Labels That Changed My Life: Relief Records

Of all the labels which formed the cornerstone of my love of electronic music, Relief records is one of the most cherished, and the most infuriating. Cherished because without it not only would my understanding of house music be substantially worse off, but also the chances are that I would have more than likely never have immersed myself quite as fully in the genre as I did. Infuriating because, well, of all the labels which were special to me, Relief most often seemed to fail to deliver on their promise.

Beginning life as an offshoot of Cajmere’s seminal Cajual Records, Relief quickly developed a life and a character all of its own. My own early brushes with them probably came not from house, but from mix tapes by DJs such as Derrick May, Detroit techno people who had long been throwing every style into the mix. Back then I was not quite as sure about house music as other genres. Detroit techno, electro, and the harder variants which certain Chicago producers were beginning to release on European labels offered me something I was looking for. House music didn’t, not really. Not at first.

But there was something in Relief’s sound which set it apart from everything else. The first tune I heard, – and I imagine it was the same for many of us – Green Velvet’s Preacher Man, was quite possibly one of the finest tracks ever created. It wasn’t just that remarkable sample, the ranting, half-crazed sermon by Aretha Franklin’s father C.L that made the tune so great (although, yep, it certainly added to it). The tune itself, a stomping, wonky, building chunk of madness, of searing noise and bar structures not quite getting it together, felt utterly alien to almost anything else which was going around back then. Not only that, but it seemed as if it had transcended Chicago usual style. This wasn’t really house, it was Chicago techno, a sweltering, loose and heavy assault on the senses which had virtually nothing in common with the likes of Marshal Jefferson or Jackmaster Funk.

From the start there was a mix between the more traditional sounds and the harder edged. But even the records which leaned closer to what had come before felt subtly different, blending house tropes with a stripped down functionality where elements such as the basslines or the samples gained a prominence which moved them away from what I guess you could describe as a song structure towards something closer to techno’s machine music movement. Where Cajmere’s Green Velvet continued to kick out dark, almost twisted takes on his own earlier It’s Time For the Percolator sound, others on the roster where beginning to explore further, bringing it all together with an ear for the most contemporary dance floor funk.

And what a roster that was. Paul Johnson, Boo Williams, Tim Harper, DJ Sneak, Gemini and many others – virtually the cream of Chicago’s second wave, and each of them releasing at least one record which has stood the test of time to become regarded as bona-fide classics. With Williams and Johnson in particular creating a house sound which stripped back the genre’s more humanizing elements and replacing it with soulful machines, layering the tunes with beats culled from the deepest and heaviest of the Chicago underground, and with the likes of Harper creating an epic, spiralling take on the same thing, it felt as if house music was launching itself into the future.

This was music which worked best blaring from a stack of speakers across a packed dancefloor in the late hours. While dance music is exactly that, it’s rare to find much of it which is simply not the same beast when removed from its natural habitat. But this was at the heart of what made Relief so special: It was music first and foremost for dancers. You want entertained at home on a Sunday afternoon? I’m sure there’s some worthy IDM instead. Relief is for the club.

While there was a similar, almost kindred, energy, with what Djax was getting out of it’s Chicago contributors half a world away, where the two differed was just how far they shied away from house. Djax’s take on house was fuelled by a much harder European market, Relief’s take, while belting, took greater pleasure in the grooves, in the funk, and in a delicious twisting of what was expected. It was a similar sonic decadence to what Chicago had been doing for a long time, but it was more direct, dressed to sweat, but with a kink in the programming which kept it ahead of the game.

Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to keep them ahead for long. Chicago labels always seemed to have a habit of indulging in release schedules that would terrify even the most hardy and insane of completests, and Relief was no different. The truly great period for the label lay across 95 and 96; a vanishingly small window for such a hugely influential label to have made its mark. While there were great records from the label before this time, and a handful after, these two years were the real home of the label’s classics. The problem was, and the thing that even I eventually grew weary of, was that for every record which sailed close to genius, there seemed a bunch which didn’t even try. There may have been a lot of great records, but the rest pointed to a label which seemed increasingly content with throwing everything against a wall and seeing what stuck.

