Tracks For My Father is the first Anthony Shakir record I ever owned, having picked it up nearly twenty years ago. I remember finding the 12" in the cutout bin (at the old record store next door to Club Elements) while digging with Snakes after school one crisp Autumn afternoon. I'd heard ofShakir before but hadn't yet heard his music, and with its evocative imagery (on Daniel Bell's 7th City imprint) and $1.50 price tag (which even to a broke high school kid isn't an awful lot of money) it seemed like the ideal place to start.
When I took the record home and put the needle 'pon the record, the effect was like a hidden door opening somewhere in the back of my mind. I hadn't heard anything remotely like it. Fractured beats seemed to tear open cracks across the shifting surface of their own skittering rhythms, cracks through which bass, synths and texture poured out over it all like molten soul. Nowadays you might call it broken beat, but at the time this malfunktioning, hip hop-inflected techno soul felt like the missing link between contemporary Timbaland and Kenny Dixon, Jr.
The good good, in other words, and to this day it remains my favorite record by old Anthony "Shake" Shakir.
My thing was trying to learn how to make music and the only reason I got into electronic music was that the early 1980s R&B just sucked. I didn't like the last Parliament record, Trombipulation, so I started finding out about these other records.
I've always liked this quote because it's at the axis of r&b, techno and house that Shake's music pivots, placing him firmly within the context of machine soul's protracted development. Centrally, in fact.2 In many ways, Tracks For My Father is like UR's The Turning Point, unfurling four sprawling movements that draw inspiration from the rich grooves of vintage jazz, funk and soul even as they manage to augur uncharted futures of their own.
For one, take a look at The Turning Point's striking imagery of Carlos Santana, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Aretha Franklin emblazoned across their center labels. In the case of Tracks For My Father, we get snatches of an interview with some old-time soul man3 interspersed between tracks, as if you were tuning into some late night radio transmission as you venture into the city beneath the pale moonlight. So let's take this journey and see where we end up...
The record opens with the deranged synths of One Beat Just Won't Do shearing into focus. It sounds like the machines are warming up as those synths cycle in and out of range, and then the front door opens and you're dropped out into the world. Submerged in the sounds of the city, now you're shuffling down the sidewalk, alone among the teeming masses. The words One beat, just won't do, ring out from some car stereo passing by, the words hanging in the air on repeat. You weave through the pedestrians, all on journeys of their own, while cars negotiate the traffic on the rain-slicked streets beside you.
Drums cycle in a stop-start rhythm, matching your movements as you juke your way down the boulevard. Beats punch in and out of that still-looping chorus like one of Theo Parrish's MPC workouts (with his deep house vibes subtracted and shot through with a sort of skewed electro-jazz hip hop flavor). Then, the vocals cut out altogether and a warped organ hangs over the beat like a fog, before the beat vanishes as well, synths and organs twisting in unison eight feet above the ground.
Once again, the beat kicks into gear and you're back on the move. The whole city's linked up in a network of concrete and asphalt, glass buildings rising from the pavement in a circuitry of steel. Traffic streams in grid-like patterns like a torrent of pure information, and you're part of the flow. As the music slowly fades, another voice comes into focus, this time the deliberate exchange of a late night interview in progress:
Yeah Joe, you know, we were talking earlier — just before we started this — that we've seen the business go from really creative music, you know, to corporate business control. Well, how do you feel about that?
Well they changed the business. In other words — I guess — in the sixties, we had at least — I don't know — forty recording companies who recorded the music of Soul America. By 1982, we had six recording companies. And what they did was put the music of the soul labels into a vault and they fired everyone. And suddenly, in the mid-eighties all of the soul singers just sort of vanished...
Mhmn, that's true...
They vanished. And they have definitely changed the culture. And you know I love the big business too. I love paychecks and all of that, but if the culture has got to suffer... the musical culture, the enormous contribution that we gave to the world in the 20th century, then I say nuh-uh they just kinda screwed it up a little.
Without warning, Fact Of The Matter kicks in with an electroid slab of skewed, introspective techno. In a sense, it's the most conventional track here, perhaps even reminiscent of something like Live For Friction (from the Iconoclastic Diaries EP). You've arrived at the club, once again weaving through a crowd of people, this time veering toward the bar to order your drink and then proceed to the dancefloor. An archaic synth progression pulses from the soundsystem, all warmth and silicon soul, scattering stardust across the room before it gets sucked back into its own vortex again.
That mutant electro beat still taps out its rhythm while a deep six bassline seems to jump rope across its surface. One's reminded of Carl Craig's masterful More Songs About Food And Revolutionary Art and its fizzing electronics, those gentle computer rhythms cycling like clockwork in the night. No surface is constant, no measure unchanging, as textures move in and out of phase as if viewed through a prism. Rhythms rewind and slip into eddying tide pools — where only a flickering bassline accompanies the synths — before flowing back into the slipstream once again.
Like Kraftwerk remixed by Kenny Dixon, Jr. the whole thing just unfolds like sonic origami.
On the flipside, Roaming opens with a melody fashioned from a snatch of atmosphere, a simple cluster of sparkling synths that just seem to hang in the ether. An errant bassline taps out the counterpoint and you've stepped back into the world. A crisp breakbeat stomp propels you back down the boulevard toward your point of origin, starting you on the long walk home. That bassline returns — this time plucking down at a lower register — sounding like some bebop-era wood bass reconstructed in virtual reality. This is what tech jazz is all about...
Roaming is, rather appropriately, the most linearly propulsive thing here. There's no rewinding beats, no tangents of rhythm, just non-stop forward motion. I reflect for a moment on 4 Hero's transition from ardkore jungle into the cosmic jazz of Creating Patterns and the broken beat excursions of their own 2000 Black imprint, a sound that Tracks For My Father seems to parallel as a vision of everything jazz could become.4
It's a vision that stays with you even as the track begins to recede onto the horizon, and we return to the interview and further words of wisdom...
The one thing that we did find — as you know — in traveling all over the world, the one level of communication that we had that overcame language barriers and everything else was the music, you know?
It was the music.
And now that — and you know — and of course the corporate world ain't gonna like this, but I'm sorry this is the way it is: the corporate world stepped in and took away the creative process, and started making it the financial process.
Drifting in on a silicon haze, Travelers is by far the most ethereal thing here, its gently flickering shadows quite minimal even in the context of this record's brooding, cracked jazz soundscapes. Celestial synth textures phase in and out of earshot like a hazy morning mist. You're shuffling homeward back down these same city streets — by now nearly deserted — and you can just begin to see the first glimmer of sunlight on the horizon, bathing the face of certain eastward facing buildings even as you roam the darkness below.
A pulsing synth pattern seems to bounce along the center of it all like a coiled spring, while a simple keyboard melody plays gentle counterpoint deep in the distance. The drip-dropping percussion enters subtly, splashing into focus like footsteps upon the rain-slicked sidewalk. Everything seems to drift in and out of focus, threatening to crumble into dust even as it staggers ever forward, taking you home to your front door once again. And then, our journey ends.
Over in the space of twenty-five minutes, this four track EP hits you like a vintage soul album in miniature (albeit shot through with a healthy dose of Future Shock). Part of the reason this record means so much to me is that it seems to cram a whole double-LP r&b song cycle's worth of ideas into the space of four tracks and two interludes. Submerged beneath its deceptively simple surfaces are hidden vast corridors left for you to explore, reaching deep into the past even as they uncovers possible futures.
The record seems to fuse the sensibility of Moodymann's Black Mahogani with the x-ray electro of Drexciya's Neptune's Lair and 4 Hero's jazz-inflected stone tablet Creating Patterns. Of course, none of those records had even come out yet, which further highlights the record's singularly visionary nature. The sound and spirit of Tracks For My Father have everything in common with the music of 21st century figures like SA-RA Creative Partners, Kelela, J Dilla, Erykah Badu, Kamasi Washington and Kendrick Lamar. In other words, music that we're still catching up with.
Tracks For My Father springs squarely from the very particular environment of late-nineties Detroit, an era when records like Urban Tribe's The Collapse Of Modern Culture (which Shakir had a hand in developing) and Innerzone Orchestra's Programmed were fusing techno with the twin spectres of progressive soul and jazz. It's a world that remains quite tantalizing to this day, evoking images of Blade Runner intercut with Detroit 9000 in its Future/Past negotiation.
I remember even at the time thinking that this record is what the future would sound like... now wouldn't that be something if that someday turned out to be the case after all.
I suspect that the man in question might be Joe Hunter (of legendary Motown house band The Funk Brothers). But don't quote me on that... (Needless to say, if anyone has any information, please do share!)
I remember first getting into Sade's music about twenty years ago (around the time of her fin de siecle masterpiece Lovers Rock), an era when it slotted in quite nicely among the 4 Hero, Recloose and Innerzone Orchestra records I'd been soaking up (not to mention the vintage jazz and soul sides I'd begun investigating now that I'd started to earn a bit of money). All of which itself sprung naturally from my musical bedrock of techno, trip hop and r&b.
So anyway, Sade. Sade is one of those strange attractors in music, a figure who seems to almost effortlessly command total respect from the cognoscenti. She takes her time between releases, waiting until she feels that she has something new to say before deliberately crafting her new record. This fact, paired with her opaque private life and distrust of media attention, make her an illusive, enigmatic figure whose every release becomes an event in its own right. Look at the rapt response to her latest full-length, Soldier Of Love (nearly ten years ago!), for all the evidence you need.
I remember one time there was a thread dedicated to her on the Submerge message board — which naturally was chock full of techno and house heads — where everyone was lavishing her music with praise (you quickly find that this is not an uncommon response). It was within this context that I heard whispers of a 12" bootleg of Sade remixes by second wave Detroit auteurs Stacey Pullen and Kenny Larkin. Eventually (much later, actually), I managed to track down a copy. As far as I know, this is the original underground Sade remix slate, predating the scores of house bootlegs that surfaced at the dawn of the 21st century.
In fact, before I'd known about the Illegal Detroit record, I happened to pick up the Secretsoul 12" at California Sound & Lighting along with a bundle of techno records like Millsart's Every Dog Has Its Day and DJ ValiumIII. It was a solid bit of deep house maneuvering (especially the second side, featuring a lush remix of Kiss Of Life) that managed to tide me over during the intervening years, but these Illegal Detroit remixes are happening on a whole other plane...
At its root, Surrender Your Love is a dancefloor re-imagining of Sade's minimalistic, sultry moonlight burner Give It Up. Originally tucked away at the tail end of her third album, Stronger Than Pride1988, it was ensconced within a rich, flowing record of torch-lit vocal jazz. The record's spacious sonic environment was full of flowing FenderRhodes, echoic Blue Note instrumentation and Sade's peerless vocals front-and-center.1
The album has an almost (dare I say) Balearic focus on rhythm, replete with subtle island flourishes, heavy bass and sparse production that really lends itself to a sort of insouciantly jazz-inflected dancefloor vision. Paradise was the big hit of the record, reaching #1 in the US Billboard Hot R&B chart (and deservedly so), but — if anything — Give It Up is even better: its gently unfolding Rhodes progression, chugging bassline, rolling percussion and disembodied trumpets are the perfect foundation for Sade's singular vocals to wander like an empress through her gardens.
It's this set of base materials that the Detroit cats descend upon. The first side is devoted to Kenny Larkin's remix, which is a gently flowing eleven-minute excursion into the dreamy climes of jazz-tinged deep house. The rolling conga rhythm from the original version is augmented here by some substantial percussive programming from Lark Daddy himself, with the tempo itself slightly quickened in the process.
The fascinating thing about both remixes is that — to the best of my knowledge — they weren't made from source tapes. Both versions are essentially edits of the original tune's spartan jazz figures, fleshed out with their own arrangements brought to bear on the material. Thus, that same clipped hi-hat figure and throbbing bassline get incorporated into a pulsing 4/4 groove, while those trademark disembodied trumpets flutter through the mix. Throughout it all, Sade's vocals surf the rhythm in such a way that you'd swear she felt it there all along.
The melodic crux of Larkin's mix lies in the gentle DX-100 pattern — in the mold of that synths classic bass organ sound — and an occasional synth flourish that sounds a distant cousin to the HohnerClavinet. It seems to spike the unfolding tune with an aberrant tattoo of improvisational unpredictability, connecting with the abstract jazz inflections of Larkin's own recordings.
Case in point is Metaphor, Larkin's contemporary LP (and his sophomore set). The lush synth textures of tunes like Java and Soul Man run parallel to Surrender Your Love's tidal chord progressions, while the record's final three-track run (spanning Sympathy, Butterflies and Amethyst) sounds like nothing so much as sparkling jazz fusion redrawn on the game grid of 90s digital dance. The KurzweilK2000 was one of Larkin's key synths at this point, and it's distinctively delicate textures are painted all across the record.2a
Interestingly, this delicate, nimble touch is something held in common between significant expanses of the music made by the three prime figures of Detroit's second wave: Carl Craig, Kenny Larkin and Stacey Pullen.
And it's Stacey Pullen who turns in the flipside's rework of Give It Up. Between the two versions, his is the more radical reconstruction, full of the crazily inventive percussion figures you'd expect from the man (with his roots as a drummer in high school marching band).2b The beats have a rough-and-ready, almost garage-like swing to them, even predicting certain corners of broken beat in their tumbling cascade. Like Larkin, he also adds in his own keyboard tattoo to adorn the groove periodically, like an illusory piece of a dream.
Pullen's contemporary The Theory Of Silent Phase album was actually recorded around the same time in Kenny Larkin's studio.2a One suspects that these remixes must have been born from those sessions. The Silent Phase record is a tour de force of digital techno soul, defined by its brittle drum programming and lush aquatic synths. Tunes like Air Puzzle and Forbidden Dance clearly mirror what Pullen was up to on his remix of Surrender Your Love, drawing up blueprints for new approaches to machine rhythm.
Of course, he'd take all this to its logical conclusion with Todayisthetomorrowyouwerepromisedyesterday2001, an electronic jazz masterstroke of superfly techno soul that was the culmination of everything he'd been up to since his early Bango records. That it happened to coincide with The Neptunes surfing their own peak (circa Wanderland/In Search Of...)3 was poetic justice, as the very sound of The Theory Of Silent Phase often strikes me as a precursor to The Neptunes own escapades on those records. 2001 simply found them cresting in parallel.
All of which brings us to a large part of the reason I think this record is so crucial, despite its inherent obscurity (bootlegs tend to be that way),4 which is that it so perfectly articulates a future vision of the intersection of house, jazz and r&b (with a dash of techno thrown in for good measure) that would come to be oddly prescient in the following years. Coming out in 1995 — smack in the middle of the 90s — Surrender Your Love was oceans ahead of its time, sharing a unique sonic space alongside Model 500's Deep Space in laying out the blueprint for the future.
One can hear not only pre-echoes of Timbaland's machine soul excursions during the latter half of the decade but also things like Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun2000 and Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope1998, not to mention Moodymann, Theo Parrish and The Lords Of Svek (one can almost read it as the midpoint between Tony! Toni! Toné!'s Sons Of Soul and all of these records).5 As such, it's a stunning tile to encounter mid-decade and below the radar: it's that rare record that contains multitudes within its unexplored grooves.
Summer in full swing, electronics in the system, the bug in the bassbin. Triggered breakbeats and rhythm boxes in full effect. Theme From Hot Burst by Yage unfolds in fractals of digital color (exclusives from Earthbeat — compilations, the art form of the 21st century). Jumpin' & Pumpin' grooves rotate on spinning wax, the vivid colors feathered in stark relief against the Westside records, tiles like Slam and Tonight. Debut with Chile Of The Bass Generation, Mental Cube's Dope Module and Q: Art Science Technology, I Can See For Miles.
So This Is Love... who put this thing together? Yage's Quazi and Coda Coma (from the Fuzzy Logic EP alongside Papua New Guinea Dumb Child Of Q Mix (perhaps it should have been Journey To Pyramid or the 12" Original on the beatbox tip). Indo Tribe's Owl and Semi-Real's People Livin' Today in full effect, rubbing shoulders with Smart Systems' The Creator and Candese — You Took My Love. By Any Other Name...
Humanoid's The Deep and Crystals, Sunshine & BrickGlobal Humanoid. Dance traxx by The Future Sound Of London and Kevin Saunderson (Inner City, The Reese Project, et. al.) and Underground Resistance all intertwine in a pre-minimal subliminal. The absolutely sublime Knuckles/Morales Def Mix of Watcha Gonna Do With My Lovin' and those beachfront pianos ringing that jazz across the ocean breeze. Jeff Mills and Made Mike hit the clubs with Your Time Is Up and Living For The Nite, mixing it all down with the Happy Records. Davina's Don't You Want It and Kenny Dixon Jr.'s Soul Sounds. Meanwhile Back At Home...
Something Happened On Dollis Hill. Earthbeat and Parallel Universe, 4 Hero mutate the breakbeat, dwellin' in tha lab. The Octagon Man and Depth Charge messing with the same breaks and different speeds, the nodes connecting Free-er Than Free to The Demented Spirit to Disko Airlines and beyond. Did it all happen to soon? The Freestyle Files Vols. 1-4 coming thru on X-Radio in the summer heat, Blue Note pianos wrapping the Fine Young Cannibals' Good Thing, Class Action's Weekend, Free-er Than Free and Massive Attack's Unfinished Sympathy in a Gaussian blur.
Electro mixes for miles lead to The Egyptian Lover's Egypt, Egypt pick out of a crate on Zion circa 1998. Electro in the Heights, bombing down Grantville streets to the strains of the Elecktroids' Midnight Drive. Dave Clarke selects the records but you miss him when he comes to L.A.The Octagon Man pushes on from Aux 88's Take Control Mix of Electronic Warfare by UR... that was an institution! Think back to the Hack TV introduction sequence and that LockedownRebirth beat that seems to have vanished from the record altogether.
