When a Thought Becomes You: Journeys With Techno

I was already into my thirties when I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. It really wasn’t much of a surprise. Even so, I had still spent several of the previous years bouncing between anti-depressants and psychologists before somebody finally suggested I might be on the spectrum. To be honest, I think it was an attempt to get me out of their office where, thanks to the infinitely dubious wonders of Seroxat (the medication I was on), I was probably sweating, swearing, and being insane at terrifying speed.

I wish I could say that the diagnoses changed my life, but I can’t because it didn’t in any useful way. Having had it so late-on meant that I had already created a number of coping strategies, even though I still didn’t know what I was trying to cope with. By the time it finally arrived I could pretty much pass for sub-clinical, or – as one of my doctors described me with all the alleged riches of his profession’s bedside manner – as ‘almost normal’. There was a certain amount of relief to be taken from the fact that not everything was my fault, that there were certain patterns of behaviour which I had essentially little control over ( even if I could, though experience, mitigate many of the more extreme variances). But all of this was tempered with the knowledge that I wasn’t going to get ‘better’, that there was no pill or operation which was going to add to me the basic, fundamental, ability to be like everyone else.

In many ways I am lucky: my autism has never been too debilitating and, save for a handful of gold-medal winning public meltdowns, it has never been overly obvious. None of which is to say I haven’t struggled, sometimes quite profoundly, with the whole social interaction thing that is a hallmark of Asperger’s. I’ve spent a large part of my life feeling like an alien trapped inside a human’s body, never quite getting what comes naturally to everyone else. Not that the normality or naturalism of other people improves anything; While Aspies might well struggle with things like recognising irony, or the subtlety of language, it doesn’t exactly help that most of you neurotypicals are so ass-skinningly awful at both of them.

Back in the days when I was still going to clubs and DJing on a regular basis it could be a nightmare, possibly made worse by the fact I still had no idea what the issue was and tended to blame myself for every little bit of strange disconnection, every miscommunication. Christ knows how others saw me; intense and pretty weird, I expect, and prone to gabbling utter shite out of a need to do or say something. Luckily this was the nineties and virtually everyone else, in every single club, would be gabbling utter shite by two in the morning.

I struggled at parties too, not because I am shy, but because dealing with human beings I haven’t known for 20 years, who I know how to communicate with and who know how to communicate back, can be incredibly difficult to do. Theoretically I understand human interaction. In practical terms trying to pick up on every one of those little signals you lot take for granted is knackering.

The real problems came from crowds. I hate crowds. I know that I would make a lousy promoter because, almost without exception, I prefer an empty club to a full one. Crowds don’t scare me in and of themselves, but I struggle to cope with the flood of sensory data; the noise, the movement of the flock. Every attendant change to its attitude and stance feeds in on top of older data, building up until it reaches a point where it floods nerve endings and neural nets with white noise. I hate crowds because it is impossible to keep your eye on every thing and everyone without going insane, and sensory overload is painful. More than that, it is exhausting.

But the music…..Oh man, there was always the music. …..I’m still not sure whether my quick seduction by electronic beats was locked in from the start. Certainly there was something in the movement and sound which captivated me before I even understood it. There was a profound similarity, in my mind at least, with classical music; a sort of wider understanding of the world and the cosmos than one tended to find in, say, rock music with all of its pungent humanity. Not that I don’t listen to rock, of course. It has been, and remains, important to me. But its subconscious emphasis on things I don’t quite get has always forced a little distance between us.

Electronica opened up for me in a way rock music never did. Long before I had even heard of Asperger’s I was drawn to something in it that I couldn’t really find anywhere else. I think it was the machine in the ghost, rather than the ghost in the machine; there is a certain amount of unhumanity to electronic music, a sense that the tunes I love the most could be hymns by sentient AI, soul music by xenomorphs; tranmissions from a singularity beyond the edge of time and experience. The meaning placed on rhythms, on patterns (especially, for an apsie, the patterns), on pure sound, wired the response differently. It worked not only on the physical level, or the intellectual, but also drew meaning from somewhere that grew from pure imagination. The music seemed to arrive from the depths of a very different existence, and carried within itself the light of other ways of being. For someone who never quite seemed to connect with the world they were a godsend, and proof that music could be more than it was allowed to be. Proof, in fact, that I could be too.

