Timbaland

The godfather of machine soul

In the lingering afterglow of the New Year's Eve 25 From 97 list, I've spent a couple weeks immersed in the fun house hall-of-mirrors world of Timbaland. After all, '97 was the year during which the producer reigned supreme from behind the controls, with no less than four records making my top 25 from that year. Further yet, standing as we are at the precipice of the machine soul drift of Terminal Vibration's upcoming final chapter, it chimes in perfectly with the prevailing mood at The Parallax Room.

And if we're talking machine soul, there's absolutely no getting around the man. There's r&b before Timbaland and r&b after, with a seismic shift lodged in between that hinges on the axis of his vision. Filtering post-disco modern soul/electro boogie/swingbeat through the cracked lens of hip hop, he digitized the results across the game grid with a vector science, and just in time for the 21st century.

The vision is so potent that one could focus on just the years surrounding 1997 — roughly speaking the two years spanning 1996 and 1998, from one summer to another, when he made his initial splash — and still come up with a wealth of epoch-defining material. Which is exactly what we're going to do: focus on the early peak, when the man was running tings.

To be continued...

25 From 97

A selection of 25 most excellent records from 1997, and a trio of photos from the selfsame year

A couple weeks ago, Sari, Kayli and I traded lists of our favorite records from 1997 in a New Years Eve extravaganza. Why 1997, you ask? 1997 was without a doubt my favorite year in memory, and its music more than lived up to the times. If the era's clash of dancefloor futurism, breakbeat science, dusted hip hop beats, chrome-plated r&b and rock's smoldering embers in this year's music remains potent today, it can only have been even more so at the time. Having been skulking around at the time as a moody 16 year old, best believe I can vouch for that. Indeed, I can remember like it was yesterday...

After a 10th grade spent in the depths of hardcore depression, this was the year that I discovered beats (and started making beats of my own), opening up a whole world I'd only glimpsed before: the twin joys of discovery and creation. Suddenly it seemed there might be a way to make it through this crazy thing called life, even for a scared lonely kid like me who never quite fit anywhere else. As such, it's bound to have some of that you had to be there-type magic specific to my own personal recollections. Nevertheless, upon revisiting the music, I suspect there really was something special about that year after all...

25. Depeche Mode Ultra

Mute

Synth pioneers get down with that '97 sound, folding hip hop beats into their trademark style with a wink and a nod toward rave culture. Of course, the lads had been on this path ever since Black Celebration (even chilling in Detroit with Derrick May at The Music Institute), but Ultra benefits from superb post-trip hop production by Bomb The Bass' Tim Simenon and even a cameo appearance from Can's Jaki Liebezeit on drums (The Bottom Line). Even if I grew up with their music, this was the very first Depeche Mode album that I owned for myself. It was my way into their Gothic world of electro-blues dread, and to this day remains one of my favorite things they ever did.

24. Photek Modus Operandi

Science

This is one that my man Snakes tuned me into, so I've gotta give credit where its due. It sounded utterly alien to us at the time. I even remember him saying that he didn't get it yet, but could tell that it was important. The x-ray beats of Photek's spectral drum 'n bass vision seemed to align more with trip hop's dread vibes than the mad breakbeat fury that had been jungle's calling card up to that point. Pre-Millenium Tension, to borrow a phrase from Tricky (who released three albums in '96, but not one in '97). The soundtrack to paranoia, Modus Operandi is like The Parallax View, Pi and The Manchurian Candidate all mashed up into one nightmare vision, one that makes more sense in the conspiracy-drenched present than it ever did in sunny 1997.

23. Radiohead OK Computer

Parlophone

I was already a huge fan of these guys when OK Computer came out, having listened to The Bends over and over in 10th grade (no wonder I was so depressed!). I remember at the time having the distinct impression that they were going to drift toward beats somehow, which actually turned out to be true with this record (which they envisioned as The Beatles produced by DJ Shadow). Hearing Paranoid Android on the radio for the first time was one of those great WTF?! moments in my musical youth, and the rest of the album turned out to be just as good (my favorite moment the twisted quasi-trip hop dirge of Climbing Up The Walls). Thom Yorke must be fun at parties...

22. Rockers Hi-Fi DJ-Kicks: The Black Album

Studio !K7

Rockers Hi-Fi were in many ways a second-tier outfit, existing in that satisfying interzone between trip hop and dub reggae, their own records were solid enough but lacked the visionary spark of fellow travelers like Massive Attack and Smith & Mighty. However, magic was wrought when they descended into noname studio late one foggy night in Birmingham to work up this smoked-out DJ mix for Studio !K7, taking in trip hop, dub, abstract techno, jungle, vintage roots reggae and everything in between, dubbing it all into oblivion with MC Farda P toasting over the top like a madman. Along with Smith & Mighty's records, this was my doorway to the music of Jamaica.

21. Blur Blur

1997

Blur's self-titled 4th album found them effacing their own shiny britpop sound and image with a grimy set of songs that come on like a hybrid of "Heroes" and The White Album. Inspired by the burgeoning underground of American indie rock, the band married those shambling lo-fi sounds with a very British knack for penning an indelible hook, resulting in a totally unique album experience. This is where the globe-trotting Damon Albarn, who would go on to record Mali Music, drag his band to Morocco and take part in setting up Honest Jon's Records, is truly born. Best believe, the seeds of the Gorillaz are sown here (look no further than Death Of A Party, which comes on something like a dress rehearsal for Clint Eastwood)!

20. Timbaland And Magoo Welcome To Our World

Blackground

The first of the Timbaland records in this list. What can I say, he was running tings in 1997! Basically an extended victory lap after his phenomenal winning streak running through records like Ginuwine... The Bachelor, One In A Million and Supa Dupa Fly, it's also a stunning showcase for his chrome-plated machine soul sound. Even though Tim's raps come in for criticism in some quarters, I've always loved his low-slung baritone style, trading verses here with sidekick Magoo along with most of Da Bassment crew. With everyone from Missy Elliott to Ginuwine, Aaliyah and Playa getting down here, he basically managed to capture the party of the year on wax.

19. Ken Ishii X-Mix: Fast Forward & Rewind

Studio !K7

It's a party rivaled only by Ken Ishii's gloriously schizophrenic entry in Studio !K7's X-Mix series, which manages to blend nearly every strand of post-rave music into a seamless 70 minute fun house ride like it was 1992 all over again, even as the entire tapestry was beginning to unfurl in every possible direction. This was the craziest shit I'd ever heard as a 16 year old, with every moment somehow more off the wall than the next, and alongside Odelay my soundtrack to that summer. Just like on Ishii's own records, it's the sound of a guy doing things his own way and sounding utterly unlike anyone else in the process by virtue of being halfway around the world and having to dream it all up from scratch.

18. Ween The Mollusk

Elektra

Cutting a demented path through the nineties, Ween were like Frank Zappa and The Beatles all rolled into one wise-ass package. With a skewed vision informed by surrealism, stoner logic/humor and a sprawling anti-mythology running through their entire discography, they also had the nerve to possess a knack for penning great tune after great tune that ranked up there with the greats. This proggy, nautical-themed LP is anchored by brilliant moments like Buckingham Green, Ocean Man, Mutilated Lips and the immortal Waving My Dick In The Wind. The Mollusk catches the O.C. And Stiggs of indie rock at the top of their game, and it remains their finest hour.

17. Total What About Us

LaFace

A Timbaland production for Bad Boy girl group Total, taken from the Soul Food soundtrack. The ladies' harmonies bob and weave through the interstellar machine beats (replete with an almost-subconscious acid-303 line) before Timbaland drops a trademark man-behind-the-boards rap and the four-dimensional beat-boxing enters the fray to take things to another dimension altogether. Back in the early 90s, it used to be that you'd wait out the r&b songs for the hot rap joints on Jammin' z90. Suddenly, everything flipped and the r&b tracks were where it was at, and tunes like this were the reason why.

16. Primal Scream Vanishing Point

Creation

Inspired by the 1970s Barry Newman film of the same name, this twisted trip is everything I want in a rock record from 1997. If OK Computer was like The Beatles produced by DJ Shadow, Vanishing Point was something like The Stones mixed by Lee "Scratch" Perry with creative input from Ravi Shankar, Tricky and Joe Henderson. Nearly everything here is bathed in a smoked-out haze of swirling effects and bass pressure, adding even greater depth to killer tunes like Kowalski, Stuka and Burning Wheel. With the added bonus of instrumentals like the jazzed-out Get Duffy, Trainspotting (from the film of the same name) and the mutant g-funk of If They Move Kill 'Em, the album plays like a gripping movie in its own right.

