I remember back when Woebot unleashed his list of The 100 Greatest Records Ever on an unsuspecting public, he commented that Only in a genre as merciless, functional and transitory as ardkore could a talent like Acen just fall off the map. One can hardly imagine him being inducted into the Rock 'n Roll hall of fame.1 Well, the Parallax hall of fame is another matter entirely. And 'round these parts — humble though they may be — Acen fits right in. His multi-part ardkore epics burned with a furious sense of adventure and wide-eyed innovation, his ruffneck proggy sensibilities indelibly expanding the possibilities of what could be done with a rave record.
As far as anyone in the wider world of dance music knew, Syed Ahsen Razi first emerged fully-formed in 1991 on the Production House imprint. Opening with a sample of Jim Morrison from The Doors's The Celebration Of The Lizard — with Morrison's trademark baritone pitched up to chipmunk speed — Close Your Eyes 'XXX' Mix is dawn-of-ardkore era rave music par excellence, bumping along at a house pace with its various primordial elements — sampled strings, sub-bass, bleeps and a quasi-Mentasm stab — slipping in an out of the mix in an ever-revolving bid for center stage. A voice whispers ecstasy in some blissful echo of Beltram's Energy Flash, and the spell is complete.
On the flip, the Vitamin 'E' Mix draws the matter down into the darkside — with the Mentasms pulled to the fore and bolstered by incongruent loops of sampled Gothic choir — the beats alternating between shuffling electro rhythms and chopped slow-motion breaks as a muffled voice taunts give it to 'em! The only respite comes in the form of a snatched fragment of blissed-out acappella from Prince's For You, dropping into the mix like a single ray of sunshine breaking through the storm clouds. Right out the gate, there's already a yeoman-like mix-illogical play of signifiers in full effect, surely the hallmark of all the great ardkore records from Out Of Space to Journey From The Light.
Acen reworked the track the following year with Close Your Eyes Optikonfusion!, which is actually how I heard the man's music in the first place. This in the context of working my way back from The Prodigy Experience in the late-90s, discovering records like Jonny L's Hurt You So and Far Out by Sonz Of A Loop Da Loop Era, records about which my brother would memorably remark it's The Prodigy! whenever they'd come on the soundsystem. At the time, I had next to no idea where all of this fell into place — beyond the fact that these were early rave records — with only the slightest inkling that they'd constitute the roots of the sound that would later mutate into jungle.
In true darkside style, the Optikonfusion! mix ramps up the tempo, mashing up the breaks and ever-intensifying rave sonix to dizzying levels of complexity. The overdose sample from Mr. Kirk's Nightmare a dead giveaway of the drug-warped ravefloor intent in evidence throughout, this time only letting up with a couple bars of George Harrison's singing lifted from The Beatles' Here Comes The Sun, while both its closing synths and the opening of The Sequel Mix imbue the whole ragged trip with shades of Detroit sci-fi, offering a tantalizing glimpse of things to come...
The sprawling Trip II The Moon trilogy was the culmination of everything that Close Your Eyes Optikonfusion! had promised, with Acen's breathless visions writ large across three slabs of 12" vinyl, played out in a soaring deep space saga as vast and soaring as its title suggested. In his notes for Trip II The Moon Part 1, Razvi describes his methodology in producing the track, as well as where he was coming from during the sessions:
Written & produced in the early spring of 1992 on the MPC-60 - SH101 & W30. I recreated the sound I had in my head at 7 years of age for the intro - this is what I thought the moon sounded like a decade before I recorded it.2
Science! Accordingly, his vaulting, prog-level ambition is taken to its absolute zenith here, with Trip II The Moon itself playing like an extended multi-part suite, launching through various movements like a starship jumping in and out of hyperspeed with wild abandon. The track opens with slow-motion bleeps caught in suspended animation, as if circling just outside a black hole's pull, everything drenched in deep space sonics. The machines in zero-g suspended animation. Suddenly, Rakim himself gets pulled into orbit, his interjection I get hype... when I hear the flow spooling out in fast-forward double-time against the arrival of a bassline seemingly patched in from some ancient arcade machine wobbling precariously over mad skittering breakbeats.
Suddenly, he's beaming in synth strings from Detroit as a helium diva soars above the turning tides into bliss, gushing with that quintessential rave sentiment: you send me, take me higher... more than ever before. With her voice gliding across the surface of those tumbling breaks — Acen's greatest feat of breakbeat science (still a growth industry at this point) thus far — there's an aerodynamic sense of dexterity to the tune, an elegance to its thrusting play of serenity and exhilaration. In many ways, it even predicts the 4 Hero's astro-junglist trip from Journey From The Light to The Golden Age and Parallel Universe. Even today, it stands as one of ardkore's absolute greatest moments.
The flipside harbors Obsessed, which canes its tinkling pianos to sinister effect (real John Carpenter vibes), building up the tension against the sound of wind sighing in the distance. A lonely female voice murmurs I want you every day, before soaring into a wordless paean to the night, played out over unstable breakbeats splitting the atom over a throbbing bassline and eerie synth lines stalking at the peripheries. Perhaps not quite as transcendent as Trip II The Moon (then again, what is?), but still a clear precursor to the looming dawn of darkcore, and an evocative symphony of paranoia.
