It's time to talk about Deep Space. An album dropped by Juan Atkins amidst a flurry of activity in 1995, it was released smack in the middle of the nineties and bisecting the decade both literally and metaphorically. Slotting in quite comfortably within the currents of outer space imagery running through techno at the time, from Galaxy 2 Galaxy to 4 Hero's Parallel Universe and the Red Planet EPs, it also predicted the tronik r&b moves and minimalist grooves of the late 90s, sounds that take us right up to the present day. Deep Space remains a fascinating record for the way it blends techno, machine soul, micro-house and jazz inflections into a swirling nebula of sonic possibility.
With Atkins tugging the curtain that conceals tomorrow from all of us, he's invited you to catch a glimpse of tomorrow's music looming just around the bend. This is a 21st century soul record, playing like a star map to the future. To this day, it remains one of those records so singular, so forward-thinking, that it's difficult to assess just where exactly it came from. How did Deep Space happen? To answer that question, where the future came from, one must take a look into the past. A decade in the past, to be precise. So let's set our time circuits back to good old 1985...
It's 1985. Juan Atkins had been a member of Cybotron (alongside Richard Davis aka 3070) for a few years by this point. Cybotron were seminal purveyors of electro operating concurrently with Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force, who released Planet Rock just as Cybotron began unleashing records like Alleys Of Your Mind and Clear upon an unsuspecting public.
Cybotron's sound was a rude, street-level update of Kraftwerk's man-machine music, shot through with dark, psychedelic inflections that felt like a hangover from Funkadelic's early acid-tinged LPs (especially Cosmic Slop). The combination of Planet Rock and Clear (in particular) laid the foundation for the whole electro craze (see also Hashim, Planet Patrol and The Egyptian Lover), a sound that would go on to rule the first half of the 1980s.
The group added guitarist John Housey (aka Jon-5) for the album Enter, which expanded their sound to include a derezzed acid rock dynamic sprawling out in songs like Industrial Lies and the title track. Cosmic Cars rocked a 4/4 rhythm in a way that predicted the rugged, ramshackle techno traxx of 1987, while the digital funk of The Line and El Salvador split the difference between the black new wave of Alleys Of Your Mind and Clear's stripped-down electro punch.
The record also featured the awesome Cosmic Raindance, a skeletal tune built on a nimble rhythm matrix of crisp drum machines and a descending funk bassline, all of which propelled these great spiraling clouds of whining synthesized sound across a stormy digital sky. Ending in a crash of computerized thunder, it set a thrilling template for the elegant, minimalist electro of Drexciya and Elecktroids that would surface about a decade later. Cybotron swiftly followed Enter with the Techno City, at which point Atkins decided to strike out on his own.
This is where we came in. That is, 1985, when Atkins started his own label, Metroplex Records, and released his first solo record: Model 500's No UFO's. The record was a perfect fusion of tightly regimented electronic sequences and raging percussive chaos, boasting a richer, even-more-psychedelic sound than Cybotron. I'll put it this way: if Kraftwerk were James Brown circa Sex Machine and Cybotron were Sly & The Family Stone circa Stand!, then Model 500's No UFO's was Funkadelic circa Maggot Brain. Can you get to that?
The flipside was dominated by the slithering rhythm of Future, which found Atkins pumping electro moves the same way Hendrix played Killing Floor (see also Channel One's Technicolor), which is to say faster, more fluid and with more authority than anyone else around. This is ground zero for that 90s electro sound we all love so much, what with the tighter sound and sharper edges, it laid the blueprint for whole swathes of the scene. Aux 88 were certainly paying attention.
Night Drive (Thru-Babylon) followed, and somehow it managed to be even better. A masterpiece of neon vectors colliding in a phantasmagoria of motorik digital funk, it pierces your consciousness with tumbling bleeps and then just rolls for six minutes. Atkins narrates the nocturnal journey over eerie computer blue sonics, adding claustrophobic Jamie Principle-esque vocal stylings that give the whole trip a shadowy, spectral effect.
This is the first glimmer of what would come to define the Deep Space sound, and as such it kicks off a little potted history we're about to indulge in: a history of Atkins' music within this rarefied terrain. The following four records each outline key developments that would culminate in the Deep Space sessions. Context is key. After all, an investigation into this impulse within Atkins' discography plugs you directly into what is — by my estimation — the purest manifestation of machine soul.
After blazing a singular path through the remainder of the decade with records like Off To Battle, Interference and Other Side Of Life, Atkins rang in the 90s with the Ocean To Ocean EP. Kicking off with two versions of Ocean To Ocean, which played like a smooth-groove summation of everything he'd been up to in the intervening years, it was the flipside that offered a stunning preview of things to come.
Rocking a 4/4 pulse threaded by a resolute string/bass melody inna Off To Battle-stylee, Wanderer played like a stop off at the connecting station for the bullet train trip from 1985 to 2001. I've noted before how this EP was something of a blueprint for the more reflective side of UR's endeavors, and nowhere is that more evident than in Wanderer. It also neatly sets the stage for the final song of the record, its undeniable highlight.
Infoworld starts with a memorable bleep refrain before revving up the 4/4 engine once again. A geometric bass pulse threads the beat matrix while electronic string staccatos seems to fuel the track's propulsion. The sound here defined by a sleek, aerodynamic quality, with a greater emphasis placed on nimble grooves and lush synth atmospherics. Ah yes... those synths! Like Larry Heard and Carl Craig, there's just no mistaking Juan Atkins' synths for anyone else's. As clear an oracle as one could ask for, Infoworld lays out the foundation for the next decade plus of Atkins' journey.
Case in point being this three track EP, Atkins' first engagement with R&S Records — via their ambient subsidiary Apollo — which finds him expanding the sound of Infoworld into sprawling intergalactic shapes. The motorik techno soul of Vessels In Distress finds Atkins in collaboration with Martin Bonds (aka Reel By Real), offering up a Moroder-inflected take on the Motor City sound shot through with shimmering shapes and textures.
Mind Changes features Atkins' dreamy vocals in duet with android intonations over a bouncing, compact house rhythm. With the track's austere 4/4 pulse defined by a sort of ethereal synth architecture, it's of a piece with the proto-micro-house sides that he'd begun circulating under the name Infiniti, records like Flash Flood and Think Quick. All of which would ultimately lead to his collaboration with German duo 3MB (Moritz von Oswald and Thomas Fehlmann) on the awesome Jazz Is The Teacher EP (more on this later).
The title track finds Atkins incorporating crashing breakbeats into his sound, the breaks sparring with his usual 808 dynamics and a chiming bleep matrix in a flowing tide pool of ethereal synth and atmosphere. Apparently the tune got some action at contemporary drum 'n bass sound systems, where it'd be pitched up at a sped-up '45rpm (proto-ambient jungle!). I suppose that does make sense. Above all else, its mode is pure machine soul and a clear indication of the shape of things to come...
Tucked away on Atkins' own Metroplex imprint is this nearly forgotten 12". Whereas much of the Metroplex catalog has been serviced quite well, to the best of my knowledge this has never been reissued. Which is a shame, because this is one of Magic Juan's absolute greatest records. I See The Light is a spectral electro symphony built on a cycling 808 chassis with a staircase bleep pattern and wispy synth figures swaying across its ocean-like refrain. Atkins intones the title's lyrics in a deadpan whisper. It's all veryAux 88.
