Friday Night Tune: Mgun – Shamen

I’ve said it before but when it comes to music I tend to be quite simple: I like my house music dirty, my electro fast and alien, and I like my techno hard and funky.

Perhaps we are all products of our environment when it comes to music, and slaves to our embryonic influences whether we want to be or not, whether we even think we are. I expect we’ve all known people – be they friends, family members, colleagues – who we slagged off for being stuck in the past when it came to music. There was a fella I worked with for years who had seen all the big acts back in the 60s. He still had the ticket stubs from gigs by the Beatles, the Stones, even Jimi Hendrix, and it was fun to listen to his stories of seeing these mythical figures in the flesh, but you gradually became aware that for all his pronouncements about loving music, he was completely oblivious to anything after 1973. For him, the decade of his youth was the be all and end all.

I used to think I was beyond that, and in many senses, I think I still am. I can reel off lists of pure hunnerds of producers and labels putting out music today that would silence all but the most socially damaged of trainspotters, and my purchases of contemporary music financially still lies somewhere between the sort of costs you would usually associate with buying a house and renewing Trident.

But while I still follow and support a multitude of producers, I sometimes wonder whether my likes and dislikes are governed less by what’s happening in music now and more by what happened back then. I get bored easily with deep house – no matter what the pedigree – and monotone techno. I always got bored with deep house and monotone techno. I learned that way back when I first started listening to electronic music. And I still have a punk fan’s slight disdain for disco, regardless of how ridiculous that is and knowing very well that genre’s place in the history of the music I love.

That’s just the stuff I can’t really be arsed with. It’s even more pronounced with the stuff I do. Are all the records I’ve bought over the last few years enjoyed because they remind me of stuff I listened to twenty years ago? Are my pronouncements about the state of techno and house less to do with how things actually are, and more because I’m trying to reconcile my own past with the here and now?

Well, Probably all of that. But I think at the end of the day worrying about it is mostly balls, particularly as so many producers around just now seem intent on returning to those sounds from long ago. It’s weird when you’re wired into a nostalgia trip. It’s even weirder when people who weren’t even around at the time are wired into it too. In fact, some of the worst contemporary music around tries to ape the past, all too often mistaking surface sounds for deeper meaning. It is an easy mistake to make.

It goes the other way too, though. Producers who hunt through past influences and discard everything which imprisons the music in its own heritage are very much in the minority yet they do exists. Look at Bass Clef, and the way he’s taken acid house in the past and refitted it according to his own tastes and needs, or the way the current Bristol crews have built music out of bits and pieces of techno, house and dubstep that feels entirely new and forward looking.

I think the reason I like the music of Mgun so much is that he plays to both sides of this neurotic worry of mine so well. A Detroit artist, deep in the musical heritage of the city due to his relationship with Underground Resistance, he’s always made techno which feels inspired by Detroit’s legacy but he has never sounded like it. Others do that too, of course, and from the same city. Both Jay Daniel and Kyle Hall have a similar relationship with the past. In their case though the music is easier to place, sounding less removed from the tastes which informed it. With Mgun, the connections are harder to make, and following the threads from one to the other takes a bit of effort. You are rewarded, though. And although it doesn’t happen all that often, when it does its best to stop worrying about why and just get stuck in.

Review: Differ-Ent – It’s Good To Be Differ-Ent(Don’t Be Afraid)

My relationship with the music of Eric Dulan goes back a long time. At first, before I’d even really heard the name DJ Bone, it was his still phenomenal Unleashed EP as Subject No.1 which took the top of my head off. It’s one of those rare records from the nineties I still listen to just as much today as I did back then – maybe even more so – and the years since then have blessed us with many other releases which can justifiably be held up as classics. Musically he always felt like an outsider; a later wave Detroit producer who made tunes which sounded like little else to come out of the city. There were nods to the sort of hard grooving, cosmic techno which artists like Shake Shakir or Claude Young had long been doing, but any similarities never became the basis of his sound, the more furious edge of his beats being instead tempered by a looser soulfulness which seemed almost at times meditative.

Perhaps surprisingly It’s Good To Be Differ-Ent is only Dulan’s second album in all that time, and it appears here under his more recent Differ-Ent Guise. It’s a project that I’ve enjoyed so far without being entirely blown away. There are probably many reasons for that. The music as Differ-Ent has felt, well, different; that of an older artist perhaps, and one more reflective that when he started out. Yet, two slim EPs has not really been sufficient material to make any real judgements. An entire album, you feel, should be a different beast altogether.

