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.
At the flipside of darkside hip hop's ragged breakbeat architecture lies the elegant beat matrix of electro. Simon Reynolds once opined that electro was to rave what the blues were to rock 'n roll, and Kodwo Eshun famously quipped that Kraftwerk were Detroit's Mississippi Delta. In other words, it all started with Kraftwerk. Their influence stretches outward to touch on everything from techno and electro to post punk and synth pop, from electrofunk and hip hop to rave and r&b; it's all been subject to the influence of this besuited bunch from Düsseldorf.
After four records of hard, abstract space music (one of which was released under the name Organisation), Kraftwerk perfected their sound with the sprawling 22 minute opus Autobahn, taking up a whole side of their 1974 album of the same name. With its gently pulsing electroid groove sprawling out beneath an idyllic Beach Boys-inspired melody, it was a turning point in pop music's trajectory so profound that it took a number of years before its repercussions were truly felt.
With fellow travelers like Cluster and Heldon also developing a sequenced electronic music of their own, Kraftwerk delivered Radio-Activity a year later. Featuring a darker, more austere mood that seemed to predict the prevailing tendencies of post punk's coming dalliances with electro, it seemed to fuse the pop developments of Autobahn with their earlier experimental LPs.
By this point, British visionaries like David Bowie and Brian Eno were sitting up and taking notice, and Kraftwerk refined their sound further with Trans-Europe Express. A timely fusion of electronic rhythms backing the spare German vocals, with melody carved out entirely with synthesizers, it was arguably the first synth pop record through and through. Unsurprisingly, Trans-Europe Express would ultimately have a seismic impact on the future of music.
Across the North Sea in the U.K. — in apparent synchronicity — a brace of 7" singles arose in 1978 that picked up where the Germans had left off. Daniel Miller aka The Normal released the T.V.O.D. on his own Mute Records imprint. A pulsing electro-punk shimmy, it also featured a J.G. Ballard-inspired slab of noise called Warm Leatherette. This was the track that proved to have the greatest impact, with its proto-electro rhythm setting the template for Britain's grimy take on post punk synth pop.
Despite the fact that he'd originally envisioned Mute as an outlet for just the one single, Daniel Miller received demo tapes from all over the country and — impressed with what he heard — he decided to release some of them. Records by NON and Fad Gadget followed, with Fad Gadget's awesome Back To Nature and Fireside Favorites standing as awesome slabs of apocalyptic post punk synth pop.1 Most famously, Mute would became the long term home of synth pop superstars Depeche Mode starting with 1981's Dreaming Of Me.
The Human League, that other bunch of synth pop superstars, got their start on Bob Last's Fast Product imprint with the second of the 1978 U.K. stone tablets, the Being Boiled. A buzzing micro-masterpiece of dark proto-electro, this was miles away (and an entirely different group) from The Human League that ruled the pop charts in 1981 with Dare!. This was pure post punk music, albeit with a ruthless pop edge. The group further developed this sound across two LPs (Reproduction and Travelogue, their masterpiece) and a handful of seven inches before the original crew split in 1980.
Two Scottish figures — Thomas Leer and Robert Rental — were responsible for two of the other great 1978 stone tablets, Private Plane and Paralysis, respectively. The homespun other to these other groups' uncompromisingly bleak futurism, Private Plane was a motorik nocturnal journey through inner space recorded softly under the covers so as not to wake his girlfriend.
Paralysis was even more of an outlier, with a droning guitar sound warped by wah pedal. Both records have heavy kosmische overtones, very much indebted to the murky visions of krautrock. The duo collaborated on a stunning album in 1979 called The Bridge, which was released on Throbbing Gristle's Industrial imprint.
Throbbing Gristle themselves are responsible for the fifth of the U.K. stone tablets, with 1978's United. The a-side was a loosely-organized bit of synth almost-pop, with electroshock beats and analogue textures, while the flipside featured Zyklon B Zombie, in which a menacing synth sequence unfurled beneath the sort of noise-infested soundscape that would become their trademark. Their 1979 album 20 Jazz Funk Greats also featured Hot On The Heels Of Love, which was pure proto-techno from its pumping 4/4 beat and cycling electronic bassline on down to its claustrophobic synth figures and snapping drum fills.2
The duo of Chris & Cosey would splinter off from TG, indulging in further electronic hijinks as they explored proto-electro/techno with records like Trance and Technø Primitiv. As one might expect from the name of their label, TG are considered one of the godfathers of industrial music.
The other being Cabaret Voltaire, who started out in the early seventies recording in an attic (check Methodology '74 / '78. Attic Tapes) before signing with Rough Trade and releasing the Extended Play EP (the sixth and final 1978 stone tablet). Featuring tunes like Do The Mussolini (Headkick) and The Setup, they were claustrophobic slabs of dubbed-out post punk in which ticking rhythm boxes spooled out beneath skanking bass and guitar, processed until it sounded unreal. A trio of LPs followed in a similar vein (Mix-Up, The Voice Of America and Red Mecca), featuring ragged, dessicated soundscapes that seemed to be crushed paper thin beneath the weight of their paranoia.
Starting with the 2x45 mini-album, they wired the sound up to the machines in a fusion of their earlier atmospheric sides and the increasingly dancefloor-oriented electronic music to follow. The centerpiece is undoubtedly Yashar, a searing mini-epic built from synth arabesques, pounding percussion and a sample from The Outer Limits. It's one of those tracks that seems to exist in a loose continuum with My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, an utterly artificial music seemingly composed by fictional tribes.3 At this point, the group mutated into a duo with The Crackdown, which laid the blueprint for the whole EBM (electronic body music) strain of industrial music later made explicit by Front 242.
There's definite cyberpunk vibes running through the the entirety group's output, with 1984's Micro-Phonies expanding on The Crackdown's innovations to cement their new sound and standing as the proto-typical industrial record. Tangentially, it was Psyche's Crackdown that pointed me to the group in the first place. Come to think of it, BFC's Galaxy was what hooked me up with Liaisons Dangereuses — via a sample of Peut Être... Pas' machine rhythms — so double thanks to Carl Craig. Liaisons Dangereuses' lone (self-titled) LP is a stone classic of early industrial music, featuring the stark proto-techno of Los Niños Del Parque alongside Peut Être... Pas' stunning electro pulse.
German duo Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft (who consequently were licensed in the U.K. by Mute) had a trajectory comparable to Cabaret Voltaire, starting out with a straight up post punk, sound collage vein with records like Produkt Der Deutsch-Amerikanischen Freundschaft and Die Kleinen Und Die Bösen before reinventing themselves as a state-of-the-art hard-edged dance outfit with Alles Ist Gut, and over the course of a trilogy of albums (rounded out by Gold Und Liebe and Für Immer), throughout which they explored a bruising — but nevertheless pop-inflected — sound that did as much as anyone to lay the blueprint for EBM.
As mentioned earlier, Front 242 were the standard bearers of EBM (even coining the term Electronic Body Music4 in the first place), along with the next generation of industrial outfits like Severed Heads, Ministry and Nitzer Ebb. Records like Head Hunter, Dead Eyes Opened, Everyday Is Halloween and Join In The Chant played like calls to arms, which were answered by figures like Skinny Puppy, Front Line Assembly and most famously Nine Inch Nails, who came to define industrial in the popular consciousness over the course of the 90s with records like Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral.
Interestingly enough, many of the highest-selling industrial acts turned out to be American (and Canadian), but then the States had their own progenitor of the form in San Francisco's Chrome. Led by Damon Edge, the band started out on their 1976 debut The Visitation essaying a sound triangulated somewhere between the acid rock of Jefferson Airplane, Santana's winding rhythmic pulse and — in another strange bit of synchronicity (as neither had yet released a record) — post punk-era Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle.
Guitarist Helios Creed after The Visitation, bringing a visionary x-factor to the group as they set about releasing increasingly machine-inflected records like Alien Soundtracks, Half Machine Lip Moves and 3rd From The Sun, recklessly negotiating the territory between The Sex Pistols, Kraftwerk and biker rock.
Another San Francisco group that was something of an artier, gentler flipside to Chrome's scorching blast was the inimitable Tuxedomoon. Their debut 7" happened to coincide with the six British stone tablets released in 1978, featuring the chaotic blast of No Tears, a menacing slab of electro-punk that rivals the heights of The Normal's Warm Leatherette. Over the course of albums like Half-Mute and Desire the band grew increasingly arty, melding the very European atmosphere of cabaret with a proto-electro pulse. Rather appropriately, Tuxedomoon ultimately relocated to Europe, where there sensibilities were more in sync with the prevailing atmosphere.
It's worth noting that in 1978 Kraftwerk managed to further refine their sound with the elegant The Man-Machine, managing to stay ahead of the pack with elegant machine music like The Model (a track that never stops sounding like the future), The Robots and the title track. Perhaps more surprisingly, there were shades of Giorgio Moroder's electronic disco in the tracks like Spacelab and Metropolis.
Of course, Moroder's production for Donna Summer's I Feel Love — way back in 1977 — was one of the key developments in an electronic form of dance music, and his own records like From Here To Eternity and E=MC² further explored the possibilities of sequencer-driven dance music. Interesting to hear Kraftwerk reflecting this sound back in their own particular way.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Yellow Magic Orchestra were making waves with their debut LP, featuring the proto-electro masterpiece Computer Games/Firecracker. Much like Kraftwerk, their influence spread further than one might have expected, with the group even performing on Soul Train! And if Kraftwerk dabbled in digital disco, then YMO reveled in it, with 1979's Solid State Survivor opening with the one-two punch of Technopolis and Absolute Ego Dance. There was even a new wave-inflected cover version of The Beatles' Day Tripper!