Of course, the b-side is even better! Pick Up The Flow commences with one of Atkins' trademark sci-fi synth progressions, computer sounds fading into view on a tumbling drum machine rhythm as a rolling bassline unfurls across the length of the track. The whole thing seems to drift by on a cosmic wind, bleeps intoning between the verses as Atkins'
gentle raps ride the rhythm in this gently pulsing astral hymn. Deep Space music, to coin a royal phrase. Stunningly beautiful, it flows quite naturally into our next record, which is the final way station before we reach our destination.
Back on R&S — this time with Basic Channel's Mortiz von Oswald in the engineering booth — Atkins delivers Sonic Sunset, his first extended sequence of solo material. Nominally an EP, with three versions of the title track, it clocks in at nearly an hour. Built on a rapid-fire synth sequence that seems to bounce across the rhythm's surface, Sonic Sunset spans the beatless freeform of the Calm Mix to the Cave Mix's dubbed-out reverb architecture (shades of Basic Channel). The Third Wave Mix, which I suspect to be the original version, is of a piece with Jazz Is The Teacher (those unpredictable rhythms a signpost for tech jazz).
Neptune's iridescent, hall-of-mirrors trip stretches out horizontally across its sprawling twelve minutes, sounding like trance music played at a disco pace. Also comparable to the ambient house moves of The Orb and Sun Electric, it affirms the implicit connection between Detroit, Berlin and London (a figure like Thomas Fehlmann moving freely between the three). The machines here left to spool out into infinity on a vector-plotted course, sounding like nothing so much as a deep space probe gliding through the deep black of space.
Rather appropriately for this deep space journey of a record, Sonic Sunset's longest track also happens to be its greatest treasure: I Wanna Be There, a skittering slab of motorik techno soul, lasts the better part of twenty minutes. Dig that nagging shuffle of a rhythm and the bassline bounce, parallaxing against those great twisting atmospheric synths in the background.
More than anything else here, it runs parallel to the proto-micro-house of Infiniti, albeit shot through with jazz-inflected shapes and a set of tender vocals from Atkins.
His delivery strikingly different here in comparison to his earlier man-machine moves, revealing Magic Juan the introspective soul man. Alongside those jazzed-out keys that dance across the surface, punctuating the groove even as as they spar with ethereal, flute-like sonics, it brings to mind the disco-era cosmic jazz moves of figures like Norman Connors and Idris Muhammad, rebuilt and rewired for the 21st century. Kompakt funk, to a man. The whole trip takes us through the final stretch of our journey, setting the stage perfectly as we arrive at our destination....
This is Juan Atkins' debut album... now you're in Deep Space.
You switch on the music. Surfing in on a great wash of synthesized stardust, the ethereal chords of Milky Way drift across the soundscape before a gently shuffling drum machine rhythm comes into focus. This is liquid techno soul, soaring upon Atkins' trademark synth architecture and drums a tad tougher than you might expect. Computer sonics thread the groove within the groove, and post-Herbie Hancock sequences hop across the spaces between the spaces. It all fits in perfectly with what Carl Craig was up to circa Landcruising and More Songs About Food And Revolutionary Art, particularly songs like At Les and Science Fiction.
Notably, the track was co-written with fellow Detroit icon Kevin Saunderson. This at the height of Deep Space Radio, a recurring show that found the Deep Space Crew (rounded out by Atkins, Saunderson and Derrick May) bringing techno music to terrestrial airwaves. Undoubtedly, those heady vibes can be felt in this record as strongly as they could Saunderson's X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio (a mix album dedicated to enshrining the show's vision on disc for posterity) a couple years later.
As if that weren't enough, Milky Way was mixed by the great François Kevorkian. It certainly does have a touch of the cosmic about it. Cosmic jazz? Cosmic disco? You got it. Above all else, this gently unfolding deep space psychedelia often reminds me of peak-era Neptunes (during the whole Star Track trip they'd kick off a few years later) at their most blissed out. Needless to say, very strong SA-RA vibes are in evidence throughout as well.
A bubbling synth rises from the silence, heralding the arrival of the next track. With a pulsing 4/4 groove punctuated by a clanking sound one might encounter on a Rob Hood record, Orbit is on a slightly minimalist trip. One might even notice shades of Basic Channel in there somewhere. However, the strongest signal I'm getting here is from Jazz Is The Teacher. Despite it's minimalist intent, Orbit's got that unpredictable, anything-can-happen feel of the 3MB record. Maybe it's the splashing hi-hats, maybe those synths bubbling under, maybe even the crystalline synths that drift into the mind's eye every so often, but it's unmistakably there.
Until it isn't, of course, as Orbit collapses into a bubbling pool of synth and texture receding into the horizon. A menacing acid line rises from the chaos, announcing the arrival of The Flow.
Which is quite simply incredible. A perfect fusion of Kraftwerk and Janet Jackson, this is the Ur-text of machine soul. A shading of struck bells and that menacing electronic sequence drive crisp 808 beats that couldn't sound any more different from 1995 r&b if they were produced by Steve Reich. Of course a year later, Timbaland would single-handedly make it the sound of cutting edge r&b, bringing the form into the 21st century a few years early.
Aisha Jamiel's vocals alternate between spoken word and songbird (which becomes doubly haunting for the ethereal chorus) just like Missy Elliott would on Supa Dupa Fly two years later. The sonic similarities to Night Drive (Thru-Babylon) are undeniable as well, with The Flow recalling Atkins earlier opus only s-l-o-w-e-d d-o-w-n considerably, making it the definitive link between Metroplex and One In A Million, and as such the cornerstone of machine soul.
Notably, The Flow spawned three separate 12" singles, featuring a bevy of remixes spread across them. You get a deliciously retro electro workout from the Jedi Knights, a jazzy drum 'n bass reading from Alex Reece, Frank De Wulf's proto-speed garage mix, a Howie B. machine funk take and two hard-edged speedfreak mixes from Underworld. However, the best remix is by Magic Juan himself.
The G-Funk Mix a wall-shaking house party monster jam, featuring a lascivious bass groove yoked to a Zapp-inflected robot voice. Aisha Jamiel's vocals duel with a jazzy Rhodes up and down the groove. Atkins grasp of the dynamics here quite simply impeccable, this ought to have gotten serious radio play. Shame, really. Along with J Dilla, who had a shaping influence on both Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope and D'Angelo's Voodoo, their impact didn't break through to the popular consciousness. Like krautrock, innit?
Still, it makes perfect sense that the era's r&b would have some serious Motor City vibes lurking just below the surface. Shades of The Velvet Underground & Nico... peel slowly and see.
Warning follows with a similar spirit to Orbit's, The Flow bookended by two erratic slabs of minimalist jazz electronica. Another high-pitched sliver of Rob Hood-recalling noise taps out a rhythm across a bouncing pendulum of clockwork synthesizer. These great detuned synths seem to squeeze up from beneath the cracks in the rhythm like iridescent magma. Still jazzed-out, but tweaked to abstraction. Playing like a tone poem, there's shades of onomatopoeia to the whole affair. Think Drexciya's Draining Of The Tanks or X-103's Eruption: this is a synthetic recreation of the events depicted in its title. You're on red alert.
At the last moment, you're carried away on the sweet sway of Astralwerks, a nebula of a track, an enigma, with rolling rhythms that seem to split the difference between downbeat and junglist double-time the way a certain Tim Mosley would a year later. The synths seem to speed up and slow down with the rhythm, the whole effect pleasantly disorienting. It's of a piece with the ambient jungle of A Guy Called Gerald circa Black Secret Technology, 4 Hero circa Parallel Universe and Jacob's Optical Stairway (a 4 Hero one-off that featured Atkins on The Fusion Formula).