TB-303s over a downbeat rhythm (the Miami Sunrise effect). Early days messing around in the studio, interfacing with the music. Cutting up the waveforms like Burial, seven years before the fact. The Robotz Garage Mix of U2's Miami, all those Pop traxx much-maligned but sounding even better with every passing year:
Do you feel loved?
Do you feel loved?
Do you feel loved?
Do you feel loved?
Said let the music play...
Cyberpunk in the sunshine and The Playboy Mansion. The Black Dog remix of Radiohead's Talk Show Host — dusted beats in the El Cajon heat, The Chicago Transit Authority on the car radio (Armando, Lil' Louis, Jamie Principle and Adonis), picking it up from Parkway Plaza in a beat up Impala and on to the ska show down the street where The English Beat's Mirror In The Bathroom plays and three brothers sit in the back looking on, echoes of Stolen Documents and Open Up still ringing in their ears.
Those sun-glazed visions in Disco Godfather technicolor light, The Dust Brothers' Nickel Bag mix of Filter's Hey Man Nice Shot, Soul Coughing's 16 Horses and Beck's Deadweight set in stark relief against Scott Weiland's electro vision Jimmy Was A Stimulator. Shades of Bowie in Berlin and Peter Gabriel 3: experimentation in broad daylight. Nuggetsin the 90s. Dude's got an 808 he's gonna use it.
Late summer bizzness, seen: Pharoah Sanders' Elevation, Alice Coltrane's Journey In Satchidananda and Dorothy Ashby's Soul Vibrations like the steam rising from sticky asphalt streets. The World Is A Ghetto coming from War and Harlem River Drive's Idle Hands. Galaxy's Innerzone version sings It's out of sight! Like Eddie Palmieri said, Condiciones Que Existen. Excise it from the radio waves (are you crazy!?), you leave only the sterile pulse of what you're left with today. I start to lose interest... back to the drawing board I'm afraid.
When the radio won't suffice, you improvise. Driving down Jackson Drive with tapes of techno in the heat as July gives way to August. Ken Ishii's X-Mix and the strange shapes of Buckfunk Discotheque, Flare's DIR.R and United Future Organization's Fool's Paradise (acid jazz to a man, memories of Paso Picacho and the self-sames tapes surfacing in the Suburban) rubbing shoulders with Ishii's totally singular Echo Exit and the Ghetto BrothersPumpin' Bass Manoeuvres, the Jedi Knights' Dances Of The Naughty Knights and Mood Optimystic Mix by Symbols & Instruments (house don Derrick Carter, Chris Nazuka and Mark Farina — he of Mushroom Jazz fame — working the machines way back in 1989). That's Terminal Vibration territory for real.
The juke joint house of The Innocent's Theme From Blue Cucaracha (moreDerrick Carter for your eardrums) and Basement Jaxx's Fly Life, and then off to Bumbuphone and the Holistic jazz of Fretless AZM. Organs pulse subliminally, those drums back techno as if it were before its time. Ultimately, it all leads down to the rabbit hole until one day you realize you've tracked down every CD, every 12" of Max Brennan's oeuvre. Alien To Whom?O.H. Krill's The Krill Papers. Allegedly.
Underground Resistance and Drexciya against the backdrop of the selfsame Ken Ishii and Dave Clarke mixes, orders from Studio !K7 and Submerge arrive by mail weeks at a time. C.O.D.Reese traxx the perfect counterpart to the Lakeside heat, dot matrix Submerge catalog printouts pored over for hours in search of 430 West, Fragile and Red Planet 12" records. John Arnold's Universal Mind tracing those stripped down traxx back through boogie and disco, funk, jazz and beyond.
Wonderland and Twin Golden Dragon — it's 1994 again — with cabinets like Toobin' and Discs Of Tron. Kleeer's Tonight and Green Light by Mtume... Deep Space Radio, off the hook. G-funk traces routes back to back in the day. Remember old school? people say, low riders and Cadillacs and whole sections I wish I could have seen. I Still Love You by Kleeer and You Did It Again too, smooth as silk and predicting Nate Dogg's cadence on Warren G's Regulate in it's lustrous languor.
That same summer and J. Beez Wit The Remedy, the Jungle Brothers — Crazy Wisdom Masters — warping the fabric of hip hop moments before it twisted into the darkness forever. Cypress Hill, Cypress Hill,Rammellzee raps on stage at the park, cold rocking the party. Raphael Saadiq's Instant Vintage and the whole dusty soul trip traced back to Sons Of Soul and I Couldn't Keep It To Myself. The Breeders and Björk, Invisible ManCome To Me. Janet Jackson's That's The Way Love Goes, chillin' up at Palomar Mountain... it all happened that same summer.
Norman Connors sleeves down in A.G. as the Nautilus rises from the bubbling depths, Captain Nemo pumping keys on his organ set to ramming speed. The kids playing Rub A Dub Stylee in a kidney shaped pool,Starship Orchestra and Bobby Konders records spinning on the Technics again. Let There Be House and The Future. Those same blue note pianos return, like a feather on the breath of memory, and those deep, deep basslines echoes in the mist, dub disco vibrations push waveforms as they twist and turn through the cool night air.
Ten, twenty, thirty years after and the song still remains the same...
Summertime, and the livin' is easy
Fish are jumpin' and the cotton is high
Your daddy's rich and your mama's good-lookin'
So hush, little baby, don't you cry"
George & Ira Gershwin (Porgy And Bess, 1935)
It's a midsummer night's dream, and where I come from we don't play.
It's time to talk about Deep Space. An album dropped by Juan Atkins amidst a flurry of activity in 1995, it was released smack in the middle of the nineties and bisecting the decade both literally and metaphorically. Slotting in quite comfortably within the currents of outer space imagery running through techno at the time, from Galaxy 2 Galaxy to 4 Hero's Parallel Universe and the Red Planet EPs, it also predicted the tronik r&b moves and minimalist grooves of the late 90s, sounds that take us right up to the present day. Deep Space remains a fascinating record for the way it blends techno, machine soul, micro-house and jazz inflections into a swirling nebula of sonic possibility.
With Atkins tugging the curtain that conceals tomorrow from all of us, he's invited you to catch a glimpse of tomorrow's music looming just around the bend. This is a 21st century soul record, playing like a star map to the future. To this day, it remains one of those records so singular, so forward-thinking, that it's difficult to assess just where exactly it came from. How did Deep Space happen? To answer that question, where the future came from, one must take a look into the past. A decade in the past, to be precise. So let's set our time circuits back to good old 1985...
It's 1985. Juan Atkins had been a member of Cybotron (alongside Richard Davis aka 3070) for a few years by this point. Cybotron were seminal purveyors of electro operating concurrently with Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force, who released Planet Rock just as Cybotron began unleashing records like Alleys Of Your Mind and Clear upon an unsuspecting public.
Cybotron's sound was a rude, street-level update of Kraftwerk's man-machine music, shot through with dark, psychedelic inflections that felt like a hangover from Funkadelic's early acid-tinged LPs (especially Cosmic Slop). The combination of Planet Rock and Clear (in particular) laid the foundation for the whole electro craze (see also Hashim, Planet Patrol and The Egyptian Lover), a sound that would go on to rule the first half of the 1980s.
The group added guitarist John Housey (aka Jon-5) for the album Enter, which expanded their sound to include a derezzed acid rock dynamic sprawling out in songs like Industrial Lies and the title track. Cosmic Cars rocked a 4/4 rhythm in a way that predicted the rugged, ramshackle techno traxx of 1987, while the digital funk of The Line and El Salvador split the difference between the black new wave of Alleys Of Your Mind and Clear's stripped-down electro punch.
The record also featured the awesome Cosmic Raindance, a skeletal tune built on a nimble rhythm matrix of crisp drum machines and a descending funk bassline, all of which propelled these great spiraling clouds of whining synthesized sound across a stormy digital sky. Ending in a crash of computerized thunder, it set a thrilling template for the elegant, minimalist electro of Drexciya and Elecktroids that would surface about a decade later. Cybotron swiftly followed Enter with the Techno City, at which point Atkins decided to strike out on his own.
This is where we came in. That is, 1985, when Atkins started his own label, Metroplex Records, and released his first solo record: Model 500's No UFO's. The record was a perfect fusion of tightly regimented electronic sequences and raging percussive chaos, boasting a richer, even-more-psychedelic sound than Cybotron. I'll put it this way: if Kraftwerk were James Brown circa Sex Machine and Cybotron were Sly & The Family Stone circa Stand!, then Model 500's No UFO's was Funkadelic circa Maggot Brain. Can you get to that?
The flipside was dominated by the slithering rhythm of Future, which found Atkins pumping electro moves the same way Hendrix played Killing Floor (see also Channel One's Technicolor), which is to say faster, more fluid and with more authority than anyone else around. This is ground zero for that 90s electro sound we all love so much, what with the tighter sound and sharper edges, it laid the blueprint for whole swathes of the scene. Aux 88 were certainly paying attention.
Night Drive (Thru-Babylon) followed, and somehow it managed to be even better. A masterpiece of neon vectors colliding in a phantasmagoria of motorik digital funk, it pierces your consciousness with tumbling bleeps and then just rolls for six minutes. Atkins narrates the nocturnal journey over eerie computer blue sonics, adding claustrophobic Jamie Principle-esque vocal stylings that give the whole trip a shadowy, spectral effect.
This is the first glimmer of what would come to define the Deep Space sound, and as such it kicks off a little potted history we're about to indulge in: a history of Atkins' music within this rarefied terrain. The following four records each outline key developments that would culminate in the Deep Space sessions. Context is key. After all, an investigation into this impulse within Atkins' discography plugs you directly into what is — by my estimation — the purest manifestation of machine soul.
After blazing a singular path through the remainder of the decade with records like Off To Battle, Interference and Other Side Of Life, Atkins rang in the 90s with the Ocean To Ocean EP. Kicking off with two versions of Ocean To Ocean, which played like a smooth-groove summation of everything he'd been up to in the intervening years, it was the flipside that offered a stunning preview of things to come.
Rocking a 4/4 pulse threaded by a resolute string/bass melody inna Off To Battle-stylee, Wanderer played like a stop off at the connecting station for the bullet train trip from 1985 to 2001. I've noted before how this EP was something of a blueprint for the more reflective side of UR's endeavors, and nowhere is that more evident than in Wanderer. It also neatly sets the stage for the final song of the record, its undeniable highlight.
Infoworld starts with a memorable bleep refrain before revving up the 4/4 engine once again. A geometric bass pulse threads the beat matrix while electronic string staccatos seems to fuel the track's propulsion. The sound here defined by a sleek, aerodynamic quality, with a greater emphasis placed on nimble grooves and lush synth atmospherics. Ah yes... those synths! Like Larry Heard and Carl Craig, there's just no mistaking Juan Atkins' synths for anyone else's. As clear an oracle as one could ask for, Infoworld lays out the foundation for the next decade plus of Atkins' journey.
Case in point being this three track EP, Atkins' first engagement with R&S Records — via their ambient subsidiary Apollo — which finds him expanding the sound of Infoworld into sprawling intergalactic shapes. The motorik techno soul of Vessels In Distress finds Atkins in collaboration with Martin Bonds (aka Reel By Real), offering up a Moroder-inflected take on the Motor City sound shot through with shimmering shapes and textures.
Mind Changes features Atkins' dreamy vocals in duet with android intonations over a bouncing, compact house rhythm. With the track's austere 4/4 pulse defined by a sort of ethereal synth architecture, it's of a piece with the proto-micro-house sides that he'd begun circulating under the name Infiniti, records like Flash Flood and Think Quick. All of which would ultimately lead to his collaboration with German duo 3MB (Moritz von Oswald and Thomas Fehlmann) on the awesome Jazz Is The Teacher EP (more on this later).
The title track finds Atkins incorporating crashing breakbeats into his sound, the breaks sparring with his usual 808 dynamics and a chiming bleep matrix in a flowing tide pool of ethereal synth and atmosphere. Apparently the tune got some action at contemporary drum 'n bass sound systems, where it'd be pitched up at a sped-up '45rpm (proto-ambient jungle!). I suppose that does make sense. Above all else, its mode is pure machine soul and a clear indication of the shape of things to come...
Tucked away on Atkins' own Metroplex imprint is this nearly forgotten 12". Whereas much of the Metroplex catalog has been serviced quite well, to the best of my knowledge this has never been reissued. Which is a shame, because this is one of Magic Juan's absolute greatest records. I See The Light is a spectral electro symphony built on a cycling 808 chassis with a staircase bleep pattern and wispy synth figures swaying across its ocean-like refrain. Atkins intones the title's lyrics in a deadpan whisper. It's all veryAux 88.
Of course, the b-side is even better! Pick Up The Flow commences with one of Atkins' trademark sci-fi synth progressions, computer sounds fading into view on a tumbling drum machine rhythm as a rolling bassline unfurls across the length of the track. The whole thing seems to drift by on a cosmic wind, bleeps intoning between the verses as Atkins'
gentle raps ride the rhythm in this gently pulsing astral hymn. Deep Space music, to coin a royal phrase. Stunningly beautiful, it flows quite naturally into our next record, which is the final way station before we reach our destination.
Back on R&S — this time with Basic Channel's Mortiz von Oswald in the engineering booth — Atkins delivers Sonic Sunset, his first extended sequence of solo material. Nominally an EP, with three versions of the title track, it clocks in at nearly an hour. Built on a rapid-fire synth sequence that seems to bounce across the rhythm's surface, Sonic Sunset spans the beatless freeform of the Calm Mix to the Cave Mix's dubbed-out reverb architecture (shades of Basic Channel). The Third Wave Mix, which I suspect to be the original version, is of a piece with Jazz Is The Teacher (those unpredictable rhythms a signpost for tech jazz).
Neptune's iridescent, hall-of-mirrors trip stretches out horizontally across its sprawling twelve minutes, sounding like trance music played at a disco pace. Also comparable to the ambient house moves of The Orb and Sun Electric, it affirms the implicit connection between Detroit, Berlin and London (a figure like Thomas Fehlmann moving freely between the three). The machines here left to spool out into infinity on a vector-plotted course, sounding like nothing so much as a deep space probe gliding through the deep black of space.
Rather appropriately for this deep space journey of a record, Sonic Sunset's longest track also happens to be its greatest treasure: I Wanna Be There, a skittering slab of motorik techno soul, lasts the better part of twenty minutes. Dig that nagging shuffle of a rhythm and the bassline bounce, parallaxing against those great twisting atmospheric synths in the background.
More than anything else here, it runs parallel to the proto-micro-house of Infiniti, albeit shot through with jazz-inflected shapes and a set of tender vocals from Atkins.
His delivery strikingly different here in comparison to his earlier man-machine moves, revealing Magic Juan the introspective soul man. Alongside those jazzed-out keys that dance across the surface, punctuating the groove even as as they spar with ethereal, flute-like sonics, it brings to mind the disco-era cosmic jazz moves of figures like Norman Connors and Idris Muhammad, rebuilt and rewired for the 21st century. Kompakt funk, to a man. The whole trip takes us through the final stretch of our journey, setting the stage perfectly as we arrive at our destination....
This is Juan Atkins' debut album... now you're in Deep Space.
You switch on the music. Surfing in on a great wash of synthesized stardust, the ethereal chords of Milky Way drift across the soundscape before a gently shuffling drum machine rhythm comes into focus. This is liquid techno soul, soaring upon Atkins' trademark synth architecture and drums a tad tougher than you might expect. Computer sonics thread the groove within the groove, and post-Herbie Hancock sequences hop across the spaces between the spaces. It all fits in perfectly with what Carl Craig was up to circa Landcruising and More Songs About Food And Revolutionary Art, particularly songs like At Les and Science Fiction.
Notably, the track was co-written with fellow Detroit icon Kevin Saunderson. This at the height of Deep Space Radio, a recurring show that found the Deep Space Crew (rounded out by Atkins, Saunderson and Derrick May) bringing techno music to terrestrial airwaves. Undoubtedly, those heady vibes can be felt in this record as strongly as they could Saunderson's X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio (a mix album dedicated to enshrining the show's vision on disc for posterity) a couple years later.
As if that weren't enough, Milky Way was mixed by the great François Kevorkian. It certainly does have a touch of the cosmic about it. Cosmic jazz? Cosmic disco? You got it. Above all else, this gently unfolding deep space psychedelia often reminds me of peak-era Neptunes (during the whole Star Track trip they'd kick off a few years later) at their most blissed out. Needless to say, very strong SA-RA vibes are in evidence throughout as well.
A bubbling synth rises from the silence, heralding the arrival of the next track. With a pulsing 4/4 groove punctuated by a clanking sound one might encounter on a Rob Hood record, Orbit is on a slightly minimalist trip. One might even notice shades of Basic Channel in there somewhere. However, the strongest signal I'm getting here is from Jazz Is The Teacher. Despite it's minimalist intent, Orbit's got that unpredictable, anything-can-happen feel of the 3MB record. Maybe it's the splashing hi-hats, maybe those synths bubbling under, maybe even the crystalline synths that drift into the mind's eye every so often, but it's unmistakably there.
Until it isn't, of course, as Orbit collapses into a bubbling pool of synth and texture receding into the horizon. A menacing acid line rises from the chaos, announcing the arrival of The Flow.
Which is quite simply incredible. A perfect fusion of Kraftwerk and Janet Jackson, this is the Ur-text of machine soul. A shading of struck bells and that menacing electronic sequence drive crisp 808 beats that couldn't sound any more different from 1995 r&b if they were produced by Steve Reich. Of course a year later, Timbaland would single-handedly make it the sound of cutting edge r&b, bringing the form into the 21st century a few years early.
Aisha Jamiel's vocals alternate between spoken word and songbird (which becomes doubly haunting for the ethereal chorus) just like Missy Elliott would on Supa Dupa Fly two years later. The sonic similarities to Night Drive (Thru-Babylon) are undeniable as well, with The Flow recalling Atkins earlier opus only s-l-o-w-e-d d-o-w-n considerably, making it the definitive link between Metroplex and One In A Million, and as such the cornerstone of machine soul.