Interestingly, YMO were something of a supergroup, with Haruomi Hosono and Ryuichi Sakamoto involved in innovative solo careers before, during and after their group's protracted reign. Hosono plied a sort of electro-tinged exotica — pre-dating the likes of Arto Lindsay and Beck Hansen by a couple decades, but also indulged in more straightforwardly electronic excursions like Paraiso and Cochin Moon.
Ryuichi Sakamoto created an electronic paradise of his own on 1978's Thousand Knives Of Ryuichi Sakamoto, before returning with the more austere (and post punk aligned, featuring figures like Dennis Bovell and XTC's Andy Partridge) B-2 Unit. The centerpiece was undoubtedly Riot In Lagos, an unbelievably loose slice of proto-electro that practically glows with futurism.
Along with YMO's output, it seems to have set the stage for the later weird sonic adventures of figures like Ken Ishii, Rei Harakami and Susumu Yokota, in much the same way that the first wave of British electronic musicians set the tone for large swathes of music to come in the wake of the Second Summer Of Love.
The first — and most obvious — example is bleep 'n bass, the first indigenously developed form of post-rave dance music produced in the U.K. Emerging from the industrial city of Sheffield (from whence Cabaret Voltaire sprung over a decade earlier) in late 1988, bleep 'n bass was the interface between techno/acid house and what would become ardkore. Perhaps it was the first genre invented with the rave in mind? Unique 3 seemed to have invented the sound from scratch with The Theme, a strikingly minimal tune built on little more than a brittle drum machine rhythm, spectral synths and a tattoo of seemingly random bleeps.
A deluge of records soon followed, records like the Forgemasters' Track With No Name and Ital Rockers' Ital's Anthem, while even Sheffield godfathers Cabaret Voltaire reinvented (and reinvigorated) themselves as Sweet Exorcist with records like Testone and Clonk. Interestingly, some of Cabaret Voltaire subsequent records like The Conversation (released on R&S ambient subsidiary Apollo) seemed to connect their earlier Red Mecca-era material with the modern wave of electronica (which is actually where I started with them in the first place).
The spiritual home of bleep 'n bass was the mighty Warp Records, who started out releasing records by the Forgemasters and Sweet Exorcist long before they became one of the biggest electronic labels on the planet. They also were the home of two groups that started out in bleep 'n bass only to go on to have long careers in drastically different directions.
The first was Nightmares On Wax, who put out crucial early bleep records like Dextrous and Aftermath before unleashing the incredible A Word Of Science: The 1st & Final Chapter album on the world. Splitting the difference between bleep techno numbers like Biofeedback and the proto trip hop of Nights Interlude, it caught NOW at a transitional phase before moving into straight up downtempo adventures with Smoker's Delight.
LFO, meanwhile, provided early bleep classics like LFO and Track 4 before rewriting the blueprint for British techno with Frequencies. Maintaining a sense of Kraftwerk-esque elegance throughout, it was an absolute classic that had a strong electro pulse to its rhythms. They followed it with the more abrasive Advance, a notoriously difficult follow up, before splitting to pursue solo projects like Clark and Gez Varley. In whatever form they chose, LFO remained one of the stalwart figures in British techno's development.
Another figure entwined in this story is Andrew Weatherall, whose Two Lone Swordsmen partnership with Keith Tenniswood produced increasingly electroid output before ultimately dabbling in post punk outright. Even the earlier twisted dub/funk/trip hop of The Sabres Of Paradise's Haunted Dancehall had already hinted in this general direction, but records like Bag Of Blue Sparks, Stay Down and Tiny Reminders found the duo carving out a unique strain of electro that seemed to be filtered through a dubbed-out, post punk prism. Their Rotters Golf Club label was a playground for post-electro madness, featuring myriad aliases including Tenniswood's Radioactive Man project, which unleashed the awesome 2-step electro fusion of Uranium.
There was plenty of techno from the era that seemed to have a fair bit of electro in their DNA, even if you wouldn't necessarily peg them as such. Minimal icon Surgeon, whose rhythms — especially at their most delicate — often seemed to have strong electro inflections, is one example that springs to mind, while Austrian techno provocateur Patrick Pulsinger always had a corroded electro flavor to his output (especially on the series of Dogmatic Sequences EPs).
This during an era when a lot of erstwhile techno figures were dabbling in electro, bringing their own unique strengths to bear on a brace of records that weren't merely retreads, but very much their own animal. Jamie Bissmire — of fellow travelers Bandulu — collaborated with Ben Long on the Space DJz project, with records like On Manoeuvres In Uncharted Territories (featuring the awesome Celestial Funk) and On Patrol! dancing across the thin dividing line between hard techno and electro.
Meanwhile, Ian Loveday (aka ardkore nemesis Eon) also got down and dirty with some killer electro as Sem on D.C. Recordings. This was all exemplified by D.C. label head honcho Jon Saul Kane, whose output as The Octagon Man mutated electro into ever more twisted shapes, seemingly becoming more sick with every release (just check the development between The Demented Spirit and Itô Calculus). I remember picking up the Vidd 12" when it came out5 and being utterly overwhelmed by that dismal wall-of-synth sound,6 just utterly pulverizing and depressing.
If The Octagon Man gestured toward the sick sound of 80s synthesizer music (as essayed by The Minimal Wave Tapes), then I-f essentially brought it back to life with their epochal Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass. Built on a dead-eyed bassline, ear-shattering synth strings and vocodored chorus, it is essentially ground zero of what would come to be called electroclash.
Put loosely, this was a post-electro revival music that added a healthy dose of synth pop to the equation, offering up a more European take on the sound (emerging in 1998, this was arguably the first wave of the post punk revival). Figures like The Parallax Corporation mixed this sensibility with a pummeling take on techno, while Anthony Rother had his own little electro empire (and even a should-have-been pop hit with Little Computer People).
DJ Hell, whose output had carried traces of electro from day one (even turning in a cover version of No More's Suicide Commando), did as much as anyone to bring electroclash crashing into the mainstream with his International Deejay Gigolo imprint. This was mirrored by ambient heroes Global Communication significant dalliances with electro (after all, they tried their hand at nearly every other form from drum 'n bass to industrial and deep house) as the Jedi Knights.
On the surface, their 1996 LP New School Science might have seemed like a purely nostalgic endeavor, but dig a little deeper and you'll find wholly unique tunes like Dances Of The Naughty Knights and Solina (The Ascension) that sound like nothing from the classic electro canon (or outside it, even).
Of course the entire IDM project could be read as an abstract take on post-electro music. The Black Dog — who had their fair share of breakbeats — nevertheless seemed to center on a sort of skewed electro mysticism, while Plaid — who ultimately split off from BDP — were only more so aligned with electro and post-hip hop blues (even working with vocalists like Björk and Nicolette). Similarly, behind all the abstraction an experimental mainstay like Autechre were nevertheless firmly in thrall to electro and hip hop. One could even read them as a yet more abstract update on Mantronix.
Ditto Aphex Twin, with records like Analogue Bubblebath, Polygon Window and even large swathes of Selected Ambient Works 85-92 seemingly built on a chassis of pure electro. Even a second-generation outfit like Boards Of Canada, with all their attendant drifting hauntological textures, rode cutting electro beats (albeit at a downtempo pace). In retrospect, it's no wonder that they connected with the abstract hip hop heads.
Of course it all came full circle with Radiohead's Kid A, which was supposedly inspired by an in-depth trawl through the entire Warp back catalog. A tune like Idioteque is certainly indebted to the continuum of dark, post punk electro stretching back to figures like The Normal and Thomas Leer.
If there's one figure that seems to make sense of all this, tying the wild-eyed abstraction of IDM back to the street sounds of electro then it must be Andrea Parker. Starting out with a series of dark electronic records — a sound that she termed uneasy listening — that were perhaps too singular to fit in with the prevailing trends of the time, she also found herself on Apollo working with frequent collaborator David Morley as Two Sandwiches Short Of A Lunchbox. Too Good To Be Strange was a subtle masterpiece of elegant electro, which in a strange turn of events even features during the nightclub scene in Vanilla Sky.
As the 90s progressed, Parker ultimately hooked up with Mo Wax for the excellent Kiss My Arp, a masterful collection of dark torch songs and experimental electro that took in elements ranging from musique concrète to analogue electronics, dirty trip hop breaks and even a chamber string section. After such dizzying heights, she got back to basics with the Touchin' Bass (formed with Detroit's very own DJ Godfather), bringing it all back home, so to speak.
Home in this case being the prototypical electro as laid down by Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force on Planet Rock way back in 1982. Produced by Arthur Baker and John Robie, it was built on a structure of re-purposed (and re-played) bits of Kraftwerk: the eerie synth progression from Trans-Europe Express and the drum machine beat from Numbers.
Planet Rock launched Tommy Boy into the stratosphere, with the label becoming indelibly associated with electro's rise. This was further solidified with Bambaataa's follow up records like Looking For The Perfect Beat and Renegades Of Funk, along with figures like Planet Patrol and The Jonzun Crew.
Of course, being the forward-thinking Teutonic gentlemen that they happen to be, Kraftwerk had laid out the blueprint a whole year earlier with Computer World. As mentioned in passing before, Numbers provided electro's most durable rhythm matrix, while It's More Fun To Compute sounded like the sort of hall-of-mirrors electro the the rest of the world wouldn't catch up to until the late 90s; and no less a stadium-filling proposition than Coldplay saw fit to mimic the central synth motif from Computer Love.
Kraftwerk continued this development with their momentous Tour De France record, which was produced by François Kevorkian (who also remixed The Telephone Call from their 1986 swan song — for awhile, at least — Electric Café). Fellow krautrocker Manuel Göttsching contributed the awesome E2-E4 around this time as well, unfurling sequenced synths and his trademark guitar architecture over a gently shuffling electro rhythm that ran for just under an hour.
