It's time to talk about Deep Space. An album dropped by Juan Atkins amidst a flurry of activity in 1995, it was released smack in the middle of the nineties and bisecting the decade both literally and metaphorically. Slotting in quite comfortably within the currents of outer space imagery running through techno at the time, from Galaxy 2 Galaxy to 4 Hero's Parallel Universe and the Red Planet EPs, it also predicted the tronik r&b moves and minimalist grooves of the late 90s, sounds that take us right up to the present day. Deep Space remains a fascinating record for the way it blends techno, machine soul, micro-house and jazz inflections into a swirling nebula of sonic possibility.
With Atkins tugging the curtain that conceals tomorrow from all of us, he's invited you to catch a glimpse of tomorrow's music looming just around the bend. This is a 21st century soul record, playing like a star map to the future. To this day, it remains one of those records so singular, so forward-thinking, that it's difficult to assess just where exactly it came from. How did Deep Space happen? To answer that question, where the future came from, one must take a look into the past. A decade in the past, to be precise. So let's set our time circuits back to good old 1985...
It's 1985. Juan Atkins had been a member of Cybotron (alongside Richard Davis aka 3070) for a few years by this point. Cybotron were seminal purveyors of electro operating concurrently with Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force, who released Planet Rock just as Cybotron began unleashing records like Alleys Of Your Mind and Clear upon an unsuspecting public.
Cybotron's sound was a rude, street-level update of Kraftwerk's man-machine music, shot through with dark, psychedelic inflections that felt like a hangover from Funkadelic's early acid-tinged LPs (especially Cosmic Slop). The combination of Planet Rock and Clear (in particular) laid the foundation for the whole electro craze (see also Hashim, Planet Patrol and The Egyptian Lover), a sound that would go on to rule the first half of the 1980s.
The group added guitarist John Housey (aka Jon-5) for the album Enter, which expanded their sound to include a derezzed acid rock dynamic sprawling out in songs like Industrial Lies and the title track. Cosmic Cars rocked a 4/4 rhythm in a way that predicted the rugged, ramshackle techno traxx of 1987, while the digital funk of The Line and El Salvador split the difference between the black new wave of Alleys Of Your Mind and Clear's stripped-down electro punch.
The record also featured the awesome Cosmic Raindance, a skeletal tune built on a nimble rhythm matrix of crisp drum machines and a descending funk bassline, all of which propelled these great spiraling clouds of whining synthesized sound across a stormy digital sky. Ending in a crash of computerized thunder, it set a thrilling template for the elegant, minimalist electro of Drexciya and Elecktroids that would surface about a decade later. Cybotron swiftly followed Enter with the Techno City, at which point Atkins decided to strike out on his own.
This is where we came in. That is, 1985, when Atkins started his own label, Metroplex Records, and released his first solo record: Model 500's No UFO's. The record was a perfect fusion of tightly regimented electronic sequences and raging percussive chaos, boasting a richer, even-more-psychedelic sound than Cybotron. I'll put it this way: if Kraftwerk were James Brown circa Sex Machine and Cybotron were Sly & The Family Stone circa Stand!, then Model 500's No UFO's was Funkadelic circa Maggot Brain. Can you get to that?
The flipside was dominated by the slithering rhythm of Future, which found Atkins pumping electro moves the same way Hendrix played Killing Floor (see also Channel One's Technicolor), which is to say faster, more fluid and with more authority than anyone else around. This is ground zero for that 90s electro sound we all love so much, what with the tighter sound and sharper edges, it laid the blueprint for whole swathes of the scene. Aux 88 were certainly paying attention.
Night Drive (Thru-Babylon) followed, and somehow it managed to be even better. A masterpiece of neon vectors colliding in a phantasmagoria of motorik digital funk, it pierces your consciousness with tumbling bleeps and then just rolls for six minutes. Atkins narrates the nocturnal journey over eerie computer blue sonics, adding claustrophobic Jamie Principle-esque vocal stylings that give the whole trip a shadowy, spectral effect.
This is the first glimmer of what would come to define the Deep Space sound, and as such it kicks off a little potted history we're about to indulge in: a history of Atkins' music within this rarefied terrain. The following four records each outline key developments that would culminate in the Deep Space sessions. Context is key. After all, an investigation into this impulse within Atkins' discography plugs you directly into what is — by my estimation — the purest manifestation of machine soul.
After blazing a singular path through the remainder of the decade with records like Off To Battle, Interference and Other Side Of Life, Atkins rang in the 90s with the Ocean To Ocean EP. Kicking off with two versions of Ocean To Ocean, which played like a smooth-groove summation of everything he'd been up to in the intervening years, it was the flipside that offered a stunning preview of things to come.
Rocking a 4/4 pulse threaded by a resolute string/bass melody inna Off To Battle-stylee, Wanderer played like a stop off at the connecting station for the bullet train trip from 1985 to 2001. I've noted before how this EP was something of a blueprint for the more reflective side of UR's endeavors, and nowhere is that more evident than in Wanderer. It also neatly sets the stage for the final song of the record, its undeniable highlight.
Infoworld starts with a memorable bleep refrain before revving up the 4/4 engine once again. A geometric bass pulse threads the beat matrix while electronic string staccatos seems to fuel the track's propulsion. The sound here defined by a sleek, aerodynamic quality, with a greater emphasis placed on nimble grooves and lush synth atmospherics. Ah yes... those synths! Like Larry Heard and Carl Craig, there's just no mistaking Juan Atkins' synths for anyone else's. As clear an oracle as one could ask for, Infoworld lays out the foundation for the next decade plus of Atkins' journey.
Case in point being this three track EP, Atkins' first engagement with R&S Records — via their ambient subsidiary Apollo — which finds him expanding the sound of Infoworld into sprawling intergalactic shapes. The motorik techno soul of Vessels In Distress finds Atkins in collaboration with Martin Bonds (aka Reel By Real), offering up a Moroder-inflected take on the Motor City sound shot through with shimmering shapes and textures.
Mind Changes features Atkins' dreamy vocals in duet with android intonations over a bouncing, compact house rhythm. With the track's austere 4/4 pulse defined by a sort of ethereal synth architecture, it's of a piece with the proto-micro-house sides that he'd begun circulating under the name Infiniti, records like Flash Flood and Think Quick. All of which would ultimately lead to his collaboration with German duo 3MB (Moritz von Oswald and Thomas Fehlmann) on the awesome Jazz Is The Teacher EP (more on this later).
The title track finds Atkins incorporating crashing breakbeats into his sound, the breaks sparring with his usual 808 dynamics and a chiming bleep matrix in a flowing tide pool of ethereal synth and atmosphere. Apparently the tune got some action at contemporary drum 'n bass sound systems, where it'd be pitched up at a sped-up '45rpm (proto-ambient jungle!). I suppose that does make sense. Above all else, its mode is pure machine soul and a clear indication of the shape of things to come...
Tucked away on Atkins' own Metroplex imprint is this nearly forgotten 12". Whereas much of the Metroplex catalog has been serviced quite well, to the best of my knowledge this has never been reissued. Which is a shame, because this is one of Magic Juan's absolute greatest records. I See The Light is a spectral electro symphony built on a cycling 808 chassis with a staircase bleep pattern and wispy synth figures swaying across its ocean-like refrain. Atkins intones the title's lyrics in a deadpan whisper. It's all veryAux 88.
Of course, the b-side is even better! Pick Up The Flow commences with one of Atkins' trademark sci-fi synth progressions, computer sounds fading into view on a tumbling drum machine rhythm as a rolling bassline unfurls across the length of the track. The whole thing seems to drift by on a cosmic wind, bleeps intoning between the verses as Atkins'
gentle raps ride the rhythm in this gently pulsing astral hymn. Deep Space music, to coin a royal phrase. Stunningly beautiful, it flows quite naturally into our next record, which is the final way station before we reach our destination.
Back on R&S — this time with Basic Channel's Mortiz von Oswald in the engineering booth — Atkins delivers Sonic Sunset, his first extended sequence of solo material. Nominally an EP, with three versions of the title track, it clocks in at nearly an hour. Built on a rapid-fire synth sequence that seems to bounce across the rhythm's surface, Sonic Sunset spans the beatless freeform of the Calm Mix to the Cave Mix's dubbed-out reverb architecture (shades of Basic Channel). The Third Wave Mix, which I suspect to be the original version, is of a piece with Jazz Is The Teacher (those unpredictable rhythms a signpost for tech jazz).
Neptune's iridescent, hall-of-mirrors trip stretches out horizontally across its sprawling twelve minutes, sounding like trance music played at a disco pace. Also comparable to the ambient house moves of The Orb and Sun Electric, it affirms the implicit connection between Detroit, Berlin and London (a figure like Thomas Fehlmann moving freely between the three). The machines here left to spool out into infinity on a vector-plotted course, sounding like nothing so much as a deep space probe gliding through the deep black of space.
Rather appropriately for this deep space journey of a record, Sonic Sunset's longest track also happens to be its greatest treasure: I Wanna Be There, a skittering slab of motorik techno soul, lasts the better part of twenty minutes. Dig that nagging shuffle of a rhythm and the bassline bounce, parallaxing against those great twisting atmospheric synths in the background.
More than anything else here, it runs parallel to the proto-micro-house of Infiniti, albeit shot through with jazz-inflected shapes and a set of tender vocals from Atkins.
His delivery strikingly different here in comparison to his earlier man-machine moves, revealing Magic Juan the introspective soul man. Alongside those jazzed-out keys that dance across the surface, punctuating the groove even as as they spar with ethereal, flute-like sonics, it brings to mind the disco-era cosmic jazz moves of figures like Norman Connors and Idris Muhammad, rebuilt and rewired for the 21st century. Kompakt funk, to a man. The whole trip takes us through the final stretch of our journey, setting the stage perfectly as we arrive at our destination....
This is Juan Atkins' debut album... now you're in Deep Space.
You switch on the music. Surfing in on a great wash of synthesized stardust, the ethereal chords of Milky Way drift across the soundscape before a gently shuffling drum machine rhythm comes into focus. This is liquid techno soul, soaring upon Atkins' trademark synth architecture and drums a tad tougher than you might expect. Computer sonics thread the groove within the groove, and post-Herbie Hancock sequences hop across the spaces between the spaces. It all fits in perfectly with what Carl Craig was up to circa Landcruising and More Songs About Food And Revolutionary Art, particularly songs like At Les and Science Fiction.
Notably, the track was co-written with fellow Detroit icon Kevin Saunderson. This at the height of Deep Space Radio, a recurring show that found the Deep Space Crew (rounded out by Atkins, Saunderson and Derrick May) bringing techno music to terrestrial airwaves. Undoubtedly, those heady vibes can be felt in this record as strongly as they could Saunderson's X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio (a mix album dedicated to enshrining the show's vision on disc for posterity) a couple years later.
As if that weren't enough, Milky Way was mixed by the great François Kevorkian. It certainly does have a touch of the cosmic about it. Cosmic jazz? Cosmic disco? You got it. Above all else, this gently unfolding deep space psychedelia often reminds me of peak-era Neptunes (during the whole Star Track trip they'd kick off a few years later) at their most blissed out. Needless to say, very strong SA-RA vibes are in evidence throughout as well.
A bubbling synth rises from the silence, heralding the arrival of the next track. With a pulsing 4/4 groove punctuated by a clanking sound one might encounter on a Rob Hood record, Orbit is on a slightly minimalist trip. One might even notice shades of Basic Channel in there somewhere. However, the strongest signal I'm getting here is from Jazz Is The Teacher. Despite it's minimalist intent, Orbit's got that unpredictable, anything-can-happen feel of the 3MB record. Maybe it's the splashing hi-hats, maybe those synths bubbling under, maybe even the crystalline synths that drift into the mind's eye every so often, but it's unmistakably there.
Until it isn't, of course, as Orbit collapses into a bubbling pool of synth and texture receding into the horizon. A menacing acid line rises from the chaos, announcing the arrival of The Flow.
Which is quite simply incredible. A perfect fusion of Kraftwerk and Janet Jackson, this is the Ur-text of machine soul. A shading of struck bells and that menacing electronic sequence drive crisp 808 beats that couldn't sound any more different from 1995 r&b if they were produced by Steve Reich. Of course a year later, Timbaland would single-handedly make it the sound of cutting edge r&b, bringing the form into the 21st century a few years early.
Aisha Jamiel's vocals alternate between spoken word and songbird (which becomes doubly haunting for the ethereal chorus) just like Missy Elliott would on Supa Dupa Fly two years later. The sonic similarities to Night Drive (Thru-Babylon) are undeniable as well, with The Flow recalling Atkins earlier opus only s-l-o-w-e-d d-o-w-n considerably, making it the definitive link between Metroplex and One In A Million, and as such the cornerstone of machine soul.
Notably, The Flow spawned three separate 12" singles, featuring a bevy of remixes spread across them. You get a deliciously retro electro workout from the Jedi Knights, a jazzy drum 'n bass reading from Alex Reece, Frank De Wulf's proto-speed garage mix, a Howie B. machine funk take and two hard-edged speedfreak mixes from Underworld. However, the best remix is by Magic Juan himself.
The G-Funk Mix a wall-shaking house party monster jam, featuring a lascivious bass groove yoked to a Zapp-inflected robot voice. Aisha Jamiel's vocals duel with a jazzy Rhodes up and down the groove. Atkins grasp of the dynamics here quite simply impeccable, this ought to have gotten serious radio play. Shame, really. Along with J Dilla, who had a shaping influence on both Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope and D'Angelo's Voodoo, their impact didn't break through to the popular consciousness. Like krautrock, innit?
Still, it makes perfect sense that the era's r&b would have some serious Motor City vibes lurking just below the surface. Shades of The Velvet Underground & Nico... peel slowly and see.
Warning follows with a similar spirit to Orbit's, The Flow bookended by two erratic slabs of minimalist jazz electronica. Another high-pitched sliver of Rob Hood-recalling noise taps out a rhythm across a bouncing pendulum of clockwork synthesizer. These great detuned synths seem to squeeze up from beneath the cracks in the rhythm like iridescent magma. Still jazzed-out, but tweaked to abstraction. Playing like a tone poem, there's shades of onomatopoeia to the whole affair. Think Drexciya's Draining Of The Tanks or X-103's Eruption: this is a synthetic recreation of the events depicted in its title. You're on red alert.
At the last moment, you're carried away on the sweet sway of Astralwerks, a nebula of a track, an enigma, with rolling rhythms that seem to split the difference between downbeat and junglist double-time the way a certain Tim Mosley would a year later. The synths seem to speed up and slow down with the rhythm, the whole effect pleasantly disorienting. It's of a piece with the ambient jungle of A Guy Called Gerald circa Black Secret Technology, 4 Hero circa Parallel Universe and Jacob's Optical Stairway (a 4 Hero one-off that featured Atkins on The Fusion Formula).
The spectre of drum 'n bass hangs over the entirety of this record, in fact. I suspect that the unpredictable rhythmic danger felt throughout is sourced in jungle as much as it is in jazz. There's almost a sense of Atkins raising his game to match the innovations of the U.K.'s junglist auteurs. Noteworthy also the explicit drum 'n bass connections in the shape of 12" remixes by Wax Doctor and Alex Reece.
Starlight is similarly forward-thinking work, this time in a thoroughly Basic Channel mode. Built on a gently chugging rhythmic figure, the melody is carried by a single synth pulsing at regular intervals as its run through the filters. Sailing on a solar wind in perpetual motion, the whole thing so slight but profound. It's worth noting that from the prior tune onward, the remaining tracks on this album are engineered by Moritz von Oswald. Nowhere is that more evident than on Starlight, which even got a 12" release on Metroplex with a remix from Oswald.
One thing that's always intrigued me about Starlight is how much it sounds like an Infiniti record. There's that same sense of linear expanse stretching across a great horizontal plane that one finds in tunes like Moon Beam or Think Quick. In fact, it's an even more skeletal outing than even most of the Infiniti output, with the same x-ray architecture that Oswald and Mark Ernestus had essayed in Basic Channel. As one might expect, this sense is amplified in the Moritz Mix on the 12", with its striking tonal shifts and great caverns of reverb.
Fans of Isolée, Luomo and Villalobos would love both versions of Starlight, which have the same shimmering, tactile quality one finds in Beau Mot Plage, Tessio and Dexter. Like I was saying before, Kompakt funk. Fascinating the way this record weaves its micro-house and machine r&b shapes together, envisioning an unlikely sonic pact between the two forms before they'd even fully come into their own. The juxtaposition certainly makes far more sense in 2018 than it would have at the time. But then, they don't call Juan AtkinsThe Originator for nothing...
Last Transport To Alpha Centauri, which plays like a downbeat, deconstructed take on the earliest Metroplex releases, is to No UFO's as Funk Gets Stronger Part 1 is to Flash Light. It's a great little piece of electronic funk that very strongly recalls Kraftwerk circa Computer World, but with a glitch in the machine. There certainly seems to be a fair bit of mischief about it, the delivery executed with a wink and a nod.
The record's penultimate track is a tight edit of I Wanna Be There, which you'll remember originally appeared on Sonic Sunset. Within the context of the record, it's the mirror image of The Flow, an r&b-inflected pop song at sea in abstraction. The third of the singles from this record (after Starlight and The Flow), the I Wanna Be There features an aqua tint drum 'n bass mix from Wax Doctor and a lush tech jazz rework from Dave Angel. Once again, however, the kicker is the remix by the man himself. Stripping the track down to a sleek spacecraft simplicity, Atkins aligns it even more closely with Infiniti's digital micro-funk moves.
Which are also writ large on Lightspeed, the closing track to the Deep Space saga. Fusing the celestial atmospherics of Starlight with the shuffling catch-up groove Milky Way, it's as if the scrambled memories of the record are being rearranged in the slipstream across the dark side of Jupiter. Beyond the infinite. With just a snatch of almost subliminally funky bass and the occasional synth shimmer, it's the perfect ending to this intergalactic voyage.
As I said before, Deep Space feels more futuristic with every passing year. At the time, one might not have noted the implicit connections made between Pony, Beau Mot Plage and Finley's Rainbow, but with the benefit of hindsight, they're all here clear as crystal. Somewhere in the record's DNA lie the whisper of future figures like SA-RA, Dâm-Funk, Spacek and the music they would bring. Juan Atkins mapped out this strange point of intersection where cosmic r&b, shimmering micro-house, electronic jazz and straight up techno all collide to form the basis of machine soul: the art form of the 21st century. You're in deep space.
When discussing dance music — particularly of the electronic variety — the next logical step onward after electro crept out of cities like New York, Chicago and Detroit at the midpoint of the 1980s. Yeah, I'm talking about house and techno. These two covered at once, as it's more illuminating to discuss the sounds of deep house and acid alongside techno's stripped-down funk (and vice versa). I believe that this will become increasingly apparent as we continue. So much music draws from both simultaneously, from Slam to the Earthbeat records, that the two forms clearly excel in each other's company as post-disco dancefloor head music.
Where better to begin than Underground Resistance? Perhaps the spiritual embodiment of techno music, they nevertheless retain strong shades of house in their music's DNA (indeed, their first couple records were house endeavors). More than any other crew, UR (alongside orbital figures like Drexciya and The Martian) seemed to continue the good work Juan Atkins began when he alchemized the form in the first place. One could even make the case that Model 500's 1990 EP Ocean To Ocean laid out the blueprint for the UR sound a couple months in advance.
It does quite literally seem to be the foundation of the whole Nation 2 Nation, World 2 World and Galaxy 2 Galaxy series of records, which shear into the same pioneering tech jazz vein that UR would continue to explore with records like Codebreaker and The Turning Point. The label art for the latter featured the likes of James Brown, Ravi Shankar, Aretha Franklin, Carlos Santana, Stevie Wonder, Florian Schneider and Chuck D, placing their music within the context of a wide continuum of visionary iconoclasts.
As Tim Barr writes in Techno: The Rough Guide:
Detroit's Underground Resistance occupy a territory that is somewhere between the reclusive mystique of Kraftwerk, the radical politicization of Public Enemy and their own unique interpretation of Afro-futurist tropes.
This unique interpretation would often take the crew into deep space, which they explored in the form of records like The Final Frontier and X-102 Discovers The Rings Of Saturn — even veering into trancelike shapes with the (closely-affiliated) Red Planet records — reading the undiscovered country as freedom from the tyranny of the perpetually closed mind. This often manifested itself in a similar shade of utopian vision as those conjured up by 4 Hero's Parallel Universe.
However, like their counterparts on Dollis Hill, there was an undeniable darkside to UR's endeavors. The baleful shapes of the Sonic EP are quintessentially Terminal Vibration, their rhythmic dexterity matching anything discussed thus far in the realm of post punk. See also Suburban Knight's Nocturbulous Behavior and Andre Holland's City Of Fear. There are a number of DJ mixes that UR put out at the turn of the century that essay this territory brilliantly: DJ Rolando's Vibrations and The Aztec Mystic Mix are full of brilliant electronic noise. On overhearing the music, a friend once commented that it sounded like a washing machine!3
Even better was Nocturbulous Behavior: The Mix. Credited to 011, which was the catalog number for Suburban Knight's original 1993 EP of the same title, it found James Pennington tearing through the label's back catalog and working up a killer mix throughout which urban paranoia reigned supreme.4 This approach mirrored his own records like The Art Of Stalking and the By Night EP, on which Pennington proved himself one of the great manipulators of sound, moving it in great slabs across tracks that were pure hard-edged Gothic funk.
This fit perfectly with UR's hard music from a hard city aesthetic, which informed large swathes of the labels output. Records like X-101's Sonic Destroyer, UR's The Punisher and The Riot EP refracted Belgian hardcore back across the Atlantic, inspiring ever-intensifying experiments in sonic extremism from The Mover's wickedly deranged techno to the zombie brigades of Dutch gabber. Message To The Majors even sounded like a particularly dystopian slab of U.K. ardkore that Liam Howlett would have killed to have included on The Prodigy's Music For The Jilted Generation!
The original Belgian new beat as essayed by figures like Set Up System, Human Resource, 80 Aum, Outlander and Frank De Wulf raised a dazzling cacophony and razed everything in their path. The latter was the most prolific auteur, unleashing a series of B-Sides EPs over the first half of the 90s. Tunes like Dominator, The Vamp, Mindcontroller and Factory Parallax Mix were the sound of techno at it's most gloriously unaffected, noise music for the ravefloor pure and simple. Oftentimes, these tracks would take their cue from industrial EBM (Electronic Body Music), although there was significant inspiration taken from hip hop as well.
Outlander even seemed to hoover up the club pianos of Italo house and set them to overdrive in his acid-tinged missive The Vamp. Much like U.K. ardkore, if there was a standard operating procedure, then it was throw everything against the wall and see what sticks. New beat itself had a serious impact on the nascent ardkore sound, and vice versa, with both forms instigating each other to ever higher levels of intensity. However, if there was one key input that had a greater impact than any other, it was a trio of roughneck producers from New York City.