The spectre of drum 'n bass hangs over the entirety of this record, in fact. I suspect that the unpredictable rhythmic danger felt throughout is sourced in jungle as much as it is in jazz. There's almost a sense of Atkins raising his game to match the innovations of the U.K.'s junglist auteurs. Noteworthy also the explicit drum 'n bass connections in the shape of 12" remixes by Wax Doctor and Alex Reece.
Starlight is similarly forward-thinking work, this time in a thoroughly Basic Channel mode. Built on a gently chugging rhythmic figure, the melody is carried by a single synth pulsing at regular intervals as its run through the filters. Sailing on a solar wind in perpetual motion, the whole thing so slight but profound. It's worth noting that from the prior tune onward, the remaining tracks on this album are engineered by Moritz von Oswald. Nowhere is that more evident than on Starlight, which even got a 12" release on Metroplex with a remix from Oswald.
One thing that's always intrigued me about Starlight is how much it sounds like an Infiniti record. There's that same sense of linear expanse stretching across a great horizontal plane that one finds in tunes like Moon Beam or Think Quick. In fact, it's an even more skeletal outing than even most of the Infiniti output, with the same x-ray architecture that Oswald and Mark Ernestus had essayed in Basic Channel. As one might expect, this sense is amplified in the Moritz Mix on the 12", with its striking tonal shifts and great caverns of reverb.
Fans of Isolée, Luomo and Villalobos would love both versions of Starlight, which have the same shimmering, tactile quality one finds in Beau Mot Plage, Tessio and Dexter. Like I was saying before, Kompakt funk. Fascinating the way this record weaves its micro-house and machine r&b shapes together, envisioning an unlikely sonic pact between the two forms before they'd even fully come into their own. The juxtaposition certainly makes far more sense in 2018 than it would have at the time. But then, they don't call Juan AtkinsThe Originator for nothing...
Last Transport (To Alpha Centauri), which plays like a downbeat, deconstructed take on the earliest Metroplex releases, is to No UFO's as Funk Gets Stronger (Part 1) is to Flash Light. It's a great little piece of electronic funk that very strongly recalls Kraftwerk circa Computer World, but with a glitch in the machine. There certainly seems to be a fair bit of mischief about it, the delivery executed with a wink and a nod.
The record's penultimate track is a tight edit of I Wanna Be There, which you'll remember originally appeared on Sonic Sunset. Within the context of the record, it's the mirror image of The Flow, an r&b-inflected pop song at sea in abstraction. The third of the singles from this record (after Starlight and The Flow), the I Wanna Be There features an aqua tint drum 'n bass mix from Wax Doctor and a lush tech jazz rework from Dave Angel. Once again, however, the kicker is the remix by the man himself. Stripping the track down to a sleek spacecraft simplicity, Atkins aligns it even more closely with Infiniti's digital micro-funk moves.
Which are also writ large on Lightspeed, the closing track to the Deep Space saga. Fusing the celestial atmospherics of Starlight with the shuffling catch-up groove Milky Way, it's as if the scrambled memories of the record are being rearranged in the slipstream across the dark side of Jupiter. Beyond the infinite. With just a snatch of almost subliminally funky bass and the occasional synth shimmer, it's the perfect ending to this intergalactic voyage.
As I said before, Deep Space feels more futuristic with every passing year. At the time, one might not have noted the implicit connections made between Pony, Beau Mot Plage and Finley's Rainbow, but with the benefit of hindsight, they're all here clear as crystal. Somewhere in the record's DNA lie the whisper of future figures like SA-RA, Dâm-Funk, Spacek and the music they would bring. Juan Atkins mapped out this strange point of intersection where cosmic r&b, shimmering micro-house, electronic jazz and straight up techno all collide to form the basis of machine soul: the art form of the 21st century. You're in deep space.
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 RatioFlight (Factory)
ESGMoody (Spaced Out) (99)
VortexBlack Box Disco (Neutral)
Ian Dury And The BlockheadsHit Me With Your Rhythm Stick (Stiff)
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!
Earlier this year, my sister-in-law posed the question as to whether the album was still relevant. A timely question, to be sure. Folk have been declaring the death of the album for years now, but in truth it has always supported less volume than the 7" single (for instance). The 7" single was traditionally the great equalizer, the point of entry - and proving ground - for breaking artists. This was the format in which The Standells could hope to go toe to toe with The Rolling Stones in the charts. It remained the prime habitat for many scenes (reggae and punk, for example) long after the album rose to prominence.
Similarly, the 12" single was but an elaboration on the format, its extended running time ideal for the demands of the dancefloor. But the album... the album was something different altogether. In most genres only the auteurs get around to making them, and even some of the greatest artists never did (either by choice or due to circumstance). However, there's no getting around the fact that its been a fixture of the music industry for well over sixty years. So perhaps it would be valuable to go back to the root of the format for a moment.
The long-playing album initially took hold in the 1950s, when it finally supplanted the 70rpm shellac discs that had been the industry standard since the 1920s. The format was a clear winner in that it was both far sturdier than the often brittle shellac discs and could store far more music (22 minutes per side, as opposed to the five minute limit of the original 70rpm discs).1 This made the format ideal for compilations, often pulling together a brace of singles or other previously released materials into one succinct package. In fact, some of the earliest LPs were enhanced/extended versions of 10" records like Chet Baker Sings, Billie Holiday's Solitude2 and Thelonious Monk's Genius Of Modern Music.
Rather quickly, certain artists gravitated to the format. Frank Sinatra famously took to the form, crafting themed records like Songs For Swingin' Lovers and In The Wee Small Hours. The album was also a crucial showcase format for early rock and blues - artists like Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and Howlin' Wolf - often rolling some contemporary singles and a handful of new tracks into a discrete work. Yet if there was one scene that really embraced the format from the word go, it was jazz. The album rather quickly became the base unit of the genre, even beating rock 'n roll to the punch in the process.
Indeed any thoughtful round up of great albums from the 1950's would be littered with jazz: from John Coltrane's Blue Train to Thelonious Monk's Brilliant Corners and Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus, there's a veritable treasure trove of delights nestled within the decade. Duke Ellington famously dove headfirst into the format with longform works like Such Sweet Thunder and Black, Brown And Beige, with often sterling results.
Now the sixties are when the album really began to gain steam as a cultural force, with the twin innovations of hard bop and free jazz making their home on the format. Blue Note alone moved a serious number of units in the first half of the decade. Then, coming from rock 'n roll, artists like The Beatles and Bob Dylan worked out further possibilities of the form, with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band arguably giving birth to the concept album, and Blonde On Blonde inaugurating the era of the gatefold double-album. The floodgates opened when artists like Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and Jefferson Airplane all turned out deeply conceptual albums within the span of a single year, and as the decade came to a close Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd - artists that would come to define the album-as-artistic-statement in the popular imagination throughout the seventies - made their initial splash.
Soul music - despite its erstwhile status as a singles genre - began generating great albums as early as Booker T. & The M.G.'sGreen Onions through Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin's sterling run, along scores of great Motown records (even before Marvin and Stevie rewrote the rulebook3).