Notably, The Flow spawned three separate 12" singles, featuring a bevy of remixes spread across them. You get a deliciously retro electro workout from the Jedi Knights, a jazzy drum 'n bass reading from Alex Reece, Frank De Wulf's proto-speed garage mix, a Howie B. machine funk take and two hard-edged speedfreak mixes from Underworld. However, the best remix is by Magic Juan himself.
The G-Funk Mix a wall-shaking house party monster jam, featuring a lascivious bass groove yoked to a Zapp-inflected robot voice. Aisha Jamiel's vocals duel with a jazzy Rhodes up and down the groove. Atkins grasp of the dynamics here quite simply impeccable, this ought to have gotten serious radio play. Shame, really. Along with J Dilla, who had a shaping influence on both Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope and D'Angelo's Voodoo, their impact didn't break through to the popular consciousness. Like krautrock, innit?
Still, it makes perfect sense that the era's r&b would have some serious Motor City vibes lurking just below the surface. Shades of The Velvet Underground & Nico... peel slowly and see.
Warning follows with a similar spirit to Orbit's, The Flow bookended by two erratic slabs of minimalist jazz electronica. Another high-pitched sliver of Rob Hood-recalling noise taps out a rhythm across a bouncing pendulum of clockwork synthesizer. These great detuned synths seem to squeeze up from beneath the cracks in the rhythm like iridescent magma. Still jazzed-out, but tweaked to abstraction. Playing like a tone poem, there's shades of onomatopoeia to the whole affair. Think Drexciya's Draining Of The Tanks or X-103's Eruption: this is a synthetic recreation of the events depicted in its title. You're on red alert.
At the last moment, you're carried away on the sweet sway of Astralwerks, a nebula of a track, an enigma, with rolling rhythms that seem to split the difference between downbeat and junglist double-time the way a certain Tim Mosley would a year later. The synths seem to speed up and slow down with the rhythm, the whole effect pleasantly disorienting. It's of a piece with the ambient jungle of A Guy Called Gerald circa Black Secret Technology, 4 Hero circa Parallel Universe and Jacob's Optical Stairway (a 4 Hero one-off that featured Atkins on The Fusion Formula).
The spectre of drum 'n bass hangs over the entirety of this record, in fact. I suspect that the unpredictable rhythmic danger felt throughout is sourced in jungle as much as it is in jazz. There's almost a sense of Atkins raising his game to match the innovations of the U.K.'s junglist auteurs. Noteworthy also the explicit drum 'n bass connections in the shape of 12" remixes by Wax Doctor and Alex Reece.
Starlight is similarly forward-thinking work, this time in a thoroughly Basic Channel mode. Built on a gently chugging rhythmic figure, the melody is carried by a single synth pulsing at regular intervals as its run through the filters. Sailing on a solar wind in perpetual motion, the whole thing so slight but profound. It's worth noting that from the prior tune onward, the remaining tracks on this album are engineered by Moritz von Oswald. Nowhere is that more evident than on Starlight, which even got a 12" release on Metroplex with a remix from Oswald.
One thing that's always intrigued me about Starlight is how much it sounds like an Infiniti record. There's that same sense of linear expanse stretching across a great horizontal plane that one finds in tunes like Moon Beam or Think Quick. In fact, it's an even more skeletal outing than even most of the Infiniti output, with the same x-ray architecture that Oswald and Mark Ernestus had essayed in Basic Channel. As one might expect, this sense is amplified in the Moritz Mix on the 12", with its striking tonal shifts and great caverns of reverb.
Fans of Isolée, Luomo and Villalobos would love both versions of Starlight, which have the same shimmering, tactile quality one finds in Beau Mot Plage, Tessio and Dexter. Like I was saying before, Kompakt funk. Fascinating the way this record weaves its micro-house and machine r&b shapes together, envisioning an unlikely sonic pact between the two forms before they'd even fully come into their own. The juxtaposition certainly makes far more sense in 2018 than it would have at the time. But then, they don't call Juan AtkinsThe Originator for nothing...
Last Transport To Alpha Centauri, which plays like a downbeat, deconstructed take on the earliest Metroplex releases, is to No UFO's as Funk Gets Stronger Part 1 is to Flash Light. It's a great little piece of electronic funk that very strongly recalls Kraftwerk circa Computer World, but with a glitch in the machine. There certainly seems to be a fair bit of mischief about it, the delivery executed with a wink and a nod.
The record's penultimate track is a tight edit of I Wanna Be There, which you'll remember originally appeared on Sonic Sunset. Within the context of the record, it's the mirror image of The Flow, an r&b-inflected pop song at sea in abstraction. The third of the singles from this record (after Starlight and The Flow), the I Wanna Be There features an aqua tint drum 'n bass mix from Wax Doctor and a lush tech jazz rework from Dave Angel. Once again, however, the kicker is the remix by the man himself. Stripping the track down to a sleek spacecraft simplicity, Atkins aligns it even more closely with Infiniti's digital micro-funk moves.
Which are also writ large on Lightspeed, the closing track to the Deep Space saga. Fusing the celestial atmospherics of Starlight with the shuffling catch-up groove Milky Way, it's as if the scrambled memories of the record are being rearranged in the slipstream across the dark side of Jupiter. Beyond the infinite. With just a snatch of almost subliminally funky bass and the occasional synth shimmer, it's the perfect ending to this intergalactic voyage.
As I said before, Deep Space feels more futuristic with every passing year. At the time, one might not have noted the implicit connections made between Pony, Beau Mot Plage and Finley's Rainbow, but with the benefit of hindsight, they're all here clear as crystal. Somewhere in the record's DNA lie the whisper of future figures like SA-RA, Dâm-Funk, Spacek and the music they would bring. Juan Atkins mapped out this strange point of intersection where cosmic r&b, shimmering micro-house, electronic jazz and straight up techno all collide to form the basis of machine soul: the art form of the 21st century. You're in deep space.
When discussing dance music — particularly of the electronic variety — the next logical step onward after electro crept out of cities like New York, Chicago and Detroit at the midpoint of the 1980s. Yeah, I'm talking about house and techno. These two covered at once, as it's more illuminating to discuss the sounds of deep house and acid alongside techno's stripped-down funk (and vice versa). I believe that this will become increasingly apparent as we continue. So much music draws from both simultaneously, from Slam to the Earthbeat records, that the two forms clearly excel in each other's company as post-disco dancefloor head music.
Where better to begin than Underground Resistance? Perhaps the spiritual embodiment of techno music, they nevertheless retain strong shades of house in their music's DNA (indeed, their first couple records were house endeavors). More than any other crew, UR (alongside orbital figures like Drexciya and The Martian) seemed to continue the good work Juan Atkins began when he alchemized the form in the first place. One could even make the case that Model 500's 1990 EP Ocean To Ocean laid out the blueprint for the UR sound a couple months in advance.
It does quite literally seem to be the foundation of the whole Nation 2 Nation, World 2 World and Galaxy 2 Galaxy series of records, which shear into the same pioneering tech jazz vein that UR would continue to explore with records like Codebreaker and The Turning Point. The label art for the latter featured the likes of James Brown, Ravi Shankar, Aretha Franklin, Carlos Santana, Stevie Wonder, Florian Schneider and Chuck D, placing their music within the context of a wide continuum of visionary iconoclasts.
As Tim Barr writes in Techno: The Rough Guide:
Detroit's Underground Resistance occupy a territory that is somewhere between the reclusive mystique of Kraftwerk, the radical politicization of Public Enemy and their own unique interpretation of Afro-futurist tropes.
This unique interpretation would often take the crew into deep space, which they explored in the form of records like The Final Frontier and X-102 Discovers The Rings Of Saturn — even veering into trancelike shapes with the (closely-affiliated) Red Planet records — reading the undiscovered country as freedom from the tyranny of the perpetually closed mind. This often manifested itself in a similar shade of utopian vision as those conjured up by 4 Hero's Parallel Universe.
However, like their counterparts on Dollis Hill, there was an undeniable darkside to UR's endeavors. The baleful shapes of the Sonic EP are quintessentially Terminal Vibration, their rhythmic dexterity matching anything discussed thus far in the realm of post punk. See also Suburban Knight's Nocturbulous Behavior and Andre Holland's City Of Fear. There are a number of DJ mixes that UR put out at the turn of the century that essay this territory brilliantly: DJ Rolando's Vibrations and The Aztec Mystic Mix are full of brilliant electronic noise. On overhearing the music, a friend once commented that it sounded like a washing machine!3
Even better was Nocturbulous Behavior: The Mix. Credited to 011, which was the catalog number for Suburban Knight's original 1993 EP of the same title, it found James Pennington tearing through the label's back catalog and working up a killer mix throughout which urban paranoia reigned supreme.4 This approach mirrored his own records like The Art Of Stalking and the By Night EP, on which Pennington proved himself one of the great manipulators of sound, moving it in great slabs across tracks that were pure hard-edged Gothic funk.
This fit perfectly with UR's hard music from a hard city aesthetic, which informed large swathes of the labels output. Records like X-101's Sonic Destroyer, UR's The Punisher and The Riot EP refracted Belgian hardcore back across the Atlantic, inspiring ever-intensifying experiments in sonic extremism from The Mover's wickedly deranged techno to the zombie brigades of Dutch gabber. Message To The Majors even sounded like a particularly dystopian slab of U.K. ardkore that Liam Howlett would have killed to have included on The Prodigy's Music For The Jilted Generation!
The original Belgian new beat as essayed by figures like Set Up System, Human Resource, 80 Aum, Outlander and Frank De Wulf raised a dazzling cacophony and razed everything in their path. The latter was the most prolific auteur, unleashing a series of B-Sides EPs over the first half of the 90s. Tunes like Dominator, The Vamp, Mindcontroller and Factory Parallax Mix were the sound of techno at it's most gloriously unaffected, noise music for the ravefloor pure and simple. Oftentimes, these tracks would take their cue from industrial EBM (Electronic Body Music), although there was significant inspiration taken from hip hop as well.
Outlander even seemed to hoover up the club pianos of Italo house and set them to overdrive in his acid-tinged missive The Vamp. Much like U.K. ardkore, if there was a standard operating procedure, then it was throw everything against the wall and see what sticks. New beat itself had a serious impact on the nascent ardkore sound, and vice versa, with both forms instigating each other to ever higher levels of intensity. However, if there was one key input that had a greater impact than any other, it was a trio of roughneck producers from New York City.
I'm talking about Joey Beltram, Lenny Dee and Frankie Bones, whose sick noise was writ large on records like Energy Flash, Mentasm and the Bonesbreaks series of EPs (not to mention the output of Lenny Dee's Industrial Strength imprint). Beltram's prime inspiration for Energy Flash was Black Sabbath, while the twisted synth sounds of Mentasm introduced the world to the indelible hoover sound (so named because it sounded something like a vacuum cleaner firing up!). Even taken on its own, the latter was a crucial building block in Belgium's rave hardcore and the hooligan sounds of U.K. ardkore jungle alike, which makes it one of the key records of the decade almost by default.
This sound was arguably taken to its diamond-hard apex by Germany's Marc Acardipane across a whole raft of records on his own Planet Core Productions and Dance Ecstasy 2001 imprints. Mescalinum United's Reflections Of 2017, which featured the epochal We Have Arrived on the flip, out-nastied everybody up to that point and set a benchmark for the harder wing of rave producers to pursue.5 My absolute favorite record on PCP is The Mover's Frontal Sickness, which combined two blistering EPs into one unmissable double-pack rounded out by the proto-gloomcore of Body Snatchers Impaler - First Mix and Reconstructin' Instructions cyborg hip hop science.
Another Teutonic auteur of the abrasive was Martin Damm (aka Biochip C.). In contrast to Arcadipane's pounding rhythms, Damm spent a satisfying amount of type working with breakbeats, which he splintered across his tracks sounding like nothing so much as wickedly twisted video game music. His debut album, Biocalypse, is one of rave's crowning achievements, gliding from grinding downtempo to speedfreak hardcore with nary a thought given to convention. One of the most impressive records of the decade, taking electronic music's development well past the breaking point, it deserves to be more widely available.
If you rewind back to the 1980s, there's a handful of figures that laid the groundwork for all these lofty achievements. I've spent some serious time on the unassailable merits of Kevin Saunderson, and we've already discussed New York's terrible trio, but there's one man I've left out: Mr. Todd Terry. Across a whole mess of records released under names like Black Riot, Lime Life, Royal House, Orange Lemon and Swan Lake, he near singlehandedly defined the sound of cut-and-paste house music. His music often played like hip hop reworked to a 4/4 beat.
The output of labels like Fourth Floor, Atmosphere and Nu Groove were defined by this sound, putting out records both abrasive and deep (and everything in between) over the course of their limited run. This strand gets picked up by Strictly Rhythm in the 90s, a label that put out later records by Todd Terry
and refugee from ChicagoDJ Pierre (alongside scores of new artists like Damon Wild, George Morel and Roger Sanchez), coming to dominate the city's club landscape throughout much of the decade. At its best, it was the sound of raw, rough edges and floor-busting dance.
Appropriately, there's a particular wing of techno that runs parallel to all this, a rough and tumble sound a million miles away from the sleek futurism of Kraftwerk. I'll place its genesis with Eddie Flashin' Fowlkes' Goodbye Kiss (which was for all intents and purposes a house record), but I have none other than Carl Craig down as the true guardian of the form. The original trio of 69 records (4 Jazz Funk Classics, Lite Music and Sound On Sound) enshrined this sound around rough cut rhythms, raw analogue basslines and tarnished synth textures, offering a hard-edged take on his Psyche/BFC-era material and the dreamlike, synth-smeared stylings his earlier Retroactive imprint.
Operating at the interzone between house and techno, it's no wonder that Craig's Paperclip People project often sheared into similar territory on tracks like Oscillator, Paperclip Man and Tweakityourself, where breakbeats and tricky polyrhythms are usually as prominent as the pulsing 4/4 groove. See also Designer Music and his remixes for figures like Alexander Robotnick, Telex and Cesaria Evora. Tangentially, I've often thought that Stacey Pullen's Black Odyssey records from the turn of the century (particularly Sweat and The Stand) were in thrall to this slabs-of-synth sound, albeit executed with a far more linear approach.
Interestingly, despite his reputation as Detroit's mellow man (see records like Metaphor and The Narcissist), my favorite stuff by Kenny Larkin is often his rawest. His sophomore release was the Integration EP, an ace selection of four percussion-heavy technoid outings shot through with wild bleeps and built on chunky drum machine riddims. He also indulged in the harder stuff with his Dark Comedy moniker, culminating in the Seven Days LP (which featured the pulverizing techno claustrophobia of The Bar).
I remember Larkin performing at the DEMF with a deep, blues-inflected sound unlike anything we'd yet heard from the man. I remember asking around about it at the time and no one seemed to know anything! It remain was to a mystery until the release of the second Dark Comedy album, Funkfaker: Music Saves My Soul, which presented a hybrid of both the shimmering shapes found in his most gentle LP material and his spectral Seven Days maneuvers on the darkside.
The other area where Larkin excelled was in the remix. Of the top of the dome, I can think of his shimmering remix of Carl Craig's Science Fiction, a speaker-shredding edit of E-Dancer's Pump The Move and the SadeSurrender Your Love remix for Illegal Detroit. He turned in a duo of serious dancefloor burners on the KMS label with Paris Grey's Smile/Life double a-side 12" at the turn of the century, and then doing it again more recently with his remix of Kevin Saunderson's Future.
Three of his vintage remixes of Inner City material turned up on the label a few years back on the aptly titled The KMS Remixes 12". These remixes often seemed like a chance for the usually contemplative Larkin to get down and pump some bass on the dancefloor.
Of course even Derrick May, Master of Strings himself, had his own fair share of down-and-dirty techno in the shape of Kaos, Salsa Life, Emanon and even that untitled track tacked to the end of the Strings Of Life 12". Plus, don't forget that Intercity's Groovin' Without A Doubt was May and Kevin Saunderson jamming out some basic jack trax in the studio. Even the most ethereal producers often had something darker hidden just around the corner...
In point of fact, I can remember that the techno grind of Strand's Bloated Juggernaut Mix (from the EP Floyd Cramer's Revenge) had me imagining they were this mysterious, ultra-underground crew (along the lines of UR) when in reality they were a trio of deep house mavens (who usually recorded under the name T.H.D. for Antonio Echols' Serious Grooves imprint) getting freaky with the machines. Records like this exist at the very axis where the jagged edges of post punk intersect with the moods and grooves of machine funk.
If you remain skeptical, I direct you immediately to Claude Young's entry in the DJ-Kicks series, which was mixed on two decks in a friends bedroom.
In the liner notes, Young elaborates:
I wanted it to feel live. You can hear a few pops and crackles. Everything's a bit too sterile these days. I take a more street level approach...I usually play with two copies, bounce the beats around, do spinbacks and scratch tricks. I don't mind taking a chance. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but life is all about taking chances.
Sure enough, its a down-and-dirty vision of no-nonsense street techno that sidesteps the often linear nature of much of the more typically stripped-down techno. Skating on the edge of a funktional minimalism, it's nevertheless informed by a healthy dose of wildstyle spirit that finds Young rockin' doubles like a hip hop DJ. This is to Cybotron what Cybotron was to Parliament: a no-nonsense distillation of the funk into highly concentrated form.
Featuring multiple appearances from Clark's Lofthouse, both sides of the Man Made EP and two tracks from The Skinless Brothers supremely funky Escape From Vienna, it's an absolutely blinding mix of juke joint machine funk busting out some street corner dive on the edge of the city. See also Patrick Pulsinger, especially his classic Dogmatic Sequences records (which have recently been collected on the Dogmatic Sequences: The Series 1994-2006 compilation), all of which offer up similar hard-as-nails shapes with a restless, nimble touch.