I'm talking about Joey Beltram, Lenny Dee and Frankie Bones, whose sick noise was writ large on records like Energy Flash, Mentasm and the Bonesbreaks series of EPs (not to mention the output of Lenny Dee's Industrial Strength imprint). Beltram's prime inspiration for Energy Flash was Black Sabbath, while the twisted synth sounds of Mentasm introduced the world to the indelible hoover sound (so named because it sounded something like a vacuum cleaner firing up!). Even taken on its own, the latter was a crucial building block in Belgium's rave hardcore and the hooligan sounds of U.K. ardkore jungle alike, which makes it one of the key records of the decade almost by default.
This sound was arguably taken to its diamond-hard apex by Germany's Marc Acardipane across a whole raft of records on his own Planet Core Productions and Dance Ecstasy 2001 imprints. Mescalinum United's Reflections Of 2017, which featured the epochal We Have Arrived on the flip, out-nastied everybody up to that point and set a benchmark for the harder wing of rave producers to pursue.5 My absolute favorite record on PCP is The Mover's Frontal Sickness, which combined two blistering EPs into one unmissable double-pack rounded out by the proto-gloomcore of Body Snatchers Impaler - First Mix and Reconstructin' Instructions cyborg hip hop science.
Another Teutonic auteur of the abrasive was Martin Damm (aka Biochip C.). In contrast to Arcadipane's pounding rhythms, Damm spent a satisfying amount of type working with breakbeats, which he splintered across his tracks sounding like nothing so much as wickedly twisted video game music. His debut album, Biocalypse, is one of rave's crowning achievements, gliding from grinding downtempo to speedfreak hardcore with nary a thought given to convention. One of the most impressive records of the decade, taking electronic music's development well past the breaking point, it deserves to be more widely available.
If you rewind back to the 1980s, there's a handful of figures that laid the groundwork for all these lofty achievements. I've spent some serious time on the unassailable merits of Kevin Saunderson, and we've already discussed New York's terrible trio, but there's one man I've left out: Mr. Todd Terry. Across a whole mess of records released under names like Black Riot, Lime Life, Royal House, Orange Lemon and Swan Lake, he near singlehandedly defined the sound of cut-and-paste house music. His music often played like hip hop reworked to a 4/4 beat.
The output of labels like Fourth Floor, Atmosphere and Nu Groove were defined by this sound, putting out records both abrasive and deep (and everything in between) over the course of their limited run. This strand gets picked up by Strictly Rhythm in the 90s, a label that put out later records by Todd Terry
and refugee from ChicagoDJ Pierre (alongside scores of new artists like Damon Wild, George Morel and Roger Sanchez), coming to dominate the city's club landscape throughout much of the decade. At its best, it was the sound of raw, rough edges and floor-busting dance.
Appropriately, there's a particular wing of techno that runs parallel to all this, a rough and tumble sound a million miles away from the sleek futurism of Kraftwerk. I'll place its genesis with Eddie Flashin' Fowlkes' Goodbye Kiss (which was for all intents and purposes a house record), but I have none other than Carl Craig down as the true guardian of the form. The original trio of 69 records (4 Jazz Funk Classics, Lite Music and Sound On Sound) enshrined this sound around rough cut rhythms, raw analogue basslines and tarnished synth textures, offering a hard-edged take on his Psyche/BFC-era material and the dreamlike, synth-smeared stylings his earlier Retroactive imprint.
Operating at the interzone between house and techno, it's no wonder that Craig's Paperclip People project often sheared into similar territory on tracks like Oscillator, Paperclip Man and Tweakityourself, where breakbeats and tricky polyrhythms are usually as prominent as the pulsing 4/4 groove. See also Designer Music and his remixes for figures like Alexander Robotnick, Telex and Cesaria Evora. Tangentially, I've often thought that Stacey Pullen's Black Odyssey records from the turn of the century (particularly Sweat and The Stand) were in thrall to this slabs-of-synth sound, albeit executed with a far more linear approach.
Interestingly, despite his reputation as Detroit's mellow man (see records like Metaphor and The Narcissist), my favorite stuff by Kenny Larkin is often his rawest. His sophomore release was the Integration EP, an ace selection of four percussion-heavy technoid outings shot through with wild bleeps and built on chunky drum machine riddims. He also indulged in the harder stuff with his Dark Comedy moniker, culminating in the Seven Days LP (which featured the pulverizing techno claustrophobia of The Bar).
I remember Larkin performing at the DEMF with a deep, blues-inflected sound unlike anything we'd yet heard from the man. I remember asking around about it at the time and no one seemed to know anything! It remain was to a mystery until the release of the second Dark Comedy album, Funkfaker: Music Saves My Soul, which presented a hybrid of both the shimmering shapes found in his most gentle LP material and his spectral Seven Days maneuvers on the darkside.
The other area where Larkin excelled was in the remix. Of the top of the dome, I can think of his shimmering remix of Carl Craig's Science Fiction, a speaker-shredding edit of E-Dancer's Pump The Move and the SadeSurrender Your Love remix for Illegal Detroit. He turned in a duo of serious dancefloor burners on the KMS label with Paris Grey's Smile/Life double a-side 12" at the turn of the century, and then doing it again more recently with his remix of Kevin Saunderson's Future.
Three of his vintage remixes of Inner City material turned up on the label a few years back on the aptly titled The KMS Remixes 12". These remixes often seemed like a chance for the usually contemplative Larkin to get down and pump some bass on the dancefloor.
Of course even Derrick May, Master of Strings himself, had his own fair share of down-and-dirty techno in the shape of Kaos, Salsa Life, Emanon and even that untitled track tacked to the end of the Strings Of Life 12". Plus, don't forget that Intercity's Groovin' Without A Doubt was May and Kevin Saunderson jamming out some basic jack trax in the studio. Even the most ethereal producers often had something darker hidden just around the corner...
In point of fact, I can remember that the techno grind of Strand's Bloated Juggernaut Mix (from the EP Floyd Cramer's Revenge) had me imagining they were this mysterious, ultra-underground crew (along the lines of UR) when in reality they were a trio of deep house mavens (who usually recorded under the name T.H.D. for Antonio Echols' Serious Grooves imprint) getting freaky with the machines. Records like this exist at the very axis where the jagged edges of post punk intersect with the moods and grooves of machine funk.
If you remain skeptical, I direct you immediately to Claude Young's entry in the DJ-Kicks series, which was mixed on two decks in a friends bedroom.
In the liner notes, Young elaborates:
I wanted it to feel live. You can hear a few pops and crackles. Everything's a bit too sterile these days. I take a more street level approach...I usually play with two copies, bounce the beats around, do spinbacks and scratch tricks. I don't mind taking a chance. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but life is all about taking chances.
Sure enough, its a down-and-dirty vision of no-nonsense street techno that sidesteps the often linear nature of much of the more typically stripped-down techno. Skating on the edge of a funktional minimalism, it's nevertheless informed by a healthy dose of wildstyle spirit that finds Young rockin' doubles like a hip hop DJ. This is to Cybotron what Cybotron was to Parliament: a no-nonsense distillation of the funk into highly concentrated form.
Featuring multiple appearances from Clark's Lofthouse, both sides of the Man Made EP and two tracks from The Skinless Brothers supremely funky Escape From Vienna, it's an absolutely blinding mix of juke joint machine funk busting out some street corner dive on the edge of the city. See also Patrick Pulsinger, especially his classic Dogmatic Sequences records (which have recently been collected on the Dogmatic Sequences: The Series 1994-2006 compilation), all of which offer up similar hard-as-nails shapes with a restless, nimble touch.
All of which have their roots in the granddaddy of elastic machine funk (a dead giveaway being the presence of Young's own Acid Wash Conflict), the vintage acid house that seeped out of Chicago in the latter half of the 80s like a contagion. Phuture's Acid Tracks is often considered the prototypical acid house record, but to my mind the don of the form is Armando, whose Land Of Confusion remains the perfect acid house track. Also worth a look-in is The New World Order double-pack from 1993, packed with stripped-to-the-bone acid jack trax like Venture 001 and Trance Dance.
It's interesting to note that there's this whole side of acid house that was mapped out by the dons of deep house, with Mr. Fingers' Washing Machine being first out the gate and sharing space with the epochal Can You Feel It way back in 1986. Larry Heard also pumped the 303s on those Gherkin Jerks records (also recently compiled on the appropriately titled The Gherkin Jerks Compilation), and even as late as 2005 he was still flirting with acid alongside his more typical deep, jazzed-out cuts on Loose Fingers: A Soundtrack From The Duality Double-Play.
Deep house icon Marshall Jefferson also got stoopid Sleezy D.'s I've Lost Control, on which a sustained paranoia ran rampant, while sometime associates like Adonis and Bam Bam went on to represent the acid life to an even greater degree. Farley "Jackmaster" Funk, who made waves with his careening house covers of Isaac Hayes' Love Can't Turn Around and Stevie Wonder's As Always (even turning in one of the great unsung deep house cuts, Farley Knows House), had plenty of time to deliver acid trax of his own, particularly on the No Vocals Necessary LP.
All of this got picked up on in the U.K., where it fomented a revolution in the form of the Second Summer Of Love. Intriguingly, many of the early figures to adopt acid house were post punks lurking in the shadows of the movement, figures like 808 State's Graham Massey (of the Biting Tongues), Warriors Dance kingpin Tony Thorpe (of 400 Blows) and The Orb, which was masterminded by the triple threat of Dr. Alex Paterson and Youth (roadie and bassist for Killing Joke, respectively) and Thomas Fehlmann (of German post punk group Palais Schaumburg).
I've always loved the wild shapes thrown on 808 State's Newbuild, perched as it is midway between acid house and techno, cut while Gerald Simpson was still in the fold. The dark psychedelia of Narcossa still stands as one of the great acid/techno workouts ever conceived, and the remainder of the record remains a brilliantly rude fusion of the forms. Rephlex did a timely reissue of the record at the turn of the century that I was lucky enough to snap up at the time (please believe a young man's mind was blown).
This was mirrored by the early stirrings of The Future Sound Of London, who had their own thing going in the late 90s with the Humanoid project. Their output ranged from the vocal house of records like Slam, The Deep and the Global Humanoid album to the wasp buzz mayhem of Stakker Humanoid. Even as their records grew ever more lustrous, they still had plenty of noise left to bring in the form of tunes like We Have Explosive, Moscow and The Tingler. The archival Sessions 84-88 compilation (curated once again by Rephlex) is a veritable cornucopia of such unreconstructed electronic noise.
One record that I was always surprised that Rephlex hasn't gotten around to reissuing is Bleep's The North Pole By Submarine, a record that label boss Richard D. James at one time admitted to listening to once a day! (Barr 52)2b The 1990 debut techno outing of Geir Jenssen, who started out in 4AD-esque group Bel Canto, North Pole featured an intricate web of samples, synths and drum machine rhythms that was utterly of the moment (if not even slightly ahead of it).
These angular shapes lived on in certain corners of Jenssen's later output as Biosphere, moments like Baby Interphase, Novelty Waves and his score to the movie Insomnia. Jenssen hailed from Tromsø, Norway, a city located 350 kilometers within the Arctic Circle, and the glacial climate of his hometown would be increasingly felt on his music as his recording career progressed. On later ambient excursions like Substrata and Cirque, he seemed to be standing shoulder to shoulder with figures like Brian Eno and William Basinski.
Rewind back to the Bleep era, when across the North SeaThe Black Dog were following up their preposterously ahead-of-their time Virtual and Dogism EPs (both 1989) with the Techno Playtime EP. Arguably the godfathers of the whole Artificial Intelligence strain of electronic music, which they explored extensively across albums like Temple Of Transparent Balls and Spanners, they were also somehow messing around with proto-ardkore breakbeats before everyone just about everyone, from 4 Hero to Genaside II and even Shut Up And Dance!
Actually, SUADdid put out 5 6 7 8 in 1989 as well, but that was largely still a relatively straight-up U.K. rap record. It was the following year's £10 To Get In that really cemented their status as drum 'n bass trailblazers, the promise of which they fulfilled time and time again with records like Raving I'm Raving, Death Is Not The End and The Ragga Twins' Reggae Owes Me Money. Without a doubt, SUAD (the artist and the label they masterminded) were one of thee key institutions in jungle's protracted genesis. Rave records don't come much better than the cloud-stomping mayhem of Cape Fear!
The most stripped-down — and dare I say techno — of all the acts on Shut Up And Dance were Codine, who put out two 12"s on the label, and Rum & Black, who were thankfully a bit more prolific with four 12"s and even a full-length album. 1991's With Ice yoked abrasive bleeps and synth textures to sample-heavy breakbeat burners, essentially hammering down the sound of quintessential ardkore with tunes like Wicked, Tablet Man and We Were Robbed Of Our... Religion, Culture And God, winding up with a stone cold classic in the process.
At this point we descend into the kaleidoscopic whirlpool of ardkore rave, darkside and straight up jungle. Figures like Genaside II, Foul Play, Acen put out genre-defining records, and true to Nuggets style there were blazing records cropping up all over. My absolute favorite progenitors of the form, 4 Hero, brought the music through its dawning years to the depths of its twisted darkside before Journey From The Light launched them through the stratosphere into to the cosmic jazz utopia of Parallel Universe.
Their lone album as Jacob's Optical Stairway ploughed a similar furrow of deep space ambient jungle, while Nu Era records like Beyond Gravity and Breaking In Space found them essaying their own unique vision of techno music. This vision was showcased further on the two-volume The Deepest Shade Of Techno that they curated on their own label, featuring luminaries from Detroit and beyond (but mostly Detroit!) alongside Nu Era's own lushly produced Cost Of Livin'.
A Guy Called Gerald blazed a similar trail on his Juice Box imprint, when — after a solid discography of prime techno output like Voodoo Ray, Emotion Electric and Inertia's Nowhere To Run (released on Carl Craig and Damon Booker's Retroactive imprint) — he transitioned into pure breakbeat music, blazing a singular path from the genre-defining ruffneck vibes of 28 Gun Bad Boy to the shimmering ambient jungle of Black Secret Technology in the space of a couple years.
At this point Goldie — who had been closely aligned with the Reinforced crew — became the figurehead of the scene in the public imagination after unleashing records like Rufige Kru's Terminator, Metalheads' Angel and the Ghosts EP on an unsuspecting public. His Metalheadz imprint put out loads of genre-shaping records like Dillinja's The Angels Fell, Photek's Natural Born Killa EP and Ed Rush's Skylab. The latter presaged the cold robotics of techstep that would swarm across jungle over the next few years, arguably the point at which it became drum 'n bass, and therefore something else altogether.
Figures like Source Direct and Photek epitomized the moodiest (and in my opinion greatest) corner of drum 'n bass, with records like Exorcise The Demons and Modus Operandi (respectively) moving the music in a deliciously paranoid direction that would have been the perfect musical counterpoint to The Parallax View and actually ended up scoring Darren Aronofsky's debut feature film, Pi (see also Blade, which made great use of Source Direct's Call & Response). Dom & Roland's The Planets explored similar isolationist territory, its fragmented breakbeats and lonely textures offering up the perfect metaphor for the deep black of space.
A figure that — much like Marc Arcadipane and Martin Damm — took these sounds to their absolute limit was Alec Empire, with a brand of post-rave noise he dubbed Digital Hardcore. Forming Atari Teenage Riot with Hanin Elias and Carl Crack, the crew raised much mayhem over the course of the decade, fusing the spirits of punk and rave more literally than just about anyone else ever has. However, Empire released his finest music under his own name, with records like Low On Ice and Les Étoiles Des Filles Mortes rivaling even that of the abstract dons of electro-acoustica.
By the mid-nineties, there had developed a strange détente between the abstract wing of electronica and jungle, figures like Squarepusher, µ-Ziq and Aphex Twin, whose 1995 record Richard D. James Album was a masterstroke of insane digital programming. This was music that had little relation to the dancefloor proper; rather like prog or the even more abstract end of jazz fusion, it was music to enjoy while daydreaming in your living room, ideally while leaning back in a comfy armchair.
Even outside the more obvious Warp-related records of Autechre and Boards Of Canada were a cadre of figures from all across the globe specializing in warped techno, ranging from Germany's Alter Ego (especially in their Sensorama guise), Italy's Bochum Welt and Japan's Ken Ishii (whose records sound galaxies away from anyone else's). U.K. figures like Cristian Vogel and Neuropolitique were also key progenitors of a particularly skewed brand of techno. The operative word in this wing of techno being idiosyncrasy.
In one of those lovely twists of fate that seemed to happen every other week in the 90s, Japanese girl group Nav Katze were remixed by a brace of U.K. techno artists rounded out by The Black Dog, Aphex Twin, Global Communication and Ultramarine. If you've ever read The Parallax 100, you'll know that its one of my favorite records ever. The Retro 313 Future Memory Mix of Crazy Dream, perpetrated by Global Communication in their old-time Reload guise, is a jacking techno workout along the lines of the whole 69 continuum (Carl Craig even included it in his DJ-Kicks mix that he did at the height of his genre-defining work within the form), albeit with a dreamy, cinematic haze moving across its surface like mists over the ocean.
The lion's share of the record, however, is dominated by gently skanking downbeat numbers like Nobody Home Ultramarine Mix and the unclassifiable — but above all else utterly beautiful — Never Not Black Dog Mix #1. Often whimsical but never frivolous, I've often thought that Never Mind runs parallel to the spliffed-out electronica of To Rococo Rot's Veiculo and Mouse On Mars (especially early records like Autoditacker and Iaora Tahiti) as a sort of languorous electronic head music that never takes itself too seriously.
This thread gets taken to its logical conclusion at the dawning of the 21st century by certain stateside figures, the best of which were Blectum From Blechdom, whose scatological take on electronic music seemed to rewire it all back through pre-dance forms in the days of The Nonesuch Guide To Electronic Music. It was brash, irreverent, restlessly creative and miles away from the stuffy climate of much abstract electronica to surface during the era. Matmos were another duo who went against the grain of the times, applying Burroughs-derived cutup techniques to their music and arriving at a sound that felt of a piece with electro-acoustic music modes of operation.
Similarly, there was a wing of abstract electronica that reared its head as the 90s progressed exemplified by Oval's glitched-out symphonies and Panasonic's abrasive black leather desolation. The latter tapped into the same sense of isolationism as the post punks, even collaborating with Suicide's Alan Vega on the Endless LP. This was the sound of flutters and flashes of light in the loneliness of a pitch black room, with nothing but a madman to keep you company.
Slightly later the German duo Funkstörung combined the glitched production techniques of Oval with Panasonic's abrasive isolationism to arrive at the cold brutality of Appetite For Disctruction, which featured the awesome Grammy Winners (featuring Triple H of Antipop Consortium). The track seemed to update the white noise hip hop of the Death Comet Crew and Gettovetts for the 21st century, with all the subsequent developments in complex rhythmic tricknology that implies. This is the sound of computers deconstructing one another.
The isolationist side of the coin was taken to its logical conclusion by Pole, with a glitchy take on electronic dub that transformed the music into android tears in the rain. In some ways, one could read the Pole trilogy as a precursor to Burial's lonesome dubstep architecture. Richie Hawtin — who became ever more abstract as the decade wore on — checked into similar territory with Plastikman's Consumed, an awesome dub-scape that found the man veering from his past in acid-tinged techno into the elegant architecture of minimalism.
Now the minimalist streak in techno was never my favorite strain of the form, and in many ways I think it sounded the slow-motion death rattle of the scene's vibrant immediacy. Still, there were a handful of auteurs that I wound up warming to. Surgeon's black country sound was a bracingly physical take on minimalism, informed as it was by krautrock and his alliance with Scorn's Mick Harris. Tracks like Badger Bite and Reptile Mess (from the Pet 2000 EP) were crumbling Gothic noisescapes that actually delivered on minimalism's promise of back-to-basics hi-jacking intensity.
His full-length albums were worthwhile as well, with Basic Tonal Vocabulary being the definitive document of the early Surgeon sound (and mimicked a Faust sleeve in the process!), while Force + Form arrived at a sort of machine funk elegance over the course of its four marathon suites. Perhaps minimalism was the point where the chin-stroking tendencies of IDM were re-absorbed into techno's base dancefloor intent? In passing I should also note Luke Slater's Planetary Assault Systems output, which consistently delivered great clanking slabs of minimal techno that remain my favorite stuff he's done.
Of course there was a healthy brace of Detroit minimalism, with the widely acknowledged dons being Jeff Mills and Robert Hood. However, I tend to prefer their more introspective material to banging records like Waveform Transmission Vol. 1 and Internal Empire. Jeff Mills' re-imagined score to Fritz Lang's Metropolis remains my most treasured of his albums, the flickering sonics of tracks like Perfecture: Somewhere Around Now perfectly matching the films monochrome futurism.
Similarly, my favorite Robert Hood records are his Nighttime World trilogy, which seemed to reroute their energy through machine funk back to classic soul records like Marvin Gaye's I Want You, Leroy Hutson's Hutson and Leon Ware's Musical Massage. Jeff Mills struck a similar chord with his Every Dog Has Its Day series, full of lush techno soul like Now Is The Time, Arcadia and Dr. Ice, songs that would have sounded right at home on any relatively adventurous r&b radio station at the time.
If you want to talk minimal Detroit, then my favorite material comes down to things like Black Noise's Nature Of The Beast, Sean Deason's The Shit (which is the stateside cousin to Dave Clarke's Red 2) and Scan 7's Black Moon Rising. However, if there were one auteur that I'd single out for praise, then it's Kalamazoo's Jay Denham. His involvement in techno dated back to the early years, and he debuted with Fade II Black's In Synch on Transmat's Fragile subsidiary, a record that already betrayed a blistering simplicity that would come to define his work in the intervening years.
He launched his Black Nation imprint in 1992, the output of which included records like Blackman's Redrum EP, Vice's Player Hater EP and the awesome Birth Of A Nation Part II compilation (which featured Chance McDermott aka Chancellor's blistering Insane). Denham's records were minimal the way Chicago records had been: by default (even down to the artless grit of those almost-photocopied center labels). Which all makes perfect sense when you realize that Kalamazoo sits equidistant between the cities of Chicago and Detroit.
Denham was perhaps the most successful of all the minimal producers in capturing the raw jack of Chicago's original acid trax. In fact, the output of Black Nation bears a striking similarity-of-intent to the banging post-acid sounds of Chicago producers like DJ Skull and Steve Poindexter. However, despite the fact that their no-nonsense approach resulted in some of the most blank-eyed nosebleed techno imaginable (see Skull's Guard Your Grill and Poindexter's Short Circuit), they nevertheless possessed a scientific precision that somehow prefigured the pristine hall-of-mirrors sound of micro-house.
