The Long Player – Jeff Mills: Live At The Liquid Room

Now that we have access to almost every bit of music ever made, in countless different forms, it can be difficult to remember how important ideas like mix CDs once were. Although they are still released today, they have the feel of boutique object d’art; often beautiful, frequently interesting, but seldom vital. And as that vitality has diminished so has the role they once played within electronic music.

In their hey-day, in the handful of years which fell either side of the millennium, they were often the best and most permanent link many of us had to a larger, brighter world. Not all of us grew up, or studied, in a place where the indistinct spectres of Detroit or Berlin played. Nor did we often have a record store where we could spend hours soaking up vibes and knowledge. It’s difficult to glean an understanding of electronic music from hanging about in a provincial Our Price. And besides, the manager would probably call the police if you’d still been there three hours later.

Mix CDs were a form of education. They allowed you to see how everything moved together. They introduced you to new music and new artists, and strengthened your ties to those with which were already familiar. And for those of us pounding away at learning the basics on a pair of nasty belt-drive decks they were both inspiration and aspiration, allowing you a glimpse into a world where the music and the mixing was far beyond the leaden, wonky, hellnoise which farted out from your bargain brand speakers to torment the neighbours deep into the night. They gave you something to aim for, and the knowledge that, with a little bit of skill and a lot – a LOT – of practice, you might eventually be capable of something that might not be in the same ballpark, but might just be from the same game.

Most of that was an illusion, of course, because even back then your average mix CD shared something in common with the beautiful works of DJ art we still get nowadays: Most of them were about as close to being indicative of a particular DJ’s true talents as that old provincial Our Price was to Berlin’s Hard Wax. They were not the outpourings of white hot sets taken straight off the dance floor and shoved onto a disk. They were groomed and refined, hard edges polished away to perfection, trains wrecks carefully placed back on the rails, scratches and pops euthanized before they could pollute innocent ears.

In some ways, modern podcasts, no matter how deeply thought-out and sync-buttoned, retain an immediacy that most mix CDs would be pushed to emulate. But that really wasn’t the point. They quickly became a place where DJs could present an idealised form of themselves, playing the way you imagined that they imagined themselves playing. They would drip with magic, with post-recording effects, and trickery, and the music would be pulled in new and unexpected directions. My favourites from the era, Kevin Saunderson’s X-Mix entry, and Derrick May’s Mix Up volume, are peerless. But they’re not what you’d hear if they played in the tiny subterranean sweat-box that filled your techno daydreams. Jeff Mill’s Live At the Liquid Room, though: that was different.

The set was recorded in the autumn of 1995 in Tokyo’s Liquid Room venue, a place which still elicits a sense of the exotic and the mythical. This, as much as anything, probably plays up the CD’s mystique. You could be listening to a burst of radio frequency from Voyager, relayed over two dozen light hours, such was the remoteness of it. I’m sure there were more than a few people who looked up from the sleeve and felt a tingle of silly, naive, wonder that techno had landed in Japan, off all places, on the other side of the planet. And that sense of suddenly being connected with a far larger musical world lingered long after the music had faded.

As for what Mills played on, I don’t know for sure. I assume it was his usual three decks and 909 drum machine. Mills has always been a fiend for bringing his own beats along to the show, and it’s difficult to imagine his insane jumps in musical logic, his unique sense of timing, finding a true outlet on anything less than a triple turntable set up.

What there wasn’t was studio trickery. All of the magic belongs to him. As anyone who has ever spent time with his mixes for Detroit radio, performed under his guise of The Wizard, knows, Mills’ sonic shadow is sharpened by a thousand influences and styles which share little more than a tangential link with the sounds he is now inexorably linked to. The quick cuts, the spins and crossfades all have their roots elsewhere. Hip hop, disco, electro. It’s all there, feeding into the accretion disc of chaos that surrounds the absolute control at the mix’s heart, and accenting the way the groove and rhythm pulse and morph as it unfolds. There are drops in tempo, wild changes in direction, and sudden introductions and exits, all of which heighten the music’s proximity to collapsing in on itself. Not that it ever does. That’s part of the beauty.