15. Kosmic Messenger Electronic Poetry: The Collected Works Of Kosmic Messenger

Elypsia

An unmissable round up of Stacey Pullen's most dancefloor-oriented sides, this quasi-compilation (over half the songs are exclusive to this set) is Detroit techno soul of the highest caliber. Basically picking up where Funkadelic left off with The Electric Spanking Of War Babies — much like his DJ-Kicks mix from the previous year — it expands that electronic funk template far into the future and never looks back. Pullen had actually played drums and percussion in his youth, and that grasp of polyrhythms always gave his tracks an added physical dimension that set them apart from the linearity of the creeping minimalist brigades, drawing you into their atmospheric, synth-drenched world with a gravity all their own. I've always thought this stuff would have sounded great on the radio alongside contemporary r&b and rap like Masta Ace and Ginuwine.

14. U2 Pop

Island

I simply had to include this one. At the time, I lived this record. Drafting in trip hop maven Howie B. behind the boards, this is the perfect marriage of the indie dance they'd been dabbling in since Achtung Baby and the sun-baked dusted sound that was everywhere by this point (Odelay, #1 Crush, Doin' Time, etc.). Indeed, large parts of this play like an alternate soundtrack to Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet, and fittingly when it came time to release a concert video it was their Mexico City date they chose. This was basically the one time U2 seemed like underdogs, delving deeper yet into dance music against the will of seemingly all their fans (people hated Pop!), and I loved them for it.

13. Carl Craig More Songs About Food And Revolutionary Art

Planet E

This was Carl Craig's lush techno masterwork, even if there's a handful of his records that I love even more. In a sense, it's barely even a techno record — running the gamut between house, jazz, trip hop and ambient — which of course makes it techno to its core. Spanning the smeared electronic stylings of his early Retroactive days (Suspiria, As Time Goes By Sitting Under A Tree) to moments that predict the tech jazz of Innerzone Orchestra (At Les, Goodbye World), it's the record that showcases the many facets of Carl Craig. In fact, he loved all this material so much that he recorded an entire other album (1995's Landcruising) while under contract to Blanco Y Negro, just so that he could eventually release this one on his own label!

12. The Beta Band Champion Versions

Regal

Now I didn't even know about this one until the following year, when it was reissued as part of The Three EPs compilation. Still, I would have loved it if only I'd been lucky enough to be buying vinyl in the UK at the time! I'd been following Astralwerks (a key outlet for electronic music in the States) closely at the time, and what's this... suddenly they'd signed a rock band? I had to check this out! The Beta Band's brand of slacker rock lies somewhere between Beck's dusted pop and The Beach Boys' 70s records, a perfect and wholly original sound that feels both out-of-time and quintessentially late-90s in the best possible sense. It's hard to resist the sun-baked sway of tracks like Dry The Rain and Dog Got A Bone, as I'm sure John Cusack will tell you.

11. Marshall Jefferson Animals EP

KTM

Chicago house don Marshall Jefferson had been around since the scene's mid-eighties beginnings, responsible for epoch-defining house records like Move Your Body, 7 Ways To Jack and The Jungle. Like KRS-One, he could say, I was there. However, this much later 12" release — tucked away on Tresor's sister label KTM to little fanfare — is more a techno record than anything else. The Horse blew me away when I first heard it, sounding like a bullet-train ride through Chiba City, and its unlikely combination of drum machine frenzy and atmospheric serenity still slay me to this day. The kicker is that the b-side, a grinding bass-heavy missive — sounding like a great lost Kevin Saunderson track — is every bit its equal. Night drive music... just keep an eye on the speedometer.

10. Locust Morning Light

Apollo

Former purveyor of dark electronica Mark Van Hoen wakes up one day and decides he wants to make a Kate Bush record. He wound up turning in one of the great dream pop albums of all time, managing to transcend everything he'd done up to that point in the process. This music sounds impossibly ancient, mysterious and evocative, the perfect backdrop for a raft of breathy vocalists like Zoe Niblett, Craig Bethell and Wendy Roberts. This collection of ethereal torch songs plays like a daydream in musical form, conjuring up images of a fairytale world imbued with both great darkness and light (like all great fairy tales). In fact, the title of The Girl With The Fairytale Dream alone just about sums up the whole affair... this is a record to get lost in.

9. Roni Size/Reprazent New Forms

Talkin' Loud

21st century cybernetic jazz from the Bristol crew, fronted by the great Roni Size, whose position in the crew was analogous to The RZA's in The Wu-Tang Clan. Like that group's album of the same year, this sprawling double-album was a dense world defined by a singular, all-encompassing vision. Needless to say, I dove right in! A perfect melding of past and future — evoking images of juke joints, high rises, dimly-lit street corners and monorails — its pungent, jazz-inflected drum 'n bass vision took a striking live band approach to what had previously been seen as computer music. The double-bass and chopped live drums give instrumentals like Brown Paper Bag, Mad Cat and Ballet Dance a remarkably three-dimensional feel, while vocal tunes like Heroes, Share The Fall, and the title track (featuring Bahamadia) remain among the best songs of the era.

8. Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott Supa Dupa Fly

The Goldmind

Was anyone cooler than Missy Elliott back in the day? Who else could wear a giant trash bag in their music video, chill out inside the Windows 95 wallpaper and still make everyone else look unglamorous and ordinary?! No wonder she could get seemingly everyone who was anyone to make a cameo in the video (Timbaland's little backwards sashay might be the greatest thing ever to appear on MTV)! His beats are at their futuristic peak here, which in any other case would threaten to overshadow the singer, but Missy Elliott is larger-than-life even at the worst of times. Every other line gets stuck in your head and stays there: I sit on hills like Lauryn, my hormones jumpin' like a disco, I smoke my hydro on the d-low, and my ass cheeks they sweat these beats, tell me where the party at, tell me where the party at. Needless to say, this is where the party at.

7. Camp Lo Uptown Saturday Night

Profile

These cats couldn't have been much older than I was at the time (they look so young in the music videos!), but they had the 70s down pat. All the vintage vibes tucked away in the beats and lyrics — obscure references and dusty samples galore — made them something like hip hop's counterpart to the neo soul moves of figures like Erykah Badu and D'Angelo. Coming on like a rap LP recorded in 1976, this album's almost too good to be true, squaring the circle between platinum rap and Native Tongues-style hip hop (even roping in De La Soul's Trugoy The Dove for an appearance) just as the twin strains were about to diverge for good.

As an aside, it's funny to note that the 70s crop up so much in this list, but then I guess the burgeoning interest in the era (initiated by grunge?) really came to a head in '97. Which is just another thing to love about the year...

6. Moodymann Silentintroduction

Planet E

Similarly, Kenny Dixon Jr.'s debut album dropped in '97, and it was to house what Camp Lo were to hip hop, so it makes perfect sense that they show up here back to back. Pioneering the filter-house sound that Daft Punk took into the charts, Dixon's records also seemed haunted by the ghosts of soul music past. His output seemed to resonate with everything from Marvin Gaye to Gil Scott-Heron, Larry Heard and Chic, and at this point chiming in perfectly with the rise of The Soulquarians. Indeed, it's a shame that Jay Dee didn't get to do a solo record in '97 too. Imagine if the trinity of Erykah Badu, Moodymann and J Dilla (to my mind roughly comparable figures in relation to their respective scenes) had all debuted the same year!

5. Janet Jackson The Velvet Rope

Virgin

Of course Dilla had a crucial shaping influence on this record, providing massive (uncredited) inspiration to master-producers Jam & Lewis for tunes like Got 'Til It's Gone (which rather than complaining about, he just remixed to a higher state altogether for the single!). Much like The Soulquarians' output, The Velvet Rope has a retro sensibility but never a retro sound, taking in everything from dancefloor stormers to trip hop downbeat and all manner of moods and grooves over its extended 75-minute running time. You could always count on Ms. Jackson... going back to the days of Control, she was like the older sister I never had! And being considerably younger than The Jacksons, she managed to get hip hop in a way that her older brothers never could, granting her career unprecedented longevity and relevance in a cruel and unforgiving industry, stretching right up to the present day.