Of course, electronica is no less human than rock, or jazz, or skiffle. It is made by people: some amazing, some twats; some creating for their career, others creating to get the taste of a long, hideous, working day out of their mouths, some because it is all they can do to not create. Electronica, like being somewhere on the spectrum, is humanity coming at things from a different twist. It rides a deeper, perhaps stranger, road than some of you are used to, but it seems to go to the same place. It’s my music in a way that it’ll never be yours, just as it’s your music in a way that it can never be mine. I like that, not least because it actually allows me to feel a bit closer to the great consensual hallucination which forms humanity, and you’ve no ideas how hard that sometimes is.

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Best Of The Represses, Feb 2018

Damn it. I hate buying records at this time of year. It always feels like I’m doing it to get back at the long darkness. It sometimes feels as if producers and labels know that too, and dump their also-rans into the mixer, grinning like Tories because they know I’ll buy whatever they have. What’s the option, go without? Man, you haven’t been paying attention have you? You’re no collector; you’re no fan – just a chancer with rudimentary reading skills. Off with you, your Beatport account needs seeing to…

Represses seem deserving of your time round about now. There is something in the season which makes you want to dig up older sounds. What’s still slightly irritating is the way we seemed to hit peak flood after months of famine. There’s a bunch of good stuff about. I had wanted to write about the new Carl Finlow anthology that’s out now on Those That Knoe, but my copy hasn’t arrived yet. It’s stuck in a box somewhere, its serious electro muscles kept in check by the twin bastards of heavy-duty cardboard and a lazy postman. Expect words when it finally makes its appearance.

214 – Lyle At Dawn (Frustrated Funk)

214’s 2015 release on Frustrated Funk, Lyle At Dawn, has come around for a second pass, which is a good thing. Chris Roman’s take on electro has been an important touchstone in the genre’s current resurgence, and it’s one that has shown an impressive disregard for remaining loyal to any one facet of the modern sound. While I don’t quite love Lyle At Dawn as much as a couple of his later records – North Cascades in particular – it’s still pretty impressive in the way it loosens up stark, Rothian noir just enough to inject a dose of Metroplex era electro’s smart and fluid funk. Cut of the 12 is definitely the aurora-skimming Time For, where Autechre and Model 500 come together in the gloriously languid depths.

Future Sound Of London – Lifeforms (Virgin)

Next up is Future Sound Of London, who return to the land of the living with a quite frankly huge re-release of 1994’s Lifeforms. Remastered across 4 sides of glistening and weighty vinyl, it’s replete with a download code befitting the trendy nerd-about-town lifestyle you’ve all bought into, even though you all work in an office and cry yourselve’s to sleep. It’s a pretty nifty package – even if you quietly wonder why they didn’t just go the whole hog and do it as a 3×12″ just for the thrill of it like every other label is doing just now. I won’t bore you by banging on about what it sounds like because I imagine you’ve heard it. For a while, back there, it threatened to become techno’s own The Wall, which is a terrifying thought for anyone who hate Pink Floyd as much as I do. For the three of you who haven’t heard it, well, you can recreate it by chucking some rainforesty samples around on top of shuffling breakbeats for about six hours and getting some environmental studies students to pretend to be travellers while they sit in the corner and spraff about how ace fractals are. Welcome to 1994.

I’m joking! Well, mostly. In actual fact it’s not a bad record when it gets itself going, and it feels very much like the last document of a world of electronica which has all but passed out of sight now. Here and there are moments of genuine, mind bending beauty and complexity but, as a whole, it never felt quite as ground breaking as ISDN, nor as fun as Accelerator. Having said all that, the tune Lifeforms itself is a triple-headed ambient-techno monster, and up there as one of the best things FSOL ever did.