Swiss duo Yello also cut an uncompromising path through the 80s pop landscape with strange new wave-inflected post-disco records like Bostich, Desire and (most famously) Oh Yeah. Their sound was unlike anyone else around: not quite synth pop, not quite post punk and certainly not straightforward dance music, it was a fantastically warped sound — not without a sense of humor — that nevertheless maintained a killer pop edge. They even messed around with big band and Latin jazz on records like The Race and La Habanera.
Of course there had always been a particular strain of jazz with a weird détente with jazz, which culminated in the whole tech jazz trip as essayed by figures like Kirk Degiorgio and Innerzone Orchestra. Dating back to the 70s with records like Herbie Hancock's Sextant and Les McCann's Layers, it was the crucial ingredient of electronic rhythm that puts it in league with electro of the day.
Herbie Hancock's Future Shock trilogy foregrounded hard electro beats and rude synthesizers, even featuring Grand Mixer D.St. cutting it up on the decks. All of this shouldn't be surprising given Hancock's seminal influence on electronic jazz (see Nobu and Rain Dance) and continued endorsement of the form (2001's Future 2 Future, featuring collaborations with Carl Craig and A Guy Called Gerald), but it also managed to creep up in the most unexpected places.
For one such example, take a listen to Cat Stevens' Was Dog A Doughnut?, an impossibly early (1977) slab of jazz funk. Essentially a Chick Corea vehicle, it wove Fender Rhodes organ, ARP strings, zany electronic keyboards and a barking dog(!) together with a stop-start electronic rhythm in a gently psychedelic — think Shuggie Otis — cocktail that got swept up in electro's putative development (even getting covered a few years later by Jellybean Benitez).
I've often thought that you can hear the legacy of Was Dog A Doughnut? in certain corners of Man Parrish's output: things like Hip Hop, Be Bop (Don't Stop) (Special Disconet Remix), Six Simple Synthesizers and Together Again. His self-titled 1982 album is certainly a good example of electro stretching out into varied territory (Heatstroke is practically a Hi-NRG song!). His productions are also well worth looking into, for instance C.O.D.'s The Bottle, which showcases that same slinky electro sound (as opposed to the often rigid beats of synth pop and electro) evidenced by Hip Hop, Be Bop.
Of course, by 1982 electro was everywhere. Even Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five had an electro classic in Scorpio, while Message II (Survival) seemed to build it all out into fresh territory. Reigning primarily between the years 1982-1984, the original wave of electro encompassed figures from all over that musical map: from the relatively straightforward electro of Twilight 22 and Knights Of The Turntables to the r&b-inflected singles of Aleem (often in conjunction soul man Leroy Burgess) and Newcleus' electronic funk.
During this period, Cutting Records put out some of the most durable, timeless electro. Records like Hashim's Al-Naafiysh (The Soul) and Imperial Brothers' We Come To Rock traded in a stark minimalism later favored by figures like Drexciya and Aux 88, often featuring killer dub versions on the b-side.
One of the finest examples is actually from outside the '82-'84 timeframe, on Hashim's 1986 slap-bass odyssey, Primrose Path. I know I've gone on about this record many times before, but it's one of the key records in this whole Terminal Vibration saga, in the electro stakes rivaled only by the output of Juan Atkins.
Operating out of Detroit, Michigan, Atkins started out making electronic music on his own, trying to recreate the sound of a UFO landing in his backyard, before hooking up with Rick Davis to form Cybotron. Releasing Alleys of Your Mind in 1982 (nearly concurrently with Planet Rock), they followed swiftly with records like Cosmic Cars and Clear. All of this activity culminated in the album Enter, which — though perhaps uneven — featured further innovations in the brittle electro elegance of Cosmic Raindance, whose textures seemed to predict both Drexciya and Red Planet at their most progressive.
In fact, the duo seemed to shear off from electro around this point, with Techno City rather appropriately heralding the arrival of the new form. Juan Atkins went solo at this point, launching his own Metroplex imprint to release records like No UFO's and Night Drive as Model 500.
Songs like Future and Night Drive (Thru-Babylon) were stunning, psychedelic elaborations on electro, No UFO's stands as probably the first fully-formed techno record. Nevertheless, Atkins maintained an affinity with electro throughout his career, even revisiting it from time to time (such as on the Channel One's Technicolor, which was famously the basis for Sir Mix-A-Lot's Baby Got Back).
Magic Juan is the primary conduit into Detroit's substantial electro (alternately termed techno bass, electro/techno or ghetto tech) subculture, which — within the city limits — is arguably even stronger than techno's. Drexciya probably had the greatest following amongst techno heads, with an impenetrable, mysterious vibe — much like Red Planet's — that hinted at a vast aquatic mythology. Records like Deep Sea Dweller and Bubble Metropolis were genre-defining third wave electro, with rushing drum machine sequences that played like Kraftwerk rebuilt as a Detroit street racer.
Drexciya's early output was masterfully collected on 1997's two-disc compilation The Quest by Submerge, and then given the box set treatment a few years ago by Clone with the four-disc Journey Of The Deep Sea Dweller box set. Drexciya — , who turned out to be the duo of Gerald Donald and James Stinson — grew increasingly abstract as the decade wore on, culminating in their return with Neptune's Lair.
The duo also released solo side projects with names like Elecktroids, Japanese Telecom, Transllusion and — most notably for today's purposes — Dopplereffekt. A partnership between Gerald Donald, Micheala Bertel, William Scott and Kim Karli, Dopplereffekt specialized in a retro style of electro that harked back to the days of Kraftwerk. Tunes like Speak & Spell, Sterilization and Denki No Zuno blurred the lines between electro and electropop, prefiguring the likes of ADULT. by a good five years.
Another key axis in Detroit's electro story was the Direct Beat imprint, set up by Octave One head honcho Lawrence Burden as an outlet for Aux 88 and a loose collective of surrounding artists like (sometime Aux 88 member) Keith Tucker, Microknox, X-ile and Will Web. Spanning 58 releases, Direct Beat's output focused on a strain of fast-forward, down-and-dirty electro personified by Aux 88's no frills approach.
However, my favorite Aux moment actually exists outside of the Direct Beat catalog: their awesome Take Control remix of Underground ResistanceElectronic Warfare offered up a naggingly simple (and quite memorable) take on old school electro dynamics. Interestingly, it originated on a remix 12" for UR's Electronic Warfare double-pack, which also featured a remix by Drexciya.
At the most street-level end of Detroit electro — even more so than Direct Beat — lies ghetto tech stalwart DJ Assault, who essayed the sound on his Straight Up Detroit Shit mix series before unexpectedly breaking through to the mainstream. Along with Mr. De', he was one of the point men for Detroit's Electrofunk records. Another memorable figure was the idiosyncratic auteur Aaron-Carl, who straddled the line between electro and deep house, making waves with his ubiquitous Down, a seductively stunning bit of machine soul.
DJ Godfather's Twilight 76 label was another key outpost of Detroit electro, which essayed some of the grittier precincts of the city's electro. Importantly, the label also connected out into the wider world with other strains post-electro street beats like Chicago's jerk music (with figures like DJ Rashad and DJ Deeon both recording for the label).
Similarly, a strain of club music would arise in Baltimore during the 90s that fused electro rhythms with sped up breakbeats, with figures like Frank Ski, Jimmy Jones and K-Swift (whose Ryder Girl was a genuine phenomenon7) defining the sound. Rewinding even further back, Miami had its own form of bass music with figures ranging from Dynamix II to Duice, holding down the fort for the electro faithful during the form's lowest ebb.
Yet of all the places where electro's germ spread, the repercussions of its journey to the West Coast seemed to stretch it the furthest. The Egyptian Lover was one of the true originals out in L.A., with records like Egypt, Egypt and My Beat Goes Boom culminating in the On The Nile LP, alongside figures like The Arabian Prince and The Unknown DJ who unleashed their own succession of killer 12" singles. Then of course there was the World Class Wreckin' Cru, featuring Dr. Dre's earliest productions on wax, the highlight of which is the awesome Surgery (speaking of which: Dre, Lonzo said to work on that slow jam!).
The underlying principle with the development of a distinct strain of West Coast hip hop is that it all seems to spring from electro's initial reign back when figures like Uncle Jamm's Army and Ronnie Hudson & The Street People held sway. Even hip hop giants like Ice-T started out making electro, while all sorts of electro renegades wound up in the first wave of L.A. rap groups: The Unknown DJ in Compton's Most Wanted, while Dr. Dre, Ice Cube (formerly of Stereo Crew and C.I.A.) and The Arabian Prince in N.W.A. (who quietly shuck in electro moments like Panic Zone and Something 2 Dance 2 amongst all the hardcore hip hop).
Also noteworthy is The Arabian Prince's solo turn after leaving N.W.A., Brother Arab, which split the difference between electro's uptempo rhythm matrix and the burgeoning breakbeat-driven sound of 1989 hip hop.
Moving up north to Bay Area figures ranging from Too $hort to Ant Banks and E-40 to JT The Bigga Figga (damn near the lot of them, actually), it's clear that they were equally shaped by the sounds of electrofunk. Just look at records like E-40's In A Major Way and Mac Mall's Illegal Business?. In that sense, even mega-selling albums like Dr. Dre's The Chronic, Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle and DJ Quik's Quik Is The Name can all be sourced back into electro and its boogiefied cousin, electrofunk.
Birthed by George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic machine, particularly on records like Funkentelechy vs. The Placebo Syndrome and Uncle Jam Wants You, the crucial ingredient being Bernie Worrell's synth sound taking center stage alongside Bootsy Collins' throbbing bass, electrofunk brought a cartoonish futurism to funk just in time for the dawn of the eighties.