Similarly, The Holy Ghost Inc.'s Mad Monks On Zinc turned up preposterously early (1991) for this sort of oneiric trance-inducing minimalism. One almost imagines the titular monks wandering out of the mountains to unveil secret knowledge to the villagers below. I'm reminded of Bandulu's Guidance, which similarly invokes images from the caves in Altered States. Another crew that seemed to hint at minimalism before its time, they delved deeper yet into dub techniques and everything they did was imbued with a spectral mysticism lying just beneath the surface, forever setting them apart from the pack.
If we're speaking of dubbed-out techno — and we are — the dons are undoubtedly Basic Channel. Their pulsing, motorik grooves were quite simply magnetic, drawing tiny particles of sound into their orbit as they slowly coalesced into discrete tracks. Hypnotic 4/4 slates like Quadrant Dub stretched out toward infinity, while Lyot Rmx nearly eschewed beats altogether in its glorious descent to the center of the world.
Detroit's Terrence Dixon gradually developed a similar approach in the wake of Basic Channel's innovations, a sound showcased on his Minimalism and Minimalism II 12"s, ultimately culminating in the awesome From The Far Future LP. The record was shot through with the shadows of machine soul, its ghost funk best heard in the game grid techno of Shuffle All Circuits (the sound of the Tron: Legacy soundtrack ten years early). Convextion was another minimalist auteur that walked the path with elegance, and his early records coming out on Sean Deason's Matrix Records essayed a spectral vision of techno's soul in the machine.
I remember first hearing the track from the debut Convextion EP in the context of Juan Atkins' MasterMix, which even in the esteemed company of Martin Circus, Black Noise, Blaze and A Number Of Names spun me around and caught me completely off guard. It was the first time I really grasped the idea of minimal techno's implied funk, and whenever those skeletal sequences starting shaking up up and down the soundscape I was slayed. That mix, presented by the godfather himself, remains an unmissable romp through techno/house/disco/machine soul, moving through their varied worlds with ease. I imagine that it must capture the spirit of all those early shows the Deep Space crew put on back in the mid-eighties.
Of course alongside these trailblazers Magic Juan himself certainly had a hand in shaping micro-house's path with his Infiniti output. The early works were all scattered across various 12"s and compilations before being handily compiled for The Infiniti Collection. Listen to Flash Flood and tell me that isn't pure micro-house. And in 1993, no less! He followed up with the Skynet album and the Never Tempt Me 12" which featured remixes from Cristian Vogel and 3MB (Thomas Fehlmann and Basic Channel's Moritz von Oswald).
It was a perfect fusion of the machine soul shapes of Model 500's 90s records and the minimalist austerity of micro-house, a circle that he'd begun to square as early as 1995 with the Deep Space LP. The majority of the album was engineered by Moritz von Oswald (who also remixed Starlight for the 12"), with the machine soul of The Flow and I Wanna Be There rubbing shoulders with the gentle techno of Milky Way (co-written with Kevin Saunderson and mixed by François Kevorkian) and the sparse digital funk of Last Transport To Alpha Centauri.
The final piece in the roots-of-micro-house puzzle is the lustrous, playful techno that emerged from Cologne in the 90s best represented by Jörg Burger and Wolfgang Voigt (aka Mike Ink). Burger turned out the Gaussian-blurred techno of The Bionaut's Lush Life Electronica before bounding into 1997 with The Modernist's pristine Opportunity Knox. Its liquid machine funk pooling somewhere between house and techno, it was micro-house avant la lettre.
Mike Ink's early classic Life's A Gas, which featured snatches of everything from T. Rex to Kraftwerk and Roxy Music, just might be the first instance of a straight-up micro-house full-length. Coming in at 1995, its nimble grooves and spangly textures still sound like the future. Ink descended ever further into ambience with a succession of four records under the name Gas, before starting Kompakt Records, the spiritual home of micro-house.
Micro-house proper as defined by the likes of Isolée, Villalobos and Luomo really came to the fore around the turn of the century. Isolée's debut LP Rest is widely acknowledged as a classic, and rightly so, as its mind-tickling tactile micro-funk is utterly engrossing. Even better are the 12" mixes of Beau Mot Plage (which does feature on Rest in edited form), particularly the glistening hall-of-mirrors tango of Heaven & Earth Re-Edit and Freeform Reform Parts 1 & 2's 11-minute tech jazz rave up.
When it comes to micro-house, my favorite micro-house long-player remains Luomo's Vocalcity, a six-song set of marathon (only one track clocks in under ten minutes) deep house workouts that veer into a sort of neon-lit bedroom funk. One can almost sense the flicker of SA-RA in the rolling, deconstructed boogie of Synkro (unsurprisingly my absolute favorite cut on the album). The half-lit, burnished edges of Vocalcity make readily apparent that, when all is said and done, micro-house was always an outgrowth of the initial deep house impulse.
One needs look no further than Virgo's lone self-titled album for all the proof you need. The record is as perfectly realized as prime Kraftwerk: Ride's perpetual trance dance is the blueprint for the deeper end of micro-house, while the gentle machine soul of School Hall is quite simply sublime. Virgo fulfilled the promise of everything Larry Heard laid out on his early Mr. Fingers sides (collected on the absolutely essential Ammnesia compilation). See also Marshall Jefferson's Jungle Wonz records, rounding out this trio of Chicago deep house auteurs.
This mirrored in New York by the Nu Groove imprint, particularly the output of the Burrell Brothers and Bobby Konders. Records like Aphrodisiac's Song Of The Siren and the N.Y. House'n AuthorityAPT. record epitomized a quintessentially Big Apple, cosmopolitan take on deep house, while Bobby Konders' House Rhythms and Dub Poets' Black & White opened the floodgates of Jamaican dub pressure into the music. Those nimble, casually funky rhythms of the New York mix of Open House's Seven Day Weekend add a healthy big city swagger to the Compass Point vibes in evidence throughout.
All these deep, dark maneuvers formed the perfect backdrop for the lonesome vocal stylings of a certain type of house producer exemplified by Jamie Principle, who pioneered a murmuring, moan-inflected sound that figures like K-Alexi Shelby, Blake Baxter and Bernard Badie then went on to run with. Records like Your Love, Cold World and Baby Wants To Ride established an icy, new wave-informed style heavily indebted to Prince (and I've often thought you could hear a bit of Bowie in there as well). These all informed by a distinctly European flavor that I suspect overlaps significantly with that of progressive-era Detroit.
Unfortunately, Principle never got to deliver an album in the 80s (making that happen is on my Doc Brown bucket list). Thankfully, Lil' Louis did, and From The Mind Of Lil' Louis was every bit as iconoclastic as one might hope from the author of the ten-minute orgasmic house masterpiece French Kiss (its pulsing sequences often pointed to as the birth of trance). Moody, spiritual and introspective, it was nevertheless intercut with a deeply freaky bent, boasting the original stalker track (I Called U) and the apocalyptic Blackout. An undeniable classic, it deserves a spot on all the 80s lists.
Curtis Jones aka Cajmere aka Green Velvet brought out the freak in full force for the 90s on his Cajual and Relief imprints. Tunes like The Stalker and Land Of The Lost picked up where Lil' Louis left off, bringing an added punch of technoid minimalism to bear on the sound. Indeed, Velvet brought the noise too, as anyone who's heard Answering Machine or Flash will tell you. On Whatever, the martial rhythms bled into EBM/industrial territory that was thoroughly post punk (and well before it was cool again!), with La La Land even becoming something of a hit.
We're now rounding into the home stretch for all of you falling asleep back there! Moodymann's post-post-soul sound, featuring dense layers of overlapping synths and textures, resulted in some of the earliest filter-disco music (a sound French acts like Daft Punk and Cassius would later take into the charts. Other Detroit figures like Terrence Parker, Alton Miller and Theo Parrish had similarly rootsy sounds that seemed to stretch back to the days when Westbound was king of the city, all three equally comfortable with deep, spiritual slates and tracky noise in equal measure.
I've often thought that if there was one crew that unexpectedly mirrored all this Motor City activity, it was the Lords Of Svek. Hailing from Sweden, the trio of Adam Beyer, Jesper Dahlbäck and Joel Mull formed the core of the output on the Svek label. This lot were the realSwedish house mafia! Offering up a perfect fusion of technoid futurism and jazzed-out house, the label's rich discography deserves to be more widely heard. You could do a lot worse than to start with the Stars compilation, which features not one but two tracks from Conceiled Project's awesome Definition Of D (my favorite of which is the loping deep house paranoia of D-Weqst).
Aside from the obvious stylistic comparisons (of which I'd venture that Svek was ECM to KDJ's Impulse! and Sound Signature's Blue Note), there were also a number of literal connections made around this time. Not only did Aril Brikha's Deeparture In Time and Art Of Vengeance EP (which featured the micro-house classic Groove La Chord) came out on Transmat, but Wild Planet's post-bleep 'n bass-era output like the Vocoder 12" and the Transmission full-length were released by Octave One's 430 West imprint. The Transmitter album in particular is a great little record that I never tire of, its sound hovering twenty feet above the ground in the interzone between techno, house and electro.
Octave One themselves are one of my key groups, in the upper echelon with SA-RA and Smith & Mighty. Everything they put out in the 90s is solid gold, with tracks like Siege, Black On Black and The Neutral Zone holding up as perfect techno workouts (see also the exquisite Art And Soul EP). Random Noise Generation was the sample-warping anything goes side project in contrast to Octave One's geometric precision, tunes like Hysteria and Falling In Dub the dark, twisted flipside to the Inner City records.
From the very beginning, there was a distinct machine soul current running through Octave One's output. Most obviously in I Believe (especially in its Magic Juan Mix), but also
the lush, low-slung rhythms of Nicolette and The Neutral Zone's rewired funk (not to mention Burujha's 1970s soul OST inflections). However, it all came crashing into the foreground at the turn of the century with Blackwater (featuring the vocals of Ann Saunderson), a rework of an earlier instrumental that found the tune remixed by Kevin Saunderson to brilliant effect. All of this two steps away from Ginuwine and Aaliyah.7
I hear similar ties to machine funk running through Stacey Pullen's discography. Going back to his earliest Bango sides, records like Ritual Beating System Tribal Rythim Mix and Sphinx had more than a bit of vintage soul about them. Pullen's Kosmic Messenger output — as compiled on the Electronic Poetry collection — makes an excellent case for picking up where Funkadelic's The Electric Spanking Of War Babies left off (alongside the electrofunk of Zapp and Mtume), especially tunes like Eye 2 Eye and Death March that rewire the funk to ever deeper levels of abstraction.
The Silent Phase record that Pullen recorded for Transmat made similar connections (especially in the Curtis Mayfield-reminiscent stylings of Love Comes And Goes), although in tracks like Body Rock and Spirit Of Sankofa one can hear distinct pre-echoes of The Neptunes. This strange pact between the two sides of the coin was further developed on Todayisthetomorrowyouwerepromisedyesterday, a record whose undeniable jazz funk sensibilities were backed by a distinctly 21st century rhythmic tricknology.
Which reminds me of Anthony Shakir's quote about only getting into techno because he didn't like the last Parliament record! (Sicko 86)1b More than any other figure his music seems to be shot through with the fragmented remnants of soul. His more dancefloor-oriented sides like Breathe Deeper are post-Funkadelic music in the same way Kosmic Messenger is, reminding one of the imagery around progressive Detroit and The Electrifying Mojo. New wave and funk colliding on the airwaves. See also the wild house shapes of That's What I Want. Mesopotamia, innit?
His moodier, more introspective sides might be even better. Often dealing in splintered breakbeats, he seemed to formulate the broken beat sound near simultaneously to 4 Hero. My absolute favorite the Tracks For My Father EP, a record that I managed to pick up after school back in the day for a few dollars from the cheap bin at the record store next door to Club Elements. It's a great four-track EP, showcasing broken beat shapes and the mutant electro-soul of Fact Of The Matter before it all collapses into the flickering machine soul of Travelers. Shakir later actually worked with the German post punk band F.S.K. in 2004 on First Take Then Shake.
Which brings us to the final outpost in today's elevator ride, the music of young Jimmy Edgar. Any further over the line and you're literally listening to Supa Dupa Fly, which is too far (at least until next episode!). Edgar released the jaw-dropping Morris Nightingale/Kristuit Salu record to little fanfare back in 2002. It should have been massive. Machine funk deconstructed, this liquid r&b is the split of Kraftwerk, J Dilla and Timbaland.
The largely instrumental work later caught the attention of Warp Records, where Edgar found a home for a spell, releasing the Bounce, Make, Model mini-album and the Color Strip LP. Both of which are prime android funk in the Juan Atkins/Prince tradition. True machine soul, in other words, and the perfect segue into the final episode of Terminal Vibration, when we go searching for the soul in the machine...
Terminal Vibration 9: Elevator Music
The MoverBody Snatchers Impaler - First MixPlanet Core Productions
4 HeroThe PowerReinforced
The Black DogSeers & SagesBlack Dog Productions
Smart SystemsTingler Four By Four MixJumpin' & Pumpin'
Royal HouseParty PeopleIdlers
69My Machines Parts 1, 2 & 3, including Extraterrestrial RaggabeatsPlanet E
StrandBloated Juggernaut MixFrictional
Suburban KnightThe Art Of Stalking Stalker MixTransmat
I remember Pennington turning in burning hot mix on Groovetech around the same time. Unfortunately, that site (which was something of an online record store, only so much more) is long gone, but someone seems to have uploaded the mix to Youtube:
Pennington, James. Suburban Knight @ Groovetech. Groovetech, Suburban Knight, 23 Nov. 2001. Live DJ Mix.
The legend of Andrew Weatherall already loomed large when I first tumbled like Alice down into the wonderland that is dance music. This was back in 1996, at the cusp of my high school years. When I'd buy records, the name Andrew Weatherall would crop up with some regularity — on a remix here, an album credit there — and eventually I put two and two together and deduced that this was something worth looking into.
You know how it goes, one tends to travel the world of music from node to node: Bowie to Eno to Can in three moves. In this case, it was even simpler than that. I remember the first time I ever caught Weatherall's name was on the CD-single for The Future Sound Of London's Papua New Guinea, which featured the ten-minute Andrew Weatherall Mix, a widescreen tour de force in the progressive house style of the day.
Not long after, I started picking up his records — released under crazy names like Two Lone Swordsmen and The Sabres Of Paradise — while actively keeping an eye out for more remixes that he might have done. The deeper I got into music, the more I'd pick up about its history along the way — connecting nodes and joining the dots — which is how I discovered that he was one of the founders of Junior Boy's Own (thinks, hey, they put out Dubnobasswithmyheadman!) and helped to spearhead the whole rave zeitgeist in the first place.
All of which came to light as I listened to the music, working my way backwards from what was — at the time — his latest record (Two Lone Swordsmen's Stay Down). Needless to say, it's a process that has continued for me right up to the present day. So take this as an avowed fan's attempt to weave a semi-historical narrative around 30-odd Weatherall records. We've got albums, EPs, 12" singles, comps, mixes and even a single-sided 7" in this monster breakout, all of which were either produced, mixed, compiled or contain remixes by the man himself.
I accumulated these records gradually over the years — in no particular order — so whether it was during the electronica 90s, the post punk/grime/r&b/everything 00s or even last week, my impressions of these records were informed as much by the era that I first heard them as they were by the circumstances from which they had initially sprung. As such, this is a deeply personal list. Someone else might very well pick different records (although I suspect at least half of our choices would overlap). Perhaps I haven't even heard his best record? (If not, please clue me in!)
However, I do believe that this particular list does get to the heart of not only why Weatherall's music was so special to me growing up (and why it remains a Parallax touchstone to this day), but also its seismic importance in dance music's continual drift over the years. I also believe that it paints a useful portrait of the various currents that were flowing in and out of each other along the way. So without any further ado, I give you the Warehouse Weatherall XXX.
But first, a little background:
Andrew Weatherall was born in 1963 in the small town of Windsor, located twenty miles west of London. Perhaps it was inevitable that punk and all that came in its wake would have such a profound shaping effect on young Andy, coming up as he did in the 1970s so close to the scene's epicenter and at an ideal age to soak it all in. Apparently, he was a huge fan of Bowie and The Clash,1a which makes perfect sense to anyone who's ever heard one of his records.
In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Weatherall's influence on dance music parallels the impact that The Clash had on punk (and everything that came in its wake). More specifically, I'd say he directly corresponds in this metaphor with none other than Mick Jones. Like old Mick, he's careened through many faces and phases over the years, covering that wide expanse of terrain between rock and dance music in singular fashion. For our purposes today, that journey begins in the mid-eighties.
In 1986, Andrew Weatherall started the Boy's Own fanzine with Terry Farley, Pete Heller and the rest of the Boy's Own posse, which were essentially a crew that hit the clubs and the record shops together. Covering everything from music to football, fashion and more, with loads of in-jokes only understood by 200 people living in London2a, Boy's Own's twelve issue run happened to coincide with the arrival of acid house on British shores and the subsequent dawn of the rave era.
The Boy's Own circulation ultimately ballooned across the country, reaching far beyond its humble beginnings. At one point, Paul Oakenfold even published an article about Ibiza titled Bermondsey Goes Baleriac!3 As the Boy's Own gang got swept up in all the excitement around the Second Summer Of Love, they were also elemental in spearheading the whole Balearic phenomenon4 (with the more conservative tastemaker Farley playing Joe Strummer to Weatherall'sMick Jones) even as they spread the sound of acid house across the country.
This is when Weatherall started to become known for his wide-ranging, free-form sets, described tantalizingly by Sean Bidder as eclectic mixes which would freely cross Italian piano monsters with cut-and-paste indie and dub breakdowns.1b You can just sense the roots of what would come to be the man's trademark sound lurking in there somewhere, and within the wide-ranging sonic mash-up, his warped, dubbed-out claustrophobic vision was beginning to take shape.
After years spent burning up the clubs on the wheels of steel — and developing an ear tuned to the sounds of the nascent rave culture — it was time to put that vibe on wax. Much like Walter Gibbons, Larry Levan and François Kevorkian over a decade earlier, he was called upon to remix other artists' material for the dancefloor. This is the context for Weatherall's initial forays into the studio, and as such, where we get to talk about the music. Oh, and apologies for the rambling commentary... I found it nearly impossible to be concise today!
And Now For The Records
Early on, Weatherall's story is written entirely in remixes. In fact, I'd posit that there have been three distinct phases to Weatherall's career, the first of which is the wild-eyed era of discovery, stretching from the early Boy's Own days on the club circuit through his ascent as a producer and remixer, right into the reign of The Sabres Of Paradise. So, roughly speaking, 1986-1994. The constant running through all three eras — but established right here at the outset — is his fluidity between the worlds of dance music and rock, as an ambassador of sorts, bringing countless indie kids into the world of dance music (and vice versa).
Case in point is Weatherall's first true foray into the studio, which came in 1989, where he was reworking indie dance hooligans the Happy Mondays' Hallelujah alongside Paul Oakenfold. The Club Mix cools out the original version's sloppy junkyard hustle and winds it down to a low slung, 4/4 pulse, fleshing out the band's lumpen Madchester sound with Italo-esque pianos, chanting monks and just a snatch of gospel.
The sense of space in the mix — knocked out with a heavier bottom end — make it the undisputed highlight of the record, grooving miles better than anything else here and sounding like a glimpse of the future waiting just around the bend. Indeed, I'd mark this out as the moment when the Mondays got down with rave and got with the program, resulting a year later in Pills 'N' Thrills And Bellyaches, their absolute masterpiece.
Weatherall's first solo remix was Loaded, an epochal reworking Primal Scream's I'm Losing More Than I'll Ever Have, which came out shortly after Hallelujah. Sounding something like a post-rave Sympathy For The Devil, it defined the freewheeling spirit of the times. It's a stone classic and the 12" would make the cut for this list in a heartbeat, but since it figures into the band's 1991 album Screamadelica, we'll scoop it up that way.
We'll get to that one in a minute... but first, it's time for My Bloody Valentine.
Here we go! This came out well before MBV's Loveless, and found Weatherall reworking the track that would ultimately close that album into the band's biggest dancefloor moment. Stretching the tune out to 7½ minutes, he yokes the band's ethereal vocals and sheets of guitar to huge crashing beats from Westbam's Alarm Clock, transforming the Zen-like original into a driving big beat groove.
This — along with Loaded and Hallelujah — perfectly encapsulates what indie dance is all about, scrambling together the disparate worlds of post-post punk indie rock, hip hop and acid house like a mad scientist and winding up with a new psychedelia. As much as anyone else, Weatherall was a key architect of the sound. You can hear the germ of The Chemical Brothers in here somewhere, which is borne out by their endless caning of the record at the Heavenly Social.
Indeed, this is one of those records that'll never stop getting played in clubs.
In the midst of this whole Terminal Vibration trip we've been on, I alluded to Wobble's work in the nineties and this is our first port of call at the turn of the decade. Apparently Wobble had spent time sweeping railroad stations during a particularly dry spell in the late eighties, even announcing over the P.A. occasionally, I used to be somebody, I repeat, I used to be somebody!
This record, however, finds the man with a new lease of life (one that he's maintained more or less continually since). Interestingly, this 12" was actually released on the Boy's Own label in the wake of the first Invaders Of The Heart full-length, as if the lads were saying you are one of us, yes you are. Accordingly, Wobble got swept up in the moment, guesting on a whole brace of dance records, including things like Bomb The Bass' Clear and The Orb's Blue Room.
The Nonsonicus Maximus Mix of Bomba is a sublime bit of gently chugging Europe-endlessness, of a piece with the ambient house of The Orb and Sun Electric. There's an ancient quality to these synths — recalling the kosmische seventies — as they blend with intensely plucked guitars and the vocals of Natacha Atlas. And of course, Wobble's throbbing bassline front and center.
This connects latterly with Weatherall's post punk roots (indeed, one suspects that Metal Box would have been a huge record for him) and — jumping forward twenty years — to the cosmic electronica he's spent this past decade exploring (more on this to come). Around this time (back to 1990 now), he also turned in a remix of Saint Etienne's Only Love Can Break Your Heart A Mix In Two Halves, which was largely cut from the same dubbed-out ambient house cloth as this (if slightly less brilliant). The first half is where it's at.
4. Bocca JuniorsRaise & Substance
These two taken at once. This the first attempt at working something up from scratch. The Bocca Juniors were essentially the Boy's Own gang in (if I'm not mistaken) their first studio guise. There's this great period video on Youtube5 that features the crew getting interviewed on Snub TV. Particularly funny is when old Andy casually remarks I don't really like techno. Goodness me, how times change!
