard, abstract space music (one of which was released under the name Organisation), Kraftwerk perfected their sound with the sprawling 22 minute opus Autobahn, taking up a whole side of their 1974 album of the same name. With its gently pulsing electroid groove sprawling out beneath an idyllic Beach Boys-inspired melody, it was a turning point in pop music's trajectory so profound that it took a number of years before its repercussions were truly felt.
With fellow travellers like Cluster and Heldon also developing a sequenced electronic music of their own, Kraftwerk delivered Radio-Activity a year later. Featuring a darker, more austere mood that seemed to predict the prevailing tendencies of post punk's coming dalliances with electro, it seemed to fuse the pop developments of Autobahn with their earlier experimental LPs. By this point, British visionaries like David Bowie and Brian Eno were sitting up and taking notice, and Kraftwerk refined their sound further with Trans-Europe Express. A timely fusion of electronic rhythms backing the spare German vocals, with melody carved out entirely with synthesizers, it was arguably the first synth pop record through and through. Unsurprisingly, Trans-Europe Express would ultimately have a seismic impact on the future of music.
Across the North Sea in the U.K. — in apparent synchronicity — a brace of 7" singles arose in 1978 that picked up where the Germans had left off. Daniel Miller aka The Normal released the T.V.O.D. on his own Mute Records imprint. A pulsing electro-punk shimmy, it also featured a J.G. Ballard-inspired slab of noise called Warm Leatherette. This was the track that proved to have the greatest impact, with its proto-electro rhythm setting the template for Britain's grimy take on post punk synth pop.
Despite the fact that he'd originally envisioned Mute as an outlet for just the one single, Daniel Miller received demo tapes from all over the country and — impressed with what he heard — he decided to release some of them. Records by NON and Fad Gadget followed, with Fad Gadget's awesome Back To Nature and Fireside Favorites standing as awesome slabs of apocalyptic post punk synth pop.1 Most famously, Mute would became the long term home of synth pop superstars Depeche Mode starting with 1981's Dreaming Of Me.
The Human League, that other bunch of synth pop superstars, got their start on Bob Last's Fast Product imprint with the second of the 1978 U.K. stone tablets, the Being Boiled. A buzzing micro-masterpiece of dark proto-electro, this was miles away (and an entirely different group) from The Human League that ruled the pop charts in 1981 with Dare!. This was pure post punk music, albeit with a ruthless pop edge. The group further developed this sound across two LPs (Reproduction and Travelogue, their masterpiece) and a handful of seven inches before the original crew split in 1980.
Two Scottish figures — Thomas Leer and Robert Rental — were responsible for two of the other great 1978 stone tablets, Private Plane and Paralysis, respectively. The homespun other to these other groups' uncompromisingly bleak futurism, Private Plane was a motorik nocturnal journey through innerspace recorded softly under the covers so as not to wake his girlfriend. Paralysis was even more of an outlier, with a droning guitar sound warped by wah-pedal. Both records have heavy kosmische overtones, very much indebted to the murky visions of krautrock. The duo collaborated on a stunning album in 1979 called The Bridge, which was released on Throbbing Gristle's Industrial imprint.
Throbbing Gristle themselves are responsible for the fifth of the U.K. stone tablets, with 1978's United. The a-side was a loosely-organized bit of synth almost-pop, with electroshock beats and analogue textures, while the flipside featured Zyklon B Zombie, in which a menacing synth sequence unfurled beneath the sort of noise-infested soundscape that would become their trademark. Their 1979 album 20 Jazz Funk Greats also featured Hot On The Heels Of Love, which was pure proto-techno from its pumping 4/4 beat and cycling electronic bassline on down to its claustrophobic synth figures and snapping drum fills.2 The duo of Chris & Cosey would splinter off from TG, indulging in further electronic hijinks as they explored proto-electro/techno with records like Trance and Technø Primitiv. As one might expect from their label's name, TG are considered one of the godfathers of industrial music.
The other being Cabaret Voltaire, who started out in the early seventies recording in an attic (check Methodology '74 / '78. Attic Tapes) before signing with Rough Trade and releasing the Extended Play EP (the sixth and final 1978 stone tablet). Featuring tunes like Do The Mussolini (Headkick) and The Setup, they were claustrophobic slabs of dubbed-out post punk in which ticking rhythm boxes spooled out beneath skanking bass and guitar, processed until it sounded unreal. A trio of LPs followed in a similar vein (Mix-Up, The Voice Of America and Red Mecca), featuring ragged, dessicated soundscapes that seemed to be crushed paper thin beneath the weight of their paranoia.
Starting with the 2x45 mini-album, they wired the sound up to the machines in a fusion of their earlier atmospheric sides and the increasingly dancefloor-oriented electronic music to follow. The centerpiece is undoubtedly Yashar, a searing mini-epic built from synth arabesques, pounding percussion and a sample from The Outer Limits. It's one of those tracks that seems to exist in a loose continuum with My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, an utterly artificial music seemingly composed by fictional tribes.3 At this point, the group mutated into a duo with The Crackdown, which laid the blueprint for the whole EBM (electronic body music) strain of industrial music later made explicit by Front 242.
There's definite cyberpunk vibes running through the the entirety group's output, with 1984's Micro-Phonies expanding on The Crackdown's innovations to cement their new sound and standing as the proto-typical industrial record. Tangentially, it was Psyche's Crackdown that pointed me to the group in the first place. Come to think of it, BFC's Galaxy was what hooked me up with Liaisons Dangereuses — via a sample of Peut Être... Pas' machine rhythms — so double thanks to Carl Craig. Liaisons Dangereuses' lone (self-titled) LP is a stone classic of early industrial music, featuring the stark proto-techno of Los Niños Del Parque alongside Peut Être... Pas' stunning electro pulse.
German duo Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft (who consequently were licensed in the U.K. by Mute) had a trajectory comparable to Cabaret Voltaire, starting out with a straight up post punk, sound collage vein with records like Produkt Der Deutsch-Amerikanischen Freundschaft and Die Kleinen Und Die Bösen before reinventing themselves as a state-of-the-art hard-edged dance outfit with Alles Ist Gut, and over the course of a trilogy of albums (rounded out by Gold Und Liebe and Für Immer), throughout which they explored a bruising — but nevertheless pop-inflected — sound that did as much as anyone to lay the blueprint for EBM.
As mentioned earlier, Front 242 were the standard bearers of EBM (even coining the term Electronic Body Music4 in the first place), along with the next generation of industrial outfits like Severed Heads, Ministry and Nitzer Ebb. Records like Head Hunter, Dead Eyes Opened, Everyday Is Halloween and Join In The Chant played like calls to arms, which were answered by figures like Skinny Puppy, Front Line Assembly and most famously Nine Inch Nails, who came to define industrial in the popular consciousness over the course of the 90s with records like Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral.
Interestingly enough, many of the highest-selling industrial acts turned out to be American (and Canadian), but then the States had their own progenitor of the form in San Francisco's Chrome. Led by Damon Edge, the band started out on their 1976 debut The Visitation essaying a sound triangulated somewhere between the acid rock of Jefferson Airplane, Santana's winding rhythmic pulse and — in another strange bit of synchronicity (as neither had yet released a record) — post punk-era Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle. Guitarist Helios Creed after The Visitation, bringing a visionary x-factor to the group as they set about releasing increasingly machine-inflected records like Alien Soundtracks, Half Machine Lip Moves and 3rd From The Sun, recklessly negotiating the territory between The Sex Pistols, Kraftwerk and biker rock.
Another San Francisco group that was something of an artier, gentler flipside to Chrome's scorching blast was the inimitable Tuxedomoon. Their debut 7" happened to coincide with the six British stone tablets released in 1978, featuring the chaotic blast of No Tears, a menacing slab of electro-punk that rivals the heights of The Normal's Warm Leatherette. Over the course of albums like Half-Mute and Desire the band grew increasingly arty, melding the very European atmosphere of cabaret with a proto-electro pulse. Rather appropriately, Tuxedomoon ultimately relocated to Europe, where there sensibilities were more in sync with the prevailing atmosphere.
It's worth noting that in 1978 Kraftwerk managed to further refine their sound with the elegant The Man-Machine, managing to stay ahead of the pack with elegant machine music like The Model (a track that never stops sounding like the future), The Robots and the title track. Perhaps more surprisingly, there were shades of Giorgio Moroder's electronic disco in the tracks like Spacelab and Metropolis. Of course, Moroder's production for Donna Summer's I Feel Love — way back in 1977 — was one of the key developments in an electronic form of dance music, and his own records like From Here To Eternity and E=MC² further explored the possibilities of sequencer-driven dance music. Interesting to hear Kraftwerk reflecting this sound back in their own particular way.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Yellow Magic Orchestra were making waves with their debut LP, featuring the proto-electro masterpiece Computer Games/Firecracker. Much like Kraftwerk, their influence spread further than one might have expected, with the group even performing on Soul Train! And if Kraftwerk dabbled in digital disco, then YMO reveled in it, with 1979's Solid State Survivor opening with the one-two punch of Technopolis and Absolute Ego Dance. There was even a new wave-inflected cover version of The Beatles' Day Tripper!
Interestingly, YMO were something of a supergroup, with Haruomi Hosono and Ryuichi Sakamoto involved in innovative solo careers before, during and after their group's protracted reign. Hosono plied a sort of electro-tinged exotica — pre-dating the likes of Arto Lindsay and Beck Hansen by a couple decades, but also indulged in more straightforwardly electronic excursions like Paraiso and Cochin Moon.
Ryuichi Sakamoto created an electronic paradise of his own on 1978's Thousand Knives Of Ryuichi Sakamoto, before returning with the more austere (and post punk aligned, featuring figures like Dennis Bovell and XTC's Andy Partridge) B-2 Unit. The centerpiece was undoubtedly Riot In Lagos, an unbelievably loose slice of proto-electro that practically glows with futurism. Along with YMO's output, it seems to have set the stage for the later weird sonic adventures of figures like Ken Ishii, Rei Harakami and Susumu Yokota, in much the same way that the first wave of British electronic musicians set the tone for large swathes of music to come in the wake of the Second Summer Of Love.
The first — and most obvious — example is bleep 'n bass, the first indigenously developed form of post-rave dance music produced in the U.K. Emerging from the industrial city of Sheffield (from whence Cabaret Voltaire sprung over a decade earlier) in late 1988, bleep 'n bass was the interface between techno/acid house and what would become ardkore. Perhaps it was the first genre invented with the rave in mind? Unique 3 seemed to have invented the sound from scratch with The Theme, a strikingly minimal tune built on little more than a brittle drum machine rhythm, spectral synths and a tattoo of seemingly random bleeps.
A deluge of records soon followed, records like the Forgemasters' Track With No Name and Ital Rockers' Ital's Anthem, while even Sheffield godfathers Cabaret Voltaire reinvented (and reinvigorated) themselves as Sweet Exorcist with records like Testone and Clonk. Interestingly, some of Cabaret Voltaire subsequent records like The Conversation (released on R&S ambient subsidiary Apollo) seemed to connect their earlier Red Mecca-era material with the modern wave of electronica (which is actually where I started with them in the first place).
