Funk. The term has been rinsed thoroughly through the years — applied and mis-applied all over the shop on a seemingly loop — but at the end of the day, what is it really? The groove, hitting on the one, interlocking parts of a rhythm, all of them cycling in clockwork motion, players playing deep in the pocket all night long. Is it tight, is it loose, or somewhere in between? In attempting to answer that question, perhaps it makes sense to rewind to the man who dreamed it all up in the first place...
Smack in the middle of the 1960s, James Brown released the epochal Papa's Got A Brand New Bag, a frisky bit of proto-funk that took the nimble soul shuffle of early records like Think and Night Train to its logical conclusion. With an agile rhythm that found Melvin Parker's beats seemingly dancing three feet off the ground, while the bassline (played either by Bernard Odum or Sam Thomas, depending on who you ask) hopscotches across the spaces in between, it set the template for funk proper that would be hammered home further in records like Mother Popcorn, Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose, all the way up to Sex Machine, The Payback and beyond.
James Brown famously rehearsed his band The J.B.'s mercilessly, even going so far as to dock a musician's pay if they made a mistake live! The result was perhaps the most tightly regimented rhythmic unit ever assembled, with a style that moved so far beyond precision that they somehow wrapped around into looseness again. In essence, he constructed a a perfect machine from a group of individual human players, an innovation that set the course for large swathes of music's development in the years to come.
George Clinton's Detroit-based empire slowly developed in parallel, off-record in the shadows of Motown's artist roster before exploding with the twin debuts of Parliament's Osmium and Funkadelic's self-titled LP in 1970. Picking up where artists like James Brown and Sly & The Family Stone left off at the tail-end of the sixties, both groups spiked their funk/soul strange brew with a healthy dose of acid. Records like Maggot Brain and Cosmic Slop were shot through with post-Hendrix psychedelia, adding a dirty edge to the proceedings that was in thrall to the times.
Seemingly on the flipside of the coin lies that other institution that would prove to be so crucial in the development of Detroit's nascent progressive scene: Kraftwerk. They're often placed on opposite ends of the spectrum, Kraftwerk and Parliament, machine music and funk, but the truth — as is so often the case — is far more messy than one might expect.
There's that oft-quoted remark from Detroit club kids that Kraftwerk were so stiff, they're funky. Then, you hear something like The Model and Sex Machine back to back, and the parallels between the two become striking. Both tracks glide three feet above the ground on the horizontal tension of tautly arranged components interlocking like clockwork: rolling rhythms finding joy in repetition.
Somewhere in all of that was the sound of the future...
Whole worlds would spring from this fertile nexus — from techno and g-funk to r&b and electro — in the years to come, post-disco realms of sound stretching out in every direction, dazzling in their strange shapes and oftentimes even their distance from each other. And yet if there's one record that embodies this point of intersection — and did so before the fact, even — then it's surely Funkadelic's The Electric Spanking Of War Babies.
The Electric Spanking Of War Babies is the final album from P-Funk's original run, the last stop before George Clinton's Computer Games (which made the connections between funk and the machine explicit), an album that it also presages in many ways. War Babies is the illogical conclusion to everything that had come before, a record that throws everything from Flash Light and Not Just Knee Deep to Hit It And Quit It and There Is Nothing Before Me But Thang into a blender of abstraction and comes up with the adrenaline rush of pure future shock.
I often think the record works like a bizarre fusion of garage and laboratory, nestled deep in the heart of the Motor City, a place where mechanics and mad scientists disassemble vehicles and rebuild them in strange new combinations. Then, they flip the switch and machines spring to life, sputtering and scurrying like unwieldy insects across the shot room floor.
This shop operates at the interzone between post-disco, new wave and the nascent electro funk (the latter which Parliament/Funkadelic had a large part in birthing via Bernie Worrell's rubberband electronic basslines and gliding Arps). Rising stars like Prince and Zapp were soon hot at their heels, mapping both parallel and intersecting territory with their own innovations.
And yet, Funkadelic managed to up the ante one last time. Just as Kraftwerk rose to the challenge of new wave upstarts like The Human League and Gary Numan with their masterpiece, Computer World, Funkadelic went out with the left field big bang that is The Electric Spanking Of War Babies. Recorded after many key figures had left the group, including the aforementioned Worrell, the record is nevertheless the band's twilight era masterpiece.
The record opens with the title track, which kicks off with what sounds like one of Eddie Hazel's Maggot Brain guitar phantasmagorias (although it's actually played by Michael Hampton). Outer space sounds swirl as a booming voice intones the following madness:
You probably don't remember me, but...
But I remember you.
You probably won't believe this, but, uh...
I, at the early age of 72... was adopted by aliens. [bursts into laughter]
Was adopted by aliens... [bursts into laughter again]
That's right, I said aliens.
They have long since programmed me to return with this message...
Then, a bouncing groove at the intersection of new wave funk and video game music pounces into the fray for the repeated refrain, When you learn to dance, you won't forget it, before it all turns into a trademark p-funk groove in the tradition of Not Just Knee Deep and One Nation Under A Groove, only with an added sense of creeping desperation swirling in the mix. The phrase End Of The World Party springs to mind whenever I hear it, the band standing on the verge of the precipice, still getting it on. I suspect Prince was listening closely (see 1999).
The track is almost entirely built on Junie Morrison's electro funk foundation in the form of squelching neon synth architecture, throbbing basslines and a hybrid man-machine beat, while Michael Hampton shreds guitar into post-acid sparks across the track's entirety. Various members of Parlet and The Brides Of Funkenstein turn up on the chorus, giving their trademark input in the form of a gloriously sneering sing-song of the track's title, while Junie punctuates every bar with synth stabs that punch through the mix like electric-shock therapy.
Truth be told, it probably even edges out Not Just Knee Deep as my favorite P-Funk dancefloor rave-up ever...
After such a mind-bending opening, Electro-Cuties might feel just a little bit less extraordinary. A minor track, even. Nevertheless, it manages to connect the band's disco funk present with their rock hard roots, fusing a slap-bass fueled groove with a Cosmic Slop-esque riff in the bridge. Like the previous track, it has the lurching feel of disparate random parts recomposed into a brand new machine. The Brides even turn up on backing vocals again, with one even delivering a proto-rap in the track's extended second half.
Funk Gets Stronger Part 1 is another matter entirely: featuring the great Sly Stone, it's the indisputable peak of the record. Opening with a talking drum figure and psychedelic voices drifting in the ether, it kicks into a whirring, stop-start beat that seems to perpetually trip forward over it's own throbbing bassline. It seems another strange machine has been conjured up from spare parts, and more than any other track here, it embodies the record's modus operandi.
Lurching in one direction before swooping and diving in the other, the rhythm seems to be powered by unstable elements, its tripping beat kicking into high-gear double-time every so often as the band struggles to catch up. You're just waiting for the tune to shift gears again, and in its Doppler rush of acceleration and deceleration on can almost feel an eerie pre-echo of jungle.
All the while, the track's held-down by Zapp mastermind Roger Troutman's new wave-tinged rhythm guitar that's always struck me as a dead ringer for the sound on Adam And The Ants awesome Dirk Wears White Sox (the American version, of course). There's strong new wave/post punk currents running through the entirety of War Babies, and nowhere is that more evident than here. Think Metal Box, but coming from the opposite direction. Mike Hampton's incredibly pretty lead guitar threads the rhythm almost subconsciously, adding another dimension of emotion to the whole affair.
Sly Stone famously in the mix here, credited as co-producer alongside George Clinton and Bootsy Collins, and combined with staccato trumpet lines provided by Sly's old band-mate Cynthia Robinson in the chorus, there's a definite Sly & The Family Stone flavor to the whole strange affair. There's even a lush organ passage in the breakdown in the breakdown that would have fit right in on There's A Riot Going On! I'd swear it was laid down by Sly Stone himself, but the only keyboards on the track are credited to Roger Troutman, who works the Moog synthesizers. However, as with Riot's famously hard to navigate album credits (see also the Talking HeadsRemain In Light), I suspect that it's not the whole story. It's a late-era, extended band kinda thing...
The tune gets reprised a couple tracks later in the Killer Millimeter Longer Version, which finds the machine being started back up, its heartbeat pulsing quickly before tugging into shape. With its slightly more languid, open-ended arrangement, this version sounds even more like something from Riot. What's more, Sly Stone is credited on drums and keyboards, and late-period Family Stone member Pat Rizzo is present on saxophone. According to the album credits, it also features the lone contribution from original Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel, who had already released his solo album Game, Dames And Guitar Thangs back in 1977.
There's an errant quote from The Beatles' All You Need Is Love before it all fades out and then back into place, with a thirty-second reprise-within-a-reprise cover version of She Loves You over the same rhythm. A drunken group chant, to be sure, and the perfect way to wrap up the Funk Gets Stronger saga.
Running parallel to these new wave/post punk moves, the record also spends a satisfying amount of time messing around with fourth world rhythms, with the extended rhythm sequence Brettino's Bounce nestled between both versions of Funk Gets Stronger. It's the sort of Caribbean-inflected groove that a post punk band like A Certain Ratio would kill for, with the band seemingly effortlessly unfurling a rolling percussion frenzy that lasts the better part of four minutes. A gong brings it all into focus, chattering polyrhythms and talking drums careening across the sound stage, before another gong sounds to conclude the jam session. Some might call it filler, but I think it's great!
The other big fourth world moment is Shockwaves, a cod reggae number that rocks a malfunktioning skank across the showroom floor. Once again, strange machines are afoot in the sound lab, this time with parts imported from Jamaica... Crazy!
At first it almost seems like a joke song, complete with ridiculous fake island accent in the verses, but like Chuck Berry's Havana Moon it quickly bolts toward the sublime. The sprightly rhythm slowly goes overcast with the descent of soaring backing vocals and its incredible chorus:
I'm from the first world,
I like to groove.
Don't want no problems,
Set up that groove.
I'm probably out on a limb here, but it always makes be flash on Bowie. Particularly contemporary things like the proto-Remain In Light fourth world stylings of Lodger
(the most obvious example being Yassassin), Up The Hill Backwards and even twenty later with Earthling's Looking For Satellites. It certainly fits right in with the wider My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts drift of the times. Interestingly, aside from the title track, it was chosen as the only other single from War Babies, coming out on 7" wax. Shades of new wave's détente with reggae (see also The Police, Jah Wobble, The Clash, et al.).
The following Oh, I almost feels like a breather after the breathless experimentation of the record's mid-section. It's the most straight-up p-funk number here, relaxing in a gently mid-tempo manner the way that Mothership Connection and Aquaboogie were. Adding to its sun-glazed aura is the acid-tinged, Ernie Isley-esque guitarwork of Michael Hampton and Jerome Ali. Interestingly, an unreleased 12" version of the tune later washed up on Parliament's The 12" Collection And More.
The record closes with the rubberband electro funk jam Icka Prick, the key final track in this song cycle. With its machine box rhythms rolling along at a hip hop pace, it's practically a g-funk track. David Lee Chong holds down synthesizer duties here, injecting the track with squiggly day-glo boogie shapes, while Michael Hampton returns (yet again) for some crunchy lead guitar work. One's immediately reminded of Zapp, but this is much looser, and less locked down, coming on like an amorphous, jell-o take on the electro funk sound.
As the song opens, Michael Hampton ad-libs Oh, you ain't seen obscene yet, We gonna be nasty this here time, and he ain't lying. Icka prick and iron pussy, yucka fuck and muscle cunt,while we servin' pussy from the shoulder, she servin' dick from the head, and Elmo MacNasty, mental masturbation, psychological perversion (hey, hey), are just some of the couplets you're treated to after he warns you to Put on some protection for your ears.Ain't no decent dick in Detroit! The Brides' backing vocals retort That's disgusting!
Without warning, it all goes supernova in the track's denouement, with soaring Hit It And Quit It vocals, whining Drexciyan synths and metallic guitars elevating the track toward its epic conclusion before it all fades without warning...
Over the years, The Electric Spanking Of War Babies has crept up on me to become my favorite piece of the P-Funk story. I've never seen it singled out for praise as such, but for me it distills nearly everything great about Parliament/Funkadelic into a sleek capsule aimed toward the future. Its man-machine hybrid draws together disparate contemporary strands — the post-disco funk of Zapp and Funkadelic themselves, the new wave shapes of Prince and the Minneapolis sound, and fourth world sonics straight out of the My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts playbook — all while pointing the way toward Cybotron, Model 500, Kosmic Messenger and beyond.
And as such, it's myriad routes stretch right up through the present day... not to mention the fact that it's a killer party record.
The story of Kleeer is in essence a microcosm of soul's evolution from silky disco into the computer blue sounds of machine funk, embodying the spirit of a time when late 70s dancefloors sheared boldly into the 80s. Alongside purveyors of fine funk like Prince, Zapp and Mtume, they set the stage for funk's neon-lit transformation into the new wave-inflected sound that would come to define large swathes of the decade. Reverberations of those future shock vibes could be felt across the following years, with artists like Timbaland, The Neptunes, SA-RA and Dâm-Funk all drawing inspiration from the crystal clear waters of machine soul. Even now, it's a wave we're all still riding...
The nucleus of Kleeer lie in the trio of Woody Cunningham, Richard Lee and Norman Durham. After time spent as the afro rock band Pipeline and then as the funky Jam Band, the group transformed into the disco-era studio proposition The Universal Robot Band1 for a couple years before ultimately becoming Kleeer with 1978's chart-bothering disco burner Keeep Your Body Working. This culminated in the group's debut full-length, the aptly titled I Love To Dance, which was full of peak-era gossamer disco like the aforementioned Keeep Your Body Workin' and It's Magic. What you notice immediately is the presence of lush strings and a Gaussian-blurred production, the combination of which are simply blissful to the ear.
However, for the purposes of today's excursion I'd like to descend on three particular records — my favorites, incidentally — to tell this tale, since they manage to paint such a perfect portrait of what Kleeer were all about. The group's sophomore effort, Winners, is our first port of call. Just look at that sleeve! A perfect representation of the sounds within, which bring the previous album's silky grooves into focus on a tighter, neon-lit plane.
What you find within is the peak of the group's disco escapades: the aspirational flavor of the title track showcases the group's oft-cited positivity (think UR's Transition), while Close To You places Norman Durham's throbbing funk basslines front-and-center to a greater degree than on the debut. However, it's mini epics like I Still Love You, Open Your Mind and the guitar-heavy2Rollin' On that steal the show here, imbuing their disco with strong shades of the dawning decade's sense of drama.
Our next record comes the very next year, with the follow up License To Dream. This sort of furious productivity actually turned out to be standard operating procedure for Kleeer, who managed to unleash an album every year they were together (1979-1985). License To Dream features sharper edges than before, these rude grooves shot through with an ever-increasing presence of synths (starting to give the string section a serious run for its money). There's no getting around it, the 1980s have arrived. De Kleeer Ting and Running Back To You both betraying serious new wave damage, the latter's rhythms eerily prescient of the nascent electro sound.
Still, there's plenty of starry-eyed disco memories lingering in this record's grooves, with the guitar-kissed Hypnotized and Say You Love Me's slowjam high drama both connecting with the crushed velvet stylings of the first two records. In many ways, License To Dream is the axis at which the group's discography hinges, with yesterday's disco boogie on one side and the machine funk of tomorrow on the other. With its seamless fusion of the moods and grooves of both eras, License To Dream manages to offer up the best of both worlds.
After two more albums of exquisite post-disco electro boogie (Taste The Music and Get Ready), the group delivered their masterstroke with Intimate Connection. This is machine soul avant la lettre, SA-RA before SA-RA, Dâm-Funk before Dâm-Funk and The Neptunes before swingbeat had even happened... future shock warnings are in full effect.
Tonight (famously the basis for DJ Quik's g-funk touchstone Tonite) is a (mostly instrumental) liquid machine funk groove that features a heavily vocodered android loverman on the chorus. The track is remarkably stripped-down and linear — minimalist even3 — gradually unveiling an electronic mantra that stretches five minutes out toward infinity. This is Derrick May's Kraftwerk + George Clinton equation worked out beneath the bright lights of New York City, like some twisted vision of techno beamed in from a parallel dimension.
Equally computer-damaged funk is in evidence on Next Time It's For Real, a backwards-moonwalking, slow-motion electroid jam that finds Norman Durham and co. in sparkle-suited Hall & Oates mode, its expansive synth architecture shimmering in the moonlight. Similar luxury sonics are in effect on the title track, a distant cousin to The Isley Brothers' Between The Sheets that was later sampled by Diamond D. to great effect on the lovers rap of Confused.
In a strange twist, the casually rolling funk of You Did It Again finds the lead vocals of Woody Cunningham somehow predicting the sound of Nate Dogg's smooth-flowing soul man approach on Warren G's Regulate... G Funk Era. It's just another one of the many ways Intimate Connection casually laid out blueprints for the future...
Case in point, the group's swan song Seeekret opened with the Nu Groove/Burrell Brothers-predicting jazz chords of Take Your Heart Away and closed with the taut new wave guitar attack of Call My Name. Throughout the record — which was to be their last — the group also managed to pick up on pre-echoes of swingbeat in their tightly-arranged group-chant vocals and certain shades of techno in the textures and rhythm. Seeing as Seeekret hit the shelves in 1985 and both forms would ultimately ring in the 90s, it was a fitting way for this band of forward-thinking renegades to bow out on top and in fine style.
It's not often that I recommend a greatest hits-style round up, but The Very Best Of Kleeer is truly something special. I remember back when this came out, in the spring of '98, against a backdrop of afternoon Atari 2600 sessions (more on this next month), the reign of Timbaland/Missy and Moodymann's unstoppable ascent. In short, it was a revelation.
Housed in an appropriately luxurious sleeve and offering a thorough single-disc overview of the band's career laid out in chronological order, the compilation even manages to feature most of the highlights discussed today. Truth be told, it's a bit of a rush hearing it all in one place. If you're at all interested in the paths of intersection between g-funk, machine soul and the post-disco dancefloor, then it belongs in your collection. Utterly indispensable.
Upon further reflection, the reason Kleeer mean so much to me — beyond their striking consistency with penning a killer tune — is the way their music seems to split the difference between predicting techno and the nexus of g-funk/r&b. Machine soul, to coin a phrase. It's tempting to imagine the group doing their thing in the early eighties as only they could, rewiring their funk up to the machines and spitting out vector grooves across the globe's post-disco dancefloors.
They're precisely the sort of group you'd need to invent if they'd never existed. One can almost imagine an alternate dimension where they'd stayed The Jam Band and sunk into obscurity, leaving a void to be filled in hindsight by someone connecting the dots between Heatwave, Prince and The Neptunes and picking up the pieces. You can almost hear them say If only there had been a band like that...
Thank goodness that there was... in this dimension, we got the real thing.
Interestingly, this remarkably stripped-down track was later reworked by none other than SA-RA themselves for the Atlantiquity compilation, which featured a brace of electronic musicians re-imagining selections from the rich back catalog of Atlantic Records.
The SA-RA Remix of Tonight (featuring The SA-RA All Stars & Me'Shell NdegéOcello) found them playing against type and pulling out all the stops, turning in a big room version of the original's minimalist Kraftwerk-meets-Funkadelic groove. You see, the original already sounded like SA-RA... so they really had no choice.
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.
After twenty years as a massive fan of the man's music, I finally caught Tricky live last Thursday at the Music Box. After work, I cruised down Harbor Drive, past Lindbergh Field and the Embarcadero toward the San Diego Harbor. I stopped off at the Fish Market to grab some fish 'n chips (soulful as Maxwell) for a solitary dinner overlooking the docks. Squeezing in a bit of writing, I washed it all down with the darkest beer I could get my hands on.
From there, I parked at Lot 1023 — on the corner of Pacific and West Broadway — and walked through the American Plaza Station, continuing down India Street for a couple blocks before the Music Box appeared before me. I handed the doorman my ticket and was in the place before you could say Six Minutes, I'm On.
Walking through the front door, I was confronted with a truly evocative atmosphere: now this was a proper venue. The Music Box now inhabits the space that was previously known as Anthology, an after hours jazz club that I'd been to a few times in the past, before it unceremoniously shut down a couple years ago. Anthology was on the upscale, aspirational tip, like the South Seas Club meets Norman Connors sleeve art, which fit the late-period jazz vibes in evidence on the venue's stage and soundsystem perfectly.
The Music Box, in contrast, seemed to intimate a sort of post-industrial warehouse atmosphere, a million miles from the sleek surfaces of Anthology but still teeming with vibe. I could see the original stage in the distance as I made my way through the anteroom, where a handful of cocktail tables were scattered beneath the half-light in lapis lazuli. The bar was located to my left, so I got fixed up with a drink and made my way toward the dancefloor (which at this point was still empty).
The plush booths of Anthology had been cleared out on the ground floor (although they appeared to have been retained on the upper floors), replaced by high chairs hugging the right wall in semi-circles around narrow cocktail tables in order to maximize floor space on the dancefloor. On the left was one long bench hugging the wall, much as it always had. The dancefloor spread out between.
There was a giant video screen behind the raised stage displaying coming attractions (Slum Village, She Wants Revenge, George Clinton with Parliament/Funkadelic, Mark Farina, etc.), and the walls were emblazoned with the shades of rust and iron. In other words, it was the perfect place to catch a trip hop show, especially in an era where the music seems to make even more sense than it did in its own time.
That time was the nineties, which is when I first dove into the music in earnest. Tricky's Angels With Dirty Faces was one of the first dozen or so records that I ever owned. In truth, I'd wanted to catch the man live since way back then, but for various reasons it never really happened. In the first instance, it was down to being too young to get in the door (circa Angels With Dirty Faces) and then it was because — in an era when I was going to school, working to pay for school and digging ditches — I was broke and (truth be known) living the trip hop life a little too fully. After that, it just never really came together. Sometimes it just goes that way...
So it was thrilling to be in a venue like this to finally get to see see the man live in person. I'd bought two tickets back in January, but unfortunately as the day rapidly approached no one else could make it. I was somewhat disappointed at first, but ultimately realized that it was rather appropriate to be at this show alone: this is just as it would have been back in the day, when no one else I knew that was into this sort of thing. As much as Detroit techno or ragga jungle, this was a music that I'd had an intimate relationship with, and it hit me at the deepest level. I suppose that picking it up in a way so totally out of step with my prevailing surroundings only made me love it more. So not much has changed, then.
A selection of trip hop's greatest hits were playing over the soundsystem as people started to stream in, and damned if it wasn't a cross-section of a certain corner of my record collection back in the day. I'm talking about Massive Attack's Unfinished Sympathy, Portishead's Sour Times (and Glory Box *cough* even though Hell Is Round The Corner is better *cough*), DJ Shadow's Midnight In A Perfect World and Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt, Björk's Headphones and Radiohead's Talk Show Host.
Talk Show Host was especially a real surprise, much as it had been when I first heard it — on seeing Romeo + Juliet in theaters — and placing it immediately as Radiohead, even if it was drastically more beat-oriented than anything they'd done up till then (this just before their new direction was mapped out with OK Computer).
Perhaps the demanding trip-hopper in me would have loved to hear some Smith & Mighty, Nicolette and Terranova as well, but then you can't have it all. In truth, it was a bit of a rush hearing these songs together in one place again, all swirling around the black hole sun that lay at its center. And make no mistake, I'm speaking of Adrian Thaws.
Where I'm coming from, it simply does not get much better than Tricky. He's on my short list with Adam Ant and Kevin Saunderson, those musical figures that had the biggest impact on me growing up (indeed, right up to the present day). You hear songs like Aftermath, Hell Is Round The Corner, Poems and 6 Minutes as a teenager and it's bound to leave an impression. I suppose that for me, he was something like David Bowie, Rakim and Howlin' Wolf all rolled into one. Upon reflection, I'd admit that — once again — not much has changed!