4. Terranova Manuel Göttsching

All Good Vinyl

German trip hop crew hook up with 70s krautrock legend Manuel Göttsching and cut the great late-nineties jazz record. This sounded like it was beamed in from another planet, seemingly harking back to a shadowy 1970s even as it felt as futuristic as the metropolis evoked in its title. Chiba City blues, for real. The b-side Clone is just as good, evoking images of The French Connection and The Parallax View. In fact, Terranova were the only crew that almost made this list twice (with their 70s-drenched 12" Contact/DJ-Kicks EP). Even though it was released in December 1997, it felt more like a '98 record (which is when the crew's accompanying DJ-Kicks mix actually came out), so I decided to set it aside on a technicality (and also to give everyone else a chance!). When Terranova were ON, they were unbeatable.

3. Octave One The Living Key To Images From Above

430 West

The Burden Brothers! In high school, this Detroit crew were my Led Zeppelin. I was obsessed with Octave One, who let their beats do the talking with the perfect geometrics of that smooth onyx sound. This CD combined two EPs into one conceptual masterpiece. Along with Kevin Saunderson's Faces + Phases, I bought this in the first order I ever placed to Submerge (in those days, the central emporium for Detroit techno). It felt something like a rite of passage. I often think of this as a sister record to Photek's Modus Operandi, and similarly its rugged street-level minimalism took a minute for me to get a handle on... but once I had, best believe I was hooked for good.

2. SWV Can We

Jive

The last of the four Timbaland records here, this is also my favorite. In fact, it's my absolute favorite r&b record, and one of my favorite records period. Another tune made on order for a soundtrack (this time for the Jamie Foxx vehicle Booty Call), like Aaliyah's Are You That Somebody? it transcends its origins to stand as one of the key records of the decade. Its unhurried perfection just unfolds around the ladies, who weave their harmonies through the beats as naturally as you'd expect from a girl group who came up in the heady days of new jack swing. It showed up later in the year on their solid third album Release Some Tension, although nothing on it (save the eerily Reprazent-like double bass moves of the title track) matches its brilliance.

1. Kevin Saunderson X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio

Studio !K7

Number one! Indeed, this is probably my favorite single musical object of all time. All time! Featuring one of my key musical heroes in his prime on the wheels of steel, it captures the vibe of Detroit's recurring Deep Space Radio show for posterity (complete with station idents and narration by DJ Minx). Mixing techno from Detroit, garage from D.C. and a whole brace of tracks from Dutch duo Dobre & Jamez (under myriad guises), its even features both sides of Saunderson's then most-recent 12" Velocity Funk/World Of Deep (which this mix stands in for) and a killer remix of Belgian rave classic Outlander's The Vamp. The whole thing is pure vibe, capturing nearly everything I love about techno. It's got loads of atmosphere sure 'nuff, but its also got unforgettable tunes in spades, and that makes all the difference in the world. If you are at all interested in the intersection of dance and electronic music, you shouldn't spend another day without it.

Kelela – Cut 4 Me

Kelela Cut 4 Me

Fade To Mind 2013

Kelela's Cut 4 Me is without a doubt one of my absolute favorite records in recent memory. Early readers may even remember its quite respectable placement in The Parallax 100, lodged in there at #70 (nothing to sniff at). Interestingly, it was initially released not as a double-gatefold album statement, but as an unassuming digital mixtape. That tape's origins lie in the L.A. singer's decision to write a set of songs around a selection of beats from the twin Night Slugs and Fade To Mind crews, haunting their striking sonic futurism with a bewitching vocal presence. The tape's Trans-Atlantic origins and down-and-dirty reality (essentially, a singer freestyling over some beats) places Cut 4 Me at odds with much now-pop, which often suffers from suffocating over-production, in which all life is strangled from the song in the process.

Kelela out among the stars

Cut 4 Me is a record defined by its contradictions: on one hand it's strikingly ethereal and absorbingly atmospheric, like a Detroit-inflected 4AD, while on the other it's possessed of a rugged bottom end that will ring familiar to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with grime. With more than a hint of déjà vu with regard to the angular attack of that 21st century art form, this is RnB at its most unselfconsciously futuristic. One thinks of The Neptunes, not just their sonics but even the visions conjured up by their very name. Cut 4 Me sounds like a pop music sprung from the supersonic waters of Neptune. Bodies dancing in slow-motion beneath blacklight, iridescent skin aglow in shades of azure a million light years from home.

And yet, the strange secret is that even at its iciest, plumbing sub-oceanic depths, the record somehow maintains a warm, soft glow running through its very core. The record's lyrical preoccupation lies with love, and the battlefield that so often springs up around it, even as it plays like a soundtrack for situations and emotions that haven't even yet arisen. Future music, in other words. So, let's dive into the peculiar world of Cut 4 Me, and in the process, maybe take a peek at what's in store...

Kosmic Messenger Electronic Poetry: The Collected Works Of Kosmic Messenger Elypsia

The record opens with the looping struck metal of Guns & Synths, a motif that we'll return to time and time again, before electro-shock snares snap a proto-rhythm along its bow like gunfire. Moody Detroit-style sequences (think Kosmic Messenger) arc into earshot, and then the track really begins to unfold, riding a gently chugging synth pop bassline in graceful slow-motion. In a striking twist, the bass drops out and the track seems to snap around Kelela's soaring vocals, its extreme downbeats seeming to trip into hallucinatory double-time. Her refrain is echoed by what sounds like flutes, but might well be her own vocals sped up ardkore style.

The Prodigy Music For The Jilted Generation XL

A wicked track in other words, and one that I swear has distinct shades of The Prodigy's DNA about it (particularly circa Music For The Jilted Generation). It's the sort of thing that I well could be imagining — synapses firing in distorted recognition of a flame's shadows on the cave wall — but even so, it's an impression I haven't been able to shake since the day I first heard it... so maybe there's something to it after all? The beats here by Night Slugs/Night Voyage auteur Bok Bok, which underline the play of fragile atmosphere and jagged beats throughout the record, all of which is given an otherworldly glow by Kelela's haunting vocal presence. It all seems to call back memories half-remembered, mixed together like oil in the ether.

Vangelis Blade Runner Atlantic

Similarly, Go All Night — with its strung-out synth architecture and power up electronic sweeps — evokes distinct memories of the Blade Runner soundtrack, not to mention The Prodigy's ambient coda to Speedway Theme From Fastlane (which itself sampled liberally from the Vangelis score). The liquid synths hover somewhere in that undefined territory between organ and distended string-section drift beneath, while Kelela's vocals weave through it all in graceful slow-motion like an errant solar sailer.

The Solar Sailer takes flight

Gliding on a post-Timbaland chrome-plated riddim trading moves with a muffled beat box, fellow Angeleno (and Night Slugs moonlighter) MORRI$' trap-style beats uncoil in the purple haze of alien dreamtime as Kelela unveils the chorus:

Stayed up talking all night.

Take my body it's so right.

Dyin' but we go all night...

Baby I don't know if that's all good.

With the unmistakable echoes of Aaliyah's Are You That Somebody? in its sentiment, the hesitant longing gradually gives way to the inevitable feeling of gravity's pull (we smokin' out baby).

Zapp The New Zapp IV U Warner Bros.

By now adrift through inner space, a vocodered bridge on the order of Zapp's Computer Love intones oh, my baby on loop, carrying into the next verse where Naughty By Nature chants build the zero-gravity momentum like it were the most natural thing in the world. This is Chiba City RnB, par excellence. The tune appears in two abridged versions on Cut 4 Me, interludes subtitled Let Me Roll and Let It Burn. Frustratingly — like the World Of Deep interlude on E-Dancer's Heavenly — the track isn't present here in its entirety (it was a stand-alone single). On the bright side, it does work remarkably well scattered through the record in a series of glimpses.

The Orb Auntie Aubrey's Excursions Beyond The Call Of Duty Ultra

Further dreamtime vibes are unveiled on an extended mix of Bank Head, which seems to build on a progression of nineties — if not earlier — electronica over clickety-clack percussion. Think The Orb's Auntie Aubrey's Excursions Beyond The Call Of Duty, particularly Readymade's Ambient State. That same sense of weightless drift, over which the vocals swerve without warning into a searing falsetto. Despite the double-time clap pushing things toward 4/4 trance territory, it's just not gonna be that simple, and everything's left remarkably unresolved.