If there's one decade where the album peaked then it was the seventies. This the era of progressive rock - progressive everything, truth be told - with genres as disparate as rock, funk, reggae and even bluegrass stretching out into longform works (sometimes even filling a song to a side). Krautrock too, despite a brace of great singles, was thoroughly in thrall to the form. Indeed most rock - bar glam, and even that had it's slew of classic LPs from the likes of T. Rex to The Sweet - was centered on the form (contrasted with the amount of Nuggets bands that might have only had one or two singles to their name when all was said and done). David Bowie is an excellent example of this phenomenon in action, cutting a string of classic albums spanning the entirety of the decade - even the ones deemed disappointments at the time have long since been reappraised - while still managing to service the jukeboxes with red hot singles like Golden Years and Suffragette City.
It was around this time that the double-album became commonplace, while the live album blossomed into a key pillar of the album market (the two overlapping as often as not). Soul got increasingly conceptual as well, signposted by Curtis Mayfield's unparalleled winning streak to James Brown's extended cold sweat workouts, reaching its culmination with the ongoingParliament/Funkadelic saga. Even reggae - that stalwart of the 7" single - was knee deep in elpees as the decade wound down, informing the ascendant post punk in the process (with PIL's Metal Box playing with the format itself). It's at this moment, coinciding with the rise of disco, that the 12" single begins to be felt as a presence.
As a result of the restored primacy of the dancefloor, or perhaps the proverbial pendulum swinging back from the conceptual overload of the 1970s, the eighties in many ways seemed to place the focus squarely on the single. Think New Order's Blue Monday, for instance, an event release comparable to the marquee albums of the previous decade. Still, there was a healthy crop of great LPs peppered through the 1980s, with The Clash even cutting their Sandinista! triple-LP at the dawn of the decade. Shortly thereafter came the early stone tables of alternative, classics along the lines of Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade and the Minutemen's Double Nickels On The Dime mapping out the form (both of them doubles, in fact).
Prince traversed the decade much like Bowie had the decade prior with a near-spotless sequence of classic albums (even if, like Bowie, he still had a penchant for the single form). In truth a lot of singles genres still managed to toss up a smattering of killer albums. I'm thinking of Mtume's Juicy Fruit and Alexander O'Neal's self-titled debut (on the electrofunk and modern soul tip, respectively), not to mention Scientist's storied dub reggae slates and choice dancehall long-players from the likes of Tiger, Tenor Saw and Yellowman.
And of course hip hop began developing into an album form as the decade progressed - even if it remained largely singles-based: only the big boys got to do albums - and as it drew to a close, the rap album became a matter of course, a given. See any number of LPs that routinely make greatest-ever album lists: N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton, Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and BDP's Criminal Minded. Similarily, house music produced its own series of classic albums from producers like Larry Heard and Lil' Louis as the decade drew to a close. You can't knock something like Virgo's self-titled album from 1989.
Aside from dance music - which here in the states the mainstream all but ignored most of the time (to its shame) - the nineties were a big return to the album format, with big ticket releases like Nirvana's Nevermind and Dr. Dre's The Chronic becoming event releases on par with Led Zeppelin IV and Dark Side Of The Moon. Hip hop leapt confidently into its full-tilt album phase, with bizarre longform works by the likes of Redman and The Wu-Tang Clan as gnarled as anything out of the progressive seventies, and focused on conceptuality to boot. Even in dance music and electronica, surely the textbook definition of a singles genre, loads of great albums surfaced over the course of the decade, records I wouldn't want to live without. There are practically oceans of great techno LPs from both sides of the Atlantic, from Model 500's Deep Space to Bandulu's Cornerstone. Even steadfast vinyl mystics Basic Channel put out a series of CDs that rounded up their 12" work into an album-like shape.
Similarily, jungle - like reggae, a quintessentially singles-based genre - had a knack for pulling together a great full-length record, with 4 Hero's Parallel Universe and Kemet Crew's Champion Jungle Sound practically serving as twin sides to the same coin. Kevin Pearce's excellent A Cracked Jewel Case really immerses itself in this territory, unearthing forgotten CD releases from various artists scattered throughout the dance continuum. In truth, many of my own personal favorites populate the pages of that book, as up until late in the decade I was largely reliant on albums to get the fix I was after. It took awhile before I could afford turntables, so I was consuming nearly all of this music in the form of CDs (I'd scoop up nearly everything I could on Submerge and Studio !K7), and I'd go to bat for a great many of them. I actually have a half-finished breakout on that very subject - 20 great dance CDs - kicking around somewhere.
At the turn of the century, there were almost too many great albums to keep tracks of: Radiohead's Kid A, Oukast's Stankonia, Daft Punk's Discovery and Isolée's Rest, spring to mind immediately, while bands like Franz Ferdinand and The Strokes turned out classicist LPs in a new wave style. It was largely business as usual, the seventies' shadow that hung over the nineties gave way to the eighties and all the attendant reference points.
The party continued largely uninterrupted through 2006 (the year of Ghostface's Fishscale, J Dilla's Donuts and Avatar by Comets On Fire), but as the decade wore on you could slowly feel the care slipping from the form, with albums seeming to grow less consistent by the year. Records like Erykah Badu's New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War) and The Good, The Bad & The Queen's debut came correct but suddenly they felt like disconnected islands rather than part of any greater scene or grouping... and the water separating them was cold indeed! The trend became more glaring as the decade wore on, and indeed continues right up to the present day.
Which brings us back to the question at hand: is the album format still relevant? I'd say yes indeed, and without a moment's hesitation. Records like Kelela's awesome Cut 4 Me) and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly stand out as recent examples of unmissable album experiences. As much as people talk about just singling out tracks and making playlists (not that there's anything wrong with that), I think there will always be call for the sustained experience of a full-length album. There's just too much that can be done with the format that can't be found anywhere else. Burial hardly would have made sense as a singles artist (even if I'm sure there's plenty who singled out Raver and left it at that).
So I think there's still life in this little format from the fifties after all, and I wouldn't doubt that it still has a few surprises hidden up its sleeve. With even the reigning chart royalty - figures like Beyoncé, Kanye and Taylor Swift - clearly putting a lot of work into crafting coherent album-length statements, it remains a crucial part of the pop music experience. So go ahead and spin that record from start to finish if you please, because the album is here to stay.
1. The 45rpm 7" record, which emerged around the same time, offered a compact, convenient format in which concision was key... ideally suited for the single.
2. Originally released as Billie Holiday Sings in 1953.
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 particularily 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...
The English Beat - I Just Can't Stop It (U.S. Version)
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.
D-Train - You're The One For Me
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!
Associates - Sulk
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 spiralling 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.
Gwen Guthrie - Padlock
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 funhouse 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 spiralling 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.
Barbara Mason - Another Man
(West End: 1983)
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.
Mtume - Juicy Fruit
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 video 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.
Wally Badarou - Chief Inspector
(4th & Broadway: 1985)
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.
Keni Stevens - Night Moves (Ultra-Sensual Mix)
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.
Model 500 - Night Drive
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...
Lola - Wax The Van
(Jump Street: 1987)
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,3 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.
Virgo - Virgo
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.
Open House - Keep With The Pace
(Nu Groove: 1990)
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 Future Sound Of London - Accelerator
(Jumpin' & Pumpin': 1991)
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 spiralling 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),4 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.
Lovewatch - Wake It Up
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.
JT The Bigga Figga - Dwellin' In Tha Lab
(Get Low: 1995)
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.