This streamlining of funk's groove around electronic elements was picked up on by Roger Troutman's Zapp, whose 1980 debut (and subsequent records) defined the electrofunk sound, laying the groundwork for funk and disco's transformation into what would come to be called boogie.
Just compare Cameo and The Gap Band's records from before and after Zapp's 1980 debut, with the peak-era disco sounds of Rigor Mortis and Shake giving way to She's Strange and You Dropped A Bomb On Me. Ditto figures like Kleeer and Mtume... it was quite simply everywhere, from George Clinton's Atomic Dog to D-Train and Jam & Lewis' electronic productions and even Prince's Erotic City, which was nothing if not his take on electro in the vein of Laidback's White Horse.
Across the country on the East Coast, Mantronix offered up the definitive take on electronic hip hop with records like Bassline, Needle To The Groove and Scream, a sound that would come back to currency as the 90s drew to a close, before moving into increasingly dance-oriented, r&b-inflected sides. This coincided with the development of freestyle music, just as the contemporary output of Cutting Records began shearing into similar territory with records like Sa-Fire's Let Me Be The One, Corina's Out Of Control and Tolga's Lovin' Fool.
Freestyle was essentially the sound of Planet Rock getting down in The Bronx. This sound was a big influence on New Order circa Confusion (which was produced by none other than Arthur Baker), while Jellybean Benitez took its vibe into the mainstream with his early productions for Madonna, which had a profound shaping influence on her sound. See also Company B. At any rate, if you're looking to investigate the roots of r&b's tendencies toward futurism, you could do a lot worse than to look into freestyle.
Which of course leads us into the quintessential chrome-plated r&b purveyors Timbaland and The Neptunes, who reinvigorated the form in the latter half of the 90s onward by infusing their music with elements of nearly everything discussed today. This at a time when, as mentioned earlier, the electronic rap of Mantronix seemed to return with a vengeance in the beats of dirty south producers like Mannie Fresh and Organized Noise (with Outkast and Cash Money in full swing).
In fact, this all begins to lead so patly into what will be the final episode of Terminal Vibration that I'm gonna step back for a moment before we get into figures like SA-RA, Dâm-Funk and J Dilla. With a brief stop on the horizon in the penultimate episode of Terminal Vibration (which takes place in the proverbial elevator where Kraftwerk got down with George Clinton), I will see you all next time...
Terminal Vibration 8: Modern Funk Beats
The Human LeagueBeing BoiledFast
Ryuichi SakamotoRiot In LagosAlfa
HashimAl-Naafiysh The SoulCutting
KraftwerkIt's More Fun To ComputeKling Klang
I-fSpace Invaders Are Smoking GrassDisko B
Space DJzCelestial FunkInfonet
The Egyptian LoverMy House On The NileEgyptian Empire
Underground ResistanceElectronic Warfare Take Control Mix by Aux 88UR
Little Computer PeopleLittle Computer PeoplePsi49net
And also standing in for the hordes of bedroom synth iconoclasts essayed on the Minimal Wave compilations, artists like Oppenheimer Analysis and Bene Gesserit, figures that were largely unsung in their day but nevertheless put out some incredible music.
The record also opened with the dead-eyed drunken sway of Exotica, featuring the group's trademark detuned horns and dreary synths cascading over a laidback downtempo electro rhythm. It's another highlight that sounds like something that could have come out on Patrick Pulsinger's Cheap imprint.
I remember being quite confused when I first heard the term EDM as a genre, which I at first misheard as EBM. Were kids suddenly checking Front 242? Not the case! (Although it certainly sounded like Kanye had been circa Yeezus).
Kane turned in a great volume of the Electro Boogie series around the same time, which was released under the Depth Charge banner but was firmly grounded in twisted, mutant electro. I always thought it was strange that it wasn't credited to The Octagon Man, although it may have been down to the greater name recognition that the Depth Charge brought with it. After all, I suppose it was his primary identity.
Much like — as I never tire of pointing out lately — those blaring titanic synths in Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch's score to Blade Runner 2049. My Bloody Valentine recreated with synths, etc. etc. etc.
...and on and on and on. And so we've reached the halfway point in the Terminal Vibration saga, concluding the core eighties segment of the trip. The second half will trace these many pathways into the nineties and beyond, through electronic music, hip hop and finally through the machine soul of Timbaland, The Neptunes and SA-RA right up to the present day. It all leads back to the question I (off-handedly) laid out two years ago: Where does machine funk intersect with post punk? The story of which can start nowhere but the eighties.
Usually when discussing the eighties, one will descend immediately on what might be termed new romantic music: dawn-of-MTV groups in eyeliner, synths front and center, the second British invasion. I remember this all being a punchline all through the grungey nineties - even as I still carried a torch for the music, tee hee (I've no shame!) - it was supposedly anathema to the era. Never mind that beneath the surface image of the decade lodged in the public imagination there was a whole other eighties, the eighties of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, Metal Box, Critical Beatdown and Ammnesia, traces of whose DNA ran through the very fabric of nineties music. No! All of that was old music.
Of course now we all know how this ends, with the 21st century, the post punk revival and suddenly the eighties were cool again. And yet I think the caricature that was erected as a result missed large swathes of what the era was all about. Only natural, I suppose. Still, the case could be made that what you had in the eighties with records like My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, Learning To Cope With Cowardice and Dance Hall Style - incidentally some of my favorite records ever - was essentially a dry run for the whole nineties m.o. In short, they play like a hallucination of the future.
I'm talking about the relationship between Tricky and Mark Stewart, Timbaland and Mtume, Goldie and David Sylvian, The Chemical Brothers and The Bomb Squad, Carl Craig and Kraftwerk, The Neptunes and Prince, Andrew Weatherall and The Clash, Terranova and Manuel Göttsching, Daft Punk and Lil' Louis, Bandulu and Creation Rebel, Drexciya and Hashim, Underworld and... Underworld: it was all hovering there, just below the surface, quietly defining the decade.
Terranova's DJ-Kicks and The Prodigy's Dirtchamber Sessions make this point brilliantly. Alternative rock? Everything laid out by December 31st, 1989. Hip Hop? Logical progression from Straight Outta Compton, Strictly Business and Straight Out The Jungle. Techno and house? Well defined eighties roots. Jungle? Well, you might have me there...
None of this is to take away from the nineties own innovations, which were of course considerable, but to bring them into relief within the context of the surrounding era(s). Much of the music from the eighties that fascinates us in this whole Terminal Vibration saga plays like attempts to work out music from the next decade before the groundwork had even been laid (oftentimes laying the groundwork by default in the process).
This experimentation took place in the wide-open terrain left in the wake of disco's dominance, more often than not at the interface between post punk and machine funk, which in roundabout fashion answers my initial question: Where does machine funk intersect with post punk? They intersected on the post-disco dancefloor, that wide-open space where anything was possible, where they linked up and rode the wave right up to the present day. Truth be told, we're all still riding it now.
Starting next week, we'll take a look at how it all happened.
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.
This all germinated from an exchange between Sari (my wife), Andrew (my brother) and myself in which we each compiled our top 100 records of all time and then had a little party to review the lists while listening to bits of the records in them. It was a great excuse to talk music and I daresay that we all had a blast trawling through each other's favorites. It was during the process of putting together my own that my love for writing about music began to rekindle and I vowed to myself to bring back this site. I suppose then that it's only appropriate that I use it to kick things off again here at Parallax Moves.
This list represents my absolute favorite one hundred records of all-time, including albums, EPs and singles. Truth be told, a couple borderline compilations sneak in too! The idea was to select the records that essentially form my musical bedrock, the very core of my taste in music, and in a sense, the lens through which I tend to hear everything else.
It can be so tempting to only include influential, important records, to lean too heavily on the accepted canon of (insert genre here) classics rather than those records one actually loves most. The flipside of that coin is to veer too deeply into the obscure, or all those neat little records one discovers along the way. I found that the trick was to ruthlessly select (from my initial pile) only the records that: 1. Had a crucial impact on me (be it immediate or gradually, over time), 2. Are front-to-back amazing, and 3. I still listen to all the time.
This narrowed the field considerably, but there were still about a dozen too many records. Eliminating those was probably the most difficult part of the process, but its amazing just how much the list started to write itself at that point. To be honest, it was a bit of rush seeing it all come together. The result is a deeply personal selection, but I think that's the only way to go. In the end, I can promise you that every record here is a stone cold killer...
The Parallax 100 has recently been augmented by the next 100 records, which rounds out the set to an even 200. To start from #200, click here.
French synth wizardry from Richard Pinhas on Heldon's first odyssey, the driving pulse of which marks it out as a remarkably physical permutation of space music proper. Tracks like Back To Heldon and Northernland Lady seem to soundtrack actual landscapes you could touch and feel, wander and get lost in. Gilles Deleuze even makes a cameo on Ouais, Marchais, Mieux Qu'en 68 Ex: Le Voyageur, the one track to feature the band in full.
Man Parrish produced loads of great records throughout the eighties, but this wildly mutated remix of Hip Hop, Be Bop Don't Stop is a multi-jointed electro monster. Its rubberband bassline and depth charging 808s are remarkably loose within the context of electro, a genre typically defined by it's (intentional) rigidity.
Psychedelic, spaced out funk from this giant of Anatolian music. Occupying that nexus between acid rock and straight up prog (think Paul Kantner's Blows Against The Empire), it bests all other contenders by merit of its singular sound and vision. Those massive, supremely deranged synths come as an added bonus.