The spiritual home of bleep 'n bass was the mighty Warp Records, who started out releasing records by the Forgemasters and Sweet Exorcist long before they became one of the biggest electronic labels on the planet. They also were the home of two groups that started out in bleep 'n bass only to go on to have long careers in drastically different directions. The first was Nightmares On Wax, who put out crucial early bleep records like Dextrous and Aftermath before unleashing the incredible A Word Of Science: The 1st & Final Chapter album on the world. Splitting the difference between bleep techno numbers like Biofeedback and the proto trip hop of Nights Interlude, it caught NOW at a transitional phase before moving into straight up downtempo adventures with Smoker's Delight.
LFO, meanwhile, provided early bleep classics like LFO and Track 4 before rewriting the blueprint for British techno with Frequencies. Maintaining a sense of Kraftwerk-esque elegance throughout, it was an absolute classic that had a strong electro pulse to its rhythms. They followed it with the more abrasive Advance, a notoriously difficult follow up, before splitting to pursue solo projects like Clark and Gez Varley. In whatever form they chose, LFO remained one of the stalwart figures in British techno's development.
Another figure entwined in this story is Andrew Weatherall, whose Two Lone Swordsmen partnership with Keith Tenniswood produced increasingly electroid output before ultimately dabbling in post punk outright. Even the earlier twisted dub/funk/trip hop of The Sabres Of Paradise's Haunted Dancehall had already hinted in this general direction, but records like Bag Of Blue Sparks, Stay Down and Tiny Reminders found the duo carving out a unique strain of electro that seemed to be filtered through a dubbed-out, post punk prism. Their Rotters Golf Club label was a playground for post-electro madness, featuring myriad aliases including Tenniswood's Radioactive Man project, which unleashed the awesome 2-step electro fusion of Uranium.
There was plenty of techno from the era that seemed to have a fair bit of electro in their DNA, even if you wouldn't necessarily peg them as such. Minimal icon Surgeon, whose rhythms — especially at their most delicate — often seemed to have strong electro inflections, is one example that springs to mind, while Austrian techno provocateur Patrick Pulsinger always had a corroded electro flavor to his output (especially on the series of Dogmatic Sequences EPs). This during an era when a lot of erstwhile techno figures were dabbling in electro, bringing their own unique strengths to bear on a brace of records that weren't merely retreads, but very much their own animal. Jamie Bissmire — of fellow travelers Bandulu — collaborated with Ben Long on the Space DJz project, with records like On Manoeuvres In Uncharted Territories (featuring the awesome Celestial Funk) and On Patrol! dancing across the thin dividing line between hard techno and electro.
Meanwhile, Ian Loveday (aka ardkore nemesis Eon) also got down and dirty with some killer electro as Sem on D.C. Recordings. This was all exemplified by D.C. label head honcho Jon Saul Kane, whose output as The Octagon Man mutated electro into ever more twisted shapes, seemingly becoming more sick with every release (just check the development between The Demented Spirit and Itô Calculus). I remember picking up the Vidd 12" when it came out5 and being utterly overwhelmed by that dismal wall-of-synth sound,6 just utterly pulverizing and depressing.
If The Octagon Man gestured toward the sick sound of 80s synthesizer music (as essayed by The Minimal Wave Tapes), then I-f essentially brought it back to life with their epochal Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass. Built on a dead-eyed bassline, ear-shattering synth strings and vocodorized chorus, it is essentially ground zero of what would come to be called electroclash. Put loosely, this was a post-electro revival music that added a healthy dose of synth pop to the equation, offering up a more European take on the sound (emerging in 1998, this was arguably the first wave of the post punk revival). Figures like The Parallax Corporation mixed this sensibility with a pummeling take on techno, while Anthony Rother had his own little electro empire (and even a should-have-been pop hit with Little Computer People).
DJ Hell, whose output had carried traces of electro from day one (even turning in a cover version of No More's Suicide Commando), did as much as anyone to bring electroclash crashing into the mainstream with his International Deejay Gigolo imprint. This was mirrored by ambient heroes Global Communication significant dalliances with electro (after all, they tried their hand at nearly every other form from drum 'n bass to industrial and deep house) as the Jedi Knights. On the surface, their 1996 LP New School Science might have seemed like a purely nostalgic endeavor, but dig a little deeper and you'll find wholly unique tunes like Dances Of The Naughty Knights and Solina (The Ascension) that sound like nothing from the classic electro canon (or outside it, even).
Of course the entire IDM project could be read as an abstract take on post-electro music. The Black Dog — who had their fair share of breakbeats — nevertheless seemed to center on a sort of skewed electro mysticism, while Plaid — who ultimately split off from BDP — were only more so aligned with electro and post-hip hop blues (even working with vocalists like Björk and Nicolette). Similarly, behind all the abstraction an experimental mainstay like Autechre were nevertheless firmly in thrall to electro and hip hop. One could even read them as a yet more abstract update on Mantronix.
Ditto Aphex Twin, with records like Analogue Bubblebath, Polygon Window and even large swathes of Selected Ambient Works 85-92 seemingly built on a chassis of pure electro. Even a second-generation outfit like Boards Of Canada, with all their attendant drifting hauntological textures, rode cutting electro beats (albeit at a downtempo pace). In retrospect, it's no wonder that they connected with the abstract hip hop heads. Of course it all came full circle with Radiohead's Kid A, which was supposedly inspired by an in-depth trawl through the entire Warp back catalogue. A tune like Idioteque is certainly indebted to the continuum of dark, post punk electro stretching back to figures like The Normal and Thomas Leer.
If there's one figure that seems to make sense of all this, tying the wild-eyed abstraction of IDM back to the street sounds of electro then it must be Andrea Parker. Starting out with a series of dark electronic records — a sound that she termed uneasy listening — that were perhaps too singular to fit in with the prevailing trends of the time, she also found herself on Apollo working with frequent collaborator David Morley as Two Sandwiches Short Of A Lunchbox. Too Good To Be Strange was a subtle masterpiece of elegant electro, which in a strange turn of events even features during the nightclub scene in Vanilla Sky. As the 90s progressed, Parker ultimately hooked up with Mo Wax for the excellent Kiss My Arp, a masterful collection of dark torch songs and experimental electro that took in elements ranging from musique concrète to analogue electronics, dirty trip hop breaks and even a chamber string section. After such dizzying heights, she got back to basics with the Touchin' Bass (formed with Detroit's very own DJ Godfather), bringing it all back home, so to speak.
Home in this case being the prototypical electro as laid down by Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force on Planet Rock way back in 1982. Produced by Arthur Baker and John Robie, it was built on a structure of re-purposed (and re-played) bits of Kraftwerk: the eerie synth progression from Trans-Europe Express and the drum machine beat from Numbers. Planet Rock launched Tommy Boy into the stratosphere, with the label becoming indelibly associated with electro's rise. This was further solidified with Bambaataa's follow up records like Looking For The Perfect Beat and Renegades Of Funk, along with figures like Planet Patrol and The Jonzun Crew.
Of course, being the forward-thinking Teutonic gentlemen that they happen to be, Kraftwerk had laid out the blueprint a whole year earlier with Computer World. As mentioned in passing before, Numbers provided electro's most durable rhythm matrix, while It's More Fun To Compute sounded like the sort of hall-of-mirrors electro the the rest of the world wouldn't catch up to until the late 90s; and no less a stadium-filling proposition than Coldplay saw fit to mimic the central synth motif from Computer Love.
Kraftwerk continued this development with their momentous Tour De France record, which was produced by François Kevorkian (who also remixed The Telephone Call from their 1986 swan song — for awhile, at least — Electric Cafe). Fellow krautrocker Manuel Göttsching contributed the awesome E2-E4 around this time as well, unfurling sequenced synths and his trademark guitar architecture over a gently shuffling electro rhythm that ran for just under an hour.
Swiss duo Yello also cut an uncompromising path through the 80s pop landscape with strange new wave-inflected post-disco records like Bostich, Desire and (most famously) Oh Yeah. Their sound was unlike anyone else around: not quite synth pop, not quite post punk and certainly not straightforward dance music, it was a fantastically warped sound — not without a sense of humor — that nevertheless maintained a killer pop edge. They even messed around with big band and Latin jazz on records like The Race and La Habanera.
Of course there had always been a particular strain of jazz with a weird detente with jazz, which culminated in the whole tech jazz trip as essayed by figures like Kirk Degiorgio and Innerzone Orchestra. Dating back to the 70s with records like Herbie Hancock's Sextant and Les McCann's Layers, it was the crucial ingredient of electronic rhythm that puts it in league with electro of the day.
Herbie Hancock's Future Shock trilogy foregrounded hard electro beats and rude synthesizers, even featuring Grand Mixer D.St. cutting it up on the decks. All of this shouldn't be surprising given Hancock's seminal influence on electronic jazz (see Nobu and Rain Dance) and continued endorsement of the form (2001's Future 2 Future, featuring collaborations with Carl Craig and A Guy Called Gerald), but it also managed to creep up in the most unexpected places.
For one such example, take a listen to Cat Stevens' Was Dog A Doughnut?, an impossibly early (1977) slab of jazz funk. Essentially a Chick Corea vehicle, it wove Fender Rhodes organ, ARP strings, zany electronic keyboards and a barking dog(!) together with a stop-start electronic rhythm in a gently psychedelic — think Shuggie Otis — cocktail that got swept up in electro's putative development (even getting covered by Jellybean Benitez).
I've often thought that you can hear the legacy of Was Dog A Doughnut? in certain corners of Man Parrish's output: things like Hip Hop, Be Bop (Don't Stop) (Special Disconet Remix), Six Simple Synthesizers and Together Again. His self-titled 1982 album is certainly a good example of electro stretching out into varied territory (Heatstroke is practically a hi-nrg song!). His productions are also well worth looking into, for instance C.O.D.'s The Bottle, which showcases that same slinky electro sound (as opposed to the often rigid beats of synth pop and electro) evidenced by Hip Hop, Be Bop.
Of course, by 1982 electro was everywhere. Even Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five had an electro classic in Scorpio, while Message II (Survival) seemed to build it all out into fresh territory. Reigning primarily between the years 1982-1984, the original wave of electro encompassed figures from all over that musical map: from the relatively straightforward electro of Twilight 22 and Knights Of The Turntables to the r&b-inflected singles of Aleem (often in conjunction soul man Leroy Burgess) and Newcleus' electronic funk.
During this period, Cutting Records put out some of the most durable, timeless electro. Records like Hashim's Al-Naafiysh (The Soul) and Imperial Brothers' We Come To Rock traded in a stark minimalism later favored by figures like Drexciya and Aux 88, often featuring killer dub versions on the b-side. One of the finest examples is actually from outside the '82-'84 timeframe, on Hashim's 1986 slap-bass odyssey, Primrose Path. I know I've gone on about this record many times before, but it's one of the key records in this whole Terminal Vibration saga, in the electro stakes rivalled only by the output of Juan Atkins.