After a bit of waiting, the opening act took the stage. They were a three-piece called Young Magic, and they plied a sort of hallucinatory dream pop with slightly menacing overtones, centered around ethereal lead vocals. They filled the digital backdrop with a stunning Buggy G. Riphead-esque video loop projected behind them as they played. Exotic imagery and 3D terrain clashed in sometimes rapid fashion, much like the indoctrination video from The Parallax View. The whole experience was a perfect point of entry into the evening, setting the mood brilliantly. Young Magic: definitely one to look into.
In between Young Magic's exit and Tricky taking the stage, a bunch of peak-era hip hop like Nas, Mobb Deep and The Pharcyde played over the P.A. I looked around at the crowd, which seemed to be an interesting mix of people, ranging across every spectrum imaginable. I was reminded of Detroit's progressive scene of the early 80s, where a sort of adventurous anything goes spirit ruled the day, resulting in a fantastic mash up of futuristic funk, synth, disco and new wave music that ultimately coalesced in the sort of lightning-in-a-bottle phenomenon that happens once a generation (if you're lucky).
I purposefully hadn't checked prior setlists from other shows, because I wanted to be taken completely off guard by whatever would unfold tonight. Would the set be full of older material from the Maxinquaye/Pre-Millennium Tension era, or would it lean heavily toward his more recent material (drawn from an era where he seems to have reignited the old spark with a vengeance)? Would he go off on some unforeseen variation? In truth, any such possibility would have been fine by me: just being here tonight was a dream come true. After all, it had been a long road that took me here...
When Tricky hit the stage, he strolled out with his band to the sound of Vybes before kicking into an instrumental rendition of You Don't Wanna (from 2001's Blowback). What it may have lacked in Ambersunshower, the band more than made up in live crunch, with the song taking on a sort of Alice In Chains feedback-soaked voodoo. Tricky faced the drummer, his back to the audience, just vibing out on the music. That Sweet Dreams synth, sawing through the track in deliberate slow-motion, was absolutely monolithic in a live setting.
Without warning, the band dove headfirst into the clipped raw stylings of I'm Not Going (from 2016's Skilled Mechanics). At this point, they were just getting started, vibing up the room as clouds of smoke began billowing all around. A familiar fragrance coursed through the room and Marta walked out of the shadows to take the lead. The song has always come on like one big build up, and in this case it was building up to what would be an incredible night.
In passing, I must say that I really dig the way Tricky seems to have taken a left turn at some point, veering down this winding path of blues-soaked Gothic without hesitation. One suspects that he's revitalized himself on the arty, new wave-inflected sounds of his youth, particularly things like Japan's Tin Drum, Melt-era Peter Gabriel and The Cure.
Where Massive Attack faltered (losing their identity in the crystalline architecture of 100th Window), Tricky excels. Bringing his own considerable voodoo to the table, he reshapes the sound in his own image. The results sound unlike anything that's come before... a genre that should have existed (you can almost feel the distant memory of it), but never did. Well, now it does...
The crew dropped into three songs from Tricky's latest, Ununiform, starting with the staggering twilight dirge of New Stole. Firmly in the tradition of post-hip hop blues like Broken Homes and Singing The Blues, it finds Marta in fine form, taking on the vocal duties from Tricky's latest foil Francesca Belmonte. It manages to be cinematic and totally stripped-down at the same time, something that Mr. Thaws has handily mastered by this point. The Only Way followed swiftly, rounding out the first trio of songs from Ununiform, and finally Tricky was front and center.
I wasn't prepared for the man's intensity in a live setting, which often took the sound in a significantly different direction from what had previously appeared on record. He was a man possessed, moving wraithlike and punching the air as he delivered his words, often in a shrieked punk-singjay tone that he rarely employs in the studio. He grasped two microphones, one with heavy slapback echo and the other more-or-less straight-up-clean, singing into both of them at once.
He moved the mics at various distances and angles to manipulate the sound of the room, dragging their stands with him across the stage as he moved. A tune like Parenthesis was ideal in this setting, with its dirge-like pounding chorus offering Tricky the perfect storm to inhabit like a spectre. All week, I'd been envisioning him playing Money Greedy live (which wasn't meant to be), but he did imbue each of these songs with that same sense of barely controlled fury.
The one cover version of the evening was an awesome take on Courtney Love's Doll Parts, delivered by Marta, and it was an incredible reading. It's actually another one from the new record, which isn't totally surprising. One of the many things I always dug about Tricky was his musical omnivorousness — you could picture him vibing out to Smashing Pumpkins, Gregory Isaacs, Gravediggaz and Kate Bush back to back — and the way it could be felt on his records.
It was something that I noticed increasingly as time passed by (although in retrospect it was always there), and circa Mission Accomplished (if not For Real and Contradictive on Juxtapose) I remember feeling this strange post punk/new wave element taking shape in the sound. In truth, it had probably been there since Black Steel...
This shadow buried deep within the sound reached its apotheosis on 2014's False Idols, which against all odds turned out to be his finest record since Maxinquaye. Rather appropriately, the setlist focused on this post-reinvention period, only occasionally digging further back into the past. All but three songs were from the last five years, and a solid third were from last year's Ununiform. False Idols is clearly the point of inflection. The sparse, desperate sound of Nothing's Changed submerged these proceedings deep into the doldrums before the 4/4 pulse of Here My Dear pushed back above the waterline, only for it all to sink back beneath the sub-zero bass pressure of Running Wild.
Digging into My Palestine Girl (from the Adrian Thaws LP) made perfect sense in this context, it's slithering guitar figures sounding like a distant cousin of Massive Attack's Dissolved Girl. Of course, the guitar presence here is far more informed by post punk than the quasi-metal shapes of Mezzanine. Another slashing, bluesy guitar figure drove the no-nonsense 4/4 pulse of Dark Days, its killer hook taking the room by storm. And then, just as quickly as it had begun, the tune concluded and the band left the stage.
I should mention that the crowd was going absolutely crazy at this point. It was clear that this was a room full of die-hards. It turns out that I wasn't the only one here who Tricky's music has had a serious impact on... not by a long shot. And all of us were up for anything. Everyone began chanting, Tricky, Tricky, Tricky! in unison. Then, the band came back out — sans Tricky — for the encore, kicking into Overcome. Needless to say, Marta took the lead.
The results were undeniably psychedelic, with the drunken, dizzy sway of the chorus crashing like waves across the room. Sun Down followed, with Tricky back in the mix now, it's staggering beat flowing seamlessly into When We Die. On record, it's a gently unfolding chanson, featuring the triumphant return of Martina over its filmic drift. Live, it was a guitar-crunching epic, with Tricky drawing the full power of his punk-singjay vocals.
Then, the mother of all basslines starts rolling across the stage, and a drastically reworked version of Vent is upon us. Tricky's going crazy, the music's flowing through him at this point. Just like when it kicks off Pre-Millennium Tension, heard by me for the first time all those years ago, everything feels wrong. She's the one, makes me feel these ways. Sheer paranoia creeping in from every angle, unstable drums threatening to collapse beneath the track even as they propel it forward like a lurching soldier. She hides my Ventolin. It all cuts out for a moment before the band wheels it back again for the climax one last time. That bassline rolls on...
Then, it's all over. Like a true gentleman, Tricky thanks the crowd before retiring backstage for good. Everyone seems somewhat stunned, clearly blown away by what they've just taken part in. I weave through the crowd, through the anteroom and out the front door (where the doorman is asking if anyone has seen Korben Dallas), down India Street past American Plaza Station, slowly making my way back to the car. In the crisp night air, I can hear an echo of every spin I've given Tricky's records from day one right up to this morning. There's a lifetime in there...
At the flipside of darkside hip hop's ragged breakbeat architecture lies the elegant beat matrix of electro. Simon Reynolds once opined that electro was to rave what the blues were to rock 'n roll, and Kodwo Eshun famously quipped that Kraftwerk were Detroit's Mississippi Delta. In other words, it all started with Kraftwerk. Their influence stretches outward to touch on everything from techno and electro to post punk and synth pop, from electrofunk and hip hop to rave and r&b; it's all been subject to the influence of this besuited bunch from Düsseldorf.
After four records of hard, abstract space music (one of which was released under the name Organisation), Kraftwerk perfected their sound with the sprawling 22 minute opus Autobahn, taking up a whole side of their 1974 album of the same name. With its gently pulsing electroid groove sprawling out beneath an idyllic Beach Boys-inspired melody, it was a turning point in pop music's trajectory so profound that it took a number of years before its repercussions were truly felt.
With fellow travelers like Cluster and Heldon also developing a sequenced electronic music of their own, Kraftwerk delivered Radio-Activity a year later. Featuring a darker, more austere mood that seemed to predict the prevailing tendencies of post punk's coming dalliances with electro, it seemed to fuse the pop developments of Autobahn with their earlier experimental LPs.
By this point, British visionaries like David Bowie and Brian Eno were sitting up and taking notice, and Kraftwerk refined their sound further with Trans-Europe Express. A timely fusion of electronic rhythms backing the spare German vocals, with melody carved out entirely with synthesizers, it was arguably the first synth pop record through and through. Unsurprisingly, Trans-Europe Express would ultimately have a seismic impact on the future of music.
Across the North Sea in the U.K. — in apparent synchronicity — a brace of 7" singles arose in 1978 that picked up where the Germans had left off. Daniel Miller aka The Normal released the T.V.O.D. on his own Mute Records imprint. A pulsing electro-punk shimmy, it also featured a J.G. Ballard-inspired slab of noise called Warm Leatherette. This was the track that proved to have the greatest impact, with its proto-electro rhythm setting the template for Britain's grimy take on post punk synth pop.
Despite the fact that he'd originally envisioned Mute as an outlet for just the one single, Daniel Miller received demo tapes from all over the country and — impressed with what he heard — he decided to release some of them. Records by NON and Fad Gadget followed, with Fad Gadget's awesome Back To Nature and Fireside Favorites standing as awesome slabs of apocalyptic post punk synth pop.1 Most famously, Mute would became the long term home of synth pop superstars Depeche Mode starting with 1981's Dreaming Of Me.
The Human League, that other bunch of synth pop superstars, got their start on Bob Last's Fast Product imprint with the second of the 1978 U.K. stone tablets, the Being Boiled. A buzzing micro-masterpiece of dark proto-electro, this was miles away (and an entirely different group) from The Human League that ruled the pop charts in 1981 with Dare!. This was pure post punk music, albeit with a ruthless pop edge. The group further developed this sound across two LPs (Reproduction and Travelogue, their masterpiece) and a handful of seven inches before the original crew split in 1980.
Two Scottish figures — Thomas Leer and Robert Rental — were responsible for two of the other great 1978 stone tablets, Private Plane and Paralysis, respectively. The homespun other to these other groups' uncompromisingly bleak futurism, Private Plane was a motorik nocturnal journey through inner space recorded softly under the covers so as not to wake his girlfriend.
Paralysis was even more of an outlier, with a droning guitar sound warped by wah pedal. Both records have heavy kosmische overtones, very much indebted to the murky visions of krautrock. The duo collaborated on a stunning album in 1979 called The Bridge, which was released on Throbbing Gristle's Industrial imprint.
Throbbing Gristle themselves are responsible for the fifth of the U.K. stone tablets, with 1978's United. The a-side was a loosely-organized bit of synth almost-pop, with electroshock beats and analogue textures, while the flipside featured Zyklon B Zombie, in which a menacing synth sequence unfurled beneath the sort of noise-infested soundscape that would become their trademark. Their 1979 album 20 Jazz Funk Greats also featured Hot On The Heels Of Love, which was pure proto-techno from its pumping 4/4 beat and cycling electronic bassline on down to its claustrophobic synth figures and snapping drum fills.2
The duo of Chris & Cosey would splinter off from TG, indulging in further electronic hijinks as they explored proto-electro/techno with records like Trance and Technø Primitiv. As one might expect from the name of their label, TG are considered one of the godfathers of industrial music.
The other being Cabaret Voltaire, who started out in the early seventies recording in an attic (check Methodology '74 / '78. Attic Tapes) before signing with Rough Trade and releasing the Extended Play EP (the sixth and final 1978 stone tablet). Featuring tunes like Do The Mussolini (Headkick) and The Setup, they were claustrophobic slabs of dubbed-out post punk in which ticking rhythm boxes spooled out beneath skanking bass and guitar, processed until it sounded unreal. A trio of LPs followed in a similar vein (Mix-Up, The Voice Of America and Red Mecca), featuring ragged, dessicated soundscapes that seemed to be crushed paper thin beneath the weight of their paranoia.
Starting with the 2x45 mini-album, they wired the sound up to the machines in a fusion of their earlier atmospheric sides and the increasingly dancefloor-oriented electronic music to follow. The centerpiece is undoubtedly Yashar, a searing mini-epic built from synth arabesques, pounding percussion and a sample from The Outer Limits. It's one of those tracks that seems to exist in a loose continuum with My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, an utterly artificial music seemingly composed by fictional tribes.3 At this point, the group mutated into a duo with The Crackdown, which laid the blueprint for the whole EBM (electronic body music) strain of industrial music later made explicit by Front 242.
There's definite cyberpunk vibes running through the the entirety group's output, with 1984's Micro-Phonies expanding on The Crackdown's innovations to cement their new sound and standing as the proto-typical industrial record. Tangentially, it was Psyche's Crackdown that pointed me to the group in the first place. Come to think of it, BFC's Galaxy was what hooked me up with Liaisons Dangereuses — via a sample of Peut Être... Pas' machine rhythms — so double thanks to Carl Craig. Liaisons Dangereuses' lone (self-titled) LP is a stone classic of early industrial music, featuring the stark proto-techno of Los Niños Del Parque alongside Peut Être... Pas' stunning electro pulse.
German duo Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft (who consequently were licensed in the U.K. by Mute) had a trajectory comparable to Cabaret Voltaire, starting out with a straight up post punk, sound collage vein with records like Produkt Der Deutsch-Amerikanischen Freundschaft and Die Kleinen Und Die Bösen before reinventing themselves as a state-of-the-art hard-edged dance outfit with Alles Ist Gut, and over the course of a trilogy of albums (rounded out by Gold Und Liebe and Für Immer), throughout which they explored a bruising — but nevertheless pop-inflected — sound that did as much as anyone to lay the blueprint for EBM.
As mentioned earlier, Front 242 were the standard bearers of EBM (even coining the term Electronic Body Music4 in the first place), along with the next generation of industrial outfits like Severed Heads, Ministry and Nitzer Ebb. Records like Head Hunter, Dead Eyes Opened, Everyday Is Halloween and Join In The Chant played like calls to arms, which were answered by figures like Skinny Puppy, Front Line Assembly and most famously Nine Inch Nails, who came to define industrial in the popular consciousness over the course of the 90s with records like Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral.
Interestingly enough, many of the highest-selling industrial acts turned out to be American (and Canadian), but then the States had their own progenitor of the form in San Francisco's Chrome. Led by Damon Edge, the band started out on their 1976 debut The Visitation essaying a sound triangulated somewhere between the acid rock of Jefferson Airplane, Santana's winding rhythmic pulse and — in another strange bit of synchronicity (as neither had yet released a record) — post punk-era Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle.
Guitarist Helios Creed after The Visitation, bringing a visionary x-factor to the group as they set about releasing increasingly machine-inflected records like Alien Soundtracks, Half Machine Lip Moves and 3rd From The Sun, recklessly negotiating the territory between The Sex Pistols, Kraftwerk and biker rock.
Another San Francisco group that was something of an artier, gentler flipside to Chrome's scorching blast was the inimitable Tuxedomoon. Their debut 7" happened to coincide with the six British stone tablets released in 1978, featuring the chaotic blast of No Tears, a menacing slab of electro-punk that rivals the heights of The Normal's Warm Leatherette. Over the course of albums like Half-Mute and Desire the band grew increasingly arty, melding the very European atmosphere of cabaret with a proto-electro pulse. Rather appropriately, Tuxedomoon ultimately relocated to Europe, where there sensibilities were more in sync with the prevailing atmosphere.
It's worth noting that in 1978 Kraftwerk managed to further refine their sound with the elegant The Man-Machine, managing to stay ahead of the pack with elegant machine music like The Model (a track that never stops sounding like the future), The Robots and the title track. Perhaps more surprisingly, there were shades of Giorgio Moroder's electronic disco in the tracks like Spacelab and Metropolis.
Of course, Moroder's production for Donna Summer's I Feel Love — way back in 1977 — was one of the key developments in an electronic form of dance music, and his own records like From Here To Eternity and E=MC² further explored the possibilities of sequencer-driven dance music. Interesting to hear Kraftwerk reflecting this sound back in their own particular way.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Yellow Magic Orchestra were making waves with their debut LP, featuring the proto-electro masterpiece Computer Games/Firecracker. Much like Kraftwerk, their influence spread further than one might have expected, with the group even performing on Soul Train! And if Kraftwerk dabbled in digital disco, then YMO reveled in it, with 1979's Solid State Survivor opening with the one-two punch of Technopolis and Absolute Ego Dance. There was even a new wave-inflected cover version of The Beatles' Day Tripper!
Interestingly, YMO were something of a supergroup, with Haruomi Hosono and Ryuichi Sakamoto involved in innovative solo careers before, during and after their group's protracted reign. Hosono plied a sort of electro-tinged exotica — pre-dating the likes of Arto Lindsay and Beck Hansen by a couple decades, but also indulged in more straightforwardly electronic excursions like Paraiso and Cochin Moon.
Ryuichi Sakamoto created an electronic paradise of his own on 1978's Thousand Knives Of Ryuichi Sakamoto, before returning with the more austere (and post punk aligned, featuring figures like Dennis Bovell and XTC's Andy Partridge) B-2 Unit. The centerpiece was undoubtedly Riot In Lagos, an unbelievably loose slice of proto-electro that practically glows with futurism.
Along with YMO's output, it seems to have set the stage for the later weird sonic adventures of figures like Ken Ishii, Rei Harakami and Susumu Yokota, in much the same way that the first wave of British electronic musicians set the tone for large swathes of music to come in the wake of the Second Summer Of Love.
The first — and most obvious — example is bleep 'n bass, the first indigenously developed form of post-rave dance music produced in the U.K. Emerging from the industrial city of Sheffield (from whence Cabaret Voltaire sprung over a decade earlier) in late 1988, bleep 'n bass was the interface between techno/acid house and what would become ardkore. Perhaps it was the first genre invented with the rave in mind? Unique 3 seemed to have invented the sound from scratch with The Theme, a strikingly minimal tune built on little more than a brittle drum machine rhythm, spectral synths and a tattoo of seemingly random bleeps.
A deluge of records soon followed, records like the Forgemasters' Track With No Name and Ital Rockers' Ital's Anthem, while even Sheffield godfathers Cabaret Voltaire reinvented (and reinvigorated) themselves as Sweet Exorcist with records like Testone and Clonk. Interestingly, some of Cabaret Voltaire subsequent records like The Conversation (released on R&S ambient subsidiary Apollo) seemed to connect their earlier Red Mecca-era material with the modern wave of electronica (which is actually where I started with them in the first place).
The spiritual home of bleep 'n bass was the mighty Warp Records, who started out releasing records by the Forgemasters and Sweet Exorcist long before they became one of the biggest electronic labels on the planet. They also were the home of two groups that started out in bleep 'n bass only to go on to have long careers in drastically different directions.
The first was Nightmares On Wax, who put out crucial early bleep records like Dextrous and Aftermath before unleashing the incredible A Word Of Science: The 1st & Final Chapter album on the world. Splitting the difference between bleep techno numbers like Biofeedback and the proto trip hop of Nights Interlude, it caught NOW at a transitional phase before moving into straight up downtempo adventures with Smoker's Delight.
LFO, meanwhile, provided early bleep classics like LFO and Track 4 before rewriting the blueprint for British techno with Frequencies. Maintaining a sense of Kraftwerk-esque elegance throughout, it was an absolute classic that had a strong electro pulse to its rhythms. They followed it with the more abrasive Advance, a notoriously difficult follow up, before splitting to pursue solo projects like Clark and Gez Varley. In whatever form they chose, LFO remained one of the stalwart figures in British techno's development.
Another figure entwined in this story is Andrew Weatherall, whose Two Lone Swordsmen partnership with Keith Tenniswood produced increasingly electroid output before ultimately dabbling in post punk outright. Even the earlier twisted dub/funk/trip hop of The Sabres Of Paradise's Haunted Dancehall had already hinted in this general direction, but records like Bag Of Blue Sparks, Stay Down and Tiny Reminders found the duo carving out a unique strain of electro that seemed to be filtered through a dubbed-out, post punk prism. Their Rotters Golf Club label was a playground for post-electro madness, featuring myriad aliases including Tenniswood's Radioactive Man project, which unleashed the awesome 2-step electro fusion of Uranium.
There was plenty of techno from the era that seemed to have a fair bit of electro in their DNA, even if you wouldn't necessarily peg them as such. Minimal icon Surgeon, whose rhythms — especially at their most delicate — often seemed to have strong electro inflections, is one example that springs to mind, while Austrian techno provocateur Patrick Pulsinger always had a corroded electro flavor to his output (especially on the series of Dogmatic Sequences EPs).
This during an era when a lot of erstwhile techno figures were dabbling in electro, bringing their own unique strengths to bear on a brace of records that weren't merely retreads, but very much their own animal. Jamie Bissmire — of fellow travelers Bandulu — collaborated with Ben Long on the Space DJz project, with records like On Manoeuvres In Uncharted Territories (featuring the awesome Celestial Funk) and On Patrol! dancing across the thin dividing line between hard techno and electro.
Meanwhile, Ian Loveday (aka ardkore nemesis Eon) also got down and dirty with some killer electro as Sem on D.C. Recordings. This was all exemplified by D.C. label head honcho Jon Saul Kane, whose output as The Octagon Man mutated electro into ever more twisted shapes, seemingly becoming more sick with every release (just check the development between The Demented Spirit and Itô Calculus). I remember picking up the Vidd 12" when it came out5 and being utterly overwhelmed by that dismal wall-of-synth sound,6 just utterly pulverizing and depressing.
If The Octagon Man gestured toward the sick sound of 80s synthesizer music (as essayed by The Minimal Wave Tapes), then I-f essentially brought it back to life with their epochal Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass. Built on a dead-eyed bassline, ear-shattering synth strings and vocodored chorus, it is essentially ground zero of what would come to be called electroclash.
Put loosely, this was a post-electro revival music that added a healthy dose of synth pop to the equation, offering up a more European take on the sound (emerging in 1998, this was arguably the first wave of the post punk revival). Figures like The Parallax Corporation mixed this sensibility with a pummeling take on techno, while Anthony Rother had his own little electro empire (and even a should-have-been pop hit with Little Computer People).
DJ Hell, whose output had carried traces of electro from day one (even turning in a cover version of No More's Suicide Commando), did as much as anyone to bring electroclash crashing into the mainstream with his International Deejay Gigolo imprint. This was mirrored by ambient heroes Global Communication significant dalliances with electro (after all, they tried their hand at nearly every other form from drum 'n bass to industrial and deep house) as the Jedi Knights.
On the surface, their 1996 LP New School Science might have seemed like a purely nostalgic endeavor, but dig a little deeper and you'll find wholly unique tunes like Dances Of The Naughty Knights and Solina (The Ascension) that sound like nothing from the classic electro canon (or outside it, even).
Of course the entire IDM project could be read as an abstract take on post-electro music. The Black Dog — who had their fair share of breakbeats — nevertheless seemed to center on a sort of skewed electro mysticism, while Plaid — who ultimately split off from BDP — were only more so aligned with electro and post-hip hop blues (even working with vocalists like Björk and Nicolette). Similarly, behind all the abstraction an experimental mainstay like Autechre were nevertheless firmly in thrall to electro and hip hop. One could even read them as a yet more abstract update on Mantronix.