Fade To Mind's Kingdom drags renegade kick drums beneath it all, weaving snatches of the vocal — sped-up into chipmunk velocity — its twisted tapestry lying somewhere between freestyle, ardkore and peak-era Jam & Lewis. Kelela's untreated singing is pure RnB, rendered otherworldly in sheets of intersecting sound. The roar of distant thunderclaps tremble in the distance as the track sneaks into skipping double-time, building towards track's inevitable conclusion. Kelela intones, time goes by, with no effect and with no warning whatsoever, the dream is over.

Dizzee Rascal Boy In Da Corner XL

Which brings us to the more abrasive corners of the record. This is still surrealism, but one with all the jagged edges — the bite — retained in full force. The strident lead into Enemy comes on like struck sheet metal, ringing in combination against its ricochet percussion, bringing to mind the similar Sylvian-esque shades of Dizzee Rascal's Boy In Da Corner and its koto grime moves. Fittingly, Nguzunguzu (of Fade To Mind) drags in what sounds like a spiraling koto and threads it through the rapid-fire percussion, the sound of breaking glass folded into the beat like a hidden bear trap.

Wiley Treddin' On Thin Ice XL

It's all of a piece with the frozen wastelands of Wiley's awesome Treddin' On Thin Ice LP (another Parallax favorite), with its unlikely collision of harsh grime soundscapes and occasional flourishes of vintage RnB (Special Girl). The paradoxical clash of Kelela's hazy vocals and up front, knife-edged riddims also brings to mind Alice Perera's towering performance on Smith & Mighty's Big World Small World, a record defined by its rootsical widescreen textures and often stark, post punky beat architecture.

Smith & Mighty Big World Small World Studio !K7

Keep It Cool recalls similar terrain, with Kelela's soaring vocals cutting through the track like a knife, even as an almost under-the-breath delivery offers up the counterpoint. Crashing industrial beats lie at the center of Keep It Cool, building the ideal framework for a grinding Reese-style bassline to push the track into overdrive, sawing through its center with a raw and rugged fury. The sentiment of Kelela's vocal even sounds like something from an old ardkore track:

Round and round inside our heads we're going nowhere.

Focusing is hard you're telling me 'cause I'm not there.

This ain't no coincidence taking all I've got,

I almost surrendered, why must we...

Why must we keep it cool?

The effect lends an almost ungainly, staggering quality to whole affair, bringing to mind some of the best techno (thinking here of Kevin Saunderson's E-Dancer Vocal Mix of Octave One's Blackwater). The searing production from Night Slugs stalwart Jam City is firmly in the tradition of Detroit's unlikely pact between the rough and the ethereal. Flutes flutter in the rafters like digital birdsong, while synths and vocals clash with one another at jagged perpendiculars. It's at times like these that one wonders if this record isn't in many ways a vision of a downbeat vocal techno. Like the music of Dâm-Funk, it does seem to hover between both worlds...

Japan Tin Drum Virgin

Driving the point even further is Floor Show, a sprawling slab of machine soul par excellence. A twisting, gnarled synth lead winds through the track in slow-motion, while another Japan-style synth progression pins the counterpoint, the rhythms trading bars between muffled percussion and crashing drums. Kelela's voice soars (although, truth be told, her voice soars everywhere here) across it all, offering another biting glimpse of romantic intrigue:

Ain't never left although I tried a million times.

Wonder how it feels, I'll never know you're never mine.

You should stop the front before I catch you in a lie.

You forget my name, but you say it every night.

A stanza worthy of TLC right there, with all the subdued venom that implies. This woman's been burned one time too many. And yet it's delivered in such an uncanny manner that it manages to transcend all the drama, all the lies, watching them recede onto the horizon in a mist before arriving at another plane altogether (now that's something you don't see every day!).

TLC Fanmail LaFace

This is dream city music, nocturnal and cut adrift in the same way Go All Night was, but there's also the unmistakable bitter aftertaste of trip hop menace lurking within the proceedings. Girl Unit (chalk up another one for Night Slugs) manages to blend a spoonful of RnB, trip hop and Detroit techno into a blazing cocktail of otherworldly dream pop, sounding utterly unlike anything else in memory.

Then, without warning, everything drops out but a lone ethereal synth, and Kelela breaks it down once and for all:

Giving you my everything,

You turned around and did things your way.

I try to fight the urge to define,

Letting go of things that ain't mine.

At which point the ghost town climax hits, with its towering organ refrain:

Desperate for another day,

Wish I knew the thing to say.

Spent my time building you up,

And now it's falling down.

And you're left, deserted, to walk alone among tombstones, through a graveyard of broken hearts and dreams...

Erasure The Innocents Mute

Like an apparition, Do It Again creeps into view on a plaintive, shimmering synth line (something about it makes me flash on Erasure's When I Needed You). It cuts crisp and clean through the mix, driven by NA's (score one for Fade To Mind) floor tom accents in a soundtrack style. With her vocals right there in the forefront this time, unabashed and unvarnished in the extreme, Kelela alternates between drifting, drawn out phrasing and a counterpoint wherein she repeats the track's title in rapid monotone — Doitagain, doitagain, doitagain —  like some sort of android left on the forbidden planet.

The Black Dog Spanners Warp

Plangent synth tones breathe darkness into the mix, before the percussion builds into a throbbing rhythm for the last minute of the tune's stay. The effect reminds me of nothing so much as the skittering digital percussion on The Black Dog's arty techno missives circa Spanners (particularly End Of Time and Chase The Manhattan), capturing that same sense of hurling oneself into the void without the slightest inkling of who or what is out there. Choice stuff.

Janet Jackson Control A&M

The title track draws further into 1980s-style arrangements, with its sparkling tones, big drum hydraulics and a bassline that seems to bounce along the top of the rhythm like a skipped stone. Kelela's searing harmonies are at their tightest here, strikingly crisp even as the track gradually veers toward the hallucinogenic in ways you wouldn't quite expect. This is the second of the Kingdom tracks, although it's wildly different from the preceding Bank Head. That tune was one of the record's most atmospherically dreamy, while this one's surrealism hinges not on the axis of spacious production but the strange juxtaposition of its base materials. The production here remarkably up-front and in-your-face, like the clattering soundscapes crafted by Jam & Lewis on Janet Jackson's Control.

Prince And The Revolution Purple Rain Warner Bros.

With a dejected synth pinned to a beat like collapsing buildings, Send Me Out similarly comes on like the granddaughter of Prince at his most disarmingly deconstructed — songs like Girl and The Beautiful Ones — underlining how often this record, for all its absorbing ambience, is actually quite skeletal and nimble. The sound is a rather shy one, refusing to reveal itself right away, like the first shades of spring rising from the depths of winter.

Sun Electric Present Apollo

Casual synths make their cameo in the chorus, evoking imagery of ascending glass escalators is the fading afternoon sun, underpinning one of the most traditionally RnB set of vocals on the record. The third of the Kingdom productions, its faint echoes of prime electronica — shades even of R&S/Apollo, and the similarly fragile glass escalator sounds of Sun Electric circa Present, perhaps — and Paisley Park make perfect sense in light of Bank Head and the title track, rounding out a key trilogy underpinning the record.

Kenny Larkin Metaphor R&S

Something Else (the second Nguzunguzu production here), is similarly deliberate and delicate, drifting at the other end from the stark percussive attack of Enemy. It's all quite stripped down, with little more than a slight snatch of analogue warmth from a synth to carry the melody, its rhythm defined by little more than a recurring snap. Fragments of a fluttering digital synth sneak in just a hint of ornate filigree, bringing to mind Kenny Larkin's shimmering Kurzweil excursions circa Metaphor. It's also another moment haunted by the spectre of trip hop, particularly Björk's Post-era flirtations with the genre, sounding something like the skeletal remains left behind by another song...