Operating out of Detroit, Michigan, Atkins started out making electronic music on his own, trying to recreate the sound of a UFO landing in his backyard, before hooking up with Rick Davis to form Cybotron. Releasing Alleys of Your Mind in 1982 (nearly concurrently with Planet Rock), they followed swiftly with records like Cosmic Cars and Clear. All of this activity culminated in the album Enter, which — though perhaps uneven — featured further innovations in the brittle electro elegance of Cosmic Raindance, whose textures seemed to predict both Drexciya and Red Planet at their most progressive.
In fact, the duo seemed to shear off from electro around this point, with Techno City rather appropriately heralding the arrival of the new form. Juan Atkins went solo at this point, launching his own Metroplex imprint to release records like No UFO's and Night Drive as Model 500. Songs like Future and Night Drive (Thru-Babylon) were stunning, psychedelic elaborations on electro, No UFO's stands as probably the first fully-formed techno record. Nevertheless, Atkins maintained an affinity with electro throughout his career, even revisiting it from time to time (such as on the Channel One's Technicolor, which was famously the basis for Sir Mix-A-Lot's Baby Got Back).
Magic Juan is the primary conduit into Detroit's substantial electro (alternately termed techno bass, electro/techno or ghetto tech) subculture, which — within the city limits — is arguably even stronger than techno's. Drexciya probably had the greatest following amongst techno heads, with an impenetrable, mysterious vibe — much like Red Planet's — that hinted at a vast aquatic mythology. Records like Deep Sea Dweller and Bubble Metropolis were genre-defining third wave electro, with rushing drum machine sequences that played like Kraftwerk rebuilt as a Detroit street racer.
Drexciya's early output was masterfully collected on 1997's two-disc compilation The Quest by Submerge, and then given the box set treatment a few years ago by Clone with the four-disc Journey Of The Deep Sea Dweller box set. Drexciya — , who turned out to be the duo of Gerald Donald and James Stinson — grew increasingly abstract as the decade wore on, culminating in their return with Neptune's Lair.
The duo also released solo side projects with names like Elecktroids, Japanese Telecom, Transllusion and — most notably for today's purposes — Dopplereffekt. A partnership between Gerald Donald, Micheala Bertel, William Scott and Kim Karli, Dopplereffekt specialized in a retro style of electro that harked back to the days of Kraftwerk. Tunes like Speak & Spell, Sterilization and Denki No Zuno blurred the lines between electro and electropop, prefiguring the likes of ADULT. by a good five years.
Another key axis in Detroit's electro story was the Direct Beat imprint, set up by Octave One head honcho Lawrence Burden as an outlet for Aux 88 and a loose collective of surrounding artists like (sometime Aux 88 member) Keith Tucker, Microknox, X-ile and Will Web. Spanning 58 releases, Direct Beat's output focused on a strain of fast-forward, down-and-dirty electro personified by Aux 88's no frills approach.
However, my favorite Aux moment actually exists outside of the Direct Beat catalog: their awesome Take Control remix of Underground ResistanceElectronic Warfare offered up a naggingly simple (and quite memorable) take on old school electro dynamics. Interestingly, it originated on a remix 12" for UR's Electronic Warfare double-pack, which also featured a remix by Drexciya.
At the most street-level end of Detroit electro — even moreso than Direct Beat — lies ghetto tech stalwart DJ Assault, who essayed the sound on his Straight Up Detroit Shit mix series before unexpectedly breaking through to the mainstream. Along with Mr. De', he was one of the point men for Detroit's Electrofunk records. Another memorable figure was the idiosyncratic auteur Aaron-Carl, who straddled the line between electro and deep house, making waves with his ubiquitous Down, a seductively stunning bit of machine soul.
DJ Godfather's Twilight 76 label was another key outpost of Detroit electro, which essayed some of the grittier precincts of the city's electro. Importantly, the label also connected out into the wider world with other strains post-electro street beats like Chicago's jerk music (with figures like DJ Rashad and DJ Deeon both recording for the label). Similar to a strain of club music to arise in Baltimore during the 90s that fused electro rhythms with speeded-up breakbeats, with figures like Frank Ski, Jimmy Jones and K-Swift (whose Ryder Girl was a genuine phenomenon7) defining the sound. Rewinding even further back, Miami had its own form of bass music with figures ranging from Dynamix II to Duice, holding down the fort for the electro faithful during the form's lowest ebb.
Yet of all the places where electro's germ spread, the repercussions of its journey to the West Coast seemed to stretch it the furthest. The Egyptian Lover was one of the true originals out in L.A., with records like Egypt, Egypt and My Beat Goes Boom culminating in the On The Nile LP, alongside figures like The Arabian Prince and The Unknown DJ who unleashed their own succession of killer 12" singles. Then of course there was the World Class Wreckin' Cru, featuring Dr. Dre's earliest productions on wax, the highlight of which is the awesome Surgery (speaking of which: Dre, Lonzo said to work on that slow jam!).
The underlying principle with the development of a distinct strain of West Coast hip hop is that it all seems to spring from electro's initial reign back when figures like Uncle Jamm's Army and Ronnie Hudson & The Street People held sway. Even hip hop giants like Ice-T started out making electro, while all sorts of electro renegades wound up in the first wave of L.A. rap groups: The Unknown DJ in Compton's Most Wanted, while Dr. Dre, Ice Cube (formerly of Stereo Crew and C.I.A.) and The Arabian Prince in N.W.A. (who quietly snuck in electro moments like Panic Zone and Something 2 Dance 2 amongst all the hardcore hip hop). Also noteworthy is The Arabian Prince's solo turn after leaving N.W.A., Brother Arab, which split the difference between electro's uptempo rhythm matrix and the burgeoning breakbeat-driven sound of 1989 hip hop.
Moving up north to Bay Area figures ranging from Too $hort to Ant Banks and E-40 to JT The Bigga Figga (damn near the lot of them, actually), it's clear that they were equally shaped by the sounds of electrofunk. Just look at records like E-40's In A Major Way and Mac Mall's Illegal Business?. In that sense, even mega-selling albums like Dr. Dre's The Chronic, Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle and DJ Quik's Quik Is The Name can all be sourced back into electro and its boogiefied cousin, electrofunk.
Birthed by George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic machine, particularly on records like Funkentelechy vs. The Placebo Syndrome and Uncle Jam Wants You, the crucial ingredient being Bernie Worrell's synth sound taking center stage alongside Bootsy Colins' throbbing bass, electrofunk brought a cartoonish futurism to funk just in time for the dawn of the eighties. This streamlining of funk's groove around electronic elements was picked up on by Roger Troutman's Zapp, whose 1980 debut (and subsequent records) defined the electrofunk sound, laying the groundwork for funk and disco's transformation into what would come to be called boogie.
Just compare Cameo and The Gap Band's records from before and after Zapp's 1980 debut, with the peak-era disco sounds of Rigor Mortis and Shake giving way to She's Strange and You Dropped A Bomb On Me. Ditto figures like Kleeer and Mtume... it was quite simply everywhere, from George Clinton's Atomic Dog to D-Train and Jam & Lewis' electronic productions and even Prince's Erotic City, which was nothing if not his take on electro in the vein of Laidback's White Horse.
Across the country on the East Coast, Mantronix offered up the definitive take on electronic hip hop with records like Bassline, Needle To The Groove and Scream, a sound that would come back to currency as the 90s drew to a close, before moving into increasingly dance-oriented, r&b-inflected sides. This coincided with the development of freestyle music, just as the contemporary output of Cutting Records began shearing into similar territory with records like Sa-Fire's Let Me Be The One, Corina's Out Of Control and Tolga's Lovin' Fool.
Freestyle was essentially the sound of Planet Rock getting down in The Bronx. This sound was a big influence on New Order circa Confusion (which was produced by none other than Arthur Baker), while Jellybean Benitez took its vibe into the mainstream with his early productions for Madonna, which had a profound shaping influence on her sound. See also Company B. At any rate, if you're looking to investigate the roots of r&b's tendencies toward futurism, you could do a lot worse than to look into freestyle.
Which of course leads us into the quintessential chrome-plated r&b purveyors Timbaland and The Neptunes, who reinvigorated the form in the latter half of the 90s onward by infusing their music with elements of nearly everything discussed today. This at a time when, as mentioned earlier, the electronic rap of Mantronix seemed to return with a vengeance in the beats of dirty south producers like Mannie Fresh and Organized Noise (with Outkast and Cash Money in full swing). In fact, this all begins to lead so patly into what will be the final episode of Terminal Vibration that I'm gonna step back for a moment before we get into figures like SA-RA, Dâm-Funk and J Dilla. With a brief stop on the horizon in the penultimate episode of Terminal Vibration (which takes place in the proverbial elevator where Kraftwerk got down with George Clinton), I will see you all next time...
Terminal Vibration 8: Modern Funk Beats
The Human LeagueBeing Boiled (Fast)
Ryuichi SakamotoRiot In Lagos (Alfa)
HashimAl-Naafiysh (The Soul) (Cutting)
KraftwerkIt's More Fun To Compute (Kling Klang)
I-fSpace Invaders Are Smoking Grass (Disko B)
Space DJzCelestial Funk (Infonet)
The Egyptian LoverMy House (On The Nile) (Egyptian Empire)
Underground ResistanceElectronic Warfare (Take Control Mix by Aux 88) (UR)
Little Computer PeopleLittle Computer People (Psi49net)
Liaisons DangereusesPeut Être... Pas (TIS)
Unique 3The Theme (Original Chill Mix) (10)
Radioactive ManUranium (Rotters Golf Club)
Model 500Night Drive (Thru-Babylon) (Metroplex)
DopplereffektInfophysix (International Deejay Gigolo)
DrexciyaRunning Out Of Space (Tresor)
World Class Wreckin' CruSurgery (Kru-Cut)
CameoShe's Strange (Atlanta Artists)
Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic ForceLooking For The Perfect Beat (Tommy Boy)
And also standing in for the hordes of bedroom synth iconoclasts essayed on the Minimal Wave compilations, artists like Oppenheimer Analysis and Bene Gesserit, figures that were largely unsung in their day but nevertheless put out some incredible music.
The record also opened with the dead-eyed drunken sway of Exotica, featuring the group's trademark detuned horns and dreary synths cascading over a laidback downtempo electro rhythm. It's another highlight that sounds like something that could have come out on Patrick Pulsinger's Cheap imprint.
I remember being quite confused when I first heard the term EDM as a genre, which I at first misheard as EBM. Were kids suddenly checking Front 242? Not the case! (Although it certainly sounded like Kanye had been circa Yeezus).
Kane turned in a great volume of the Electro Boogie series around the same time, which was released under the Depth Charge banner but was firmly grounded in twisted, mutant electro. I always thought it was strange that it wasn't credited to The Octagon Man, although it may have been down to the greater name recognition that the Depth Charge brought with it. After all, I suppose it was his primary identity.
Much like — as I never tire of pointing out lately — those blaring titanic synths in Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch's score to Blade Runner 2049. My Bloody Valentine recreated with synths, etc. etc. etc.
I caught The Afghan Whigs live at the North Park Observatory last night with my main man Gryphon. They were opening for indie rock stalwarts Built To Spill, whose output I'd always meant to explore but hadn't yet gotten around to. Jim assured me that they were a crucial influence on countless indie bands to come in their wake, bands like Modest Mouse and Death Cab For Cutie. My limited knowledge of the group included a handful of the titles for their nineties records and the fact that they were often (perhaps lazily?) compared to Neil Young. So this was my chance to finally hear them.