Ditto Aphex Twin, with records like Analogue Bubblebath, Polygon Window and even large swathes of Selected Ambient Works 85-92 seemingly built on a chassis of pure electro. Even a second-generation outfit like Boards Of Canada, with all their attendant drifting hauntological textures, rode cutting electro beats (albeit at a downtempo pace). In retrospect, it's no wonder that they connected with the abstract hip hop heads.
Of course it all came full circle with Radiohead's Kid A, which was supposedly inspired by an in-depth trawl through the entire Warp back catalog. A tune like Idioteque is certainly indebted to the continuum of dark, post punk electro stretching back to figures like The Normal and Thomas Leer.
If there's one figure that seems to make sense of all this, tying the wild-eyed abstraction of IDM back to the street sounds of electro then it must be Andrea Parker. Starting out with a series of dark electronic records — a sound that she termed uneasy listening — that were perhaps too singular to fit in with the prevailing trends of the time, she also found herself on Apollo working with frequent collaborator David Morley as Two Sandwiches Short Of A Lunchbox. Too Good To Be Strange was a subtle masterpiece of elegant electro, which in a strange turn of events even features during the nightclub scene in Vanilla Sky.
As the 90s progressed, Parker ultimately hooked up with Mo Wax for the excellent Kiss My Arp, a masterful collection of dark torch songs and experimental electro that took in elements ranging from musique concrète to analogue electronics, dirty trip hop breaks and even a chamber string section. After such dizzying heights, she got back to basics with the Touchin' Bass (formed with Detroit's very own DJ Godfather), bringing it all back home, so to speak.
Home in this case being the prototypical electro as laid down by Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force on Planet Rock way back in 1982. Produced by Arthur Baker and John Robie, it was built on a structure of re-purposed (and re-played) bits of Kraftwerk: the eerie synth progression from Trans-Europe Express and the drum machine beat from Numbers.
Planet Rock launched Tommy Boy into the stratosphere, with the label becoming indelibly associated with electro's rise. This was further solidified with Bambaataa's follow up records like Looking For The Perfect Beat and Renegades Of Funk, along with figures like Planet Patrol and The Jonzun Crew.
Of course, being the forward-thinking Teutonic gentlemen that they happen to be, Kraftwerk had laid out the blueprint a whole year earlier with Computer World. As mentioned in passing before, Numbers provided electro's most durable rhythm matrix, while It's More Fun To Compute sounded like the sort of hall-of-mirrors electro the the rest of the world wouldn't catch up to until the late 90s; and no less a stadium-filling proposition than Coldplay saw fit to mimic the central synth motif from Computer Love.
Kraftwerk continued this development with their momentous Tour De France record, which was produced by François Kevorkian (who also remixed The Telephone Call from their 1986 swan song — for awhile, at least — Electric Café). Fellow krautrocker Manuel Göttsching contributed the awesome E2-E4 around this time as well, unfurling sequenced synths and his trademark guitar architecture over a gently shuffling electro rhythm that ran for just under an hour.
Swiss duo Yello also cut an uncompromising path through the 80s pop landscape with strange new wave-inflected post-disco records like Bostich, Desire and (most famously) Oh Yeah. Their sound was unlike anyone else around: not quite synth pop, not quite post punk and certainly not straightforward dance music, it was a fantastically warped sound — not without a sense of humor — that nevertheless maintained a killer pop edge. They even messed around with big band and Latin jazz on records like The Race and La Habanera.
Of course there had always been a particular strain of jazz with a weird détente with jazz, which culminated in the whole tech jazz trip as essayed by figures like Kirk Degiorgio and Innerzone Orchestra. Dating back to the 70s with records like Herbie Hancock's Sextant and Les McCann's Layers, it was the crucial ingredient of electronic rhythm that puts it in league with electro of the day.
Herbie Hancock's Future Shock trilogy foregrounded hard electro beats and rude synthesizers, even featuring Grand Mixer D.St. cutting it up on the decks. All of this shouldn't be surprising given Hancock's seminal influence on electronic jazz (see Nobu and Rain Dance) and continued endorsement of the form (2001's Future 2 Future, featuring collaborations with Carl Craig and A Guy Called Gerald), but it also managed to creep up in the most unexpected places.
For one such example, take a listen to Cat Stevens' Was Dog A Doughnut?, an impossibly early (1977) slab of jazz funk. Essentially a Chick Corea vehicle, it wove Fender Rhodes organ, ARP strings, zany electronic keyboards and a barking dog(!) together with a stop-start electronic rhythm in a gently psychedelic — think Shuggie Otis — cocktail that got swept up in electro's putative development (even getting covered a few years later by Jellybean Benitez).
I've often thought that you can hear the legacy of Was Dog A Doughnut? in certain corners of Man Parrish's output: things like Hip Hop, Be Bop (Don't Stop) (Special Disconet Remix), Six Simple Synthesizers and Together Again. His self-titled 1982 album is certainly a good example of electro stretching out into varied territory (Heatstroke is practically a Hi-NRG song!). His productions are also well worth looking into, for instance C.O.D.'s The Bottle, which showcases that same slinky electro sound (as opposed to the often rigid beats of synth pop and electro) evidenced by Hip Hop, Be Bop.
Of course, by 1982 electro was everywhere. Even Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five had an electro classic in Scorpio, while Message II (Survival) seemed to build it all out into fresh territory. Reigning primarily between the years 1982-1984, the original wave of electro encompassed figures from all over that musical map: from the relatively straightforward electro of Twilight 22 and Knights Of The Turntables to the r&b-inflected singles of Aleem (often in conjunction soul man Leroy Burgess) and Newcleus' electronic funk.
During this period, Cutting Records put out some of the most durable, timeless electro. Records like Hashim's Al-Naafiysh (The Soul) and Imperial Brothers' We Come To Rock traded in a stark minimalism later favored by figures like Drexciya and Aux 88, often featuring killer dub versions on the b-side.
One of the finest examples is actually from outside the '82-'84 timeframe, on Hashim's 1986 slap-bass odyssey, Primrose Path. I know I've gone on about this record many times before, but it's one of the key records in this whole Terminal Vibration saga, in the electro stakes rivaled only by the output of Juan Atkins.
Operating out of Detroit, Michigan, Atkins started out making electronic music on his own, trying to recreate the sound of a UFO landing in his backyard, before hooking up with Rick Davis to form Cybotron. Releasing Alleys of Your Mind in 1982 (nearly concurrently with Planet Rock), they followed swiftly with records like Cosmic Cars and Clear. All of this activity culminated in the album Enter, which — though perhaps uneven — featured further innovations in the brittle electro elegance of Cosmic Raindance, whose textures seemed to predict both Drexciya and Red Planet at their most progressive.
In fact, the duo seemed to shear off from electro around this point, with Techno City rather appropriately heralding the arrival of the new form. Juan Atkins went solo at this point, launching his own Metroplex imprint to release records like No UFO's and Night Drive as Model 500.
Songs like Future and Night Drive (Thru-Babylon) were stunning, psychedelic elaborations on electro, No UFO's stands as probably the first fully-formed techno record. Nevertheless, Atkins maintained an affinity with electro throughout his career, even revisiting it from time to time (such as on the Channel One's Technicolor, which was famously the basis for Sir Mix-A-Lot's Baby Got Back).
Magic Juan is the primary conduit into Detroit's substantial electro (alternately termed techno bass, electro/techno or ghetto tech) subculture, which — within the city limits — is arguably even stronger than techno's. Drexciya probably had the greatest following amongst techno heads, with an impenetrable, mysterious vibe — much like Red Planet's — that hinted at a vast aquatic mythology. Records like Deep Sea Dweller and Bubble Metropolis were genre-defining third wave electro, with rushing drum machine sequences that played like Kraftwerk rebuilt as a Detroit street racer.
Drexciya's early output was masterfully collected on 1997's two-disc compilation The Quest by Submerge, and then given the box set treatment a few years ago by Clone with the four-disc Journey Of The Deep Sea Dweller box set. Drexciya — , who turned out to be the duo of Gerald Donald and James Stinson — grew increasingly abstract as the decade wore on, culminating in their return with Neptune's Lair.
The duo also released solo side projects with names like Elecktroids, Japanese Telecom, Transllusion and — most notably for today's purposes — Dopplereffekt. A partnership between Gerald Donald, Micheala Bertel, William Scott and Kim Karli, Dopplereffekt specialized in a retro style of electro that harked back to the days of Kraftwerk. Tunes like Speak & Spell, Sterilization and Denki No Zuno blurred the lines between electro and electropop, prefiguring the likes of ADULT. by a good five years.
Another key axis in Detroit's electro story was the Direct Beat imprint, set up by Octave One head honcho Lawrence Burden as an outlet for Aux 88 and a loose collective of surrounding artists like (sometime Aux 88 member) Keith Tucker, Microknox, X-ile and Will Web. Spanning 58 releases, Direct Beat's output focused on a strain of fast-forward, down-and-dirty electro personified by Aux 88's no frills approach.
However, my favorite Aux moment actually exists outside of the Direct Beat catalog: their awesome Take Control remix of Underground ResistanceElectronic Warfare offered up a naggingly simple (and quite memorable) take on old school electro dynamics. Interestingly, it originated on a remix 12" for UR's Electronic Warfare double-pack, which also featured a remix by Drexciya.
At the most street-level end of Detroit electro — even more so than Direct Beat — lies ghetto tech stalwart DJ Assault, who essayed the sound on his Straight Up Detroit Shit mix series before unexpectedly breaking through to the mainstream. Along with Mr. De', he was one of the point men for Detroit's Electrofunk records. Another memorable figure was the idiosyncratic auteur Aaron-Carl, who straddled the line between electro and deep house, making waves with his ubiquitous Down, a seductively stunning bit of machine soul.
DJ Godfather's Twilight 76 label was another key outpost of Detroit electro, which essayed some of the grittier precincts of the city's electro. Importantly, the label also connected out into the wider world with other strains post-electro street beats like Chicago's jerk music (with figures like DJ Rashad and DJ Deeon both recording for the label).
Similarly, a strain of club music would arise in Baltimore during the 90s that fused electro rhythms with sped up breakbeats, with figures like Frank Ski, Jimmy Jones and K-Swift (whose Ryder Girl was a genuine phenomenon7) defining the sound. Rewinding even further back, Miami had its own form of bass music with figures ranging from Dynamix II to Duice, holding down the fort for the electro faithful during the form's lowest ebb.
Yet of all the places where electro's germ spread, the repercussions of its journey to the West Coast seemed to stretch it the furthest. The Egyptian Lover was one of the true originals out in L.A., with records like Egypt, Egypt and My Beat Goes Boom culminating in the On The Nile LP, alongside figures like The Arabian Prince and The Unknown DJ who unleashed their own succession of killer 12" singles. Then of course there was the World Class Wreckin' Cru, featuring Dr. Dre's earliest productions on wax, the highlight of which is the awesome Surgery (speaking of which: Dre, Lonzo said to work on that slow jam!).
The underlying principle with the development of a distinct strain of West Coast hip hop is that it all seems to spring from electro's initial reign back when figures like Uncle Jamm's Army and Ronnie Hudson & The Street People held sway. Even hip hop giants like Ice-T started out making electro, while all sorts of electro renegades wound up in the first wave of L.A. rap groups: The Unknown DJ in Compton's Most Wanted, while Dr. Dre, Ice Cube (formerly of Stereo Crew and C.I.A.) and The Arabian Prince in N.W.A. (who quietly shuck in electro moments like Panic Zone and Something 2 Dance 2 amongst all the hardcore hip hop).
Also noteworthy is The Arabian Prince's solo turn after leaving N.W.A., Brother Arab, which split the difference between electro's uptempo rhythm matrix and the burgeoning breakbeat-driven sound of 1989 hip hop.
Moving up north to Bay Area figures ranging from Too $hort to Ant Banks and E-40 to JT The Bigga Figga (damn near the lot of them, actually), it's clear that they were equally shaped by the sounds of electrofunk. Just look at records like E-40's In A Major Way and Mac Mall's Illegal Business?. In that sense, even mega-selling albums like Dr. Dre's The Chronic, Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle and DJ Quik's Quik Is The Name can all be sourced back into electro and its boogiefied cousin, electrofunk.
Birthed by George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic machine, particularly on records like Funkentelechy vs. The Placebo Syndrome and Uncle Jam Wants You, the crucial ingredient being Bernie Worrell's synth sound taking center stage alongside Bootsy Collins' throbbing bass, electrofunk brought a cartoonish futurism to funk just in time for the dawn of the eighties.
This streamlining of funk's groove around electronic elements was picked up on by Roger Troutman's Zapp, whose 1980 debut (and subsequent records) defined the electrofunk sound, laying the groundwork for funk and disco's transformation into what would come to be called boogie.
Just compare Cameo and The Gap Band's records from before and after Zapp's 1980 debut, with the peak-era disco sounds of Rigor Mortis and Shake giving way to She's Strange and You Dropped A Bomb On Me. Ditto figures like Kleeer and Mtume... it was quite simply everywhere, from George Clinton's Atomic Dog to D-Train and Jam & Lewis' electronic productions and even Prince's Erotic City, which was nothing if not his take on electro in the vein of Laidback's White Horse.
Across the country on the East Coast, Mantronix offered up the definitive take on electronic hip hop with records like Bassline, Needle To The Groove and Scream, a sound that would come back to currency as the 90s drew to a close, before moving into increasingly dance-oriented, r&b-inflected sides. This coincided with the development of freestyle music, just as the contemporary output of Cutting Records began shearing into similar territory with records like Sa-Fire's Let Me Be The One, Corina's Out Of Control and Tolga's Lovin' Fool.
Freestyle was essentially the sound of Planet Rock getting down in The Bronx. This sound was a big influence on New Order circa Confusion (which was produced by none other than Arthur Baker), while Jellybean Benitez took its vibe into the mainstream with his early productions for Madonna, which had a profound shaping influence on her sound. See also Company B. At any rate, if you're looking to investigate the roots of r&b's tendencies toward futurism, you could do a lot worse than to look into freestyle.
Which of course leads us into the quintessential chrome-plated r&b purveyors Timbaland and The Neptunes, who reinvigorated the form in the latter half of the 90s onward by infusing their music with elements of nearly everything discussed today. This at a time when, as mentioned earlier, the electronic rap of Mantronix seemed to return with a vengeance in the beats of dirty south producers like Mannie Fresh and Organized Noise (with Outkast and Cash Money in full swing).
In fact, this all begins to lead so patly into what will be the final episode of Terminal Vibration that I'm gonna step back for a moment before we get into figures like SA-RA, Dâm-Funk and J Dilla. With a brief stop on the horizon in the penultimate episode of Terminal Vibration (which takes place in the proverbial elevator where Kraftwerk got down with George Clinton), I will see you all next time...
Terminal Vibration 8: Modern Funk Beats
The Human LeagueBeing BoiledFast
Ryuichi SakamotoRiot In LagosAlfa
HashimAl-Naafiysh The SoulCutting
KraftwerkIt's More Fun To ComputeKling Klang
I-fSpace Invaders Are Smoking GrassDisko B
Space DJzCelestial FunkInfonet
The Egyptian LoverMy House On The NileEgyptian Empire
Underground ResistanceElectronic Warfare Take Control Mix by Aux 88UR
Little Computer PeopleLittle Computer PeoplePsi49net
And also standing in for the hordes of bedroom synth iconoclasts essayed on the Minimal Wave compilations, artists like Oppenheimer Analysis and Bene Gesserit, figures that were largely unsung in their day but nevertheless put out some incredible music.
The record also opened with the dead-eyed drunken sway of Exotica, featuring the group's trademark detuned horns and dreary synths cascading over a laidback downtempo electro rhythm. It's another highlight that sounds like something that could have come out on Patrick Pulsinger's Cheap imprint.
I remember being quite confused when I first heard the term EDM as a genre, which I at first misheard as EBM. Were kids suddenly checking Front 242? Not the case! (Although it certainly sounded like Kanye had been circa Yeezus).
Kane turned in a great volume of the Electro Boogie series around the same time, which was released under the Depth Charge banner but was firmly grounded in twisted, mutant electro. I always thought it was strange that it wasn't credited to The Octagon Man, although it may have been down to the greater name recognition that the Depth Charge brought with it. After all, I suppose it was his primary identity.
Much like — as I never tire of pointing out lately — those blaring titanic synths in Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch's score to Blade Runner 2049. My Bloody Valentine recreated with synths, etc. etc. etc.
So you've absorbed those death disco tapes already, and I'm back with an armful of records. Let's head over to Raven's place up there on the corner and give a few of these a spin. I've got some of the heaviest fourth world voodoo punk funk here — about half the records in the crate — brought to you by the three major dynasties of post punk coming out of London, New York and Bristol, but today we're gonna start with the heady interzone between last episode's new wave boogie and the voodoo slates to come: I'm talking about the Spartan minimalistic funk turned out by crews hailing from places like Manchester, Leeds and (especially) New York.
Interestingly, nearly all of these groups would wind up shearing into a sort of new wave boogie as the decade progressed, while others wound up providing crucial building blocks for hip hop, downbeat and even house. Yet there's one band who emerged just a little bit later, a band whose sound sprang from these same tangled corridors but then managed to spread out across the radio waves and set the charts ablaze, conquering the world in the process. I'm talking now about a band that everybody knows... a little band from L.A.
I'm talking about The Red Hot Chili Peppers.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers were everywhere in the nineties, maintaining a strong presence right up to the present day, even making their way into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2012. However, before breaking out as megastars in 1991 with Blood Sugar Sex Magik, they managed to put out four solid records between the years 1984 and 1989 that elaborated on the punk funk template and imbued it with a healthy dose of California sun. These records all have a chunky, spacious sound, sporting booming drums, chiming guitars and Flea's trademark slap-bass all mixed down with a crisp, vibrant production very much of a piece with everything discussed here today.1
Surprisingly, I've found that many fans of the band's later material seem to turn their nose up at the early stuff, the Hillel Slovak2 era. What gives?! Tunes like the pile-driving Jungleman (from the George Clinton-produced Freaky Styley), True Men Don't Kill Coyotes, Taste The Pain and Hollywood (Africa) (their take on The Meters' immortal New Orleans funk jam Africa) are unmissable romps across the Venice Beach pier, filled with youthful exuberance and rude spirit. Behind The Sun even takes things into Parallax Pier territory, with chiming guitars and a sing-song chorus that brings to mind the Tom Tom Club's sessions at Compass Point!
At this point, the Chili Peppers would often turn to covers of rock and soul staples like Jimi Hendrix's Fire, Sly & The Family Stone's If You Want Me To Stay, Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues and Stevie Wonder's Higher Ground (which I'd argue tops the original — blasphemous, I know... but so true!). The fascinating thing about the Hendrix and Dylan covers in particular is the way they highlight early examples of — for all intents and purposes — rapping, as if the band were reaching back and paying homage to the roots of Anthony Kiedis' trademark rapid-fire delivery.
It's also interesting to note the band's unexpected avant garde pedigree (for all the hipster haters out there): original drummer Cliff Martinez3 had previously drummed for a latter day incarnation of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band, while Gang Of Four's punk funk godfather Andy Gill was drafted to produce their self-titled debut.
Gang Of Four, hailing from Leeds, were the prototypical minimalist post punk band. Indeed, one could almost have them down as a punk funk counterpart to Wire. They pared all elements deemed unnecessary from their music, leaving a sparse, wiry sound that moved like clockwork mechanisms traveling across a grid at strict right angles.
Emerging on Bob Last's Fast Product imprint — incidentally where The Human League started out as well — the band released their debut EP, Damaged Goods. The title track, Armalite Rifle and Love Like Anthrax brilliantly fleshed out the different corners of the band's stark modernist sound and they were accordingly signed by major label EMI for their debut LP.
Entertainment! is one of those quintessential post punk records,4 housing fierce, taut missives like Not Great Men, Ether and At Home He's A Tourist that have gone down as indelible post punk classics. The band famously aimed for a dry, spartan sound — free of rock's wild abandon and detached from its roots in the blues — and it's a sound they achieve to the fullest here.
However, one of my favorite moments from the band is their 1979 non-LP b-side It's Her Factory, where they make room for a bit of reverb — bathing the lead melodica in an eerie glow — giving the whole thing a sense of relatively spacious atmosphere. Solid Gold, the group's sophomore record, accordingly seemed to follow suit, allowing a little air into the production across the space of the album.
The songs themselves may not have been quite as incendiary as those on the diamond-hard debut, but tunes like He'd Send In The Army and A Hole In The Wallet are emblematic of the record's focus on tricky, twisted rhythms and an increasing focus on atmosphere and dynamics. Meanwhile, the desolate Paralysed dragged the tempos down to a staggering crawl.
It's certainly an interesting step toward the band's later period, where they morphed into a strange punk/boogie proposition that seems to be endlessly maligned by the cognoscenti but I nevertheless find oddly fascinating. 1982's Songs Of The Free is a deeply unusual LP that veers between Heaven 17-esque new pop like I Love A Man In Uniform and the atmospheric downbeat reverie of closer Of The Instant.
We Live As We Dream, Alone, which comes on like a booming dub version of one of the band's earlier punk funk excursions, just might be the best thing here. The record quite simply makes a virtue of simply sounding like nothing else around. When you factor in the remaining tracks and the album's evocative sleeve... well, it's a cool little record.
Unfortunately, the band's next album, Hard, was anything but. As such, it's even more maligned by just about everyone. And yet. And yet... there is a fair bit of solid new wave boogie to be found here, for those inclined. The opening Is It Love — which was the album's big single, even getting a 12" Extended Dance Mix — is a lush new pop number that may be a million miles away from Damaged Goods but is nonetheless an excellent slice of silky smooth dance pop. Elsewhere, the atmospheric Woman Town wouldn't sound out of place on the second side of Songs Of The Free.5
Not that I'm making a case for the album as some sort of lost classic, you understand! But it certainly has its moments. Hard turned out to be the final album of the band's original run, capping off a discography that, when taken as a whole, offers us an intriguing glimpse at the way a bunch of punks might ultimately wander from the pit into the disco, turning up some unique sounds along the way.
Another group who made a similar transition were A Certain Ratio. Yes, A Certain Ratio! They seem to perennially suffer the fate of being damned with faint praise — often getting lost in the Factory shuffle — but they get my vote over Gang Of Four any day.6 These guys are the perennial underdogs in the post punk sweepstakes.
They may have never got around to making that stone cold front-to-back classic record, but their discography offers up a wealth of the greatest punk funk you could ask for. The Early anthology put out by Soul Jazz made this point brilliantly. Take a song like Flight. This is one of the top five or so tunes in this continuum. Utterly unique, Woebot nailed it when he noted the song's gigantic ethereal sound like a yet more liquid Can. Word.
Infamously, the band were recording their debut album in Newark, New Jersey when the working mixdown was inadvertently wiped by the engineer while the band were out celebrating the final day of recording! On returning to Manchester, the band were miserably forced to work up their debut album by polishing demo takes with producer Martin Hannett.
Already feeling quite defeated, they were then slated to back Grace Jones on a song called Again before the project fizzled out unceremoniously.7 The breaks just wouldn't come! Despite the band's seemingly endless plague of bad luck, they managed to turn out a whole raft of first rate material like Do The Du, Shack Up and The Fox, all of which were prototypical post punk of the highest caliber.
From there, the band continued to change with the times and edged ever closer into new pop/jazzdance territory. Sextet and the Knife Slits Water — with the Kether Hot Knives (Mix In Special) version on the flip — is the grooviest, tightest post punk record you could ask for and the avant cousin to the whole bedroom funk concept I'm forever hinting at (there's a feature in there somewhere, believe me).
The sound leans ever-so-slightly into early Level 42 territory (nothing wrong with that), but maintaining traces of the spooky unhinged voodoo of their earliest recordings in those chanted vocals and the spaces between the spaces. Chanted vocals in this style are the prime signifier of mid-period punk funk, evoking mysterious corridors within the groove that one might get pulled into at any moment.