The mixing has been occasionally commented on over the years. There was no post-production band-aids applied, and the mix is presented as-is. Mills’ mixing is often rugged and fast, by some accounts often eschewing the safety net of headphones in his speed and understanding of the music. Whenever memories of the record’s little dinks of imperfection are brought up, they merely serve to remind how brilliantly Mill’s organic yet utterly technical style pays off.

Some people have claimed that Live At The Liquid Room represents a sort of Detroit techno exemplar, but I don’t think it does. By the time Mills recorded the set, he was nearly five years removed from his time in Underground Resistance, had lived in New York and Chicago, and been a resident at Berlin’s famous Tresor club. That Detroit provides the foundation is inarguable, but the rest is from a different place altogether. This is techno, not as the child of a particular city, but as a global phenomenon, a transcultural burst of movement which owes as much to Chicago, or Berlin, as it does to its true home.

Even Birmingham is represented, with cuts from Surgeon’s earliest release. Magneze still blisters the skin, and reminds you that the club Surgeon will always be connected to, House Of God, deliberately sought to provide a counterpoint to the waves of high-tech soul emanating from across the Atlantic. That is an attitude which finds a kindred spirit here with Mills, and it can seem as if he is also, deliberately, seeking to step away from Detroit’s familiar sound, to push the idea of groove and funk onto an entirely new plane.

It’s littered with the sort of moments that would define other mixes. The CD is arranged into three segments, but the music erupts fully formed right from the start, with the dark clouds of Mills’ own Utopia rolling across the floor before being parted by the lolloping groove of The Extremist. The early part of the mix is beyond just being fun; it’s a genuine lesson in DJ’ing. The pulverising run which begins with Magneze, and ends, finally, with Ian Pooley’s mix of Wicked Wipe’s Rock Da House, remains forever fixed in the minds of a lot of us as What Techno Is. Not a list of sounds and synths, of cavernous and hollow kick drums and theory, but a riot of energy and emotion, and if your heart and soul don’t kick over a little bit when he drops in The Bells, I doubt you’re human.

In the second segment, the sudden arrival of Derrick May’s Strings Of Life, a euphoric sunrise after the bleak fury of DJ Skull’s The 187 Skillz, resets so much more than just the tempo, and afterwards the music seems to twist with a lighter touch. Well, for a little while at least. And in the background, so deeply buried in the sound it feels like part of the set, are the echoes of the crowd going mental as they encourage Mills’ music and the music, in turn, goads them on. It lends the whole thing an immediacy – and intimacy – which is difficult to emulate, and you sometimes wonder whether or not the set would feel the same if it had been recorded the following night, with a different crowd, a different atmosphere, channelling the madness.

A sequel of sorts eventually arrived, in the form of 2004’s The Exhibitionist CD. It was another astounding display of the DJ’s craft, but it lacked something, particularly in direct comparison to the earlier release. While it remained enthralling in its choice of tunes, it often felt airier, lighter, and missed much of ..Liquid Room’s elemental stomp. It wasn’t of course, a full-bore club set, but a much more thoroughly planned workout.

I drove at least one friend clean mad with Live At the Liquid Room. He still gets a far away look today, and visibly shakes, when I mention the CD to him. I was obsessed by it, playing it every opportunity I got. Often we’d be together in the car, and I would crank it up all the way, not really paying attention to the fact it might have been the eighth or ninth time that week. There were others, a Relief Records mix, a bunch of bootleg tapes of various Detroit and Chicago DJs found between stacks of ubiquitous happy hardcore mixes on rare journeys to record shops in Glasgow or Edinburgh. It was always Live At The Liquid Rooms which won out, though. Always.

