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 undeniably 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 travelers 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 inner space 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 the name of their label, 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 vocodored 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 catalog. 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 Café). 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 détente 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 a few years later 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 rivaled 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 more so 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).
Similarly, a strain of club music would arise in Baltimore during the 90s that fused electro rhythms with sped 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 shuck 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 Collins' 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 BoiledFast
Ryuichi SakamotoRiot In LagosAlfa
HashimAl-Naafiysh The SoulCutting
KraftwerkIt's More Fun To ComputeKling Klang
I-fSpace Invaders Are Smoking GrassDisko B
Space DJzCelestial FunkInfonet
The Egyptian LoverMy House On The NileEgyptian Empire
Underground ResistanceElectronic Warfare Take Control Mix by Aux 88UR
Little Computer PeopleLittle Computer PeoplePsi49net
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 channeling 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 swan song 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 back streets 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 outer/inner space 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 drum kit), 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 tranquility, 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 left field. 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 left field 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 left field 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 outer rim 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 block rockin' 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 trench coat 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 détente with the contemporary trip hop of Tricky and DJ Shadow (indeed, the record was even licensed by hip downbeat institution Mo Wax).
Similarly, Mo Wax 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 block rockin' 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 noisescapes 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 wise guy 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...
TV007: Edge Of No Control
Killer MikeBun B, T.I. & TroubleBig BeastWilliams Street
Meat Beat ManifestoGod O.D. Part 1Mute
Jungle BrothersBattle ShowBlack Hoodz
Public EnemyShe Watch Channel Zero?!Def Jam
Schoolly DP.S.K. "What Does It Mean?"Schoolly D
Kanye WestOn SightDef Jam
Method ManRelease Yo Delf Prodigy MixDef Jam
Ultramagnetic MC'sPoppa Large East Coast MixMercury
Ice-TNew Jack HustlerSire
Ice CubeThe ProductPriority
MaterialAhlill The Transcending Soldier, phonosycographDISK & Jerome "Bigfoot" BraileyFreestyle JourneyAxiom
Lil WayneRemember MeCash Money
Public EnemyGo Cat GoDef Jam
Vince StaplesFireDef Jam
DJ SpookyPrince Poetry & Pharoahe Monch of Organized KonfusionRekonstructionOutpost