I already know, I've seen the future and it's over

The Art Of Noise Who's Afraid Of The Art Of Noise ZTT

Of course there's a coda tucked away in the last minute of the song to catch you completely off guard, when Kelela loops a wordless staccato to echo The Art Of Noise's Moments In Love! It's a fantastic moment of circular logic, harking back to the slice of instrumental dream pop that turned out to make an unlikely1 splash on both the Billboard Hot Dance/Disco Singles and Hot Black Singles charts in 1986 (see also Mýa's It's All About Me, with its subtle shades of Moments In Love sketched in). To this day, you can still hear Moments In Love on Magic 92.5 from time to time, a reminder that RnB and dream pop have been au fait from day one.

Locust Morning Light Apollo

The plaintive recline of A Lie is probably the most dream pop moment of the record. Drifting in on pure atmosphere, it opens with twenty-seconds of the rhythm of a car's windshield wipers, seeming to capture the moment the rainclouds part as the wipers are switched off, the windows rolled down and the melody of birdsong fills the soundscape. A lonely Rhodes enters the fray to lay out the plaintive melody, and the vocals drift like mist across its surface, finding Kelela at her most solemn and wistful. The effect reminds me of nothing so much as Locust's dream pop masterpiece Morning Light (particularly Jukebox Heart).

Grey and cloudy, it rains every day

The vocals might be the record's most traditionally RnB, evoking the peak-era balladry of SWV and Aaliyah, particularly their turn in the chorus:

Bound, though you are free to do what you want.

It'll be just fine and I know it.

More Rockers Dub Plate Selection Volume One More Rockers

The second of Bok Bok's soundscapes (after the opening Guns & Synths), there's a fitting shadow of jungle in its errant bleeps, slipped into the placid atmosphere in such a way that should break up the magic yet only adds to the whole effect. I'm once again reminded of Smith & Mighty, or even More Rockers, all those junglist torch songs on Dub Plate Selection Volume One and Selection 2 like I Need Some Lovin', Kissing Game and Rainbows. Like everywhere else on this record, there's such a powerful sense of atmosphere swirling around the song that it compounds its gravity until you can't help but be drawn in.

It's only a matter of time, couldn't hate you forever.

Alter Ego Alter Ego Harthouse

It all comes full circle with the closing track, Cherry Coffee, wrapping up with a fusion of nearly every aspect of the record that's come before. Starting with nothing but a rhythm tapped out on a shard of metal, sounding like sonar in the deep, it lasts a solid minute of isolation before spectral synths shear into view with an effect that splits the difference between spooked and soothing. This is pure ambience, reminding me of nothing so much as the first Alter Ego record — especially the languid pools of synthesizer in Soulfree — and its sleeve's evocation of Joe Henderson's Inner Urge perfectly hints at the mood shaped here.

Octave One The Living Key To Images From Above 430 West

A fretless bass provides the tune's central melodic motif, along with most of its rhythmic propulsion, before piano chords drop in out of nowhere like a relic from the relics. Much like the pianos that turn up unannounced amidst the lush techno of Octave One's Burujha, they seem to conjure up the mood of 1970s invisible soundtracks and all the imagery that implies. Put crudely, we're talking about The French Connection, Curtis Mayfield record sleeves, Herbie Hancock's shirts and the orchestral arrangements of Charles Stepney all swirling in a mnemonic mist.

Janet Jackson The Velvet Rope Virgin

The vocals weave a tapestry in the same way Janet Jackson's often would, something like the mahogany moodiness of Velvet Rope by way of Control's chrome futurism at its most wistfully atmospheric. The almost Liz Fraser-esque vocal treatments (think Cocteau Twins circa Four-Calendar Café and her angelic cameos on Mezzanine, with just a dash of Mýa thrown in for good measure) mesh beautifully with the ambient synth washes and a sublimely delicate atmosphere is conjured up deftly in the blending of the two. Little surprise that it's Jam City behind the boards again, with his firm grasp of Detroit-inflected futurism. Its a perfectly executed Gaussian drift, and the perfect ending to this stunning record.

Kelela Cut 4 Me Deluxe Edition Fade To Mind

Unexpectedly, Cut 4 Me was later issued on both double CD and 12" vinyl a couple years later, coming on the heels of The Parallax 100 and my demand that it come out on wax... not that I want to take credit for it or anything. Actually, it was bound to happen either way: the record works as such a perfect album experience, it would have been a crime if it hadn't happened. The truth is, this is one of the great RnB albums of the 21st century, which itself has hardly been a slow era for the form (if not its very peak).

We are stardust

Indeed, Cut 4 Me is a sketch of everything of-the-moment RnB should aspire to. Transcending its rugged origins even as it uses them to its benefit, what began life as a mixtape puts to shame the lion's share of the more self-consciously important album statements in recent memory. This is a music from the outer rim, deep space music that links everything from Detroit techno, low-slung trip hop, chrome-plated RnB and rave's morning-after come down in a stardust constellation of pure machine soul.

And yet this inscrutable, nebulous music soundtracks the vagaries of the heart, matters that will resonate with most of us. I Second That Emotion, and so on and forth. For all it's futurism, this music is of a piece with the lush, Another Green World-esque smooth soul of Marvin Gaye circa Here, My Dear and the fragile soundscapes of the Trouble Man OST. In fact, the unspoken truth of the matter has been with us from the very birth of machine soul: that within its tricky rhythms, liquid synth architecture and futurist intent, lies an all too human heart. A contradiction perhaps, but above all else, that's what makes it so special.

Footnotes

1.

Or, perhaps not so unlikely, considering The Art Of Noise's prior pedigree: placing in at #2 on Billboard's 1984 New Black Artists chart and records like Beat Box and Close To The Edit placing at #10 and #17, respectively. Not to mention their work on Malcolm McLaren's incursion into electro/hip hop D'ya Like Scratchin', another record that had an outsized influence on RnB of the next decade (and beyond).

It’s Going Down For Real

Welcome to 2019

The song creeps onto the dancefloor, slow-motion beats twist and turn as the refrain gets chanted over and over, a sick sax loop slithers across booming 808s... ghosts of Low Rider, sounds looped to infinity, and War's crisp sound echoes in the ether. The crisp unfolding percussion sounds in 1975 like a blueprint for large swathes of machine soul — alongside Fresh, Sly Stone and Marvin's Trouble Man — with just an errant bit of saxophone in the fade to lay dormant for a solid 40 years before reawakening, punched up wildly in the mix in vivid 3D. Flo Rida/Low Rider... almost like it was etched into the code way back when.

Call back the subroutine and run again, loop back and then fast-forward... that's the way works, after all. Playing with time, turn back the page for a moment to envision the future, and cut a jagged crab walk toward enlightenment. Two steps forward, one step back. Rethink/remodel: how else do you work your way back from a dead end? A couple years spent in the wilderness, but that's a temporary condition too: every trend fades to make way for another, before sometimes returning like History Repeating. After awhile, you begin to see the patterns.

So as we stand at the precipice of 2019, you can almost see the ones and zeros criss-crossing and cross-pollinating, arcing toward the real once again. After some delay, the shock of the new returns like an old friend (file under futurism). Wrapping up the last couple pages of the Terminal Vibration in the first quarter of the year, as we reroute the circuitry into sprawling realms of machine music (and beyond), and it feels like A Sort Of Homecoming. 1997 or 1993... or something else entirely? It seems only time will tell. After all, it always does in the end.

Machines On The Grid

Flynn passes through the digital red light district in the movie Tron
Scenes from the grid

Rolling vectors spill across the shimmering surface of the game grid, your vessel moves silently over the face of the waters. Lost in the slipstream of Tron 1982, new wave post-disco Radio Clash bizzness mashed into Mtume's Green Light. Plant life blooms between the cracks in the bassline of Veridis Quo, prefiguring Daft Punk's return to the grid a quarter century later, once everything had changed. At the time, 12:51 seemed an anomaly; in retrospect it looks an awful lot like a warning shot from a sub-generation dwelling in the shadows.

It's a long way back to the wilderness years, sidewalking in the nineties to sounds old and new, rearranged in parallel and both imbuing each other with a layer of meaning beyond the literal. Kleeer 's neon-lit boogie, cruising like a light cycle through the corridors of your mind, while DJ Quik picks up the echo of Tonight/Tonite and the possibilities refract into endlessness. Zapp's Computer Love seems to stop time in its tracks. Squares light up and back out again on the grid of the dancefloor, shifting in time to the music, the bassbins seem to trigger their state beneath the feet of the dancing people.