I'd Like To See You Again veers further yet toward a certain sleekness, even if a tune like Saturn is of a piece with the band's earlier material (in spirit at least). Elsewhere, Hot Knights is a vocal adaptation of the Kether Hot Knives version of Knife Slits Water. Still, the heart of the record lies in tunes like Touch and Axis which are veryJamaica, Queens jazz/funk/boogie, and before you know it (1984) you've got a record like Life's A Scream, killer dance pop on the order of INXS or — once again — Level 42 that takes you into the glitz of the era's overground nightclubs. Moonwalking in neon. With those triggered oof, oof vocals — straight out of the electro playbook — A Certain Ratio have wandered into the disco even more convincingly than Gang Of Four managed around the same time.
However, if there were one band that could boogie with the best of them, it was surely Ian Dury & The Blockheads. Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick has that cruising city streets at night groovy thang going... in fact, the backing track could practically fit right in there on Off The Wall (with the chorus sounding not unlike Jermaine Jackson's Erucu)! Only Ian's conversational Midlands lead vocals — think Mike Skinner in The Streets — and Davey Payne's wild sax solo give this away as something other, conjuring up images of The Blockheads grooving immaculate on some cramped, smoke-bathed stage in a ramshackle seaside pub out in Essex.
Debut album New Boots And Panties!! is an absolute treasure, with the nimble bedroom funk of Wake Up And Make Love With Me setting things off on a drifting mirage of rhythm before following up with more skewed boogie in the shape of If I Was With A Woman and I'm Partial To Your Abracadabra (there are even a few undisclosed moments of straight up punk tacked onto the end to boot!).
The key to The Blockheads' seemingly natural grasp of funk dynamics — this in 1977, a full year before even Adolescent Sex — must surely be their jazz chops. Indeed, I have a Steely Dan documentary on the making of Aja that features Ian Dury as a frequent commentator, and one could almost read the band's sound as an outgrowth of the band's dancefloor sides like Peg and The Fez. Perhaps not totally accurate, but an interesting thought nonetheless.
Of course Ian Dury ended up writing himself into the Compass Point story a few years later with Lord Upminster, which was recorded in Nassau with Sly & Robbie and features the excellent Paradise Garage staple Spasticus Autisticus. Like Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, it hinges on the axis of silky smooth verse juxtaposed against abrasive chorus, reveling in Dury's clever wordplay.
While I could dive further into the Compass Point All Stars at this point, along with figures like Grace Jones and Lizzy Mercier Descloux, in truth they will all warrant their own chapter in the Terminal Vibration saga (forthcoming in a month or so) and ultimately a full feature in their own right (as Summer arrives, most likely). So with whispers of the Paradise Garage still hanging in the air, let's take a left turn into the streets of New York.
The Big Apple was rather appropriately a hotbed of punk funk activity, starting with No Wave bands like DNA, Teenage Jesus And The Jerks and especially James Chance & The Contortions crawling out of the sewer at the tail end of the decade. James Chance came on like a skronky, more punk Blockheads (or Richard Hell & The Voidoids gone funk) with records like Buy and Off White (released as James White & The Blacks). The production was sparse and the rhythms stripped to their bare bones, like James Brown circa The Payback shot through with atonal, abrasive punk spirit.
However, it's the slightly later N.Y. material that concerns us today, permeated as it is with atmosphere. A particularly good example of this transition would be Black Box Disco (from the Vortex OST), featuring Lydia Lunch of Teenage Jesus And The Jerks, which is the most sure-footed nimble punk funk imaginable, cooked up by the Vortex house band as film dialogue — of what sounds like a torture scene — floats over the top.
It's terrifically magical track that works on most dancefloors in a way that the earlier No New York bands would not.8 The remainder of the soundtrack is quite atmospheric, with almost no beats at all (the one exception being The Chase, which is the cousin of mid-period A Certain Ratio).
While we're getting into punk funk at its most dexterous, mention must be made of Joseph Bowie's Defunkt. As mentioned before, this crew were the prime influence on The Red Hot Chili Peppers and you can certainly hear it, especially in Joseph Bowie's vocals... the only thing lacking is that Slovak/Frusciante guitar crunch.
Tunes like Illusion (from 1982's Thermonuclear Sweat) and Strangling Me With Your Love (from the 1980 self-titled debut) were far more stripped to the bone than nearly any straight-up funk band of the era, often recalling the classic one-the-one funk of James Brown circa Hell, while moments like Make Them Dance moved wild shapes at a brisk tempo that reach almost afrobeat levels of pitched insanity.
In The Good Times (yet another riff on Chic's Good Times bassline) even highlights a certain affinity between Defunkt's no-nonsense approach and the homespun funk that the Sugar Hill and Paul Winley backing bands were working up on the early rap records around the same time.
However, if there was a New York label that was the standard bearer of Downtown dancefloor-heavy punk funk, then it was Ed Bahlman's 99 Records. With the label's striking visual aesthetic, featuring vivid, colorful, of-the-moment artwork, it seemed to capture the spirit of the times at the nexus between the post punk avant garde and the post-disco dancefloors of the era (and as such places it at the forefront of today's discussion). The material released on the label was heavy on atmosphere while maintaining a distinct pop edge, and tellingly more than a few tunes made their way onto Larry Levan's turntables at the Paradise Garage.9
Liquid Liquid were one of two bands whose releases were central to the label's discography and are probably the most widely known. Plying a heavily percussive — almost tribal — sound, their music was spacious and atmospheric, with ghostly chants fading in and out of the mist as the band churned out a loose-limbed brand of dancefloor funk. The Optimo EP, with its swirling red and yellow op-art imagery, turned out to be the group's preeminent record.
The title track pummels you with a frenzy of percussion interlocking with a clockwork bass groove as scat vocals dance across its surface, while Cavern rides a loping bass groove that would ultimately get nicked by Grandmaster & Melle Mel for the epochal White Lines (Don't Don't Do It) (not to mention a more oblique interpretation in Big Audio Dynamite's The Bottom Line).
The thumb-piano stylings of Scraper recall the band's earlier self-titled EP, where tunes like Groupmegroup and New Walk churned at a more laidback tempo. The band's music — encompassed on but four EPs released in the early 80s on 99 Records — is quite simply essential listening.
Famously, James Lavelle issued the first real compilation of the group's material on his Mo Wax imprint, rounding up the band's first three EPs into one essential package with an attractive mosaic sleeve that referenced the evocative 99 artwork of the original 12" records. Released in 1997, it's another example of dance music's dalliance with post punk — well before the retro gold rush of the early 21st century — that grew organically out of the scene's groove fascination in whatever form it came (there was certainly the clear cut abstract hip hop connection). And as I've said before, this is the context through which a certain 90s kid encountered most of this music in the first place.
The other big 99 band were ESG, a group centered around the Scroggins sisters who were merely teenagers when they started out. Famously, their mother had bought them all instruments so that they'd play music rather than get into trouble. I read somewhere that at the time the girls were described as The Supremes meet Public Image Ltd. I can't find the quote now, and I don't know who said it, but it isn't too far off.
Their self-titled debut EP is housed in another stunning example of 99 sleeve art and plays out as the quintessential essence of the label's sound, which is in this case somewhat more bare bones than Liquid Liquid's, but somehow no less atmospheric. Moody rides a killer bassline over which the girls chant Very moody, while UFO is like the shower scene from Psycho taken out for a dance.
Interestingly, both songs were crucial building blocks in multiple genres of modern music. UFO, which was sampled by Big Daddy Kane and The Notorious B.I.G. — even showing up much later on J Dilla's Donuts — became something of a staple hip hop signifier (wasn't there a Gang Starr song that sampled it too?), while Moody formed the basis of Murk's Miami house chestnut Reach For Me (released under the name Funky Green Dogs From Outer Space).
The girls even titled a later EP Sample Credits Don't Pay Our Bills!, which was released around the time of their unjustly neglected 1991 comeback record. Fortunately, they managed to soak up some love during the post punk revival with two new LPs issued in 2002 and 2006,10Step Off and Keep On Moving respectively, which were solid records in their own right.
My favorite ESG record, however, is 1983's Come Away With ESG. It's an album-length statement, which means you get to experience the girls' sound in 3D stretched over a cozy 30 minutes. Kicking off with the bluesy tumble of Come Away staggering down some shadowy back alley, the record turns up plenty of uptempo punk funk like Dance, You Make No Sense and The Beat, in which loping bass grooves interlock with rather tactile drums as terse lyrics are chanted over the top.
The rushing Chistelle even brings in an eerie guitar line — which appears to get reversed every so often, Detroit techno style — as wind/synth effects creep in and out of the mix, while About You rocks a midtempo groove with the thinnest proto-g-funk synth line imaginable. Of course, there's also the matter of Moody (Spaced Out), a dancefloor version of the original (from their debut EP) which sports a tougher groove and massive synth effects simmering throughout like the soundscapes of Yar's Revenge.
Finally, there's one last New York band I'd like to touch on, and that's the Bush Tetras. While they only put out one 7" on 99 Records (their other two records came out on Fetish), they fit the label's aesthetic perfectly. Tunes like Too Many Creeps and Snakes Crawl consist of composite drum/bass/guitar parts that all interlock into ultra-tight grooves captured with vivid clarity.
Cynthia Sley's vocals often recall Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson's spoken parts on the early B-52's records. The brisk turn in Cowboys In Africa (from the Rituals EP) comes on like The Cramps gone funky, while the dubbed out Rituals closes the record on a downbeat note with ragged rockabilly shapes that would fit right into the Repo Man soundtrack.
The Things That Go Boom In The Night (the group's final record) tightens up the groove again but this time with a slightly heavier guitar attack — more distortion! — while the b-side Das Ah Riot runs a mad phased guitar part through the track in such a way that seems to tie all three of the group's records together.
Jumping back across the Atlantic for a moment, it's worth noting the Bush Tetras theoretical cousins — and Gang Of Four's sister band — the Delta 5. They debuted in 1979 with the Mind Your Own Business/Now That You're Gone, a conceptual interrogation of relationship dynamics over clockwork straight jacket funk rhythms.
The band turned out a series of 7" singles that further developed their taut punk funk sound, even introducing a horn section on Colour, which ultimately culminated in the See The Whirl LP (which I haven't heard). The Singles & Sessions 1979-81 compilation, which I do have, rounds up all the group's singles and augments them with some BBC sessions for good measure.
If the Delta 5 and Gang Of Four represented punk funk at its most jittery in the UK, then the Minutemen cranked things up to a whole other amphetamine-fueled level out in L.A. The group's records are absolutely steeped in sun-baked L.A. atmosphere, in the same way that War's The World Is A Ghetto evoked heat waves rising from the city's asphalt. In many ways they represented for the gritty underbelly of the city while the Red Hot Chili Peppers were strutting down the boardwalk... some might say that both bands represented two sides of the same coin.
Early EPs like Paranoid Time and Joy were excellent shots of pioneering hardcore, yet there was already a distinctly post punk funk flavor in tracks like More Joy and Joe McCarthy's Ghost that came on like a West Coast, more lived-in Gang Of Four. It's a muscular funk, to be sure, with turn on a dime frenetic rhythms anchored by D. Boon's combative, barked vocals. The band were one of the mainstays of L.A. institution SST (the home of Black Flag), where they put out a whole brace of records ranging from 12" EPs like Buzz Or Howl Under The Influence Of Heat and Project Mersh to 7" shots like the "Tour Spiel" EP and albums like What Makes A Man Start Fires? and 3-Way Tie (For Last).
Double Nickels On The Dime — famously released within months of that other SST post-hardcore milestone double-album Zen Arcade (by Hüsker Dü) — was a tour de force that ran the full gamut of the band's stylistic reach, with hardcore, funk, rock 'n roll, acoustic numbers and even border music all rubbing shoulders over the course of the record's sprawling, monolithic expanse. Without a doubt, it's one of the top ten or so records to truly capture that hazy L.A. atmosphere, and a crucial late-period capstone on the decade's punk funk story just before in mutated into something else entirely.
As such, it brings us full circle to this chapter's beginning, back to L.A., The Red Hot Chili Peppers and where it all ends up in the 90s... with everything tied nicely into a bow. And so I'll leave you with the following playlist, until next time when we descend into the depths of voodoo funk with Material, The Pop Group, The Slits and Public Image Ltd.
Terminal Vibration 4: Rockers Revenge
A Certain RatioFlightFactory
ESGMoody Spaced Out99
VortexBlack Box DiscoNeutral
Ian Dury And The BlockheadsHit Me With Your Rhythm StickStiff
The ContortionsContort YourselfZE
MinutemenMore JoyNew Alliance
Gang Of FourReturn The GiftEMI
Delta 5Train SongKill Rock Stars
Bush TetrasSnakes Crawl99
The Red Hot Chili PeppersBlackeyed BlondeEMI
Iggy PopAfrican ManArista
Grandmaster & Melle MelWhite Lines Don't Don't Do ItSugar Hill
A cornerstone of the band's early sound, Slovak was the Chili Peppers' original guitarist until 1988, when he died of a heroin overdose. He was replaced by the beloved John Frusciante on the Mother's Milk album.
I remember being quite impressed when Woebot included them in his The 100 Greatest Records Ever list, which was actually my introduction to his writing in the first place (thanks to a timely link from Simon Reynolds). I distinctly remember being ensconced in the heady atmosphere of the 1808 in the dead of Winter and reading down the list with delight: first Ryuichi Sakamoto, A.R. Kane and then A Certain Ratio and Mark Stewart + Maffia and thinking this is the best list ever!
Check out the charts at the end of Last Night A DJ Saved My Life by Bill Brewster, where one finds tunes like Liquid Liquid's Cavern and ESG's Moody tucked comfortably in the lists for not only Larry Levan's Paradise Garage, but also Frankie Knuckles' Warehouse, Ron Hardy's Music Box and The Roxy. It's a testament to not only these records' utility on the dancefloor, or even the open-minded turntable policy of the clubs themselves, but the fluidity of the era's music across the dancefloors of the day. It all sounded good together in the mix and thus shared the same space in time. And what a time it was!
There exists a particular sound that seems to leap out the speakers in vivid colors, engulfing its surroundings and drawing you into its world. I've come to refer to this as the day-glo sound. There's a four dimensional character to it... you can hear the neon in the air around you. It's something that's captured my imagination from day one, and I've been wanting to pull these records together for some time now. They tend to spring from the intersection of new wave and the dancefloor (at least initially), but in truth you might find them just about anywhere, from rap to techno and machine soul.
The reason I find this particular sound to be crucial is that it manages to spark up brilliant images in the mind's eye even as it throws spectacular shapes across the dancefloor. This is music for the mind, body and soul. It's verdant and full of life, with a four-dimensional depth that's thoroughly engrossing. Indeed, it's no surprise that some of the greatest pop music has keyed into this sound. It's particularly germane to the present moment, and I wouldn't be surprised if it pointed a way out of the quandary music currently finds itself in.
Rather appropriately, we begin our survey at the dawn of the eighties. There are bits and pieces from earlier records that may hint in the general direction, but they ultimately belong to a parallel lineage (one that I plan to discuss sometime next month). It's in the eighties that the day-glo aesthetic truly catches fire, coloring each of these records from the sleeves on down to the sonics held within. In rough chronological order then...
If we're talking day-glo, then there's no better place to start than with The Beat. Coming from the late-seventies ska revival (as spearheaded by The Specials and their Two-Tone stable of artists), they stand out by virtue of their sumptuous sonic palette. The Specials debut — with its stark black-and-white sleeve design and Elvis Costello's no-frills live-in-the-studio production — was thoroughly monochromatic working week music. From the baleful tenor of Concrete Jungle to the dead-end doldrums of Too Much Too Young, it was packed with no-nonsense photo-realistic documentary reportage.
In contrast, I Just Can't Stop It leaps out the speakers in vivid shades of violet and magenta, like neon lights dancing against the jet black of night. Mirror In The Bathroom, from the production on down, must be one of the most futuristic records ever produced. With five humans locked into the metronomic pulse of Everett Morton's drums and David Steele's creeping basslines, it almost seems to approach a state of machine music in its motorik drive and clockwork precision, with every texture clutching at your ear and pulling you deeper into its world.
You can sense the glitz of disco seeping into the post punk vanguard here,1 cementing the day-glo aesthetic that would color so much of the decade's music. An affinity with Giorgio Moroder's motor-disco, the spangled shapes of Prelude and above all the tropical, dubbed-out sounds of the nascent Island disco output can be felt throughout. The music spread across the entirety of this LP seems to exude a balmy glow, practically defining the word vibrant. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it remains one of my absolute favorite pure pop records of all time.
This is the point where post-disco morphs into eighties electro-boogie (see also Kleeer/Universal Robot Band, along with everything going down in Minneapolis at the time). You're The One For Me maintains the metronomic linearity of disco, lacking the top-heavy verticality of eighties electrofunk, but its machine rhythms do bear a striking resemblance to those of the electro boom looming on the horizon.
James Williams' soaring vocals swoop and glide over spangled synthetic shapes, wired into that central electronic groove, while Hubert Eaves III (the man behind the seventies jazz funk tile Esoteric Funk) gets busy on the keys. The instrumental version even begins with a liquid synth figure that sounds like loose wires shooting electricity across the third rail, kicking off a wild subway ride into the depths of the New York night.
Indeed, the whole Prelude aesthetic sits comfortably within the day-glo realm, from the rambunctious electronic shapes of The Strikers' Body Music, shifting and burning over tight mechanical rhythms, to the more organic sounds of Empress' Dyin' To Be Dancin', still firmly grounded as they are in the rules of disco proper.
Much of it has a vivid, compact clarity that seems to predict the architecture of eighties dance, but D-Train's You're The One For Me represents that crucial step forward, heralding a sea change in the way dance records would be constructed. Just compare 1980's Gap Band III to 1982's Gap Band IV, Cameosis to Alligator Woman or even Off The Wall to Thriller!
Another well-documented favorite of mine. It's also another singular pop record shaped in disco's shadow, combined with the arch grandeur of film music in an overwhelming clash of sonics. A definite case where the sleeve really captures the sumptuous moods found within. This music suggests ornate ice sculptures spiraling into the sky, crammed with so much richness of detail that they threaten to come crashing down at any moment, while Billy MacKenzie's shrieks pierce through their crystalline corridors with wild abandon. Every texture seems to pulsate fiercely, wherein unstable elements garland paranoia and raging emotion: this is blacklight affair music.
Songs like It's Better This Way and Skipping careen at a furious pace, seeming to combine euphoria and dread into a single emotion, every surface shimmering like storm clouds caught in a ray of sunlight. Conversely, No and Gloomy Sunday glide along at a more stately pace — with MacKenzie almost seeming to revel in his grief — but are no less overwhelmingly powerful for it. Every corner of the record is imbued with a raging intensity, as if all the colors — shades of blue, green and violet — were burning too bright to last for long. The dreamlike Party Fears Two is something like the embodiment of this sensation.
The CD reissue includes a wealth of bonus material (up there with Fifth Dimension's bonus tracks in terms of enhancing the original album experience), including an astoundingly raw early version of It's Better This Way (titled The Room We Sat In Before) and the moody instrumental Grecian 2000. The former is a splendid showcase for Alan Rankine's guitar finesse, as he strangles strange tangled shapes from his instrument, while the latter is a masterpiece of electronic noir: a captivating post-disco pulse cloaked in a haunting synth refrain, evoking paranoid pursuit through deserted city streets in the dead of night.
Needless to say, it's exactly the sort of thing we dig here at The Parallax Room.
The Island disco sound that I'd mentioned in passing while discussing The Beat, was in large part fueled by the inimitable Compass Point All Stars. The All-Stars were a crucial conduit through which both discomix reggae and dubbed-out vibes entered the eighties mainstream, and everything they touched was shot through with lush tropical flavor and a new wave glow. They backed Gwen on her first three albums (Gwen Guthrie, Portrait and Just For You), picking up where they left off with Grace Jones' excellent Island trilogy (Warm Leatherette, Nightclubbing and Living My Life).
The Padlock mini-album finds Larry Levan remixing a selection of tracks from Gwen's first two LPs into one extended atmospheric trip. The production here conjures up images of a steamy dancehall bathed in primary colors as viewed through a fun house mirror, evoking the spirit of Levan's Paradise Garage in its verdant, gently psychedelic atmosphere.2 The abstract machinery of dub remains in full effect throughout, righteously casting this cutting edge post-disco boogie as the head music of the eighties. Just keep in mind, this is the sort of head music that you can't help but dance to.
Tracks like Getting Hot, with those glimmering electronic flourishes spiraling out into infinity, and Peanut Butter, riding atop those insane rolling basslines, both burn with a raw, almost tactile sensuality. Hopscotch appears here in its most minimal version, while the title track (as featured on Parallax Pier) gives you a front-row seat at Club Paradise. When Gwen sings We'll sail away to shores... in Seventh Heaven, backing synths pouring through in a rush of sunlight, it's as if the feeling of pure ecstasy has been captured on wax.
Soul woman Barbara Mason had a history in the seventies as a no-nonsense truth-talker, rough hewn and down in the nitty gritty, smoldering with hard-won intensity on records like Shackin' Up and Caught In The Middle. Coming out nearly a decade later, Another Man is a sequel of sorts to her ballad She's Got The Papers I Got The Man, picking up where that tune left off — once the dust had settled on its romantic intrigue — with a humorous tale of infidelity and the realization that she really might not be his type after all.
Another Man has the shadowy, dubbed-out flavor you'd expect from a West End record, but it's wired to a cutting edge electroid groove that seems to be infused with hot pink liquid neon. Like D-Train's You're The One For Me, it's another killer late-period record from a disco powerhouse label that seems to cavort with electro in the half-light, laying out a blueprint for the future in the process. Notorious B.I.G. later used its sleek, depth-charging groove as the basis for his hit record Another, but trust me — you need to hear the original tune in all its glory.
The title track is rightly celebrated as a masterpiece of atmospheric machine soul (especially The After 6 Mix Juicy Fruit Part II version), while its striking music video3 perfectly captures the whole aesthetic on showcase tonight: day-glo and neon burning in the twilight. The florid magenta hues of those jackets they're wearing on the sleeve give you the first clue as to the vibes found within. Fog hangs over late night city streets bathed in neon. Cars creep in slow-motion by while the sounds of the corner disco seep out into the wider world, coloring the evening of the passers by.
This is post-disco funk music, fueled by rubberband basslines and twilight atmosphere (it's after six), cutting edge for its time it remains a pungent sound full of possibilities in the present. From Green Light's nimble, sure-footed boogie to the low key sway of Ready For Your Love, the group slide from dancefloor to bedroom with impeccable finesse. It all flows together so naturally, even as they take you to some unexpected places along the way (Hip Dip Skippedabeat is an electrofunk monster with a proto-rap that — in a strange twist of fate — recalls Lightnin' Rod's Hustlers Convention), that you can't help but get caught up in their moonlight vision. Without a doubt one of the great funk LPs of its era.
Compass Point's main keyboard man Wally Badarou strikes solo with an instrumental excursion that bravely expands on the groundwork laid out by the earlier Compass Point records, meshing lush jungle atmospherics with the power grid of the city. It's a rather astonishing tune to drop smack in the middle of the eighties, as it seems to predict whole swathes of the next decade's beat-oriented music even as it remains grounded in the gloriously lush post-disco climes of its day. The best of both worlds, in other words.
The original version — from his 1984 LP Echoes — was excellent, but the Vine Street mix on this 12" takes it to a higher plane altogether. When the verse's sleek groove unfolds into that insouciant low key moonwalk during the chorus — synths bathed in hypnotic half-light — it's as if you're gliding three feet above the ground. That it was released on 4th & Broadway is a perfect touch, as this was the label that would deftly navigate post-disco waters in the interzone between hip hop and house (charting the emergence of swingbeat and trip hop along the way). Rather appropriate for a record that plays like a roadmap to the future.