And it mostly is. While elements of it retain something of Dulan’s techno heritage, and certainly make their presence felt across the mammoth six sides, there is also a fresher mood underlying it, as if a multiple of strands from his previous work have been used to create a genuine foundation for the next stage in his sound.

Some of those elements inform a mood not a million miles away from his DJ Bone work. Fasten 8 Shun, for example, or Drum Addict both ply the listener with familiar elements. Drum Addict rides the collapsing beats, carefully shepherding the glimmer of starry-eyed chords into the dusk. Fasten 8 Shun moves beyond his own work, and encompasses something of Detroit’s larger techno heritage, conjuring up warmth from the crystalline structures of the pads and the melodies.

Yet neither track really feel like they are trying to recreate past glories. In fact, they represent one half of a duality which is at the heart of the album. Here it is the warmth, the light; the interlay between the cosmic and the physical which both lends them their glow and recalls memories of classic Detroit moments. Elsewhere the tone is a darker one.

Met Allergic Flew Antsy revokes any feelings of warmth. It’s stripped down, travels low to the ground, and builds up from tight, fast, movement and taut, razor-sharp edges. very much a musical predator. We Have U Surronded, is similar, but less gnarly, preferring instead to double down into surprisingly moody, almost minimalist territory where the bare bones of groove hold little more than a static blast of heat.

But where playing with expectations of mood are one thing, the real surprises are the fully realised slabs of electro which contrast beautifully with the techno. Compute Her stalks a noir-ish path, prowling through midnight with the pluck of an icy melody the guiding light above the sharp beats. Even better is Motive Hate Shun – almost the best thing on the album – a compressed burst of breakbeat propelled surliness which groans and grunts. Even so, for all that, it moves with a litheness which makes light of its angry weight, dancing around on a quickly shifting groove.

Across the 12 tracks its possible to make more sense of Dulan’s newer direction. The way the two halves, the light and the dark, compliment each other is at the heart of the album. Making the understanding of one essential to making sense of the other gives it an energy and emotional depth often lacking in contemporary techno. It plays with moods to an extent that most producers wouldn’t, using them to fuel the harder moments, and loosen up the lighter, sometimes even swapping that around. It’s a mature and, at times, introspective album, and one that utilises both techno’s past and future to push itself forward. While it may not be a musical rebirth, it certainly suggests an artist who is ready – and excited – to reconcile a formidable body of past work with new vistas. Where he goes from here I don’t know, but I sense it’s going to be somewhere differ-ent.

Friday Night Tune: Low Res – Amuk

While techno’s heritage as a music with little interest in conforming to the past can sometimes be viewed with cynicism, you’d have to be pretty a hard judge to see it as a straight road onwards from the rules and conventions which have formed and coalesced over the centuries. While there are always going to be elements to the genre, such as scales or keys, which are inescapable (despite some brave attempts), one of techno’s real pleasures has often derived from seeing how the conventions are circumvented.

Of course, part of that is down to the music’s unique relationship with technology. Sequencers, samplers, boxes which bark and squawk and chatter, have created a playing field where experimentalism can feed the creative impulse in new and strange ways. Occasionally though, with the price of admission getting ever lower, and both gear and plug-ins subject to an ever more rapid uptake, it can seem as if the technology has become the point; that the endless opportunities to fiddle with things, to push and pull tones at an almost atomic level, have replaced old-fashioned musicianship to a heavy degree. Such an approach, where in expert hands a cerebral energy becomes the ghost in the machine can certainly pay dividends. What it lacks in anything as obvious in humanity, it is able to gain from a sort of severing of the association between man and machine. For somebody like me who happens to love this weird sci-fi type of vibe, it should be a crowning achievement – the apex of techno’s own philosophy.

Except I’m not sure I’ve ever loved that sort of style as much as I should. Part of my problem is what happens when you scrub out that human element. Too many producers, obsessed with the ever smaller details, often create work which is missing the little touches we latch onto. It isn’t the case that the music becomes too angular and abstract to be much fun – that’s rarely a problem. More often than not the tunes tend to be straight as a die and fairly boring, missing even the oddball thrum of the unexpected which would bestow some sort of life upon them. Emotion, that most obviously human of traits, tends to be the first casualty. And without emotion the music simply chugs along with all the excitement and grace of a rudimentary mathematical puzzle. Even so, some tracks manage to find a way of doing it all.