All of which have their roots in the granddaddy of elastic machine funk (a dead giveaway being the presence of Young's own Acid Wash Conflict), the vintage acid house that seeped out of Chicago in the latter half of the 80s like a contagion. Phuture's Acid Tracks is often considered the prototypical acid house record, but to my mind the don of the form is Armando, whose Land Of Confusion remains the perfect acid house track. Also worth a look-in is The New World Order double-pack from 1993, packed with stripped-to-the-bone acid jack trax like Venture 001 and Trance Dance.
It's interesting to note that there's this whole side of acid house that was mapped out by the dons of deep house, with Mr. Fingers' Washing Machine being first out the gate and sharing space with the epochal Can You Feel It way back in 1986. Larry Heard also pumped the 303s on those Gherkin Jerks records (also recently compiled on the appropriately titled The Gherkin Jerks Compilation), and even as late as 2005 he was still flirting with acid alongside his more typical deep, jazzed-out cuts on Loose Fingers: A Soundtrack From The Duality Double-Play.
Deep house icon Marshall Jefferson also got stoopid Sleezy D.'s I've Lost Control, on which a sustained paranoia ran rampant, while sometime associates like Adonis and Bam Bam went on to represent the acid life to an even greater degree. Farley "Jackmaster" Funk, who made waves with his careening house covers of Isaac Hayes' Love Can't Turn Around and Stevie Wonder's As Always (even turning in one of the great unsung deep house cuts, Farley Knows House), had plenty of time to deliver acid trax of his own, particularly on the No Vocals Necessary LP.
All of this got picked up on in the U.K., where it fomented a revolution in the form of the Second Summer Of Love. Intriguingly, many of the early figures to adopt acid house were post punks lurking in the shadows of the movement, figures like 808 State's Graham Massey (of the Biting Tongues), Warriors Dance kingpin Tony Thorpe (of 400 Blows) and The Orb, which was masterminded by the triple threat of Dr. Alex Paterson and Youth (roadie and bassist for Killing Joke, respectively) and Thomas Fehlmann (of German post punk group Palais Schaumburg).
I've always loved the wild shapes thrown on 808 State's Newbuild, perched as it is midway between acid house and techno, cut while Gerald Simpson was still in the fold. The dark psychedelia of Narcossa still stands as one of the great acid/techno workouts ever conceived, and the remainder of the record remains a brilliantly rude fusion of the forms. Rephlex did a timely reissue of the record at the turn of the century that I was lucky enough to snap up at the time (please believe a young man's mind was blown).
This was mirrored by the early stirrings of The Future Sound Of London, who had their own thing going in the late 90s with the Humanoid project. Their output ranged from the vocal house of records like Slam, The Deep and the Global Humanoid album to the wasp buzz mayhem of Stakker Humanoid. Even as their records grew ever more lustrous, they still had plenty of noise left to bring in the form of tunes like We Have Explosive, Moscow and The Tingler. The archival Sessions 84-88 compilation (curated once again by Rephlex) is a veritable cornucopia of such unreconstructed electronic noise.
One record that I was always surprised that Rephlex hasn't gotten around to reissuing is Bleep's The North Pole By Submarine, a record that label boss Richard D. James at one time admitted to listening to once a day! (Barr 52)2b The 1990 debut techno outing of Geir Jenssen, who started out in 4AD-esque group Bel Canto, North Pole featured an intricate web of samples, synths and drum machine rhythms that was utterly of the moment (if not even slightly ahead of it).
These angular shapes lived on in certain corners of Jenssen's later output as Biosphere, moments like Baby Interphase, Novelty Waves and his score to the movie Insomnia. Jenssen hailed from Tromsø, Norway, a city located 350 kilometers within the Arctic Circle, and the glacial climate of his hometown would be increasingly felt on his music as his recording career progressed. On later ambient excursions like Substrata and Cirque, he seemed to be standing shoulder to shoulder with figures like Brian Eno and William Basinski.
Rewind back to the Bleep era, when across the North SeaThe Black Dog were following up their preposterously ahead-of-their time Virtual and Dogism EPs (both 1989) with the Techno Playtime EP. Arguably the godfathers of the whole Artificial Intelligence strain of electronic music, which they explored extensively across albums like Temple Of Transparent Balls and Spanners, they were also somehow messing around with proto-ardkore breakbeats before everyone just about everyone, from 4 Hero to Genaside II and even Shut Up And Dance!
Actually, SUADdid put out 5 6 7 8 in 1989 as well, but that was largely still a relatively straight-up U.K. rap record. It was the following year's £10 To Get In that really cemented their status as drum 'n bass trailblazers, the promise of which they fulfilled time and time again with records like Raving I'm Raving, Death Is Not The End and The Ragga Twins' Reggae Owes Me Money. Without a doubt, SUAD (the artist and the label they masterminded) were one of thee key institutions in jungle's protracted genesis. Rave records don't come much better than the cloud-stomping mayhem of Cape Fear!
The most stripped-down — and dare I say techno — of all the acts on Shut Up And Dance were Codine, who put out two 12"s on the label, and Rum & Black, who were thankfully a bit more prolific with four 12"s and even a full-length album. 1991's With Ice yoked abrasive bleeps and synth textures to sample-heavy breakbeat burners, essentially hammering down the sound of quintessential ardkore with tunes like Wicked, Tablet Man and We Were Robbed Of Our... Religion, Culture And God, winding up with a stone cold classic in the process.
At this point we descend into the kaleidoscopic whirlpool of ardkore rave, darkside and straight up jungle. Figures like Genaside II, Foul Play, Acen put out genre-defining records, and true to Nuggets style there were blazing records cropping up all over. My absolute favorite progenitors of the form, 4 Hero, brought the music through its dawning years to the depths of its twisted darkside before Journey From The Light launched them through the stratosphere into to the cosmic jazz utopia of Parallel Universe.
Their lone album as Jacob's Optical Stairway ploughed a similar furrow of deep space ambient jungle, while Nu Era records like Beyond Gravity and Breaking In Space found them essaying their own unique vision of techno music. This vision was showcased further on the two-volume The Deepest Shade Of Techno that they curated on their own label, featuring luminaries from Detroit and beyond (but mostly Detroit!) alongside Nu Era's own lushly produced Cost Of Livin'.
A Guy Called Gerald blazed a similar trail on his Juice Box imprint, when — after a solid discography of prime techno output like Voodoo Ray, Emotion Electric and Inertia's Nowhere To Run (released on Carl Craig and Damon Booker's Retroactive imprint) — he transitioned into pure breakbeat music, blazing a singular path from the genre-defining ruffneck vibes of 28 Gun Bad Boy to the shimmering ambient jungle of Black Secret Technology in the space of a couple years.
At this point Goldie — who had been closely aligned with the Reinforced crew — became the figurehead of the scene in the public imagination after unleashing records like Rufige Kru's Terminator, Metalheads' Angel and the Ghosts EP on an unsuspecting public. His Metalheadz imprint put out loads of genre-shaping records like Dillinja's The Angels Fell, Photek's Natural Born Killa EP and Ed Rush's Skylab. The latter presaged the cold robotics of techstep that would swarm across jungle over the next few years, arguably the point at which it became drum 'n bass, and therefore something else altogether.
Figures like Source Direct and Photek epitomized the moodiest (and in my opinion greatest) corner of drum 'n bass, with records like Exorcise The Demons and Modus Operandi (respectively) moving the music in a deliciously paranoid direction that would have been the perfect musical counterpoint to The Parallax View and actually ended up scoring Darren Aronofsky's debut feature film, Pi (see also Blade, which made great use of Source Direct's Call & Response). Dom & Roland's The Planets explored similar isolationist territory, its fragmented breakbeats and lonely textures offering up the perfect metaphor for the deep black of space.
A figure that — much like Marc Arcadipane and Martin Damm — took these sounds to their absolute limit was Alec Empire, with a brand of post-rave noise he dubbed Digital Hardcore. Forming Atari Teenage Riot with Hanin Elias and Carl Crack, the crew raised much mayhem over the course of the decade, fusing the spirits of punk and rave more literally than just about anyone else ever has. However, Empire released his finest music under his own name, with records like Low On Ice and Les Étoiles Des Filles Mortes rivaling even that of the abstract dons of electro-acoustica.
By the mid-nineties, there had developed a strange détente between the abstract wing of electronica and jungle, figures like Squarepusher, µ-Ziq and Aphex Twin, whose 1995 record Richard D. James Album was a masterstroke of insane digital programming. This was music that had little relation to the dancefloor proper; rather like prog or the even more abstract end of jazz fusion, it was music to enjoy while daydreaming in your living room, ideally while leaning back in a comfy armchair.
Even outside the more obvious Warp-related records of Autechre and Boards Of Canada were a cadre of figures from all across the globe specializing in warped techno, ranging from Germany's Alter Ego (especially in their Sensorama guise), Italy's Bochum Welt and Japan's Ken Ishii (whose records sound galaxies away from anyone else's). U.K. figures like Cristian Vogel and Neuropolitique were also key progenitors of a particularly skewed brand of techno. The operative word in this wing of techno being idiosyncrasy.
In one of those lovely twists of fate that seemed to happen every other week in the 90s, Japanese girl group Nav Katze were remixed by a brace of U.K. techno artists rounded out by The Black Dog, Aphex Twin, Global Communication and Ultramarine. If you've ever read The Parallax 100, you'll know that its one of my favorite records ever. The Retro 313 Future Memory Mix of Crazy Dream, perpetrated by Global Communication in their old-time Reload guise, is a jacking techno workout along the lines of the whole 69 continuum (Carl Craig even included it in his DJ-Kicks mix that he did at the height of his genre-defining work within the form), albeit with a dreamy, cinematic haze moving across its surface like mists over the ocean.
The lion's share of the record, however, is dominated by gently skanking downbeat numbers like Nobody Home Ultramarine Mix and the unclassifiable — but above all else utterly beautiful — Never Not Black Dog Mix #1. Often whimsical but never frivolous, I've often thought that Never Mind runs parallel to the spliffed-out electronica of To Rococo Rot's Veiculo and Mouse On Mars (especially early records like Autoditacker and Iaora Tahiti) as a sort of languorous electronic head music that never takes itself too seriously.
This thread gets taken to its logical conclusion at the dawning of the 21st century by certain stateside figures, the best of which were Blectum From Blechdom, whose scatological take on electronic music seemed to rewire it all back through pre-dance forms in the days of The Nonesuch Guide To Electronic Music. It was brash, irreverent, restlessly creative and miles away from the stuffy climate of much abstract electronica to surface during the era. Matmos were another duo who went against the grain of the times, applying Burroughs-derived cutup techniques to their music and arriving at a sound that felt of a piece with electro-acoustic music modes of operation.
Similarly, there was a wing of abstract electronica that reared its head as the 90s progressed exemplified by Oval's glitched-out symphonies and Panasonic's abrasive black leather desolation. The latter tapped into the same sense of isolationism as the post punks, even collaborating with Suicide's Alan Vega on the Endless LP. This was the sound of flutters and flashes of light in the loneliness of a pitch black room, with nothing but a madman to keep you company.
Slightly later the German duo Funkstörung combined the glitched production techniques of Oval with Panasonic's abrasive isolationism to arrive at the cold brutality of Appetite For Disctruction, which featured the awesome Grammy Winners (featuring Triple H of Antipop Consortium). The track seemed to update the white noise hip hop of the Death Comet Crew and Gettovetts for the 21st century, with all the subsequent developments in complex rhythmic tricknology that implies. This is the sound of computers deconstructing one another.
The isolationist side of the coin was taken to its logical conclusion by Pole, with a glitchy take on electronic dub that transformed the music into android tears in the rain. In some ways, one could read the Pole trilogy as a precursor to Burial's lonesome dubstep architecture. Richie Hawtin — who became ever more abstract as the decade wore on — checked into similar territory with Plastikman's Consumed, an awesome dub-scape that found the man veering from his past in acid-tinged techno into the elegant architecture of minimalism.
Now the minimalist streak in techno was never my favorite strain of the form, and in many ways I think it sounded the slow-motion death rattle of the scene's vibrant immediacy. Still, there were a handful of auteurs that I wound up warming to. Surgeon's black country sound was a bracingly physical take on minimalism, informed as it was by krautrock and his alliance with Scorn's Mick Harris. Tracks like Badger Bite and Reptile Mess (from the Pet 2000 EP) were crumbling Gothic noisescapes that actually delivered on minimalism's promise of back-to-basics hi-jacking intensity.
His full-length albums were worthwhile as well, with Basic Tonal Vocabulary being the definitive document of the early Surgeon sound (and mimicked a Faust sleeve in the process!), while Force + Form arrived at a sort of machine funk elegance over the course of its four marathon suites. Perhaps minimalism was the point where the chin-stroking tendencies of IDM were re-absorbed into techno's base dancefloor intent? In passing I should also note Luke Slater's Planetary Assault Systems output, which consistently delivered great clanking slabs of minimal techno that remain my favorite stuff he's done.
Of course there was a healthy brace of Detroit minimalism, with the widely acknowledged dons being Jeff Mills and Robert Hood. However, I tend to prefer their more introspective material to banging records like Waveform Transmission Vol. 1 and Internal Empire. Jeff Mills' re-imagined score to Fritz Lang's Metropolis remains my most treasured of his albums, the flickering sonics of tracks like Perfecture: Somewhere Around Now perfectly matching the films monochrome futurism.
Similarly, my favorite Robert Hood records are his Nighttime World trilogy, which seemed to reroute their energy through machine funk back to classic soul records like Marvin Gaye's I Want You, Leroy Hutson's Hutson and Leon Ware's Musical Massage. Jeff Mills struck a similar chord with his Every Dog Has Its Day series, full of lush techno soul like Now Is The Time, Arcadia and Dr. Ice, songs that would have sounded right at home on any relatively adventurous r&b radio station at the time.
If you want to talk minimal Detroit, then my favorite material comes down to things like Black Noise's Nature Of The Beast, Sean Deason's The Shit (which is the stateside cousin to Dave Clarke's Red 2) and Scan 7's Black Moon Rising. However, if there were one auteur that I'd single out for praise, then it's Kalamazoo's Jay Denham. His involvement in techno dated back to the early years, and he debuted with Fade II Black's In Synch on Transmat's Fragile subsidiary, a record that already betrayed a blistering simplicity that would come to define his work in the intervening years.
He launched his Black Nation imprint in 1992, the output of which included records like Blackman's Redrum EP, Vice's Player Hater EP and the awesome Birth Of A Nation Part II compilation (which featured Chance McDermott aka Chancellor's blistering Insane). Denham's records were minimal the way Chicago records had been: by default (even down to the artless grit of those almost-photocopied center labels). Which all makes perfect sense when you realize that Kalamazoo sits equidistant between the cities of Chicago and Detroit.
Denham was perhaps the most successful of all the minimal producers in capturing the raw jack of Chicago's original acid trax. In fact, the output of Black Nation bears a striking similarity-of-intent to the banging post-acid sounds of Chicago producers like DJ Skull and Steve Poindexter. However, despite the fact that their no-nonsense approach resulted in some of the most blank-eyed nosebleed techno imaginable (see Skull's Guard Your Grill and Poindexter's Short Circuit), they nevertheless possessed a scientific precision that somehow prefigured the pristine hall-of-mirrors sound of micro-house.
Similarly, The Holy Ghost Inc.'s Mad Monks On Zinc turned up preposterously early (1991) for this sort of oneiric trance-inducing minimalism. One almost imagines the titular monks wandering out of the mountains to unveil secret knowledge to the villagers below. I'm reminded of Bandulu's Guidance, which similarly invokes images from the caves in Altered States. Another crew that seemed to hint at minimalism before its time, they delved deeper yet into dub techniques and everything they did was imbued with a spectral mysticism lying just beneath the surface, forever setting them apart from the pack.
If we're speaking of dubbed-out techno — and we are — the dons are undoubtedly Basic Channel. Their pulsing, motorik grooves were quite simply magnetic, drawing tiny particles of sound into their orbit as they slowly coalesced into discrete tracks. Hypnotic 4/4 slates like Quadrant Dub stretched out toward infinity, while Lyot Rmx nearly eschewed beats altogether in its glorious descent to the center of the world.
Detroit's Terrence Dixon gradually developed a similar approach in the wake of Basic Channel's innovations, a sound showcased on his Minimalism and Minimalism II 12"s, ultimately culminating in the awesome From The Far Future LP. The record was shot through with the shadows of machine soul, its ghost funk best heard in the game grid techno of Shuffle All Circuits (the sound of the Tron: Legacy soundtrack ten years early). Convextion was another minimalist auteur that walked the path with elegance, and his early records coming out on Sean Deason's Matrix Records essayed a spectral vision of techno's soul in the machine.
I remember first hearing the track from the debut Convextion EP in the context of Juan Atkins' MasterMix, which even in the esteemed company of Martin Circus, Black Noise, Blaze and A Number Of Names spun me around and caught me completely off guard. It was the first time I really grasped the idea of minimal techno's implied funk, and whenever those skeletal sequences starting shaking up up and down the soundscape I was slayed. That mix, presented by the godfather himself, remains an unmissable romp through techno/house/disco/machine soul, moving through their varied worlds with ease. I imagine that it must capture the spirit of all those early shows the Deep Space crew put on back in the mid-eighties.
Of course alongside these trailblazers Magic Juan himself certainly had a hand in shaping micro-house's path with his Infiniti output. The early works were all scattered across various 12"s and compilations before being handily compiled for The Infiniti Collection. Listen to Flash Flood and tell me that isn't pure micro-house. And in 1993, no less! He followed up with the Skynet album and the Never Tempt Me 12" which featured remixes from Cristian Vogel and 3MB (Thomas Fehlmann and Basic Channel's Moritz von Oswald).