The Whigs and I go way back though. I was in high school when I first heard Somethin' Hot, a tight little slab of throbbing rock 'n roll wired to a slinky, serpentine groove. It seemed to make sense in the wake of records like Primal Scream's Vanishing Point and U2's Pop (especially tunes like If They Move, Kill 'Em and Do You Feel Loved), records that spiked rock with a healthy dose of dancefloor dynamics. From there, I slowly worked my way back through their catalog in reverse chronological order, as it turned out. Of course, they broke up before I got a chance to see them live...
Their swan song (at the time) was 1965, which featured Somethin' Hot as both the opening track and lead single, a record that had a profound impact on me. To this day, it's probably my favorite album of theirs (although Black Love certainly gives it a run for its money). Tunes like City Soleil, Omerta and John The Baptist in particular, epitomize what made them so unique, with rich, cinematic production flourishes (horn charts, radio chatter, Spanish guitar, etc.), winding, full-bodied grooves and a blinding, white hot intensity. They were simply unlike anything else at the time. Their avowed love of soul music played a crucial role in their sound as well, with an incredible cover of The Supremes' Come See About Me and a gloriously drunken cover of TLC's Creep tucked away on various b-sides and EPs.
At least where I was coming from, they seemed to connect with the shadow self, that dark fuel that keeps you going when the chips are down. A dirty energy perhaps, but bury it at your peril. The Sneaker Pimps keyed into a similar frequency circa Splinter (another personal touchstone of mine from the era). The Whigs' sound was often a play of tension and paranoia, echoing the taut, wiry energy of post punk in a way few others were doing at the time, setting them apart from the landscape of 90s alternative rock. While maintaining a devoted following and consistently wowing the critics, they never really crossed over with that song, and it seemed as if they were destined to remain out of step with the times, doing their own thing (until they stopped doing it).
Imagine my surprise when they went and reunited fifteen years later, releasing a new record in 2014. Even more surprising was that it was a great record! Do The Beast is a worthy successor to the path laid out by 1965, Black Love, Gentlemen and Congregation, featuring new favorites like Matamoros and Algiers that update their sound in an era that — after fifteen years of post punk priming — their sound seems strangely enough more at home than it ever did back in the day.
Then, they did it again with last year's In Spades. It's rather rare for band's to come back this focused, but there you have it. As one might expect, with the new records came a new tour. I missed them last time they came to town due to circumstances beyond my control, but this time I wasn't gonna let the opportunity pass by. So Wednesday came and Gryphon and I found ourselves below the stage at The Observatory, waiting for the show to begin.
The Whigs hit the stage more or less on time with little fanfare and kicked into one of the new songs, Arabian Heights. They were tighter than I was expecting, losing none of their old intensity as the band unleashed a taut stream of focused energy conducted across furious breakbeats. It's so rare to hear a band you love actually improve with age. Greg Dulli's vocals in particular are far sharper than they often used to be on record.
Hearing Algiers live was a real treat. I remember being in total disbelief the first time I heard it on record (comparable to hearing Scott Walker's The Seventh Seal or Milton Nascimento & Lô Borges' Tudo Que Você Podia Ser for the first time), the gorgeous falsetto vocals, shimmering slide guitar and Be My Baby beats all swirling into a radiant crescendo. Great to hear Matamoros too (which, if you haven't seen it, has an excellent video), a tune with a focused intensity that sounds like something that should come from a band's debut, not tucked away on a reunion record thirty years later!
Thankfully, of the older moments that the band included was 1965's mini-epic John The Baptist, which made up for the loss of its considerable studio flourishes (backing vocals, strings and a horn section) with a diamond-hard intensity, really catching fire for the denouement. They also played Somethin' Hot, which brought it all full circle for me, back to when I first heard them as a 17 year old. Alongside what must be their best known song — Gentlemen's Debonair — these were the only songs from the band's original run to feature tonight.
The set actually leaned far more heavily on new material than I expected, but it was all the better for it. These new records aren't nostalgia trips but vital records in their own right, featuring a different group of musicians sporting a different chemistry, so why not focus on the material they'd worked up together? Besides, if they had played more of their older material, I doubt personal favorites like City Soleil, Faded and Honky's Ladder would have featured anyway! The band closed with the one-two punch of Light As A Feather and Into The Floor, and without warning it was all over...
About half-an-hour later Built To Spill took the stage. The first thing that shocked me about their sound was just how sprawlingly loose their sound was, on the order of the great 70s downbeat canyon funk jams like Wooden Ships, Bad Night At The Whiskey and Down By The River, smoldering with a ramshackle glory like some great galleon banking toward the heavens. As I said, I'd known about the inevitable Neil Young comparisons, and this tough little three piece really did get down like peak-era Crazy Horse, but I'd forgotten about Doug Martsch's status as an indie rock guitar hero (in the post-Dinosaur Jr. mold).
With the band laying down a cradle of swaying rhythm and Martsch working an array of pedals as he pulled great arcs of noise out of his guitar, it was hard to believe that such a swaying wall of sound was being conjured up by just three musicians. Martsch's vocals were phenomenal, complementing the music brilliantly in that quintessentially whiny (in the best possible sense) indie way (reminding me alternately of Eric Bachmann, Mac McCaughan and even Michael Stipe).
Unfortunately, as I'm not familiar with their records, I won't be much use to you as far as the specifics of the setlist. There was this one tune fairly early on that had a tremolo-laden surf guitar thing going on that was absolutely incredible. Real fantasy jam session stuff. Another highlight was a moving rendition of the Pretenders' immortal Back On The Chain Gang, which they rendered beautifully with a smeared post-Velvets drawl.
This morning, I checked the setlist on-line and set about figuring which tracks came from which albums, and they seem to have been pulled at a pretty even spread across their discography. With a definite desire to get familiar, I'm resolved to pick up records like Perfect From Now On, Keep It Like A Secret and There Is Nothing Wrong With Love, which happen to be the ones that I had been kinda-sorta aware of, along with their latest, Untethered Moon. All 'n all, it was an impressive show. Seeing a great band with such a rich history live (before I'd ever knowingly heard them) paired with one I'd grown up on was quite a dramatic experience. The Afghan Whigs and Built To Spill, live in San Diego at The Observatory... in a way, it was like taking a joyride to Algiers.
Ever since first launching into this whole Terminal Vibration trip, I've wanted to touch down with ISDN. It's a strange, twisted record that seems to criss-cross the TV saga at so many points of intersection, with its off-kilter grooves clearly sourced in the warped avant funk of Episode V (What Time Is It?), the heavy atmospherics running parallel to the dubbed-out madness of Episode VI (Imperial Slates) and even its twisted beat matrix at a jagged interchange with the latest episode's (Edge Of No Control) descent into ragged abstract hip hop's shadowy precincts. Against all odds, at the midpoint of the 90s The Future Sound Of London — Brian Dougans and Gary Cobain — seemed to be channelling the ghosts of post punk past to augur bold new visions of the future.
In truth, it's not justISDN that merits discussion within the context of Terminal Vibration. I could talk about everything that led up to it's protracted gestation, from the duo's earliest pre-FSOL releases at the cusp of the 80s and 90s — records like Stakker Humanoid, Chile Of The Bass Generation and The Pulse EPs — to their to their debut album as The Future Sound Of London — 1991's Accelerator — a post-rave paradise of shimmering breakbeat techno that culminated in increasingly abstract records like Amorphous Androgynous's Tales Of Ephidrina and the sweeping sonic vistas of 1994's Lifeforms.
I could also talk about everything that came in ISDN's wake, from the dystopian sonic environments of Dead Cities, My Kingdom and the electroid, post-hip hop sonix of the We Have Explosive EP (featuring appearances from Leon Mar and Kurtis Mantronik) to their cosmic swansong with Papua New Guinea Translations and The Mello Hippo Disco Show, after which they shifted gears into prog-inflected psychedelia (a path they've continued to walk for nearly twenty years now).
However, this is the point of inflection upon which everything else hinges: ISDN is the moment when The Future Sound Of London turned their attention away from the lustrous sonic utopias of Cascade and Lifeforms to focus on the seedy underbelly of their self-authored world, apparently lurking beneath the surface all along, in the grimy backstreets and dingy dives deep within the city. If Accelerator and the Earthbeat compilation might have soundtracked some prequel to William Gibson's Neuromancer, back when Case was still living large and his skills in high demand, then ISDN is the sound of the console cowboy down and out in Chiba City. This is where the cold machinery creeps in to inject its steely ugliness into the duo's sound, and things would never be the same...
The year was 1994 and The Future Sound Of London were on top of the world. Flush from their contract with Virgin Records, who leapt to sign them in light of their ubiquitous dancefloor anthem Papua New Guinea, they'd managed to upgrade their studio from the lean-and-mean outpost where they cut their swathe of uncompromising 8-bit cyberpunk missives — released under names like Mental Cube, Smart Systems and Indo Tribe — to a state-of-the-art multimedia laboratory, decked out with video-editing capabilities featured prominently alongside the synths and sequencers.
They'd just unveiled their second FSOL full-length, Lifeforms, a sprawling double-album to critical acclaim and impressive sales. The remaining question (from the label and the public both) was, When is the tour? To which the duo replied Never! with glee. Rather, their plan was to document a series of performances in the studio, transmitting live to various radio stations and venues via the recently implemented ISDN protocol across high speed lines with a combination of sonic and visual imagery.
These performances culminated in today's album (or albums, as ISDN came in two editions, released in quick succession). The first was the limited edition, enclosed in a jet-black gatefold sleeve with a velcro clasp(!), while the second was the wide release version housed in a simple white sleeve. For the first 2/3 of their running time, both versions are largely similar, but they diverge significantly in the final stretch, featuring three tracks completely unique to each release. For today's purposes, I've chosen to focus on ISDN Black, since it's the version more explicitly tied to the Terminal Vibration phenomenon (although I'll touch on the White tracks along the way as well). And so it begins...
You're immediately dropped into the chaotic atmosphere of some crowded club, faceless and nameless, synths drifting aimlessly like a memory of the 1980s. Could you leave the lights alone please, exclaims an agitated voice, Stop flashing the fucking lights!Just A Fuckin' Idiot kicks into gear with a beat like puffs of dirty smoke and a release of hazy atmosphere into the room like something's just crept up behind you. Bleeps chirp on the beat as the sound of a whirring machine seems to rewind the beat every couple bars.
Along with a pervasive sense of claustrophobia, the sound of machinery and buzzing electronics is the great constant running through the heart of ISDN, giving it definite industrial vibes a million miles away from the bucolic, wide open spaces of Lifeforms. To top it all off, halfway into Idiot a spooked atmosphere overwhelms the room with an eerie synthetic choir crying out in a spectral falsetto somewhere between Morricone's OST vocals and the sound of a theremin.