The greatest record to come out of the perennial clash between house and hip hop, a sound that has remarkably crashed back into the mainstream over the last five-odd years. The vibe here brings to mind certain records on the Strictly Rhythm imprint, also things like Hateful Head Helen, but the whole of this EP is thoroughly up to date and leans brashly toward the future.
The Rocking Chair Album. By my estimation the wildest electric blues LP, even outstripping his own supremely fuzzed out work on Chess' head-oriented subsidiary Cadet Concept. Wolf here sounds hungry as he attacks each tune with the ferocious charm he was renowned for, wrestling their melodies into a dense, churning turmoil of rock hard rhythm and blues.
One of the many great records laid down in Nassau by the brilliant Compass Point All Stars, this one benefits from Ms. Jones' compelling presence front and center. Splitting the difference between disco, post punk and dub, this is pristine, chrome-surfaced boogie on ten-inch rubber wheels. Just given the lavish Deluxe Edition treatment as well, with an unreleased cover version of Gary Numan's Me! I Disconnect From You tossed into the bargain. Grace's music is essential.
Digital dancehall. Generally recognized as a genre best served by the 7" single, this sterling LP is an exception to that rule. Tiger himself is responsible for just about every element on the record, from the toasting on down to the beats, resulting in a super-tight — and endlessly playable — ten track selection on which his larger-than-life personality shines immensely.
Japanese pop outfit remixed by the early heavyweights of British abstract techno: The Black Dog, Aphex Twin, Ultramarine and Global Communication. The ladies' heavenly vocals weave through these warped re-workings of their original compositions, informed by the curious slant that each producer brings to bear on the material. Truly otherworldly in every possible sense, the results simply sound like nothing else around.
Ethiopian Jazz. Discovered this via the excellent Éthiopiques series on Buda Musique and just had to track down the original LP. Mulatu's band so fluid here, the murky soundscape so dense with rich detail, that the record itself seems to conjure up a ghostly mirage of some smoky dancehall in Addis Ababa, thick with atmosphere and hovering three feet off the ground.
Wicked downbeat hip hop on the cusp between day-glo jazz rap and the dark blunted zeitgeist just around the corner (see Black Moon, Cypress Hill and the Wu-Tang Clan — the RZA and 4th Disciple of which actually produced this record), and managing to deliver the best of both worlds. N-Tyce's flow is smooth as can be and Method Man on the hook a particularly inspired touch.
Sampladelic, hard-edged post punk. The Maffia backing is incendiary and Mark Stewart explosive, veering between rage and sadness in equal measure. Also notable for spawning Stranger Than Love, the dub of which was perpetrated by none other than a very young Smith & Mighty. Indeed, pre-echoes of nineties Bristol seem to reverberate throughout the entirety of this fierce, uncompromising record.
A peak-period Joe Gibbs production that leaps out of the speakers with a rude zig-zagging synth and rock hard backing by The Mighty Two. Althea & Donna still manage to steal the show with their raw, infectious delivery on this absolutely massive (#1 in the U.K.!) pop reggae number. I've often thought that this tune must have had a profound shaping influence on The Slits, in both sound and spirit.
Strung out fourth world voodoo funk. Captures that feeling in late August when summer's lost its luster and seems like it's never going to end; sun-glazed buildings and steam rising off the streets. A definitive L.A. record, if I may be so bold. The band's interplay here so dexterous (City, Country, City) and group chants so obsessive (Beetles In The Bog) that nearly every tune feels like a mantra. This is my Marquee Moon.
Seminal N.Y. House and Todd Terry's finest moment of patchwork brilliance. Owing to his background in freestyle music, he was the first house producer to truly grasp the possibilities of hip hop and consequently seemed to approach all of his early traxx with a wildstyle mindset. This was already over a decade old (an eternity in the nineties) by the time I first got to hear it, but it blew my mind nonetheless. If there's one record that I'd like to think my life sounds like, this is it.
Globetrotting synth pop from one of the pioneers of the form. Looking past the gloriously icy climate of his peers (this the era of Gary Numan, Fad Gadget and The Human League), Leer establishes a warm and astonishingly nimble sound here. Splitting the difference between Kraftwerk and Tonto's Expanding Head Band, while adding a bit of eighties pan-global jet set atmosphere for good measure (think Club Paradise and Jewel Of The Nile), this plays like a Balearic record out of some parallel universe. In ours, it wouldn't even occur to people to make something like this until about fifteen years later (see Jimi Tenor, Patrick Pulsinger, Uwe Schmidt et al.). Utterly indispensable for any electronic pop lover.
Bracingly intense, white-knuckled biker metal. Despite their reputation as speed-metal pioneers (their very name a slang term for speed freaks), on this, their very first record, the hangover of hard rock's James Brown-as-played-by-cavemen beats endures, informing the entirety of its blistering mid-section: one of my favorite rock 'n roll trips of all time, sounding like a two lane stretch of highway cutting deep into the Mojave desert.
UR in their undeniable prime, back when Jeff Mills and Rob Noise were still kicking it in the group with Mad Mike Banks and the crew came off like Detroit's very own Public Enemy. I love nearly everything they've put out, from space jazz to computer-age electro to no-nonsense techno — all of it was extraordinary — but they never hit harder than when they were intensifying Belgian hardcore. On the Riot EP, UR's conceptual brilliance collides with their Hard Music From A Hard City aesthetic, resulting in their definitive statement.
In which the German dancefloor chanteuse collaborates with The Grid for a double-EP of ambient blues. In the process, she briefly inhabits — maybe even invents — the role of ecstasy age post-canyon troubadour (amplified here by the presence of BJ Cole on pedal steel), fragile and coming down from the shattered heights of the rave dream. This fertile landscape would eventually provide sanctuary to artists like Beth Orton, Dido and Dot Allison, while stretching outward to color the sensibilities of projects like Broadcast and The Beta Band. The results here are as true to her vision of dark electronic soul as she would ever get and practically define the word majestic.
New wave ska-pop, played with clockwork precision by The Beat. Tropical, breezy numbers like Hands Off... She's Mine and Rough Rider rule the day, although there's a definite undercurrent of dread beneath all of this day-glo pop, rising to the surface in Twist & Crawl and even Mirror In The Bathroom's unresolved paranoia. The U.S. version of this record is the one you want, as it includes two crucial extra cuts: Ranking Full Stop and a cover version of The Miracles' Tears Of A Clown, both of which add an extra dimension (and loads of charm) to the record.
Machine Soul twisted to the nth degree. SA-RA were often at their best when they didn't even seem to be trying, and this two-part EP (that only ever surfaced in Japan) might be the best example. Instrumentals like Jumbo and Enter Sex Slop beam two decades worth of hip hop-infused r'n'b into deep space, while Love Stomp and Wonderful (the alien descendant of Stevie Wonder's 70's records) ply a sort of warped astral jazz. And the two ballads (sung from a space capsule), Intoxicated and We Can Do Anything, stand among the finest songs they've penned. It's a shame that Butterscotch (aka Frequencies), possibly their single greatest moment (and one that would have felt right at home in this company), remains unreleased.
Early works by the jazz giant, recorded during his very first sessions as band leader. This well before his stellar run on Riverside and Columbia, which resulted in a flurry of great albums like Brilliant Corners and Solo Monk. Captured here is the initial supernova that eventually went on to generate those later works, shining as they do like stars in the firmament. A wild and intensely cerebral vision of jazz that finds careening bebop taken to logical abstraction.
Manuel Göttsching, krautrock guitarist extraordinaire, creates one of the great synth lines and then proceeds to construct an hour-long jam around the ebb and flow of his machines. The result is a marathon of spaced out proto-techno that gradually seemed to weave its way through the very DNA of electronic music in the ensuing decades. I first heard him on Terranova's Tokyo Tower way back in good old 1997, and he's remained one of my favorite guitarists ever since. His guitar sound here, as always, is exquisite.
Definitive statement from one of garage's true auteurs. This is supremely lush and soulful. A saga spread across four radically different versions, each managing to simultaneously contrast and complement the other, with the hypnotic electro pulse of CD Remix #9 and Fusion Dubb's cascading instrumental bliss running perpendicular to the wild pitch madness of Let Da Rhythm Move U, while the opening Journey Man Thump itself is extraordinarily haunting.
A luminescent nocturnal paradise, and the precise point of intersection between post punk and new pop. Alan Rankine and Billy MacKenzie drape sheet after sheet of sound onto a staggering pileup of impenetrable texture that they somehow manage to mutate into a breathtaking sequence of fully formed, brilliant tunes. Billy MacKenzie's soaring, operatic vocals are about the only ones you could imagine successfully cutting through these densely populated soundscapes.
A pre-Future Sound Of LondonDougans and Cobain get down to business with the title track, a rolling breakbeat monster, but the centerpiece is undoubtedly Q, an absolutely gorgeous peak-era rave anthem. As great as all of their later FSOL output was (Accelerator and ISDN among my favorites), their early records have a certain ravishing intensity, a rough-hewn charge, and this one is their masterpiece.
Afrobeat icon's mightiest record, from that blistering offensive he ran during the seventies, a period when the man was simply a force of nature on a serious roll. The title track was inspired by a police raid on the Kalakuta Republic (the story of which is the stuff of legend), but it's the insouciant brilliance of b-side Water Get No Enemy that quietly sneaks up to steal the show and push this record out above the stiff competition. As the man once said, Music is the weapon of the future.
The quintessential disco LP, and possibly the greatest, catches The Chic Organization in the middle of their late 70's winning streak: a period when they could do no wrong. It's lush, peak-era disco like Happy Man and I Want Your Love (not to mention the immortal Le Freak) that seem to be the obvious bounty here, yet the leisurely Savoir Faire (sounding like a lost instrumental from the Superfly soundtrack) and gorgeous balladry of At Last I Am Free — almost undisclosed moments of pure elegance — match all those songs for beauty, with everything blending together to make this record such an undeniably strong one.