It was a perfect fusion of the machine soul shapes of Model 500's 90s records and the minimalist austerity of micro-house, a circle that he'd begun to square as early as 1995 with the Deep Space LP. The majority of the album was engineered by Moritz von Oswald (who also remixed Starlight for the 12"), with the machine soul of The Flow and I Wanna Be There rubbing shoulders with the gentle techno of Milky Way (co-written with Kevin Saunderson and mixed by François Kevorkian) and the sparse digital funk of Last Transport To Alpha Centauri.
The final piece in the roots-of-micro-house puzzle is the lustrous, playful techno that emerged from Cologne in the 90s best represented by Jörg Burger and Wolfgang Voigt (aka Mike Ink). Burger turned out the Gaussian-blurred techno of The Bionaut's Lush Life Electronica before bounding into 1997 with The Modernist's pristine Opportunity Knox. Its liquid machine funk pooling somewhere between house and techno, it was micro-house avant la lettre.
Mike Ink's early classic Life's A Gas, which featured snatches of everything from T. Rex to Kraftwerk and Roxy Music, just might be the first instance of a straight-up micro-house full-length. Coming in at 1995, its nimble grooves and spangly textures still sound like the future. Ink descended ever further into ambience with a succession of four records under the name Gas, before starting Kompakt Records, the spiritual home of micro-house.
Micro-house proper as defined by the likes of Isolée, Villalobos and Luomo really came to the fore around the turn of the century. Isolée's debut LP Rest is widely acknowledged as a classic, and rightly so, as its mind-tickling tactile micro-funk is utterly engrossing. Even better are the 12" mixes of Beau Mot Plage (which does feature on Rest in edited form), particularly the glistening hall-of-mirrors tango of Heaven & Earth Re-Edit and Freeform Reform Parts 1 & 2's 11-minute tech jazz rave up.
When it comes to micro-house, my favorite micro-house long-player remains Luomo's Vocalcity, a six-song set of marathon (only one track clocks in under ten minutes) deep house workouts that veer into a sort of neon-lit bedroom funk. One can almost sense the flicker of SA-RA in the rolling, deconstructed boogie of Synkro (unsurprisingly my absolute favorite cut on the album). The half-lit, burnished edges of Vocalcity make readily apparent that, when all is said and done, micro-house was always an outgrowth of the initial deep house impulse.
One needs look no further than Virgo's lone self-titled album for all the proof you need. The record is as perfectly realized as prime Kraftwerk: Ride's perpetual trance dance is the blueprint for the deeper end of micro-house, while the gentle machine soul of School Hall is quite simply sublime. Virgo fulfilled the promise of everything Larry Heard laid out on his early Mr. Fingers sides (collected on the absolutely essential Ammnesia compilation). See also Marshall Jefferson's Jungle Wonz records, rounding out this trio of Chicago deep house auteurs.
This mirrored in New York by the Nu Groove imprint, particularly the output of the Burrell Brothers and Bobby Konders. Records like Aphrodisiac's Song Of The Siren and the N.Y. House'n AuthorityAPT. record epitomized a quintessentially Big Apple, cosmopolitan take on deep house, while Bobby Konders' House Rhythms and Dub Poets' Black & White opened the floodgates of Jamaican dub pressure into the music. Those nimble, casually funky rhythms of the New York mix of Open House's Seven Day Weekend add a healthy big city swagger to the Compass Point vibes in evidence throughout.
All these deep, dark maneuvers formed the perfect backdrop for the lonesome vocal stylings of a certain type of house producer exemplified by Jamie Principle, who pioneered a murmuring, moan-inflected sound that figures like K-Alexi Shelby, Blake Baxter and Bernard Badie then went on to run with. Records like Your Love, Cold World and Baby Wants To Ride established an icy, new wave-informed style heavily indebted to Prince (and I've often thought you could hear a bit of Bowie in there as well). These all informed by a distinctly European flavor that I suspect overlaps significantly with that of progressive-era Detroit.
Unfortunately, Principle never got to deliver an album in the 80s (making that happen is on my Doc Brown bucket list). Thankfully, Lil' Louis did, and From The Mind Of Lil' Louis was every bit as iconoclastic as one might hope from the author of the ten-minute orgasmic house masterpiece French Kiss (its pulsing sequences often pointed to as the birth of trance). Moody, spiritual and introspective, it was nevertheless intercut with a deeply freaky bent, boasting the original stalker track (I Called U) and the apocalyptic Blackout. An undeniable classic, it deserves a spot on all the 80s lists.
Curtis Jones aka Cajmere aka Green Velvet brought out the freak in full force for the 90s on his Cajual and Relief imprints. Tunes like The Stalker and Land Of The Lost picked up where Lil' Louis left off, bringing an added punch of technoid minimalism to bear on the sound. Indeed, Velvet brought the noise too, as anyone who's heard Answering Machine or Flash will tell you. On Whatever, the martial rhythms bled into EBM/industrial territory that was thoroughly post punk (and well before it was cool again!), with La La Land even becoming something of a hit.
We're now rounding into the home stretch for all of you falling asleep back there! Moodymann's post-post-soul sound, featuring dense layers of overlapping synths and textures, resulted in some of the earliest filter-disco music (a sound French acts like Daft Punk and Cassius would later take into the charts. Other Detroit figures like Terrence Parker, Alton Miller and Theo Parrish had similarly rootsy sounds that seemed to stretch back to the days when Westbound was king of the city, all three equally comfortable with deep, spiritual slates and tracky noise in equal measure.
I've often thought that if there was one crew that unexpectedly mirrored all this Motor City activity, it was the Lords Of Svek. Hailing from Sweden, the trio of Adam Beyer, Jesper Dahlbäck and Joel Mull formed the core of the output on the Svek label. This lot were the realSwedish house mafia! Offering up a perfect fusion of technoid futurism and jazzed-out house, the label's rich discography deserves to be more widely heard. You could do a lot worse than to start with the Stars compilation, which features not one but two tracks from Conceiled Project's awesome Definition Of D (my favorite of which is the loping deep house paranoia of D-Weqst).
Aside from the obvious stylistic comparisons (of which I'd venture that Svek was ECM to KDJ's Impulse! and Sound Signature's Blue Note), there were also a number of literal connections made around this time. Not only did Aril Brikha's Deeparture In Time and Art Of Vengeance EP (which featured the micro-house classic Groove La Chord) came out on Transmat, but Wild Planet's post-bleep 'n bass-era output like the Vocoder 12" and the Transmission full-length were released by Octave One's 430 West imprint. The Transmitter album in particular is a great little record that I never tire of, its sound hovering twenty feet above the ground in the interzone between techno, house and electro.
Octave One themselves are one of my key groups, in the upper echelon with SA-RA and Smith & Mighty. Everything they put out in the 90s is solid gold, with tracks like Siege, Black On Black and The Neutral Zone holding up as perfect techno workouts (see also the exquisite Art And Soul EP). Random Noise Generation was the sample-warping anything goes side project in contrast to Octave One's geometric precision, tunes like Hysteria and Falling In Dub the dark, twisted flipside to the Inner City records.
From the very beginning, there was a distinct machine soul current running through Octave One's output. Most obviously in I Believe (especially in its Magic Juan Mix), but also
the lush, low-slung rhythms of Nicolette and The Neutral Zone's rewired funk (not to mention Burujha's 1970s soul OST inflections). However, it all came crashing into the foreground at the turn of the century with Blackwater (featuring the vocals of Ann Saunderson), a rework of an earlier instrumental that found the tune remixed by Kevin Saunderson to brilliant effect. All of this two steps away from Ginuwine and Aaliyah.7
I hear similar ties to machine funk running through Stacey Pullen's discography. Going back to his earliest Bango sides, records like Ritual Beating System Tribal Rythim Mix and Sphinx had more than a bit of vintage soul about them. Pullen's Kosmic Messenger output — as compiled on the Electronic Poetry collection — makes an excellent case for picking up where Funkadelic's The Electric Spanking Of War Babies left off (alongside the electrofunk of Zapp and Mtume), especially tunes like Eye 2 Eye and Death March that rewire the funk to ever deeper levels of abstraction.
The Silent Phase record that Pullen recorded for Transmat made similar connections (especially in the Curtis Mayfield-reminiscent stylings of Love Comes And Goes), although in tracks like Body Rock and Spirit Of Sankofa one can hear distinct pre-echoes of The Neptunes. This strange pact between the two sides of the coin was further developed on Todayisthetomorrowyouwerepromisedyesterday, a record whose undeniable jazz funk sensibilities were backed by a distinctly 21st century rhythmic tricknology.
Which reminds me of Anthony Shakir's quote about only getting into techno because he didn't like the last Parliament record! (Sicko 86)1b More than any other figure his music seems to be shot through with the fragmented remnants of soul. His more dancefloor-oriented sides like Breathe Deeper are post-Funkadelic music in the same way Kosmic Messenger is, reminding one of the imagery around progressive Detroit and The Electrifying Mojo. New wave and funk colliding on the airwaves. See also the wild house shapes of That's What I Want. Mesopotamia, innit?
His moodier, more introspective sides might be even better. Often dealing in splintered breakbeats, he seemed to formulate the broken beat sound near simultaneously to 4 Hero. My absolute favorite the Tracks For My Father EP, a record that I managed to pick up after school back in the day for a few dollars from the cheap bin at the record store next door to Club Elements. It's a great four-track EP, showcasing broken beat shapes and the mutant electro-soul of Fact Of The Matter before it all collapses into the flickering machine soul of Travelers. Shakir later actually worked with the German post punk band F.S.K. in 2004 on First Take Then Shake.
Which brings us to the final outpost in today's elevator ride, the music of young Jimmy Edgar. Any further over the line and you're literally listening to Supa Dupa Fly, which is too far (at least until next episode!). Edgar released the jaw-dropping Morris Nightingale/Kristuit Salu record to little fanfare back in 2002. It should have been massive. Machine funk deconstructed, this liquid r&b is the split of Kraftwerk, J Dilla and Timbaland.
The largely instrumental work later caught the attention of Warp Records, where Edgar found a home for a spell, releasing the Bounce, Make, Model mini-album and the Color Strip LP. Both of which are prime android funk in the Juan Atkins/Prince tradition. True machine soul, in other words, and the perfect segue into the final episode of Terminal Vibration, when we go searching for the soul in the machine...
Terminal Vibration 9: Elevator Music
The MoverBody Snatchers Impaler - First MixPlanet Core Productions
4 HeroThe PowerReinforced
The Black DogSeers & SagesBlack Dog Productions
Smart SystemsTingler Four By Four MixJumpin' & Pumpin'
Royal HouseParty PeopleIdlers
69My Machines Parts 1, 2 & 3, including Extraterrestrial RaggabeatsPlanet E
StrandBloated Juggernaut MixFrictional
Suburban KnightThe Art Of Stalking Stalker MixTransmat
I remember Pennington turning in burning hot mix on Groovetech around the same time. Unfortunately, that site (which was something of an online record store, only so much more) is long gone, but someone seems to have uploaded the mix to Youtube:
Pennington, James. Suburban Knight @ Groovetech. Groovetech, Suburban Knight, 23 Nov. 2001. Live DJ Mix.
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.
When I think of records that came out of nowhere as a complete bolt for the blue, any number of iconoclastic tiles spring to mind; records like Model 500's NIght Drive, 4 Hero's Combat Dancin', Tricky's Aftermath, and so on and so on. Yet if there's one (largely unsung) record that belongs in the same league as those future-preempting classics, then it's this bad slab of wax from Colourbox.
Lodged in between the burnout end of post punk and the dawn of Britain's post-hip hop blues in the shape of Soul II Soul, Neneh Cherry, Bomb The Bass, The Wild Bunch and Smith & Mighty (the sound that would come to be called trip hop), this 12" seems to presage Bristol's sound of the nineties in its dub-wise, post-disco grooves.
On the face of it, Colourbox were an unlikely proposition: brothers Martin and Steven Young set out in 1982 with a dark, claustrophobic sound reminiscent of the less skronky side of Rip Rig & Panic (just as that crew were winding down with their Attitude LP, in fact). The new pop sounds of ABC and The Human League had swooped in to become the sound of the moment, and the glitz and glamour of MTV and Nick Rhodes were in full swing. Shiny was in, darkness was out, and many of the latter day post punk bands suddenly seemed to be out of step with the zeitgeist. Even in Simon Reynold's epic Rip It Up And Start Again, many of groups of this era merit only footnote status...
And yet... and yet, this Indian Summer of post punk features considerable treasures hidden in its shadows. Much like the contemporary output of Compass Point Studios, these records as often as not served to provide a metaphorical link between Metal Box and Newbuild, that is the post punk past and the electronic future.
I'm talking about records like 23 Skidoo's The Gospel Comes To New Guinea, 400 Blows' Declaration Of Intent, Mark Stewart's Learning To Cope With Cowardice, Fats Comet's Don't Forget That Beat, Section 23's From The Hip, but above all Colourbox's Baby I Love You So - the March 2018 record of the month and a dubbed-out post-disco, proto-trip hop 12" masterpiece.
Cloaked in evocative crimson artwork (provided by 23 Envelope) that springs from the clearly-defined 4AD design aesthetic, it nevertheless maintains a rude, street-level edge that seems to whisper nineties. From the sleeve on downward, this record screams trip hop so clearly that if it were strewn out alongside Maxinquaye, Dummy and Blue Lines one might assume they were all from the moment. After putting the record on the turntable and starting it a spinning, you quickly find out that the sonics are just as forward-thinking.
The record's a-side is a Baby I Love You So, a cover version of Jacob Miller's epochal reggae classic, famously produced by Augustus Pablo (who in turn dubbed it out into King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown, easily one of the top five dub traxx of all time). On the face of it, one might think it folly to attempt to version one of the great front-to-back 7" singles on wax, but from the opening bars it quickly becomes clear that you're dealing with something special.
With metallic percussion along the lines of Adrian Sherwood's On-U Sound productions, the beat tumbles forward at a downbeat pace as the bassline throbs with metronomic precision. Then, a searing guitar figure cuts through the track like a knife, following Augustus Pablo's melodica line from the Jacob Miller original note for note. Lorita Grahame bluesy vocals anchor the track in the soil, while her cooing backup vocals seem to drift gently toward the clouds.
Grahame's whole approach is actually the linchpin here, betraying the track's entire m.o.: this is lover's rock rendered as a torch song (sound familiar?). The whole thing simply had the misfortune of coming out about a decade before it's time... in 1995 this record would have fit right in. 1986? Forget about it! It couldn't have been more anachronistic if it featured a Neptunes remix...
Like Mark Stewart's self-titled 1987 LP, the hard edges of this record's digidub percussion and spectral atmosphere seem to outline what would become the roots-n-future mash up of the Bristol sound. With the Burt Bacharach covers of Smith & Mighty and The Wild Bunch and Massive Attack's moody cover of Chaka Khan's Any Love waiting in the wings, the whole thing comes on like an unlikely blueprint for the Bristol blues. Augmenting the record's almost cyberpunk-by-default tone are film samples from John Carpenter's Escape From New York sprinkled liberally throughout the track. If it all sounds too good to be true, then yeah... we're on the same page.
Of course, the b-side's even better. Looks Like We're Shy One Horse/Shootout makes literal the connection between Augustus Pablo's man-from-the-East melodica stylings and Ennio Morricone's spaghetti western OSTs with what amounts to a dubbed-out discomix cover of the theme to One Upon A Time In The West (with samples from the film - along with Duck, You Sucker - once again sprinkled liberally throughout).
That same searing guitar is back, this time sawing out the theme's refrain as whistling synths soar through the ether, horns punching in ever so often. Picture the midpoint between Joe Gibbs & The Professionals' African Dub All-Mighty records and Bandulu's Antimatters/Cornerstone/Redemption trilogy and you wouldn't be too far off. Once again, simply stunning.
At about five minutes in, the groove cuts out and you're left with droning atmosphere for a spell before the whistling synths return - this time pitched down a couple octaves - in such a way that wouldn't sound out of place scoring Ridley Scott's Black Rain. This is billed as the Shootout portion of the track. Then, a downbeat-the-dub-ruler beat kicks in and Repo Man-esque choirs fill the sky, as the track creeps toward its denouement with clockwork inevitability. This is Deckard in a trench coat, staggering through rain-soaked streets music. Cyberpunk, once again, on both sides.1
I can't imagine what it must have been like, hearing this back when it first came out...
I once said that I could write a whole book about this record, so how about a (rather lengthy) post to start the ball rolling? It's often daunting to write about a record so close to one's heart, so personally significant is it that one fears they won't do it justice or the words won't come. However, lately I've found that you've just got to jump in there and get on with it, that once the work is done you have something to show for it (rather than a dream deferred indefinitely) and chances are it'll suit the subject just fine. So here goes...
If ever I wrote one of those 33 1/3 books, the series that chronicles classic albums from There's A Riot Goin' On to Another Green World, then Megatop Phoenix would surely be the subject of mine. I remember nearly twenty years ago, after growing up with the Planet BAD compilation (an anthology of the band's music, spanning ten years of recorded output), tracking down the album based on an intense fascination with Contact and the wild acid breakbeat jam that closed out the track.
The compilation's lone selection from Megatop Phoenix — the other albums contributed at least two or three songs each — Contact marked it out in my mind as the group's weird record, and being the sort of kid perennially drawn to the strange, it seemed right up my alley. Somewhat harder to find than the other albums (the shops never seemed to have it in stock, for whatever reason), it wasn't until a bit later that it turned up at the Point LomaMusic Trader. My chance had come, so I snapped it up with haste. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
As much as its bound to come off as hyperbole, I reckon that this is the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band of the eighties. It may not have the reputation or sheer pop culture impact of The Beatles storied song-cycle, but it certainly ticks every other box available: here's a set of great songs recorded with cutting-edge studio-as-instrument techniques, dubbed full of effects and sequenced perfectly — almost symmetrically so — into one killer extended suite, recreating the feel of a multifaceted live performance. Plus, both records have breaks!