The original version, firmly of-its-era modern soul, gets stretched and spaced-out into timelessness by Andy Sojka (owner of Elite Records), Chris Madden and Keni Stevens himself at The Madhouse. The Ultra-Sensual Mix flows from its vocal to instrumental version flawlessly, recalling the low key half-lit brilliance of Lowrell's Mellow Mellow Right On when that tune memorably stretched out into its extended instrumental coda.
The central groove has been stripped down to an ultra-light frame and rebuilt like a graceful aero-glider, with not one element out of place. This has always struck me as something of a sister record to Barbara Mason's Another Man, those same sleek machine shapes grooving gently in the shadows. Yeah, I've gone on before about its rolling deep blue vectors bathed in moonlight, and yeah it's something of a touchstone around these parts; it's still a tremendous record. Paradise and polygons, you're in the grid now.
Early Detroit bizzness, which finds Juan Atkins picking up where he left off with Cybotron and No UFO's, venturing even deeper into nocturnal atmosphere and dubbed-out electronic shapes. Night Drive Thru-Babylon is surely one of the key records of eighties. It's just perfect, with Atkins' narration riding atop an elegant, starkly minimal electroid groove.
He's bombing up and down deserted Detroit streets, encountering strange freaks and existential loneliness in the darkness. That beat, a perfection of the electro structure, glides along like a rebuilt street racer. The vessel is cast deep blue on black, rushing past in luminescent streaks on the highway, everything bathed in scattered rays of unnatural moonlight. You're feeling the dread in that bassline, tronix swooping and rising like sparks over shimmering synth surfaces in otherworldly harmony, and your hands slowly tighten on the wheel...
Late eighties post-disco action produced by Bob Blank (of Blank Tape Studios), with the fingerprints of one Arthur Russell in evidence throughout. Certainly many other Russell tracks could qualify here — the cavernous shapes of Dinosaur L's Corn Belt and Indian Ocean's madly abstract Treehouse/School Bell spring to mind immediately — but this one's low key brilliance sits most comfortably among present company. Its swirling texture and slow-motion groove seem to evoke the feeling of floating underwater,4 and as is usually the case when Russell is involved, that water is gonna be deep (inna Larry Heard stylee).
Every texture pulses, throbbing against that gently chugging rhythm like unsteady electrical current running through a wavering light bulb. Think early Carl Craig, particularly the Gaussian blurred strokes of his Retroactive and Psyche/BFC material, but here everything is vivid and hyper-textured. Lola Blank's untamed vocals burst in and out of the mix as if she were inhabited by different personalities, while Arthur Russell does his inimitably subtle backing vocal thing (see also Loose Joints' Is It All Over My Face) throughout, poised just on the edge of the mix and weaving around Lola's breezily captivating lead to satisfyingly hypnotic effect.
Such a beautiful record, filled with the most absorbing house music you could imagine, made simply and elegantly by two Chicago kids armed with not much more than a DX-7 synth and a TR-707 drum machine. The Virgo album is essentially an expansion on the Ride EP, doubling the tracklist and stretching out into a thoroughly engrossing, immersive sonic trip. Sure, the gorgeous sleeve gives tantalizing clues as to the sounds held within, but dropping the needle on the record still never fails to take my breath away.
Do You Know Who You Are?, cloaked in lush synths cast in deep aquamarine, throws smooth shapes at placid angles off the clubhouse walls; it's as if you've passed through a door into the backroom and wound up on the far side of the galaxy. Tracks like In A Vision and Ride persist on a course through deep space, with luminescent textures routed through a hall of mirrors, cascading gently into infinity.
Starting with Ride, a handful of songs feature murmured vocals, feeling like a soft-focus take on what Jamie Principle had been up to during the preceding four or five years, placing sensitive, introspective men among the machines. Here, the duo fade into the mix like ghostly apparitions. All The Time is one such moody burner (vocals glide over the shifting ocean surface, locked onto the horizon), while Never Want To Lose You has the duo sneaking Bowie-esque into the foreground while an uncredited female vocalist intones acid house phrases like move your body! and listen to that beat!.
This lush machine soul reaches its twin peaks in both Going Thru Life — with those cascading synths and stark piano lines in spiral orbit over the deepest bassline you could imagine — while the warm geometric pulses of School Hall anchor a touching missive that surpasses even Kraftwerk's Computer Love in teaching machines to cry. There's this recurring moment when everything stops and the bassline just hangs there for a second — in suspended animation — before dropping back into the mix in a tumble of tones... oh man, it's one of my favorite things in the world.
More prime deep house, this time from New York's Mark Wilson. The whole Nu Groove aesthetic fits snugly within this realm (things like Rhythm Masters, The Sound Vandals and Bobby Konders' records spring to mind immediately). In fact, I often think that Nu Groove picked up on what the Compass Point All Stars had done and ran with it, bringing it into the nineties with their singular, multifaceted take on deep house. It's a sound that folds disparate strands of dub reggae, hip hop and r&b into its digital disco, offering up a definitive New York take on house music and a crucial stepping stone into the next decade.
Go directly to the New York Mix. Every surface is immaculate: that rolling bassline rides a gliding, shuffling rhythm with impeccable finesse, while underwater synths pulse deep in the background (making it feel something like a distant cousin to Wally Badarou's Chief Inspector). That oceanic synth — springing as it does from deep within the mix — certainly helps strengthen the comparison, sounding strikingly similar to the one rolling beneath long stretches of Badarou's track. Tons of tones tumble in and out of the ether, scattered against light reflected off the cityscape, as all surrounding entities are submerged into the deep. Shimmering and aquatic, this is underwater music for real.
The next node in the sequence brings us to the UK. So appropriate that this follows, as I've often thought that Dougans and Cobain's early records owe a huge debt to not only the Nu Groove aesthetic but also Compass Point's: they wired that same verdant, kaleidoscopic atmosphere into rave's kinetic breakbeats and the stark futurism of Detroit. This is where the two meet.
A definite cyberpunk flavor can be felt throughout, with shades of Cabaret Voltaire lurking between the cracks and of course Buggy G. Riphead's gorgeous artwork remaining a key period signifier. The Blade Runner vibes are most apparent in the shades of paranoia threaded throughout the record, and also in tracks like Moscow and Central Industrial, with the duo living up to their chosen name.
Accelerator is the culmination of all their early records, released under names like Humanoid, Mental Cube and Indo Tribe (indeed, many of these tracks had already appeared in various forms on the four volumes of The Pulse EPs). The opening track, Expander, rolls in on clouds of foreboding before dropping into a loose breakbeat groove, the unstable synth notes of the chorus spiraling out into crimson swirls.
On the flipside, Central Industrial closes the record with a staggering downbeat rhythm, each and every texture piercing into the darkness like an early prototype of the duo's Yage visions. In between lies all manner of magic, from the freewheeling calypso shapes of Stolen Documents (yet another track that seems to recall Badarou's Chief Inspector) to the sumptuous shades of While Others Cry, with its uncredited vocals seeming to connect literally to the tropical flair of Compass Point.
A key ingredient running through many of the tracks is a riverbed of percussion lying just below the surface, placed within dubbed-out caverns of echo (see tracks like It's Not My Problem and 1 In 8)5 while another is the near-constant stream of subspace breakbeats threaded through a 4/4 techno beat-matrix. Tracks like Calcium and Pulse State unveil shimmering vistas, hypnotic swirls of sound painted in vibrant color against Monet-like skies. These are some of the album's deepest moments, during which FSOL perfect a sort of rolling, filmic techno, as if a perpetual motion machine's course had been charted into the sunset.
Then there's the matter of Papua New Guinea, which rides a slice of gently unfurling breakbeat magic over a bassline lifted from Meat Beat Manifesto's Radio Babylon, prefiguring the path of rampant sampladelia the duo would engage in for the remainder of the decade. Further related capers can be found on its 12" single, with an excellent Dub Mix and the Journey To Pyramid version in particular shot through with the vivid colors of a certain day-glo psychedelia.
The one you want is Guido's Aquasonic Ice Rink Dub. Check that bassline, the awesome DX-100 bass sound that graced hundreds of records from the era, sparring with the nagging refrain of an after hours organ emerging in violet shades from the darkness. The vocal version is no less special, with the presence of an uncredited dancefloor diva wailing defiantly against the track's sumptuous nocturnal backdrop.
I still remember stumbling upon this record at an indispensable thrift shop (whose name eludes me) that once existed down the street from the Clairemont Library back when I worked there after school. The place was a goldmine of dance and hip hop promos that had apparently been shed by local DJs in an effort to pare down their collections. I used to drop by every Thursday during my lunch break and pull loads of killer garage and rap cuts for next to nothing, so I've gotta give props to those cats for hooking a young (broke) brother up back in the day.
Lush, melodic Bay Area hip hop. The cognoscenti seem to prefer his earlier Playaz N The Game, but I reckon that this one's his masterpiece. Every surface seems to exude a warm glow as shapes shimmer in the darkness and colors get scattered at random. From the title on downwards, it's as if JT had immersed himself in the studio on a mission to conjure up the most amazingly vibrant sounds possible, smearing the rough-hewn edges of these homespun studio mixes into a sleek flow of rolling machine music. The result is casually psychedelic, but electrofunk tight.
All techno heads must hear Root Of All Evil immediately. Like E-40's In A Major Way, with its astonishing shades of Drexciya atmosphere, this seems to share an affinity with those same plangent computer sonics (via West Coast rap's roots in electro). The drums snap with a quintessential coastal crispness that dates back to the days of Arabian Prince and The Egyptian Lover, while the bass itself seems to melt into the spaces between.
JT's tight flow is augmented here by guest spots from Rappin' 4-Tay and San Quinn, along with other Bay Area luminaries like E-40, Mac Mall and Celly Cell elsewhere on the record, while shadowy figure The Enhancer crops up behind the boards on both Representing and the aforementioned Root Of All Evil. Free-flowing horizontal grooves like Ain't Something Wrong and Bay Area Playaz perfectly capture the feeling of cruising down the 5 as the late afternoon blurs into evening, the world half-lit somewhere between darkness and daylight (like in the movies), while the sun and moon ease onto the horizon at opposite ends of the sky.
Glorious technoid house from Chicago original Marshall Jefferson, released on the heels of his Day Of The Onion album but surpassing it in every way. That's a whole mini-category right there... Robert Owens' I'll Be Your Friend and Romanthony's The Wanderer spring to mind immediately. At any rate, I suppose that trilogy sits so comfortably together also because they're each instances of brilliant house artistes operating at the peak of their powers to forge masterful statements of futurist soul. All three of them stone cold classics.
The Horse is a fast-forward house rhythm, 909 snares bouncing everywhere — sparks shooting royal blue into the night, every surface glistening — and evoking the feeling of careening at top speed down the freeway in the middle of the night. The flipside almost sounds like something Kevin Saunderson might have knocked off during the same era — just think of The Dream, or even the E-Dancer remix of Blackwater — with a grinding bassline and rough cut percussion battling in full effect throughout.
Pairing these tunes together was a stroke of genius, as the 12" taken as a whole seems to stand astride the twin worlds of house and techno, its unshakable trancelike shapes shimmering gloriously in the milieu of late-nineties dance.
Around the turn of the century, the minimal sound of micro-house revealed itself to be one of the leading hot spots in dance music for a spell. In truth, it's a sound that had been bubbling under for the better part of five years, but its sleek, gliding surfaces seemed the perfect sound to take house into the 21st century. Labels like Force Tracks and Kompakt became powerhouses, practically defining the sound in the public imagination.
The form threw up loads of great 12"s and even a handful of excellent albums, but — with the possible exception of Isolée's Rest — this one is my absolute favorite. It's a wholly surreal record that slips and slides through six deeply hypnotic missives of luminescent alien disco, perfectly capturing the state between consciousness and sleep... when dreams can bleed out into reality. Every track lasts ten minutes or longer, gliding on liquid machinery and fixed to the endless horizon, pairing lush machine shapes with seductive (and uncredited) human vocals.
The jazzed-out, three-dimensional electronic chords of Market set the stage, sparring with a squelching bass figure that gradually gains momentum, before swooping into a kinetic groove at the track's midpoint that seems to rearrange itself before your eyes. Getting down to the root of the matter, the flowing motorik drive of The Right Wing is closest thing here to the dubbed out techno of Basic Channel, who without question had a profound influence on the whole micro-house/minimal scene.6
Luomo share a similar mastery of the architecture of atmosphere, and employ it on a shadowy dancefloor half-lit in the moonlight under the stars. My absolute favorite moment, Synkro, is also the record's most spacious, with fathoms deep disco set adrift in a neon haze. Every element so lush that you feel as if you're swimming in its fluid textures as they tumble and cascade over one another. The mix practically defines the term four-dimensional.
Matching the deft play of mood and texture throughout this record is some truly stellar songcraft. Even without its heady production, Tessio would make for an excellent pop song. With the production factored in, the track is quite simply mind-bending, scattering those spongy bass tattoos — that seem to slide and shift gears beneath a clicking rhythm track — all across the soundscape, as two mystery singers engage in a fractal duet. Listening in feels like you're surfing waves of blurred emotion.
Throughout their tenure as Atlanta's unofficial hip hop ambassadors, Outkast had traded in verdant shapes and sounds. As far back as ATLiens, and even on their debut Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, their music always seemed to exude a warm neon glow. Stankonia is the culmination of everything the duo had been up to during the nineties, and finds them descending even deeper into a sort of psychedelic machine soul.
The vibrant technicolor dream of Ms. Jackson is universally known (and deservedly so) — its lush sonic imagery could be heard everywhere at the time — and to this day it remains a masterpiece. The spectre of Prince looms large throughout, not only in Andre 3000's vocal moves but also in the record's dense, multi-faceted synth-led sound. Indeed, songs like Ms. Jackson and Humble Mumble seem imbued with the spirit of Paisley Park.
The electra glide textures of Zapp, Mtume and Kleeer, are in evidence throughout, laying the groundwork for the next decade's glorious blurring of hip hop, funk and r&b. I'll Call Before I Come gets into undeniable Atomic Dog territory, but Stankonia goes even deeper into the realm of Funkadelic with the twisted psychedelic soul of the title track. Between its Eddie Hazel/Jimi Hendrix guitar figure and that wailing group chant, it conjures the same dread vibes as March To The Witch's Castle and predicts Brain On Drugs a couple years ahead of schedule.
This long, strange trip curdles with Red Velvet's gnarled computer funk and the strung out psychedelic soul of Toilet Tisha, offering a starkly modern update of Superfly for the new millennium. Perhaps nothing sums up the record quite like ?, a strange junglist sketch and the album's shortest track, it's title hovering over these proceedings like a spotlight... hinting perhaps that even to this day, Stankonia remains a riddle wrapped in an enigma: try as you might, you'll never get to the bottom of this one.
Seeing these last three records together makes the turn of the century seem like some sort of golden age! Well, I suppose it was, after all. Jaxx's debut Remedy was easily the better record, but its sonics were sourced in wild pitch house and seventies disco (with Rendezvous and Red Alert coming on like turbo-charged Studio 54 gear).
Rooty, on the other hand, seemed informed by the new wave eighties (with the duo at the time referring to their sound as punk garage), and moves beyond house into a sort of crazed maximalist boogie (I think they've got the kitchen sink in there somewhere). Which, of course, makes it right at home in present company...
Hard-edged tracks like Where's Your Head At (built around a renegade Gary Numan riff) and Get Me Off roll with reckless abandon through the gutters of the red light district, trading in just the sort of sleazy, low-slung glamour that I wish pop could manage to muster in 2016 (although next year will be another story altogether, I'm sure of it... fingers crossed!).
Like contemporary Outkast, the duo channel Prince in Breakaway, sounding like a wild fairground ride experienced through a cracked fun house mirror, while the album-opening Romeo recalls Sheila E. Coming on like Remedy gone freestyle, its squelching synths seem shot through with hot pink liquid neon.
Two years earlier, Jaxx paid tribute to the machine soul moves of Timbaland with U Can't Stop Me, a strung out slice of stop-start machine funk built on an approximation of the man's trademark spidery beat matrix. Circa 2001, it looked like they'd returned the favor, with Timbaland's work on Missy Elliott's 4 My People and The Neptunes' productions for Britney Spears (Toxic, in particular) sounding like dead ringers for the relentless house sound of Basement Jaxx.
Golden age is right!
That initial run of Metro Area EPs were excellent, picking up where The Driving Memoirs left off, but introducing an expansiveness to the proceedings and opening up the soundscape considerably. This record is a culmination of those earlier releases, encapsulating a very special time with incredibly crisp, deep production that stands comfortably with the best records of the turn-of-the-eighties era that it's so clearly inspired by.
Dan Selzer's stunning sleeve art really captures the mood here, all those half-lit mystery dancefloors out of the past, present and future. I played this one over and over at the time, even if I thought that Morgan Geist's contemporary Moves EP was even better. Now I'm not so sure. This is one of those records that takes a sound previously confined to 12" singles and tucked away on b-sides and gives it room to breathe across an entire double-LP.
The record kicks off with two tracks featuring the tight string arrangements of Kelley Polar. I've always though that Dance Reaction sounded a bit like a long lost dub of Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough. The first record seems to emphasize live musicianship, with everything from piano to terse vocal harmonies and even acoustic guitar embellishing the warm, uncomplicated soundscapes. Piña rides a Latin piano figure before slipping into Spanish guitar for the placid, dreamy coda. Itis Tandoor's live percussion runs through half the tracks here, opening up the sound considerably into a tactile, physical experience.
The string section and live playing give way to gorgeous machine disco on the second record, where things get down and dirty in a moody stylee. Those bright spangled synths take over, bouncing off the nightclub walls all around the listener as if Super Breakout had gone musical. I've always thought that Soft Hoop was this record's quiet masterpiece, that spongy synth sparring with the bassline in chambers of the deep, while Atmosphrique traps the listener in its hall of mirrors with an almost psychedelic play of, you guessed it, atmosphere.
The closing Caught Up seems a fusion of both sides of this record, pairing the strings of the Kelley Polar Quartet and a gorgeous piano/organ duet with the rubberband synths and dubbed-out rhythms of the last four tracks in a moving conclusion to a quietly powerful record.
Nearly everything this crew put out would be eligible, but this one's here for a few reasons and they all have to do with the b-side, Death Of A Star SUPERNOVA. First, those blacklight synths that seem to spray across the track like day-glo champagne, bathing its chanted vocals even as they threaten to take center stage. Second, those guitar trills that seem to recall nothing so much as peak-era Duran Duran, driving the beat before shearing off into the distance.
Third, is the energy, the fire and the tune itself — after all, it wouldn't mean anything if it were just a finely executed pastiche — marking it out as one of the tunes of the decade. Conjuring images of some outer rim nightclub nestled among the stars, its cosmic disco spheres orbiting as they cast glimmering lights all across the firmament. And yea, this is another sleeve that perfectly illustrates everything the record's about.
This is the point where the day-glo impulse really came into focus again and began to catch fire underground, culminating in a lot of the best music from the last decade or so. The strung out auto-tune r&b of Double Dutch CO CO POPS predicts the sound of the latter half of the decade, even if I've never been crazy about it.
As usual, however, the instrumentals are something special. SA-RA Space Theme is a low-key entry in their line of astral jazz outings — picking up where Herbie Hancock and Dexter Wansel left off — sounding for all the world like Herbie and Sly Stone jamming circa Fresh. Hangin' By A String, on the other hand, comes on like liquid neon, staggering along on a stop-start beat it seems to have been synthesized from unstable, radioactive elements. Part of SA-RA's charm lies in the fact that no one else sounds remotely like them.
I liked the first Gorillaz record a lot, so at first I missed the dubbed-out vibes of Dracula and Clint Eastwood. I got over it pretty quick though, as this is very much the superior record. What's more, parts of it seemed to key into the machine funk of Kleeer and Mtume... who would have guessed!? Check that synth squiggle in Feel Good Inc., featuring De La Soul in fine form, rough house rhyming over an electroid beat that cuts out just in time for the acoustic Staring At The Sun-esque chorus.
The sound at first seems more stripped down than the first record, but its really just a sleeker, more aero-dynamic approach. Tracks like Kids With GunsNeneh Cherry and El Mañana are skeletal tunes built on spartan drum machine rhythms and glistening analogue tones. Opener Last Living Souls is cut from the same cloth, only in slow-motion. All Alone features Roots Manuva doing his bashment thang over roughneck breakbeat riddims and a garage bassline while Martina Topley-Bird swoops in angelic and sublime for the breakdown.
The masterful Dirty Harry is that rare track to feature a children's chorus that works, spiraling into electro-funk territory once it really gets going and sounding like a dream version of something from Whodini's Escape. When The Pharcyde's Bootie Brown drops in on the mic for the guest spot, a ragged breakbeat takes over with its grinding bass accompaniment.
Dare is just perfection. Clearly one of the finest songs of the decade, it seems to pick up where the Dazz Band left off before immersing it all in vast cathedrals of sound. The record goes through various twists and turns before ending in a bizarre Brian Wilson hinterland, with Fire Coming Out Of The Monkey's Head featuring Dennis Hopper's narration (recalling old-time radio serials like Escape and The Mysterious Traveller) and the sumptuous Surf's Up moves of Don't Get Lost In Heaven, before swerving into the Rotary Connection-esque Broadway soul of the title track.
This double-CD (5xLP!!) album is the perfect distillation of decades of West Coast machine soul, ranging from the rolling basslines of g-funk to the computerized rhythms of electro, taking in the squiggling shapes of Solar Records, boogie and even mysterious shades of straight-up techno for good measure along the way.
Every track seems bathed in computer blue moonlight, wired up to neon (literally LAtrifying, as one song puts it) and drifting through a dreamlike haze. It's the perfect soundtrack to those late summer evenings spent cruising the sprawling web of city streets in the south side of California, just as dusk begins to fall, palm trees cycling by in the rear view mirror.
I certainly can't think of a record that better encapsulates the vibe of late afternoons and late nights down here in San Diego. It's the sound of crashing waves, the freeway stretching through rolling hills in burnt sienna and the grid of the city nestled within, the calm heat of the desert hanging wraithlike in the air. It's the sound of late night trips to your favorite taco shop, cruising down El Cajon Boulevard at midnight, or flipping through a stack of Parliament and Zapp records at your homeboy's spot. It's a million different memories all rolled into one, drifting bittersweet and beautiful out of the past like a mirage.
For instance, I Gots 2 Be Done Wit' U always takes me back to August of '95 and afternoons spent listening to One Way and Kleeer, soaking up their atmosphere while playing Atari 2600. Later I'd go roller-skating with my brother and our main man Gregory, the day seeming to stretch on forever.
Tracks like Spacecapades and Keep Lookin' 2 The Sky seem to key into a stream of pure techno soul, as if the sounds of Detroit were refracted through the cool water of the Pacific Ocean to sound right at home in the Golden State. In a sense, it sheds some light as to why this music always made perfect sense to me, a kid growing up two-thousand miles away. Parts of this record bring back vivid memories of bombing around San Diego back in the day, listening to Model 500 and Drexciya in the moonlight, taking the longest route home to hear just one more song and stretch the magic out across the electric shades of the evening.
A wildly inconsistent record, but a fascinating one with an engaging sound, seeming to exist comfortably alongside SA-RA and Dâm-Funk in the context of 21st century machine soul. Its release was tucked away toward the end of a year that had already seen one Leslie LP, his self-titled debut. Transition was apparently inspired by a late-summer romantic affair and knocked out in an off-the-cuff series of sessions.
That its release was buried is the only way I can square the fact that it didn't bother the charts with songs like You're Not My Girl and Zodiac, sounding something like the hypothetical album Michael Jackson might have released between Thriller and Bad (circa Kleeer's Intimate Connection and The Isley's Between The Sheets).