Pure, elemental space jazz, in which gravity simply ceases to be a factor. This is the gateway record between Mwandishi's longform electric grooves and the full-on jazz funk of Head Hunters. The presence of one Dr. Patrick Gleason, working the ARPs, pushes this recording into the realm of pure tech jazz. A delirious odyssey into the deep black void of space and an obvious ancestor to later like-minded projects such as Galaxy 2 Galaxy, Innerzone Orchestra and Fretless AZM.
Four elegiac folk suites that burn with a white hot intensity. Everything here suffused with heartache and dread, yet staunchly refusing to ever fully give into the darkness. Harper's mournful vocals and spidery guitar weave their way through the orchestra's towering Gothic architecture, these great vaulting spires from which one can but observe the rolling, desolate tundra laid out below.
Categorically fierce ragga jungle from the golden age of rinsin' amens. Masterminds James and Mark X took the proper name for ancient Egypt to christen both their label and crew, all of whom are present here (plus Remarc, in a blistering cameo appearance). Tearing breakbeats are the order of the day, with subsonic bass charges and a militant atmosphere pervading the whole of this furious, uncompromising LP.
Dreamy post-grime r'n'b, moments of which make me think alternately of Detroit and The Prodigy. This a three-way collaboration between the Fade To Mind and Night Slugs crews (both dealers in dark electronic instrumentals) and Kelela, who lends her ethereal vocals to these already otherworldly backing tracks. The whole affair feels deeply surreal, as if this were a music heard through the lingering mists of a dream. Technically a mixtape, as an album-length statement it excels.
New Jack Swing. Teddy Riley's greatest moment, the Teddy 2 mix far superior to the album version. With the inclusion of that piano twinkling on the breeze, easing the tension of an interminable sax line from The Darkest Light, the whole thing is pushed to perfection as the groove's mesmerizing sway begins to lift into low orbit. I remember hearing this on the radio for the first time, as an 11 year old, and thinking that it sounded like a mirage in the desert (pyramids and palms dancing on the horizon). It wasn't until I finally tracked the record down, years later, that I realized what the song was actually about!
Sublime deep house from Chicago. Simply perfect, everything in its right place. Do You Know Who You Are and School Hall are among the most achingly beautiful songs ever written, while Ride and In A Vision map infinity: true hall of mirrors music. I'd been into house music for ages before finally managing to discover this thanks to a hot tip from Woebot, whose exceptional writing about music was a revelation, and for that I will forever be grateful.
Elton and Bernie Taupin, at this point still firmly in singer-songwriter mode, deliver their country western concept album. Almost musical-esque in execution, each song seems to follow one character while the next will drift on to focus on another (I've always recognized a kindred spirit in Come Down In Time). A front to back masterpiece with some of their most glorious songs; that it's almost obscure these days is a shame.
A dense, hallucinatory vision of fourth world jazz. Don Cherry's crystal-clear tone cuts through this mercurial brew of boundless depth, a mesh of struck bells, electric piano, tambura, bass and percussion. Pure Ocean Of Sound music. Frank Lowe's presence here a revelation, his pellucid tenor licks shimmering like the very surface of the water.
Superb roots reggae LP on Coxsone Dodd's Studio One imprint. The Wailing Souls are one of the mightiest vocal groups of all time, their harmonies among the great elemental sounds in music, managing to effortlessly capture the feeling of pure joy and then whip around to endless longing in but a moment.
Eighties jazz funk one-off. It's 1981: Keith O'Connell and Mike Collins, two British session men, get down in the studio with a Prophet 5 synth, Fender Rhodes, CR-78 rhythm box and electric bass, churning out this motorik bit of smooth jazz onto a demo tape and sounding completely out of time (think Hall & Oates and Carl Craig stuck in an elevator, making elevator music, and you won't be far off). The duo spent years trying to get a label to release it, until Passion Records (the soon-to-be parent label of Jumpin' & Pumpin') finally pressed it to wax directly from the original demo tape and gave them the epic name Sun Palace. The record wound up as a Loft Classic, and the rest is history.
Remarkably flawless longform work of pristine machine soul, produced by The Neptunes just as they were surfing their creative peak and released a matter of months after the first N*E*R*D album. Like the original electronic incarnation of that record, it was tragically buried at the time (never even receiving a U.S. release in this case). Still, a bunch of us bought the imports and played them obsessively. Of all the vocalists that The Neptunes worked with, Kelis always seemed to best articulate the Star Trak vision — that intriguing mix of stoned ennui and star-child optimism — and nowhere better than on this record's cosmic denouement.
Moody, half-lit Detroit techno. This album links together two EPs from the preceding year: The Living Key and, you guessed it, Images From Above, tacking on the absorbingly lush Burujha to round out the set. Not a famous record, but an essential one. The sound that the Burden Brothers achieved during this era is utterly captivating: arcing fractals of percussion entwine mathematically precise drum patterns while shards of synthetic texture pierce vast burnished soundscapes, splashes of melodic color drifting wraithlike out of the darkness. Every element so modest, so low key, yet the combination is ruthlessly magnetic.
An absolute beast of a record, in which monumental waves of pressure build and build over endless, rolling breakbeats. Narra Mine is a lavishly melancholic stretch of widescreen ardkore, while the flipside's nightmare strains of urban paranoia rise like steam from twilight city streets. Guns of Brixton, indeed. Sharon Williams wails like a banshee and Killerman Archer's maniacal, rapid-fire toasting amplifies the tension every moment he's on the mic. Pure dread.
Sixties garage rock from New York, made gently with liquid guitars. Where the Velvets' rockers used to pound, they now glide smoothly, with gorgeous folk numbers being the order of the day. The Murder Mystery, their final concession to the avant garde, is an engrossing dive into the subconscious.
Breezy French pop, and one of the greatest pure pop records ever. Sounding like ribbons of sunlight shimmering through stained glass, this is daydream music to fall in love to on a summer afternoon. The reluctant icon is accompanied here by the Charles Blackwell Orchestra, whose inventive flourishes provide a swooning, sumptuous palette of sound for Hardy to wistfully inhabit with inimitable style and grace.
Lush, haunting orchestral environments crafted by bossanova's greatest composer. A seventies record through and through, this is an incredibly heavy listening experience. Songs stretch out over vast uncharted terrain, every corner of the soundscape cloaked in rich detail. There are entire worlds transcribed within the grooves of this record.
French disco, prefiguring the likes of Daft Punk and Cassius by some fifteen years. Martin Circus were a rock band that drifted into disco's orbit for a couple albums, one of which spawned the original fourteen-minute version of this tune. Here, it gets reworked by the legendary François Kevorkian into a dazzling maximalist affair, crammed with nearly every sound you could imagine and capturing disco's essence within its shining seven minutes. The b-side, I've Got A Treat, is an infectiously sleazy bit of motorik Euro disco.
Half-lit bedroom disco from the nascent superstar. Maybe not as spectacularly widescreen as his staggering run of eighties records, there's still something very special about the sound here that draws you in. In Love and Soft And Wet have a deft, almost dainty, rhythmic touch to them, while ballads like Crazy You and So Blue sound improbably low key amidst his considerable slow jam repertoire. The undoubted climax is I'm Yours, an epic prog/funk workout that closes out the record in a thrilling crash of thunder, pointing gamely toward the future.
Bun B and Pimp C loom large over the history of Southern rap, having been in the game since virtually day one, and Ridin' Dirty is their ornately detailed masterpiece. The whole record glides in graceful slow motion, Pimp C and N.O. Joe's velvet-cushioned production forming a plush foundation for UGK's elliptical rhymes to dance over. An affinity with one DJ Screw can be felt throughout the blurred, spectral grooves of this LP, and nowhere more than the ghostly twilight vision of 3 In The Mornin'.
Late-period Coltrane. These sessions, from 1965 (although the record itself was only posthumously released in 1971), are among the last to feature his classic quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. True space jazz in every sense, with Coltrane blasting through the stratosphere, slipping into zero gravity and back again as Elvin Jones pounds out the propulsion for this interplanetary starship's travels.
Psychedelic dub reggae 7", produced by Lee "Scratch" Perry at the Black Ark and at the peak of his powers. This sun-baked, hallucinatory underwater excursion seems to rise from the immense bass pressure of the titular river's bed, where everything churns and tumbles in a great slow-motion whirlpool, sucking you ever deeper into the hypnotic abyss.
Legendary rock band at their most arcane and mystical, veering from the hard blues of their first two records into a sort of unheimlich folk balladry. The proto-metal is still there — Immigrant Song, Celebration Day and Out On The Tiles — but now filtered through a medieval lens only occasionally hinted at before. That's The Way and Tangerine are two of their most bewitching acoustic numbers, while the majestic sway of Friends remains my absolute favorite moment in their oeuvre.
This mesmerizing Indian classical recording is quite simply magnificent. Shivkumar Sharma a true visionary and master of the form. His playing on the santoor never fails to be thoroughly captivating: hearing him work his magic is like watching someone coax time to a standstill. The added touch of those flickering, gently swaying rhythms make this my absolute favorite record of his.
Bowie in Berlin, taking on aspects of minimalism and Krautrock while transforming his plastic soul sound into something even more robotic in the process. Side one is crammed with strange, paranoid pop songs and shimmering instrumentals, while side two stretches out into an ambient landscape of Europe endlessness. This era of Bowie's (detailed in Bowie In Berlin: A New Career In A New Town, an excellent read) is ceaselessly fascinating to me, and remains a conduit to so much amazing music, amidst which this record more than holds its own as a masterpiece.