Raise pulses along at a mid-tempo pace on a cycling feedback-soaked bassline, with flashes of synth brass, Italo-house pianos and a commanding vocal from Anna Haigh, essentially laying out the blueprint for the sound that Fluke would ride through the rest of the decade. It's a big room sound, almost indie dance by default (albeit coming at it from the other direction).6
Substance is a rather different matter, with ethereal vocals from Haigh and a sixties-style fuzz box guitar riding atop a rolling breakbeats and a gently meandering bassline.7 The sixties rock thing was in the air at the time (see also Inspiral Carpets and Art Science Technology), culminating in Fatboy Slim and The Chemical Brothers about five years later. Funny enough, I first knew this as a Dot Allison track and didn't find out it was a cover until somewhat recently.
Interesting the way both of these records prefigure large swathes of the decade, even if within a few years they might have sounded dated to most ears at the time. With the benefit of hindsight, perspective shifts and old becomes new again (thinking of Nuggets here), and one has the opportunity to hear things anew. Hearing them nearly thirty years later, both tunes remain excellent slabs of ambassadorial post-rave pop, shot through with the idealism of the era and capturing the excitement of the times infectiously.
Back to the remix. The Solar Youth Mix of Perpetual Dawn was quite possibly The Orb's greatest pop moment, polishing the sprawling album version into a glistening groove that burned along at a ragga pace. Everything shimmers with the unmistakable feel of the dancehall, even introducing a nagging vocal refrain to what was originally an instrumental.
Weatherall contributes two Ultrabass mixes on the flipside. Ultrabass I is a breakbeat-driven affair, punctuated by orchestra hits and outer space sonix, while Ultrabass II rides a deeper 4/4 pulse with more than a little tension, fattening up the sound considerably. Dread vibes for real! Weatherall's approach here in thrall to the digidub of Mad Professor's Ariwa imprint and Adrian Sherwood's On-U Sound, the presence of which will be felt even more so as we continue.
The fruit of Primal Scream's extended dalliance with rave culture, this is the culmination of 12" singles like Come Together and the aforementioned Loaded (singles that Weatherall happened to have a profound hand in shaping). As an LP it excels, mixing machine rhythms, post-acid house electronics and a rootsy, pentecostal flavor in a heady cocktail of blissed out perfection. With a couple exceptions (Movin' On Up and Damaged) everything here has Weatherall's fingerprints all over it.
The aforementioned Loaded anchors the album, providing a midpoint between rootsy numbers like Movin' On Up, post-acid dancefloor burners like Don't Fight It, Feel It and the blissed out dream pop of Higher Than The Sun (co-produced with The Orb). The latter is an obvious highlight of the record, with a deep, spacious sound cloaking Bobby Gillespie's half-whispered vocals over a bed of electronic percussion. It's all quite moving, and when the climax hits — with those pile-driving slow-motion breakbeats — it's as if you're breaking through to the heavens.
A large portion of Screamadelica is dominated by gentle, atmospheric numbers like Inner Flight (sounding like The Beach Boys scoring 2001: A Space Odyssey), the absolutely gorgeous I'm Coming Down and Shine Like Stars (the album's signing off moment). The record's most psychedelic tunes are some of its finest, including Weatherall's deeply spiritual marathon mix of Come Together, his reprise of Higher Than The Sun A Dub Symphony In Two Parts (which features dub-wise harpsichords and an unforgettable bassline from Jah Wobble) and a slinky cover of The 13th Floor Elevators' Slip Inside This House (co-produced with Hypnotone).
Also worth checking out is the band's freeform cover of Dennis Wilson's Carry Me Home, another Weatherall-helmed moment, which can be found on the Dixie Narco EP (released the following year).
Ultra-extended dancefloor versions of Flowered Up's Weekender. With a running time of 31 minutes split between two marathon dancefloor excursions, Weatherall's Weekender is something like the soundtrack to your wildest all-night adventures. This is an absolutely incredible example of the possibilities inherent to the 12" single, with the Audrey Is A Little Bit Partial Mix riding a river of bass and rolling breakbeats in its funky Clavinet workout before — without any warning — mutating at its midpoint into a stomping 4/4 groove.
The flipside's Audrey Is A Little Bit More Partial Mix opens with a looped disco diva singing, gonna have a good time before dropping directly into a resolutely percussion-heavy 4/4 pulse anchored by a rude bassline, cascading clipped vocals and moody piano architecture. The mirror image of the a-side, it eventually slows down to a crawl before breaking into a downbeat coda for the song's second half. The whole affair emblematic of Weatherall's restlessly creative flair for conjuring up thoroughly absorbing vibes in the studio.
Another album culminating from a series of Weatherall-helmed 12" singles, Morning Dove White is a spellbinding collection of blissful dream pop that prefigures the likes of Dido and Beth Orton by a few years. The focus here lies on dubbed-out, almost pop-reggae stylings (think Maxi Priest and Bob Khaleel) rather than folktronica, but the effect remains the same. Alongside Billie Ray Martin's 4 Ambient Tales, this is the unsung precursor to that whole sound.
Scottish group One Dove8 were led by Dot Allison, whose breathy vocals haunt these recordings. Weatherall's production is deeply atmospheric, with plenty of weightless moments like Sirens and Why Don't You Take Me drifting gracefully off into the horizon. Throughout, there's an almost undisclosed heaviness to the proceedings (see Transient Truth, for example), which are frequently drenched in dub effects and bass pressure.
Nevertheless, breezy chansons like Breakdown Cellophane Boat Mix, Fallen and White Love Guitar Paradise Mix are the order of the day, showcasing Weatherall's fetching way with a pop song. In fact, I'd single this out as one of the great hidden gems in early nineties pop. Lastly, I should note that — like fellow Scots Primal ScreamDot Allison will have a recurring role in this story...
Alongside Gary Burns and Jagz Kooner, Weatherall finally delivers his debut album. From the outset, The Sabres Of Paradise were an underground proposition, signing to Warp Records9 and specializing in a unique brand of dub-heavy techno shot through with thoroughly dread vibes. The closest comparison would be Bandulu, who were quite clearly fellow travelers operating at the intersection of dub and the dancefloor.
Tracks like Still Fighting, Inter-Lergen-Ten-ko and Smokebelch I find the group at their most progressive, albeit with the oppressive presence of dub creeping in at all corners and a harder 4/4 pulse, offering a more claustrophobic take on the sound showcased by Weatherall's remix of Papua New Guinea. The symphonic Beatless Mix of Smokebelch II borrows large swathes of Chicago house don Elbee Bad's The New Age Of Faith, echoing the angelic spirit of Morning Dove White.
Still, it's in the deep end that the record's sympathies most obviously lie, grasping at ever harder shapes and sharper edges in a headlong rush into oblivion. It's a sound that still needed to stew awhile, having yet to reach its true potential. And yet somewhere in the paranoid atmosphere of the album's finest moments, alongside the dark, spectral shapes of Clock Factory, one could find an apocalyptic glimpse of the group's future.
Which is an absolute classic. A quantum leap from Sabresonic, Haunted Dancehall shakes things up considerably, distancing itself from the progressive house tendencies of the debut to dial everything down to a smoker's pace. Like FSOL's ISDN, it's almost a trip hop record by default, imbued with spectral shapes and a strong sense of paranoia. There's a clear debt here to not only dub but also post punk and industrial, marking it out as a Terminal Vibration record.
With liner notes from Trainspotting novelist Irvine Welsh offering up a rough outline of a smoke-steeped storyline, the whole thing came off like The Parallax View by way of Babylon. With the lion's share of the record given over to electro-tinged breakbeat workouts like Ballad Of Nicky McGuire and Bubble And Slide on one hand and moody atmosphere pieces like Flight Path Estate and Theme 4 on the other, the record's dark heart was undoubtedly the three track run that lie at its very center.
Wilmot was built around the horn motif from Black But Sweet by Wilmoth Houdini & The Night Owls, working up an downbeat skank that translated Trinidadian calypso for the smoked-out nineties. It had previously appeared in a stunning live-sounding version on the 12" single, with pile-driving breakbeats and scorching slow-motion surf guitar backing the singer Wonder, who sounded like she was channeling loa in the dancehall (Haunted Dancehall, indeed!).
Low-slung rockabilly six-string also lie at the center of Tow Truck, a proto-big beat burner. This is big beat the way Depth Charge did it,10 in slow-motion and a couple years early (ts ten ton beats prefiguring certain corners of The Chemical Brothers' sound).11 This big beat trilogy was rounded out by Theme, which found the crew rewiring a Mission Impossible-style refrain years before U2's rhythm section thought to do it.
This is the point where Weatherall's signature sound really begins to take shape (rather appropriately at the nexus of electro's latent futurism and trip hop's sense of dread atmosphere), carrying with it all the attendant imagery of Radio Clash, the Black Ark and beats laid down in moody half-light. The word that constantly springs to mind when hearing the man's music is physicality: there's a very real sense of weight to these muscular grooves (and all of the sounds swirling in their orbit), as if they were three-dimensional objects of metal, wood and stone occupying physical space. In other words, what they used to call substance.
A selection of Sabres sleeves
At this point, you also begin to see the unmistakable Weatherall visual flair beginning to take shape, an aesthetic that continues right up to his present day Linotype imagery. All of these sleeves from contemporary compilations and EPs, which I've included not as part of the golden thirty but because their sleeves are so perfectly evocative of the music contained within. Love that style! Somehow elegant and rugged, like wrought iron.
11. Deanne DayThe Day After & The Long First Friday
Emissions Audio Output1995/1996
And then at the midpoint of the decade, it's as if a switch had suddenly been flipped. The Sabres Of Paradise went their separate ways and Weatherall setup a new label: Emissions Audio Output. These two records were among the label's first releases, seemingly coming out of nowhere. Deanne Day was actually a collaboration with David Harrow (who, among other things, had played with the Invaders Of The Heart), the moniker a play on their first initials (say it out loud, D. and A.).
This kicks off the second phase of Weatherall's career, an era when he was operating at the peak of his powers. Turning on a dime, he seems to have stumbled upon the sound that would define his work for the next five years. The moodiness is still in full force — and the sonics still dwelling deep within the shadows — but suddenly it's as if everything has come into focus. There's a strong comparison to be made with Basic Channel's sound — I suspect Andy had been listening closely — and, as with B.C., you can unmistakably hear the early stirrings of the micro-house sound (Isolée, Villalobos, Kompakt et. al.) that would hold sway at the dawn of the 21st century.
The Day After EP is clearly on the minimalist tip. Horicho's spartan soundscape is the twin sister to Model 500's Starlight. Imagine Kraftwerk making house music circa Computer World. Brittle drum machines tick out the rhythm while gentle textures reverberate into the distance. The story is told in the echo, the spaces within the spaces. Body Control amplifies on this hall-of-mirrors effect, with a whirlpool synth in orbit around its central rhythm, while Honk If You've Seen The King fixates on the clickety-clack, metronomic rhythms, with just a hint of texture at the edge of the mix. That lonely, whistling synth a particularly evocative touch.
However, the The Long First Friday is where its at. In our timeline, this slots in between the first two Swordsmen records. I included it here because these two Deanne Day records make such a perfect pair. With both tracks here clocking in at over ten minutes, this is a tantric excursion into razor-thin, dreamlike techno. Once again, think Kraftwerk gone house, or better yet Juan Atkins' Infiniti output.12 They both seem to just stretch out into infinity.
The Long First Friday is impossibly lush, moody techno, its brittle drums cradling a wistful synth melody as its junglist bassline pushes out from within the mix. On the flipside, the fourteen minute Hardly Breathe is a motorik groove that splits the difference between techno and house. Ethereal synths drift aimlessly over an unchanging rhythm — encircled by hi-hats flanging in a double helix — as some disembodied diva (caught in a time loop) repeatedly intones the song's title.
Both sides full of gentle longing, in the recurrent Detroit tradition.
The triumphant return of Primal Scream (after their oft-dismissed Give Out But Don't Give Up),13 featuring Weatherall back in the producer's chair. This lazy downbeat groove — sounding like something from some lost seventies OST — is the perfect counterpoint to Danny Boyle's film of the same title. From the Augustus Pablo-esque melodica to the loping breakbeat and those languid, sun-glazed guitars, the whole thing is just stoned slacker perfection (and cool as ice).
Notably, Trainspotting later showed up on Primal Scream's excellent Vanishing Point (which came out in — surprise, surprise — 1997), albeit in slightly edited form. Trust me though, this is the version you want. As with Haunted Dancehall, the atmosphere is thoroughly smoked-out, but here the rough edges have been beveled away and rendered elegant. Like The Parallax View with an Oak Park strut, it just rolls on and on. You can't help but get lose yourself in its casual sway. Just hearing it is like spending ten minutes in the mid-nineties...
Part of a loose trilogy alongside the The Third Mission and The Tenth Mission EPs, all of which translate the rude shapes of Haunted Dancehall into something approximating the 21st century. Two Lone Swordsmen finds Andy jamming in the studio with Keith Tenniswood, who happened to be sitting behind the boards during some Sabres Of Paradise studio downtime.
When discussing the new 2LS sound, one can't underestimate the importance of Keith Tenniswood, who brought a glitched-out sensibility to the table that hadn't previously been apparent in Weatherall's work. Andrew himself once remarked, some of Mister Tenniswood's drum programming takes my breath away. Seeing as their production partnership has continued to this day in one form or another, it's clear that Tenniswood was a crucial part of the equation.
With nearly two hours of music, The Fifth Mission is a veritable treasure trove of warped machine soul. The crux of this this record lies in both the post-electro's rhythm matrix and the overcast atmosphere of abstract hip hop. One need look no further than tracks like Two Barb Quickstep, Switch It and The King Mob File for a perfect illustration of the new sound. Gone are the grimy back alleys of Haunted Dancehall, and in their place is the chrome-plated architecture of electronic soul. With every surface seemingly polished to crystal-clear perfection, even the record's most shadowy moments glisten in the moonlight.
The one exception to the rule is Rico's Helly, a Basic Channel-esque excursion into oneiric deep house, which surfs an improbable wood-bassline on a cresting wave to the sublime. Definite shades of the Deanne Day records, and a presence that would become increasingly felt over the course of the next few entries as the Swordsmen delve ever deeper into house music.
However, my absolute favorite moment here is the lurching downtempo reverie of Glenn Street Assault Squad. Its malfunctioning drum machine seems to stagger beneath the weight of those warped textures, while a renegade boogie synth squiggles the whole affair into the filmic. The effect is — as with the rest of this record — something like Kraftwerk jamming with Timbaland in lunar orbit.14
Following swiftly after The Fifth Mission, this is a roundup of remixes and new material15 that fixes on the deep house axis of the duo's sound. Glide By Shooting is an ethereal slice of deep, minimal house that just shimmers. The mood here quite reminiscent of the atmosphere-soaked deep house output of the Svek label (particularly Conceiled Project's D-Weqst). Other tracks, like Flossie Wears Paco And Ralph and Bim, Jack And Florence, continue to mine the minimal vein laid out by the Deanne Day records.
The highlight, however, is undoubtedly the remix of Rico's Helly (Retailored by Nourizadeh & Teasdale, as it says on the label). This version is almost completely unrecognizable from the one on The Fifth Mission, taking a dubbed-out, skanking angle on the original that swings so much it almost ceases to be house and becomes something more like a discomix vision of the blues. With ethereal synths drifting across a mahogany bassline, it grooves along for nine minutes as delicate electronic pads hint at a melody. At one point, the bass even drops into a descending blues pattern like it's a Cab Calloway record!
The other core aspect of Swimming Not Skimming lies in the re-emergence of the studio kinda cloudy ambience of Trainspotting, bringing a distinctly trip hop flavor to certain corners of the record.Azzolini And The Branch Brothers Meet Being sets the tone, kicking off the record with a strongly atmospheric slice of downbeat. Gentle pads16 reverberate through the soundscape while a wood bass plucks out a melody and a beat keeps threatening to take shape (but disintegrates just as quickly). The Ob007 Mix picks up where the brittle downbeat of The Fifth Mission left off, with dulcimer synths that always remind me of Nitemare 3D (an old PC game that my brother and I used to play).
Just bubbling under the surface is a sense of electro decomposition, in tunes like Don't Call It Jerk and Rico's Hellectro (almost sounding like a So Solid Crew backing track!). It really comes to the surface in Two Lone Swordsmen vs. The One True Pod Jakey In The Subway, which is a malfunctioning take on electro proper, a sound that would increasingly come to the fore over course of the next few years.
The big surprise is In The Nursery Visit Glenn Street, which finds the neoclassical duo In The Nursery reworking Glenn Street Assault Squad into a symphonic piece of soundtrack music in search of a film. There's even a spoken word bit! One detects an aura developing around the whole Two Lone Swordsmen project around this point, a real sense of mystique. Dig those song titles! The whole thing seeming to take on the shape of a sub-culture at the micro level. Intensely local, and just as the era of globalism is dawning.17
Tucked away on Humboldt County Records is The Role Of Linoleum, a curious double-EP by the Swordsmen in a guise named for Weatherall's other art form of choice. A one-off, although Andy asserted in a contemporary interview that the project would stay around.2b A shame we never heard more from the Squares, as it's a compelling sound they've struck upon here, but then that makes what we do have that much more special.
This record finds the duo moonlighting with a unique strain of moody, minimal techno vaguely reminiscent of Deanne Day. However, what marks this out as unique is the unusual nature its chosen instrumentation. That and its thoroughly ramshackle atmosphere! The drums all have this dirty, mangled quality to them, paired with clamoring metallic percussion and decomposing synth textures. Imperfect music made with machines. It's all very Atari 2600!
Neuphrique rides in on a minute of clanking rhythm before deep, organ-ic synths just ooze over the track like a river of vibe. The whole thing's held down by a decaying, 8-bit synth bassline that drives the tune forward, giving it a logical sense of progression. Here Come The Squares continues down the same path, this time bringing the ray of light vibes of Deanne Day into this record's ramshackle aesthetic. There's a tactile sense of physicality that sets this all apart from what's come before.
Blue Pole Dancer plays out its melody on a sparse cluster of electronic tones, while grimy detuned percussion taps out a counterpoint melody of its own. Tidy Unit is practically a rumination on these same warped sheet-metal drums, rhythm and melody nearly atomized by distortion. The reticent music box reverie of Raider would be soothing but for the rickety percussion running right through its center, while Phrique Out unfurls a distant rustling, underwater atmosphere as a single hi-hat bores through the mix with metronomic precision.
I can't think of another record remotely like it. Despite the twisted abstraction, there's a real human dimension to this record, a beating heart at its motorik core. You can hear a lingering 80s influence creeping into view here, one that would be increasingly felt as the decade winds to a close; also the first real shades of post punk. In fact, this record sounds something like if some Sheffield crew in the orbit of Fast Product time-traveled to 1997, heard Basic Channel for the first time, and then tried to show the blokes back home what it sounded like when they returned.
Back to home base, where those early shades of electro have begun to creep in at every corner to the point that they've come to define the sound. Plunge does just what it says on the tin, with well-deep textures bombing through a slithering electroid rhythm. We Love Mutronics Keith Boy Remix is nearly straight up electro, giving a tantalizing hint of things to come, before breaking into a junglist canter for its last couple minutes. Spraycan Attack gives a rare glimpse of the duo's deeply warped take on drum 'n bass, a sound they'd return to on their next EP before abandoning it altogether for electro's android rhythm matrix.
Still, there's a very satisfying amount of deep house in effect here.
The shimmering Turn The Filter Off is a jazzed-out exploration of the nascent micro-house sound, now just starting to be felt as a presence out in club land. Kickin' In Part 3 and Spin Desire both revisit the haunting house-music-played-on-a-double-bass sound of Rico's Helly. It's one of the most recognizable sounds in house, up there with the crystal clear synths of Larry Heard's Ammnesia and the warped filter-disco psychedelia of Moodymann's Silentintroduction.
Standing in for loads of electro-tinged 2LS remixes around this time (many of which are collected on Peppered With Spastic Magic: A Collection Of Two Lone Swordsmen Remixes). This is my favorite of the bunch, almost accidentally prefiguring the whole eighties revival years before the fact (see also I-f and Little Computer People). The third and final appearance of Primal Scream in this list. Weatherall maintained a continual relationship with the band, reworking tracks from all their albums up to and including Exterminator.
This an under-the-radar rework of the strangest (and my favorite) track from 1997's Vanishing Point (inspired by the 1971 amphetamine road movie starring Barry Newman). The original was a warped dub endeavor, with all levels overdriven into the red and Bobby Gillespie's vocals distorted beyond comprehension. Here cycling electro beats propel the tune at an uptempo double-time, while the dub signifiers of the original swirl all around. It all sounds so unforced, so natural, that you manage to forget the original while it's playing.
Sounding like an Arthur Baker remix of Mark Stewart + Maffia, it's a sound that should have existed in the eighties but never did. But now it does, and one can feel the next decade slowly begin to take shape...
This last gasp of The Sabres Of Paradise is essentially a straight-up dub track (the title is Dub easy spelled backward), albeit one with a strong post punk flavor about it. Like much of Weatherall's dance music, this is heavily inflected by echoes of post punk, memories of rock past. This an unreleased tune (it says recorded May 93 on the label) that washed up on the Dubnology 2: Lost In Bass compilation in 1996. Andrew must have decided it wouldn't hurt to press up a few copies onto wax. As a single-sided 7", it excels.
Whispering hi-hats and the occasional clanking drum fill tap out the rhythm as a towering bassline provides the foundation for the track. Morricone-esque harmonicas peal through the soundscape and a vibrating guitar figure sails across the sky. A vocal bit from an old Count Ossie record intones, ever since I was a youth, I've always been searching for the truth.
And that's it. So simple, but so necessary! Once again, all remarkably physical (that word again). This would have fit right in on Haunted Dancehall. I'm glad it saw the light of day (makes you wonder what's still in the vaults!). Pictured above is the flipside, which features an etching of some trademark Sabres imagery. Intimidating and sleazy!
This is great! The dark horse of this list, featuring Weatherall at his absolute jazziest. In an interview, he once singled this out as his favorite remix that he'd done up to that point.2cRed Snapper were a band that split the difference between trip hop and electronic jazz, and here their juke joint original gets reworked into an insouciantly dread-soaked delight.
A strangely beautiful synth refrain unwinds over rolling breakbeats and a two note organ vamp, all while squealing electronic textures wind their way through the mix. You want to hear a an MC freestyle over this beat. I'm reminded of some of the great Terranova b-sides, tunes like Sin Bin and Millennium Bug, where they're just running the machines as they unspool strange melodies over cascading breakbeats. Perhaps a shade more lighthearted, but still overcast, conjuring up images of late night taxi rides and third floor apartments overlooking the naked city.