Solar Sailer soars lonely into the night sky, and Carl Craig's Landcruising casts a long sprawling shadow out across its path. The Mind Of A Machine thinking a quarter century ahead in mere moments, forecasting the future like some sort of chrome-eyed oracle rattling binary figures off into the ether. The Infoworld sprawls out in every direction, vectors stretch like frail fingers to link it all up to the mainframe. You are the computer. Like DJ Rashad, Feelin' the city lights like circuitry spread out beneath a silicon sky... the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

Terminal Vibration: My Machines

The reel to reels rolling out waveforms from Paperclip People's The Secret Tapes Of Dr. Eich as CJ Bolland looks on from behind his Ravesignal III mask of circuitry
Extraterrestrial Raggabeats In Outer Space

One thing that's become apparent as we've moved through the various stations of this whole Terminal Vibration saga is that the music grows decidedly more electronic, and more sequenced, with every passing chapter. Starting out in the largely played-on-live-instruments punk/funk/new wave mash-up of the first few segments, it ever-so-gradually transitioned into the cavernous spaces of dub and hip hop's illogical sound mazes, before ultimately sliding into the whole electro/synth/industrial slipstream and the digital realms of house and techno earlier this year. Electronic music through and through, in other words.

SA-RA Creative Partners The Decadent Dimensions EP Wonderful Noise

The culmination of the tech jazz/r&b interface

That's where we left it before stopping off in the canyon for a spell, but now we're back again for the final chapter. The destination in our protracted journey — teasing out the connections between post punk and machine funk — lies in the rolling silicon hills of machine soul, music which as often as not sounds as if it were carved from slabs of onyx. The line between techno and machine soul is sometimes so subtle as to be barely detectable (see the oeuvres of Dâm-Funk, Juan Atkins, SA-RA Creative Partners and Anthony Shakir, for instance), but it's there nonetheless.

Underground Resistance Interstellar Fugitives Underground Resistance

Gibson-esque electroid post-hip hop madness

This faint delineation highlights that which is so undeniably distinctive about each form — even as they run parallel to each other as post-disco flavors of machine music — both are thrown into stark relief by their inherent proximity to one another. Like the colors red and green or orange and blue residing across one another on the same color wheel, one seems to illuminate the other, making it pop from the page. The juxtaposition of Anthony Shakir's Tracks For My Father against Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun, 69's 4 Jazz Funk Classics with Tony! Toni! Toné!'s Sons Of Soul or Missy Elliott's Da Real World with UR's Interstellar Fugitives seems to animate the sound and vision of all parties involved with an amplified clarity, serving as a decoder ring of sorts in getting to the heart of both musics.

Massive Attack Mezzanine Wild Bunch

Somewhere between Metal Box and Pony lies the Mezzanine

Throw in the breakbeat science of 4 Hero, A Guy Called Gerald, Shut Up And Dance and the Kemet Crew — on one hand — and Tricky, Terranova, Massive Attack and Smith & Mighty's time-ravaged trip hop noir on the other, and you've got a stunning image of the intersecting, criss-cross paths of modern music coming into their own at virtually the exact same time. Even now, we're still riding that wave, felt beneath the surface of today's pop fabric even if a frustratingly large swathe fails to live up to the initial promise. Diminishing returns, or a momentary calm before the storm? My money's on the latter... it has to be.

The Prodigy The Prodigy Experience XL

Trip Into Drum And Bass Version

In the meantime, over the course of this year it seemed to make sense to check in with this particular stretch of post-punk/post-disco road, one that seemed (in part at least) to imbue the music with tactile physicality and a sense of ATMOSPHERE. This was music that emerged from somewhere — be it Bristol, Chicago, New York or Detroit — with a singular story to tell, a story that was told as much between the lines as within them. Perhaps it's at this axis of human and machine interface — I'm talking about Mike Dean's basslines and Jimmy Douglass behind the boards, The Prodigy's on-the-fly mix-downs and Moodymann's mirage of sequencer programming and live instrumentation — where the magic happens?

Public Image Ltd. Metal Box Virgin

The key...

At any rate, just as with all the others, the final Machine Soul chapter of Terminal Vibration will feature a handful of satellite entries (the first of which we've already seen with the Alexander O'Neal record) cleaving to its theme, which in this case will last us for the remainder of the month (and year, for that matter). Then, we'll wrap up the whole Terminal Vibration saga with a monster break out to kick off the new year. There's also one record that perhaps makes sense of the entire selection, which we're going to give the deeper look-in it deserves, along with a bit of back story that improbably crosses wires with the canyon (but then, as I often say, it's all connected... it's all of a piece).

All of that coming very soon. Until then, stay tuned to the Terminal Vibration...

Alexander O’Neal – Alexander O’Neal

Alexander O'Neal looking dapper in a suit in shades of deep blue
Alexander O'Neal

In the annals of great soul men, Alexander O'Neal stands astride the worlds of smooth soul and modern r&b like a colossus. His incomparable croon took center stage on a prime selection of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis' finest productions, a series of machine-driven soul missives that defined the idea of the Minneapolis sound, alongside the output of figures like The S.O.S. Band, The Time and Prince himself. This was era-defining pop at the height of electro boogie's protracted reign, and a state-of-the-art retrofit of the smooth soul blueprint that went on to send reverberations throughout the remainder of the decade (and beyond — just ask The Neptunes).

The Time The Time Warner Bros.

O'Neal was originally a member of funky rabble-rousers The Time before being shunted aside (the reasons vary depending on who you ask), leaving Morris Day to embody the mischievous personality of the band in the public consciousness. It turned out to be an unlikely case where everyone seemed to benefit — most of all the listener — as The Time indulged its deliciously impish sense of humor across a series of wild, careening funk LPs while O'Neal's more subdued approach became the very definition of modern soul. Grown folks music, to borrow a phrase. So as much as it might be perversely enticing to imagine these very disparate approaches juxtaposed on the same slab of wax, the listener is free to enjoy twice the amount of good music than they likely otherwise would have. And that's always a good thing.

Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis

At any rate, this freed up Alexander O'Neal for to pursue a solo career in earnest, encouraged by Jam & Lewis (who themselves had been edged out of The Time shortly after). The duo crafted a lush sonic penthouse around O'Neal, which he inhabited with singularly debonair style, distinguished by an elegant, soulful voice and tailored suits to match. From the cover image on down, O'Neal's self-titled debut conjures up images of late night rendezvous, city lights, moonlight drives and panoramic, ECM-esque twilight skies. Naturally, the music itself is the perfect soundtrack to such furtive nocturnal activities, an ideal nighttime record whether you're out for a night drive or just chilling at your spot for the evening.

Alexander O'Neal Alexander O'Neal

Tabu 1985

With his self-titled debut, Alexander's overriding preoccupation lies with matters of the heart. In fact, that might have made an accurate alternate title for this record: Matters Of The Heart. Throughout the album's 42 minutes, he chronicles various states of heartbreak and healing in a frieze of passionate emotion, putting the soul in the machine with what sounds like a well of tortured experience to draw upon. From dramatic balladry to motorik mid-tempo burners and even maddening electro boogie workouts, Alexander O'Neal offers seven varied snapshots of this crazy thing called love.

Alexander O'Neal All True Man Tabu

The record opens with the sultry strains of A Broken Heart Can Mend, an unhurried mid-tempo slow burner that chugs beneath Alex's smoldering vocals as they glide across it all with an effortless panache. Coming on like deep house pitched-down about 10bpms, its lush groove seems to gently unfurl on an infinite, motorik plane while Alex is enveloped in the surrounding moonlit production. In a way, it even predicts the sound of the Frankie Knuckles Big House Mix of All True Man from six years later, underlined by the way those backing vocals coax out the chorus, offering a reassuring repetition of the song's title sentiment and comforting the wounded loverman in his declared vows to press on. Brilliant!

Alexander O'Neal reclines on a king size bed in his bathrobe
Still from the If You Were Here Tonight music video1

The graceful twilight architecture of If You Were Here Tonight follows, dropping the tempos way down into prototypical slow jam territory. This kicks off a three song run of prime balladry, all produced by Monte Moir (also of The Time). Don't tune out though, all you footloose kiddies, for this is one of the true highlights of the record (and that's really saying something with a tracklist this stellar). Crystalline harp-like synths duet with a Spanish guitar over crashing drums and a sustained proto-techno bassline in this towering quiet storm epic. Needless to say, Alex's vocals soar gracefully throughout.