Low Res’ mid nineties classic, Amuk, has long felt a tune which brings both the human and machine elements into surreal and startling harmony. While the tune was originally released in 1995 as part of Low Res’s Thorn EP of Sublime Records, it wasn’t until the following year that it really made an impact when it was re-released on Metroplex and embedded with a trinity of remixes courtesy of label owner Juan Atkins. It says something about the quality of the original tune that, as brilliant as the remixes are (particularly Juan’s Low Res Experiment) none of them can hold a candle to their progenitor.

Low Res has featured only sparsely since then, and most of the releases which bear that name over the intervening 21 years have been part of the future jazz genre – musically interesting enough in its own way (even if not my cup of tea) but more important in that they point to something which is locked into the Amuk’s DNA.

What Amuk brings with it, and part of what continues to make it so strangely alien to the bulk of techno released both then and now, is that rather than fall one way or the other across the divide, it finds the common points between the emotive nature of eminently humanistic music – which I’ve always felt is at the heart of jazz – and the colder, more abstracted nature of machine sounds. The beauty of the tune is the way in which they have been brought together, strengthening the track, and providing a means to propel its strange energy outward.

You can hear that approach even from the opening moments, where the reverse loop of the intro is electrified by the shrill, spectral calls which sound almost as if they’ve been culled from the incidental music in Ghostbusters. Those weirding squalls – far from being gimmicky – actually inform the rest of the track, pushing the music deep into the subconscious where they ratchet up the tension. Later, they are replicated moodwise as the machines really take over; woozy, terrifyingly broken synths hack a path through the murk, following the bleeped motif (brilliantly, just about the most sane and human part of the track) as the rhythm begins to draw on an increasingly tribal feel.

But what really seals the deal is the way that both elements – the crooked machine soul and the freewheeling human sense of direction – is how both parts are ceaseless in the way they guide the ragged groove. Take away one of them and the other would flounder. The tune would become either a mass of messy electrons or pointless noodling. Amuk isn’t anything as glib as man and machine in perfect harmony. Amuk is two totally alien lifeforms existing as one, both informing and learning. And if that isn’t what techno is supposed to be, I don’t know what it is.

Review: Black Merlin – Proto World (Berceuse Heroique)

Black Merlin – Proto World (Berceuse Heroique)

When it comes to my personal musical tastes, the bit of my brain which should be going in for the more experimental and thematic sounds out there is a little bit under developed. It is a weird kink which has often been useful in weeding out stuff that fails to register anything more than a vague buzz of interest when a producer appears to be more mouth than anything else, but at other times, such as with outfits like Autechre or Drexciya, it has almost cost me dear, and left me red-faced and playing catch up when I’ve finally got it.

Black Merlin’s Proto World is less mind-splittingly alien than either of those acts, and indeed much of the influence upon the EP appears to drain from a more ‘conventional’ reservoir, from EBM to something more tribal, and in towards the inky intellectualism of modern classical’s internalized symphonies. But while the record runs parallel to a lot of the darker and less dance-floor centric sounds which have bloomed over the last few years, it maintains a stark level of individualism which fuels a rugged sense of tone. It never really feels like a kindred spirit to that end of the scene. Perhaps because, at heart, it retains a somewhat grainier feel, one that lends it the wider scope of non electronic sound, it is a difficult record to both place and maybe even love. Not that I think that would bother it very much because Proto World seems determined to create for itself a niche in which its strangely lithe heaviness can fill entirely on its own.

One thing is for sure: it takes no prisoners. The title track, a long unfurling of tribalist drums, serrated shavings of synths and murmured bursts of vocals, swings out with cold focus and a swaggering, hypnotic, meanness. There are moments which evoke such disparate forerunners as Container’s blistering take of techno, and the sound track to Kurosawa’s Ran, and indeed that second one contains a similar taste as Proto Word has for emotional weight combined with moments of empty space which serve to accent the turmoil. Vision Animal also invites comparisons with Container. I suspect this is less to do with the music and more with the way in which both artists seem to be separated from the pack. Vision Animal is a lesson in reduction, with the slender elements coaxed and lengthened, stretched until they fill the track’s grandiose nothingness.

In fact, it’s this billowing space which defines the tracks, and the way in which the sonic movement each contains – the way the slivers of sound, and their firmer, more insistent bedfellows cajole each other into emphasising the nothingness which surrounds them – adds to Proto World a thick, dreamlike quality which is uneasily compelling. You can feel this best in Spirit House, where the all but inaudible drag of the bass lays across the tune’s route of approach, forcing the fluttering non-melody out into the expansive wastes which lie about it.