V/A – Scopex 90/00 (Tresor)

Last but very much not least is the startlingly mental and deeply impressive set of Scopex Records 12″s which have been repressed into an enormous retrospective set by Tresor. For those who don’t remember them – which is going to be most people, I expect – Scopex was a British electro label which flared into life at the end of the last millennium just long enough to furnish us with a tiny number of brilliant records. Tresor bring together the two releases by Simulant with the single Pollon release, and throw in a dinky little 7″ as well.

This is an astounding set. Really, it’s phenomenal. Tresor deserve every bit of praise you can muster for putting this out. I’ve a suspicion this’ll really only be picked up by the hardcore electro geeks (scratch that – the hardcore electro geeks with deep wallets; it’s a pricey set) but it deserves to be owned by everyone. The music on offer here is fantastic, rolling between angular Drexicyan melodies, housey funk, and grainy, expansive, atmospherics. Even in the moments where it fuels itself with old-school vibes, it still like the soundtrack to a future you’ll spend dancing in the eye of the cyborg. This is a stunning collection, and if you have even the most passing interest in the genre, you should hunt a copy down. Do it soon, though. I suspect that unless Tresor keep pumping out new copies this repress might soon be going for the same sort of stupid money as the originals do. You have been warned.

Four Years

No wonder I’m tired.

Here we are, four years on with just over 500 posts in the tank, and I still have little idea what I’m trying to achieve. Sometimes I wonder whether the nature of the subject makes writing about it redundant, or that the fierce evolutionary speed of the music turns any attempt at documenting it into a smear of words across time’s windscreen.

It’s lucky for me, then, that the music remains as exciting, infuriating, weird, and life affirming, as it always has. It’s heading towards thirty years since I first heard acid house – a late night blast of high strangeness on the radio (I can’t remember where, maybe the John Peel Show). That first dose was beyond my understanding back then; it hovered irritatingly in my mind for days, but never came close enough for me to begin to make sense of it. I didn’t realise that it was already working itself deep inside, rewriting the code and preparing me for when I really started to get onboard. A couple of years later when I first started taking my first tentative steps into a larger and brighter sonic world, I was primed.

Electronic music is the music of my generation. Not only my generation, obviously, but when we love something that consumes us it’s natural to feel possessive about it. I still – mostly – feel like that, and I find I can be more precious about it than I perhaps once was. I think this is a reaction to the ephemera which seems to have built up around electronica over the years. A calcification of nonsense and bollocks which has crusted over the actual point of it all and makes getting to the good stuff underneath just a little bit more difficult than it used to be. And when you dig on through you and finally get your hands on the stuff that matters to you it’s difficult to loosen your grip.

None of that shit matters. It never has. It’s always been there, even though the rose-tinted memories of the old team would have you think differently. Going to a club to listen to loud, banging, music is much the same now as 20 years ago (and the floors are just as sticky); there were more than a few whining, overpaid DJs back then too, and plenty of music that deserved to be lost to a bin fire. Old bastards like me can spin the prose about what a golden age it was, but it was a golden age because we were there and living through it, experiencing it all for the first time, believing it could never be bettered. But it’s the experience that’s the important bit, not whether it could be bettered, because it can and should.

The fact is that I am frequently blown away by music I hear now. And that fact is often chaperoned by the odd sense of incompleteness I feel when hearing old music that I once loved sound lost to the years. I’m sometimes surprised by some of the stuff which is returned to this insane future, amazed by strands of the electronic DNA which seemed an evolutionary dead-end only for them to bloom into new and crazy shapes. Occasionally I don’t get it, and feel confused why you would bother to dig up sounds – which weren’t even that great then – when there is so much good music now. But it is perhaps one of the fundamental truths of the present that the past is now as malleable as the future.

So, yeah, I still don’t know what I’m trying to achieve, but I expect the answer is up there in all the mad toss I just wrote. I’ve tailed off the blog a bit in recent months due to the outside world and the slight suspicion I keep repeating myself, but spring is coming, and energy levels increasing. Let’s hope there’s some good music too. Thanks for reading, across four bizarre years in the life of this alien machine music. I’ve stuck up four tunes from the last four years that wormed their way into my brain and never escaped. If there are four tunes in the next four years that I’ll love as much I’ll be happy.