Familiarity breeds contempt, and I’m lucky nobody ever tried to make me eat the damn disk. If a telling metric of how much you love a record is how many times you’ve played it, how well you know it, then Live At The Liquid Room is my favourite record of all time. I have no idea how often I’ve heard it. In the car; burned to tapes and played on my Walkman; on Ipods in the gym or in the mountains. It has been an ever present for what feels like a lifetime, and I sometimes feel that if I just had all the records, I could preform the mix perfectly, so familiar am I with every little movement, with every inflexion. It would be like a shadowy, ghostly muscle memory, guiding and fuelling my weak skills.

Many DJs these days talk about ‘the journey’, of educating the crowd, or of transformative experiences. But it doesn’t take you very long in the company of Live At The Liquid Room to realise what a crock of shit they’re making up. This is a real journey, an exhausting and exhilarating ride through the talents of a man playing right on the edge. And where other mix CDs from the period are beginning to sound more and more of their time, that won’t happen to Liquid Room because it never really felt of its time back then, either. This is not an album of tunes, snapshots taken at a particular moment in the history of Our Thing, but a narrative of frequency and emotion, and a testament to the fantastical shapes and colours they create when combined. Jeff Mills knows that such things are universal, and the only time they can exists is right here and now.

There is something utterly fitting about the fact that one of greatest celebrations of electronic music ever released should be a dance floor mix taken from a club. For all the amazing music released under the banner, it says so much that very, very few studio albums have ever come close to explaining so succinctly, and so vibrantly, what this music means to so many people as Live From The Liquid Room so effortlessly manages to do. And this is its true important: It is a manifesto, and a statement, of what techno can be when we loosen our grip over it, and let it take us over instead in all of its brutal, uncompromising, and life affirming beauty. It is a moment of rare grace and violence, and one that likely will not, can not, ever return. Cherish it.

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A Word From Our Sponsor

So…how’ve you been?

Firstly, you might have noticed a change to the blog’s name. Whether we’ll keep it or not remains to be seen. As for why it changed, well, that’s a little bit more involving. Sort of.

When I first got into electronic music, it was still the aural equivalent of the wild west, a frontier of sound and thought where there were few rules and fewer expectations. It was a period when there was little interest in the codification and labelling of an entirely new world of sound. There was techno, yes, and house, and a widening cosmos of other genres, but they were fluid things, rarely remaining in one place long enough for anyone to say “Yes, this is what they are. This is their realm” With any degree of certainty. It was one of the things that made the music so alive.

At the heart of all of that was the concept of the underground; a spiritual, political, commercial, and artistic ethos which informed almost everything that was good to be a part of. As Thomas Aquinas said of the concept of time, “I understand it perfectly until I’m asked to explain it” and, likewise, the idea of the underground remains frustratingly, tantalisingly, distant once you attempt to verbalise it. We think about it obsessively, here in Our Thing; we hold it up as The Light That Guides, and yet we often fail spectacularly when we attempt to put it into words.

And it has got harder, particularly since the term, like so much else, has been co-opted by people who are its very antithesis. It has now become little more than knowing, smirking, argot; a currency with which to purchase credibility. A few years ago DJ Nippledick (might not be his real name) from childrens entertainers Swedish House Mafia upset a lot of people who should have know better when he suggested that what the word underground really meant was ‘amateur’. And you know what? He was kind of right.

At the same time as the word was appropriated to confer fool’s gold upon superstar DJ’s who are so far from the underground they might as well be clouds, it was being used by another legion of far less successful but equally talentless hacks to bestow the idea that their failure to make decent music, or make a mark, was somehow a deliberate political act. The underground became a shield for second-rate work which fouled up our drinking water as badly as the superstar DJs did. And the amateurism fed into something else, something worse; we began to see the slow disintegration of a mindset and a way of being, and the importance of the art and the artistic – and the cultural and social impact they could have – began to vanish right along side them. It wasn’t about standards – it was about meaning. All of that washed away by a flood of people who saw no reason to care about the music, nor its place in things, and who were only interested in what they could get out of it. And as the life-giving things dissolved, as we became inured against the slow march of the mediocre, the vultures descended to pick the bones clean.