Leslie made his name producing Cassie back in 2005, and after a few years he got the chance to launch a solo career of his own. This and the self-title debut came out during a period when I was mainlining on SA-RA and seeking out anything and everything in a similar vein. New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War) had just seen release the previous year, featuring tracks produced by SA-RA, and it seemed like something special was in the air.
I remember when this and the Kid Cudi album dropped, and I was totally sold on their sleeve art from the jump: this had to be interesting. Actually, the sleeve is not a bad place to start if you're looking for a thumbnail sketch of the sounds held within, conjuring images of deep green vectors unfurling in slow-motion neon. The album-opening Never Gonna Break Up more than lives up to the anticipation, with Leslie slinging luminescent analogue synths across a gently chugging rhythm while doing his modern soul man routine on vocals. Leslie 's thing is switching between r&b vocals and quasi-raps, which suits his productions just fine.
A track like Sunday Night flows gracefully on moody synth swirls, while Nothing trades in almost new wave shapes. The new wave thing is actually in full effect throughout: All My Love even seems to recall New Order in its string/synth progression. The slow-burning post-disco boogie of You're Not My Girl just might be the finest thing here, rolling along on that nagging verse before slipping into its sublime refrain.
This lot have been the biggest surprise since SA-RA, coming out of nowhere with a killer record that sounds unlike anything else around. I've gone in depth on them before. Not much to add, but I still can't quite believe that they exist... and I don't understand why they aren't the biggest thing around right now. Sari and I have caught them live twice, and both shows were excellent in different ways. I suspect they can make any venue their own, their atmosphere seeps into every corner of the space.
Possibly the first group to spring fully-formed from within the day-glo aesthetic, rather than approaching from a tangent (be it post punk, disco, hip hop or rave). I've said before that they seem to build their songs out of texture as one would sculpt matter: everything here is like day-glo cast in gold and chrome liquid set against jet black skies, where everything glows gently.
It would have sounded incredible on the dancefloors of the Paradise Garage, yet it's perfectly at home in the context of now-pop, excelling most of the half-finished ideas that currently set the charts ablaze. This of-the-moment music exists in a continuum stretching back decades... nevertheless it sounds unlike anything that's come before.
Ranging from resolute floor-fillers like Busy Earnin', Time and Julia to moody burners like Accelerator, Drops and Platoon, Jungle imbue everything here with a sense of gravity and physicality. There's a deeply haunting nature running through these atmospheric reveries to the night. In effect, its a stone cold masterpiece. This crew are more than suited to take this sound screaming into the future, and I'm awaiting their next record more anxiously than any other. These are the things that dreams are made of.
Whereas before it was disco's method, its production techniques that were taken on board by the post punks: artists like PIL ejected the sunshine and engulfed their tracks in pure dread. Even The Human League were still making righteously strange synth music at this point — see 1980's Travelogue — at times Moroder-inflected yet stark and severe, with the full-on pop of Dare! still a year away.
This is part one (of two) in a series of loosely interconnected glimpses of the sonic revolution, where righteous protest and sonic exploration meet in time and space...
The resistance started in folk and the blues, stretching from songs like the 17th century Diggers' Song into the fourth decade of the 20th with Leadbelly's Jim Crow Blues, chronicling the ills of their day with a resolute spirit that vowed to one day reach the mountaintop.
Some years later, Billie Holiday kicked the door open into the mainstream with Strange Fruit, unmasking the horrors of the Jim Crow south with stark clarity shone right in the media glare. We will no longer be ignored. This spirit coursed through the veins of jazz to come, with Max Roach's We Insist! symbolically ringing in that decade of change with a demand for Freedom Now.
The whole modern folk tradition — which reached critical mass in the early 1960s — seems to stem from this same impulse, summed up in the spirit of a song like We Shall Overcome. It enters the realm of rock 'n roll via Bob Dylan's early records, featuring songs like The Times They Are A Changin' and Blowin' In The Wind, which had a profound impact on the likes of The Beatles and The Byrds.
San Francisco's acid rock seemed to split the difference between the two forms (via The Byrds' durable folk rock template and their Fifth Dimension ruminations on John Coltrane), particularly in the case of Jefferson Airplane, who lent songs like We Can Be Together, Mexico and Have You Seen The Saucers a razor sharp tone with a paramilitary edge. The contemporaneous Wooden Ships, a gentle slice of sun-glazed folk psychedelia written by the Airplane's Paul Kantner in conjunction with David Crosby and Stephen Stills, places two adversaries from an unnamed war alone together on an uninhabited island and marvels at their slow acceptance of one another in a true meeting of the minds.
The influence of this sort of West Coast folk psychedelia — blended with The Beatles — could be felt down south in Brazil's Tropicália movement and Argentina's psychedelic underground, and in both instances proved an aggravation to their countries' respective military dictatorships. In a climate of increased militarization and the pitched culture war of the times, Jefferson Airplane's Crown Of Creation seems to run the kaleidoscope of sixties idealism through an apocalyptic prism, offering a glimpse of seventies dread looming out there on the horizon.
This was the backdrop when Jimi Hendrix played the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock. Shimmering Hendrix-penned numbers like Castles Made Of Sand, Bold As Love and the phantasm of 1983... A Merman I Should Turn To Be seem to paint across the cosmos the image of a world at peace, while the fiery flipside of the man's legacy could be felt entering the crucible of Michigan's factory cities, with the proto-punk onslaught of Detroit's MC5, Ann Arbor's Stooges and the working-class rock 'n roll of Flint's Grand Funk Railroad raising the stakes and turning up the volume. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, a cold wind cut through Birmingham as Black Sabbath crawled from the darkness to chronicle a bleaker era of opposition with songs like War Pigs and Wicked World.
Now rewind for a moment to 1960s San Francisco, where Sly & The Family Stone made their glorious run of recordings that embody the spirit of righteous protest, records like A Whole New Thing (featuring the triumphant Underdog) and Stand!, which remains — along with their performance at Woodstock — some of the most life-affirming music you could ever hope to hear. The group exemplified the era's optimism and open-mindedness, with their integrated lineup and singular sound imbued with a driving funk soul spirit that touched on the rock 'n roll attitude of the contemporary San Francisco scene.
But in truth, soul's tradition of visionary protest stretches back even further. Sam Cooke famously penned A Change Is Gonna Come in 1964 after hearing Bob Dylan's Blowin' In The Wind, while The Impressions took things even deeper with Curtis Mayfield-penned numbers like Keep On Pushing and People Get Ready. True to spirit, this was empowerment as much as protest — empowerment as protest, even.
James Brown had his own anthem of empowerment in Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud, which caught fire in 1968 and later kicked off a series of of records stretching deep into the seventies, including The Payback, Revolution Of The Mind, Hell and The J.B.'sDamn Right I Am Somebody (the latter two are potent ruminations on the Watergate era, shot through with a deep sense of seventies dread).
Brown's righteous on-the-one funk of course had a profound effect on Fela Kuti, the storied revolutionary musician operating in Nigeria out of his Kalakuta Republic, who unleashed records like Roforofo Fight, Expensive Shit and Zombie that remain searing indictments of government corruption and brutality to this day.
Edwin Starr's War seemed to picked up where Sly Stone's driving rock soul workouts left off, with a rousing call to (dis)arm riding a peak-period Norman Whitfield production, while The Chambers Brothers' The Time Has Come offered one of the great signposts of the era with its title track1 — a signpost of rock-inflected soul in a Sly & The Family Stone stylee.
All of this was taken to its logical conclusion with the wild seventies excursions of George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic empire, with records like America Eats It Young and Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow sprawling out into a singular acid-fried vision of seventies unrest.
At the dawn of that decade, this impulse went into soul supernova, with Curtis Mayfield's eponymous solo debut — featuring the triumphant Move On Up — and the subsequent Curtis/Live!, its extended reflections on the troubles of the world matched by Mayfield's graceful determination. Something special happens when songs like We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue, We're A Winner and I Plan To Stay A Believer mix with his gentle between-song banter, and you can glimpse a beautiful future in the record's grooves. It's the sound of hope in the face of hard times, digging deep to Keep On Keeping On and trying to somehow make the world a better place.
Marvin Gaye picked up the baton with What's Going On, a glorious song cycle that captured the mood of the day in elegiac style, opening the door at Motown for Stevie Wonder's stunning sequence of seventies records. Check out Innervisions, with the rough and tumble stomp of Living For The City — capturing a gritty slice of urban life in its tough seven minutes — and the gorgeously plaintive Visions, a song that dares to envision a world in which hate's a dream and love forever stands.
Former TemptationEddie Kendricks continued this thread with the hypnotic chant People... Hold On, a resolute march to empowerment, while back in Chicago, Syl Johnson hit hard in 1970 with Is It Because I'm Black. Featuring the melancholic strains of title track and the majestic grandeur of Concrete Reservation and I'm Talkin' Bout Freedom, it was a record that bubbled deep underground before gradually picking up its richly deserved recognition as a stone cold classic.
Just as everyone seemed to have caught up with where he was going, it seemed that Sly Stone's relentless positivity had curdled into a mystified haze at the turn of the decade.2 He took a left turn into the downbeat with There's A Riot Goin' On, a weary entrance into the seventies — especially after the previous year's wild funk 7" Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin — that seemed to signal a sea change in the tenor of the times.
From the weary Philly soul of The O'Jays' marathon epic Ship Ahoy (which lasts the better part of ten minutes) to Eugene McDaniels' staggering Headless Heroes Of The Apocalypse,3 there were a great many complex soul records that grappled with the demons of the day in unflinching detail.
This was the context from which the bubbling of the sharp, gritty poetry of The Last Poets' debut record — along with ex-member Gylan Kain's scorching The Blue Guerrilla — sprung, both pervaded with a fire-stoked revolutionary fervor informed by the harsh realities of life in the shadow of COINTELPRO. Similarly, Nikki Giovanni's The Truth Is On Its Way — with Ego Tripping's shades of female empowerment — was a sharp-tongued verbal strike in step with the times.
Gil Scott-Heron, with partner in crime Brian Jackson, had the longest — and arguably most fruitful — run, unleashing a breathtaking series of records — including Winter In America and Pieces Of A Man (featuring the incendiary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised) — throughout the seventies. Theirs was a music — along with The Last Poets, Kain and Giovanni — drenched in soul and low-slung funk, but more than anything was shot through with the spectre of jazz.
Jazz, that enduring edifice, was of course still going strong. John Coltrane had already chronicled transcendence and laid the blueprint for astral jazz, which was later elaborated on by his wife Alice Coltrane and former sideman Pharoah Sanders in expansive Indo jazz excursions like World Galaxy and Black Unity, respectively.
All of this ran parallel to Sun Ra's empire building (in fact, Pharoah Sanders had played with Ra even before hooking up with Coltrane's quintet), his independent Saturn Research label and mind-expanding records like The Heliocentric Worlds Of Sun Ra and Space Is The Place (the birth of an enduring sentiment that stretched into the nineties and beyond).
Figures like Ornette Coleman (with his symphonic Skies Of America record), Don Cherry (responsible for the intriguingly amorphous Organic Music Society) and Marion Brown (whose Vista LP featured a cover version of not only Harold Budd's Bismillahi 'Rrahman 'Rrahim, but also Stevie Wonder's Visions) continued chronicling the spirit of the times even as they voyaged deeper into inner space.
Similarly, Carlos Santana's continual focus on transcendence had resulted in a series of lush jazz-tinged records spanning the decade (he even collaborated with John McLaughlin and Alice Coltrane), bridging the gap between Woodstock and Montreux in the process. Herbie Hancock cut a similar path through the seventies, with his band adopting Swahili names in the wake of their thrust into cosmic jazz with records like Mwandishi, Crossings and Sextant.
Around this time, he also provided the score to the film The Spook Who Sat By The Door, with its revolutionary theme echoing shades of his earlier material like The Prisoner (and prefiguring the direction of his funky Headhunters-era material). Hancock's lush jazz mosaics of the Mwandishi period delved deep into abstraction, engaging with the mind's eye as much as any literal interpretation or meaning. The music seemed to be charting other worlds, mapping their terrain, and opening up the possibilities that they offered.
This spirit found embodiment in Krautrock. A record like Can's Future Days is immersed in the oceanic depths of Inner Space (incidentally, also the name of their studio), while Neu!'s motorik pulse seems eternal — locked onto the infinite horizon. Neu! '75 even predicts the second half of the decade in the proto-punk onslaught of Hero and After Eight. Similarly, Faust's ragged spliced-tape adventures seemed to preempt the experimentation of post punk even as they reveled in a sing it all together now communal spirit, while Amon Düül II sprung from an honest-to-goodness commune.
Over in France, Heldon's electronic assaults were informed by a militant spirit (indeed, Richard Pinhas was at the barricades in Paris during the student uprising of 1968) that pervaded atmospheric records like Électronique Guerrilla and Agneta Nilsson. All of this is heavy textural music that transcends literal statement to commune directly with the mind's eye, weaving the fabric of space and time into a stirring sonic tapestry.
Across the Atlantic, the reggae sounds of Jamaica were steeped in a similar expansiveness, most famously in the music of Bob Marley And The Wailers — and later in Peter Tosh's stalwart militant anthems and the spiritual sustenance of Bunny Wailer's recordings — but reaching a sublime peak in Burning Spear's self-titled debut and Junior Byles' immaculate Beat Down Babylon. Songs like Creation Rebel and Beat Down Babylon embody a spirit of perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds, offering visions of a better world in opposition to the surrounding harsh reality.
This path stretches deeper and deeper into the realm of atmosphere as the decade advances. One need look no further than the saga of Declaration Of Rights, a story stretching from The Abyssinians' steadfast original to the depth charging bass of Johnny Clarke's cover version (produced by Bunny Lee and mixed by King Tubby), culminating in the cavernous dub shadows of King Tubby's Declaration Of Dub version. This is music that you feel in your chest when it takes hold. Figures like Tubby and Lee "Scratch" Perry tore up the very fabric of sound in search of new potentials, spooling them out into three dimensions. It's no surprise that King Tubby's studio and Perry's Black Ark often invite comparisons to sonic laboratories or starships.
A record like Dadawah's sprawling Peace And Love used the techniques of dub to create a heady psychedelic trip steeped in Rastafari, spread across four extended grooves, while Fred Locks's roots-informed Black Star Liner (a reference to Marcus Garvey's historic Black Star Line) reveled in dense imagery, with the dread vibes of Walls evoking the plight of the concrete jungle.
On a similar tip, Prince Far I's Heavy Manners chronicled life under marshal law in the run up to Jamaica's national elections. This is a list that could go on and on, from Max Romeo's War Ina Babylon to the Mighty Diamonds' Right Time, all of it contributing to a rich legacy of righteous protest and sonic exploration.
It's a legacy that sets up the next leg of our journey: at the cusp of 1977, that year when two sevens would clash, and everything would change...
Space. The vastness of which we cannot even begin to comprehend. The crew of the Apollo 13 mission traveled farther into it than any human ever has — 248,655 miles — during their improvised orbit of the moon. By way of comparison, the Milky Way galaxy is 100,000 light years across... that's 600,000,000,000,000,000 miles! And then there's the rest of the universe out there... Hubble gives us a deeper view into it, but we're still talking about just the tip of the iceberg.
Outer space has long been a perennial obsession of mine, and one that I've indulged in freely for the first half of 2016. It kept me going for what you might call a transitional period in my life, during which I aimed to get back to the core of what inspired me to get out there and do my thing in the first place. For that stretch, the Parallax Room became a starship with which to survey the outer reaches of the cosmos through the lens of sonic exploration. The objective was to pull together a brace of records from the Parallax stacks that cleave to space as a theme, reveling in it's vastness of possibility.
The initial plan back in January was to compile a list of twenty records and post the results up here within a week, but it quickly grew far beyond those modest parameters. It expanded well past 120 before reason prevailed and I started cutting some of the more peripheral ones (and a few pretty tough calls too), rounding the list down to an even 100. I did manage to keep an alternate listing of all the records that nearly made it, so I might toss those up here at some point as a footnote. At any rate, I'd love to hear from you about any records that you think I may have missed... I'm always up for a brand new sonic excursion!
This list is the culmination of the past six months spent in the outer reaches of deep space. Each of these records is a chapter in the story of music's dalliance with the cosmos, tracing a fascination with the stars through the 20th and beyond. Whatever the current constraints may be with respect to space travel, there's practically no limit to the human imagination. And so, our journey begins, in loose chronological order:
Surely any discussion of music's obsession with space must start with Holst? I grew up hearing this from both my grandfather, who was a classical devotee, and pops himself. Subsequently it was one of the first classical records I ever picked up on. Note also that in 2016 its planetary scope is once again scientifically accurate, as Pluto — which had not yet been discovered when Holst was writing The Planets — is no longer classified as a planet.
Early on, space — and electronic — music were largely the preserve of cinema (see also Bernard Herrmann's use of theremin in The Day The Earth Stood Still). Famously credited as electronic tonalities to circumvent the film industry's music guild regulations, this score had far-reaching implications, in effect cementing the connection between the theme of space and the sounds of electronic music in the public imagination. After all, visions of the final frontier surely must be accompanied by sounds from another world! So strange was the soundtrack in its own time that it wasn't released as a standalone record until the mid-seventies.
Landmark Joe Meek production, inspired by the launch of the Telstar communications satellite in 1962. Using the MO of surf rock as its launching pad, this is in essence the birth of space rock. What is Pink Floyd's Interstellar Overdrive if not a freaked out update of this racing, space-age rock 'n roll? Gleaming possibilities of a radiant future are in evidence throughout (just check the sleeve!).
The Ventures had already covered Telstar on the previous year's The Ventures Play Telstar, but here they stretch the space theme across a whole LP. Containing their own space/surf rock masterpiece Out Of Limits, this record also boasts a cover of The Twilight Zone theme! You can hear the basis of The Plugz' Reel Ten and the whole sci-fi aspect of the Repo Man aesthetic played out here (with Tarantino's later use of Out Of Limits in Pulp Fiction, well it stacks up doesn't it?). I was recently pleased to discover that this was one of my brother Matt's favorite albums of all time.
A Parallax 100 record. Inspired by Coltrane and Shankar in equal measure, this is — as far as I can tell — the birth of acid rock. The absolutely epochal Eight Miles High is the centerpiece, its ominous bass, free fall rhythms and Roger McGuinn's quicksilver guitar solo clearly transmuting those earlier stabs at space rock — coming from the surf — into a wild freeform psychedelia. The Byrds at this point enjoying a reputation as space rockers, and in a contemporary radio interview (featured on the expanded CD reissue of 5D) David Crosby and Roger McGuinn talk at length about extraterrestrial life, hoping that radio transmissions of their songs might be heard by aliens who would ultimately take them up for a ride in their spaceship!
Speaking of Coltrane, this wild posthumous release is something of a sister record to Sun Ship (my absolute favorite free jazz record of all time), taking that record's unfettered percussive drive to it's logical conclusion (Rashied Ali picking up drum duties from Elvin Jones this time out). Both records are brilliant stone tablets of deep space astral jazz. Parts of this could even accompany the deafening silence of the murder scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dr. Frank Poole's tumble into the void of space.
Two extended movements spread across both sides of this pioneering electronic record (the first to sell in serious numbers, in fact). One of Subotnick's great innovations was to build up rhythmic repetition from electronic sounds (which before then had largely been confined to the freeform, abstract context of academia). Think about that for a second: tracing that concept through Kraftwerk and Moroder and up to the present day... well, there's no getting around its centrality to modern music. It's crucial!
Here, Subotnick wrings otherworldly sounds from the Buchla modular synthesizer, with Part 1 largely an excursion through wandering tones while Part 2's mid-section coalesces into a frenetic rhythmic thrust. Everything here thoroughly abstract and alien.
The proverbially good science fiction film.Stanley Kubrick famously used large swathes of modern classical recordings as guide music during the film's production, and then ultimately chose to continue using them in the final cut rather than the original score prepared by Alex North. Perhaps nothing at the time could match the otherworldly sounds of Strauss, Ligeti and Khachaturian, which lend further gravity to a singular, spellbinding film, running the gamut from primate battles on Earth to space stations in orbit and an expedition to the far side of Jupiter (Beyond The Infinite).
Easy-listening orchestra 101 Strings veers off into the strange. After all, it was the sixties! There's no getting around that this one's something of a cash-in on both 2001 and psychedelia, a concession to the heads in an attempt to shift a few extra units. You can see the equations being drawn up: space x psychedelia = hippie $$$! Nevertheless, this contains moments of pure dread like Flameout, those searing strings and proto-hip hop breaks provide a menacing background for demented acid-fried guitar lines to wander freely.
I was surprised to be unable to recall any earlier space-themed exotica operating at the album level. Surely I missed something!? At any rate, this will do.
More sixties electronica with its eyes fixed firmly on the stars. In its deeply rhythmic drive, that synthetic almost-percussion, you can hear pre-echoes of Herbie Hancock's Nobu and beyond. Space colonization, for years on the back burner, has returned to discussion recently with science-fiction films like Interstellar and The Martian. In retrospect, it must have seemed a foregone conclusion in 1969.
If you're talking the cosmos, there's no getting around this bunch who are — in the popular imagination — the premier space rockers. My vote goes to this double-album, the live disc of which takes prime Barrett-era numbers like Astronomy Domine, A Saucerful Of Secrets and Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun into the deep black of space.
The studio disc draws the group as far away from traditional rock forms as they would ever travel, working with textures and treated instruments to stretch the boundaries of their individual compositions into the realm of pure atmosphere.
The standard-bearers of acid rock enter the space race. In truth, they'd dabbled even earlier with Crown Of Creation's Star Track, but this double a-side single takes matters to another level altogether in what might be the band's finest moment. Paul Kantner's Have You Seen The Saucers ties together alien contact, government conspiracy and ecological concerns all in the space three-and-a-half minutes of cinematic high-desert psychedelia.
Kantner ascends further into the cosmos with this concept album that follows a band of counter-culture militants (who bear a striking resemblance to Jefferson Airplane) as they hijack a starship and set course for some distant planet to start a new life on.
Theoretically, this is the first Jefferson Starship tile to drop, but we're still a long way from We Built This City. The core of the record's sound lies in piano led, spaced-out acid folk. There's a blink-and-you-might-miss-it masterpiece in Sunrise, with powerful, bewitching vocals from the inimitable Grace Slick. It bears an uncanny resemblance to the droning guitar soundscapes that Richard Pinhas would later explore in Heldon, and is about as intense a two-minutes as you could ask for.
Before they were arena rockers, this group forged a motorik form of no-frills space rock distilled down to its purest essence. With graphics that had people thinking they were krautrockers, this sleeve always makes me think of the card game Space Age Slap Jack.
Maybe no one remembers this? It featured similarly-styled artwork, evoking a desolate seventies sense of outer space. I had a deck as a kid back in the eighties, and only recently tracked one down again. I'd often dream of launching into the stars aboard some cramped starship, never to see home again. Digital readouts glowing in sharp red and green as the Earth shrinks in the distance.
West Coast space rock. Captain Beyond featured former members of Iron Butterfly, Deep Purple and the Johnny Winter band, who coalesced in early-seventies Los Angeles and hung around through most of the decade (and frequent personnel changes) for a series of three albums. This one is the first, and also the best. Large swathes of the record run together, moving through a series of shifting suites while the band slide between crunchy hard rock and ethereal astral reveries like the shimmering Myopic Void (a cosmic bolero of sorts). One of the great unsung American hard rock LPs, it should be more widely known.
Canterbury prog on the outer space tip, this is the dense, complicated flipside to the West Coast almost-prog of Jefferson Starship and Captain Beyond. Built atop the foundation of Nick Greenwood's throbbing bass and Eric Peachey's zero-gravity breaks, the sound stage is dominated by both Dave Stewart's intricate organ runs and muscular guitar fretwork from the great Steve Hillage. I've often wondered whether Leftfield's Space Shanty had anything to do with this album...