You also get the Two Lone Swordsmen Blue Jam Cologne Mix, which plays out the record like a beatless coda.
This is where I came in at the time, and the first Weatherall record I ever picked up. As a teenage fan of Drexciya and Kevin Saunderson, it made perfect sense.18 The lovely vintage sleeve art by James Woodbourne a perfect encapsulation of the arcane sounds contained within. Deep sea divers. The Nautilus. Two Lone Swordsmen go aquatic! Upon reflection, there always was an Ocean Of Sound quality to their work, so I suppose here they're just making it official.
In this interview2d that I keep referencing, which was conducted just after the album's release, Weatherall talks a great deal about what influenced him in putting this record together:
During the making of the album I was mainly influenced by library records, Italian b-movie soundtracks and early synthesizer records. Just basically anything that was funky and had early keyboards on top. A lot of those library records sound like the studios have just invested in synthesizers. They're just jammin' away on those records.
Which paints a better thumbnail sketch of what you're getting into than I ever could. At the time, I had no idea what library records were, but gradually I discovered things like the KPM label and Sam Spence's records. Music that was recorded with the intent to be used as bedding music for television and the like. At the time, I can think of only Boards Of Canada being tuned into the same frequency. This years before Ghost Box turned it all into a way of life!
Weatherall also talked of wanting the tracks to be on the shorter side, with the record clocking in at the 45 minute length of classic LPs. Of time spent really crafting the album as a cohesive set of songs, an experience. Truthfully, I think he'd always had a knack for it, but with Stay Down it's taken to a whole other level. This is the point when — even as he's submerging himself in the ocean's depths — Weatherall's work arcs gracefully toward the heavens. When you put the record on, you can immediately tell you're witnessing something special.
Hope We Never Surface begins the proceedings on a note of oceanic tranquility, with a sequence of lustrous analogue tones (sounding as if they were submerged underwater) unspooling in a state of ambient bliss. This mood endures into Ink Cloud19, its crystalline synths sounding like the gates opening to an underwater palace, introducing a scraping trip hop beat and ancient electric organs as the record begins to ever so gradually pick up some steam.
The Big Clapper wires a 303 bassline to an ungainly dub rhythm, whistling synths and trebly tones zig-zagging across a sullen string section, the whole thing striking the perfect balance between zaniness and melancholy. A short sharp shock. Just as you begin to work it out, it stops.2eIvy And Lead takes this notion to its extreme, with a mischievous vibraphone loop strolling across a wood bassline and rewinding electronic percussion, despondent strings sawing out beneath the underwater jazz.
There's a quite a bit of aquatic electro to be found here as well, picking up where A Bag Of Blue Sparks20 EP left off. We Change The Frequency recalls contemporary Drexciya (especially The Return Of Drexciya EP), while the dark, delicate shapes of Light The Last Flare predict Keith Tenniswood's Radioactive Man project. The pronounced swing of Mr. Paris's Monsters even bears a passing resemblance to the nascent sounds of UK garage.
No Red Stopping is the record's one concession to the 4/4 beat, and it's a murky house masterpiece, one of the album's true highlights. Ethereal synths float across a DX-100-sounding bassline imbued with a moody glow as an uncomplicated kick-snare groove rolls out beneath it, teeming with re-triggered clicks and trebly hi-hats. Apparently, it was inspired by a local taxi driver who'd come from war-torn Sarajevo, who wouldn't stop at red lights because you'd get shot at by snipers at traffic lights back home.2f
The austere downbeat of Spine Bubbles provides a hint of things to come on the A Virus With Shoes EP,21 even if this album's take on trip hop is far more unique. In its home stretch, Stay Down diverges into a couple idiosyncratic breakbeat workouts. The seasick strings and tricky rhythms of We Discordians Must Stick Apart recall peak-era Black Dog, while Alpha School's staggering breakbeats underpin another music box melody and a bass progression straight out of the new wave playbook.
Like a strange, pleasant dream — the sort of dream you wake up from in a state of intense emotion, with inexplicable tears in your eyes — coming to a gradual but inevitable end, the record closes solemnly with the aptly-titled As Worldly Pleasures Wave Goodbye... A glitched-out rhythm tap dances in treble across the surface of the most mournful underwater strings since Gavin Bryars' The Sinking Of The Titanic. It's the perfect conclusion to an arcane record, teeming with mystery, as eccentric and inscrutable as Weatherall himself.
After the elegiac heights (and depths) of Stay Down, this record initially came as a shock. Sure, everything was still remarkably tactile and of-human-dimension, but with none of the humanity, like a dusty circuit board from 1984. Gone are the dreamlike shades of wistful melancholy and the mesmerizing underwater visions drifting in and out of focus, lost now for all time. In their place stands an unforgiving matrix of pumping sinister electro. After all, the nineties are over... it's now the 21st century. Watch your back, partner.
Instantly, we're submerged back into the seething paranoia of Haunted Dancehall, but with all of the dub-derived warmth sucked out with a vampire's precision. This is the sound of The Parallax View's conspiracies hidden in plain light, the claustrophobic noir of The Manchurian Candidate and Max Cohen's tortured descent into the secrets of Pi. The record even opens with the first in a series of Tiny Reminder interludes, electro-acoustic passages scattered throughout the record like a string of clues to a mystery with no solution.
Menacing electro is the order of the day, traxx with short, functional names like Neuflex, Solo Strike and Brootle. A tune like Akwalek sounds like a memory of some finer day that's been digitized into the machine, all the joy lost in its pixelated, 8-bit approximation of reality. These tracks are no less varied than what's come before, it's just that they're all played out on one solitary, twisted game grid, defined by its nasty computer sounds.
One thing that the demented techno of Death To All Culture Snitches, Foreververb's derezzed hip hop and Rotting Hill Carnival's skewed music box funk have in common is that they all sound like some barely-comprehended nightmare, unfolding in a frieze of gradually revealed horror. The one moment that's even vaguely comforting is the technoid micro-house of The Bunker, it's resolute groove seeming to dig deep within its memory banks looking for a reason not to give up.
One wonders how much the Nine O'Clock Drop compilation that Weatherall put together around the same time had colored the Swordsmen's sound in the studio. There's definitely a sense of the same baleful grooviness here that one would find in the post punk of A Certain Ratio's Waterline, The Normal's Warm Leatherette and Colourbox's Looks Like We're Shy One Horse (all of which figure into Nine O'Clock Drop's tracklisting), the same sense of deranged physicality one hears Memories by Public Image Ltd. or latterly Radiohead's Idioteque.
In a fascinating turn, the record-closing trudge It's Not The Worst I've Looked... Just The Most I've Ever Cared sounds as if it were played on live instruments, the strung out bass and stumbling drums carving out a literal connection to post punk's sense of dislocation. It stands as a great question mark punctuating these proceedings, offering an unexpected glimpse into the direction the Swordsmen would take in a few years time...
But first, they set up the Rotters Golf Club label and spent a few years making deliriously retro-flavored electro. Kicking off with the two-part Machine Funk Specialists EPs, featuring a flurry of names like Klart, Aramchek, Decal and Rude Solo (most of which were actually the Swordsmen in disguise), the label specialized in a playful, eighties-inflected sound that veered from the Gothic synth pop of Remote to Radioactive Man's punishing electro and even the ghetto-tech influenced speedfreak frenzy of Klart.
In many ways, RGC parallels the contemporary music of figures like Anthony Rother, ADULT., Andrea Parker's Touchin' Bass label. Arty figures getting in on some tasty, no-nonsense electrofunk action. The eighties were undeniably in the air, percolating underground for a spell before hitting the mainstream in the twin forms of electroclash and the post punk revival. As a child of the 80s who never stopped loving the music (even in the grungy 90s, when it was thoroughly out of fashion), I was in heaven.
At this point Keith Tenniswood produced Dot Allison's sophomore album, which turned out to be a dazzling blend of bubbling electronic pop and blissed-out synth/guitar architecture, and one of my absolute favorite records of the era. Embarrassingly, I'd misremembered it as a joint Weatherall/Tenniswood production, and almost included it in this list! Fortunately, on double-checking the liner notes I caught myself just in time...
All of which is a roundabout way of introducing From The Bunker: A Rotters Golf Club Mix, which was compiled and mixed by Andrew Weatherall. Opening with the demented swinging electro of Radioactive Man's Uranium (very nearly a cold-blooded 2-step track) to the throbbing madness of Aramchek's Driver and Klart's Raver (coming on like an old video game theme played on a big rig), it's an unmissable romp through the label's back catalog.
I've got a whole bunch of the RGC records from back in the day. It might have been cooler to single out that golden 12", something like Machine Funk Specialists Part 1 or Aramchek's Benicassim EP, but that wouldn't give you the full scope of what the boys were up to here. Besides, my favorite moments on the label both happen to be non-Weatherall moments: Remote's Remotion and Radioactive Man's Uranium.
So take this as a choice way in to the Rotters Golf Club, and if you dig what you hear... feel free to indulge further. A detour perhaps, but a whole lot of fun.
Now this was a surprise when I first picked it up. Why, this wasn't electronic music at all! From the opening creaky horns of Stack Up, with it's loose drum beat and Peter Hook-esque bassline, it was clear we weren't in Kansas anymore. I was so disappointed! And yet, that feeling gradually gave way and it became one of my most-played records of the year, right alongside Wiley's Treddin' On Thin Ice, Moodymann's Black Mahogani and Brian Wilson's Smile.
With the transition into real deal post punk — decked out with guitar, bass and drums — complete, you get these great crunching instrumentals like Formica Fuego and The Lurch, songs that are just waiting to appear in the inevitable Repo Man remake. My absolute favorite moments the roiling black hole of Damp and the exhausted misery of the album-closing Driving With My Gears In Reverse Only Makes You Move Further Away. What can I say, I was a sad lad.
But the big surprise here is a whole raft of vocal tracks featuring vocals from Andrew Weatherall front-and-center, like the dessicated glam rock of Kamanda's Responseand Punches And Knives. There's even a cover version of The Gun Club's Sex Beat! And I exaggerated somewhat when I said this wasn't electronic music at all: tunes like Faux and Sick When We Kiss are more-or-less straight-up electro, albeit electro played by caustic post punks.
So how did this happen? Well, like KRS-One, I was there, so let me tell you. Whereas in 2001 it felt like dance-culture-as-we-knew-it was going to soldier on forever, a dozen-odd months later it just seemed tired, worn-out. Warning signs included the over-saturation of minimal techno (I remember downloading a set where every track sounded like Aril Brikha's Groove La Chord) and the splintering of every genre into sub-genre into a million different pieces. Bummer, man.
I remember a distinct shift, when by the end of 2002, I'd started listening to more vintage techno and house (followed by soul, funk, jazz, hip hop, glam, prog, etc. etc. etc.) than the latest releases. The unifying force, ever more tenuously holding the culture together, just seemed to break apart beyond repair. Everything seemed so simultaneously balkanized and sterile that there was a distinct desire to rude it all up again. Punk rock!
Prefigured by the rise of retro-electro (see #22), electroclash and post-disco-inflected house like Metro Area, it all seemed to flow naturally into a reinvigoration of post punk (the original abstract rude music). Hence things like DFA and Richard X. All of which happened to coincide with the latest in rude boy noise, the rise of grime in the U.K. The zeitgeist had irretrievably shifted, and there was no going back now...22
Consequently, this marks the beginning of third and latest phase of Weatherall's career, where we enter the upside down and everything is inverted: rock and post punk become the prime architecture, inflected by the faded memories of dance music past.
The Big Silver Shining Motor Of Sin EP followed shortly after, a companion piece to this record featuring a remix of Sex Beat, but more importantly two new tracks: the electroid Showbizz Shotguns and the awesome post punk stomp of Feast!
Not so much a remix as a complete reworking, this is essentially a cover by the newly-minted live band version of Two Lone Swordsmen. Taking one of the key micro-house records23 — up there with Isolée's Beau Mot Plage — and turning it into a post punk dirge might sound like a bad idea on paper, but against all odds the crew forge ahead and wind up with another unlikely minor gem.
The sound here comparable to The Lurch, with dulcimer tones playing the original tune's melody over a burning drum/bass workout. The highlight is the elegiac guitars twisting above it all like a cargo plane in flight, creaking in the slipstream. All of these instrumentals revel in the very sound of post punk's sonic vocabulary, the way one looks at a faded photograph and truly cherishes the memories it holds; memories of — what were at the time — just another day.
25. Two Lone SwordsmenWrong Meeting & Wrong Meeting II
Rotters Golf Club2007
A couple years go by and the Swordsmen are back, this time on the newly re-animated Rotters Golf Club label, heralded the prior year by Andrew Weatherall's The Bullet Catcher's Apprentice EP (his first solo release). The label no longer synonymous with electro mischief but a brand of sleazy rock 'n roll defined by its grimy guitar buzz and low-slung backbeat.24 As strange as it may sound, by this point the Swordsmen have practically becomeThe Clash!
These two records released a couple months apart before coming out in the U.S. as the Wrong Meetings double-album, so I'm counting them as one. I know it's a dirty trick, but hey, it's my list and I tend to get untrustworthy when having to eliminate things. I'll use every trick in the book to sneak them in! Besides, they complement each other so well that it'd be a shame to keep only one.
If there's one thing that sets this record apart from From The Double Gone Chapel's year zero, when the duo first started messing around with live instruments, it's that everything now sounds lived-in and balanced. Where the seams once showed between the electro beats and the post punk burners, the vocal tracks and the instrumentals, and the live instruments and the machines, they've now all been fully integrated into a symbiotic whole.
Whereas much of Chapel felt like loose sonic sketches, there's no getting around the fact that each of these tunes are full-fledged songs.
This newfound comfort with the form also frees up the space for new emotions to come pouring in. Weatherall's vocals have developed by leaps and bounds, picking up a ragged fragility miles beyond the cold deadpan of his earlier delivery. Patient Saints — with it's tumbling drums underpinning a sad, stately tale of The patient saints of selfless acts, the more they gave the less they got back — is a perfect illustration of the changing stakes.
The first Wrong Meeting record — which Patient Saints opens beautifully — is basically a straight up rock record, which nevertheless retains the overcast mood that we've come to expect from the MKII Swordsmen. Tunes like No Girl In My Plan and Evangeline ply a sort of sinister rockabilly that's a worthy successors to The Cramps' own voodoo-soaked garage punk. This is truly phenomenal stuff, and at the time I used to cane Evangeline in the mix every chance I got. I remember tales filtering back from the U.K. of Andy spinning rockabilly seven-inches in the clubs, sporting a handlebar mustache!25
Think this is just a retro-nostalgia trip? Well, No Girl In My Plan rides this great throbbing bassline that sounds like something from a contemporary grime record, and Weatherall hurls couplets like, The angel on her right says beware of her advances, while the demon on her left has seen the way she dances. with a venom that sounds utterly of-the-moment. Like the Arctic Monkeys, this is a rock 'n roll that feels right at home 21st century.
Wrong Meeting II picks up where the first record's Get Out Of My Kingdom leaves off, with the jagged guitar downbeat shuffle of Mountain Man tracing its mood with a jagged line into the electro-punk-disco of Shack 54. The whole midsection continues this heavier dance angle, with razor's edge synths and racing electro threading elegantly through the clanking guitar cacophony.
The Ghosts Of Dragstrip Hollow seems to fuse both sides of the record, before it all gets tied up in a bow with the slow-motion stomp of Born Bad/Born Beautiful, winding the proceedings back down to a slow-burning rock for it's protracted denouement. The gently unfolding, stoic mood of If You Lose Control Of Yourself... (You Give It To Somebody Else) ends the record on a strangely contented note, as if the austere, foreboding atmosphere of the last few records had only just begun to lift.
These remains the final Two Lone Swordsmen recordings to date (although the duo still collaborate in other forms). Still, it does set the stage for everything to follow...
After a protracted break (reading between the lines in this interview,26 it sounds like he was cleaning up and working through his demons), Weatherall returns with his first true solo LP after over twenty years in the game. A Pox On The Pioneers finds him ploughing a rich furrow at the intersection of kosmische and dark new wave, with brittle drum machines and ancient synths intertwining with the ghosts of Wrong Meeting's raucous rockabilly.
It's a classy sound, evocative of an eighties where Bowie's Heroes and Iggy's The Idiot — and by extension Harmonia Deluxe and Neu! '75 — had an even grander influence blazing through the decade, changing the path of everything from to new wave to alternative in the process. There's a lot of what ifs that start to crop up when one listens to these late-period Weatherall records:
What if punk hadn't sought to tear down everything that came before it, but to build upon that foundation, injecting a strong sense of futurism into everything it touched. A few years later, new romantic's DNA intertwines with post punk's cold grey landscape — rather than seeking to replace it — and the ancient organic synths of kosmische bleed even deeper into the eighties. Imagine the aural equivalent of Repo Man's spacier, Mellotron-inflected moments, or the whole of Beyond The Black Rainbow. It's the sound of a few variables shifted, subtly changing every moment as time marches on, making all the difference in the world.
The first record I remember that conjured up this sort of image was another refugee from dance music, Death In Vegas. In 2005, their fourth album Satan's Circus, with its leather-clad kosmische/post punk hybrid, sounded as if it were beamed in from a parallel dimension built from similar parameters. It cropped up again in the Minimal Wave series of compilations (which came out on Stones Throw, of all places!), full of old music seemingly beamed in from this alternate reality.
There was a subtle sense at this time of certain bands moving beyond the literalism of the initial wave of post punk revivalists to carve out unique sounds of their own. Groups like Blank Dogs and The Vaccines seemed to tap into the same gestalt, while The Good, The Bad & The Queen for all the world sounded like they sprung from this same eighties where kosmische was the dominant force in pop music. I suppose that Chris Corner might have beat them all to the punch, first with Sneaker Pimps' Splinter and then the IAMX record, in envisioning a 1980s in absence of sunlight.
All of which brings us back to Weatherall's maiden voyage as a solo artist. Launching with Fail We May, Sail We Must, it sets the scene (along with its sleeve) for a briny endeavor across the stormy surface of the same oceanic depths he'd essayed a decade prior. In fact, the vocals throughout have a real chanted, sea shanty quality to them (especially the title track).27 Strangely enough, Miss Rule seems to predict a whole brace of radio hits from the coming decade that would mine a similar concept (things like Elle King's Ex's & Oh's).
There's often a fragile delicacy to the record's nimble rhythms, unspooling gently beneath the record's waterlogged textures, and there are oceans of space within the songs themselves. The soundscape is awash in reverb, its mix literally drowning the sonic squall, conjuring up images of stormy skies and choppy waters. And there you find yourself, isolated somewhere within them, lost at sea.
Liar With Wings is a lonely, wide-open chanson that seems to with the sails, while All The Little Things That Make Life Worth Living features synths that seem to sway in seasick arcs across the pitter-patter of brittle drum machines before inevitably flowing into its frail synthesizer coda. The slow-burning Built Back Higher — punctuated by synths that seem to fall like droplets gathered from swirling ocean mists — sounds as if it might dissipate into thin air.
Like Stay Down, this record seems carefully crafted into a sonic journey, with every twist and turn guiding the listener toward its inevitably aching conclusion. In this case, that conclusion arrives on the wings of Walk Of Shame, carried along by vaguely discoid rhythms out into the horizon (and intimating the sound of Weatherall's next big project). It's a natural end to a natural record, an album that feels almost as if it were brought in by the tide.
As I was saying a moment ago, The Asphodells — which is the duo of Andrew Weatherall and Timothy J. Fairplay — seem to pick up exactly where the last record's Walk Of Shame left off. Beglammered glides in on a brittle disco rhythm, it's quasi-melodica melody and flowing sequences bringing to mind the Eastern motifs of Charanjit Singh's Jupiter 8 from Synthesizing: Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat.
There's an illuminating interview26 from a few years back (and which I mentioned earlier) that coincided with the release of this record, where Weatherall regales with stories from his long and winding journey through music's corridors, all while he carves out a brand new Linotype image. In many ways, this record squares the circle between his most recent works of kosmische post punk and his earliest forays into dance music. At times, I'm particularly reminded of his Nonsonicus Maximus Mix of Jah Wobble's Bomba.28
One could read The Asphodells as Weatherall's own Metro Area moment, like Morgan Geist a veteran figure digging back into the world of disco. In this case, Weatherall seems to be plying a Teutonic take on cosmic disco's chugging, otherworldly rhythms. Or, to expand on my earlier metaphor, what if — language barrier be damned — Neue Deutsche Welle (NDW, aka German New Wave) had been as big as the second British invasion (Duran Duran, Eurythmics, et. al.). Images of D.A.F. filling stadiums, electro-punks wearing jackets emblazoned with the Geile Tiere logo and Andreas Dorau on MTV. This is the music that might have come in the wake of such an (unlikely) scenario.
A tune like The Quiet Dignity Of Unwitnessed Lives sounds like if 80s synth pop had retained Kraftwerk's sense of Europe-endlessness, with Low standing this time as the epoch-defining Bowie record (especially the instrumentals). Like A Pox On The Pioneers, this album is driven by loosely-sequenced 808 beats, albeit with a greater horizontal sense of linearity (although One Minute's Silence does seem, in part at least, to connect back with that record's prevailing mood).
If I'm being brutally honest, I've never been crazy about this record's cover version of A Love From Outer Space (but then the A.R. Kane original is one of my favorite songs ever). However, nearly everything else — from the proto-acid sounds of Skwatch to Another Lonely City's impeccably sequenced landscapes — meshes together to round out a winning record with a unique vision. If nothing else, this is an album to drift away to.
Tangentially, I was tempted to include Weatherall's motorik remix of Wooden Shjips' Crossing, which is cut from a similar kosmische-inflected cloth. Unfortunately, there just wasn't the space!
This vinyl-only release by The Woodleigh Research Facility features Weatherall working with sometime Swordsmen collaborator Nina Walsh. From the sleeve — which has the distinct, unadorned appearance of a vintage library record — on down, this seems to run parallel to the terrain essayed masterfully by Ghost Box in the 21st century. However, the surfaces here are pristine — clinical even — miles away from GB's crumbly electronica.
If anything, The Phoenix Suburb seems to pick up where The Asphodells left off, presenting the cold, deflated other to that record's warm cosmic grooves. The rhythms of this album share in the same linear 808 pulse, stretching endlessly onto the horizon. In many ways, I'm reminded of Ultramarine's Every Man And Woman Is A Star, from the era just before the ambient-leaning fabric of Artificial Intelligence was shredded to abstraction by the IDM brigades.
This record glides by on a chassis of pure electro, its austere electronic textures interacting with the rhythms in an uncomplicated manner. Some tunes, like The Question Oak and Dumont's Assistant almost veer toward a driving EBM atmosphere, while quieter moments like Osler's Crystal Fountain settle into peaceful cul de sacs of sound. The overall effect throughout is that of the duo donning lab coats and working the machines in a rustic cabin in the countryside.