Review: V/A – Mechatronica 5 (Mecahtronica)

OK, let’s not waste any time on small talk.

Various Artists – Mechatronica 5 (Mechatronica)

I’m always happy to admit that I really like Mechatronica. For a label which is still very much an embryonic project, each release has been a delight in the way it adds another clue to where this Berlin based outfit are going. Whether they really have a grand plan for all of this I don’t know. What I do know is that their slender output has been pretty impressive so far, and their love of the Various Artist mini compilation has provided us with a far broader body of work that one could ordinarily expect from such a young project.

So far we’ve seen the likes of Dez Williams, Privacy, Luke Eargoggle, and a host of others dropping cuts on the label which both reinforce and take apart our idea of what electro is. And here at the outset of 2018 they’ve provided us with a snap shot of the genre’s health as we head into what I suspect might well become a very strange year for electro, what with the increasing ‘I’ve always been into it’ jabber of chancers from other ends of the electronic spectrum who don’t seem to have ever played an electro track in anger before.

That aside, one of the things I like most about Mechatronica is the way they’ve never been content to propagate a single idea of what electro is, preferring an approach which helps to cast its light over a wide section of what is increasingly a very broad church. While the names here – Norwell, DJ Nephil, Gestalt, and Innerspace – may well, with the exception of Innerspace, be less immediately familiar to anyone except the truest heads, the comp more than holds its own with four choice tunes that do a bang up job of getting over something of the strange invention and scruffy majesty that has defined some of the best electro over the last couple of years.

Innershade kicks it off with the shoulders-out electro-pop stylings of Aalst To Charlois, a rakish charmer roughed up by clawing acid lines and a profoundly stompy sense of urgency before it gives way to Tranzs by Norwell where a gentler and more playful mood emerges from beneath the stern beats to elevate the tune up into the starlight.

Gestalt’s Mndfck and DJ Nephil’s White Dwarf roll out from a similar starting point but quickly slide off into very different places. Mndfck keeps the heartbeat high with a wobbly, wonky grooves tied together by a honk of bass and the infinite warble of a hungry 303, circling above White Dwarf’s looser, grittier, and down right more ornery take on the same themes. The acid here is plucked of its warmth and left to curl around the scattered beats for heat.

You know what: you should know by now. Mechatronica have done some pretty bang up work so far and this is another example of their ability to choose some of the best work in the genre. They deserve to be spoken about along side CPU and Brokntoys. This is great electro that never falls into the trap of doing what it’s expected to do. And the way things are going just now, that’s a quality you can’t put a price on.

Review: Lab Rat XL – Mice Or Cyborg (Clone Aqualung)

Like everyone else, I’m a sucker for anything Drexciya related, but I’ve begun to grow a little anxious about what could possibly be described as the ‘Drexicyan Heritage Industry’ over the last year. While it hasn’t quite hit the same level of recycling you see with some big-name rock bands, where every demo and out-take is lauded as evidence of burgeoning genius, you might still be forgiven for wondering whether there is really that much more which is worthy of being dug out of DATS and released in a pretty sleeve. Some of it for the third time.

Like I said though, if it’s Drexciyan related I’m probably gullible enough to buy it. That hasn’t really been a problem so far; the quality of most of the re-releases has been as high as you might expect. There has been the occasional number which remains more interesting for the background it provides (a bit of the ‘Burgeoning Genius’ syndrome) such as James Stinson’s Hyperspace Sound Labs as Clarence, but mostly we have been pretty well served.

It isn’t the record’s first time under repress – it was last spotted in 2008, with the vinyl being followed a couple of years back by the digital version – but it has arrived at a time when there is a lot of great electro getting another day in the sun, and interest in the genre’s past is on the increase. Lab Rats XL’s Mice Or Cyborg carries some added interest for being work by the actual duo as opposed to solo work by one of the two, and forms a neat triangle with their Abstract Thought, and L.A.M projects, falling somewhere between in terms of tone and mood.