Pure, majestic Indo jazz from Lady Coltrane. This is outer space music, featuring a lush orchestra in freeform orbit, stretching out across a vast widescreen canvas. Containing her mind-blowing, breakbeat-led version of A Love Supreme and the breathtakingly cinematic Galaxy In Satchidananda, this is Coltrane at her absolute peak, locked into the cosmic and moving galaxies. Truly indispensable.
The previous year's Alpha Centauri would also apply, but this one remains my favorite of the early Tangerine Dream records. With four long tracks spread across four sides of a gatefold double-album, these droning soundscapes stretch out and swirl before you in ponderous slow-motion like a vortex in the darkness, as chilling and vast as outer space itself.
Early prog/space instrumental reggae cash-in, this remains worthwhile for its bizarre origins and brazenly unique sonic palette. Bathed in the swampy textures of the Moog synthesizer, it rides a crazed off-kilter skank through a comic book vision of the cosmos. Inspired in part by the television show of the same name, the proceedings slowly devolve into references to Dracula and other denizens of the strange.
Space jazz from the greatest purveyor of the form. Hard to choose just one Sun Ra record, in fact this list could be dominated by appearances from the man — records like The Heliocentric Worlds Of Sun Ra, Cosmos and Strange Celestial Road — but this soundtrack for his sprawling motion picture of the same name fits the most snugly within present company. An extraordinarily bizarre film, it infuses space exploration with Egyptology and more than a hint of seventies conspiracy dread, projecting the spirit of its time onto the stars.
Further adventures in space jazz. This could have been recorded yesterday. The machine loops running through Rain Dance play out like an alien encounter, while Hidden Shadows seems to approximate the feeling of weightlessness. Robert Springett's cover painting, with its lunar surface looming in the fiery night sky, is probably my favorite sleeve of all-time.
Spaced out biker rock. This sprawling double-live set captures the band's wild stage show, featuring elaborate light works, nude dancers and spoken word interludes by Robert Calvert (with passages quoted from the science fantasy author Michael Moorcock), all backed by the band's Dionysian brand of wild space rock. Songs like Time We Left This World Today and Orgone Accumulator emerge from the ether of extended atmospheric interludes, with the full tilt rock 'n roll assault of Master Of The Universe seeming to blast through the stratosphere with a relentless booster-rocket drive.
I took a chance on this one back in the day based on the incredible sleeve, which is actually different from the (equally stunning) original. Another node on the Egypt/space axis, its hieroglyphs set in stark relief against the backdrop of what looks like an interplanetary starship.
The sounds within are equally compelling... strange cargo indeed. You get lost in the deep texture of those rolling electronic sequences while sitars, percussion and acoustic guitars weave throughout. I've always been surprised that this record isn't more widely praised, indeed I've only ever seen the band's earlier Psychonaut garner the occasional mention in krautrock discussions.
Incidentally, I picked this up on the same day as Celestial Ocean (something like twelve/thirteen years ago?). Featuring telepathic interplay between Kosmische luminaries like Klaus Schulze and Manuel Göttsching, this is a headfirst plunge into liquid inner/outer space. I only later discovered that it was the first in a series of five records, famously compiled from source tapes of endless jams without the musicians' knowledge! Still, a perfect record.
More pyramids, this time by way of Central America. There's just no getting around Daevid Allen's gang when discussing space music. Gong started out essentially expanding on Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd's pioneering work in the field, before gradually veering into a sort of spaced out jazz fusion under the tutelage of Pierre Moerlen (ultimately leading to Allen's departure from his own group after this album). You exists at the point of intersection between those two universes of sound, with its freeform jazz-tinged psychedelia illuminated by the liquid guitar figures of Steve Hillage.
Dating back to its origins, fusion had its own fascination with the cosmic (signposted by records like Miles In The Sky and of course Sextant). Fresh from his sessions with Miles Davis and solo debut Spectrum, Billy Cobham cut Crosswinds and Total Eclipse, which were both released in quick succession in 1974. Total Eclipse takes Spectrum's flowing, multi-part jams into ever more fluid territory, with even the most hard rocking rhythms given to a lightness of touch and infused with a low-slung swing.
Plying the same furrow as Billy Cobham, Return To Forever's records are prototypical peak-period fusion. At this point there was a fair bit of crossover, sonically speaking, between jazz and prog (the Canterbury scene, Brand X, etc.). Indeed, intricate fusion outings like The Shadow Of Lo, Vulcan Worlds and Song To The Pharoah Kings bear striking similarities to the likes of Hatfield & The North (and vice versa). A fertile pasture, in other words, even if my absolute favorite tune here is Earth Juice — an undisclosed disco banger!
If space is the word, then there's no getting around P-Funk's galactic escapades. Mothership Connection is the moment when the band's interplanetary agenda truly took center stage: they even took to landing a giant starship on stage each night during their subsequent world tour. The group's transformation from its earlier acid-fried incarnation to a smooth-edged groove machine is finalized here, with Bootsy Collins' basslines hitting their elastic peak and Bernie Worrell's technicolor keyboards taking on a life of their own.
As house producer for Philadelphia International, Dexter Wansel played a crucial role in much of the label's late-seventies output, building on the groundwork that Gamble & Huff laid down during the first half of the decade. In parallel with his production work, Wansel released four solo records that split the difference between smooth Philly soul and jazz fusion.
His debut solo outing, Life On Mars, features solar jazz funk excursions like Theme From The Planets and Rings Of Saturn, in which every texture seems shot through with liquid funk and an otherworldly, synth-heavy glow. The space theme recurs throughout Wansel's work: his 1978 album Voyager — home of the awesome Solutions — even features a landed Voyager probe on it's sleeve with Wansel decked out in a spacesuit on the back!
Only scooped this up relatively recently thanks to a timely reissue by Cleopatra. Chrome's debut came out just before Helios Creed joined the group. His enlistment is widely considered the x-factor that pushed the group into the stratosphere, but to my mind this is still a very worthwhile record, Damon Edge's uncompromising vision already steering the band toward greatness. Occasionally touted as the midpoint between Bay Area acid rock and post punk — shadows of Jefferson Airplane, Santana and even the early Journey records can be felt throughout — there's a raw directness to this material that places it firmly alongside the soon-to-be-active Public Image Ltd. and The Pop Group.
Manuel Göttsching's space music opus. Warm electronic sequences slowly unfurl as he occasionally transmits his shimmering guitar figures deep into the cosmos. The sleeve sometimes makes me think of the towering architecture in the film On The Silver Globe, even if angelic reveries like Sunrain and Deep Distance are light-years away from that film's unremittingly bleak landscapes. Simply beautiful, every home should have a copy.
Isao Tomita performs Holst's The Planets, the space-inspired classical piece seemingly a natural fit for his electronic instrumentation. Tomita's version of Mercury, The Winged Messenger sounds strikingly like some of the The Orb's zanier moments. I remember my mom once checked out a video from the library that had NASA footage edited to accompany this work. It started with jagged, violent cuts for Mars, The Bringer Of War and became all soft and drifty for Neptune, The Mystic. Needless to say, it was right up my alley.
Albedo: The reflecting power of a planet or other non-luminous body. A perfect reflector would have an Albedo of 100%. The Earth's Albedo is 39%, or 0.39.
taken from the liner notes
This proggy slab of electronica matches racing synth sequences with freeform live drumming. Perhaps a touch more minimal than the previous year's Heaven And Hell, you can still hear the basis for his subsequent soundtrack work (Blade Runner, Chariots Of Fire, etc.) in the colossal passages scattered throughout (even if I do tend to prefer its quieter moments).
I owe this one completely to my Uncle James. I remember showing him a song that I was working on back in the day and he asked have you ever heard of Jean-Michel Jarre? A couple months later he gave me the Images compilation. Shortly after, I started buying the albums and digging deeper into seventies electronica. Parts of Oxygene have shown up in quite a few places, for example the surreal desert running scenes in Gallipoli and the radio play for The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy.
Cosmic disco! The following album High On Mad Mountain might go even further off the edge, but this does have the inimitable Moon Trek. Sounding like an unlikely cross between car chase music from a seventies cop show and the original Star Trek theme, it's an unforgettable slice of space age bachelor pad music taken for a walk on the dancefloor. Before seeing Searching For Sugar Man, I'd never known that Mike Theodore co-produced Sixto Rodriguez's classic debut Cold Fact with Dennis Coffey. The interview clips with the both of them came as a pleasant surprise.
Further adventures in cosmic disco. Virtually any of Mandré's records would qualify, but the seventeen-minute ARP odyssey Solar Flight gives this one the edge. Mandré was one Andre Lewis, former session man and synth-wizard who was touted by Motown as a man from outer space and only ever appeared with his face obscured by a futuristic mask (decades before Daft Punk).
Select far-out moments from the salsa legend's seventies recordings rounded up into one cosmic package (the sleeve, another personal favorite, is a dead give away). Cobarde homes in on the same zone of controlled chaos as Coltrane's space jazz excursions, while at the same time making me flash on Carl Craig's jazz outings with Innerzone Orchestra. Chocolate Ice Cream and The Mod Scene are sprawling downbeat jazz fission in league with Miles Davis' seventies sound, and I can't help using the term zero-gravity when describing Condiciones Que Existen's casually funky low-slung breaks.
Gorgeous space-blues. I discovered this through The Music Of Cosmos compilation, the soundtrack to Carl Sagan's documentary mini-series, where the elegiac Fly... Night Bird stood out from the surrounding selections. Roy Buchanan one of the great blues guitarists of the era, his earlier instrumental Sweet Dreams remains a classic rock staple (it even factors into the ending of Martin Scorsese's The Departed). You're Not Alone brings that sound into the realm of jazz-tinged psychedelia, stretching mournful solos across vast pools of atmospheric Rhodes and electronics, with a heavenly version of Neil Young's Down By The River standing as just one particular highlight.
Steve Hillage with the hat trick! I remember picking this one up on the same day as New Age Of Earth. Space music par excellence with Hillage's guitar glissandos arcing over a rolling riverbed of found sound and twinkling ARPs. The famous anecdote around this record has The Orb's Alex Patterson spinning its sounds in the back room at Paul Oakenfold's Land Of Oz club when an unsuspecting Steve Hillage wanders in, resulting in his guest appearance on The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld and further dancefloor excursions as System 7 (whose Sinbad/Quest 12" nearly made this list).
The Human League's follow up to their epochal Being Boiled is a grainy, lo-fi excursion into seventies deep space electronica. The sleeve features a photo of Yuri Gagarin receiving commendations from the Soviet government for completing the first manned mission into space. The record's conceit was that the space program was only made possible by the coal miners beneath the earth providing fuel for the workers in the steel mills who built the rockets that carried Gagarin into space. Hence, The Dignity Of Labour.
As was the case with exotica, I was surprised that I couldn't think of more space-explicit new wave space records. Here's one that fit the bill, featuring Gary Numan's extended storyboard concept — one that he hoped to one day flesh out into a science-fiction novel — built around aliens and robots involved in the control of civilization. Down In The Park even found its way — via a Foo Fighters cover version — onto an X-Files tribute album some years later.
Klytus... I'm bored. What plaything can you offer me today? This is an early one for me. Indeed, I was obsessed with this movie as a kid. So not much has changed... and at the very least it's a whole lot of fun. Essentially a not-totally-serious remake of the science-fiction serial dating back to the 1930's. Perhaps this is where the knowingly camp aesthetic enters the mainstream? Even if there are some incredibly touching moments: Timothy Dalton's heroic turnaround and basically everything involving Topol throughout the second half of the movie.
This is the soundtrack to the film of the same name, famously provided by Queen. Everyone knows the title track, but there are a number of instrumentals throughout that threaten to steal the show: The Kiss Aura Resurrects Flash, Arboria Planet Of The Tree Men and the gorgeous In The Space Capsule The Love Theme — my absolute favorite moment on the record.
Another one given to me by the same uncle behind the Jarre compilation. This is the soundtrack to Carl Sagan's epic mini-series documentary Cosmos, featuring loads of space music from Vangelis along with myriad classical pieces by the likes of Vivaldi, Stravinsky and Shostakovich. Once again, the Roy Buchanan track really caught my attention here, totally unique in this context.
Dennis Bovell's orbital dub symphony. Bovell who started out with storied UK reggae group Matumbi, gradually becomes immersed in the studio itself and drifts into the post punk slipstream, resulting in productions for The Pop Group, The Slits and even Ryuichi Sakamoto. Here he cuts loose under the pseudonym Blackbeard, spinning out otherworldly dub reggae in widescreen. Tunes like Electrocharge and Reflections are on a serious outer rim science-fiction tip.
More interplanetary reggae running parallel to the post punk zeitgeist, this time with Adrian Sherwood behind the mixing board. Sherwood another key figure operating at the axis of dub and post punk, producing the likes of Mark Stewart, Tackhead and Fats Comet alongside projects like New Age Steppers and African Head Charge.
Creation Rebel had a gift for left field dub excursions, and Starship Africa takes them as far out as they would ever travel. Structured as two extended suites, Starship Africa and Space Movement, this is the fluid other to Blackbeard's rock-hard riddims.
Sting's diabolical turn in David Lynch's adaptation of Dune still a few years away at this point. Here, the singular atmosphere of Walking On The Moon gets stretched over an entire LP. Moody and spacious. Perhaps not explicitly space-themed but certainly in thrall to the cosmos, eyes locked firmly onto the stars. The atmosphere here just embodies outer space. Smash hit Invisible Sun creeps in on a bed of tension and just builds, while the closing duo of Secret Journey and Darkness always remind me of Detroit techno in their elegant spaciousness.
Krautrock bleeds into the eighties, best represented by the Innovative Communication and Sky labels. A node in the development of organic electronica, occupying the same interzone between kosmische and new age as Double Fantasy's Universal Ave (another one in the nearly list). Like Cluster, Clara Mondshine generates multi-faceted electronic systems that stretch out and develop into glistening tone poems, quickly taking on a life of their own. Word is that this sounds great at both 33 and 45 RPM...
The young Prince Jammy, still an apprentice of King Tubby and yet to redefine reggae with Sleng Teng and the excellent Computerised Dub, unleashed this technology-infused widescreen dub slate. I think Computerised Dub has the edge on this — only slightly — but it's still a wonderful record in its own right. Electronic drones herald the arrival of almost every track like the gongs in James Brown's Hell, dropping into fathoms deep bass and subterranean production magic that simply refuses to let up. One of the great night drive records.
Not Cowley's greatest work, but the outer space visual/sonic stylings place this firmly into orbit. That sleeve is as good a thumbnail as any for the whole rolling over vector landscapes trip that I'm forever alluding to. Playing a crucial role in the development of hyperdrive West Coast disco, San Francisco man Cowley cut his teeth producing Sylvester's You Make Me Feel Mighty Real and turned out a monster remix of Donna Summer's I Feel Love: computer disco madness of the highest caliber.
Cowley's gotten the Arthur Russell treatment lately, with lavish reissues of unreleased material such as School Daze and Muscle Up hitting the shelves over the last few years. Great to see this brilliant lo-fi mechanoid funk finally find its way onto the world's turntables.
One of the original albums in my collection, and basically the only reason I was able to get through calculus in college. This music was originally created by Eno and co. to accompany a documentary on the Apollo missions. The first side is dominated by plaintive, melancholy ambient while the second brings in Daniel Lanois' pedal-steel to lighten the atmosphere with some interstellar country-western guitar moves. This must, I think, be understood as the basis of the atmospheric end of Eno's production work with U2 (The Unforgettable Fire's 4th Of July is cut from the same cloth as this album). The opening Understars is one of the great ambient tracks, a perfect distillation of the form.
Electro as a musical genre as often as not kept space in its sights, and is likely the point where seventies cosmic jazz and soul crossed into the carnal climate of the eighties mainstream. The Jonzun Crew dressed in elaborate stage costumes, clearly inspired by Parliament, Earth, Wind & Fire and other large funk groups of the previous decade. They even thank Sun Ra in the liner notes and have a track of their own called Space Is The Place. Operating at the axis of space and the nascent video game explosion, this music extrapolated a totally new sound and vision out of those twin constituent elements. See also Planet Patrol.
More electro with an interplanetary agenda, exemplified by the monster title track. This the follow up to the group's epochal Jam On Revenge, expanding that record's smooth grooves even further into widescreen. Newcleus' secret weapon lie in fleshing out electro's skeletal drum machine framework with an array of lush pads and atmospherics, the end result an exercise in rolling digital funk. The cycling tronix of Teknology and Make It Live embody this mesmerizing, immersive sound. Check out that winning sleeve art too (by Bob Camp, who was later involved in The Ren & Stimpy Show), which recalls Pedro Bell's awesome illustrations for Funkadelic.
Bonus beat! There was never an actual soundtrack released for this film. Still, there's no getting around it. You really want Another Part Of Me playing whenever you leave a planet. This perfectly captures the optimism of mainstream science-fiction in the post-Star Wars era. My heart fell when Disney replaced this with the abysmal Honey, We Shrunk The Audience back in the nineties. Thankfully, they brought EO back after Michael Jackson's untimely passing. Back in the day, I remember seeing a special on TV — featuring Whoopi Goldberg — about the making of this short film. Disney should issue Captain EO — with that featurette included — on DVD. Somebody make it happen!
The original deep space electro crew didn't get the LP treatment until well after the electro boom had already started to wane (with Run-DMC in full swing and N.W.A. just around the corner). However, this rounds everything up into one extraterrestrial package (including the original versions of Planet Rock and Looking For The Perfect Beat). An essential document and the final word in interplanetary electro.
The angelic other in eighties indie rock, A.R. Kane made unclassifiable alien dreamtime music that seemed to prefigure shoegaze along with myriad other forms to come. I nearly included records by Loop and Spacemen 3 here as well, but — as great as they are — perhaps their interstellar aims weren't quite explicit enough for this particular list.
A.R. Kane, on the other hand, seemed locked into the same galactic frequency as Sun Ra... and nowhere more than on the extended double-LP "I". A Love From Outer Space is one of the great pop songs of its era, pairing machine rhythms with guitar feedback in a glorious free fall love song.
Since they both served as conduits of eighties post punk resolve into the next decade's dance explosion, it's rather appropriate that this one-off collaboration between The Orb's Alex Paterson and Jimmy Cauty of The KLF takes us into the nineties. This deep space ambient music, forming a loose trilogy with The Orb's Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld and The KLF's Chill Out, feels like tumbling into a wormhole (its acid-fried cut up sleeve is the first clue).
Picking up where Space left off, O'locco features Sun Electric's timely elongating of Larry Heard's deep house template into what came to be known as ambient house. The Kama Sutra and Space Therapy versions showcase the German group's original vision, while the four parts of the Orbital Therapy version (remixed by The Orb) stretch things out even further. Initially released on Paterson's WAU! Mr. Modo label, it later cropped up on R&S, with Sun Electric ultimately hooking up with the label's ambient subsidiary Apollo for a handful of excellent albums.
Dr. Alex Paterson's sprawling double-LP ambient house stone tablet. One of those records you can just throw on and get lost in. Everyone knows the album-opener Little Fluffy Clouds, which offers a preview of things to follow: the nomadic breaks of Outlands and Earth Gaia, Into The Fourth Dimension's resolute proto-trance drive, the endless live mix of A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld, Perpetual Dawn's pulsing dub moves, Supernova At The End Of The Universe's twisting downbeat crawl and of course the sprawling ambient soundscapes of Back Side Of The Moon, Spanish Castles In Space and Star 6 & 7 8 9.
Another chapter in the ambient house story, this time coming from inside the Arctic Circle. Geir Jenssen — who went on to release a whole brace of classic ambient albums like Cirque and Substrata — hosted a radio show called Bleep Culture in his hometown of Tromsø, Norway, during which he spun a mix of ambient and techno, punctuated by what he called small astronomy lectures.1Microgravity clearly draws inspiration from those transmissions, with moody techno cuts like Baby Interphase and Chromosphere flowing smoothly into the sublime ambient drift of Cloudwalker II and Biosphere. The title track even samples David Gulpilil's he know the moon, he know the stars, and he know the milky way dialogue from the NASA-themed film The Right Stuff.
Detroit's Underground Resistance may have always had an ear to the street, but that only meant that the other one was pointed upward to the stars. Think Arecibo. The Final Frontier is a celestial cruise over rolling electro rhythms, with a phantom 303 acid line drifting in and out of the mix like a comet trail: a clear spiritual ancestor to the Red Planet records. This becomes even more explicit with Entering Quadrant Five, its hyperdrive fractal sequences spiraling over another tough electro backbeat — prefiguring some of The Martian's most g-force inducing flights of fancy — while Base Camp Alpha 808 is a spacious, percussive tumble through the sleeve imagery of Herbie Hancock's Sextant.
I've always been unclear whether this record is self-titled or credited to Deep Space Network. Well, I still file it with the rest of Jonas Grossmann and David Moufang's output, so let's stick with that for the time being. This the first of their utterly unique freeform sonic excursions — records which were quietly released on their own Source imprint — and it might just be the greatest ambient house full-length of them all, sounding like field recordings transmitted from light-years away. A song like Morphic Fields, with such timeless beauty in its endless, gentle drift, deserves to be more widely heard.
Monstrous Dutch hardcore shearing into proto-gabber territory. Observing The Earth canes the hoover sound into submission, thrashing about the room like a demented xenomorph, while Starship To Venus rewinds stop-start bleeps over a relentless hammer-blow kick drum. The flipside rivals the first, with Passion and Like This threading renegade breakbeats through their pounding rhythm matrix. Strangely enough, I bought my copy from Jon Bishop a few years back amidst a whole stack of hardcore records. So thanks to a true OG for introducing me to this tile in the first place.
Another UR-related release, produced by the trio of Jeff Mills, Mad Mike and Robert Hood. Each track is named for one the rings or moons orbiting Saturn (plus one representing the planet itself), with the length of each corresponding to its size and distance from the others.2Hyperion and Groundzero The Planet recall earlier hardcore excursions like The Punisher and Sonic Destroyer, while you can feel the genesis of Hood and Mills' brand of minimal techno in the driving repetition of Enceladus and Titan. Impressionistic interludes like Tethys and A-Ring add considerably to the record's visionary depth, while the cinematic scope of Mimas marks it out as a particularly spellbinding moment.
This crucial compilation rounds up music from some of the earliest releases on Carl Craig's Planet E imprint, with a strong European showing thanks to incursions from Steffan Robbers' Eevo Lute and Kirk Degiorgio's ART labels on two separate EPs released by Craig during the preceding year. Plaid weigh in with the introspective machine music of Balil's Nort Route, while Steffan Robbers checks in with the gorgeous celestial reverie of Florence's A Touch Of Heaven. Carl Craig provides nearly half of the material here, with entries from 69's 4 Jazz Funk Classics, the awesome Free Your Mind by Piece and a surprise exclusive in the shape of Shop's most excellent Nitwit. Interestingly, both Terminator 2 and Alien 3 are listed in the liner notes as inspirations.
Named for an episode of the original Star Trek, this is Kenny Larkin's first record after leaving Plus 8. The centerpiece is War Of The Worlds (which also featured on the Intergalactic Beats compilation), an epic slice of cinematic deep space techno, its siren synths arcing over a pulsing Moroder-esque rhythm. I've always loved the sleeve illustration by Abdul Haqq, the brilliant Detroit artist behind Third Earth Visual Arts, who's also responsible for Intergalactic Beats' iconic sleeve art (right up there with Sextant as far as I'm concerned).
Deep space trip from the ardkore auteur. Absolutely brilliant arrangement of sound, with fast-forward breaks spooling out beneath a ravishing string section, all punctuated by a bionic diva wailing into the abyss. See also parts two and three (aka the Kaleidoscopiklimax), for further chapters in this exquisite lunar saga. Part two even features an incredible snatch of Nancy Sinatra's theme to the James Bond film You Only Live Twice.