A minor record, perhaps, but an interesting (and quite listenable) one nonetheless.
The first record credited solely to Andrew Weatherall since 2009's A Pox On The Pioneers came tumbling out with little fanfare seven years later, and it's a total classic. Convenanza's sound is teeming with myriad instruments and textures, from spacious slide guitar to eerie, echoing brass, ancient synths and (of course) that trademark combination of motorik beat and rumbling bassline that we've come to expect. It might just be me, but I believe that the sound that Weatherall has achieved with this record is quite simply sublime.
I'm reminded immediately of Holger Czukay's French horn, particularly on records like Snake Charmer (see the spooked mutant disco pulse of The Confidence Man) and On The Way To The Peak Of Normal. Also, the throbbing rhythms of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts.
Both of which put us in Terminal Vibration territory, and fair enough. This is the 21st century outpost of that sound, leaning bravely toward the future.
By far the fullest and most fleshed-out of Weatherall's more recent records, perhaps more so than anything since Stay Down, Convenanza is above all else a pleasure to listen to. These lushly populated landscapes, full of ornate, sculpted sound, form the perfect foundation for Weatherall's disembodied vocals reverberating throughout. The opening instrumental groove of Frankfurt Advice — with its rolling bass sequences, arcing horns and low-slung guitar echoing beyond — offers a perfect illustration of this principle in action.
Now don't let me be misunderstood: this record is not one giant wall of sound. There's still plenty of space in the mix. Take the fragmented groove of Kicking The River, whose drum machines seem to gear up only to fade from view and back again. And that wandering guitar line — literally weaving its way through the song's fabric — always makes me think of the warped pop of seventies Eno.
One unexpected aspect of the record is how certain stretches of this record manage to excel much contemporary pop, which is often only notionally catchy. The dreamy shades of We Count The Stars have wrapped within them a remarkably pretty song, even as the horns go off on variations of their own in the distance. But then, old Andy has always had an ear for a tune, even before he started making them with vocals.
The Last Walk — another instrumental — continues Weatherall's latent tradition of forging connections between records, in this case stretching back through The Phoenix Suburb and The Asphodells, with its motorik rhythms, and shading directly into the dour vocal style of A Pox On The Pioneers. It's the one track here that seems to tie back to earlier styles, even as its monumental synth progression squares it firmly within the world of Convenanza.
However, where this record has them all beat is in its quiet passages of gentle beauty. The lightly tapping rhythm of Disappear is dominated by its heavily-reverbed vocals (including spectral female backing) as outer space sounds punctuate every bar and what sounds like a theremin winds searchingly throughout. The record's penultimate track, Thirteenth Night, unwinds with a circular synth pattern soaring across gently rolling rhythm boxes, offering a moment of tranquility before the record's stunning conclusion.
Ghosts Again finds Weatherall asking Please forgive this letter, from a shipwrecked soul, while a pair of guitars intertwine beneath in an elegiac duel. An acoustic strums out the rhythm while a Morricone-damaged electric dances across it's face. One lone tambourine keeping time as a searching cello twists its way into your heart. It's a stunning climax to a deeply affecting record, one that feels like the culmination of the man's work going all the way back to the beginning. Of all the 21st century Weatherall records, this is undoubtedly my favorite.
Clearing the air after the formidable heights of Convenanza is last year's Qualia, which closes out today's golden thirty (exit music, for a film). Weatherall's latest record features the man ploughing his own particular furrow, this time with an octet of motorik mood pieces. The sleeve, which mimics the cover art from Walter Wegmüller's krautrock stone tablet Tarot, a dead giveaway, and rather appropriate for this set of gently unfurling post-kosmische instrumentals.
The combination of live motorik drumming and rolling analogue sequences brings to mind (once again) Satan's Circus by Death In Vegas, but this time the production is sparse and immaculate. The uncomplicated groove of Darktown Figures, with its Spartan guitar line and ultra-fake sounding synthesized brass, sounds like something from an OST. At one point, the drums cut out and you're left with a rhythm box, pattering away. Everything here working as invisible soundtrack music.
Note the bearded Weatherall on the record's sleeve, a look he's been rocking for about a decade (if I'm not mistaken). I dig it, the sort of rugged mountaineer of electronic music... the man in the hills. It's the look of a man who's spent three decades at the coalface of underground music, and has earned the right to call himself a true original. What is it about electronic musicians that they age so much more gracefully than rocker stars? Perhaps Grace Slick was right about everything...
So that rounds out our little excursion across Andrew Weatherall's (roughly) thirty years in underground music. In thirty records. Ok, ok, I realize that technically this was actually 33 records, but like I said I'm a greedy bastard when it comes to music! If you want me to narrow it down to just three to start with, then check out Primal Scream's Screamadelica, Two Lone Swordsmen's Stay Down and Andrew Weatherall's Convenanza, each of which hail from the three distinct phases of the man's recording career (along with the ever-changing zeitgeist). Then keep on digging in, because at the end of the day, the records speak for themselves...
Balearic is, crudely put, a type of record that usually springs from somewhere at the interface of rock, soul and club music. Many of these records were brought over from Ibiza (one of the Balearic islands off the coast of Spain), where an open-minded policy reigned supreme: if the record grooved, then it got played. As such, all manner of records got swept up into the category, from the driving indie rock of The WoodentopsWhy, Why, Why to the slow burning funk of Richie Havens' Goin' Back To My Roots and Yello's Bostich. The concept was so useful that to this day new records are often described as Balearic in spirit.
In light of Terminal Vibration, it's interesting to note the swingbeat-tinged remix version from Tackhead on the Raise remix 12", making literal the connection between post punk and rave's early years. In the world of dance music, post punk wasn't a retro move ten years after, but very much in its DNA from the beginning.
And wouldn't you know it, Substance gets reworked by the Moody Boys (aka Tony Thorpe), who started out in post punk group 400 Blows and later made his mark on house music with the Warrior's Dance label. The Terminal Vibrations just don't stop!
Note that Junior Boy's Own put out the earliest releases by The Chems, records like Song To The Siren and the Fourteenth Century Sky EP. In retrospect, sort of funny that one of the era's most self-consciously tasteful label enabled the duo to wreak their havoc (much to the chagrin of music snobs everywhere)!
Juan Atkins is another one that hinted at the idea of micro-house long before it would become a going concern, with Infiniti's Flash Flood1993 and Game One1994, and M500's Starlight and Lightspeed (both from the 1995 Deep Space LP, recorded with Basic Channel's Mark Ernestus and Mortiz von Oswald) all on the shelves by mid-decade. I should do a little feature on all of this someday...
[Blinks and does a double take, jumping back a couple inches in the process.] Was this the basis for Escape 120 by Joey Bada$$!? I'm 90% sure that it's a sped up sample of this tune. How did I never notice that?
Ink Cloud was omitted from the U.S. version of Stay Down released by Matador, which instead included most of the A Bag Of Blue Sparks EP. So strange, why not include one less song from the other EP? However, this was actually very common, and I have a whole stack of CDs that I had to re-buy to get the full version, things like Plaid's Not For Threes and Andrea Parker's Kiss My Arp.
A Bag Of Blue Sparks was released less than a month before Stay Down, and provided a stunning preview of that record's deep sea electro (along with a deliciously strange detour into drum 'n bass with Black Commandments). It's quite good (especially the island vibes of Electric 4 Bird), and comes highly recommended to anyone who can't get enough of Stay Down's electro side.
Coming out a year later, A Virus With Shoes found the duo delving as deep into abstract hip hop as they ever would, with seven tracks of slow-motion breakbeat noir (plus an ambient one). The Bogeyman remix beats it out for inclusion here, but it does have the distinction of featuring the first instance of a 2LS record with a fully vocal track (It Fits samples a large section of the acappella of Electronic's Prodigal Sun).
Strangely enough, a few years earlier I'd started mixing new wave records like Simple Minds' I Travel and The B-52'sMesopotamia. This actually long before I was even aware of any of this. Something was definitely in the air.
A few years earlier, Weatherall had mixed the Hypercity compilation for the Force Tracks label. A twilight run through the corridors of micro-house, featuring artists like Håkan Lidbo and Luomo, it's a solid little mix. I still have it lying around here somewhere...
See also the otherworldly synths of Screamadelica, which as often as not seem to reach into a time before electronic music had crawled onto the dancefloor. There's a fair bit of the old world even in Weatherall's earliest work. These records didn't come out of nowhere!
Picking up where we left off with the last chapter (Imperial Slates) and in light of the recent Parkway Bowl Disco Mix, it's as good a time as any to touch on a key element in the Terminal Vibration blueprint that doesn't fit anywhere else in the schema. Consider this a cool breeze of an interlude between last episode's heavy dub shapes and next week's hip hop brakes. At the interzone between post-disco, new wave and boogie lies a tropical dancefloor sound that runs like a thread right through the 80s (and beyond). This sound is embodied by no one quite so much as (you guessed it) the Compass Point All Stars.
The crucial ingredient that sets this sound apart from what everything that came before is the thorough absorption of dub reggae's sonic toolkit into dance music's fabric. One can hear the reverberations echo through the ensuing years, most obviously in the spangly textures within the music of house figures like Bobby Konders (and by extension much of Nu Groove's output), Larry Heard and Tony Addis' Warriors Dance setup.
The thread then gets picked up by the likes of The Future Sound Of London (the earlier material in particular, see Accelerator, The Pulse EPs and the Earthbeat compilation), The Orb (Perpetual Dawn, Blue Room, Toxygene, et. al.) and even progressive figures like Leftfield and Andrew Weatherall.1
Tangentially, large swathes of trip hop — Massive Attack, Smith & Mighty, Bomb The Bass and loads more — seem to flow naturally from the more downbeat corners of Grace Jones' (I've Seen That Face Before (Libertango), for instance) and Wally Badarou's (literally, in the case of Mambo) discography. And like trip hop, this is a territory that I only mean to touch on briefly in the context of the Terminal Vibration series, as I plan to spend a much more time in this region in the not-too-distant future, with a feature of its own. Like I said, this is just an interlude of sorts.
This sound — which I'm still rooting around for a good, concise name for — was a key part of the story of what went down sonically at the Paradise Garage. Larry Levan's production on Gwen Guthrie's Padlock mini-album epitomizes the sound, in which deep grooving bass, spangly synthetic textures, dubbed-out percussion and disembodies vocals all coalesce in a swirling headphone symphony. This is a four-dimensional, tactile approach to sound design that pulses through the era like a homing beacon, bringing all manner of disparate figures into the fold as the decade rolls on like the pied piper.
As I was saying before, the key crew in all of this was the Compass Point All Stars, who cooked up something quite special down in Nassau on a series of records for artists like Grace Jones, Gwen Guthrie and the Tom Tom Club. Island disco, Parallax Pier, coastal dub... whatever you call it, it's very much a sound all its own.
It's interesting to note — and I've mentioned this before — the way Caribbean transplants Grace Jones, Eddy Grant and Billy Ocean all seem to have put in early work hammering this sound out in isolation over the course of the prior decade, their unique geographic perspective informing the music they were making within the context of what was the by-and-large straight up disco community.
Then there's the whole new-wave-gone-to-the-tropics phenomenon that probably started with the Talking Heads' I Zimbra and Remain In Light (who were coming at it from a West African-informed trajectory), and The English Beat's shimmering Caribbean inflections. I'm talking about Burning Sensations' Belly Of The Whale, Haircut One Hundred's Pelican West and XTC'sIt's Nearly Africa, not to mention David Byrne's production for The B-52's Mesopotamia mini-album (the influence of which seemed to stick around through their third album, Whammy!, even informing certain corners of their Cosmic Thing comeback in 1989).
The whole thing wraps around to the extent that the Talking Heads seem to be influenced by the groups that they influenced themselves (along with the Tom Tom Club's records), going full-on tropical with Speaking In Tongues, which was actually recorded at Compass Point. It's a sound not unlike what Kid Creole And The Coconuts had been up too, a sound that was co-opted and given a dark twist by Jerry Dammers on The Special AKA's In The Studio. Interesting that many of the ska bands ended up shearing into this territory, with English Beat songs like Ackee 123 seeming to split the difference between calypso and township jive.
One doesn't need to search far to find the real-deal flipside to these island incursions in the honest-to-goodness Jamaican disco like Crashers' Flight To Jamaica (Cool Runings) and Third World's Now That We Found Love (which despite hailing from 1978 sounds like something from, oh about 1993), while music coming out of Africa like Juju Music by King Sunny Adé & His African Beats and Tony Allen's Afrobeat 2000 squared the circle between new wave post-disco and their Yoruba/afrobeat roots. Once again, the circular logic is in evidence throughout, with the original influence being touched in turn by the music they'd originally influenced. And on and on and on.
And let's not forget Thomas Leer's globetrotting, sun-warped new pop, records like 4 Movements and Contradictions where he perfectly captures that Mediterranean drift between Tangier, Cairo and Ibiza (and often makes me flash on The Jewel Of The Nile!). There's also Suicide's second album, the glistening, mirage-like synths of which — coupled with Ric Ocasek's ace production — which always struck me as an almost unexpected detour into such sun-kissed terrain.
In many ways, I've often thought that records like Dream Baby Dream and Suicide: Alan Vega · Martin Rev run parallel to certain Arthur Russell records like Let's Go Swimming, In The Light Of The Miracle, Lola's Wax The Van and Dinosaur L's In The Corn Belt. Indeed, large swathes of the Sleeping Bag catalog sit quite comfortably in this vein, as does much of the early Easy Street output.
Even European dance music like My Mine's Hypnotic Tango, RAH Band's Clouds Across The Moon and Yello's exotica-tinged sides seem to fit into this puzzle with ease. To reiterate, the currents of this music seem to run through the very fabric of the era's dancefloors... but that's another story for another day, and I've already gone on far too long tonight.
Earlier this year, my sister-in-law posed the question as to whether the album was still relevant. A timely question, to be sure. Folk have been declaring the death of the album for years now, but in truth it has always supported less volume than the 7" single (for instance), which flooded the racks and stocked jukeboxes by the truckload. The Opinionated Diner once quipped that the 7" is the spiritual ancestor of the mp3,1 a sentiment that makes perfect sense.
The 7" single was traditionally the great equalizer, the point of entry — and proving ground — for breaking artists. This was the format with which The Standells could hope to go toe to toe with The Rolling Stones in the charts, and tiny upstart labels like Stax and Motown could crack the mainstream wide open. It remained the prime habitat for many scenes (reggae and punk, for example) long after the album rose to prominence.
Similarly, the 12" single was but an elaboration on the format, its extended running time ideal for the demands of the dancefloor. But the album... the album was something different altogether. In most genres only the auteurs get around to making them, and even some of the greatest artists never did (either by choice or due to circumstance). However, there's no getting around the fact that its been a fixture of the music industry for well over sixty years. So perhaps it would be valuable to go back to the root of the format for a moment.
The long-playing album initially took hold in the 1950s, when it finally supplanted the 70rpm shellac discs that had been the industry standard since the 1920s. The format was a clear winner in that it was both far sturdier than the often brittle shellac discs and could store far more music (22 minutes per side, as opposed to the five minute limit of the original 70rpm discs).2 This made the format ideal for compilations, often pulling together a brace of singles or other previously released materials into one succinct package. In fact, some of the earliest LPs were enhanced/extended versions of 10" records like Chet Baker Sings, Billie Holiday's Solitude3 and Thelonious Monk's Genius Of Modern Music.
Rather quickly, certain artists gravitated to the format. Frank Sinatra famously took to the form, crafting themed records like Songs For Swingin' Lovers and In The Wee Small Hours. The album was also a crucial showcase format for early rock and blues — artists like Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and Howlin' Wolf — often rolling some contemporary singles and a handful of new tracks into a discrete work. Yet if there was one scene that really embraced the format from the word go, it was jazz. The album rather quickly became the base unit of the genre, even beating rock 'n roll to the punch in the process.
Indeed any thoughtful round up of great albums from the 1950's would be littered with jazz: from John Coltrane's Blue Train to Thelonious Monk's Brilliant Corners and Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus, there's a veritable treasure trove of delights nestled within the decade. Duke Ellington famously dove headfirst into the format with longform works like Such Sweet Thunder and Black, Brown And Beige, with often sterling results.
Now the sixties are when the album really began to gain steam as a cultural force, with the twin innovations of hard bop and free jazz making their home on the format. Blue Note alone moved a serious number of units in the first half of the decade. Then, coming from rock 'n roll, artists like The Beatles and Bob Dylan worked out further possibilities of the form, with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band arguably giving birth to the concept album, and Blonde On Blonde inaugurating the era of the gatefold double-album.
The floodgates opened when artists like Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and Jefferson Airplane all turned out deeply conceptual albums within the span of a single year, and as the decade came to a close Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd — artists that would come to define the album-as-artistic-statement in the popular imagination throughout the seventies — made their initial splash.
Soul music — despite its erstwhile status as a singles genre — began generating great albums as early as Booker T. & The M.G.'sGreen Onions through Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin's sterling run, along scores of great Motown records (even before Marvin and Stevie rewrote the rulebook). After all, where would we be without Norman Whitfield's great productions on records like The Temptations' Cloud Nine, which were — alongside James Brown and Sly Stone's innovations — crucial stepping stones on the path to 70s soul?
Ah yes, the 1970s. If there's one decade where the album peaked then it was the seventies. This the era of progressive rock — progressive everything, truth be told — with genres as disparate as rock, funk, reggae and even bluegrass stretching out into longform works (sometimes even filling a song to a side). Krautrock too, despite a brace of great singles, was thoroughly in thrall to the form.
Indeed most rock — bar glam, and even that had it's slew of classic LPs from the likes of T. Rex to The Sweet — was centered on the form (contrasted with the amount of Nuggets bands that might have only had one or two singles to their name when all was said and done). David Bowie is an excellent example of this phenomenon in action, cutting a string of classic albums spanning the entirety of the decade — even the ones deemed disappointments at the time have long since been reappraised — while still managing to service the jukeboxes with red hot singles like Golden Years and Suffragette City.
It was around this time that the double-album became commonplace, while the live album blossomed into a key pillar of the album market (the two overlapping as often as not). Soul got increasingly conceptual as well, signposted by Curtis Mayfield's unparalleled winning streak to James Brown's extended cold sweat workouts, reaching its culmination with the ongoing Parliament/Funkadelic saga.
Even reggae — that stalwart of the 7" single — was knee deep in elpees as the decade wound down, with killer records like Burning Spear's self-titled debut, The Upsetters' Blackboard Jungle Dub and Dr. Alimantado's Best Dressed Chicken In Town all making a profound impression, even informing the ascendant post punk in the process (with PIL's Metal Box playing with the format itself). It's at this moment, coinciding with the rise of disco, that the 12" single begins to be felt as a presence.
As a result of the restored primacy of the dancefloor, or perhaps the proverbial pendulum swinging back from the conceptual overload of the 1970s, the eighties in many ways seemed to place the focus squarely on the single. Think New Order's Blue Monday, for instance, an event release comparable to the marquee albums of the previous decade.
Still, there was a healthy crop of great LPs peppered through the 1980s, with The Clash even cutting their Sandinista! triple-LP at the dawn of the decade. Shortly thereafter came the early stone tablets of alternative, classics along the lines of Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade and the Minutemen's Double Nickels On The Dime mapping out the form (both of them doubles, in fact).
Prince traversed the decade much like Bowie had the decade prior with a near-spotless sequence of classic albums (even if, like Bowie, he still had a penchant for the single form). In truth a lot of singles genres still managed to toss up a smattering of killer albums. I'm thinking of Mtume's Juicy Fruit and Alexander O'Neal's self-titled debut (on the electrofunk and modern soul tip, respectively), not to mention Scientist's storied dub reggae slates and choice dancehall long-players from the likes of Tiger, Tenor Saw and Yellowman.
And of course hip hop began developing into an album form as the decade progressed — even if it remained largely singles-based: only the big boys got to do albums — and as it drew to a close, the rap album became a matter of course, a given. See any number of LPs that routinely make greatest-ever album lists: N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton, Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and BDP's Criminal Minded.
Similarly, house music produced its own series of classic albums from producers like Larry Heard and Lil' Louis as the decade drew to a close. You simply can't knock the digital perfection of Virgo's self-titled album from 1989, while Fingers Inc.'s Another Side remains a touchstone of soul-inflected machine music — a true tour de force — predicting whole swathes of nineties music from Ginuwine to Chez Damier.
Aside from dance music — which here in the states the mainstream all but ignored most of the time (to its shame) — the nineties were a big return to the album format, with big ticket releases like Nirvana's Nevermind and Dr. Dre's The Chronic becoming event releases on par with Led Zeppelin IV and Dark Side Of The Moon. Hip hop leapt confidently into its full-tilt album phase, with bizarre longform works by the likes of Redman and The Wu-Tang Clan as gnarled as anything out of the progressive seventies, and focused on conceptuality to boot.
Even in dance music and electronica, surely the textbook definition of a singles genre, loads of great albums surfaced over the course of the decade, records I wouldn't want to live without. There are practically oceans of great techno LPs from both sides of the Atlantic, from Model 500's Deep Space and Carl Craig's More Songs About Food And Revolutionary Art to Bandulu's Cornerstone and Two Lone Swordsmen's Stay Down. Even steadfast vinyl mystics Basic Channel put out a series of CDs that rounded up their 12" work into an album-like shape.
Similarly, jungle — like reggae, a quintessentially singles-based genre — had a knack for pulling together a great full-length record, with 4 Hero's Parallel Universe and Kemet Crew's Champion Jungle Sound practically serving as twin sides to the same coin. Kevin Pearce's excellent A Cracked Jewel Case4 really immerses itself in this territory, unearthing forgotten CD releases from various artists scattered throughout the dance continuum. Gerald Simpson even had a royal pair of superb jungle albums in 28 Gun Bad Boy and Black Secret Technology.
In truth, many of my own personal favorites populate the pages of that book, as up until late in the decade I was largely reliant on albums to get the fix I was after. It took awhile before I could afford turntables, so I was consuming nearly all of this music in the form of CDs (I'd scoop up nearly everything I could on Submerge and Studio !K7), and I'd go to bat for a great many of them. When I think of this era, Moodymann's Silentintroduction and Octave One's The Living Key To Images From Above are usually the first two albums that come to mind. I actually have a half-finished breakout on that very subject — 20 great dance CDs — kicking around somewhere.
At the turn of the century, there were almost too many great albums to keep tracks of: Radiohead's Kid A, Outkast's Stankonia, Daft Punk's Discovery and Isolée's Rest spring to mind immediately, while bands like Franz Ferdinand and The Strokes turned out classicist LPs in a new wave style. It was largely business as usual, the seventies' shadow that hung over the nineties gave way to the eighties and all the attendant reference points.