Marshall Jefferson - The Animals EP
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 unshakeable trancelike shapes shimmering gloriously in the milieu of late-nineties dance.
Luomo - Vocalcity
(Force Tracks: 2000)
Around the turn of the century, the minimal sound of micro-house revealed itself to be one of the leading hotspots 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.5Luomo 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.
Outkast - Stankonia
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.
Basement Jaxx - Rooty
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 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 funhouse 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!
Metro Area - Metro Area
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.
SA-RA Creative Partners - Double Dutch/Death Of A Star
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 outerrim nightclub nestled among the stars, its cosmic disco spheres orbiting as they cast glimmering lights all across the firmament. 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 autotune 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.
Gorillaz - Demon Days
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 Guns (featuring Neneh 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, spiralling 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.
Dâm-Funk - Toeachizown
(Stones Throw: 2009)
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.
Ryan Leslie - Transition
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.
Jungle - Jungle
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.
1. 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.
2. Levan's Paradise Garage of course a haven for this sort of lush, sun-kissed boogie.
3. Rather appropriately, the sleeve for The World Of Arthur Russell depicts the bottom of a swimming pool (Let's Go Swimming!).
4. 1 In 8 just might be my favorite thing here. For whatever reason, its pristine geometric architecture has always reminded me of Octave One.
5. In fact, I've always thought that Basic Channel had already nailed the sound with Maurizio's M4 and Round Two's New Day, which both saw release in 1995.
Back to cruising into the wilderness, through Ramona where Chicago beatboxes hold sway and the sound of TR-707's chugging alongside Main St. Threading the expected strains of Larry Heard and Armando, I dreamt of playing Can's Future Days and Basic Channel in my apartment. Long hazy August afternoons and the sounds of Electric Ladyland and Cosmic Slop drift out into the the magenta haze. Just beyond the hills skirting the town lay a record shop, its wood paneled walls cut their silhouette into the looming sun on the horizon.
Travel deeper into the forest, where lodges sit nestled in riverbed canyons and the sounds of dusted country sides seep out their windows and into the great plains toward Santa Ysabel and beyond, passing the Krautrock barn along the way where lines stretch north to the great cabin on the shores of Lake Henshaw and east toward Lake Cuyamaca. It makes sense that Cheyenne would hole up here. This is the land of Skip Spence's Cripple Creek, J.J. Cale's Naturally and the whole of Laurel Canyon. It's the sound of mystery dwelling deep within successful hills and Marjory Razorblade on the turntable. I do remember the sounds of jazz funk in that cabin on more than one occasion but the sound you'd come to expect was rustic folk and country.
Then, at some point, country and kosmische mixed in my mind and I heard them at once as hallucination, a whole sound stretching from motorik country - it glides along the highway while the beat marks time with fenceposts passing as hills roll gently into the horizon - to a Jaki Liebezeit-fueled tumbling-cosmic-funk beat. The closest thing I've heard might be Willie Nelson's Whiskey River, while the former I've only heard in dreams. The last time was a week ago and I was in Colorado sitting outside a service station, looking up at sunlit clouds tumbling in the sky, the sound of analogue sequences and a gently brushed beat in harmony with pedal steel and the song of a world-weary troubadour played over the loudspeaker. Surely these records must exist somewhere? If not, someday I hope to put it all to tape.
Wandering beyond the lake and Traction In The Rain, the odd tree punctuating the creep of increasingly dusty plains, and high desert rock comes into play: the sounds of Captain Beyond, Randy Holden and the Blue Öyster Cult trilogy. Morrison Hotel and Indian Summer in the sunset, Ship Of Fools in confusion dawning. The torch passed to Kyuss, later Queens Of The Stone Age and beyond... I always liked how Josh Homme singled out the seventies records of ZZ Top for praise, citing them a crucial piece of the rock story. Cheap Sunglasses into Don Van Vliet's Mojave-born basis for the whole endeavor, the Groundhogs taking it perhaps furthest of all. Then there's the angular badlands racket of Adam And The Ants' Dirk Wears White Sox (U.S. Version) hanging over everything here like a question mark in the sky.
Over the hills and past Warner Springs, through the pass until you see the vast Anza Borrego desert spread out below. See the lights of Borrego Springs down there in the valley. This was the setting of Laundromat when it all went down. Maybe someday I'll put it all into writing. It's in the twilight here that the deep pulse of techno makes perfect sense, reverberations mirrored back by the rocks and sand and sky, Transmissions From Deep Space Radio - Octave One, E-Dancer and Dobre & Jamez - twisting through all the canyons and mudcaves and beyond. High desert mystics and the sound of Bandulu pulsing in the twilight, deep roots vibrations like loa hieroglyphics projected onto the night sky, Slam's Visions shimmying out into the night and the spectral presence of one Dot Allison felt in the air. Rhythm Of Rhythim's The Icon (Montage Mix) can still be heard echoing over the sands and into the tranquillity of The Well Of 8 Echoes.
And then into the city itself, where somewhere in the dusk neon begins to glow its firelight in a wavelength dawn. It glows and it grows, a grid stretching at right angles in every direction, shooting into the darkness and from somewhere the sound of bass starts to build deep within.
There I stand beneath a Marquee Moon, waiting.
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 My 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 innerspace.
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 revelled 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...
1The Time Has Come also includes a moving cover version of People Get Ready.
2 If you miss Sly's positivity, you could do worse than check out The Jimmy Castor Bunch, who cut a rollicking path through the decade with records like It's Just Begun and Phase Two.
3McDaniels, who was already on the CIA's watch list due to his militant stance on his previous record (Outlaw), was dropped from Atlantic after Spiro Agnew called the label to withdraw the album.
Looking down from the Georgia Street bridge, into North Park and the place where it all went down, and the memories of the early days of Radio AG come flooding back.
While uploading the first five episodes of Radio AG over the past few weeks, I was struck by how rough a lot of the mixing was! Sure, partially this was down to being rusty (I'd taken a hiatus from spinning and music production to concentrate on finishing school), but I also suspect it was due to the fact that for the first time I was grappling with a lot of material that wasn't typically intended to be found in the mix.
Up until then, I'd primarily spun techno and house, on the one hand, or downbeat rap and trip hop, on the other. Mixing disparate selections from the sixties, alternative, new wave and so forth - much of it music that wasn't made with the DJ in mind - well, it was like learning to mix all over again. The first year was pretty ramshackle, truth be told, but it was an enjoyable experiment in figuring how to segue between tracks of such varying structure and sequence them to successfully carry a sustained mood (I wouldn't figure out the latter until the following year!)
In retrospect, I'd always tended to approach spinning from more of an electro/hip hop mindset anyway, playing with cuts and juxtaposition, whereas the general tendency with minimal techno at the time was to work gradual fades between similar tunes. The pivotal moment for me was hearing Kevin Saunderson scratch into Carl Craig's Piano Mix of R-Tyme's Use Me (on his X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio mix): this was everything I wanted dance music to be. On the flipside - the trip hop side - Terranova's DJ-Kicks was a revelatory experience, boasting a broad selection taking in hip hop, dub, post punk, electro and Detroit techno, all while maintaining a consistently vivid atmosphere throughout. Listening to both of these mixes for the first time - within months of each other! - was quite simply a mind-expanding experience, changing the way I listened to music from that point forward.