Then a phone rings, with a shout (and without warning) and a boom sounding the sort of siren synth Vangelis unveiled on the Blade Runner OST, smearing across the soundscape in a great descending arc. A snatch of dialogue from Aliens intones, Alright, let's see what we can see. Everybody on-line, looking good. The heavy, unfunky beat of The Far Out Son Of Lung And The Ramblings Of A Madman drops in on a rolling, clipped loop (seemingly reloading from scratch every bar) while fake-sounding, detuned guitar stabs (sounding like something from a cheap, sample-playing keyboard circa 1990) punch into the mix at irregular intervals. Electric Miles Davis trumpets weave through the track like a serpent while outerspace/innerspace effects creep into every corner of the soundscape. It's a searing bad dream of a track, which was (perversely) the album's lone single.
Inevitably, it all dissolves into deep space sonix and the sounds of grinding machinery before releasing into the peaceful, gently rewinding atmosphere of Appendage. With synths pulsing beneath a gliding flute line and (what sound like) alien bird calls, it's a brief but welcome ambient respite after the intense opening gambit of Idiot and Madman. It lasts but for a moment, offering up a brief, lingering memory of Amorphous Androgynous' underwater calm before the tension comes back with a vengeance.
Slider cuts in without warning on a heavy slow-motion sci-fi big beat, rolling parallel to a flimsy metallic texture that echoes across the track, seeming to warp and bend in time to the rhythm. A grinding electronic loop sweeps in to take center stage, sounding like something wrenched from an old industrial record, before everything drops out to a wailing siren song and outer space noises soaring above it all like a drifting mirage. It's tracks like this that at the time had me thinking this was FSOL's trip hop album, with a warped vision of sleazy downbeat hip hop not so far removed from Depth Charge's contemporary output.
The beat changes up about 2/3 of the way through the track, slipping into an almost new jack swing robotic rhythm (albeit still played on that same ten ton drumkit), while sordid electronic squelches pulse into the darkness. This play of textures is even more so drawn from the trip hop playbook, leaving you wandering these sprawling catacombs in desperate search of a way out. At the last minute, it all drops out and you're unceremoniously jettisoned into a back alley interlude where a lonesome whistle duets with chirping cybernetic insects.
Then, the spaced-out sonix return once again, this time on a high tide on the sea of flesh, rolling in to bring you Smokin' Japanese Babe. A sultry slice of red light district downbeat jazz, it rides a languid rhythm carved out on shuffling brushed drums and woozy double bass, sounding very much like something from Maxinquaye's second side. Gently muted trumpets cry out lonesome in the night as a warped boogie synth puts in an unlikely spastik appearance toward the end.
It all goes spaced-out yet again, this time with the spooked sonix once more in full effect, before a loose electro rhythm shades into the mix alongside its requisite counterpart of whirring industrial machinery. You're Creeping Me Out conjures up images of claustrophobic films like Pi and Parallax View — films where paranoia practically takes the lead role — much like Photek's contemporary output circa Modus Operandi and The Hidden Camera EP. Eerie sounds seem to splash and echo in the darkness, while FSOL unfurl the sort of eldritch analogue synth figure that Boards Of Canada would later turn into a lifestyle.
It disintegrates into tones trailing off into the distance, birds seeming to return their electronic call, and suddenly you find yourself in an environment that wouldn't sound out of place on Lifeforms. However, you blink and it's but a fleeting memory echoing through the corridors of the city, and Eyes Pop - Skin Explodes - Everybody Dead soundtracks your current scenario. Ancient clockwork electronics fade in gently, sounding like harpsichords plucking out an elegy for the distant green worlds of Lifeforms, lost now for all time. A cascade of bleeps spill across the track and (what sounds like) uilleann pipes relay the melody one last time as it all sinks into the quicksand.
It's My Mind That Works opens with a warped sample from the movie Repo Man (echoing the source of the previous track's title), before developing into a mournful piano piece foregrounded by industrial machinery and urban atmosphere. Suddenly, driving percussion creeps into the fray and a rude electronic synth arc blares into the darkness like one of those great MBV-esque synth flameouts from Hans Zimmer's score to Blade Runner 2049. It's so similar, in fact, that one wonders if Dougans and Cobain traveled to the present day and brought it back in time with them. After all, there's a reason they're called The Future Sound Of London.
The piercing sounds of glass, as if played along the rim, announces Dirty Shadows (the title a great summation of this album's prevailing mood). Then, a creepy voice — first pitched up, then pitched down — repeats, come, fly the teeth of the wind... share my wings. Apparently, it's sampled from the sequel to The Exorcist. As if this album weren't spooky enough already! Thankfully, a gently shuffling rhythm breaks the silence and forms itself into another piece of swirling electronic jazz, this time recalling the drifting atmosphere of the sort of abstract jazz one might find on the ECM imprint. It's cinematic, like the Heat soundtrack, with plaintive pianos, Get Carter harpsichords and more of that ice cold machinery operating in the night.
Upon reflection, this seems like as good a prediction as any for the cosmic jazz stylings that seemed to emerge out of nowhere during the Papua New Guinea Translations project. All those allusions to Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane make perfect sense in light of tunes like Dirty Shadows and Smokin' Japanese Babe. This is a story that's told in even greater detail across the From The Archives series, which filled in the bits between the bits in what must be one of the more extensive bodies of unreleased work from the era (alongside the seemingly countless DATs left behind by Tupac Shakur).
Tired starts with more of that harpsichord — or is it mandolin? — before an industrial percussion loop tumbles into view. It all collapses into atmosphere, computer sounds and gentle waves of synth pulsing on the horizon. Against all odds, about halfway through it morphs into an idyllic piece of synth music, with rippling aquatic synths and the sort of pretty strings one might find in a Vangelis or mid-period Tangerine Dream OST. Finally, a flanged martial beat — like the one from Lifeforms' Vertical Pig — fades into view momentarily before being carried away on a solar wind.
Cryptic voices and a lone exotic flute herald the arrival of Egypt, a singular bit of odyshape electro built on ancient reconstructed rhythm boxes, drums that sound hollow and a pinched reed sound mirroring the cracking snare. Synths bathe the tune in drifting serenity while ethereal, distant voices chant toward the sky. You can just picture rolling vistas stretching out beneath a sun-drenched horizon, drunk with the deep reds and violets of twilight. Hieroglyphs reanimate themselves and begin moving through the city, picking up from where they left off as if the passing centuries had only been but a fleeting pause. A magical moment, and surely one of this record's finest.
With Egypt's reeds detuned and descending in rapid-fire as they recede into the distance, we reach the point at which the two editions of ISDN diverge. Are They Fightin' Us creeps in on another riverbed of tranquillity, flutes and water sounds presaging a tentative rhythm built on wood bass and gentle percussion as a lone voice cries out in a distant scream. Like Dirty Shadows, it all seems to predict the cosmic jazz psychedelia of Translations (or even certain moments of The Isness). A more mechanical, industrialized beat takes the reigns for a spell before cycling onto a rolling breakbeat to carry the rhythm forward with even greater focus than before. Ultimately, the zero-gravity percussion returns to the fore on the returning high tide, wind chimes twinkling gently in the distance.
A subtle bit of random electronic melody sneaks into the mix, the bug in the bassbin, and suddenly the warped post punk incantation of Hot Knives take us deep into leftfield. Riding chopped breaks and a clipped pan pipe figure — quite possibly the very same kit from Mental Cube's Chile Of The Bass Generation — it's an unexpected moment of skewed pop within this sea of atmosphere. There's even a heavily treated robotic vocal courtesy of Gary Cobain (if I'm not mistaken), marking it out as particularly unique in the FSOL canon (at least before the turn of the century rolls around). With muted horns and a warped chanting — drenched in atmosphere — contributing to its dense, murky mood, this is very much in the spirit of 23 Skidoo.
Indeed, more than any other, this tune really captures the mood of FSOL's BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix 2 (aka Fuct Up Soup), which featured 23 Skidoo alongside post punk stalwarts like A Certain Ratio, 400 Blows and the Cocteau Twins. Indeed, this is very reminiscent of A Certain Ratio's Kether Hot Knives (Mix In Special) (which featured prominently in the first leg of Fuct Up Soup). This tune is quintessentialTerminal Vibration.
Coming on like a fusion of 23 Skidoo's heavy atmospheric hijinks and Thomas Leer's gaussian blurred new wave pop (with maybe even a dash of the Thompson Twins thrown in for good measure!), this is incredibly reminiscent of the 80s without being retro in the slightest. Rather, it seems haunted by the era. At times like this I'm reminded of Simple Minds' Veldt, which I've always sworn sounds just like ISDN-era FSOL. Without a doubt, Hot Knives is unquestionably a highlight of ISDN Black, re-framing it squarely as a post-post punk record.
After fading out into some outer space sonix zapping through the machines, you get a solid minute plus of pure underwater atmosphere. Then, the treated guitars of guest auteur Robert Fripp (he of King Crimson, whose 80s records like Discipline and Beat I should have mentioned during the bonus round) enter the picture in the pastoral sound painting of the countryside that is A Study Of Six Guitars. Idyllic and blissful, with just a hint of ECM jazz (think Pat Metheny's New Chautauqua). It makes you wonder if the lads were well into ECM at the time, which would have put them way ahead of the pack (recall that point about ten years ago when everyone was checking the label). This is actually the one song from the tail end of the album that makes it to both editions of ISDN.
The closing track, An End Of Sorts, wires a pounding electric rhythm to another of the album's rare bucolic impulses, bringing it all back home with a strong sense of anxiety. It actually reminds me of Tournesol's Draagmad Ultramarine, that same sense of illogical juxtaposition, a fusion of ethereal synths and aggressive slow-motion rhythm in a swirling portrait of unease. Like a giant question mark hanging over the proceedings, it's a fitting end to this enigmatic album that lies at the crossroads of the FSOL story.
...or, it could have happened this way (inverted)...
Egypt's reeds detuned and in rapid-fire, recede into the distance as a looping bassline — sounding like high tension power lines and seemingly built from a distorted kick drum — heralds the arrival of Kai. With its gravity-boot drums and soaring flutes competing in the mix with spaced-out atmospherics, its a big part of the reason why ISDN White feels like such a trip hop record. It's yet another track that seems to share common ground with Depth Charge, especially records like Sex, Sluts & Heaven (Bordello Mix) and Daughters Of Darkness.
Amoeba flows directly from the tail end of Kai, borrowing the the atmospheric drift of The Alan Parsons Project's Nucleus and pairing it with some Hawaiian slide guitar. Heavy brakes sounding as if they were recorded in a garage two blocks away roll into view, propelling the track through its surreal journey with no destination. A fascinating détente between Lifeforms and The Isness, it nevertheless manages to be quintessentially ISDN. It flows on a warm bed of sound into A Study Of Six Guitars, a tune which is more or less identical to its counterpart on ISDN Black, at least until it reaches its protracted conclusion and spills into a solid minute of space music (in the spirit of Steve Hillage's seminal Rainbow Dome Musick) before vanishing into another gentle spell of outer space sonix.