The underground is dead. It is dead and stinks so badly that every time someone starts to talk about it in earnest, a thousand other people begin to feel sick. It is dead because they killed it, yes, But it is dead because we let them. We let them proliferate their cynicism and their greed. We let the Boiler Rooms, the Resident Advisors, the God knows what else, waltz in and take what they wanted, and sell it back to us while we pretended that EDM was the Bad Guy. EDM isn’t the bad guy, it’s just shit pop music, like the shit pop music they had in the 90s. It has nothing to do with us, and yet we pretended it did. And while we were moaning about American college students playing with glowsticks, the bastards snuck in and did one on us. We were told it was how things were, that it was progress, and that we should talk about the good stuff instead of focusing on the bad. That to raise issues was to somehow counter-productive. Well, screw that.

It isn’t the greed which should made you angry (well, it is), nor the rampant commercialisation, but the way in which a thing that belonged to all of us has been privatised, sold off, parcelled out to those who can afford to pay for the franchise. Homogenised parties stretching across continents because the best way to maximise profits is through one-size-fits-all. The revolution probably won’t be televised, but it will certainly be live-streamed, and if you want the sound at a decent bit rate, it’ll cost you a tenner a month. In the meantime, we’ll continue to be preached to by activists in conjunction with their running shoe partners, hear about how underground Our New Favourite DJ’s (TM) latest fragrance is, and marvel at the countless identikit festivals which seem to only exist so a small band of DJs can make money for their agents.

You are being sold a turd, you rubes. Stop pretending you’re not.

The hypocrisy, the bullshit, the rampant and sleazy desire to line one’s pockets are beginning to both sicken and bore me. I might not get angry if you sell your soul to the Dance Music Devil for a few quid, but I probably won’t have any interest in your career afterwards. Likewise, I will no longer tolerate people who stand up and proclaim their politics, and their ethics while falling over themselves to find on-brand sponsors, or bite their lip when commercial concerns might be threatened.

Through it all, though, there are those who are doing it right. There are those who are making a career, making a living, and making art without compromising themselves or the thing they love. It’s not impossible to hold onto your ethics and your beliefs. It’s not impossible to live in dance music without being an adjunct of virulent late stage capitalism. There are more than a few, in fact. Cherish them and the music they make because they need us as much as we need them.

So that’s why I’m changing the name to the Independent Electronics Commission; it’s no longer about mainstream and underground, it’s about commercialisation and independence. In fact, it always was. And when it comes to this scene, rather than being on the inside looking further in, I’d much rather be on the outside looking out.

Cheers for still being around. We’ll be back soon. Probably.

T Flex Review and News (sort of)

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed the output of the blog has recently dropped from Bugger All, to the sort of activity you’d normally associate with entropy. Fact is several things have come to a bit of a head recently which have had an effect on my undoubted abilities to spraf on and on about records.

What this means is, in the short-term at least, the blog is going be on a sort of three-day-week. I have a few bits and pieces to try to finish up, but after that I think I’m going to be taking a little break in order to recharge batteries and continue to write the world’s worst sci-fi novel. I don’t know when things will be back to normal, but It hopefully won’t be too long. Anyway, here’s a review for you all.

T Flex – Mimic EP (Null+Void)

It’s either a sign of ageing, or the fact it’s becoming all but impossible to keep up with everything that’s happening within this one little corner of electronic music, but it feels that as soon as I leave the house in the morning, I’m tripping over début releases by previously unheard-of electro producers. Neither of those things are bad; the influx of new blood, with new ideas and directions is the thing that keeps all scenes going. In electro, a genre with particular ways of being, it not only keeps it vital, but widens the net of possibilities.

Mimic by T Flex is a pretty good snapshot of the ways in which the genre has finally began to extend its interests into other realms. Not only that, but it does something which seems to have become a little less common than it once was – blending a sense of deepness with genuine grooves.