The fourth and final full-length of the original B.A.D. lineup, Megatop finds the group five years deep into their career and truly firing on all cylinders. Here is a band who knew exactly what they were doing and precisely how to do it. With a story stretching back to 1985 — and even further, truth be told, into the heady days of first-wave punk and The Clash — perhaps it might be worthwhile to rewind a bit and start at the beginning...
The Story Of The Clash
The story of B.A.D. begins with Mick Jones, the lead guitarist for The Clash. As everyone undoubtedly knows, The Clash (along with bands like The Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks and The Damned) were the standard-bearers for the rise of punk in the media glare of 1977. Singles like White Riot, London's Burning and Complete Control were crucial cuts in punk's early arsenal, while their self-titled debut was — along with the Ramones debut, Nevermind The Bollocks and Damned Damned Damned1 — one of the first punk full-lengths to hit the shops.
The band quickly began expanding beyond the constraints of straight up punk rock, exploring reggae, rockabilly, New Orleans r&b and eventually mixing dub, disco and hip hop into their dense sonic stew. The group seemed to straddle the dividing line between new wave and post punk (much like Simple Minds' contemporary records, Empires And Dance and Real To Real Cacophony), but with a curious Sergio Leone-influenced image as outlaws of the American West, often trading in western imagery and bedecked in cowboy attire. This, of course, earned the band their detractors, but I find the whole trip quite evocative and endlessly fascinating.
In fact, this phase of the group remains my absolute favorite, as attested to by something like The Clash At The Edge Of Forever.2 Hooking up with figures as disparate as rebel country singer Joe Ely (Lubbock, Texas), dub scientist Mikey Dread (Port Antonio, Jamaica) and graffiti artist/part-time hip hop MC Futura 2000 (New York, New York), they ran the gamut of post-disco dance music practically at the dawn of the form's existence (see 1980's triple-LP Sandinista!).
Tracks like The Magnificent Seven, This Is Radio Clash, Straight To Hell and Guns Of Brixton remain utterly unique dubbed-out post punk missives (all of which, on a personal note, were absolutely crucial records for me back in the day). Their presence on many of the era's key dancefloors — stretching from the Roxy to the Paradise Garage — attests to the music's strange brilliance, as does their latter day status as Balearic3 staples.
After their extraordinary fifth album — Combat Rock — the band were at a crossroads. Lore has it that Joe Strummer wanted to delve deeper into dub and dance music, while Mick Jones wanted to follow in the footsteps of The Who, basking in the band's status as stadium rock stars. What happened next, however, betrays the fact that the reality was less cut-and-dried. Jones was unceremoniously fired from the band while Strummer recruited a group of young mohawked punks to take his place, steering the band toward a back to basics direction with their swan song Cut The Crap. Jones, meanwhile, struck out in another direction entirely...
This Time I Bet You It's BAD
Interestingly enough, Jones was initially slated to be in General Public, laying down guitar on the entirety of their debut record before leaving to pursue his own vision. Linking up first with post-punk audiovisual man Don Letts, he began delving deeper still into hip hop and dance music. Rounded out by bassist Leo "E-Zee Kill" Williams (who would go on to record as Screaming Target and Dreadzone in the nineties), drummer Greg Roberts and keyboardist Dan Donovan, Big Audio Dynamite sprung into being as one of the original (alongside New Order) indie dance propositions.
Their debut LP, This Is Big Audio Dynamite, was a stunning mash up of stutter-funk sampladelia, machine rhythms and mid-period new wave songcraft. Immersed in contemporary dance culture, the sounds of New York club music, early hip hop and the nascent digital dancehall all informed the group's striking new sound. The iconic sleeve itself — capturing the crew (minus Donovan) in stark black and white — perfectly signaled the bold, deeply unconventional music contained within.
The first side of the record is dominated by radio hits like Medicine Show, E=MC² and The Bottom Line (the 12" single of which actually came out on Def Jam in the states, where the track was remixed by Rick Rubin), all of which are lush, multi-layered indie dance excursions, replete with film samples (particularly of the Sergio Leone and Nicolas Roeg variety) and chiming pop inflections. Their accompanying music videos featured Don Letts' striking visual sensibilities, ranging from a time-traveling DeLorean in the wild west4 to the band playing underground, decked out like nuclear power plant operators.
It's worth noting that the second side of the record takes a sharp left turn, given over to skeletal dance workouts like the dancehall-inflected A Party and Sudden Impact!'s third-rail electrofunk workout, both of which might just be my favorite things on the record. You also get the peculiar electro-hoedown of Stone Thames and closing track BAD's big beats thrown into the bargain, rounding out a solid set of state-of-the-art dance pop. All in all, the group were off to a strong start with an auspicious debut that plotted an utterly original vision.
Their sophomore record, No. 10, Upping St., finds Strummer temporarily back in the fold and manning the producer's chair. The drum machine breaks are even heavier this time out, in truth not a million miles removed from what you might expect on a contemporary Mantronix or Run-D.M.C. record. The LP finds the group descending even further into dance territory, and rather appropriately the video for the block-rocking C'mon Every Beatbox features the band performing in a basement dive5 while a group of b-boys-and-b-girls (including a young Neneh Cherry) dance their hearts out.
Conversely, V. Thirteen is firmly in the chiming pop vein established on side one of the band's debut, sounding for all the world like something from Blur's Modern Life Is Rubbish. Switching gears yet again, the apocalyptic, album-closing Sightsee M.C.! rocks a titanic ragga beat over which Mick Jones and Don Letts trade verses, taking the group's side two sensibility into the lower reaches of the charts. Hollywood Boulevard, perhaps the best track here, finds Jones unleashing a rapid-fire series of images — with the same compression of language you'd find in both contemporary hip hop and amphetamine-era Dylan — over an early house beat complete with Derrick May-esque strings! Stunning.
Tighten Up Vol. '88, the third record, finds the group splicing their pop sensibilities seamlessly into contemporary dance rhythms. With the dividing line (nearly) effaced altogether, both sides of the coin bend to meet in the middle. The gorgeously evocative cover art, painted by ex-Clash bassist Paul Simonon, is emblematic of the whole affair, depicting a buzzing soundsystem party beneath a freeway overpass.
The rolling machine rhythms of Just Play Music!, casually unfurling like a lazy day at the beach in mid-summer, seem to betray an affinity with Paisley Park. In fact, whole swathes of the record feel thoroughly indebted to Prince circa Around The World In A Day (note that the group would later cover 1999 during live shows). The contemporary Lovesensi 12" — which features a mash up of the entire Tighten Up album in the space of five minutes — even features a nude Leo Williams sprawled out on a beach recliner in what must be a nod to Prince's contemporaneous album Lovesexy!
Indeed, there's a laidback, anything-goes spirit to the entire affair that's quite appealing. The Battle Of All Saints Road melds hoedown fiddle and banjo with extraterrestrial ragga beat sensibilities, while Funny Names and the nebulous title track seem to drift by coolly on an atmospheric plane, receding gradually into the horizon in Atari-esque gradient colors. Other 99 and Applecart, meanwhile, mark a winning return of the group's britpop sensibilities in a pair of soaring refrains that benefit from the record's rich production flourishes.
And yet, despite the marked development of B.A.D.'s sound, there's not yet evidence of rave's kaleidoscopic fun house psychedelia at this point. Therefore, it's tempting shorthand to call Tighten Up Vol. '88 something like the group's Rubber Soul: a casually brilliant full-length statement wrapping up everything that's come before and setting the table for what's just around the bend. This is the final trading post on the road to this trip's ultimate destination.
On Death's Doorstep Born Again
But the road had a few bumps yet to come. When Mick Jones' daughter Lauren came down with chickenpox, he caught it as well. While Lauren recovered quickly, Jones — who had never had chickenpox as a youth — took a serious turn for the worse and before long had fallen ill with pneumonia. Suffering severe infection of the mouth, throat and lungs, Jones checked into the intensive care unit of St. Mary's Hospital — where he was promptly hooked up to respirators — and found himself in critical condition. For eight hours he battled for his life, and remained unconscious for weeks after. In the process Jones sustained considerable nerve damage, which seriously affected his throat and vocal chords.6a
Recovery took nine months, as Jones underwent protracted therapy to rebuild himself from the ground up.7 The whole ordeal seemed to bring everything into focus. In the hospital I could see things clearly, says Jones. Serious illness gives you time to reassess things. I saw that B.A.D. was going on to something new.6b Parallels could be drawn with Brian Eno's time spent in the hospital after being hit by a car, during which he conceived ambient music, or even Bob Dylan's fabled motorcycle crash and The Basement Tapes — recorded with what would become The Band8 — that followed in its wake. In any case, the revelation that presented itself to Jones was found in the buzzing sounds of the nascent rave culture that had begun to take Britain by storm.
A bit of context might be in order: the Second Summer Of Love was in full bloom by 1988, with raves springing up all over the UK and clubs like London's Shoom and Manchester's Haçienda9 fully indulging post-acid house tastes. Built on a foundation of import 12"s from cities like New York, Detroit and Chicago, the sound was a pile up of house, techno, hip hop and Balearic beats from around the world.
House records like Mr. Fingers' Can You Feel It, Black Riot's A Day In The Life and Rhythim Is Rhythim's techno rhapsody Beyond The Dance would rub shoulders with hip hop like Mantronix's King Of The Beats and Eric B. & Rakim's Follow The Leader, along with the industrial EBM of Front 242, Nitzer Ebb and Cabaret Voltaire, all spliced soundly with the requisite disco/post-disco sounds that lie at the root of the whole endeavor. Spike it all with choice Balearic records like New Order's True Faith, The Woodentops' Why Why Why and of course The Clash's own The Magnificent Dance, and you had the soundtrack for a musical revolution.
Almost immediately, homegrown acts began springing up everywhere, from the techno exploits of Manchester's 808 State and A Guy Called Gerald to the moody house music of London's Bang The Party and Bomb The Bass' block-rockin' beats. Over in West Yorkshire, the Unique 3 were making low-end rumblings of their own, resulting in a sound that would ultimately feed into the the proto-junglist innovations of Shut Up And Dance and 4 Hero about a year later.
Even erstwhile indie rockers like The Shamen, Happy Mondays and A.R. Kane were getting into the groove, following the footsteps of New Order (who had themselves begun to tune into the sounds of rave culture around this time) down the slippery path of indie dance. It seemed like everyone — from soul boys to b-boys to rude boys and indie rockers — were all tuned into the same frequency.
With 1989 in full swing, this is the environment that B.A.D. found themselves in when they entered The Kinks' Konk Studios to record their fourth album. After operating for years at the intersection of new wave, hip hop and club music — in their own way already working out the same internal logic that would play out full scale on the ravefloor — it would seem that the band were more than ready for the challenge. Connecting with the energy around the movement, Jones exclaimed:
We're talking thousands of kids getting together and dancing. It’s all about freeing up yourself and dancing and getting loose. Through this escapism you free yourself. The authorities don’t know what’s going on. They have no control. It’s just like punk was.
Steve Dougherty and Linda Russell (Back from the Brink of Death)6c
With Mick Jones' near-miraculous recovery behind him, he and the band seemed to surf the waves of Second Summer Of Love dancefloor ecstasy with the palpable born-again passion of the moment. In truth, there was something in the air. B.A.D. seemed to have a new lease on life, a new mission to live down. So they pulled out all the stops, and dove headfirst into the rave...
A Phoenix Rises
Take a moment to gaze upon that sleeve. Depicting a stylized phoenix literally rising from the flames (surely a metaphor for Jones' own recent experiences?), it features a pixelated, halftone fractal looming large in the distance.10 Superimposed over the titular phoenix, the group's name appears in boldfaced type (while both the promotional poster and sleeve reverse feature the album's title), beneath which stretches a photo-strip of the band posing for a promo shot. Taken in its entirety its a bold, confident image, its brash juxtapositions and no-nonsense design offering a perfect hint at the sounds contained within.
So what does it sound like? Well, let me tell you... The key to this record is those beats, that rhythm. The drums hover somewhere between the Gaussian-blurred, blunted beats of De La Soul's 3 Feet High And Rising and the delicately crisp machine rhythms of Prince's Lovesexy.11 Balanced atop the beat is everything but the kitchen sink: you've got guttertronic synths, rolling breakbeats, rave piano, squelching acid basslines, ethereal backing vocals, malfunctioning drum machines, hallucinatory guitar, gang chants and dancehall bottom-end, all blended into an absolutely superb palette of sound and threaded together in (im)perfect harmony.
Not to mention... samples, samples and more samples! Think 3 Feet High And Rising (yet again!), Paul's Boutique and It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back: there's film samples, sure enough, but also snatches of sixties garage punk, British music hall, Rule, Britannia!, soundtrack music, Broadway musicals, digital dancehall, comedy records, funk loops and the Godfather Of Soul himself. The production — handled by Mick Jones and Bill Price — is gloriously supple, and with each texture seeming to push and pull against the other in a brilliantly unstable framework, everything up for grabs.
Whereas it might have sounded dated to late-nineties ears — attuned to the self-consciously fat sounds of tech-house, gatecrasher trance and big room techno that held sway at the time — with the benefit of greater hindsight it all sounds righteously at home in the company of the rude, rough-edged, and absolutely timeless sounds of its era: Todd Terry, the Jungle Brothers, Tiger, Trax Records, A Guy Called Gerald and Shut Up And Dance. You can hear echoes of Gerald Simpson's acid-era recordings like Voodoo Ray, Hot Lemonade and Automanikk in Megatop's loose-fitting, ramshackle riddims.
Todd Terry just might be the single most apropos comparison: imagine a pop album with the same spirit as Royal House's Can You Party? and The Todd Terry Project's To The Batmobile Let's Go, and you wouldn't be too far off.12 Don't forget that Todd's rough-edged sampladelia — perched midway between house and hip hop — ran in parallel with what B.A.D. had been up to in the late eighties. With Megatop, the band embraced Terry's cut-and-paste aesthetic wholeheartedly as the charged headlong into the rave.
I'd venture that what gave B.A.D. such a strong grasp on rave's dynamics was their extensive experience with pre-acid dance music, tracing electro-funk, hip hop, soul, reggae13 back into post punk and The Clash's own dancefloor endeavors at the dawn of the decade. This is pure, unadulterated indie dance, in the classic tradition of ex-punks messing around with club music and coming up with a gloriously ramshackle vision of the dancefloor. Think of contemporary records like the Happy Mondays'14Pills 'N' Thrills And Bellyaches, Primal Scream's Screamadelica, The Stone Roses self-titled debut and In Gorbachev We Trust by The Shamen, along with New Order's foray into similar territory with Technique, for example.
The surprising realization I arrived at years ago is that none of those records come close to the level of total immersion in dance culture that Megatop represents. The closest would be Screamadelica (which came out over two years later, an eternity in the blazing pace dance culture kept to at the time), but Bobby Gillespie and co. had the help of outside producers like The Orb, Hypnotone and Andrew Weatherall (even roping in Jah Wobble for a killer bassline). Even so, there's a handful of diversions into the band's southern rock tendencies — which they'd fully explore on 1994's Give Out But Don't Give Up — from the pentecostal rock 'n soul of Movin' On Up and the weepy country ballad Damaged.
Pills 'N' Thrills And Bellyaches on the other hand largely captures a band jamming live in the studio, with production duties handled by Paul Oakenfold, another dance music heavyweight. Surely New Order's Haçienda classic Technique would qualify, but aside from a couple tracks, it's largely dominated by straight-up indie rock in the same vein as that on 1986's Brotherhood (not to mention the fact that the 12" mixes are where the club cuts really catch fire). Now don't get me wrong, each of these records are stone cold classics in their own right. I'm only attempting to measure the level to which dance culture runs through these records' veins15 in the cold light of day.
In contrast, Megatop is absolutely dominated by sampladelia and ravefloor sonix, and without the help of any club culture insiders, its success rests solely on the core unit of the band itself. It's an ecstasy record through and through, managing to dovetail Jones' love of life (in the face of near-death) with the loved-up spirit of the times. The entire album runs together in the mix in a nearly non-stop flow of crazy rhythm and melody, threading the pulsing beats of club culture with snatches of overheard conversation and Swinging London songcraft, taking in everything from Ibiza to Chicago and Madchester to Paisley Park, and weaving them all into a stunning sonic tapestry that seems to soundtrack the ultimate party.
Now, it's not often at all that I'm led to break out into a track-by-track analysis of an album, but this is one of those rare cases where it not only seems warranted but absolutely necessary. The song-cycle structure of the LP, paired with the fact that its my absolute favorite record of all time, both lend themselves to such an approach. Each and every track (even the interludes) are their own distinctly individual creations — filled to the brim with ideas — even as they remain perfectly intertwined with the greater whole. It's as if a verdant terrain stretched out before us as far as the eye can see, inviting further exploration. So, then, why not dive headfirst into the sonic banquet and see what we might find?
Megatop Phoenix: The Tracks
This is the universe... big isn't it?. Kicking off with a sample from Powell/Pressburger's 1946 film Stairway To Heaven (starring one David Niven), the mood is set by bit of lovers rock declaring ain't nothing going on but- before being interrupted by an MC shouting The best band in West London, B.A.D.! before a live crowd.
Oh yeah, it should be kicking in by now...
The opening salvo drops immediately, with a fractal fast-forward acid sequence spooling out crimson in the thick, humid night air as the group chant (all together now):
The troop was weak and weary,
Rations running low.
Mission seemed impossible,
We had to save the show.
Then, the beat drops in at a steady-rocking half-time downbeat, a heavy dub bassline pulsing beneath it all.
Rewind, operator gonna kill em with sound,
Bawling out murder and selector come down.
The song seems to tell the story of B.A.D. rallying in the wake of Jones' protracted recovery, banding together again and getting down to business to run tings in the dancehall. It's all tied together with the same Western imagery that The Clash drew on back in the day, conjuring up the image of a band of sonic outlaws and all around badmen riding off into the sunset, pinned down by Jones' power chords in such a way as to recall the great Link Wray.