These teasing hints of the darkside are taken to their logical conclusion with the second part of the saga, Trip II The Moon (The Darkside...). Beginning with a demented music box piano loop, a sped-up voice exclaims it's in my brain before the beat kicks into high gear. Then the Mentasms come into play, shuffling and gyrating in great contorted shapes across the tune's surface, its buzzing claustrophobia dissolving into pitched strings as it all gets drawn back into the black hole's inescapable pull. Game over, man!
Only it's not: launching into its crescendo with a lush string breakdown (memorably lifted from Nancy Sinatra's You Only Live Twice), the tune enters a whole other movement that practically defines the paring of the words stately and splendor. The result is pure rapture, perfectly capturing a vividly drawn sense of keening awe, as if you'd just awoke from orbital slumber to catch the lunar sunrise, the bleary haze of sleep's dreamtime imprint still lingering in your eyes. You strain to hear the sounds of the music that played as the dream ended, still hanging in the air like the echo of some distant memory, before it drifts away for all time.
Mixing it up on the flip once again, The Life And Crimes Of A Ruffneck is a natty bit of proto-junglist mischief, sampling fragments of Ennio Morricone's symphonic strings from Chi Mai over scorching drum and bass minimalism. Like Nicolette's Now Is Early, there's a definite stripped-down quality to the proceedings (in contrast to ardkore's typical packed-to-the-rafters soundscapes) that render it ahead of its time almost by default. Paired with its dancehall stylings and criminal-minded intent, it sounds something like a working sketch of ragga jungle circa 1995.
Sitting at the apex of the whole endeavor is the third and final chapter, Trip II The Moon Kaleidoscopiklimax. The programming here tightened up to a phenomenal degree, its breaks tumble and crash like peak-era jungle, while the wobbling subterranean bassline twists in time with bleeps in deep orbit. Shimmering pianos dance across the surface of it all with blissful abandon and the siren's song returns one last time, the whole affair capturing the wild rush of lift off, proving that Trip II The Moon was that rarest of things: a trilogy that peaked with the final chapter.
Acen repeats the trick with Obsessed II Pictures Of Silence, taking the tune into widescreen territory with chamber piano runs drifting through various movements while mournful strings creak and sigh beneath. The John Carpenter pianos from the original are replaced by an electronic sequence (only doubling the Carpenter effect) that builds up the tension before it all explodes into the climax, where great burning synths arc like shooting stars into the darkness. Once again, clues have been laid out as to where the man was headed next, if you only know how to read them.
Similarly, it's interesting to note the way each record's center label gave a clue as to the contents within. Part 1 features the surface of the moon itself, a clear indicator of the destination you're about to be launched towards. Conversely, Part 2 has the surface of the Earth emblazoned on its label: now you're on the surface of the moon (or in its orbit), gazing longingly through the window back home. Kaleidoscopiklimax throws it all into the blender with fractal tendrils spiraling out from the center, perfectly matching the computer-guided psychedelia of the music itself. The journey through inner space?
Window In The Sky Monolythikmaniak picks up from where Obsessed II left off, with massive synth architecture and wild textures often warped as much as the beats themselves, bleeps spiraling off into the fifth dimension. Kingdom Of Light takes the symphonic intent of Kaleidoscopiklimax to its logical conclusion, its strings turning on a dime to shadowbox the breakbeats, which themselves seem to morph through the magic of time-stretching pioneered by Metalheads' Terminator. The almost verse-chorus structure and soaring vocals make it the closest thing to a pop song that Acen ever recorded.
Despite the widescreen sonics featured throughout, Krystal Fairground brings it all back home with a mix that would sit quite comfortably with even his earliest excursions. A wild deconstruction of the track's central theme, it finds him chopping synths and vocal refrains through ricocheting breakbeats, turning in what might well be the finest version here (a dark horse candidate if there ever was one). Like Close Your Eyes, the record even got a full remix 12", this time featuring reworks from Production House stalwarts Nino, DMS, along with Suburban Base dons Krome & Time.
All of which are featured on the 75 Minutes compilation, which rounded up selections from Acen's discography in a grand finale of sorts. In a sense, it's something of a missed opportunity, including all seven version of Window In The Sky but only one part of the Trip II The Moon trilogy. You'd think the natural thing would have been to include all three versions of the trilogy, at the very least! Still, it's got almost everything else, and what is here is top notch. After all, it's Acen!
He'd go on to record further records during the drum 'n bass era (not to mention a 12" under the name Spacepimp that wound up being influential in its own right), but 75 Minutes plays like a signing off moment for the man's original run. It was a stunning evolution played out on the ravefloor, a story told across a sterling string of vividly crafted 12"s. Acen's calling card was his boundless sense of imagination, painstakingly translated to wax with a prog-informed splendor, all articulated with a rude edge and ruthless precision. And with his name indelibly etched into ardkore's firmament with a wildstyle flair, that's a legacy in and of itself.
Ingram, Matthew. The 100 Greatest Records Ever. The Big Book Of Woe. Hollow Earth, 2012. 12160. Digital.
Discogs. Acen - Trip II The Moon (Part 1). 23 Feb. 2010. Catalog entry.