Far-out salsa, shot through with an unyielding sense of cosmic jazz exploration. Eddie Palmieri, often referred to as the sun of Latin music, has a great many first-rate records to choose from, but this one is my favorite (with Vamonos Pa'l Monte running a close second). Pulling together some of his wildest studio experiments (Cobarde's crazed ten minute salsa pulse and the almost modern classical Random Thoughts) with marathon live workouts recorded at the University of Puerto Rico (Chocolate Ice Cream and The Mod Scene), this record essays some of the man's outermost sonic precincts. Those improbable zero-gravity breaks on Condiciones Que Existen's low-slung barrio funk are a particularly impressive touch.
Gorgeous vocal jazz shearing into proto-soul territory. Having informed so much great music throughout the years, it still remains entirely unmatched on its own terms. The very sound of this record is enchanting, infused as it is with pure depth and splendor. Billie Holiday, here still clear-voiced and resplendent (before the ravages of time and hard living took their toll), remains the greatest vocal presence jazz has ever seen. A record to lose yourself in.
Majestic early techno relics from Detroit's Carl Craig, back when he was just a fresh-faced kid trying to make his mark on the culture. Each and every track would be a highlight in any other context, while in present company they all flow into one extended hypnotic sequence. Moody dancefloor burners like Crackdown and From Beyond flow effortlessly into the glorious breakbeat release of Please Stand By and out toward the elegiac ambient house of How The West Was Won, while the peerless Neurotic Behavior still sounds like a record from another age... wholly timeless and too magnificent for words.
No Wave duo get atmospheric with Ric Ocasek in the producer's chair, stretching the sounds of the debut's most sumptuous passages out across the entirety of their second full-length. Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne sets the stage with a casually ethereal groove, while the duo map their sound's spaciest precincts in the eerie freeform calm of Las Vegas Man and Harlem.
Long-running legends riding the crest of their mid-seventies 3 + 3 era, arguably the band's peak. Prefigures Bowie and Eno's Berlin-era methodology, in which the uptempo numbers fill out side one while the second is given over to pure atmosphere: in this case melting into a sidelong mix of ambient soul, the ravishing synths of which are exceptionally lush and sun-glazed.
Speaking of which, Eno's Berlin-era album is absolutely essential listening, of a piece with his earlier classic Another Green World (a crucial record for me, just barely outshone by this one). Here, Eno examines the lush vegetation of that world from an entirely different perspective: that of the laboratory (the domain of science), and the elegant precision exercised therein is thoroughly modern. Even as strange almost-pop songs gradually give way to pure ambience, the former seem to inform the latter (and vice versa), melting together in a state of perfect harmony.
By my estimation Arthur Russell's finest moment, fusing the introspective nature of his World Of Echo material with the strange propulsion of his left field disco records like Let's Go Swimming and Wax The Van. This is a vision of the dancefloor that stretches far beyond the walls of the city, out across the great plains and into the deep blue horizon, spreading joyously outward as far as the eye can see.
Two old timers who've seen it all finally get a chance to meet up in the studio, laying down crisp re-workings of a bunch of classic Ellington-penned numbers. This is quite possibly the purest glimpse into the very essence of jazz ever put to tape. Even as these two legends swing together like it ain't no thang, they sound for all the world like they're jamming in orbit on the space station.
Weird new wave. Literally overflowing with ideas and traveling in every direction at once. Spiky rockers like Citizen cut their way out of the murky depths even as moody instrumentals like Film Theme revel in them, while mid-tempo club burners like Premonition crop up to inhabit the space between. Veldt, a maddening slice of pure atmospheric paranoia, even breaks out into a pleasantly menacing skank. For me, an unquestionably crucial record.
The godfather's dense double-album, rife with an overwhelming sense of seventies dread, yet at the same time home to some of his most gorgeous ballads. The fourteen-minute closing stretch of Papa Don't Take No Mess, one of his greatest extended workouts, is an obvious standout, while the Latin-tinged reworking of Please, Please, Please a hidden gem that hints at the remarkable breadth of this LP. I can't think of another record remotely like it.
Skewed hip hop from this visionary Brooklyn crew. If their first LP gave birth to the Native Tongues era then this one effectively laid it to rest. Decomposed beats, subsonic bass pulses and random machine bleeps punctuate these Gaussian blurred samplescapes within which Eugene McDaniels and Public Enemy rub shoulders with The Stooges. The results are a kaleidoscopic hallucination of hip hop: bizarre, druggy and in the end, their crowning achievement.
Nineties r'n'b. A glistening, four-dimensional soundscape that seems to morph and gyrate like liquid clockwork. Here, the swingbeat girl group hook up with Timbaland and Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott (at an early peak, when everything they touched turned gold) to produce this casually futuristic one off — and a highlight for all parties involved — realigning SWV for the chrome age.
Sub-conscious deep house, where the border between electronic and live instrumentation decomposes to the point that its hard to tell where the programming stops and the band begins. I'm Doing Fine embodies this seamless symbiosis, while the juke joint boogie of traxx like Shades Of Jae and Back At Bakers On Livernois form a perfect counterpoint to the spectral jazz found in Holiday and I Need You So Much. Riley's Song, no more than a bassline groaning in slow motion beneath layers of ghostly atmosphere, nearly manages to steal the show, while the Mahogani 9000/Black Mahogani suite that closes the album (and memorably quotes Eddie and Priest from Superfly) could go on forever and I wouldn't mind.
The original soul man's second full-length is an indispensable glimpse into his signature vision of rhythm & blues. Exquisite backing vocals from the ever-reliable Raelettes add a swaying finesse to this already remarkable material, sweeping from the spectral crawl of It's All Right to the carefree shuffle of Swanee River Rock, through the rave up threat of Leave My Woman Alone and on to the back door blues of Blackjack. The all-encompassing breadth of vision outlined in this sequence of fourteen flawless tunes is truly staggering.
Dego and Marc Mac, operating out of their studio in Dollis Hill (located next door to The Future Sound Of London's), charted rave's trajectory from the intensity of its hardcore origins through the depths of the darkside, ultimately arriving at this distant outpost of interplanetary jungle. Yet even as they connect with the lush space jazz of Galaxy 2 Galaxy and Herbie Hancock, they still manage to retain the rhythmic danger from even the most twisted of their earlier records. If anything, that fury gets amplified in Wrinkles In Time and Sounds From The Black Hole: astonishing displays of breakbeat science as you're ever likely to find.
Avant garde crooner's finest moment. An existential rumination on the certainty of death and dues, and a flawless work of orchestral grandeur. The Seventh Seal and The Old Man's Back Again are so majestic that they practically beggar belief on first listen, while the fragile moments (Boy Child, Duchess) are among the most exquisite songs he's ever written.
Awesome dub reggae LP from this pioneering architect of the form. The drums splash, the hi-hats skip and the bass cuts massive caverns beneath a soundscape in which everything exists as texture. This is a dusty, planet-shaking sound: simultaneously futuristic and ancient. Invasion, kicking off with those rude synth bleeps, could soundtrack the boarding of Zion in William Gibson's Neuromancer. In a word, massive.
The fabled outsider checks in with his first LP of abstract blues, burning with raw garage punk fury and a set of unforgettable tunes. A remarkably early intervention for this sort of rootsy swagger (The Stones still mining psychedelia in '67), at times so dynamically gnarled that it seems to reach forward and predict the next ten years of rock's progression.
Bristol trip hop from the originators of the form. Nearly all of their records are splendid, but this little EP, recorded as a companion to their brilliant DJ-Kicks mix on Studio !K7, distills everything great about the crew into one exceedingly lush slice of perfection. Like some hazy afternoon vista bathed in mist, this sun-glazed melancholia feels like a daydream that lasts deep into the night. The remix on the flip is a bit of storming U.K. hip hop, featuring an uncredited MC Kelz. I've always loved the way that each version samples a bit of vocal from the other. This is one of those records that never fails to bring the memories flooding back, and along with the accompanying mix was the soundtrack to the better part of my final year in high school.
Motorik Krautrock speeding down an endless stretch of highway, this also possesses some of their gentlest moments. Seeland, in particular, sounds exactly like the sunrise looks when you're up early enough to watch the world wake. The flipside of the coin boasts Hero and After Eight, two exhilarating proto-punk onslaughts that achieve a sort of rock 'n roll perfection.
Spaced out smooth soul. The confessional nature of the material — focusing on the disintegration of Gaye's marriage to Anna Gordy — marks it out as unique, especially within the context of late 70's boogie-tinged soul. I've often felt that parts of this record (especially A Funky Space Reincarnation and Is That Enough) share an affinity with certain records by The Orb, prefiguring that same extra-dimensional sense of gently shimmering psychedelia.
Early hip hop's mad visionary stretches out in this loping sidelong groove, coming on like a hip hop update of Sly Stone's Africa Talks To You/The Asphalt Jungle. Jean-Michel Basquiat's production is crisp and spacious as his diagram on the sleeve, and no other MC had more claim to be dropping science than Rammellzee.
Strange, cutting edge art-pop constructed with heavy use of the Fairlight sampler by this visionary British songstress. Kate is incredibly moving throughout, her voice a controlled fury at the center of these fiercely brilliant songs, wherein she deftly coalesces shards of pure sound into form much like a nebula gradually becomes a star. Choosing highlights is virtually impossible, for as surely as each song differs wildly from the other, they're simultaneously all of a piece, the jigsaw edges of each locking with the others into a seamless fabric of inner space.
Landmark Brazilian double album, brimming with pure majesty and splendor. Grounded in Tropicália and samba, there are also deep currents of acid-psyche and even space rock running through its core. The Clube Da Esquina group achieve such an absorbing widescreen sound here, launching off into hitherto unexplored and expansive realms, that its difficult not to get lost in the very sound of the record. Trust me, you'll want to set aside an afternoon for this one...