Suddenly, at the tune's midpoint, Don Letts quotes Tenor Saw's Ring The Alarm and the drums break into a canter. Tapes spool in and out before an interview snippet with Mick Jones plays out, distilling the influence of thirty years of Jamaican music spanning from Prince Buster to Prince Jammy down to only a little, only the bass. Sure enough, that sub-bass continues to pulse beneath it all as rapid-fire breakbeats begin snaking their way through the mix and, for the last minute or so, you're listening to straight up proto-junglist bizzness.
This in 1989, when even the likes of 4 Hero and Shut Up And Dance were still working out their equations... well, it's pretty startling to come across, no question. The addition of Jones' guitar psychedelia equally stunning in this context, forging a link between the retro shades of the sixties revival (by then in full swing) and the technicolor possibilities of rave.
All Mink & No Manners
The first of the interludes, kicking off with a breakbeat nicked from Schoolly D before a squelching synth wobble unceremoniously slips into the mix and another of Jones' olde English samples16 declares I don't know what this world's coming to, everyone trying to be better than their betters... mink coats and no manners!
After a brief snatch of Rule, Britannia!, Union, Jack kicks off with the break from The Rolling Stones' Honky Tonk Women. Way back when, Union, Jack was my least favorite song on the album. Strangely enough, everyone I show the album to seems to single it out as a highlight, and over the years I've grown to love it. It's in essence a football-themed britpop number with a rolling, filmic sweep. The chorus backing sports an almost symphonic quality. Still, there's no getting around that beat when it drops, bass kicking you squarely in the chest. It certainly would have made a good live opener.
Two thirds into the song, crowd noise — no doubt from some soccer arena — rises from the mix as Jones contributes his second bit of sixties-esque guitar, eerily recalling George Harrison's reversed guitar parts on The Beatles' Revolver.. A memorable sample from Britannia Hospital slips into the mix behind the guitar jamming, before everything drops into a rolling snare rush and a certain synth squiggle struggles to escape from the dense sonic tangle of the mix...
Descending on a dread shadow, slow-motion guitar stabs unwind into a dubbed-out intro (bassline and all), replete with textures that wouldn't sound out of place on a Pram record. A voice intones the memorable incantation, groovy, dynamite, heavy... wow, as ghostly chuckling — seemingly on loop — emanates from the ether. Then, that screeching guitar stab returns — playing at the correct speed this time — ushering in a liquid breakbeat that rolls out for a single bar as that trademark synth-squiggle returns with a vengeance.
Suddenly, you're in an epic. The mix here so very lush, with treated power chords locked into the rhythm as a disembodied fiddle scrapes dexterous between the beats. Jones coos Ooh, ooh!, on the one followed swiftly by a snatch of vocalise (it sounds something like ooh-wah) recalling the sort of wordless vocal you'd find in an Ennio Morricone film score. Jones sings:
Feeling flying round,
'Round up in the air,
Bouncing off the walls,
Getting under my hair.
On the carpet, in the weave,
Up in trees on the leaves,
Feelings flying everywhere.
Which brilliantly conjures up images of a rave when the party's really going off, the DJ's on fire and everybody's locked onto the pulse of the rhythm, lights and colors flashing off the walls as everyone dances together in ecstasy. Taking matters to another level altogether, he adds:
I'm on the right track
For what I want to say.
I got to get it out
There ain't no other way.
To make contact.
There ain't no getting away
From how I feel today.
Which is about as perfect an expression you could ask for of everything Jones alluded to when expressing his enthusiasm for rave's social energy, and that need to interface with it on its own terms. To make contact, in other words. Variations on these words make up the entirety of the lyrical content, and really, what more do you need?
Looping on and on, rave pianos drift in and out of the mix with Jones occasionally tossing off another one of his guitar asides, before — at the three-minute mark — a snatch of The Who's I Can't Explain drops into the mix (out of nowhere) in such a way that predicts Fatboy Slim's Going Out Of My Head seven years early.17
Suddenly, the tune's gone acid on you, with a squelching bassline threading its way through that same fluid breakbeat, punctuated occasionally by what sounds like a power drill(!) as the beat drops in and out of the mix. Then, an into the abyss sort of slowdown sample plays, and the feeling is as if you've been sucked into a vortex, tripping out on the dancefloor as the beat plays on and on. It's at this point that those knobs really starts turning, and we're all in for some serious acid breakbeat magic.
It should be categorically stated that this song is perfect. Just perfect! Its groove is improbably sublime, and even if unfurled into perpetuity it would scarcely get old. The three-minute pop song comprising its first half is on the order of something like the Talking Heads' Once In A Lifetime, sharing a similarly strange haunting brilliance paired with the sense that its rhythm is advanced technology, something that shouldn't even exist yet. Add in the acid breakbeat coda, and its all almost too good to be true.
I'd like to take a moment to note the video for this song,18 which in direct opposition to the sumptuous, almost cinematic quality of B.A.D.'s other videos, boasts thoroughly bargain-basement production values and yet possesses loads of charm. Think of the video for The Prodigy's Out Of Space or Pump Up The Volume by M|A|R|R|S:
You've got floating technicolor ravers dancing against a jet black backdrop as the band — in stark black and white — seems to play in cryosleep (so cool they've got panache to spare). Each player's head rotates across the screen in slow-motion, interrupted by the vivid hues of graphic psychedelia. Mick, looking like he's ready for a game of tennis, does his guitar thing before turning about face and miming the guitar riff from The Who's I Can't Explain.
The DJ (one Greg Roberts) cues up the next record and shouts Go!, before the graphics and the dancers merge into one, with the puzzled bandmates — now in full color — wandering around the landscape with priceless WTF?!? looks on their faces as this acid jam unfolds.
Without a doubt, it's something special.
Out of nowhere, a loping big beat rides roughshod over Contact's acid coda, bringing in a surf rock flavor (shades off Rockafeller Skank) at odds with the Chinatown stylings playing out in the foreground. After a brief snatch of George Formby's Mr. Wu's a Window Cleaner Now, the brittle house rhythms of Dragon Town cruise into the mix on a razor-thin 909 beat pushed along by a pulsing synth bassline. The effect is not a million miles removed from the contemporary bleep 'n bass records of Nightmares On Wax, with that same sense of homespun futurism suffused with the unmistakable whiff of sensi.
I've listened to this album so many times that I sometimes forget how strange Dragon Town sounds on first listen. It's a sublime tune, swirling and carnivalesque as Jones unfurls a string of off-the-wall couplets in another one of his occasional detours into Asia (see also Sony and The Green Lady). Gorgeous choirs — most likely sampled from somewhere or another — trill in the background throughout, as a 303 acid line rises stealth-like from the mix. When the sampled Chinatown, my Chinatown vocals drop, in tune and on beat, hovering three feet over those knobs turning on that tiny silver box, the effect is ecstatic.
Baby, Don't Apologise
The house moves continue with Baby, Don't Apologise, an unapologetic club track, one built for the dancefloor. Caning those reverse strings and detuned chorus loops over a lonely rave piano, the groove drops without warning into a piercing baroque string section on the order of not only Marshall Jefferson's Move Your Body The House Music Anthem but also Derrick May's contemporary sides. Think of it as a homespun indie take on one of Ten City's Windy City epics burning up the dancefloors of the day.19
The tune's another absolute corker, hitting you with a soaring chorus (built upon the song's title) that's ensconced within a fully electronic orchestral arrangement — complete with a French horn simulation — before dropping into a bridge where synth brass (sounding like pure electric current rather than any actual horns I've ever heard) pulses over a looping Whoa-o-a-oh! bit of vocalise. It all grinds to a halt with a dangling rejoinder — another one of those slowdown sound effects — with the exception of the pulsing rhythm which persists undaunted, as the tune resets itself before wheeling back for another verse as the carousel spins just once more.
On reflection, I reckon this tune should have been a 12" single. It's the most straight up, no-nonsense club track on the album, and could have done serious damage on the era's dancefloors. With Judge Jules turning out the club mix to Contact, perhaps they could have roped in a Todd Terry or a Kevin Saunderson to give it the 12" treatment? I'd love to hear what a Reese remix would have sounded like. Well, a girl can dream...
Is Yours Working Yet?
With the closing beatless bars of Baby's symphonic outro, a looping aquatic sound (that brings to mind The Orb, for whatever reason) accompanies the question How do you do ladies and gentlemen? before volunteering I trust that everyone is enjoying the music. Well, no complaints here, mate... A vocodered sing-song — which seems to represent the audience — replies, and another single-minded beatbox begins working out its own internal logic while MGM soundtrack strings cascade asymmetrically in the background.
It would all be ridiculous if it weren't so much fun.
Around The Girl In 80 Ways
Closing out side one on a distinctly breezy note, Around The Girl In 80 Ways sounds remarkably like something that could have been cooked up at Paisley Park (think Sheila E. or André Cymone) but with the same homespun charm we've come to expect from planet Megatop (remember Lovesensi?).
The verses are faintly subdued with a muted electric piano carrying the melody as a reggaematic organ chops out a slight skank against the blunted machine rhythm. Jones' vocals are intimate within such uncomplicated production, and even the chorus appears with little fanfare as well — over more or less the same backing of unadorned piano — before dropping into a second-level chorus where he sings:
Around the girl in 80 ways,
Most of them I know.
All of them are substitutes
For feelings I don't show.
It's a truly excellent refrain, spooling out carefree and easy while a subdued string section and what sounds like ladies cooing envelope the song. And then, of course, there's that delightful synth squiggle straight out the boogie playbook punctuating each bar. Think freestyle, think Madonna's Holiday... the whole effect is just gorgeous.
The song continues for a spell before dropping into another one of Jones' mini-hoedowns — in the tradition of Stone Thames and The Battle Of All Saints Road — which eventually assume control of the song about 2/3 of the way through. After the third run of this impromptu hootenanny, soundtrack strings enter the fray and descend into the song's conclusion, punctuated by a final stroke of organ that puts an exclamation point on the whole affair.
It's a perfect conclusion to the first side of a record that's brought us track after track of brilliantly crafted pop music imbued with the rude edge of the late-eighties dancefloor. With a slowed down reggae record and then a snatch of Bernard Cribbins' Right Said Fred — which offers the rejoinder and so we... had a cup of tea — side one ends in such a way that sets up the second, where the Godfather himself enters the equation...
Side two of Megatop begins with words from James Brown himself:
Now I can't say exactly what did happen...
You just don't understand unless you've been through it.
Back-masked saxophone and choir spool out steadfast in the background, dialing up the tension before dropping into the speed-demon house of James Brown (the track). Clocking in at nearly 140bpm, it outpaces the rest of the album soundly, operating at speeds the likes of CJ Bolland and Robert Leiner — with their sleek, muscular European techno — would soon call home in the early nineties. In 1989, when even proto-jungle was still working at sub-130 tempos, it's extraordinary!
If memory serves, at the time only Hi-NRG was this fast, and damned if that rapid-fire bassline — cycling up and down the keyboard — doesn't sound like something Patrick Cowley might have approved of. Mix in a bit of rave piano pounding along to the beat, a dash of detuned house sonix, a helping of warped synth brass and spike it all with some racetrack orchestra stabs — bringing to mind The Prodigy's Speedway Theme From Fastlane — and what you've got is a shot of pure adrenaline.
The lyrics seem to offer up a first-person account of James Brown's high speed chase and subsequent arrest the previous year, while the chorus quotes freely from the man's music: Hot pants, she look fine,It's a man's man's world,Please, please, please. There's even an offhand reference to The Bottom Line! After a soaring guitar solo from Mick, as the song barrels toward its conclusion, you get a proto-rap stringing together a bunch of JB song titles.
There's this interesting bit of social commentary to the lyric, especially in the chorus:
It's a man's man's world in America,
Jump back in my cell.
Please please please in America,
Slipping into hell.
Not to mention the portion of the song America (from West Side Story) that thrown into the blender at the songs midpoint:
Life can be bright in America.
(If you can fight in America).
Life is alright in America.
(If you're all-white in America).
Well, it's certainly Food For Thought!
James Brown was actually the first single issued from the album, although — as far as I know — only ever got a promo release. As such, there's a music video20 and this time it's much more in the B.A.D. tradition of colorful, extravagant visuals in Don Letts' usual striking style:
The band's rocking out beneath a graffiti-daubed parking garage through which a James Brown lookalike leads police on a high speed chase in his camouflage jeep. He shows off his dance moves in front of some cheerleaders as B.A.D. plays, with Don Letts and Mick Jones even recreating the bring the poor man his cape routine from Brown's live performances!21 While perhaps not quite as much of an unexpected delight as the rave-fueled Contact promo, it's still a great music video.
Everybody Needs A Holiday
Commencing with another one of these improbable bass/beatbox interludes — this time riding a midi bassline and piano combination that cut in out of nowhere — we get a bit of computer sing-song as Jones repeats the song's title over a jaunty tune that wouldn't sound out of place on PBS programming. Within half a minute it's gone, and a disembodied voice frets I don't want a vacation. I just want to get away... for good! He's answered swiftly with a whistling-led exotica shuffle that plays for a couple bars, which then gives way to a laidback quasi-digital reggae beat.
A distorted bass synth matches the bass drum in a 4/4 pulse as a slow-motion rhythm unfolds beneath, punctuated by periodic hand claps marking the half-time beat. Gentle, cheerful organs hold down the verses while Jones offers up the first verse, and then the chorus hits:
Earned a rest,
I know you worked all day
And everybody needs a holiday.
I'll stand guard,
And keep the wolves at bay.
Watch the fire,
While you dream away.
During which Mick is joined by the rest of the group — and a return of the sampled whistling — for what is surely one of the band's great gang chants, in this context getting into a real sea shanty vibe. Jones strangles his guitar into wonderfully strange shapes that recall sliding Hawaiian slack key guitar while the occasional melodica trills on the horizon. Definite Club Paradise vibes in evidence throughout.
Every so often, the tune seems to break almost subconsciously into dancehall double-time on the back of pepperseed snares that shift the focus from the half-time hand claps to the bass drum/distorted bass axis of the song. Jones guitar ultimately works its way to the sixties-inflected shades of psychedelia essayed earlier on the record (which makes this song something a laidback riposte to side one's Rewind).
I just want to get away... for good!
Mick's A Hippie Burning
The album's longest interlude by some distance, this is more a sound collage in the vein of Revolution 9 than anything else. Starting with a snippet of Bernard Cribbins' The Hole In The Ground before dropping into another one of these convulsing drum machine rhythms — this time on the electrofunk tip — it's loathe to stay in one place for very long. Which brings to mind not only big beat's perversely omnivorous sampladelia, but also latterly the The Avalanches' oeuvre.
The most extended port of call is a folk guitar mid-section that backs a spoken word sample before dropping a comedic sing-song on beat, but even that quickly fades into a bit of sixties rock (which then disintegrates into reversed crooning!). The whole thing concludes on another great slice of sequencer rock, riding a descending bassline and digital percussion loop into the sunset before being rudely interrupted by...
In which acid house paranoia enters full force with the dread vibes of Joey Beltram and Frankie Bones. Over Megatop's heaviest beat, Don Letts takes the mic to set the scene for another wild night out in raveland:
Park Lane Green, it's Saturday night.
West End Central, flashing lights.
We've come to dance the night away
UV, dry ice and DJ.
The stomping 4/4 beat is held down by a dread bassline punctuated by the occasional orchestra hit/rave stab, before jumping off into the sparkling chorus:
Speaker pump that devil sound.
Everybody's getting down.
Moonwalk over to the gents.
Exit Zombie money spent.
Then a quote from Strawberry Fields Forever (Let me take you down 'cause I'm going to...") by Letts slips into the mix as a looped sample of the Ooh, ah, ooh ooh ah! vocals from B.A.D.'s first hit The Bottom Line plays out in the background. It's at this point that these relentless bleeps start phasing in and out of the mix as the chorus repeats once again. The second verse is no less evocative:
Turnstile toilets, I joined the queue.
Drinks at the bar, drugs in the loo.
I entered Jekyll, came out Hyde.
Mister Chevignon's inside.
Which is rather appropriately accompanied by a maniacal cackling and yet more guitar psychedelia from Mick Jones. The chorus repeats once again, before Letts sneaks another quote — this time from Prince's I Wish U Heaven — into the mix.
Bouncers, bimbos, lager louts.
Zombie dancefloor bugging out.
Black outside, the night is still.
Smiley moves in for the kill...
Which of course references the unofficial mascot of acid house culture in the UK:
Cops and dogs in transit vans.
At 4 o'clock we raid clubland.
T for Tango through the door.
First us two and then you four.
Rather brilliantly, a police whistle blows twice just after the Cops and dogs in transit vans. line! We get another round of the first verse (scrambled this time), chorus and Strawberry Fields quotation (this time from Jones) before the song goes completely instrumental. Reversed, distorted vocals enter the mix and then everything else cuts out for a moment before coming back with a vengeance: the engineer starts turning the knobs on the bleep sequence and a squelching 303 rises from within the tune. The whole thing perfectly captures the rushing sensation of music hounding you while you're tripping out on the dancefloor.
While we're on the subject of House Attack and Megatop at its most acid, it's as good a time as any to note the two b-sides to Contact and James Brown: In Full Effect and If I Were John Carpenter, respectively. Both of which are basically acid house instrumentals. In Full Effect — with its loping bassline (seemingly built on House Arrest's foundation), diva/hip house vocal snatches and cycling percussion loops — brings to mind Bang The Party, while If I Were John Carpenter rides a rapid-fire bassline and occasional string section in such a way that recalls The KLF. Samples from the LP are scattered throughout the tune in a different context, along with the requisite film samples. Significantly, both songs sample guru/new age/meditation tapes in the same way that a thousand trance producers would in the next decade.
Now back to Megatop proper: House Arrest. When we checked out, we were still tripping out on the dancefloor as the tune rushed to its conclusion. Suddenly, everything but the bassline cuts out and we're left with these spiraling rave sonix that trade verses with a wordless vocal loop. The beat drops back in and then out again, looping again and again, before the wave crashes into...