The loose downtempo breakbeat of Snake Hips kicks into the record's home stretch, introducing a smoker's favorite to wind up the proceedings. Tensile, plucked strings move up and down the scales precariously as a mutant bassline spars with the drums. Warped horns stab through the track like the guitars did in Son Of Lung — and sounding just as fake! — while the deep space effects return in full force. The downbeat swaps out for a tricky rhythm matrix nearly identical to the one Timbaland would unveil on Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott's The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly) a few years later, and suddenly the track explodes into widescreen, going cinematic in a stunning crescendo that sounds like pure science-fiction. Like some dream studio session with SA-RA and Kevin Saunderson working up a vibe, it's pure machine soul. Only lasting a handful of bars, it rides out on a splash of cymbals and the sound of skyscraper guitars trilling majestic toward the heavens.
And then it's all over, you're dropped back to wherever you started. Back to the world. ISDN — whatever the version — is a true head trip of a record, and it's impossible to hear it without vivid imagery swirling through the mind in time to the music. Dougans and Cobain turned out to be right after all when they ventured in the liner notes that people hadn't lost the ability to conjure atmospheres. Without a doubt, it's definitely a record worth spending some serious time with.
Which version is better, you ask? That's a tough one. If you really pressed me to choose, I'd go with the easier-to-find ISDN White, for one because its the version I grew up with and therefore sounds more natural to my ears. Also, as a gentleman who walks the downbeat path, I'll always dig it the most as a trip hop record. Tunes like Kai and Snake Hips are absolutely killer slabs of abstract hip hop par excellence, bringing that unmistakable sense of warped FSOL magic to the form.
And yet I couldn't do without Hot Knives, which alongside Egypt and Snake Hips round out my trio of favorite tracks on the album. So I need them both, gravitating toward one or the other depending on where my headspace is at the time. When all is said and done, it's the unmistakable post punk flavor of ISDN Black that tips it into Terminal Vibrationterritory (and accordingly makes it the record of the month), and marks it out as a triumphant culmination of post punk's dancefloor diaspora. It's as if the experiments of 23 Skidoo, Material and The Pop Group were finally being picked up again, warped and twisted into strange new shapes, and projected deep into the heart of the future. After all, there's a reason they're called The Future Sound Of London.
In 1999, Material released Intonarumori, a sprawling double-album sourced in the seedy underbelly of hip hop stretching from the Wu-Tang Clan and Company Flow all the way back to Schoolly D and the Death Comet Crew. The record was as ugly and twisted as you could hope for. Demented downbeat jams rubbed shoulders with asymmetrical big beat symphonies that owed as much to Tackhead as they did the RZA, while Killah Priest rapped over a beatless illbient soundscape of eerie flutes and droning tambura before a dusted beat drops in at the last minute. With old skool legends like Rammellzee, Kool Keith, Flavor Flav and DXT (consequently all of which warrant further exploration today) trading verses with the grimiest voices in dead end underground hip hop (including a cadre of figures from the WordSound crew), it's a perfect culmination of the most abject and abrasive tendencies in New York hip hop.
Of course, by the end of the century Material bassist and ringleader Bill Laswell's involvement in rap music had already spanned the better part of twenty years. As covered in Terminal Vibration V, the original incarnation of Material was a downtown post punk group that specialized in bass-heavy punk funk records like Temporary Music 2 and Memory Serves. When they signed with Celluloid Records, the group were tapped to produce a series of rap records for the label.
Ultimately clocking in seven 12" singles (all released in 1982), ranging from electro-tinged slated like Grand Mixer D.St. & The Infinity Rappers' The Grand Mixer Cuts It, The Smurfs' Smurf For What It's Worth and Phase II's The Roxy to odyshape post-p-funk grooves like Fab Five Freddy's Change The Beat and Une Sale Histoire, Tribe 2's What I Like and Futura 2000's The Escapades Of Futura 2000 (which featured an electrofunk backing from The Clash!), these were records of varying quality that nevertheless managed to consistently offer up a leftfield take on rap (the original undie records?).
By the early 90s, Laswell was producing the sessions for what would become the Jungle Brothers' ill-fated third album, Crazy Wisdom Masters. The unreleased tapes — recently leaked on the web — reveal a druggy, abrasive sound very much in the vein of Intonarumori (albeit informed by a greater sense of demented humor). The record that finally did surface in 1993, J. Beez Wit The Remedy, may have tightened up the edges and introduced a spoonful of sugar in the shape of downbeat summer jams like Good Lookin' Out and My Jimmy Weighs A Ton, but that only served to highlight the strangeness of the material that was preserved from the initial sessions. Tunes like Spittin' Wicked Randomness and For The Heads At Company Z were complemented brilliantly by the smoked-out, gaussian blurred beats that the crew had come up with in the intervening years. In either form, it was clearly one of the most unique rap albums of the decade (and incidentally my #1 rap album ever).
In 1999, the same year that Material's Intonarumori hit the shops, the New York-based WordSound label put out a stunning four track EP of recordings from the Crazy Wisdom Masters sessions (this long before anyone had heard the untouched masters) on the Black Hoodz subsidiary imprint. Hinting at the rougher edges of the initial recordings, Battle Show and Ra Ra Kid were abrasive, asymmetrical slabs of leftfield big beat hip hop. Naturally, this fit the WordSound aesthetic perfectly, which was a grimy, staggering vision of hip hop informed by dub's bottom end gone lost in the wastelands of the big city. Releasing records by the likes of Spectre, The Bug and Dr. Israel, it was something of a stateside, gutter mirror image of James Lavelle's Mo Wax empire.
Crucially, WordSound was also linked with the Axiom imprint that Bill Laswell was running across town, with Laswell contributing substantial material to WordSound's output — including the Crooklyn Dub Consortium series — while various WordSound personnel would regularly appear on Axiom releases. One such figure was Sensational (aka Torture), an iconoclastic MC who had a profound impact on the Crazy Wisdom Masters sessions (and by extension J. Beez Wit The Remedy). The (possibly apocryphal) story goes that Laswell introduced the JBs to Sensational while he was freestyling over a Stockhausen record as he was scratching it!
Although not all of his raps survived to the finished product, one can feel the spirit of his contributions in a continuum stretching from Gram Parsons' on The Byrds' Sweetheart Of The Rodeo to J Dilla's on Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope. Whatever the case may be, he managed to release two excellent records of skewed hip hop as the 90s drew to a close. Loaded With Power, in particular, is a brilliantly claustrophobic slab of decomposed hip hop (think REQ's Frequency Jams) that descends into the same sense of hydroponic psychosis showcased on Tricky's contemporary records (especially The Hell EP, recorded in part with the Gravediggaz).
Meanwhile, across the city DJ Spooky was mirroring trip hop's modus operandi with his own vision of dub-soaked, abstract hip hop, a sound that he called illbient. Importantly, Spooky was not only a DJ and producer but an arch theorist, ruminating on hip hop's sampladelia with the most intricate detail since David Toop started checking the music in the early 80s. His own music stalked the outerrim of what would come to be called dark ambient, with low slung hip hop beats squeezing through the claustrophobia of bass pressure and slow-motion industrial sonix. Nevertheless, with a keen ear for a hook, Spooky also excelled at the sort of blockrockin' hip hop that would fit right in with the likes of EPMD and The Beatnuts (not to mention the jungle of Dillinja and Roni Size). Tunes like Object Unknown, Galactic Funk and Peace In Zaire would have been radio staples in a parallel world where figures like and Rammellzee became superstars and managed to reshape hip hop in their image.
Indeed, Rammellzee is surely one of the key figures in the development of an abstract, avant garde strain of hip hop. Appearing on stage clad in a trenchcoat with Shockdell during the climactic show at the end of the film Wild Style, he provided one of the most memorable moments of the film, rhyming rapid-fire over an awesome synth sequence with a mic in one hand and a toy machine gun(!) in the other. This sense of the strange carried over into his collaboration with K-Rob and Jean-Michel Basquiat, the epochal Beat Bop (a record that Peter Shapiro once declared the Rosetta Stone of trip hop1), a record that in retrospect sounds about a decade ahead of its time.
The Death Comet Crew record followed swiftly afterwards. A collaboration with Ike Yard's Stuart Argabright and Michael Diekmann (along with Shinichi Shimokawa), the Death Comet Crew realized perhaps the most uncompromising fusion of rap attack and angular post punk sonix yet essayed with Rammellzee rapping over uptempo electroshock beats cooked up by the remainder of the group. These tropes were further explored a couple years later on the Death Command/Lecture 12" collaboration with Shockdell, which culminated in the excellent Missionaries Moving LP by the Gettovetts.
In many ways, Kool Keith was the figure in rap's next generation who picked up the baton of rap's mad scientist. Starting out as the scatological court jester of the Ultramagnetic MC's, he also happened to be by far the greatest MC in the crew, spitting his surreal wordplay (informed by mathematics, non sequiturs and bizarre insults) in singularly nasal fashion. The Ultramagnetics turned out a trio of excellent LPs — the utterly essential Critical Beatdown, the deeply unpopular (though I've never understood the hate for it) Funk Your Head Up (which nevertheless turned up the epochal Poppa Large) and the bleak hip hop noir of The Four Horsemen — before Keith struck out on a long and singularly weird solo career. His first move was the Dr. Octagon record (recorded with Dan The Automator), a surreal slab of perverted hip hop whose eerie downbeat atmosphere boasted a startling detente with the contemporary trip hop of Tricky and DJ Shadow (indeed, the record was even licensed by hip downbeat institution Mo Wax).
Similarly, James Lavelle's Mo Wax operation also put out a record by abstract hip hop pioneer Divine Styler. Wordpower 2: Directrix featured Styler rhyming abstract-to-the-max over ice cold breakbeat geometry, which found the MC entering the slipstream of the burgeoning hip hop underground. Of course, he'd laid some of the foundational architecture for that underground in the first place with the first Word Power record (check Tongue Of Labyrinth) in 1989 when he was still aligned with Ice-T's Rhyme $yndicate.
In between those two records lies the enigma of Spiral Walls Containing Autumns Of Light, a record that would strain at the confines of any generic definition, let alone rap. Grey Matter, the one moment of more-or-less straight up hip hop, shares space with extended spoken word pieces like Heaven Don't Want Me And Hell's Afraid I'll Take Over and spacious post-Hendrix psychedelia like In A World Of U and Walk Of Exodus. This album is one of the most unexpected moments in rap's winding history, and remains essential listening for curious minds.
Divine Styler's dalliance with rock mirrors Ice-T's controversial thrash metal output with his band Body Count, as well as T's embrace of noise on the recordings that bear his own name. Early records like Rhyme Pays mirror Code Money's crashing productions for Schoolly D, while O.G. Original Gangster runs parallel to the dense noise-collages that The Bomb Squad unleashed behind Public Enemy and Ice Cube (with a hint of Dr. Dre's contemporary productions with N.W.A.).
Public Enemy and N.W.A. both flirted with elements of metal in their music at times (see Public Enemy's She Watch Channel Zero?! and The D.O.C.'s Beautiful But Deadly), a tradition that dated at least back to Run-DMC with Rock Box, King Of Rock and Rock This Way). Def Jam-co-founder Rick Rubin (that notorious heavy metal head) is the other great conduit of rock dynamics into hip hop, a primary example of which is his production of Beastie Boys' Licensed To Ill (which also turned untold hordes of rockers onto the sounds of rap).