He imbues each and every word with the most searching tone imaginable, and when he sings if you could only know my feelings, you will know how much I do believe, it's as if time itself stands still. He's for real, man! Deep synths sweep beneath it all in the aftermath of the chorus, embodying a sense of shelter from the storm. The whole thing brilliantly capturing the seeming life-and-death struggle and intolerable gravity of a soul caught in the throes of passion and romantic love. I imagine many could relate...

It all fades to reveal a loping percussion figure, the only thing accompanying Alex's sensual ad libs in a sea of reverb. It's the first of many seemingly off-the-cuff moments that give the record its buttoned-down, almost live feel. I'd compare its strikingly evocative effect to that achieved by Moodymann — specifically on things like the Kenny Dixon, Jr. Remix of Innerzone's version People Make The World Go Round — paradoxically managing to imbue these machine music proceedings with a strong sense of human intimacy.

Note also the rather expressive music video, the mood of which captures the whole nighttime in the city vibe of this record with a perfectly 1980s (that is, early music video-era) charm. But then, I suppose I'm a sucker for such things...

Alexander O'Neal Hearsay Tabu

After the fathoms-deep raw power of If You Were Here Tonight, you're more than ready for a bit of a breather, something a little less emotionally draining, and Alex delivers yet again in the shape of Do You Wanna Like I Do. The song lies in the middle of a three-song stretch of slow jams, building a sort of opulent momentum as the record progresses. The lovesick melody is carried by a bevy of crashing pianos, while an electro-funk bassline's pulse weaves through the gaps in the chord progression in studied slow-motion. The lustrous, shimmering atmosphere conjured up by Monte Moir offers the perfect counterpoint to Alex's pleas in a stirring fusion of hi-tech heartbreak, setting the stage for Hearsay's lush slow jams like Sunshine and Crying Overtime a couple years later.

Sade Diamond Life Epic

The record's last big slow jam comes into focus with Look At Us Now, which couldn't be further from the twin desperate pleas of If You Were Here Tonight and Do You Wanna Like I Do. With its casual saxophone sway evoking shades of Sade's Diamond Life, it seems to capture the quiet glow of contentment even as it finds Alex begging his woman to stay. It's almost as if he were trying to evince a quiet confidence in their state of affairs as he goes about building a case for her to stick around.

The effect takes every mildly disparaging remark you've ever heard about the aspirational aspects of this era's soul music and simultaneously fulfills and transcends them at once in a great cresting wave of world-weary optimism. The whole tune just shimmers, hanging there in midair as if suspended on nothing but moonlight and a prayer. It closes the first side leaving you ready to take on the world, and my bet is that she does stay after all.

Cherrelle High Priority Tabu

Conversely, the Innocent/Alex 9000/Innocent II medley opens the second side with a ten-minute strong electro boogie monster jam, still resolute but this time coming from an entirely different direction. It's the record's one true (extended) moment of uptempo funk, firmly in the tradition of marathon Minneapolis workouts like The Time's The Walk, Sheila E.'s The Glamorous Life and Prince And The Revolution's America. Featuring backing vocals from Tabu Records label-mate Cherrelle, with whom O'Neal would duet later that year on Saturday Love (from her debut LP, High Priority), the effect is not unlike that of The Glamorous Life's deadpan backing refrain.

Jellybean Johnson, the drummer from The Time, under hot pink lights
Jellybean Johnson, renaissance man

At the four-minute mark, the tune's snaking electro boogie synths spiral into a strained solo (nascent shades of proto-techno in evidence) before the tenor begins to shade toward the intimate. Then, fellow ex-Time member Jellybean Johnson starts shredding some guitar for the protracted mid-section, which also features gang shouts a la New Order's Confusion and some Prince/Ready For The World-style whoah-oh backing chants. Brilliant stuff, yeah?

Then, with but a minute-and-a-half remaining, the tune transforms entirely amid a rush of snares into a funky coda led by Terry Lewis' slap bass and the gang shouts as they return with a vengeance. This seems to be the Alex 9000 portion of the trip. The group vamps on the theme for a spell before cresting into Revolution-style buildup for the climax. Finally, the original groove returns for a couple bars (Innocent II) before collapsing completely into a cascading synth figure and the tortured distortions of Jellybean's guitar still hanging in the air.

Alex sings on stage, dancing in a sparkling mustard suit
Alexander O'Neal performs What's Missing on Soul Train2

What's Missing seems to fuse all the different aspects of this record — from the atmosphere of the lush slow jams to the motorik groove of the mid-tempo burners and even a casual return of nimble digital funk — into an infectious tonic that just might be my favorite thing here. On the face of it, the tune seems understated, slight even, but when that chorus hits — with Alex's passionate we used to have good love, but now its gone a naggingly infectious hook — I'd wager its the tune you'll have the most trouble getting out of your head.

In fact, of all the tunes here, I'm absolutely certain I remember hearing it on the radio when I was a kid (back when Michael Jackson was Captain EO and the Padres still wore brown and gold). I just noticed that there's some footage on Youtube of the man's performance of What's Missing on Soul Train, looking ten times more in-his-element than in any high concept music video. I should probably apologize in advance for the difficulty you'll have in getting this song out of your head, but trust me... you'll thank me later!

Stephanie Mills If I Were Your Woman MCA

The record closes with You Were Meant To Be My Lady Not My Girl, the title alone of which hints at this record's intended mature, sophisticated audience (see also Stephanie Mills' If I Were Your Woman). Alex ain't messing around here, he's down for commitment! The tune's slow-burning mid-tempo groove mirrors the opening moves of A Broken Heart Can Mend (shades too of The Gap Band's carefree Outstanding), this time offering the sweet catharsis of renewal.

In certain ways, the tune's elegant synth flourishes make me flash on the cascades of atmosphere in certain dreamy China Crisis moments (on one hand) and Larry Heard's mid-period, jazz-inflected soul man forays on the other. There's a definite sense of winding-down as the tune casually unfolds — even finding the band messing around and then collapsing into laughter over its extended coda of percussion — in contrast to the preceding songs' dramatic catharsis.

This is the sound of hard-won contentment, made all the more poignant in light of all the emotional turmoil that came before. It's the perfect way to end the record... the culminating moment in a survey of assorted conditions of the heart.

Leroy Hutson Hutson Curtom

When all is said and done, this is simply a superb album. The midpoint between Marvin Gaye's I Want You and Tony! Toni! Toné!'s Sons Of Soul, it's a crucial outpost connecting two very distinct eras of music. Alex's soulful delivery exists in the tradition of everything from Solomon Burke to Teddy Pendergrass, while its carefully-crafted song cycle evokes memories of classic records by the likes of Eddie Kendricks, Leroy Hutson and Isaac Hayes.

Ginuwine Ginuwine... The Bachelor 550

Meanwhile, its steel-rimmed dreamtime loverman moves seem to sow the seeds for everything from Chez Damier's lush deep house slates and Larry Heard's post-Mr. Fingers output to Janet Jackson's Jam & Lewis-fueled trajectory into the 90s and even Timbaland's post-disco r&b moves as laid out on records like Aaliyah's One In A Million, Ginuwine's The Bachelor and Playa's Cheers 2 U. It's a roots 'n future mash-up in an entirely different fashion than you'd usually expect.

Spacek Curvatia Island

Moving into more recent, esoteric terrain, Spacek's acid jazz-limned techno forays (especially the first album) seem to be the logical descendant of the record's most motorik mid-tempo moments, while even SA-RA's remarkably physical manifestations of machine soul seem to fulfill the promises made in Alexander O'Neal's electric blue twilight moves. In that sense, it's future music, pure and simple, in which entire futures are augured within its neon-lit blueprints.

Fingers Inc. Another Side Jack Trax

As such, it's one of the decade's greatest, most important records, lodged in at the axis of the decade alongside other crucial incursions like Jamie Principle's Waiting On An Angel, Model 500's Night Drive, Wally Badarou's Chief Inspector Tenor Saw's Fever and Mantronix's debut album, sharing with all those records a set of undoubtedly far-reaching implications. This lays out the foundations for a future music in the same way Fingers Inc.'s Another Side, Smith & Mighty's production for Fresh 4's Wishing On A Star and Guy's self-titled debut all would a few years later. Taken together, those four records are something like a compass rose for everything would come to be called machine soul.