The Green Lady
Suddenly, we're in The Pretty Things' S.F. Sorrow Is Born but this time with a crashing electro beat laid out beneath. Shimmering sonix twinkle on the horizon and a crystalline synth tone carries the melody, while synthetic slap bass integrates itself into the beat. This is Megatop's unabashed britpop masterpiece, with a melody that grabs your ear from the word go and never lets up.
I've always thought that this should have been a single. Next to Contact, it's my favorite thing here. In fact, I envision the trio Contact, Baby, Don't Apologize and The Green Lady setting up the perfect sequence of singles from the album: one for the heads, one for the clubs and one for the radio. I have no doubt that The Green Lady would have been a hit on the order of V. Thirteen and Other 99, taking its place on the Planet BAD compilation alongside Contact in the all-star draft pick.
Unexpectedly, London Bridge starts with a spasmodic percussion loop — lasting about thirty seconds — that wouldn't sound out of place on Warp or Mille Plateaux about a decade later. It gradually fades into an ethereal operatic vocal and old-time soundtrack fragment (doing nothing to dissuade the Warp comparisons!) before the song proper commences.
It's another Paisley Park-tinged excursion, with Jones indulging in a bit London love (in fact, it's something of a laidback answer to side one's Union, Jack, bringing it all back home again). Like The Green Lady, it has some rather pretty guitar work from Mick Jones. Stately string samples carry the beat for a chorus where the subdued pop melody really takes flight:
London Bridge is falling down.
They're taking bids from all around
(Give me dollars I don't want pounds).
London Bridge is falling down,
But I still love this town
From the Tower to the Underground.
After coasting on a cool breeze for just over three minutes, the song crumbles into old-time soundtrack strings once again.
Shades of another soundtrack open Stalag 123, namely those of Elmer Bernstein's The Great Escape, which mix into an jazzed-out organ progression colored by gentle synth brass. The whole thing screams languid, as Mick Jones offers the opening lines:
I'm fixing on a jail break,
But the door is open wide.
Stuck in Stalag 123,
And there ain't no one to bribe.
Taking the Paisley Park-inflected dance pop aspect of Megatop to its logical conclusion, a rolling machine rhythm enters the fray to carry the song while a pulsing bassline bounces casually across its sleek surface. Alongside Everybody Needs A Holiday, this is clearly the most laidback material on the album. It's certainly the smoothest (no contest!) and provides the perfect leisurely conclusion to Megatop Phoenix:
I've got the studio blues and some other bad news.
(The basements been swamped by a flood).
I've got the studio blues and it's ruined my shoes.
(My boogie's all covered in mud).
With dialogue samples from The Great Escape scattered throughout, the song seems like it could stretch on dreamily into perpetuity. And yet, at three minutes, eleven seconds it cuts out abruptly...
The coda End interrupts Stalag 123 with an incongruous bit of bluesy guitar heroics from Mick Jones. A sad, muffled bit of piano creeps in as a woman's voice bids Goodbye. Suddenly, it seems, the trip is over.
The Nineties Are Gonna Make The Sixties Look Like The Fifties
Megatop Phoenix turned out to be the last full-length album by the original lineup of Big Audio Dynamite. The group lasted for one more single, the excellent Free (a sister record of sorts to Contact). It was recorded for the movie Flashback (starring Dennis Hopper and Kiefer Sutherland), which makes the connection between the two summers of love explicit.
At the dawn of nineties, a decade during which the eighties innovations of dance music, hip hop and alternative rock would reign supreme, it struck a note of precarious optimism with a memorable line from faded sixties activist Huey Walker (played by Dennis Hopper) that was sampled prominently by the band:
Once we get out of the eighties,
The nineties are gonna make the sixties look like the fifties.
The Big Audio Dynamite II lineup followed swiftly in its wake with further escapades into indie dance in the form of the albums Kool-Aid and The Globe (along with the attendant singles). Further records like Higher Power and F-Punk followed different incarnations of the band through the decade, culminating in the excellent — but alas, unreleased — Entering A New Ride22 in that storied year, 1997.
Tracks like the Kraftwerk-inflected Kool-Aid and The Globe's proto-dusted beats were first-rate dancefloor burners, while Rush conquered up the pop charts23 with yet another of Mick's britpop gems. From the junglist bass of dread house groove I Don't Know all the way over to the honest-to-goodness drum 'n bass of 1995's It's A Jungle Out There, the group kept its finger to the pulse of dance music, turning in idiosyncratic fusions like Melancholy Maybe's 4/4 garage pulse and the big beat fury of Sunday Best.24
Eventually — around the turn of the century — the group morphed into The Big Audio Dynamite Soundsystem, touring the UK with a rotating crew of DJs, MCs and musicians. A mainstay at festivals and nightclubs alike, the crew pressed on faithfully through the intervening years. Mick Jones dabbled in various projects throughout the 21st century, including Carbon/Silicon, production of the first two Libertines albums and time spent with the Gorillaz (including their performance at Coachella). Then, in 2011, the unthinkable happened: the original B.A.D. lineup re-formed.
Twenty-one years after their parting shot — an era during which dance, rap and indie have only grown in stature and all-encompassing grip on pop culture — Mick Jones, Don Letts, Leo Williams, Greg Roberts and Dan Donovan emerged — as if from their DeLorean in the Medicine Show music video — in the 21st century. It would seem that everything's changed, but then it's always been the same song playing anyway (you've just got to know the tune). With the five minds that brought us the all-conquering brilliance of Megatop Phoenix back together in the same outfit, touring once again and doing their funky thang, perhaps the gang have a couple more tricks up their sleeve after all... only time will tell!
There are of course, many other records in this story: The Saints' (I'm) Stranded, Wire's Pink Flag, along with the O.G. New York stuff like The Dead Boys' Young Loud And Snotty, The Dictators' Go Girl Crazy!, The HeartbreakersL.A.M.F. all the way back to The Stooges, MC5 and the New York Dolls (Jon Savage's ground zero apparent for punk in England's Dreaming). There's an ocean of stuff out there, to be sure, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Named for the Balearic islands off the south-east coast of Spain (including Majorca, Formentera, Minorca and Ibiza), which featured sensational nightclubs soundtracked by all manner of music — spanning myriad genres and points of origin — mixed together into an electrifying non-stop stream of rhythm. British DJs on holiday in Ibiza brought this open-minded anything goes spirit back with them to the UK. If the record had a killer groove, they'd play it, regardless of where it came from. Records as disparate as Fleetwood Mac's Big Love, Richie Havens' Going Back To My Roots and The Residents' Kaw Liga were all Balearic staples.
Significantly, this is exactly the sort of visual one could expect at a contemporary party. The rave scene ascended just as computer graphics were maturing into a form that would also turn out to have a profound impact on pop culture. They developed alongside one another, often informing each other in the process. Indeed, from the stark cyberpunk computer graphics Buggy G. Riphead produced for Jumpin' & Pumpin' at the turn of the decade to the colorful 3d renderings of films like Lawnmower Man, Warp's Artificial Intelligence series and Studio !K7's X-Mix videos (not to mention countless rave fliers and projection visuals) throughout the nineties, extending late into the decade with the dystopian visions of darkside jungle (see the sleeve for No U-Turn's Torque compilation) and The Matrix, computer graphics and electronic music have been steadfast fellow travelers throughout their long and winding existence.
Who Beats, a b-side from the Contact, even features that same loop from I Can't Explain bolstered by heavier breakbeats and a stuttering sample of Mick Jones singing contact. The effect is tres big beat '96/'97!
Earlier this year, my sister-in-law posed the question as to whether the album was still relevant. A timely question, to be sure. Folk have been declaring the death of the album for years now, but in truth it has always supported less volume than the 7" single (for instance), which flooded the racks and stocked jukeboxes by the truckload. The Opinionated Diner once quipped that the 7" is the spiritual ancestor of the mp3,1 a sentiment that makes perfect sense.
The 7" single was traditionally the great equalizer, the point of entry — and proving ground — for breaking artists. This was the format with which The Standells could hope to go toe to toe with The Rolling Stones in the charts, and tiny upstart labels like Stax and Motown could crack the mainstream wide open. It remained the prime habitat for many scenes (reggae and punk, for example) long after the album rose to prominence.
Similarly, the 12" single was but an elaboration on the format, its extended running time ideal for the demands of the dancefloor. But the album... the album was something different altogether. In most genres only the auteurs get around to making them, and even some of the greatest artists never did (either by choice or due to circumstance). However, there's no getting around the fact that its been a fixture of the music industry for well over sixty years. So perhaps it would be valuable to go back to the root of the format for a moment.
The long-playing album initially took hold in the 1950s, when it finally supplanted the 70rpm shellac discs that had been the industry standard since the 1920s. The format was a clear winner in that it was both far sturdier than the often brittle shellac discs and could store far more music (22 minutes per side, as opposed to the five minute limit of the original 70rpm discs).2 This made the format ideal for compilations, often pulling together a brace of singles or other previously released materials into one succinct package. In fact, some of the earliest LPs were enhanced/extended versions of 10" records like Chet Baker Sings, Billie Holiday's Solitude3 and Thelonious Monk's Genius Of Modern Music.
Rather quickly, certain artists gravitated to the format. Frank Sinatra famously took to the form, crafting themed records like Songs For Swingin' Lovers and In The Wee Small Hours. The album was also a crucial showcase format for early rock and blues — artists like Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and Howlin' Wolf — often rolling some contemporary singles and a handful of new tracks into a discrete work. Yet if there was one scene that really embraced the format from the word go, it was jazz. The album rather quickly became the base unit of the genre, even beating rock 'n roll to the punch in the process.
Indeed any thoughtful round up of great albums from the 1950's would be littered with jazz: from John Coltrane's Blue Train to Thelonious Monk's Brilliant Corners and Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus, there's a veritable treasure trove of delights nestled within the decade. Duke Ellington famously dove headfirst into the format with longform works like Such Sweet Thunder and Black, Brown And Beige, with often sterling results.
Now the sixties are when the album really began to gain steam as a cultural force, with the twin innovations of hard bop and free jazz making their home on the format. Blue Note alone moved a serious number of units in the first half of the decade. Then, coming from rock 'n roll, artists like The Beatles and Bob Dylan worked out further possibilities of the form, with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band arguably giving birth to the concept album, and Blonde On Blonde inaugurating the era of the gatefold double-album.
The floodgates opened when artists like Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and Jefferson Airplane all turned out deeply conceptual albums within the span of a single year, and as the decade came to a close Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd — artists that would come to define the album-as-artistic-statement in the popular imagination throughout the seventies — made their initial splash.
Soul music — despite its erstwhile status as a singles genre — began generating great albums as early as Booker T. & The M.G.'sGreen Onions through Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin's sterling run, along scores of great Motown records (even before Marvin and Stevie rewrote the rulebook). After all, where would we be without Norman Whitfield's great productions on records like The Temptations' Cloud Nine, which were — alongside James Brown and Sly Stone's innovations — crucial stepping stones on the path to 70s soul?
Ah yes, the 1970s. If there's one decade where the album peaked then it was the seventies. This the era of progressive rock — progressive everything, truth be told — with genres as disparate as rock, funk, reggae and even bluegrass stretching out into longform works (sometimes even filling a song to a side). Krautrock too, despite a brace of great singles, was thoroughly in thrall to the form.
Indeed most rock — bar glam, and even that had it's slew of classic LPs from the likes of T. Rex to The Sweet — was centered on the form (contrasted with the amount of Nuggets bands that might have only had one or two singles to their name when all was said and done). David Bowie is an excellent example of this phenomenon in action, cutting a string of classic albums spanning the entirety of the decade — even the ones deemed disappointments at the time have long since been reappraised — while still managing to service the jukeboxes with red hot singles like Golden Years and Suffragette City.
It was around this time that the double-album became commonplace, while the live album blossomed into a key pillar of the album market (the two overlapping as often as not). Soul got increasingly conceptual as well, signposted by Curtis Mayfield's unparalleled winning streak to James Brown's extended cold sweat workouts, reaching its culmination with the ongoing Parliament/Funkadelic saga.
Even reggae — that stalwart of the 7" single — was knee deep in elpees as the decade wound down, with killer records like Burning Spear's self-titled debut, The Upsetters' Blackboard Jungle Dub and Dr. Alimantado's Best Dressed Chicken In Town all making a profound impression, even informing the ascendant post punk in the process (with PIL's Metal Box playing with the format itself). It's at this moment, coinciding with the rise of disco, that the 12" single begins to be felt as a presence.
As a result of the restored primacy of the dancefloor, or perhaps the proverbial pendulum swinging back from the conceptual overload of the 1970s, the eighties in many ways seemed to place the focus squarely on the single. Think New Order's Blue Monday, for instance, an event release comparable to the marquee albums of the previous decade.
Still, there was a healthy crop of great LPs peppered through the 1980s, with The Clash even cutting their Sandinista! triple-LP at the dawn of the decade. Shortly thereafter came the early stone tablets of alternative, classics along the lines of Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade and the Minutemen's Double Nickels On The Dime mapping out the form (both of them doubles, in fact).
Prince traversed the decade much like Bowie had the decade prior with a near-spotless sequence of classic albums (even if, like Bowie, he still had a penchant for the single form). In truth a lot of singles genres still managed to toss up a smattering of killer albums. I'm thinking of Mtume's Juicy Fruit and Alexander O'Neal's self-titled debut (on the electrofunk and modern soul tip, respectively), not to mention Scientist's storied dub reggae slates and choice dancehall long-players from the likes of Tiger, Tenor Saw and Yellowman.
And of course hip hop began developing into an album form as the decade progressed — even if it remained largely singles-based: only the big boys got to do albums — and as it drew to a close, the rap album became a matter of course, a given. See any number of LPs that routinely make greatest-ever album lists: N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton, Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and BDP's Criminal Minded.
Similarly, house music produced its own series of classic albums from producers like Larry Heard and Lil' Louis as the decade drew to a close. You simply can't knock the digital perfection of Virgo's self-titled album from 1989, while Fingers Inc.'s Another Side remains a touchstone of soul-inflected machine music — a true tour de force — predicting whole swathes of nineties music from Ginuwine to Chez Damier.
Aside from dance music — which here in the states the mainstream all but ignored most of the time (to its shame) — the nineties were a big return to the album format, with big ticket releases like Nirvana's Nevermind and Dr. Dre's The Chronic becoming event releases on par with Led Zeppelin IV and Dark Side Of The Moon. Hip hop leapt confidently into its full-tilt album phase, with bizarre longform works by the likes of Redman and The Wu-Tang Clan as gnarled as anything out of the progressive seventies, and focused on conceptuality to boot.
Even in dance music and electronica, surely the textbook definition of a singles genre, loads of great albums surfaced over the course of the decade, records I wouldn't want to live without. There are practically oceans of great techno LPs from both sides of the Atlantic, from Model 500's Deep Space and Carl Craig's More Songs About Food And Revolutionary Art to Bandulu's Cornerstone and Two Lone Swordsmen's Stay Down. Even steadfast vinyl mystics Basic Channel put out a series of CDs that rounded up their 12" work into an album-like shape.
Similarly, jungle — like reggae, a quintessentially singles-based genre — had a knack for pulling together a great full-length record, with 4 Hero's Parallel Universe and Kemet Crew's Champion Jungle Sound practically serving as twin sides to the same coin. Kevin Pearce's excellent A Cracked Jewel Case4 really immerses itself in this territory, unearthing forgotten CD releases from various artists scattered throughout the dance continuum. Gerald Simpson even had a royal pair of superb jungle albums in 28 Gun Bad Boy and Black Secret Technology.
In truth, many of my own personal favorites populate the pages of that book, as up until late in the decade I was largely reliant on albums to get the fix I was after. It took awhile before I could afford turntables, so I was consuming nearly all of this music in the form of CDs (I'd scoop up nearly everything I could on Submerge and Studio !K7), and I'd go to bat for a great many of them. When I think of this era, Moodymann's Silentintroduction and Octave One's The Living Key To Images From Above are usually the first two albums that come to mind. I actually have a half-finished breakout on that very subject — 20 great dance CDs — kicking around somewhere.
At the turn of the century, there were almost too many great albums to keep tracks of: Radiohead's Kid A, Outkast's Stankonia, Daft Punk's Discovery and Isolée's Rest spring to mind immediately, while bands like Franz Ferdinand and The Strokes turned out classicist LPs in a new wave style. It was largely business as usual, the seventies' shadow that hung over the nineties gave way to the eighties and all the attendant reference points.
The party continued largely uninterrupted through 2006 (the year of Ghostface's Fishscale, J Dilla's Donuts and Avatar by Comets On Fire), but as the decade wore on you could slowly feel the care slipping from the form, with albums seeming to grow less consistent by the year. Records like Erykah Badu's New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War) and The Good, The Bad & The Queen's debut came correct but suddenly they felt like disconnected islands rather than part of any greater scene or grouping... and the water separating them was cold indeed! The trend became more glaring as the decade wore on, and indeed continues right up to the present day.
Which brings us back to the question at hand: is the album format still relevant? I'd say yes indeed, and without a moment's hesitation. Records like Kelela's awesome Cut 4 Me) and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly stand out as recent examples of unmissable album experiences. As much as people talk about just singling out tracks and making playlists (not that there's anything wrong with that), I think there will always be call for the sustained experience of a full-length album. There's just too much that can be done with the format that can't be found anywhere else. Burial hardly would have made sense as a singles artist (even if I'm sure there's plenty who singled out Raver and left it at that).
So I think there's still life in this little format from the fifties after all, and I wouldn't doubt that it still has a few surprises hidden up its sleeve. With even the reigning chart royalty — figures like Beyoncé, Kanye and Taylor Swift — clearly putting a lot of work into crafting coherent album-length statements, it remains a crucial part of the pop music experience. So go ahead and spin that record from start to finish if you please, because the album is here to stay.