As such, when I put together the original Allied Heights mix (back in 2002), it already seemed natural to drop things like The B-52's Mesopotamia and Brian Eno & David Byrne's The Jezebel Spirit - not to mention Derrick May's remix of Tired Of Getting Pushed Around for 2 Men A Drum Machine And A Trumpet - in the mix alongside prime techno cuts like Scan 7's Black Moon Rising, The Martian's Meet The Red Planet and UR's Electronic Warfare, opening up plenty of real-estate for raw house material like the KSR Vocal Mix of Octave One's Blackwater, Susumu Yokota's discoid fantasy Future Memory and Carl Craig's awesome garage-tinged A-Dub Mix of The Reese Project's I Believe. There were even a couple brand new Shadez Of Colour cuts - that were just about to be pressed up at NSC in Detroit - slipped into the mix. It was a nice little mix that captured a time when things where humming in the Heights and it seemed as if it would go on that way forever...
But I'd be out of the game in a matter of months, commencing a roughly two-year period during which school, work and other real world commitments managed to monopolize my time completely. The music was still there, however, and I'd spent those years exploring other sounds: lines of flight into the wider world via the post punk (PIL, Mark Stewart, etc.) and reggae (King Tubby, Horace Andy, etc.) that I'd become aware of thanks to trip hop, and the funk (Parliament/Funkadelic, Sly & The Family Stone, etc.), synth (Kraftwerk, YMO, etc.) and jazz (Herbie Hancock, Sun Ra, etc.) music that techno had tuned me into along the way. Winding back through seventies soul into the sixties - Stax and Motown - on a similar tip and sideways into krautrock, prog and arty seventies music like Roxy Music (by way of Brian Eno), it was only a matter of time before I'd worked my way back into the sixties: The Beatles, The Byrds, Hendrix and beyond.
At the end of 2004, I moved out with a couple of mates into a spot over by Balboa Park that we came to call the 1808. The scene that coalesced around the place centered on what you might call the indie rock set, with various bands and scenesters in orbit, doing their thing. I was mainly rocking out to grime like Wiley's Treddin' On Thin Ice, Dizzee Rascal's second album and the Run The Road compilation, plus Roni Size's Return To V - which seemed to key into the same prevailing mood - along with Moodymann's Black Mahogani, Amp Fiddler's Waltz Of A Ghetto Fly and Theo Parrish (with material like The Rotating Assembly's Rusty Waters in constant rotation). There was a solid weekly techno night at the Honey Bee Hive (just up the street), and I did manage to catch the odd desert rave with Snakes and crew, but all of a sudden it seemed like indie rock was everywhere and dance was hard to find. This felt something like the wilderness years, and I was a stranger in a strange land.
So I decided to go back to my roots and start a mixtape series that would take in a bunch of the stuff I grew up on, before I'd even really struck out on my own, musically speaking. I'd basically started out in new wave with Adam Ant and Depeche Mode, along with eighties dance pop like the JacksonsMichael and Janet, before hip hop and swingbeat rolled into town. So why not start there - since this was more or less the lingua franca of my intended audience anyway - sprinkling in an ever increasing dose of beats and atmosphere along the way? Radio AG was born.
The idea at first was to construct a mix in the same way the closing song cycle from the second side of Abbey Road was structured, drifting from one pop song to the next in a kinetic flow. Along with my bedrock of past favorites, I'd lean on everything I'd picked up in the interim, ranging from Can to The Beach Boys and even some of the indie stuff I'd picked up like the Pixies (rock hard beats for miles) and Pavement (whose Jackals, False Grails: The Lonesome Era is basically a breakbeat dance track). Going back into the nineties, my hip uncle Matt from Chicago had tuned me into all sorts of great power pop and indie dance (like Blur, Happy Mondays and so on) that had a profound shaping influence on me at the time. This material flowed logically into groups like Gorillaz (AlbarnandRyder, together), A.R. Kane and The Beta Band that I'd later crossed paths with via dance music, and all of it would in turn form part of the foundation of the series.
So I did one mix, and then another. And then another. By October, I'd knocked out a fifth episode - The Halloween Special - and the series had become a reality. I was pulling in shipments from Submerge on a monthly basis, their shelves still stocked with the finest Detroit techno in abundance. A few months later, I crossed paths with SA-RA and Hot Chip. Woebot dropped his 100 Greatest Records Ever on New Years Day. Suddenly things didn't seem so lonely anymore. And then, couple weeks later I'd move in with my brother Brian - the same place where I live today - and dig into the next chapter of the Radio AG saga. But that's another story for another day!
During what's turned out to be an exceptionally busy week, I've been vibing out practically non-stop to Woebot's latest mix: Bands a make her dance. The mix's general brief is rapping with instruments inna live band stylee - stretching back through time all the way to the fifties - and it's an absolute burner, packed with incredible music spanning from old school hip hop to killer deejay reggae cuts and beyond: into the nexus of street verse and rough cut funk. Put simply, this is Rap Attack music. Truth be told, it's something of a sweet spot for me, so I couldn't help but dive in with a little off-the-dome commentary... please forgive me.
The mix kicks off with Tone And Poke's lavish production for Jay-Z in 2001's Jigga, from that period when hip hop was routinely interfacing with the machine funk blueprint laid out by Timbaland and The Neptunes. Consequently, the next two tracks are N*E*R*D's man-machine hybrid Lapdance and Timbaland & Magoo's Up Jumps Da' Boogie, featuring Tim's typically lush take on machine soul (with the signature touch of Jimmy Douglass at the controls in fine style).
You could trace a line through material like Supa Dupa Fly and the early Kelis records back into much of the prime late-period swingbeat: things like Tony! Toni! Toné!'s awesome Sons Of Soul record - featuring Raphael Saadiq's fluid basslines and rolling live breakbeats knocked out by Tim Riley - naturally, but also the rugged flexing grooves of Jodeci's sophomore album Diary Of A Mad Band. Indeed, this is where Timbaland's crew Da Bassment hooked up in the first place, with DeVante Swing and Mr. Dalvin linking up with figures like Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott (still with Sista at this point), Jimmy Douglass and Tim himself, who would all go on to map out the future of r&b through the balance of the decade.
Subsequently, this is the context from which all the great Soulquarian material sprung up: records like Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun and D'Angelo's Voodoo, functioning at the nexus of programmed rhythm and live-played instrumentation. These records didn't appear in a vacuum! In many ways they were an extension of and reaction to the crisp, modern blueprint laid out by producers like Timbaland, even as they sometimes pushed against it and dug deeper into the progressive soul roots of the seventies and beyond.
Questlove - key figure and strange attractor in this terrain that he is - was deeply involved in both records, pulling together personnel, offering historical perspective and of course laying down his trademark offhand rhythms at Electric Lady Studios. Indeed The Roots' Things Fall Apart - another peak-era Soulquarian production - is represented in this mix with the next track, Double Trouble, featuring Black Thought and Mos Def trading verses as they run through the classic Wild Style routine.
Appropriately, that other storied hip hop band, the inimitable Stetsasonic make an appearance next with Pen And Paper (from their classic sophomore set, In Full Gear). I've always loved the sort of shambolic, loose-limbed interface between machine music and live funk that Stet traded in. A lot of L.A. records switch into a similar mode from time to time, like The D.O.C.'s The Grande Finalé (one of the great posse cuts, an N.W.A. track in all but name) and The Pharcyde's Labcabincalifornia (with live drumming from Jay Dee on All Live).