And this is indeed a record where the grooves provide almost everything of note. The thick, rhythmic forms which underpin the music provide networks where raw movement is transformed into melody, meaning, and warmth. Actually, there is little about any of it which is raw. For the most part we’re dealing with a sophisticated sense of what a groove actually is, and the way it informs so much of the music naturally puts you in mind of older, and less confined, ways of doing things.

Not that Mimic glances rearward terribly often. For the most part influences are suggestive, invoking subtle connections of memories and feelings instead any concrete comparisons. Punga, for instance, swims through a dark and dubby ocean, reminiscent in places of peak period Hauntologists with the same emphasis on back-lit thought-scapes and swirling momentum. Incandescent Rush, with its bubbling chords and heavy sinews of bass reaches for a more high-tech soul approach, but fuels the music with a singularity of introspection, powering a gorgeous slice of electro-funk.

There is much to like on Mimic, and even when certain elements threaten to overtake any consensus of tones and textures, such as on Mimic itself where the grooves are scattered, there is still enough sense of a tight and overarching sense of direction that enough space is provided for the moods and emotion to shine through. We have a record here which understands that the grooves are the purest starting point, and builds its worlds from that simple fact. A tight and exciting début, and more evidence of that electro is finally entering a new age.

Reviews: L-R – The Rambler (Asking For Trouble)

The fourth release on Radioactive Man’s Asking For Trouble label sees the L-R electro supergroup reuniting for the first time since their debut in 2017. Ok, I say ‘supergroup’ even though we all know Sandwell District still hold the copyright on the term, but the first outing for this collaboration between Radioactive Man himself, Simon Lynch of London Modular Alliance, and Johnny Oakley of Monoak was an unexpected treasure, not least for the way in which it eagerly kicked against many of the genres current trends.

The Rambler is a slightly different proposition to the debut, being somewhat less fierce in the way it wields its beats. Nor is there anything as precise as Land, a track which fed its exquisitely frosty frequencies into that record’s overarching vibe.

Instead, The Rambler shifts down a gear, and opens itself up to something earthier. Some of this is to do with the sustained attack of the growling, booming, 303s which congeal around the low-end like a foundation of thick quicksand. This is particularly true of the opening tunes, with both Doctor Dark and Rings holding the velocities at a breathless strut as the bass winds in coils around the beats. Neither track mounts itself towards a full-bore assault; they delve deep into the muck and grime, and return with something more fluid than you would expect given the heft of the music.

And it is a weighty sound indeed, one that plays with the lower registers more than a lot of modern electro where the accent is on a more crystalline mood. Part of me thinks this is because the tunes here are much more focussed on physicality, on the kinetic structure, but that really only covers part of the sound. The way many of the other touches are compressed down into the soft and malleable bedrock suggests a rogue sense of experimentalism at work. Rings, especially, is a good example. Behind the bass the beats are loose, wobbling, deliberately haphazard in the way they always feel just about ready to jump forward or fall apart. They don’t follow electro tradition so much as echo to the vibe of soul, and rhythm and blues; organic beats following the groove rather than suggesting its own path. Rings’ liveliness makes light work of its low-speed.

Dinky’s Tone does something similar, at least in the sense that it seems just as determined to incorporate those humanoid touches to the music. Perhaps even more so. Here it works as winding bass over snarling beat’s and razor-sharp percussion which evokes something closer to light-speed hip-hop, or brutally rolling funk. Once again the heart of the tunes is made of a loose, living, energy that provides the ghost in the machine, an intelligence that is both empathic and vampiric. Where The Lights Are tugs hard on the soul, and focusses on a deep, sensual, and fiery groove that buckles and corkscrews, and leads the tune through a virtual future-disco of machines and drunk AI. It emerges on the far side as a surprisingly deep and playful high-point of the record, and one where the funk is rainbowed by jazzy exploration and and a subtle but disarming vulnerability.