Possibly the finest moment from this ragged bunch of techno renegades, riding a lengthy sample of Max Romeo's I Chase The Devil before tripping back into drum and bass. The music video,3 an exercise in amateurish charm multiplied by boundless optimism (this is light-years away from the big budget polish of Fat Of The Land), is among my all-time favorites.
Miami bass stalwarts Dynamix II kept electro's fires lit well into the nineties, when a new wave of producers like Drexciya and The Octagon Man would seize the torch and run with it. A concept record of sorts, Bass Planet takes the supercharged man-machine rhythms of the duos earlier records into deep orbit, exemplified by the soaring brilliance of a track like Machine Planet.
You simply can't overstate the importance of outer space when discussing a crew like UR. This the third in a series of records — starting with Nation 2 Nation and followed by World 2 World — that find the group delving deep into corridors of dance-inflected space jazz. I say group but everything here (with the exception of guest spots featuring Juan Atkins and The Martian) is credited to Mad Mike. He seems to draw here on his roots as a live session musician back in the eighties (playing with groups like Parliament/Funkadelic), in a back-to-the-future gesture that would culminate in The Turning Point EP four years later.
Both versions of Hi-Tech Jazz pick up where Herbie Hancock and Eddie Russ left off, while Star Sailing follows the template of blissed-out jazz funk that UR laid out in earlier tracks like Body And Soul and Jupiter Jazz. There's also moments of fierce beauty, the most striking of which is Journey Of The Dragons. The magic lies in its graceful inevitability: those racing sequences punctuated by jabs from a razor-edged string section, a descending bassline and rolling 808 beats that wait two minutes to fully drop. It all simply unfolds. Meanwhile, Deep Space 9 A Brother Runs This Ship continues the bubbling undercurrent of Detroit's fascination with Star Trek — this time by way of Benjamin Sisko's Deep Space Nine.
The Martian's records are cut from the same cloth as UR's, so much so that many at the time theorized that he was actually someone from that crew operating under a cloak of anonymity (I remember Mad Mike's name getting tossed around quite a bit). It turns out that The Martian was very much his own man, laboring in isolation to arrive at a wholly unique shade of sound. Visual Contact and the title track trade in wild trancelike shapes (see also the earlier Stardancer), while Red Atmospheres and Search Your Feelings (featuring Model 500) are inspiring excursions into pure techno soul. Red Planet definitely a connoisseurs label: before long you'll find yourself tracking down every last record.
Tom Middleton and Mark Pritchard's debut full-length outing as Global Communication, this is often considered a dress rehearsal for their widely feted 76:14. It's actually an extended reworking of Chapterhouse's Blood Music, spun out into ethereal ambient mode, and stands as a great record in its own right. Marathon running times abound, with proto-Boards Of Canada beats and ghosts of an indie rock band slipping in and out of the soundscape.
Basic Channel's haunting remix of Vainquer's Lyot masterfully evokes the Martian crater of the same name. An edit made it onto the BCD compilation a few years later, but the twelve-minute original — stretching across a whole side of vinyl — really allows the track to breathe life into an immersive environment all it's own. With those gamma ray synths unfurling in graceful slow-motion, BC's dub chamber habitats remain the perfect metaphor for the deep black of space.
Octave One here also perfectly evoking outer space, only this time from within the cramped confines of an orbital space station. The opening Dema offers a precise, clear cut illustration of the group's compact electronic funk. Further references to Star Trek from a Detroit crew — this time on a Next Generation tip — are everywhere, from Farpoint's spooky garage shuffle to the technoid house of Dominion, and my absolute favorite the freaked out analogue funk of The Neutral Zone.
I know next to nothing about this record, which I bought on sight in the elysian fields of the El CajonMusic Trader (circa 2001). It's a longform ambient work seemingly inspired by the SETI program's search for extraterrestrial life. There's the occasional rhythmic flourish but mostly it's a marathon excursion into atmospheric drift. Nice.
Dego and Marc Mac split the atom, beaming 60's/70's astral jazz into the future and back again, splicing the results with their absolute mastery of breakbeat science. At it's most twisted, tracks like Wrinkles In Time and Sounds From The Black Hole posit an entirely new rhythmic vernacular, while the calmer moments — such as Sunspots and Power To Move The Stars — conjure up images of some utopian orbital cloud city. As I've noted before, it's one of my favorite records ever.
Picking up where the previous year's Sonic Sunset left off, Juan Atkins' greatest full-length continues unabated in its pursuit of the celestial. Over half of the record was engineered by Basic Channel's Moritz Von Oswald, with pristine sonics in evidence throughout, ranging from the drum 'n bass moves of Astralwerks to the deconstructed machine funk of Last Transport To Alpha Centauri. His influence can be particularly felt in the dubbed-out minimal techno of Starlight and Lightspeed, and you even get a version of Sonic Sunset's marathon vocal deep house excursion I Wanna Be There, edited down from the nearly twenty-minute running time of the original.
Then there's The Flow, a shot of machine soul right smack in the middle of the record that I swear sounds exactly like the blueprint for Timbaland and The Neptunes' sonic adventures just around the corner. Blink and it could almost be a Kelis song. I've often wondered whether they heard this record back in '95...
The first full-length from Luke Slater's minimal side-project pulls together a brace of early material from his ongoing Planetary Funk series of EPs and combines them with four new exclusives. The sleeve a perfect illustration of the grooves found within, with this hard as nails, motorik techno perfectly capturing the spirit of interplanetary travel — or warfare.
Ben Long and Bandulu's Jamie Bissmire get down with their first outing as the Space DJz, trading in both hard techno and tough electro jams throughout its twenty-eight minutes. Perhaps I could have picked their 1999 album On Patrol!, but Celestial Funk — a rough and tumble slab of streetwise electro (and by my estimation the duo's finest moment) — just edges it out for this spot. The three-second refrain sums up its loose, off the cuff charm: Set you free, set you free, set you free!
Sheffield duo's finest moment, standing astride the twin pillars of their idiosyncratic sound: dub and ambient electronica. Our Earth Big, Isn't It is a cinematic downbeat trip through the subway while riding a colossal slow-motion break, whereas Mr. Echo Go To Hell is a peaceful weightless drift through bucolic ambient soundscapes.
There were loads of great records on Apollo, the ambient subsidiary of R&S, indeed the Apollo Compilation — a round-up of tracks from various early releases on the label (including Love Craft's awesome Intelligent Univers) — can be chalked up as another record in the "nearly" list.
Brittle, spangly electronica from Denmark. Think The Black Dog circa Spanners. Every sound, every texture seems to have the timbre of reverberating metal — tempting visions of exotic instrumentation fashioned from wafer-thin sheets of chrome and copper — and all arranged with a breathtakingly nimble touch. Strangely enough, there's even a couple abstract hip hop incursions featuring an MC Panasonique, who I know next to nothing about and may have only surfaced on this album before vanishing forever.
Spectral drum 'n bass with one foot still in the jungle, this is Photek's paean to the stars. U.F.O. is a claustrophobic sprint through shadowy, paranoid corridors, predicting the atmosphere of his excellent debut full-length Modus Operandi by a couple years. The flipside includes the dreamy landscapes of Rings Around Saturn, with it's strange bird calls and crisp, nimble breakbeats — ghostly strings and a Rhodes pulsing throughout — taking you deep into cosmic jazz territory.
The follow up to Heard's pair of Sceneries Not Songs records, Alien is cut from the same cloth: spacious, jazzed-out dynamics in play, operating in downbeat mode as often as the deep house bedrock where his roots lie (even slipping into spells of beatless atmosphere from time to time).
Heard seems to be refracting the ambient house excursions of Sun Electric and The Orb back across the Atlantic, just as they had done with his initial deep house template years ago. Consequently, the dazzling digital disco of The Dance Of Planet X squares the introspective ambience of his contemporary material with his landmark eighties recordings as Mr. Fingers (see Can You Feel It, Beyond The Clouds and Stars for just a few examples).
Spooky, razor-edged drum 'n bass. Moving into the late nineties, this is one of the finest tracks of its era. The Planets begins with nearly a minute of beatless atmosphere before its metallic breakbeat comes crashing in, literally chopping through the track, when suddenly the tune drifts back out into pure ambience.
Crumbling astral bodies seem to throb in the distance before slowly being drawn into something resembling a bassline — through sheer centrifugal force of will — and Dom's breakbeat science comes crashing back into the mix. Wraithlike synths seem to shimmer ominously, permeating every corner of the soundscape, while eerie sounds pitched somewhere between gale wind and guttural moan rise out of the darkness. It is very cold in space.
New York illbient and the flipside of breakbeat science. This four track EP features That Subliminal Kid scratching galaxies (to borrow a phrase from the Death Comet Crew) into oblivion, sliding across the surface of a planetarium like the cave paintings of Altamira set in motion. The title track, with its wild phased Clavinet breakdown, is the highlight here, but also check the beatless string-laden deluge of The Vengeance Of Galaxy 5, which sounds like field recordings of a distant cataclysm at the edge of space recovered from some ancient battered probe.
Southern rap. From before they were a household name. Simon Reynolds once called Elevators Me & YouSun Ra-gone-hip hop. When you're confronted with its eerie smeared organ drift, dubbed-out snare clicks and a hauntingly chanted chorus, well it's pretty hard to argue. You've also got the title track, a masterfully arranged mini-epic that rides a nagging bassline, shining synths and a light-speed-to-infinity filtered vocal snatch — linked with an infectious sing-along chorus — into the Martian sunset.
One of the pivotal moments in my musical life was receiving this mix — as a gift — just after it dropped, opening the doors to Detroit techno and beyond. The first thing you notice is that marathon intro, with DJ Minx announcing you're in deep space over far-out sonics that recall Hendrix's ... And The Gods Made Love, before Kevin "Master Reese" Saunderson backspins into the tribal fury of Bango's Ritual Beating System (Stacey Pullen's absorbing rumination on Olatunji's Drums Of Passion).
The transmission continues through tracks by Detroit figures like Octave One, Carl Craig and Sean Deason, amazing jazzed-out house by Deep Dish (under the banner Chocolate City), Outlander's epochal slab of Belgian hardcore The Vamp (remixed by none other than Master Reese himself), myriad tracks from the Netherlands' Dobre & Jamez and even both sides of a contemporary E-Dancer 12". The wide-open sonics in E-Dancer's World Of Deep perfectly encapsulate everything this mix — and indeed great dance music — is all about.
We found her on one of our voyages to the fourth sector, intones Pharrell in the intro, and from then on The Neptunes provide Kelis with loads of brilliant alien soundscapes to cut loose in. The retro-70's strains of Mars (those synths!) recall Stevie Wonder at his most cosmic, while Roller Rink's astral funk has Kelis asking Have you ever thought there might be something out there? Far out, way out, while Pharrell is delivering their firstborn on a NASA space shuttle. Casual references to space are scattered throughout, and Kelis herself shines as an utterly unique (alien?) presence. Rather appropriately, The Neptunes later called their label Star Trak Entertainment.
Spectral r&b. In spirit at least, it's like SA-RA before SA-RA: space capsule music (think One Way's Don't Stop) unfurling out into the stars... this is pure machine soul. Every texture so delicate, and Steve Spacek's voice so fragile, the whole record seems to simply glide by in a mist. How Do I Move, with it's technoid pulses cycling and drifting through the soundscape, seems aware of its own ethereal properties. Sex In Zero Gravity.
The first Gorillaz album gets dubbed out, stretched out and spaced out by the Spacemonkeyz. Possibly even better than the original album, especially for those after a deep sonic fix. Damon Albarn continues on the road to becoming a worldly man (see also Mali Music), with Blur beginning to wind down as a full-time concern. The mood here seems to recall The Special AKA and Ghost Town, that same spectral and spacious sense of dub run through pop's kaleidoscopic fun house. If you listen closely, you can hear the roots for The Good, The Bad & The Queen beginning to take shape...
Exquisite space music on Jeff Mills' Tomorrow label. The liner notes contain extended quotes from 2010 and Kodwo Eshun, while the sounds within bring to mind the solemnity of hard science-fiction. Following the journey of a probe to the titular sixth moon of Jupiter, the album moves through ethereal ambient excursions like Long Journey Of Spacecraft and Views From The Surface into the stark orchestral shades of Reaching The Subsurface Ocean.
Tracks like Drilling Through The Ice and Crash Landing Of Probe jut from the record's calm surface with pure noise to punctuate their titular events, while the atmospheric Sinking Slowly Through The Ice captures an all-encompassing sense of wonder and dread. Descent Towards The Discovery Of Life draws all of these strands together, closing out this deeply special record on a majestic note, it's austere splendor bringing to mind first side of Eno's Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks.
Breathtakingly romantic zero-gravity soul. My absolute favorite record of NdegéOcello's, there's a strong reggaematic current running through most the rhythms here. Liliquoi Moon and Andromeda & The Milky Way mark this out as a space record, shot through with an otherworldly glide and drawing on a deep palette of sound.
There's this one particular synth sound that colors large swathes of the album and makes me flash on Detroit in its magnetic pull. You hear it in the climax of a song like Love Song #3, with its shades of Hendrix circa 1983... A Merman I Should Turn To Be, and the result is almost overwhelmingly powerful. Then there's the blissed out Gaussian blurred flow of Come Smoke My Herb — quite simply a perfect pop song — drifting through space on a solar wind.
Three-part-harmony-inflected digital disco. Polar arranged the string section on the revered Metro Area records, and accordingly, this came out on Morgan Geist's Environ imprint. The sleeve's Pillars Of Creation photograph is a dead give away, but the spangly textures and crisp sense of space in songs like Here In The Night and Black Hole betray this tile's cosmic intent. The awesome Matter Into Energy, my favorite moment here, eschews beats altogether in favor of a sumptuous free fall reverie.
As I've said before, I love SA-RA, and the Cosmic Dust/Cosmic Lust double-shot is the crew's finest front-to-back moment. Machine soul in a space capsule stylee, SA-RA perfected a sound that stretches back to the days of Kleeer and Mtume, imbuing it with all the energy of rave and hip hop from the ensuing years. The implicit outer space sonics of those groups is made explicit here (and how!). Their consistently evocative sleeves are a perfect illustration of the spacious sounds found within.
Freaked-out space rock from Japan. At times this recalls Amon Düül II, in not only the acid-folk sprawl of Buy The Moon Of Jupiter and Interplanetary Love, but especially the extended nearly thirty-minute sonic mayhem of The Tales Of Solar Sail - Dark Stars In The Dazzling Sky. You couldn't make this stuff up!
This one caught me totally off guard at the time, a rap/r&b record that seemed to share a similar spirit with the music of A.R. Kane and Tears For Fears circa The Hurting. Sure, 808s & Heartbreaks might have hinted in the direction of this new wave-inflected r&b, but the Kid ploughs a much deeper furrow.
My World is just one of many mini-epics that seem to draw on Tangerine Dream's soundtrack work as much as the aforementioned new wave and machine soul. The Detroit-inflected techno of Enter Galactic Love Connection Part 1 (think Juan Atkins in Infiniti mode) and the awesome resolute crawl of Alive Nightmare — the synths and guitar shapes of which make me flash on Eno's Another Green World — map out a broad vision of outer/inner space music.
The Wizard has turned his mind to celestial matters on more than one occasion (see X-102 Discovers The Rings Of Saturn, Jupiter Jazz and One Man Spaceship for just a few examples), but this relatively recent one seemed to be a culmination of those obsessions. The subtle inflections of this broad, filmic music sometimes bring to mind his incredible soundtrack for Metropolis.4 A master stroke.
Largely ambient LP from revered Detroit DJ Claude Young. His production career has often seemed strangely underrated by the cognoscenti, but the man has built up a serious discography over the years, growing more and more abstract over the course of time. Celestial Bodies trades in similar forms of austere, immersive ambience as Mitch Walcott and Jeff Mills, and tracks like Messier 86 NGC 4406 and Observing The Kuiper Belt bear striking shades of atmospheric depth and splendor. However, there's still a bit of tough machine funk tucked away in Hawking Radiation, harking back to the muscular, abstract techno of Young's past.
Cosmic jazz on the Sun Ra big band tip. Washington contributed to the jazz foundation of Kendrick Lamar's excellent To Pimp A Butterfly, and here he stretches out over three discs with an ambitious song cycle that recalls the wide-open sides of figures like Charles Mingus, Pharoah Sanders and of course Sun Ra on Impulse! during the glory days of astral jazz. Incredibly dense and daring, this record stands on its own as an adventurous, extended slab of visionary modern jazz.
L.A.'s Damon Riddick expands on the spaced-out currents found in his earlier work with a sprawling g-funk blast that comes on like an intergalactic broadcast picked up on some strange nocturnal frequency. The record is bracketed by two transmissions from Junie Morrison that bring to mind the extended conceptual works of Parliament/Funkadelic, and accordingly, the scale here seems larger than it ever has before on a Dâm-Funk record. Where his earlier tiles like Burgundy City and Toeachizown were intimate, largely solo affairs, this album ropes in an extended cast ranging from hip hop icons like Snoop Dogg and Q-Tip to old school veterans like Jody Watley and Leon Sylvers, and even alternative rockers like Ariel Pink and Flea!
Still, the remit is very much on the electronic funk tip, and tracks like Missing U and The Hunt & Murder Of Lucifer continue to develop Riddick's singular take on machine soul. Similarly, uptempo excursions Floating On Air and O.B.E. (which brings to mind The Orb's track of nearly the same name) advance this fascinating side of the man's music that feels like his own distinctly original take on techno, as if arrived upon via a totally different set of circumstances (Arabian Prince and The Egyptian Lover being two of the most obvious touchstones) but still rocking a righteous mash up of Kraftwerk and George Clinton. Seeing him perform at The Casbah with a live band (on the night of this record's release, as a matter of fact) was a real treat, and without a doubt one of the greatest shows I've ever had the pleasure to witness.
Ethereal space rock from last year by one of the original architects of Hawkwind (its sleeve a play on that band's X In Search Of Space). This largely instrumental, free-wandering excursion at times recalls early Ozric Tentacles. Featuring another extended cast working together in the studio, this ties together whole strands of the space rock community with appearances from Gong's Gilli Smyth and Steve Hillage (yet again!), Amon Düül II's John Weinzierl, Brainticket's Joel Vandroogenbroeck and even Robbie Krieger of The Doors, plus fusioneers like Billy Cobham and Soft Machine's John Etheridge, not to mention wild card appearances by Nick Garratt of punk band UK Subs and Die Krupps' industrial architect Jürgen Engler!
Bowie's final album-length statement, teeming with loose and free-flowing jazz inflections. It's been compared to late-period Scott Walker in its inscrutable mood and abstract shapes, but is very much a culmination of everything he's been up to for the last twenty-odd years.
Inspired in part by the freewheeling spirit of Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly5, Blackstar finds Bowie collaborating one last time with the indomitable Tony Visconti on a sequence of seven songs that swoop and shudder within a lush, three-dimensional soundscape. The record cycles gracefully between disparate modes, from the downbeat crawl of Lazarus and Dollar Days to the gliding rhythms of lead single 'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore. Those hyper-syncopated, rolling beats on Sue Or In A Season Of Crime even touch on the jungle-inflected corridors of 1997's Earthling, an album that's remained close to my heart as very my first Bowie record. The gorgeous, album-closing I Can't Give Everything Away plays like a touching goodbye letter to the world.
Blackstar is utterly magnificent, a strange and sublime masterpiece. As the record that inspired this wide and wonderful trip in the first place, it serves as a fitting conclusion to our journey. Ventures to the vast beyond, in the end, take us back home to our tiny blue planet — spinning lonely in the cosmos — and all the sonic treasures held within.
A week ago today, Prince passed away, leaving a massive hole in the musical landscape. This was man whose songwriting and innovation fueled decades of popular music right up to the present day. Gone, unexpectedly and without expectation or warning, in a year that's already taken too many of the great ones from us. I meant to write something sooner but the words wouldn't come. All I could do was get lost in his music again, this treasure that he'd left behind. And that took me back to the beginning, my beginning anyway, when I first truly heard him.
I came to Prince initially through my love of Detroit techno. His name seemed to surface all the time as I ventured further down that rabbit hole, celebrated by figures like Carl Craig and Kevin Saunderson, spun by Jeff Mills in his salad days as The Wizard and even rubbing shoulders on air with The Electrifying Mojo. It quickly became clear that this was an innovator who embodied the restless creative spirit of the times and — perhaps more than anyone else — loomed large over the era.
Around this time, in a rare bit of synchronicity, a radio station called Magic 92.5 arose from the ashes of The Flash, firing on all cylinders in those days with a steady dose of soul, funk and disco. Needless to say, Prince's music was in heavy rotation, and it wouldn't be surprising to hear Delirious, When Doves Cry and Kiss over the course of any given day.
I got to hear the 1999 and Purple Rain LPs in their entirety while staying at a hip aunt and uncle's (she was a hardcore Prince fan), hearing how the songs I already knew slotted into the context of his album-length statements. It was a small step from there to picking up Dirty Mind, the first of many records in my journey forward and back again through the man's music... there's a whole world in there to explore.
A particular strain of Prince's music caught my imagination immediately: moody, half-lit in neon, mist hanging over twilight city streets... at once cinematic and intimate, it was intoxicating to say the least. A song like Something In The Water Does Not Compute embodies it, with that cavern-deep synth and descending bleeps cascading over a stop-start drum machine matrix, computer blue waves of sound rising to crash into great crescendos of pure soul. And at the center of it all, a prince of dreams standing in the shadows of love, screaming to the heavens.
The beauty of it all was that you couldn't put him in a box: once you thought you had him figured out, he'd bolt into left field on you. His music seemed to transcend boundary at every turn. From the the rolling electrofunk pulse of Erotic City to the lithe glam-metal crunch of Bambi, from the new wave rush of When You Were Mine to the surreal dreamscape of If I Was Your Girlfriend, from the gorgeous paisley pop of Starfish And Coffee to the breathtaking widescreen majesty of Purple Rain, the restless spirit of an innovator could not be contained.
Indeed in later years, he continued to stretch out further and further, with smoldering epics like Family Name and the sprawling, gloriously freaky instrumental jazz fusion of the N.E.W.S. LP, even delving into hardcore techno with the blistering groove of Loose!. A haunting song called Colonized Mind found him channeling Electric Ladyland, while the stripped down groove Black Sweat proved that when he wanted to, the man could still get down and dirty on the funk tip.
Ah yes, funk. Don't think I was going to forget! Was there a greater purveyor of the form on the heels of James Brown and George Clinton? From the start, with the bedroom funk of Soft And Wet and Lady Cab Driver's careening, extended groove, gliding sideways across shimmering rain-slicked streets, the man had a nimble touch on the one that was unparalleled.
He delved even further into hard machine funk with Housequake and Shockadelica, laying the blueprint for decades of dancefloor burners in the process, while the sprawling twenty-minute 12" version of America is a madhouse romp through the warped corridors of eighties dancefloor funk, its blazing arcs of guitar psychedelia showcasing Prince's total mastery of the instrument.
His musicality was the stuff of legend. This was man who loved music and that love could be felt in every note he played. He seemed to sneak as much joy and lust for life as he could into every corner of each and every song. A song like Alphabet St. is a testament to that. He'd toss in another guitar filigree, a rhythm change up or that extra bit of synth flourish, almost like he was getting away with something... at times, you could practically see him wink before going off on another variation. And for just a moment, you felt like you were in on it too.
There's always been great comfort in knowing the man was up there in Paisley Park, still doing it as only he could. New music would come splashing out from time to time — sometimes out of the blue, with little fanfare — or he'd pop up at such and such an appearance — Super Bowl XLI, for one — always strange and beautiful. Rarely a week has gone by when I didn't dive into one of his records, and that will only continue to be the case in the future. The music remains but the man is gone, and it's gonna be lonely without him.