As such, it makes this the perfect antidote to your typical 1980s decade overviews that tend to neglect the music from these shadowy corners of the soundscape for the more straightforward rock/new wave/synth pop/alternative-derived canon (plus rap — if you're lucky). There's a whole world out there! In a sense, that's what this whole Terminal Vibration saga is about, breaking open the more typical view of the decade to tease out some of its most innovative sounds, hidden in plain sight.

Alexander O'Neal is certainly definitive within the context of this trip's long-delayed machine soul-shaped denouement, setting us up perfectly for the final chapter. As such, for curious souls looking to unearth the shadowy origins of machine soul magic scrawled between the lines in this most misunderstood of decades, Alexander O'Neal is the perfect place to start. It's a key record or the eighties packed with great music... you can't go wrong.

Footnotes

1.

O'Neal, Alexander. If You Were Here Tonight. Alexander O'Neal. ?. Tabu, 1985. Music Video.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k7hY5W_oPqs

2.

Youtube. Soul Train, live performance ofWhat's Missing by O'Neal, Alexander. Live performance. 1985.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dfKonO9KKm8

Motion 002

Motion 002: Trip Into The Groove

This latest Motion playlist dates back to late summer, with the tempo dropping accordingly. Still, the mix managed to hang around as the days grew shorter, its machine soul/trip hop/techno mash-up the perfect soundtrack to running at dusk as the city lights begin to switch on. As me move back into Terminal Vibration territory — particularly its final Machine Soul chapter — it seemed as good a time as any to blog it on up here...

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    Motion 002: Trip Into The Groove

  1. The Herbaliser What What Bring It Ninja Tune
  2. Tripping back into action with a bit of downbeat hip hop from Ninja Tune stalwarts The Herbaliser, we start out our trip on the downbeat tip (that way it's harder to fall behind the pace!). One of three tracks from their sophomore set Blow Your Headphones to feature the great Jean Grae (back when she was still known as What What), this is firmly in the vein of stoned mid-period hip hop like Bahamadia, The Pharcyde and Guru's Jazzmatazz series.

  3. Playa Don't Stop The Music Def Jam
  4. Peak-era Timbaland, featuring his chrome-plated r&b vision writ large on this production for the trio of Smokey, Black and Static. Static (aka Stephen Garrett was one of the songwriters in Timbaland's Bassment crew, responsible for tunes like Aaliyah's Are You That Somebody? and Try Again.

    This quasi-cover version of the classic Yarbrough & Peoples boogie chestnut is prototypical machine soul, picking up where Juan Atkins left off three years earlier with The Flow G-Funk Mix. Dig those deft harmonies weaving in and out of that trademark digi-funk riddim, the pulsing synth bassline shadowboxing Tim's clipped drum machine shuffle.

    The line between the finest trip hop (in the Smith & Mighty tradition) and this sort of pre-millennial tension is a thin one indeed.

  5. Mélaaz Non, Non, Non BMG
  6. Smoked-out French rap, this was picked up by Ultimate Dilemma for the Musical Dilemmas compilation and thus became something of an trip hop stone tablet by default, even showing up a decade later on Daddy G's stellar DJ-Kicks outing. Hardly surprising, given that it fits Massive Attack's remit perfectly (in fact, it would slot right in on Protection's cinematic second side).

    Having picked this up back in the day, I was pleased to get a little more context on the record in Kevin Pearce's excellent nineties dance tome A Cracked Jewel Case.

  7. Timbaland And Magoo Clock Strikes Blackground
  8. More Timbaland, this time from his own record with Magoo. Effortlessly funky machine music. His beats from this era are perfect for all your running needs. I know a lot of people don't dig it, but I'm actually a huge fan of Timbaland's style on the mic, midway between low-rocking trip hop mumble and Jamaican producer behind the boards, punching in on the mix.

    I used to listen to this album on continuous loop with Octave One's The Living Key To Images From Above, Reprazent's New Forms and the East Flatbush Project record, which along with Kevin Saunderson's X-Mix was my early '98 in a nutshell.

  9. Tricky DJ Milo & Luke Harris How's Your Life Studio !K7
  10. Recentish Tricky with fellow Bristol luminary DJ Milo. I was crushed that I missed the tour behind this album, which stopped in Linda Vista's Belly Up Tavern. This decade's found Tricky back in the groove in a big way, indeed recent records like False Idols rival his nineties output.

    Case in point How's Your Life. This is so subtle, so smooth even, and yet it's totally savage. I love the almost subconscious inevitability of that quiet storm loop, apparently from a mid-eighties Larry Carlton record. It just draws you into concentric orbit, Tricky running tings below the radar.

  11. Sade Surrender Your Love Kenny Larkin Remix Illegal Detroit
  12. Slowly swinging up to a house tempo with this killer Sade bootleg from Detroit. Not much to add to what I said here, but at this point in the run things really slide into the groove. Machine soul keeps you running like a machine, and for this tune's eleven minutes, you feel like you could keep on running forever.

  13. Yage Coda Coma Jumpin' & Pumpin'
  14. Some tasty Jumpin' & Pumpin' action, taken from Yage's Fuzzy Logic EP. This is up there in the upper echelon of post-Detroit work by the likes of 4 Hero, Basic Channel and The Black Dog. Killer breakbeat techno, its soaring synth choirs chopped with soundtrack strings and funereal organs that all recede gracefully into the overcast horizon. A snatch of dance vocal slides in over its rugged analogue bassline before the breaks kick back into gear.

    Another under-acknowledged masterpiece from the pre-FSOL Dougans and Cobain (and believe me, there's more where that came from), this is the equal of anything on Accelerator.

  15. Chaka Khan I Know You, I Live You Warner Bros.
  16. Sublime post-disco almost-boogie from the great Chaka Khan. All would-be divas take note of that soaring chorus, it's like sunlight reflecting off the surface of parting storm clouds. Later the basis for Agent-X's awesome Detroit house slate In The Morning, warped post-Kenny Dixon Jr./Moodymann filter-disco of the highest caliber. Hearing Chaka's original for the first time is such a joy.

  17. Throbbing Gristle Hot On The Heels Of Love Ratcliffe Remix NovaMute
  18. Impossibly lush take on this O.G. industrial crew's creepy slab of claustrophobic proto-techno. This remix by one half of Basement Jaxx takes it into big room, widescreen territory. Shimmering multi-layered synths shift and glide over a heavy Reese bassline and shuffling percussion. There's even an exotic vocal snatch chucked into the bargain.

    First heard this in a Luke Slater mix where it rubbed shoulders with Isolée and Dopplereffekt, this is originally from a compilation of remixes of Throbbing Gristle tunes by contemporary dance artists. Carl Craig even provides another, more faithful mix of Heels Of Love, but make no mistake: this Jaxx version is where its at. Visionary stuff.

  19. Alec Empire SuEcide Force Inc.
  20. Closing out the mix, and giving you that last little boost, is a pure adrenaline rush of rave techno from the pre-Atari Teenage Riot/Mille Plateaux Alec Empire. This would be a stone cold killer if it were just the sub-bass locking with the stop-start funk sample, but then that proto-trance lead drops into the mix and sends it all over the edge to the sublime. It just glides over the whole of it.

    The effect is breathtakingly cinematic, indeed this sort of thing belongs not in a museum but in a movie (preferably something based on a William Gibson novel). I've often thought that this track is a kindred spirit with Carl Craig's 69 output.

And that's it, you're back through the front door. Repeat as necessary. From downbeat to uptempo, once you dip into the second half of the mix you'll be impossible to stop. You are the machine.

The Herbaliser - Blow Your Headphones Playa - Cheers 2 U Mélaaz - Mélaaz Timbaland And Magoo - Welcome To Our World Tricky  - Skilled Mechanics Sade - Surrender Your Love (Illegal Remixes)
Yage - Fuzzy Logic EP Chaka Khan - What Cha' Gonna Do For Me Throbbing Gristle - Mutant Throbbing Gristle Alec Empire - SuEcide (Pt. 1)
Motion 002: Trip Into The Groove