The party continued largely uninterrupted through 2006 (the year of Ghostface's Fishscale, J Dilla's Donuts and Avatar by Comets On Fire), but as the decade wore on you could slowly feel the care slipping from the form, with albums seeming to grow less consistent by the year. Records like Erykah Badu's New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War) and The Good, The Bad & The Queen's debut came correct but suddenly they felt like disconnected islands rather than part of any greater scene or grouping... and the water separating them was cold indeed! The trend became more glaring as the decade wore on, and indeed continues right up to the present day.
Which brings us back to the question at hand: is the album format still relevant? I'd say yes indeed, and without a moment's hesitation. Records like Kelela's awesome Cut 4 Me) and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly stand out as recent examples of unmissable album experiences. As much as people talk about just singling out tracks and making playlists (not that there's anything wrong with that), I think there will always be call for the sustained experience of a full-length album. There's just too much that can be done with the format that can't be found anywhere else. Burial hardly would have made sense as a singles artist (even if I'm sure there's plenty who singled out Raver and left it at that).
So I think there's still life in this little format from the fifties after all, and I wouldn't doubt that it still has a few surprises hidden up its sleeve. With even the reigning chart royalty — figures like Beyoncé, Kanye and Taylor Swift — clearly putting a lot of work into crafting coherent album-length statements, it remains a crucial part of the pop music experience. So go ahead and spin that record from start to finish if you please, because the album is here to stay.
I recall wandering the vast corridors on an indoor mall only to find a record shop nestled in one of its murky corners. Two separate instances swell from the ocean of memory to overlap: the first was some time ago in the tropics of Camuy on the north side of Puerto Rico, while the second came more recently in the sun-baked heat of Palm Desert.
12" disco dubs in the mall's casual spaces, Jark Prongo records and Dimitri From Paris way back when and Ronnie Laws and Bowie's David Live nestled in the stacks. It brings to mind summer of '98 up in the Bay Area, nights at Mushroom Jazz and long afternoons on the pier. Beginnings at an errant house party, Chicago and The BucketheadsStreet sounds swirling though my mind — with the steaming percussion of Fela Kuti in the mix.
Cut adrift in the dog days after disco had died, in retrospect a golden age when the dancefloor was suffused with the deep dubbed-out flavor of island sounds. It turned out that you couldn't kill it after all, no matter how hard you tried, it lived on in the electroid boogie of D-Train's You're The One For Me and the tropical slow-burning post-disco mirage that had begun to take shape.
Wild shapes permeated Larry Levan's lush sonics at The Paradise Garage, the gulf stream drift of Eddy Grant and Grace Jones setting the stage, with Compass Point and the All Stars fleshing it out into four dimensions. The masterful fourth world Juju Music of King Sunny Adé & His African Beats and Tony Allen's Afrobeat 2000 excursion rubbing shoulders with Brian Eno and David Byrne's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts launched it all into the outer rim.
Wally Badarou's shimmering synths flow through it all at low tide, from Echoes in 1985 through Jamie Principle and Larry Heard's early sides on into Bobby Konders' House Rhythms and beyond — the Nu Groove flavor (Here Comes That Sound Again). Scores of moody 12" records blur the lines between deep house, downbeat hip hop, rave and dub reggae, while a secluded path drops out into Bristol, stretching from Carlton to Massive Attack and a whole new decade on the rise.
The low-slung flavor of The Brothers Palmieri and Harlem River Drive flows just below the surface all along, and the sampladelia laid out by Marley Marl, Prince Paul and The Dust Brothers brings it back into the foreground, mirroring those earlier incursions of low-slung, sun-baked riddims in the era of the breakbeat.
Countless groups and their records heed the call, filling out the shoes of Nuggets for the nineties. Perhaps the likes of B.A.D. and Neneh Cherry were the bridge between the twin poles, along with myriad other elements thrown into the blend (as is so often the case). Just check The Globe, Kool-Aid and In My Dreams right alongside Paul's Boutique for a crash course in dusted breakbeat architecture, while Neneh was drawing up her own blueprint for the future with tunes like Buffalo Stance, Buddy X and Trout (featuring one Michael Stipe; see also R.E.M.'s Monster, attn. I Don't Sleep, I Dream).
At any rate it's been there all the time, surfing below the surface like the Vertigo Steel out in Lakeside, representing all the discos that might have been. Multi-colored lights flash against mahogany brown, mirrorball spins in slow-motion to the throbbing pulse of Moroder's tronik disco. The skeletal strains of Morgan Geist's Moves EP and the psychedelic filter disco of Kenny Dixon Jr.'s Silentintroduction bridge the gulf of twenty-odd years.
Meanwhile Back At Home, the raw Chicago sonix of Steve Poindexter and DJ Skull get down and dirty with a hard-edged magic all their own. Old Reese records like The Sound and Just Want Another Chance lay the bedrock, Tronik House's Smooth Groove and E-Dancer's The Human Bond too, while Todd Terry's blinding 12" slabs of noise are never far from the turntables.
On the road again in the space between dances, rolling low to the pavement in a little brown DodgeColt and bumping the sounds of Beck's Deadweight, Scott Weiland's Jimmy Was A Stimulator and The Egyptian Lover's My Beat Goes Boom808 beats banging through the vehicle walls down into the steaming asphalt of Mission Gorge Rd. in the blazing heat. Modern Funk Beats soundclash featuring the blurred edges of If Mojo Was A.M. and Carl Craig's skewed take on hip hop. People Make The World Go Round. Nothing wrong with a little history in those grooves, passed down through the years and picking up 'nuff flavor along the way.
Between the proto-hip hop beats of The Meters and Chic's lush disco grooves lies a galaxy of sound; betwixt Gwen Guthrie's neon-spangled shapes and the dusted beats of Cypress Hill lies a lifetime. The blunted corners of those Soul Machine EPs seem to split the difference between the two, spooling out their various strands into a fatback beat before unfurling back again, out into the Möbius of time... there's more to come when they inevitably return.
It's 4/5. '45. Little slabs of sunlight cut on seven inches of wax. From rock 'n roll to roots reggae and post punk to soul, it was the great equalizer: the domain where the upstart musician could go toe to to with the stars. Of course some of the biggest names were masters of the form — look no further than The Beatles' and The Stones' killer run of singles through the sixties for just one example — tucking away stellar tracks on the flip that wouldn't show up anywhere else for years.
Figures like The International Submarine Band and The Del-Vetts would come out of nowhere with records like Sum Up Broke and Last Time Around and drop heat of their own. The Standells' Dirty Water — backed by the killer raga-rock of Rari — is one such key example, continuing the spirit of Chuck Berry and Link Wray's early sides. Although it would increasingly lean on the LP format in years to come, rock 'n roll was born on the 7" single.
If there was one genre that dominated the form, then surely it must have been reggae. From the Wailing Souls' Without You to Augustus Pablo's East Of The River Nile and Zap Pow's River Stone, there was a practically endless stream of brilliant 7" singles flowing from Jamaica for decades on end.
The other obvious contender is the soul/funk continuum, boasting James Brown's run of People Records (not to mention his own records!) and Sly & The Family Stone's genre-defining sides rubbing shoulders with The Beginning Of The End's Funky Nassau and Dark Skin Woman by Sir Mack Rice. This isn't even taking into account the long and winding back catalogs of Stax, Motown and Philadelphia International.
Post punk had it's own horde of stone tablets like the five-pronged attack of electronic records coming from the likes of The Human League, Throbbing Gristle, Thomas Leer, The Normal and Cabaret Voltaire. The flipside was twisted punk funk records like The Pop Group's She Is Beyond Good And Evil, PIL's Public Image and the Minutemen's Paranoid Time (indeed, this the era that you'd get loads of 7" records that were essentially micro-LPs, records like Minor Threat and the Meat Puppets' In A Car).
In the nineties you had things like Beck's Deadweight come out on 7" (and why couldn't White Gold have been the b-side to The Dandy Warhols' Get Off like it was on the CD?). There were loads of records that would have lent themselves to the format, even if they never did surface. Records like Roller Rinks & Chicks by Freddy Fresh, Scott Weiland's Jimmy Was A Stimulator, The Orb's 7" Edit of Toxygene... practically any of the dusted records of the era would have lent themselves to the form.
In the digital era, a lot of exclusively 7" music finally found its way onto other formats, via expanded reissues or compilations like the Nuggets box sets. Labels like Strut and Soul Jazz chronicled entire genres/scenes around the 7" single, breathing new life into the form. And there's still nothing quite like a good b-sides collection...
There exists a particular sound that seems to leap out the speakers in vivid colors, engulfing its surroundings and drawing you into its world. I've come to refer to this as the day-glo sound. There's a four dimensional character to it... you can hear the neon in the air around you. It's something that's captured my imagination from day one, and I've been wanting to pull these records together for some time now. They tend to spring from the intersection of new wave and the dancefloor (at least initially), but in truth you might find them just about anywhere, from rap to techno and machine soul.
The reason I find this particular sound to be crucial is that it manages to spark up brilliant images in the mind's eye even as it throws spectacular shapes across the dancefloor. This is music for the mind, body and soul. It's verdant and full of life, with a four-dimensional depth that's thoroughly engrossing. Indeed, it's no surprise that some of the greatest pop music has keyed into this sound. It's particularly germane to the present moment, and I wouldn't be surprised if it pointed a way out of the quandary music currently finds itself in.
Rather appropriately, we begin our survey at the dawn of the eighties. There are bits and pieces from earlier records that may hint in the general direction, but they ultimately belong to a parallel lineage (one that I plan to discuss sometime next month). It's in the eighties that the day-glo aesthetic truly catches fire, coloring each of these records from the sleeves on down to the sonics held within. In rough chronological order then...
If we're talking day-glo, then there's no better place to start than with The Beat. Coming from the late-seventies ska revival (as spearheaded by The Specials and their Two-Tone stable of artists), they stand out by virtue of their sumptuous sonic palette. The Specials debut — with its stark black-and-white sleeve design and Elvis Costello's no-frills live-in-the-studio production — was thoroughly monochromatic working week music. From the baleful tenor of Concrete Jungle to the dead-end doldrums of Too Much Too Young, it was packed with no-nonsense photo-realistic documentary reportage.
In contrast, I Just Can't Stop It leaps out the speakers in vivid shades of violet and magenta, like neon lights dancing against the jet black of night. Mirror In The Bathroom, from the production on down, must be one of the most futuristic records ever produced. With five humans locked into the metronomic pulse of Everett Morton's drums and David Steele's creeping basslines, it almost seems to approach a state of machine music in its motorik drive and clockwork precision, with every texture clutching at your ear and pulling you deeper into its world.
You can sense the glitz of disco seeping into the post punk vanguard here,1 cementing the day-glo aesthetic that would color so much of the decade's music. An affinity with Giorgio Moroder's motor-disco, the spangled shapes of Prelude and above all the tropical, dubbed-out sounds of the nascent Island disco output can be felt throughout. The music spread across the entirety of this LP seems to exude a balmy glow, practically defining the word vibrant. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it remains one of my absolute favorite pure pop records of all time.
This is the point where post-disco morphs into eighties electro-boogie (see also Kleeer/Universal Robot Band, along with everything going down in Minneapolis at the time). You're The One For Me maintains the metronomic linearity of disco, lacking the top-heavy verticality of eighties electrofunk, but its machine rhythms do bear a striking resemblance to those of the electro boom looming on the horizon.
James Williams' soaring vocals swoop and glide over spangled synthetic shapes, wired into that central electronic groove, while Hubert Eaves III (the man behind the seventies jazz funk tile Esoteric Funk) gets busy on the keys. The instrumental version even begins with a liquid synth figure that sounds like loose wires shooting electricity across the third rail, kicking off a wild subway ride into the depths of the New York night.
Indeed, the whole Prelude aesthetic sits comfortably within the day-glo realm, from the rambunctious electronic shapes of The Strikers' Body Music, shifting and burning over tight mechanical rhythms, to the more organic sounds of Empress' Dyin' To Be Dancin', still firmly grounded as they are in the rules of disco proper.
Much of it has a vivid, compact clarity that seems to predict the architecture of eighties dance, but D-Train's You're The One For Me represents that crucial step forward, heralding a sea change in the way dance records would be constructed. Just compare 1980's Gap Band III to 1982's Gap Band IV, Cameosis to Alligator Woman or even Off The Wall to Thriller!
Another well-documented favorite of mine. It's also another singular pop record shaped in disco's shadow, combined with the arch grandeur of film music in an overwhelming clash of sonics. A definite case where the sleeve really captures the sumptuous moods found within. This music suggests ornate ice sculptures spiraling into the sky, crammed with so much richness of detail that they threaten to come crashing down at any moment, while Billy MacKenzie's shrieks pierce through their crystalline corridors with wild abandon. Every texture seems to pulsate fiercely, wherein unstable elements garland paranoia and raging emotion: this is blacklight affair music.
Songs like It's Better This Way and Skipping careen at a furious pace, seeming to combine euphoria and dread into a single emotion, every surface shimmering like storm clouds caught in a ray of sunlight. Conversely, No and Gloomy Sunday glide along at a more stately pace — with MacKenzie almost seeming to revel in his grief — but are no less overwhelmingly powerful for it. Every corner of the record is imbued with a raging intensity, as if all the colors — shades of blue, green and violet — were burning too bright to last for long. The dreamlike Party Fears Two is something like the embodiment of this sensation.
The CD reissue includes a wealth of bonus material (up there with Fifth Dimension's bonus tracks in terms of enhancing the original album experience), including an astoundingly raw early version of It's Better This Way (titled The Room We Sat In Before) and the moody instrumental Grecian 2000. The former is a splendid showcase for Alan Rankine's guitar finesse, as he strangles strange tangled shapes from his instrument, while the latter is a masterpiece of electronic noir: a captivating post-disco pulse cloaked in a haunting synth refrain, evoking paranoid pursuit through deserted city streets in the dead of night.
Needless to say, it's exactly the sort of thing we dig here at The Parallax Room.
The Island disco sound that I'd mentioned in passing while discussing The Beat, was in large part fueled by the inimitable Compass Point All Stars. The All-Stars were a crucial conduit through which both discomix reggae and dubbed-out vibes entered the eighties mainstream, and everything they touched was shot through with lush tropical flavor and a new wave glow. They backed Gwen on her first three albums (Gwen Guthrie, Portrait and Just For You), picking up where they left off with Grace Jones' excellent Island trilogy (Warm Leatherette, Nightclubbing and Living My Life).
The Padlock mini-album finds Larry Levan remixing a selection of tracks from Gwen's first two LPs into one extended atmospheric trip. The production here conjures up images of a steamy dancehall bathed in primary colors as viewed through a fun house mirror, evoking the spirit of Levan's Paradise Garage in its verdant, gently psychedelic atmosphere.2 The abstract machinery of dub remains in full effect throughout, righteously casting this cutting edge post-disco boogie as the head music of the eighties. Just keep in mind, this is the sort of head music that you can't help but dance to.
Tracks like Getting Hot, with those glimmering electronic flourishes spiraling out into infinity, and Peanut Butter, riding atop those insane rolling basslines, both burn with a raw, almost tactile sensuality. Hopscotch appears here in its most minimal version, while the title track (as featured on Parallax Pier) gives you a front-row seat at Club Paradise. When Gwen sings We'll sail away to shores... in Seventh Heaven, backing synths pouring through in a rush of sunlight, it's as if the feeling of pure ecstasy has been captured on wax.
Soul woman Barbara Mason had a history in the seventies as a no-nonsense truth-talker, rough hewn and down in the nitty gritty, smoldering with hard-won intensity on records like Shackin' Up and Caught In The Middle. Coming out nearly a decade later, Another Man is a sequel of sorts to her ballad She's Got The Papers I Got The Man, picking up where that tune left off — once the dust had settled on its romantic intrigue — with a humorous tale of infidelity and the realization that she really might not be his type after all.
Another Man has the shadowy, dubbed-out flavor you'd expect from a West End record, but it's wired to a cutting edge electroid groove that seems to be infused with hot pink liquid neon. Like D-Train's You're The One For Me, it's another killer late-period record from a disco powerhouse label that seems to cavort with electro in the half-light, laying out a blueprint for the future in the process. Notorious B.I.G. later used its sleek, depth-charging groove as the basis for his hit record Another, but trust me — you need to hear the original tune in all its glory.
The title track is rightly celebrated as a masterpiece of atmospheric machine soul (especially The After 6 Mix Juicy Fruit Part II version), while its striking music video3 perfectly captures the whole aesthetic on showcase tonight: day-glo and neon burning in the twilight. The florid magenta hues of those jackets they're wearing on the sleeve give you the first clue as to the vibes found within. Fog hangs over late night city streets bathed in neon. Cars creep in slow-motion by while the sounds of the corner disco seep out into the wider world, coloring the evening of the passers by.
This is post-disco funk music, fueled by rubberband basslines and twilight atmosphere (it's after six), cutting edge for its time it remains a pungent sound full of possibilities in the present. From Green Light's nimble, sure-footed boogie to the low key sway of Ready For Your Love, the group slide from dancefloor to bedroom with impeccable finesse. It all flows together so naturally, even as they take you to some unexpected places along the way (Hip Dip Skippedabeat is an electrofunk monster with a proto-rap that — in a strange twist of fate — recalls Lightnin' Rod's Hustlers Convention), that you can't help but get caught up in their moonlight vision. Without a doubt one of the great funk LPs of its era.
Compass Point's main keyboard man Wally Badarou strikes solo with an instrumental excursion that bravely expands on the groundwork laid out by the earlier Compass Point records, meshing lush jungle atmospherics with the power grid of the city. It's a rather astonishing tune to drop smack in the middle of the eighties, as it seems to predict whole swathes of the next decade's beat-oriented music even as it remains grounded in the gloriously lush post-disco climes of its day. The best of both worlds, in other words.
The original version — from his 1984 LP Echoes — was excellent, but the Vine Street mix on this 12" takes it to a higher plane altogether. When the verse's sleek groove unfolds into that insouciant low key moonwalk during the chorus — synths bathed in hypnotic half-light — it's as if you're gliding three feet above the ground. That it was released on 4th & Broadway is a perfect touch, as this was the label that would deftly navigate post-disco waters in the interzone between hip hop and house (charting the emergence of swingbeat and trip hop along the way). Rather appropriate for a record that plays like a roadmap to the future.
The original version, firmly of-its-era modern soul, gets stretched and spaced-out into timelessness by Andy Sojka (owner of Elite Records), Chris Madden and Keni Stevens himself at The Madhouse. The Ultra-Sensual Mix flows from its vocal to instrumental version flawlessly, recalling the low key half-lit brilliance of Lowrell's Mellow Mellow Right On when that tune memorably stretched out into its extended instrumental coda.
The central groove has been stripped down to an ultra-light frame and rebuilt like a graceful aero-glider, with not one element out of place. This has always struck me as something of a sister record to Barbara Mason's Another Man, those same sleek machine shapes grooving gently in the shadows. Yeah, I've gone on before about its rolling deep blue vectors bathed in moonlight, and yeah it's something of a touchstone around these parts; it's still a tremendous record. Paradise and polygons, you're in the grid now.
Early Detroit bizzness, which finds Juan Atkins picking up where he left off with Cybotron and No UFO's, venturing even deeper into nocturnal atmosphere and dubbed-out electronic shapes. Night Drive Thru-Babylon is surely one of the key records of eighties. It's just perfect, with Atkins' narration riding atop an elegant, starkly minimal electroid groove.
He's bombing up and down deserted Detroit streets, encountering strange freaks and existential loneliness in the darkness. That beat, a perfection of the electro structure, glides along like a rebuilt street racer. The vessel is cast deep blue on black, rushing past in luminescent streaks on the highway, everything bathed in scattered rays of unnatural moonlight. You're feeling the dread in that bassline, tronix swooping and rising like sparks over shimmering synth surfaces in otherworldly harmony, and your hands slowly tighten on the wheel...
Late eighties post-disco action produced by Bob Blank (of Blank Tape Studios), with the fingerprints of one Arthur Russell in evidence throughout. Certainly many other Russell tracks could qualify here — the cavernous shapes of Dinosaur L's Corn Belt and Indian Ocean's madly abstract Treehouse/School Bell spring to mind immediately — but this one's low key brilliance sits most comfortably among present company. Its swirling texture and slow-motion groove seem to evoke the feeling of floating underwater,4 and as is usually the case when Russell is involved, that water is gonna be deep (inna Larry Heard stylee).
Every texture pulses, throbbing against that gently chugging rhythm like unsteady electrical current running through a wavering light bulb. Think early Carl Craig, particularly the Gaussian blurred strokes of his Retroactive and Psyche/BFC material, but here everything is vivid and hyper-textured. Lola Blank's untamed vocals burst in and out of the mix as if she were inhabited by different personalities, while Arthur Russell does his inimitably subtle backing vocal thing (see also Loose Joints' Is It All Over My Face) throughout, poised just on the edge of the mix and weaving around Lola's breezily captivating lead to satisfyingly hypnotic effect.
Such a beautiful record, filled with the most absorbing house music you could imagine, made simply and elegantly by two Chicago kids armed with not much more than a DX-7 synth and a TR-707 drum machine. The Virgo album is essentially an expansion on the Ride EP, doubling the tracklist and stretching out into a thoroughly engrossing, immersive sonic trip. Sure, the gorgeous sleeve gives tantalizing clues as to the sounds held within, but dropping the needle on the record still never fails to take my breath away.
Do You Know Who You Are?, cloaked in lush synths cast in deep aquamarine, throws smooth shapes at placid angles off the clubhouse walls; it's as if you've passed through a door into the backroom and wound up on the far side of the galaxy. Tracks like In A Vision and Ride persist on a course through deep space, with luminescent textures routed through a hall of mirrors, cascading gently into infinity.
Starting with Ride, a handful of songs feature murmured vocals, feeling like a soft-focus take on what Jamie Principle had been up to during the preceding four or five years, placing sensitive, introspective men among the machines. Here, the duo fade into the mix like ghostly apparitions. All The Time is one such moody burner (vocals glide over the shifting ocean surface, locked onto the horizon), while Never Want To Lose You has the duo sneaking Bowie-esque into the foreground while an uncredited female vocalist intones acid house phrases like move your body! and listen to that beat!.
This lush machine soul reaches its twin peaks in both Going Thru Life — with those cascading synths and stark piano lines in spiral orbit over the deepest bassline you could imagine — while the warm geometric pulses of School Hall anchor a touching missive that surpasses even Kraftwerk's Computer Love in teaching machines to cry. There's this recurring moment when everything stops and the bassline just hangs there for a second — in suspended animation — before dropping back into the mix in a tumble of tones... oh man, it's one of my favorite things in the world.