Best Of The Represses – February 2019: Internal Empire Special

Robert Hood – Internal Empire (Tresor)

It probably goes without saying, but Robert Hood’s music has changed by quite a bit over the last 25 years. There is perhaps no greater evidence of this than the current primacy of his Floorplan project, with its emphasis on warmer, fuller, and more straight-up dancefloor friendly techno. It has also helped introduce him to a new generation of fans for whom the term ‘minimal’ has greater connections with Berlin, Richie Hawtin, and a more recent take on the sound, than anything Hood was doing back at the Dawn Of Time.

Minimal techno in its original form had many masters, but few pushed the sound so far, or became so symbolic of it, as Robert Hood. Not long separated from Underground Resistance, and reacting against what he considered a loss of feeling and meaning in techno, Hood spent the middle years of the 90s creating a sound which took everything back to the genre’s most basic and functional form.

The results are still startling, perhaps even more so today than at the time when innovation crowded the woods with trees. Hood’s vision was a techno in which everything that didn’t help carry the funk was pared away until all that was left were grooves and sinew. It was, and remains, a devastatingly futurist take on the genre, one where everything is predicated upon movement, and Internal Empire is still the album which best encapsulates this ethos. On a personal level, Internal Empire also remains one of my three favourite techno albums of all time, along side Carl Craig’s Land Cruising, and Model 500’s Deep Space. Something within each of them contains not only the DNA of techno in its original, Detroit form, but a blueprint for the future.

Internal Empire sits as the middle child between those other great markers of Hood’s approach, Minimal Nation, and the run of records which began with Protein Valve, and led into the various Moveable Parts sessions. What is apparent, with the aid of hindsight, is the way in which Internal Empire now stands as perhaps the greatest expression of minimalist techno. With Minimal Nation (and, to an extent, with Protein Valve) there are traces of something else in the sound which harks back to Hood’s earlier incarnation as Underground Resistance’s ‘Minister of Information’, with tracks like Acrylic snarling along with a very Mad Mike feel, or the original The Pace, with its vaguely discoid honk acting as a precursor for the Floorplan genotype. By the time the Moveable Parts material arrived, the music had begun to reach a logical end-point, its tones and moods stripped down almost to nothingness, with what was left set to exploring an increasingly experimental realm of endless motion.

Internal Empire, then, was the point at which the idea of minimal techno found the perfect balance between movement and emotion, and its connection to the music which later took on the mantle of ‘minimal’ remains tangential. While there are obvious similarities between this and the sound as interpreted by a younger, Berlin based, generation, the differences keep them from every becoming too cosy. It’s like comparing a leopard seal to the ones bobbing along in the surf off your nearest beach.

Hood’s take is sharpened by his need to lay down not only a sound, but a belief in what it represented. Such philosophies are achingly difficult to transmit from one producer to another, and most, sensibly, don’t even try. It’s possible that this is the reason Internal Empire, and Hood’s minimalism generally, sounds so thrillingly individualistic – it was built by one person for a particular reason, and that has imparted the music with a soulfullness that is difficult (if not, in fact, dishonest) to try to copy. As a result, very little sounds like Robert Hood at full tilt, and it has helped to keep the music distinct and pure even in an age of endless conceptual recycling.

And the music itself? Well, where can you begin? With Minus, perhaps, still astounding in the way a repeated, three note motif can provide such gorgeously, mournful depths. Or Internal Empire, where skeletal fingers of sound reach out to guide a frosty, clattering, stomp. My favourite was always Home, with its washes of languid synth over a tight symphony of beats and snaps, forever carrying the seed of classical Detroit techno into a new era.

In fact, this is the thing which is always the last to be remembered. It wasn’t just the way the music had been stripped down that made it so powerful, but the way the emotional content was suddenly able to fill the space, and rely on tiny little touches, and the simple repetition of a handful of key elements, to convey meaning and ideas. When we talk about minimalism we rarely mention the way in which the music is dense with the intangible, and the way in which those invisible tones colour the sound and provide depth. This is especially true of Internal Empire. It defines the music, it drives it, and provides such a total re-imagining of what techno can be, and what it can do, that twenty-five years on it continues to open our ears to new ideas and toy with our expectations.