Moving beyond literal rock 'n roll sonics, the crucial element in this strand of hard-edged hip hop to surface in the 80s was in their harnessing of noise: looped snatches of atonal sound, heavy on-the-one stabs, and huge, skyscraper-crumbling beats. Upon their emergence, Run-DMC's beats hit harder than just about anyone else's and ushered in what would become rap's second era.
The stark minimalism of Rick Rubin's drum machine matrix in productions for the likes of T La Rock, the aforementioned Run-DMC, Beastie Boys and especially LL Cool J honed hip hop down a stripped-down essence of an shouting over blockrockin' beats, defining the dominant sound in rap for the next couple years (with Jewel-T's I Like It Loud a particular highlight). Schoolly D and Code Money amplified the sound to a preposterous degree (see P.S.K. "What Does It Mean?"), inadvertently spawning gangster rap in the process.
Ice-T's Rhyme $yndicate, who had their own significant strains of hard edged hip hop, produced by the great DJ Aladdin, seemed to pick up where Schoolly D left off. Along with that other forefather of West Coat rap, Too $hort, they laid the foundation for the twin poles of L.A.'s rough/smooth dialectic, with Ice-T's hard-edged beats playing the bad cop to Too $hort's low-slung street funk.
This thread was picked up most infamously by N.W.A., who took Ice-T's hard-hitting beats to a whole new level, spiked with a generous helping of intricate funk programming dished up by Dr. Dre. Starting out in the World Class Wreckin' Cru, sequined purveyors of West Coast electro par excellence (see 1984's Surgery), Dre moved into this heavier style to complement the heavier subject matter being explored by MCs like Ice Cube, Eazy-E and Ren, along with the rest of the posse. Interestingly, early N.W.A. member Arabian Prince had similarly strong roots in electro before hooking up with the crew, ultimately splitting in 1989 to put out the excellent Brother Arab, a shadowy fusion of computer beats and proto-g-funk.
The D.O.C. turned out possibly the greatest negotiation of Dre's hard-edged production style on Straight Outta Compton and his later g-funk sound with the aptly titled No One Can Do It Better, featuring a dense sonic concrete jungle that found Dre expanding his earlier innovations into the sound that would inform the rest of his career. N.W.A. upped the ante with 100 Miles And Runnin' EP, alongside up-and-coming L.A. crews like Compton's Most Wanted and Above The Law, nearly managing to outdo everything that came before with their final LP, Efil4zaggin.
Efil4zaggin is a production tour de force, featuring Dre's most fully-realized productions ever, it only suffers from a descent into puerile humor and less inspired detours in its second half. It seemed the crew needed Ice Cube around to keep things focused (see AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted and the Kill At Will EP), although one wonders what might have gone down if The D.O.C. had never had his car accident and folded into the group to take Cube's place...
Of course, at the center of any talk of hip hop's noise-scapes will always be Public Enemy and their production masterminds The Bomb Squad, who tore up the fabric of sound a stitched it all back together again into a dense collage of confrontation. This sound, which utilized hard breakbeats, guitar stabs, vocal exhortations and illogical snatches of sound was the perfect complement to the stentorian vocals of Chuck D and Flava Flav's wiseguy antics (who fulfilled a role similar to Kool Keith and Eazy-E in their respective crews). The turntable skills of Terminator X provided that certain x-factor of scratchadelic noise, so crucial to the era, rounding out Public Enemy's unique sonic attack.
The Bomb Squad's approach had a crucial influence on not only the next wave of hard-hitting hip hop but also the feedback-drenched, distorted breakbeat sound taking shape across the Atlantic, a sound that would come to be called big beat. Bomb The Bass were out the gate early with records like Into The Dragon, even continuing to have hard moments (the big beat perfection of Bug Powder Dust) even as they sprawled out into a sort of post-hip hop blues.
However, if there was one crew that shaped this sound (and they don't get nearly enough credit for it), it was Meat Beat Manifesto. The group's mastermind was Jack Dangers, who gradually took their sound from a sort of heavy industrial-inflected, post-Bomb Squad rap (imagine a dystopian, J.G. Ballard-damaged Beastie Boys) into a densely populated breakbeat sound that split the difference between big beat and trip hop (with a healthy dose of dub thrown in for good measure). There was a paranoid aspect to the music, bordering on psychosis, that only became more unhinged as the group pared down to the central figure of Dangers. In 1998 — the same year as Actual Sounds + Voices — Dangers even collaborated with Public Enemy, producing Go Cat Go (along with Danny Saber) for the He Got Game OST.
A lot of big beat leaned heavily on the classic rock side (Fatboy Slim springs to mind), which is not relevant to this discussion, but a lot of it was heavily indebted to the hard beats Bomb Squad-era hip hop. The Prodigy, for one, betrayed Liam Howlett's roots in UK hip hop after their ardkore era had run its course with Music For The Jilted Generation, even collaborating with Kool Keith on the album to follow (1997's Fat Of The Land). Howlett's mix adventure The Dirtchamber Sessions Volume One encapsulates this drift perfectly, featuring Public Enemy acolytes Hijack's awesome Doomsday Of Rap. There's that whole lineage of UK rap that fits squarely into this continuum, crews like London Posse, Hi-jack and Ruthless Rap Assassins.
The Chemical Brothers offered the best of both sides of the big beat coin, indulging in blissed out reveries like Where Do I Begin and Asleep From Day (featuring Beth Orton and Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval, respectively) and Tomorrow Never Knows-inspired sixties psychedelia worship with Setting Sun even as they unfurled feedback-drenched beats like Loops Of Fury, Song To The Siren and Block Rockin' Beats. Records like Exit Planet Dust and Dig Your Own Hole seemed to exist in the tradition of instrumental hip hop landmarks like The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels of Steel and The 45 King's 45 Kingdom (not to mention Frankie Bones' series of Bonesbreaks records).
Representing this phenomenon at its darkest, although he did have moments that predicted the Brothers (see Shaolin Buddha Finger), is one Jon Saul Kane. As Depth Charge, he combined the hard beats that were big beat's calling card with the oppressive atmosphere and dragging tempos that would come to define trip hop. Combining a pervading sense of sleazy darkness with copious martial arts samples, Depth Charge created a unique sonic vernacular all his own out of whole cloth. Notably, Kane also released the Beat Classic compilation on his own D.C. Recordings imprint, which made scarce hip hop grails available once more (often in instrumental form).
If the equation of bleak soundscapes, heavy drums and martial arts samples sounds familiar, it's probably because a certain East Coast crew happened to be taking a similar approach into the charts around the same time. Master producer the RZA wove desolately downbeat sonic tundras for his cadre of MCs to haunt. Figures like the GZA, Method Man and Ghostface Killah provided the perfect counterpoint to the RZA's visions of doom.
The early Wu-Tang records — records like Liquid Swords, Tical and Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) — might be as close as rap ever got to post punk sonix within the mainstream drift of 90s hip hop. Strange, decomposed moments like Sub Crazy and 4th Chamber rubbed shoulders with hits like Bring The Pain and C.R.E.A.M., while peripheral Wu-Tang records like Soldiers Of Darkness/Five Arch Angels by Sunz Of Man took this sound to its outer limits. Collaborations with figures like Tricky and Genaside II were scattered amongst the crew's extended discography, while Method Man's Release Yo Delf was even remixed by Liam Howlett of The Prodigy!
One thing that Wu-Tang seemed to lay the foundation for was what would become the modern hip hop underground. I once read an interview with El-P where he explained that when he started out, the underground was merely the seedy underbelly of hip hop culture, whereas it would ultimately break off into its own world that bore less and less resemblance to the body hip hop. The Company Flow and Cannibal Ox projects that he masterminded certainly bear this out, during an era when rap was becoming increasingly electronic.
This the era that southern rap was on the ascendant, and empires like Cash Money and No Limit were firmly established. Records like Lil Wayne's Tha Block Is Hot and Juvenile's 400 Degreez seemed to recreate the density of sampladelia with digital materials, harking back to Mantronix even as they often bore striking resemblance to the atmosphere conjured up by The Prodigy circa Music For The Jilted Generation. There would be an interesting echo of this in Clipse's Hell Hath No Fury half a decade later.
It's rather appropriate that these twin wings of rap would eventually meet in the middle — no matter how unlikely — with Run The Jewels, featuring an elaboration on El-P's production for Killer Mike's R.A.P. Music that resulted in a full-scale collaboration for three albums (and counting). Which takes us right up to the present day, where Kanye West puts out Yeezus — a stark slab of an album featuring EBM/grime/Code Money-inflected hip hop — on Def Jam (the original home of hard beats). Likewise, Vince Staples' Hell Can Wait was also released on the label, sounding like something Terranova might have produced at the turn of the century.
It all ties back to those base materials, the idea of rap conjured up by Material's Intonarumori, a grimy cyberpunk vision of hip hop, where droppin' science is meant to be taken literally. This is the realm of Rammellzee, Dr. Octagon and Hank Shocklee, where mad scientists split the atom again and again, refracting rap's beat matrix through the bleak prism of Metal Box, Liaisons Dangereuses and Front 242. A place where breakbeats collide with guitar stabs, found sounds, rude electronics and pure noise, as MCs unfurl tangled mathematical phrases over the surface. This is the sound of rap at the edge of no control...
TV7: Edge Of No Control
Killer MikeBig Beast (Williams Street)
(featuring Bun B, T.I. & Trouble)
Meat Beat ManifestoGod O.D. (Part 1) (Mute)
Jungle BrothersBattle Show (Black Hoodz)
Public EnemyShe Watch Channel Zero?! (Def Jam)
Schoolly DP.S.K. "What Does It Mean?" (Schoolly D)
Kanye WestOn Sight (Def Jam)
Method ManRelease Yo Delf (Prodigy Mix) (Def Jam)
The ProdigyPoison (XL)
Ultramagnetic MC'sPoppa Large (East Coast Mix) (Mercury)
Ice-TNew Jack Hustler (Sire)
Depth ChargeT.D.A. (D.C.)
Ice CubeThe Product (Priority)
MaterialFreestyle Journey (Axiom)
(featuring Ahlill The Transcending Soldier, phonosycographDISK & Jerome "Bigfoot" Brailey)
Lil WayneRemember Me (Cash Money)
MantronixBassline (Sleeping Bag)
Public EnemyGo Cat Go (Def Jam)
Vince StaplesFire (Def Jam)
DJ SpookyRekonstruction (Outpost)
(featuring Prince Poetry & Pharoahe Monch of Organized Konfusion)
Genius/GZA4th Chamber (Geffen)
(featuring Ghostface Killah, Killah Priest & RZA)
Divine StylerTongue Of Labyrinth (Rhyme $yndicate)
(featuring The Scheme Team)
Rammellzee & ShockdellAt The Amphitheatre (Animal)
HijackDoomsday Of Rap (Music Of Life)
The Chemical BrothersChemical Beats (Freestyle Dust)
Jewel-TI Like It Loud (Jewel)
N.W.A.Approach To Danger (Ruthless)
GravediggazDeathtrap (Gee Street)
ClipseTrill (Star Trak)
Death Comet CrewAt The Marble Bar (Beggars Banquet)
A couple thoughts occurred to me over the course of last week's endeavors, including the whole Island Disco post and the trio of concerts (especially the Jarre show) that I was lucky enough to attend. These were thoughts that I didn't get a chance to work into the other pieces, even if they may have been tangentially relevant, so I figured that I'd collect them all here. Well, here goes...