Beat Bop - the mix's next selection and another Woebot fave - must be the ur-text for this whole sound. The sinewy live instrumentation gets filtered through a futuristic beat matrix, courtesy of Jean-Michel Basquiat's forward-thinking production, over which Rammelzee and K-Rob trade verses in what I've often described as a hip hop update of Sly & The Family Stone's Africa/Talks To You/The Asphalt Jungle. It's about as next-level as hip hop got in the early eighties, which is no small feat.
Woe sets the scene within an old school context, drawing deep from the pool of Sugar Hill Records, with selections like The Furious Five's Step Off (Remix), Funky 4 + 1's That's The Joint and Trouble Funk's aptly titled Drop The Bomb. All three of which feature MCs doing their thing over live band backing, and right there at the center of rap's evolution (providing further evidence in favor of Woe's central thesis). The D.C. Go-Go of Trouble Funk sits righteously in this context, and tangentially brings to mind one of my absolute favorite records from the scene, The Word/Sardines by The Junkyard Band, with its mad squelching bass and pile-driving breakbeats.
Further old school adventures continue with the improbably early smooth perfection of The Younger Generation's We Rap More Mellow, appearing at the tail end of the seventies as one of the first rap records to hit the shops. There's also the pre-electronic Afrika Bambaataa hip hop tile Zulu Nation Throwdown, featuring raps from the Cosmic Force dancing over a loose-limbed funk jam kicked up by the Harlem Underground band. More honest-to-goodness funk, this time from The Fatback Band (who were twelve albums deep into their career as a hard funk unit by this point), appears later in the mix with King Tim III (Personality Jock), which (depending on who you ask) is often considered thee very first hip hop recording to appear on wax.
These early rap works bring to mind another one of my favorites records from the era, Spoonie Gee's Spoonin' Rap, which almost sounds as if it could have been a stripped down backing track from the Remain In Light/My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts sessions. Similarly far-reaching and futuristic - and featured next in the mix - is The Treacherous Three's The Body Rock, offering up an evocative atmosphere in which a grinding synthetic bassline snakes through a circular guitar figure held down by Pumpkin's relaxed drum breaks, while Special K, L.A. Sunshine and Kool Moe Dee trade verses through carefully arranged reverb effects.
Everything here remarkably in sync with a lot of the era's post punk music: think The Magnificent Seven by The Clash, the Talking Heads's Once In A Lifetime and ESG's Moody.1 Many such figures were seduced by the burgeoning hip hop culture of the day, from Factory Records' whole dalliance with the East Coast2 to Chris Stein's (of new wave group Blondie) involvement with the backing tracks for the Wild Style soundtrack and The Clash bringing Futura 2000 on tour with them (while also backing him on the Celluloid rap 12" The Escapades Of Futura 2000).
Then there's the matter of Tackhead/Fat's Comet, featuring Doug Wimbish3, Skip McDonald and Keith LeBlanc of the Sugar Hill backing band. After leaving Sugar Hill, the group started out as East Coast post punk experimentalists, operating their own World Records imprint before running through Adrian Sherwood's cold dub machinery and backing Mark Stewart as the Maffia. Sherwood's On-U Sound label a crucial conduit of leftfield dub recordings throughout the decade, stretching back into late seventies with material like Creation Rebel's early output and the Cry Tuff Dub Encounter series (which - spiritually, at least - seemed to pick up where Joe Gibbs' Africa Dub All-Mighty string of records left off).
Incidentally, the mix takes a left turn into reggae territory with a trio of discomix cover versions from the decade's turn masterminded by Gibbs, Xanadu & Sweet Lady's Rockers Choice (based on Rapper's Delight), Derrick Laro & Trinity's Don't Stop Till You Get Enough and Ruddy Thomas & Welton Irie's Shake Your Body Down To The Ground (the latter two Jacksons covers). Down mix a piece, Woe even gives the original MC music a look in with Big Youth's 1976 deejay cut Jim Squeachy and the impossibly early (1972) Festival Wise by U-Roy.
In between the Gibbs cuts and Big Youth, you get a pair of key jazz poetry cuts from Gil Scott-Heron (The Revolution Will Not Be Televised) and The Last Poets (Related To What). Both artists retroactively recognized as forefathers of rap music, The Last Poets even washing up with an eighties record on Celluloid. There was even a record from Last PoetLightnin' Rod with backing from Jimi Hendrix that also came out on Celluloid around the same time. Hendrix himself touching on rap with Crosstown Traffic... perhaps the first rap-rock song ever? Well, certainly the best.
Lightnin' Rod's Sport comes in next, taken from his excellent Hustlers Convention LP and featuring Kool & The Gang providing a nimble funk backing (and a clear precursor to all the old school live hip hop records discussed above). The godfather of funk himself slips into the mix with Black President, another foundational piece of music in hip hop, not only by virtue of its breakbeats - adorning as they do scores of rap 12"s - but also James Brown's ad-libbed vocal asides, dropped into the beat matrix with a rhythmic precision.
From there, we move into the final stretch of the mix with Pigmeat Markham's Here Comes The Judge (as mentioned in David Toop's Rap Attack4) from 1968. Interestingly enough, this record seems to be the basis for the Lee "Scratch" Perry-produced deejay record Public Jestering, fronted by Judge Winchester! And finally, Bo Diddley closes out the set with his epochal self-titled number, bringing it all back to the square root of the blues.
Which drops us into the recent climate round these parts. Post punk, hip hop and the blues. Machine soul is that final ingredient - in its triad forms of techno, house and r&b - of what you might call my kind of music. In fact, this is exactly the sort of thing I meant to broach last winter but for the encroachment of myriad real world commitments (what a drag). Yet with the late summer sun looming deep red on the horizon, it just might be the right time to go deep with it for real. At any rate, it's gonna be a wonderful fall.
1. Note that all three cuts were staples at Larry Levan's Paradise Garage.
2. Starting with A Certain Ratio recording their debut full-length To Each... at E.A.R.S. in New Jersey and continuing with New Order's work with Arthur Baker, John Robie and Jellybean Benitez (also at E.A.R.S.) on 1983's Confusion, with Factory even putting out an ESG record at one point in the interim. In a strange twist, New Order once played a tumultuous set at the Paradise Garage in 1983.
3. Wimbish was also later a member of Mos Def's band Black Jack Johnson.
4. David Toop, Rap Attack #3 (Serpent's Tail, 2000), 40.
A selection of murky blues and dirty beats mixed by DJ Slye.
I recently came across this riotous, blazing mix by Woebot that he terms this grungey, mutated R'n'B-derived sound. In a weird bit of synchronicity I've been crossing a similar terrain lately. In truth, it's a place where I dwell much of the time.
I've recently been ruminating on this intersection between post punk, trip hop and the blues that's sort of tangentially related to some of the shapes he throws in this mix. This is partially down to working my way through A Cracked Jewel Case - long stretches of which run parallel to my own fascinations and obsessions in sound - but also it's a very definite strand of sound that's pretty central to my own musical make up.
In fact, I've long had a loose selection of tracks rolling around that all occupy a similar space in my mind and thought, Why not throw them all together in a mix and see what happens? The end result is a bit of a low slung, moody affair... but then I wouldn't have it any other way.
Skip JamesCypress Grove Blues (Yazoo)
We start out deep down in the Mississippi Delta, way back in 1931, with Skip James and some of the mightiest blues ever laid down. This is an ancient, desolate sound: loneliness captured on wax. There's this haunting character to James' vocals - his playing too - that really puts you in the room with him.