Stomping Detroit techno from Kevin Saunderson, a figure who more than any other has had a profound influence on my own musical life. Around this time, there were loads of great records coming out of Detroit, which was enjoying one of its periodic renaissances. For me this was the apex. Velocity Funk is a pounding hardcore banger that seemed to be everywhere at the time (see also Stacey Pullen's remix), but it's World Of Deep on the flip — with that deeply haunting bassline and sheer, rolling waves of psychedelic sound — that really captured my imagination.
Nigerian juju from King Sunny Adé on his own Sunny Alade imprint, with both sides of the record encompassed by these great, effortlessly flowing suites. The steel guitar sound heard here stands among my favorite pure sounds ever, gliding through a polyrhythmic web of backing guitars and percussion as they churn beneath those gently chiming bells. His show at The Belly Up a few years back was a real treat, and remains one of the great concert experiences of my life.
Eighties post-disco stretched out and dubbed to abstraction by Larry Levan. This whole mini-album flows together into one long kaleidoscopic mix, the bedrock rhythms of the peerless Compass Point All Stars (Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare, Darryl Thompson and Wally Badarou) gently tumbling out into space. Gwen always had such a warm presence that she invested in her music and this is no exception.
Gritty, apocalyptic funk from the man who mentored a young James Brown and anchored the legendary J.B.'s. The horn fanfare on Back From The Dead is one of the great openings of all time to one of the mightiest funk songs ever laid down, and The Way To Get Down on the flip might even be better.
Marvelous roots reggae LP wherein each and every song is immortal, every note perfectly played and Byles' voice outstanding. Lavishly produced by Lee "Scratch" Perry after his falling out with The Wailers (for anyone wanting to investigate reggae music as thoroughly as it deserves, Lloyd Bradley's indispensable Bass Culture tome is essential reading), you can especially hear his fingerprints all over Coming Home. Everything here shot through with a gentle melodic sway so intoxicating that it's sometimes difficult not to simply let the record play out all day. A front to back masterpiece.
Awesome proto-jungle. From his early tenure in 808 State and the Voodoo Ray/Automanikk era to his status as a drum 'n bass innovator, Manchester's Gerald Simpson looms large over British dance music. This album is the culmination of early records on his own Juice Box imprint, with which he essentially forged the idea of jungle out of an interface between his techno past and hardcore present. It's the sound of a restlessly inventive dreamer kicking through the ceiling and into the clouds. To this day, it remains full of possibilities.
Space age jazz from this tireless innovator who managed to maintain his Arkestra through the four decades after big band's golden age until his death. The first side features Ra experimenting with the newly issued Hohner Clavinet, while the second is given over to the sidelong wild free jazz excursion Atlantis, sounding like a field recording of that mythical empire's cataclysmic descent into the sea.
Adam Ant was the first artist I ever got into in a big way, and my enthusiasm never waned: a definite case where I love nearly everything he's done. This is the man at his most raw and unvarnished, plying a sort of angular new wave post punk... with a hefty dose of rock 'n roll thrown in for good measure. His early band, an entirely different proposition than the one that would make it big a year later, is one of the great turn-on-a-dime powerhouse units in rock. The U.S. version includes both sides of the phenomenal Zerox/Whip In My Valise, tracks that blew me away when I first heard them as a 14 year old. I can't tell you how happy I was that his recent show at 4th & B leaned so heavily on this material.
Embryonic post-rock, from a time when it was still a genre yet to exist. These erstwhile new romantics stretch out far beyond the dancefloor into a state of permanent abyss. It's the omnipresent, swelling Hammond B3 organ that elevates this just above Laughing Stock (perhaps the more obvious choice) for me, the impassioned vocals of Mark Hollis doubly poignant in this context. Possessing a gently smoldering intensity, their music is disarmingly spiritual and direct.
Jamie Principle's improbably early house missive, arriving out of the ether fully-formed on his own Persona imprint. Dreamlike and haunting in all three versions, this is a wholly alien music even within the context of its own scene. It's a tragedy that such an obviously massive talent got such a raw deal, often not even getting credit on the sleeves of his own records. If there's one house artist that I wish had the chance to record an album in the eighties, its Jamie Principle.
Fusion — in this case the elements fused being earth and fire — an untold substance then molded into these towering, monumental grooves. He Loved Him Madly is a 32-minute dedication to the late Duke Ellington, ambient jazz picking up where In A Silent Way left off, while Calypso Frelimo and Maiysha establish some spooky fourth world voodoo.
Gothic glam rock, with Brian Eno still in the fold, generating his inimitable atmospherics and pushing the whole affair down some thoroughly surreal avenues. Bryan Ferry still sounds alien on each of these haunting numbers, while the band inhabits an island all their own. The Bogus Man and In Every Dream Home A Heartache are particularly obsessive and dreamlike, while Editions Of You never fails to burn the house down.
Hendrix the futurist in experimental mode as The Experience launch into deep space, touching on everything from hard rock (Voodoo Child Slight Return) to space music 1983... A Merman I Should Turn To Be and everything in between (including Gypsy Eyes and Crosstown Traffic, both improbably forward-thinking, wild breakbeat stormers) on this blazing, nomadic double-LP.
The Beatles at their most vulnerable and downcast, captured here on the cusp of their transition from infectious power pop to beatnik-inflected folk rock into psychedelia and beyond. The seeds of the groups endlessly fertile mid-period are here. Teeming with youthful passion, this record captures the intensity with which one seems to experience everything as a teenager.
Definitive New Orleans funk. The first LP from this group of loose-limbed legends and one of the great bands of all time. Everything here so disciplined and clean that its hard to believe it was recorded in 1969 (the year of Woodstock, endless jamming, etc. etc. etc.). This is a sparse instrumental funk that rocked like hip hop long before it was ever even sampled, existing in a class all its own.
Molten rock 'n roll. Iggy Pop is as ferocious here as he would ever be, while the band try their hardest to drown him out in this densely tangled sonic jungle. Of course you don't just drown out Iggy Pop, but you can still hear him clearing all those sonic vines out of his way in a panic (Let me in!). The sound this nasty bunch of thugs summon here is elemental.
A singular collection of proto-jungle torch songs produced by Shut Up And Dance. Sounding out of time in part thanks to their visionary, stripped down production, these skittering avant pop numbers are also shot through with a deep sense of the uncanny — which is entirely down to Nicolette. A truly unique songwriter and vocalist, skewed in the best possible sense, her records and guest spots are all defined by their idiosyncratic brilliance. Now Is Early, her debut, is positively steeped in it. An unheralded masterpiece.
Exquisitely poised Germans further mechanize their sound and casually invent electro in the process. Home to some of the warmest synths you will ever hear. For me, this beats The Man-Machine by only the slightest margin, those next-level beats the deciding factor. Possibly the most perfect record ever made with machines.
Visionary soul man's second studio LP, a work of majestic orchestral soul festooned with his sublime guitar work. Astonishingly innovative, full of breathtaking sonic vistas that stretch as far as the eye can see, crawling with the dense stylings of his orchestra and anchored by a backbeat that spells doom. Mayfield is there to guide you through it all, honest and touching as ever.
Folk-rockers expand their sound into hitherto unexplored territory, informed by their deep admiration of both John Coltrane and Ravi Shankar, and wind up inventing acid rock in the process. Here, their straight folk numbers are perfected in the shimmering Wild Mountain Thyme and John Riley, while Eight Miles High (Gene Clark's parting gift to the band) sees them soar to unprecedented heights (further explored in I See You and What's Happening?!?!). Even the tracks that didn't make the cut (Psychodrama City, in particular) are phenomenal.
Epochal trip hop debut from Tricky, wherein he rewrites the rule book, cuts it to pieces and then tapes it back together in an order of his choosing. By way of example, Aftermath's casually brilliant, loping groove (co-produced with Mark Stewart) stitches together bits of rhythm from Marvin Gaye and LL Cool J, samples dialogue from Blade Runner and quotes from both David Sylvian and The Rascals. Tricky's murmur anchors the pervading atmosphere of dread as Martina's ghostly wail haunts every corner of the soundscape. Oh yeah... and Hell Is Around The Corner is my favorite song ever.
Legendary German band at their most aqueous, their telepathic interplay lifting off into the upper atmosphere. Damo Suzuki, with one foot out the door, sounds too hip to be happy as he casually lays down his most soothing set of vocals on a Can record. Moonshake is an irresistibly slinky groove and the band's greatest pop moment, while Bel Air, the sidelong jam that encompasses the entirety of the second side, is so lush and expansive that it seems capable of supporting its own ecosystem.
Sly Stone's dusted masterpiece, sounding like his Woodstock-era recordings left out and faded by the sun. Crawling rhythms from ancient beatboxes spiral off into infinity, every edge of the soundscape blunted and out of focus, as timeworn tapes spool out in blurred slow-motion. The tempos drag, the prevailing mood is downbeat and the sound itself is divine.
Derrick May surfing a wave of pure innovation. The greatest techno record ever made bar none. Simultaneously cerebral and driving, it appeals to the mind and body in equal measure. That it's muted reception at the hands of the critics was partly responsible for the man's untimely retirement is a shame. The Beginning itself might be the undeniable centerpiece, but from the dazzling technoid disco of Drama to the geometric precision of Emanon and Salsa Life's tuff versioning of Strings, every track is sublime.
Number One. My favorite record of all time, no question. Always drawn to Contact, the record's big single, I was blown away when I finally tracked down a copy of the full album — a sonic utopia where pop music meets the rave. This is where Mick Jones' fascination with sampladelia is fully absorbed into his immortal knack for penning a tune, resulting in a true embarrassment of riches. Someday I'll write a book about this record.