More prime deep house, this time from New York's Mark Wilson. The whole Nu Groove aesthetic fits snugly within this realm (things like Rhythm Masters, The Sound Vandals and Bobby Konders' records spring to mind immediately). In fact, I often think that Nu Groove picked up on what the Compass Point All Stars had done and ran with it, bringing it into the nineties with their singular, multifaceted take on deep house. It's a sound that folds disparate strands of dub reggae, hip hop and r&b into its digital disco, offering up a definitive New York take on house music and a crucial stepping stone into the next decade.
Go directly to the New York Mix. Every surface is immaculate: that rolling bassline rides a gliding, shuffling rhythm with impeccable finesse, while underwater synths pulse deep in the background (making it feel something like a distant cousin to Wally Badarou's Chief Inspector). That oceanic synth — springing as it does from deep within the mix — certainly helps strengthen the comparison, sounding strikingly similar to the one rolling beneath long stretches of Badarou's track. Tons of tones tumble in and out of the ether, scattered against light reflected off the cityscape, as all surrounding entities are submerged into the deep. Shimmering and aquatic, this is underwater music for real.
The next node in the sequence brings us to the UK. So appropriate that this follows, as I've often thought that Dougans and Cobain's early records owe a huge debt to not only the Nu Groove aesthetic but also Compass Point's: they wired that same verdant, kaleidoscopic atmosphere into rave's kinetic breakbeats and the stark futurism of Detroit. This is where the two meet.
A definite cyberpunk flavor can be felt throughout, with shades of Cabaret Voltaire lurking between the cracks and of course Buggy G. Riphead's gorgeous artwork remaining a key period signifier. The Blade Runner vibes are most apparent in the shades of paranoia threaded throughout the record, and also in tracks like Moscow and Central Industrial, with the duo living up to their chosen name.
Accelerator is the culmination of all their early records, released under names like Humanoid, Mental Cube and Indo Tribe (indeed, many of these tracks had already appeared in various forms on the four volumes of The Pulse EPs). The opening track, Expander, rolls in on clouds of foreboding before dropping into a loose breakbeat groove, the unstable synth notes of the chorus spiraling out into crimson swirls.
On the flipside, Central Industrial closes the record with a staggering downbeat rhythm, each and every texture piercing into the darkness like an early prototype of the duo's Yage visions. In between lies all manner of magic, from the freewheeling calypso shapes of Stolen Documents (yet another track that seems to recall Badarou's Chief Inspector) to the sumptuous shades of While Others Cry, with its uncredited vocals seeming to connect literally to the tropical flair of Compass Point.
A key ingredient running through many of the tracks is a riverbed of percussion lying just below the surface, placed within dubbed-out caverns of echo (see tracks like It's Not My Problem and 1 In 8)5 while another is the near-constant stream of subspace breakbeats threaded through a 4/4 techno beat-matrix. Tracks like Calcium and Pulse State unveil shimmering vistas, hypnotic swirls of sound painted in vibrant color against Monet-like skies. These are some of the album's deepest moments, during which FSOL perfect a sort of rolling, filmic techno, as if a perpetual motion machine's course had been charted into the sunset.
Then there's the matter of Papua New Guinea, which rides a slice of gently unfurling breakbeat magic over a bassline lifted from Meat Beat Manifesto's Radio Babylon, prefiguring the path of rampant sampladelia the duo would engage in for the remainder of the decade. Further related capers can be found on its 12" single, with an excellent Dub Mix and the Journey To Pyramid version in particular shot through with the vivid colors of a certain day-glo psychedelia.
The one you want is Guido's Aquasonic Ice Rink Dub. Check that bassline, the awesome DX-100 bass sound that graced hundreds of records from the era, sparring with the nagging refrain of an after hours organ emerging in violet shades from the darkness. The vocal version is no less special, with the presence of an uncredited dancefloor diva wailing defiantly against the track's sumptuous nocturnal backdrop.
I still remember stumbling upon this record at an indispensable thrift shop (whose name eludes me) that once existed down the street from the Clairemont Library back when I worked there after school. The place was a goldmine of dance and hip hop promos that had apparently been shed by local DJs in an effort to pare down their collections. I used to drop by every Thursday during my lunch break and pull loads of killer garage and rap cuts for next to nothing, so I've gotta give props to those cats for hooking a young (broke) brother up back in the day.
Lush, melodic Bay Area hip hop. The cognoscenti seem to prefer his earlier Playaz N The Game, but I reckon that this one's his masterpiece. Every surface seems to exude a warm glow as shapes shimmer in the darkness and colors get scattered at random. From the title on downwards, it's as if JT had immersed himself in the studio on a mission to conjure up the most amazingly vibrant sounds possible, smearing the rough-hewn edges of these homespun studio mixes into a sleek flow of rolling machine music. The result is casually psychedelic, but electrofunk tight.
All techno heads must hear Root Of All Evil immediately. Like E-40's In A Major Way, with its astonishing shades of Drexciya atmosphere, this seems to share an affinity with those same plangent computer sonics (via West Coast rap's roots in electro). The drums snap with a quintessential coastal crispness that dates back to the days of Arabian Prince and The Egyptian Lover, while the bass itself seems to melt into the spaces between.
JT's tight flow is augmented here by guest spots from Rappin' 4-Tay and San Quinn, along with other Bay Area luminaries like E-40, Mac Mall and Celly Cell elsewhere on the record, while shadowy figure The Enhancer crops up behind the boards on both Representing and the aforementioned Root Of All Evil. Free-flowing horizontal grooves like Ain't Something Wrong and Bay Area Playaz perfectly capture the feeling of cruising down the 5 as the late afternoon blurs into evening, the world half-lit somewhere between darkness and daylight (like in the movies), while the sun and moon ease onto the horizon at opposite ends of the sky.
Glorious technoid house from Chicago original Marshall Jefferson, released on the heels of his Day Of The Onion album but surpassing it in every way. That's a whole mini-category right there... Robert Owens' I'll Be Your Friend and Romanthony's The Wanderer spring to mind immediately. At any rate, I suppose that trilogy sits so comfortably together also because they're each instances of brilliant house artistes operating at the peak of their powers to forge masterful statements of futurist soul. All three of them stone cold classics.
The Horse is a fast-forward house rhythm, 909 snares bouncing everywhere — sparks shooting royal blue into the night, every surface glistening — and evoking the feeling of careening at top speed down the freeway in the middle of the night. The flipside almost sounds like something Kevin Saunderson might have knocked off during the same era — just think of The Dream, or even the E-Dancer remix of Blackwater — with a grinding bassline and rough cut percussion battling in full effect throughout.
Pairing these tunes together was a stroke of genius, as the 12" taken as a whole seems to stand astride the twin worlds of house and techno, its unshakable trancelike shapes shimmering gloriously in the milieu of late-nineties dance.
Around the turn of the century, the minimal sound of micro-house revealed itself to be one of the leading hot spots in dance music for a spell. In truth, it's a sound that had been bubbling under for the better part of five years, but its sleek, gliding surfaces seemed the perfect sound to take house into the 21st century. Labels like Force Tracks and Kompakt became powerhouses, practically defining the sound in the public imagination.
The form threw up loads of great 12"s and even a handful of excellent albums, but — with the possible exception of Isolée's Rest — this one is my absolute favorite. It's a wholly surreal record that slips and slides through six deeply hypnotic missives of luminescent alien disco, perfectly capturing the state between consciousness and sleep... when dreams can bleed out into reality. Every track lasts ten minutes or longer, gliding on liquid machinery and fixed to the endless horizon, pairing lush machine shapes with seductive (and uncredited) human vocals.
The jazzed-out, three-dimensional electronic chords of Market set the stage, sparring with a squelching bass figure that gradually gains momentum, before swooping into a kinetic groove at the track's midpoint that seems to rearrange itself before your eyes. Getting down to the root of the matter, the flowing motorik drive of The Right Wing is closest thing here to the dubbed out techno of Basic Channel, who without question had a profound influence on the whole micro-house/minimal scene.6
Luomo share a similar mastery of the architecture of atmosphere, and employ it on a shadowy dancefloor half-lit in the moonlight under the stars. My absolute favorite moment, Synkro, is also the record's most spacious, with fathoms deep disco set adrift in a neon haze. Every element so lush that you feel as if you're swimming in its fluid textures as they tumble and cascade over one another. The mix practically defines the term four-dimensional.
Matching the deft play of mood and texture throughout this record is some truly stellar songcraft. Even without its heady production, Tessio would make for an excellent pop song. With the production factored in, the track is quite simply mind-bending, scattering those spongy bass tattoos — that seem to slide and shift gears beneath a clicking rhythm track — all across the soundscape, as two mystery singers engage in a fractal duet. Listening in feels like you're surfing waves of blurred emotion.
Throughout their tenure as Atlanta's unofficial hip hop ambassadors, Outkast had traded in verdant shapes and sounds. As far back as ATLiens, and even on their debut Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, their music always seemed to exude a warm neon glow. Stankonia is the culmination of everything the duo had been up to during the nineties, and finds them descending even deeper into a sort of psychedelic machine soul.
The vibrant technicolor dream of Ms. Jackson is universally known (and deservedly so) — its lush sonic imagery could be heard everywhere at the time — and to this day it remains a masterpiece. The spectre of Prince looms large throughout, not only in Andre 3000's vocal moves but also in the record's dense, multi-faceted synth-led sound. Indeed, songs like Ms. Jackson and Humble Mumble seem imbued with the spirit of Paisley Park.
The electra glide textures of Zapp, Mtume and Kleeer, are in evidence throughout, laying the groundwork for the next decade's glorious blurring of hip hop, funk and r&b. I'll Call Before I Come gets into undeniable Atomic Dog territory, but Stankonia goes even deeper into the realm of Funkadelic with the twisted psychedelic soul of the title track. Between its Eddie Hazel/Jimi Hendrix guitar figure and that wailing group chant, it conjures the same dread vibes as March To The Witch's Castle and predicts Brain On Drugs a couple years ahead of schedule.
This long, strange trip curdles with Red Velvet's gnarled computer funk and the strung out psychedelic soul of Toilet Tisha, offering a starkly modern update of Superfly for the new millennium. Perhaps nothing sums up the record quite like ?, a strange junglist sketch and the album's shortest track, it's title hovering over these proceedings like a spotlight... hinting perhaps that even to this day, Stankonia remains a riddle wrapped in an enigma: try as you might, you'll never get to the bottom of this one.
Seeing these last three records together makes the turn of the century seem like some sort of golden age! Well, I suppose it was, after all. Jaxx's debut Remedy was easily the better record, but its sonics were sourced in wild pitch house and seventies disco (with Rendezvous and Red Alert coming on like turbo-charged Studio 54 gear).
Rooty, on the other hand, seemed informed by the new wave eighties (with the duo at the time referring to their sound as punk garage), and moves beyond house into a sort of crazed maximalist boogie (I think they've got the kitchen sink in there somewhere). Which, of course, makes it right at home in present company...
Hard-edged tracks like Where's Your Head At (built around a renegade Gary Numan riff) and Get Me Off roll with reckless abandon through the gutters of the red light district, trading in just the sort of sleazy, low-slung glamour that I wish pop could manage to muster in 2016 (although next year will be another story altogether, I'm sure of it... fingers crossed!).
Like contemporary Outkast, the duo channel Prince in Breakaway, sounding like a wild fairground ride experienced through a cracked fun house mirror, while the album-opening Romeo recalls Sheila E. Coming on like Remedy gone freestyle, its squelching synths seem shot through with hot pink liquid neon.
Two years earlier, Jaxx paid tribute to the machine soul moves of Timbaland with U Can't Stop Me, a strung out slice of stop-start machine funk built on an approximation of the man's trademark spidery beat matrix. Circa 2001, it looked like they'd returned the favor, with Timbaland's work on Missy Elliott's 4 My People and The Neptunes' productions for Britney Spears (Toxic, in particular) sounding like dead ringers for the relentless house sound of Basement Jaxx.
Golden age is right!
That initial run of Metro Area EPs were excellent, picking up where The Driving Memoirs left off, but introducing an expansiveness to the proceedings and opening up the soundscape considerably. This record is a culmination of those earlier releases, encapsulating a very special time with incredibly crisp, deep production that stands comfortably with the best records of the turn-of-the-eighties era that it's so clearly inspired by.
Dan Selzer's stunning sleeve art really captures the mood here, all those half-lit mystery dancefloors out of the past, present and future. I played this one over and over at the time, even if I thought that Morgan Geist's contemporary Moves EP was even better. Now I'm not so sure. This is one of those records that takes a sound previously confined to 12" singles and tucked away on b-sides and gives it room to breathe across an entire double-LP.
The record kicks off with two tracks featuring the tight string arrangements of Kelley Polar. I've always though that Dance Reaction sounded a bit like a long lost dub of Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough. The first record seems to emphasize live musicianship, with everything from piano to terse vocal harmonies and even acoustic guitar embellishing the warm, uncomplicated soundscapes. Piña rides a Latin piano figure before slipping into Spanish guitar for the placid, dreamy coda. Itis Tandoor's live percussion runs through half the tracks here, opening up the sound considerably into a tactile, physical experience.
The string section and live playing give way to gorgeous machine disco on the second record, where things get down and dirty in a moody stylee. Those bright spangled synths take over, bouncing off the nightclub walls all around the listener as if Super Breakout had gone musical. I've always thought that Soft Hoop was this record's quiet masterpiece, that spongy synth sparring with the bassline in chambers of the deep, while Atmosphrique traps the listener in its hall of mirrors with an almost psychedelic play of, you guessed it, atmosphere.
The closing Caught Up seems a fusion of both sides of this record, pairing the strings of the Kelley Polar Quartet and a gorgeous piano/organ duet with the rubberband synths and dubbed-out rhythms of the last four tracks in a moving conclusion to a quietly powerful record.
Nearly everything this crew put out would be eligible, but this one's here for a few reasons and they all have to do with the b-side, Death Of A Star SUPERNOVA. First, those blacklight synths that seem to spray across the track like day-glo champagne, bathing its chanted vocals even as they threaten to take center stage. Second, those guitar trills that seem to recall nothing so much as peak-era Duran Duran, driving the beat before shearing off into the distance.
Third, is the energy, the fire and the tune itself — after all, it wouldn't mean anything if it were just a finely executed pastiche — marking it out as one of the tunes of the decade. Conjuring images of some outer rim nightclub nestled among the stars, its cosmic disco spheres orbiting as they cast glimmering lights all across the firmament. And yea, this is another sleeve that perfectly illustrates everything the record's about.
This is the point where the day-glo impulse really came into focus again and began to catch fire underground, culminating in a lot of the best music from the last decade or so. The strung out auto-tune r&b of Double Dutch CO CO POPS predicts the sound of the latter half of the decade, even if I've never been crazy about it.
As usual, however, the instrumentals are something special. SA-RA Space Theme is a low-key entry in their line of astral jazz outings — picking up where Herbie Hancock and Dexter Wansel left off — sounding for all the world like Herbie and Sly Stone jamming circa Fresh. Hangin' By A String, on the other hand, comes on like liquid neon, staggering along on a stop-start beat it seems to have been synthesized from unstable, radioactive elements. Part of SA-RA's charm lies in the fact that no one else sounds remotely like them.
I liked the first Gorillaz record a lot, so at first I missed the dubbed-out vibes of Dracula and Clint Eastwood. I got over it pretty quick though, as this is very much the superior record. What's more, parts of it seemed to key into the machine funk of Kleeer and Mtume... who would have guessed!? Check that synth squiggle in Feel Good Inc., featuring De La Soul in fine form, rough house rhyming over an electroid beat that cuts out just in time for the acoustic Staring At The Sun-esque chorus.
The sound at first seems more stripped down than the first record, but its really just a sleeker, more aero-dynamic approach. Tracks like Kids With GunsNeneh Cherry and El Mañana are skeletal tunes built on spartan drum machine rhythms and glistening analogue tones. Opener Last Living Souls is cut from the same cloth, only in slow-motion. All Alone features Roots Manuva doing his bashment thang over roughneck breakbeat riddims and a garage bassline while Martina Topley-Bird swoops in angelic and sublime for the breakdown.
The masterful Dirty Harry is that rare track to feature a children's chorus that works, spiraling into electro-funk territory once it really gets going and sounding like a dream version of something from Whodini's Escape. When The Pharcyde's Bootie Brown drops in on the mic for the guest spot, a ragged breakbeat takes over with its grinding bass accompaniment.
Dare is just perfection. Clearly one of the finest songs of the decade, it seems to pick up where the Dazz Band left off before immersing it all in vast cathedrals of sound. The record goes through various twists and turns before ending in a bizarre Brian Wilson hinterland, with Fire Coming Out Of The Monkey's Head featuring Dennis Hopper's narration (recalling old-time radio serials like Escape and The Mysterious Traveller) and the sumptuous Surf's Up moves of Don't Get Lost In Heaven, before swerving into the Rotary Connection-esque Broadway soul of the title track.
This double-CD (5xLP!!) album is the perfect distillation of decades of West Coast machine soul, ranging from the rolling basslines of g-funk to the computerized rhythms of electro, taking in the squiggling shapes of Solar Records, boogie and even mysterious shades of straight-up techno for good measure along the way.
Every track seems bathed in computer blue moonlight, wired up to neon (literally LAtrifying, as one song puts it) and drifting through a dreamlike haze. It's the perfect soundtrack to those late summer evenings spent cruising the sprawling web of city streets in the south side of California, just as dusk begins to fall, palm trees cycling by in the rear view mirror.
I certainly can't think of a record that better encapsulates the vibe of late afternoons and late nights down here in San Diego. It's the sound of crashing waves, the freeway stretching through rolling hills in burnt sienna and the grid of the city nestled within, the calm heat of the desert hanging wraithlike in the air. It's the sound of late night trips to your favorite taco shop, cruising down El Cajon Boulevard at midnight, or flipping through a stack of Parliament and Zapp records at your homeboy's spot. It's a million different memories all rolled into one, drifting bittersweet and beautiful out of the past like a mirage.
For instance, I Gots 2 Be Done Wit' U always takes me back to August of '95 and afternoons spent listening to One Way and Kleeer, soaking up their atmosphere while playing Atari 2600. Later I'd go roller-skating with my brother and our main man Gregory, the day seeming to stretch on forever.
Tracks like Spacecapades and Keep Lookin' 2 The Sky seem to key into a stream of pure techno soul, as if the sounds of Detroit were refracted through the cool water of the Pacific Ocean to sound right at home in the Golden State. In a sense, it sheds some light as to why this music always made perfect sense to me, a kid growing up two-thousand miles away. Parts of this record bring back vivid memories of bombing around San Diego back in the day, listening to Model 500 and Drexciya in the moonlight, taking the longest route home to hear just one more song and stretch the magic out across the electric shades of the evening.
A wildly inconsistent record, but a fascinating one with an engaging sound, seeming to exist comfortably alongside SA-RA and Dâm-Funk in the context of 21st century machine soul. Its release was tucked away toward the end of a year that had already seen one Leslie LP, his self-titled debut. Transition was apparently inspired by a late-summer romantic affair and knocked out in an off-the-cuff series of sessions.
That its release was buried is the only way I can square the fact that it didn't bother the charts with songs like You're Not My Girl and Zodiac, sounding something like the hypothetical album Michael Jackson might have released between Thriller and Bad (circa Kleeer's Intimate Connection and The Isley's Between The Sheets).
Leslie made his name producing Cassie back in 2005, and after a few years he got the chance to launch a solo career of his own. This and the self-title debut came out during a period when I was mainlining on SA-RA and seeking out anything and everything in a similar vein. New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War) had just seen release the previous year, featuring tracks produced by SA-RA, and it seemed like something special was in the air.
I remember when this and the Kid Cudi album dropped, and I was totally sold on their sleeve art from the jump: this had to be interesting. Actually, the sleeve is not a bad place to start if you're looking for a thumbnail sketch of the sounds held within, conjuring images of deep green vectors unfurling in slow-motion neon. The album-opening Never Gonna Break Up more than lives up to the anticipation, with Leslie slinging luminescent analogue synths across a gently chugging rhythm while doing his modern soul man routine on vocals. Leslie 's thing is switching between r&b vocals and quasi-raps, which suits his productions just fine.
A track like Sunday Night flows gracefully on moody synth swirls, while Nothing trades in almost new wave shapes. The new wave thing is actually in full effect throughout: All My Love even seems to recall New Order in its string/synth progression. The slow-burning post-disco boogie of You're Not My Girl just might be the finest thing here, rolling along on that nagging verse before slipping into its sublime refrain.
This lot have been the biggest surprise since SA-RA, coming out of nowhere with a killer record that sounds unlike anything else around. I've gone in depth on them before. Not much to add, but I still can't quite believe that they exist... and I don't understand why they aren't the biggest thing around right now. Sari and I have caught them live twice, and both shows were excellent in different ways. I suspect they can make any venue their own, their atmosphere seeps into every corner of the space.
Possibly the first group to spring fully-formed from within the day-glo aesthetic, rather than approaching from a tangent (be it post punk, disco, hip hop or rave). I've said before that they seem to build their songs out of texture as one would sculpt matter: everything here is like day-glo cast in gold and chrome liquid set against jet black skies, where everything glows gently.
It would have sounded incredible on the dancefloors of the Paradise Garage, yet it's perfectly at home in the context of now-pop, excelling most of the half-finished ideas that currently set the charts ablaze. This of-the-moment music exists in a continuum stretching back decades... nevertheless it sounds unlike anything that's come before.
Ranging from resolute floor-fillers like Busy Earnin', Time and Julia to moody burners like Accelerator, Drops and Platoon, Jungle imbue everything here with a sense of gravity and physicality. There's a deeply haunting nature running through these atmospheric reveries to the night. In effect, its a stone cold masterpiece. This crew are more than suited to take this sound screaming into the future, and I'm awaiting their next record more anxiously than any other. These are the things that dreams are made of.
Whereas before it was disco's method, its production techniques that were taken on board by the post punks: artists like PIL ejected the sunshine and engulfed their tracks in pure dread. Even The Human League were still making righteously strange synth music at this point — see 1980's Travelogue — at times Moroder-inflected yet stark and severe, with the full-on pop of Dare! still a year away.
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 there. 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. DağlarUp In The Mountains.
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 fence posts 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. Leather jackets in the dust of the high desert heat, a lone dingy dive in the waning sunset where a band of outlaws — the original Antz, those angular punks — ply their trade.
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 mud caves and beyond. The sounds of the Juan Atkins Re-mix of Heavenly drifting through those hallowed canyons.
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 Icon Montage Mix can still be heard echoing over the sands and into the tranquility of The Well Of 8 Echoes, where Kao-Tic Harmony dwells.
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...