Fast-forward 64 years and Dirty South enters the popular consciousness. This paranoid crawl through shadowy imagery of black helicopters, looming fences and the security state features state of the art production from Organized Noise, yet there's an unmistakable grit here that ties everything back to the Delta.
DrugsBrain On Drugs (Kraked)
Psychedelic soul from the turn of the century. Various players from the contemporary touring lineup of Parliament/Funkadelic get down in the studio with this strange slab of hallucinatory sprawl. In many ways, this is like the midpoint between SA-RA and Moodymann. There was even an excellent deep house remix of this tune on a 12" by French duo Château Flight.
Mark Stewart + MaffiaSurvival (Mute)
The massive geometric rhythm here has always reminded me of the desolate, wide-open spaces of certain old electric blues records. I think the Maffia certainly do have a bit of the blues in them - filtered through an angular, cyberpunk shaped prism, but there nonetheless - and their early recordings as the Sugar Hill house band bear this out. See also No Wave and Cabaret Voltaire.
Martina Topley-BirdToo Tough To Die (Independiente)
Taken from her solo debut after parting ways with Tricky. Quixotic is of a piece with Tricky Kid's earlier records - thoroughly imbued as they were with Martina's indelible presence - and this track in particular makes the strong blues nature of her microphone presence explicit. Ensconced within the grinding rhythms of this gnarled bit of modern blues, she seems as comfortable in the form as a Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday.
Dr. JohnBlack Widow Spider (ATCO)
Martina's voodoo-steeped soul segues into the New Orleans swamp-blues of Dr. John, from sophomore album Babylon. In his autobiography, Under A Hoodoo Moon, Dr. John states, "We were trying to get into something... with visions of the end of the world — as if Hieronymus Bosch had cut an album."
Tricky6 Minutes (Island)
The first half of Angels With Dirty Faces is among the densest, most atmospheric music in Tricky's oeuvre, rivalling even the Nearly God record and his collaboration with the Gravediggaz on The Hell E.P.. Much of the best trip hop is suffused with the spectre of the blues, and this rolling monster of a track - with that nagging looped guitar figure - is positively drenched in it.
Howlin' WolfWho's Been Talkin' (Chess)
This is likely my favorite blues song bar none, taken from my most treasured blues LP of all time by my absolute favorite bluesman. That endless, tumbling rhythm seems to predict machine music in its precise repetition, while its stark shapes and spooked-out mood prefigure both post punk and trip hop's modus operandi, respectively. As usual, Wolf himself tears through it all like a man possessed.
TerranovaSweet Bitter Love (featuring Cath Coffey) (Copasetik)
The geometric rhythms in evidence here throw similar shadows, only now as if seen through a blurred lense. Sweet Bitter Love, taken from Terranova's first album, is of a piece with their earlier Tokyo Tower record. The title track and its b-side Clone seemed to encompass jazz, blues and Krautrock in one stroke while remaining trip hop through and through. Here, the sumptuous blues tone of Cath Coffey's voice inhabits the bleak soundscape with a gravity all her own.
Gil Scott-HeronMe And The Devil (XL)
This is the lead single from Gil Scott-Heron's final record, and it hits you in the chest straight out the gate with it's apocalyptic tone and cinematic force. The deep, smooth croon of his seventies records has grown into the rough and ragged voice of a man who's seen one thing too many - this is 21st century blues.
Dark ComedyIn My Home (Poussez!)
The second Dark Comedy record, from 2005, just might be my favorite thing Kenny Larkin has ever done. This is deep and moody electronic blues from Detroit, a primal swamp of a record with more than a dose a black humor to it... made all the more unsettling in its juxtaposition with dead-serious subject matter on the flipside. In My Home recounts an episode around the time of his Metaphor LP - ten years earlier - when he was shot in his home during an attempted robbery.
Ray CharlesIt's All Right (Atlantic)
The original soul man's second album, and a true masterpiece of piano-laced rhythm & blues. This one's of a piece with the Howlin' Wolf selection above as some of my favorite blues music ever, with Charles here in the process of shaping it into what would soon become soul music. The Raelets' exquisite backing vocals haunt this track, the dense atmosphere of which evokes the same sense of dread one might expect in a killer trip hop cut some 35 years later.
Tom WaitsClap Hands (Island)
L.A.'s odd man out, this is the second in Waits' trilogy of avant garde eighties records. This tune always stayed with me, its spooked chords unfold over rolling percussion that sounds as if it were played out on hollow bones, the man's raspy croon smack in the middle as he unfurls another one of his dead end backstreet tales. They all went to heaven in a little row boat, that line always gets me. Pure dread.
Bobby BlandI'll Take Care Of You (Duke)
More spectral blues-bathed soul. A key record in that continuum, and a stone cold classic. This is another one of those tunes, where the atmosphere just swirls around you - encircling your entire field of vision - as Bland's piercing vocal climbs through its murky slow-motion organ runs. Later covered by Gil-Scott Heron in fine style on I'm New Here, the same record that houses Me And The Devil.
Otis RushMy Love Will Never Die (Take Unknown) (Varèse Sarabande)
Electric blues shot through with that same steely cold sense of mystery you'll find in Who's Been Talkin' and I'll Take Care Of You (indeed much of the downbeat blues music from this era is cloaked in it). Otis Rush is a giant vocal presence, his guitar figures hang there in suspended animation like glyphs on a brick wall. I'm always half expecting this song to show up in some Tarantino film.
Aretha FranklinThe Thrill Is Gone (From Yesterday's Kiss) (Atlantic)
Smoldering southern soul from the great Aretha Franklin. The swelling Hammond that shades into her piano's wraithlike progression, paired with backing vocals from The Sweet Inspirations - steeped in that same haunting flavor that the Raelets lent so effortlessly - provide the perfect environment for Franklin's deep soul stylings. This has long been one of my key downbeat soul numbers. Indeed, in my mind this forms a loose tetralogy with Who's Been Talkin', It's All Right and I'll Take Care Of You, songs whose spectral ambience inform whole swathes of my taste in music.
The Jimi Hendrix ExperienceVoodoo Chile (Reprise)
Supercharged rock-hard blues from Master Hendrix. From that first sustained note, bending into the heavy silence, this just builds and builds like a great flaming galleon adrift in slow motion across the night sky. Steve Winwood does serious damage here with his smoldering Hammond runs (glowing like embers in the darkness) as Hendrix's blazing guitar figures arc across the soundscape. The night I was born I swear the moon turned a fire red. Very likely indeed.
Jelly Roll MortonWinin' Boy Blues No. 2 (Rounder)
Back in the early days of Napster, a good friend of mine offered to download a couple tunes for me (I didn't yet have access to that sort of thing at the time). My two requests were Tainted Love and anything by Jelly Roll Morton. This is the tune that he turned up, and it stuck with me for years until I eventually tracked it down on volume four of this Library Of Congress set. To this day, it still knocks me out like it did the first time I heard it. That whimsical melody and Morton's rich croon - it's just perfection.
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 lense of sonic exploration. The objective was to pull together a brace of records from the Parallax stacks that cleave to space as a theme, revelling 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, freefall 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 soundstage 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 lightworks, 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 Scorcese'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 (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 outerrim 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 leftfield 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 freefall 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 spiralling 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 kickdrum. 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, 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 & You)Sun 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 lightspeed-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 funhouse. 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 freefall 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 outerspace/innerspace 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.3 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 wildcard 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 Butterfly4, 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.