Let me get this said: Mice Or Cyborg is a decent record. It displays a breadth of nuance and ideas in a way which has perhaps become a little rare in the genre today, and it does so without losing sight of a central and overarching ethos, one which guides and glues everything together. It also weaves its experimentalism deep into the fabric of the music, making it feel as integral to the tunes as the beats or the grooves, instead of relying it to provide a meaning all by itself.

I’m not sure that’s enough, though, to make it a great record. If this had been released today by a new act we’d maybe be hailing it as pretty special. Unfortunately Stinson and Donald’s work as Drexciya colours the reaction. Whether or not that’s fair is a difficult question to answer, but it’s difficult to avoid the comparisons. This works in both directions, however, as some of Lab Rat’s issues are also to be found in Drexciya. With both there is a tendency, at times, towards the meandering, to locking down a movement for just a little too long, pushing it into that region where the heat begins to dissipate. With Drexciya it’s rarely an issue; often it tightens other ideas up, and provides a genuine springboard from which they can push outwards and upwards, but here it occasionally betrays, warming a suspicion that maybe some of the material is a little lacking in anything else.

It’s not that the tunes feel unfinished, more that they haven’t quite reached that level where they can be left to guide themselves to a truly meaningful ending. Lab Rat 2, for instance, wobbles out into the world upon a squat 4/4 beat and a finely worn bass line, but it never seems to have enough energy to propel itself beyond an initial judgement, the delicate chords which should tone the piece forever swamped by the repetitive insistence of the bass. Similarly, Lab Rat 5 frustrates and not only with the irritatingly stop/start nature of the rhythms, but also in the way it feels as if it has been designed to be obtuse, constantly feeling on the verge of pulling everything together before once again yanking away any sense of completeness.

There are elements to the music, however, which saves the album from falling too far out of the light. Its way with melody, the way it lies at the heart of the most potent moments, allows a glimpse not so much of burgeoning genius, but growing maturity. It tempers even the rawer moments, and often combines with grooves in ways which surprise. Likewise, the whole of Mice Or Cyborg is filtered through an air of introspection, giving a sense of lived-through world-weariness and adding a warm sense of soulfulness which helps bind things together.

And when these elements combine, the album becomes much more interesting; even more so when it seems to be deliberately sidestepping any solid comparisons with Drexciya. Lab Rat 3 is a beauty of a track: a long, drifting paean to a far more Kraftwerkian take on electro than we tend to expect from this pair of minds. A long machine hymn which returns time and again to simple motifs and movements, layered with a lazy, quiet, charm, it evokes a rare sense of serenity and gentle wonder. There is a sense of Stinson’s Other People Place work at the root of it all, but it remains woozier, less inclined to douse its robotic soul with more human touches.

The strongest tracks are found right at the start, where the mood of exploratory mischief is at its strongest. Lab Rat 1 defies easy categorisation in the way it brings its submerged grooves together with melodies that are sometimes jazzy, sometimes strangely alien, like creatures calling over a silicon landscape. Lab Rat 6 feels closest to the Drexciyan ideal, lithe and stark, breathless and compressed, it is darkly affecting, and quickly draws you into to its grasp.

Is Mice Or Cyborg essential? No, probably not. Originally envisioned and released as the last part of their ‘Drexciyan Storm’ sequence, Mice Or Cyborg doesn’t really feel like a logical end-point. None of the six tunes really feel like a final word, and even the good ones can’t quite escape the thought that their better qualities had been echoed previously, and to better effect, elsewhere across the duo’s insanely exemplary oeuvre – both together and in solo work. Does it remain an interesting and important record? The answer is yes, mostly, although some of the lustre which could be present in that answer is scuffed by the fact that this is not an album from their early and formative years, but from right at the end when they should have been at their peak. It doesn’t really come close to the highs of Dopplereffekt, or The Other People Place, and it doesn’t even begin to suggest anything of Drexciya’s off the scale majesty.

For us Drexciyan geeks it will always carry an importance far beyond the reality of its offerings, but for anyone wanting evidence of Donald and Stinson’s talents, there are far better places to be looking. Buy it for what it is, definitely, but be prepared to search elsewhere for what it isn’t.