A couple dear cousins of mine, both a good deal younger than I, sometimes ask me to paint a picture of the nineties. Break it down, so to speak. Drop some science. I'm always more than happy to do so, as I have a fundamental fondness for the era. Not even so much fond memories of particular events or happenings, but an affinity with the general vibe of the era. Anything was possible. The future was up for grabs! Dance music was on the ascendant, reaching ever new heights of innovation by the week, it seemed. It was like rock's sixties and seventies all rolled into one. There were hard times to be sure - that's just something you can't escape, no matter the era - but the general tenor was one that kept you hopeful that tomorrow was gonna be a brighter day.
I'm well on record as an aficionado of the nineties, and yet the 80s might have had an even greater impact on me. First off, I was younger. Secondly, I hadn't yet experience the symptoms of depression that would rear their ugly head increasingly as the decade wore on. But really, and I remember this vividly, circa 1989 there was this sense that the table had already been set for the decade to come. Something like Big Audio Dynamite's Free and the film Flashback make the point I'm trying to here (Once we get out of the 80s, the 90s are gonna make the 60s look like the 50s). I can think of no greater evidence of this than the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, and the elation that resulted (with dance music providing a suitable backdrop for the era, Love Parade, etc.).
This is the era that most of these thoughts I've collated spring from, loosely put the years 1986-1992. Period markers include hip hop's rise to dominance as a genre, house and techno on the ascendant as well, ragga in the charts, sampladelia coming into its own as the artform of the era, the Second Summer Of Love, big shades, t-shirts and day-glo colors everywhere, all with the darkness of Seattle grunge and the Wu-Tang Clan still a ways away from cracking the mainstream. If forced to narrow it down to a distint season, I'd peg it for me at summer vacation following second grade. That is, summer 1989.
Take a look, it's in a book.
Still a kid at the time, I remember this era through the lens of phenomena like Reading Rainbow, Levar Burton's PBS television show where he'd delve into some topic - oftentimes in some far off corner of the world (one episode on Japan stands out distinctly in my memory) - all while encouraging reading among the youth. This of course overlapping with his time on the USS Enterprise D as Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Yes, the man was on a roll.
Can it get any more Parallax Pier?!
I remember a distinct trend in music of the era - not only on the radio but also in movies and television shows - taking on a decidedly tropical flavor. Suddenly it seemed as if marimbas were everywhere! Even Quentin Tarantino/Tony Scott's True Romance featured them front-and-center during the more lighthearted scenes. I've been at great pains to point out the ways it colored the dancefloors of the era, but its presence could definitely be felt in the wider culture. I'm talking about Bobby McFerrin's Don't Worry Be Happy, Jimmy Cliff's cover version of I Can See Clearly Now and of course Inner Circle's Bad Boys (AKA the theme from COPS!). It doesn't get much more central than that, does it?
Maxi PriestClose To You
This when the likes of Shabba Ranks and Maxi Priest were tearing up the charts, also figures like UB40 and Snow giving it all a pop spin. This might be the strongest direct presence Jamaica has ever had in pop culture, more so even than the new wave era during Bob Marley's reign. Of course it was all hoovered up by rap and rave culture, popping up in all sorts of places from Dr. Dre's West Coast hip hop to The Prodigy's dazzling, candy-coated ardkore. Even rock had its dalliance with the stuff in the form of 311, Sublime and a thousand third-wave ska bands! And who could forget Common Sense's Never Give Up?
Bobby Konders"All The Massive Hits" In A Rub A Dub Stylee
For our purposes, this manifests itself most particularly in the whole Nu Groove aesthetic, especially in the output of one Bobby Konders. Records like She Say Kuff, Ruff & Massive and House Rhythms offer up a near-perfect fusion of deep house and digital reggae, sometimes even featuring dancehall figures like Mikey Jarrett and Maxi Culture on the mic. And look no further than the sleeves to Bobby Konders & Massive Sounds and "All The Massive Hits" In A Rub A Dub Stylee for a perfect visual image of this whole trip.
Bobby Konders & Massive Sounds
There was a greater awareness of the environment at the time, which ties in with Jarre's Oxygene in ways that I'd forgotten. Did you know that it was originally an opus dedicated to the sanctity of planet Earth and a paean to its preservation? That was a thread running through the era, a notion that had become important in the aftermath of the 1960s but in truth dates back to grizzled adventurers like John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt realizing that America's wilderness was something quite special and undoubtedly worth preserving.
Famously, Richard Nixon established the EPA during his administration. This when films like Silent Running and Soylent Green hammered the point home in celluloid, films that would have a profound impact on the era's psyche. By the dawn of the compact disc era, environmental recordings, sounds of the rainforest, ocean waves, sounds of the bayou were everywhere: suddenly you could set up a whole sonic environment in your living room. Get carried away on rainclouds (or ocean waves!). You can hear this all over peak-era electronic music like FSOL's Lifeforms, The KLF's Chill Out and countless Orb remixes (Auntie Aubrey's Excursions Beyond The Call Of Duty is full of found environmental sounds).
Okapi Vibin' Out At The San Diego Zoo
This all dovetails with the sheer wonder I can still recall as a youth of having a yearly pass to the San Diego Zoo, seeing animals from across the globe and placing them within the context of the world's geography that I was picking up along the way (with the attendant flags and captitals, naturally!). It seemed that these formerly exotic realms were very much front and center at this point, places like the Serengeti, the Amazon and most of all Australia's outback were the focus of documentaries and more. The Discovery Channel really started to make itself felt as a presence around this time, and I remember spending hours watching coverage of these far flung locales.
The Sydney Opera House: Now that's a pier!
I've often wondered why Australia in particular managed to so thoroughly capture the world's imagination at this point. It seemed to have this cachet of the exotic, romantic and futuristic. The sound of didgeridoo was everywhere. Was it the vanguard cinema of Peter Weir (Picnic At Hanging Rock, The Big Wave... Gallipoli even featured some Jarre in it's soundtrack) and George Miller (Mad Max, The Road Warrior, et. al.) making a splash, or impressive feats of architecture like the Sydney Opera House becoming lodged in the international consciousness as a modern wonder of the world? My brother lays it all at the feet of Paul Hogan. And yes, the Crocodile Dundee films were a bonafide phenomenon at the time, and they did spend a satisfying amount of time in the outback. At any rate, I remember that featuring a narrator with an Australian accent in your documentary was the golden touch at the time, signalling that elusive combination of frontiersman and futurist.
That's certainly one way to get to Mexico!
I defer to the films that Disney put out around this time: The Rescuers Down Under, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Cool Runnings and Aladdin. Also globe-trotting films like Club Paradise, Romancing The Stone and Jewel Of The Nile and the Indiana Jones trilogy. O.C. And Stiggs with their King Sunny Adé obsessions and inner tube pilgrimage down to Mexico, not to mention their high-rolling, exotica-crazed pal Coletti (Martin Mull in a brilliant cameo turn) took this spirit into the mundane suburbs of Arizona (often reminding me of a certain crew in the greater San Diego area circa 1997). Look no further than the soundtrack to Disney's The Little Mermaid (along with Cool Runnings, the storied film about Jamaica's first bobsled team) for evidence of the level to which it all penetrated the mainstream.
Geoffrey OryemaBeat The Border
Think also of Peter Gabriel's records around this time, things like Security up to and including Us, and the whole Real World set up, bringing music from around the world to the Western stereo (usually glossed up with some period production flourishes). Speaking of the big time, you also had Paul Simon's Graceland, recorded with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Los Lobos, a righteous flirtation with African music and zydeco (in the comics, O.C. And Stiggs were obsessed with Clifton Chenier). Vampire Weekend are still riding that wave. Then there's that one song (Help Me Somebody) on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts that I could swear has a distinct zydeco flavor.
Yep, I know that feelin'.
The Talking Heads went down this path after their whole Compass Point era had run its course, with David Byrne even directing a film (True Stories) about small town life. See also Paris, Texas and Ry Cooder's gorgeous slide guitar soundtrack to that film. This sound was sort of the era's go-to for signifying rootsiness at the time, shades of which filtered into Angelo Badalamenti's sountracks to David Lynch' films (especially Twin Peaks). Think of all that heavily reverbed, languidly played rockabilly (Chris Isaak's Wicked Game) that fit Lynch's distinctly American Gothic, neo-noir moves like a glove.
The Mission District
As I mentioned before, the summer following second grade: that was quintessentially this. I remember taking a trip up to the Bay Area with my family for an uncle's wedding, a trip that extended to include a greater tour of Northern California. We checked out Lassen Volcanic National Park - memories of the lava tubes, hot springs and Mt. Harkness, seemingly covered entirely in grasshoppers - and Mount Shasta, the Redwood Forest and back to San Francisco and Monterey. In retrospect, there was an interesting mix going on up there, a melting pot of post-new wave gen x college kids, faded hippies, club kids, yuppies and bohemian types that was quite fascinating. To this this day it's stayed with me, a pungently evocative atmosphere. San Louis Obispo was pretty far out, anyway. We didn't get a chance to check out the aquariums in Monterey though (it was far too crowded).
Whales... humpback whales, Mr. Scott.
Which was a shame, although I always meant to go back and check it out. A shame - not that I'm complaining - because the ocean is the final element in today's list of items. Some post-Jacques Coustou bizzness. Whale song recordings were very hip at the time (see Sinéad O'Connor's Jerusalem, Open House' Aquatic and once again, The Orb). Then of course there was Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, featuring a story involving time travel, San Francisco and humpback whales. Oceanic.
Arthur Russell In The Corn Belt
If there's one figure where I'd point and exclaim there!, then it's Arthur Russell. He makes this point quite beautifully. You can just hear it in records like Let's Go Swimming, In The Light Of The Miracle and Lola's Wax The Van. At any rate, I always thought it wax an appropriate touch making the sleeve to The World Of Arthur Russell the bottom of a swimming pool. His was a true Ocean Of Sound music.
The World Of Arthur Russell
The signifiers are almost too many to count. First of all there's the alias Indian Ocean that he used for the phenomenally abstract, fractal-winding post-disco of the School Bell/Treehouse record (bringing to mind both the aircraft carrier scenes from Top Gun - set in the Indian Ocean, remember, and tangentially Tony Humphries' Zanzibar club). The Paradise Garage too, Larry Levan's domain. Then of course there's the labels on the early Sleeping Bag releases, the era when Russell had the greatest influence, featuring a stylized Koala.
Indian OceanSchool Bell/Treehouse
Another of Russell's aliases, used for production, was Killer Whale. Though there was never a record released under the name - such a shame! - it crops up on the Clandestine record, Loose Joints' Tell You (Today) and of course Let's Go Swimming. It's all very much emblematic of all subjects covered here today, showcasing that sense of the whole world being at your fingertips (a sense that would culminate in the world wide web). Everything suddenly felt very futuristic.
At any rate, I think the freshness of all this music - the Compass Point material, Nu Groove sides, Night Dubbin' - speaks to the era still having a quite strong charge about it. It has certainly stayed with me through the years...