So, not an easy record to love, at least at first and probably ever. I’m not sure that matters. It certainly isn’t the point. Esoteric angles, and weird geometry inform the music’s foundations out there in the nothing. The strength of its other-worldliness is all the stronger for the way in which it never tries to be wilfully, deliberately out there. It never tries to coax you into vapidly agreeing with its individuality. It simply picks you up and deposits you in the darkness. And while I’m still not sure my brain is attuned enough to properly get it, I’ll have plenty of time to think about it as I try to find my way home.

Friday Night Tune: Digital Justice – Theme From ‘It’s All Gone Pearshaped’

Long before I ever knew what techno was, even before I bought my first punk record, or went through the soul obsession of my early teenage years, I was in love with classical music. I was tiny when my Grandfather passed away, but amongst the things left behind was a box set of Readers Digest classical selections – a dozen or so records within an ancient looking case which contained perhaps thirty well-known pieces of classical music. Of course, I was far too young to properly appreciate the contents, but I gradually grew into it and something in it attached itself to my brain.

There were the early affairs with the usual suspects – Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss – and the later dalliances with the likes of Stockhausen, Shostakovich, and Debussy which led into brief flings with the likes Philip Glass and Steve Reich, and countless others. As with all music it takes time to begin to understand what it is you are looking for, to find the sounds which seem to reflect something of yourself, or open doors to new experiences. All of these composers are fantastic, and the ones I return to more than the rest – Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Gorecki for instance – always draw me into sonic worlds where daily life has little impact.

Classical music often seems to be a difficult sell to people who haven’t experienced it. I’ve always thought that there is a natural link between classical music and electronica which is far more overt than it is with other genres, other styles. Producers working with sequencers, with machine capable of bringing together dozens – hundreds – of distinct sounds, moods, and textures under the direction of a single person has always felt a very modern, if not futuristic, way of doing what composers have always strived to do over the centuries. And although it’s probably foolish to say that if Mozart were alive today he would be pumping out tunes of brain-addling complexity with the aid of a Sequentix Cirklon, you have to wonder whether the possibilities would spark something great.

There have of course been cross overs which move in the other direction, the most well-known being Jeff Mills’ dalliances with various orchestras and composers. As a piece of art, as music, it works well. You sometimes have to wonder, though, whether it might be time for him to go the whole hog. Mills has a long history of taking his music beyond the framework and constraints of techno. He has sound tracked silent movies, the best known of which was Fritz Lang’s Metropolis; he’s created pieces for art installations and exhibitions, and you suspect perhaps his next step is to dump the 808s and try his hand at truly composing for orchestras.

But away from Mills, traditional techno producers have perhaps been reluctant to move between the spheres. There may be cultural bumps in the road which must be navigated, or it might be as simple as a disinterest in a music which is still seen as the preserve of the elite (I’ve certainly been present for more than one of those conversations). Moving from the dancefloor to the concert hall might be a leap to far.

Ambient music has perhaps leaned closer to classical over the years. In many ways it looks an obvious enough relationship. Both are interested primarily in something other than physical movement – and although a lot of straighter techno these days certainly (or pretends to) strives to escape such a glib trap, ambient has had far more success. And yet, so much ambient feels insufficiently interested in the outside world, its grand sweeps tend towards the internal, the impressionistic rather than classical’s more literal themes.

Those are generalities. Of course they are. There is far more to it than we have time to go into here and I’m not trying to do either genre a disservice by being so abrupt, and in both there are pieces of music which do what you expect of the other.

One of my favourite tracks here is Theme From It’s All Gone Pearshaped by Digital Justice. At first glance it seems like a very strange choice. Neither really what we would ordinarily consider ambient, nor does it feel as if it has any connection with classical. But beyond the obvious, the similarities are there.

It has always felt a more literal interpretation of a time and place than you would normally find with ambient techno, and it still feels very much linked to the club based, dance orientated world which birthed it. It’s lively, and the way it builds as if it is a breakdown lost from the tune that it belongs to, deceives you into thinking that, at any moment, a snare roll or the clash of a cymbal will propel it home towards the beats and the bass.

They never come. And what lingers isn’t the sensation of being without but the complexity of the interplay between pads, and melody, and how they create a rhythmic fabric out of the way the notes fall. It’s the orchestration, the space and the distance between the elements, which hold the tune up there in the clouds, and keeps you enraptured. And in that, its as close to the magic of long gone masters as it is to tomorrow.