The special magic which Johnson, Williams, Gemini and others had brought to the label dissipated under the weight of records which simply offered little more than one note disco samples, or straight-to-video rehashes of the percolator style which aped Cajmere’s original sound but without any of the humour or funk. By ’97 there were still occasional blast of special music coming out from artists like Mystic Bill, but they were bittersweet, emphasising the ways in which a label had lost its way, and buried under rafts of older material released as CD compilations for various markets. It all but vanished for a couple of years, and on its return at the start of the millennium it seemed more interested in releasing endlessly repackaged Green Velvet material.

It has relaunched again in the last couple of years, almost entirely in a digital format, and maybe it will get back to where it was before. Maybe. Things have changed, and house is yet again a different beast from what it once was. Perhaps the simple fact was that Relief was a product of a particular period of time, one where everything was up for grabs and new ways of doing things were coming along at an insane rate.

The remarkable drop off the label suffered from shouldn’t be forgotten, but neither should it be its memorial for the fact is that even though it shone for such a short period of time, some labels – hell, even some entire genres – couldn’t claim such a run of truly, stunningly, brilliant records as Relief managed across a handful of months in the mid nineties. They were a label that touched genius and changed the way house sounded forever, no matter how flawed they were towards the end. Big Old C.L Franklin had Relief’s number right from the start: ‘You got to watch out when folks are playing house.” That should be their memorial. Amen to that.

Best Of The Represses – June 2017

Almost half way through the year already. Not much more you can add to that really is there? As far as recent represses are concerned the quality is in the eye of the beholder, and my eye IS pure quality so I’m pretty sure, once again, there are only the slimmest of pickings.

It isn’t always going to be like this though. A rumour, floating on the breeze like the lightest feather of hope, says that several represses of classic Aux 88 material are on the way. How real this is, God only knows, and whether any more Direct Beat material will later be available is unknown. Regardless, it’s a start. And long overdue. Elsewhere Metroplex’s current policy of releasing their own records continues, even if it has gone a little strange. Represses of Rob Hood’s seminal The Vision project, and Juan Atkins’ own Jazz Is The Teacher are inbound from Metroplex itself, and DJ Bone’s phenomenal Riding The Thin Line EP will also be out again in July. Except not on Metroplex….the repress will be handled by UK label Another Day. No, we don’t know why. Neither does DJ Bone for that matter. The important thing is that we’ll be able to buy it again, but the geek in me would rather still have the Metroplex artwork in place. Oh well. There’s also a bunch of Theo Parrish stuff kicking about, so there’s that.

Right, here are some quick picks for your ears to get all excited about.

Photek – T’Raenon (Applied Rhythmic Technology)

Of all the electronic genres which have come and gone over the last 30 years only Drum and Bass still feels unwilling to swap its rare promise to shock for the comfort of middle-aged musical life. Listening back now to some of those older records you can still be struck by their fierceness, and the fact that they still sound like little else. Even so, represses of classic D&B has yet to reach the same heights as house and techno. I think that’s a shame.

Still, we’ve had the occasional little blast, and ART deliver a pretty special addition here in the shape of Photek’s T’Raenon. Released originally in 1996, the record came in the middle of a phenomenal run which is book-ended by Natural Born Killa (itself repressed last year) and Modus Operandi. While T’Raenon maybe isn’t quite as strong when it comes to the insane, cinematic darkness and twisting beats that Rupert Parkes is known for, it still carries a gorgeous and haunting potency which time has done little to diminish, and is some of the deepest, most liquid funk to come out of the genre. Kanei on the flip kicks it down a notch with a tune best played at sunrise on Mars. Get more of the back catalogue out, lads. Please.

Mystic Bill – Track From The Vault Vol 1 (Mint Condition)

William Torres, AKA Mystic Bill, seems to be going through a little bit of a renaissance at the moments as this record is, by my count, the fourth or fifth to appear in the last couple of years after a long time when his name would draw recognition from only the oldest of heads. It’s a good thing too; this is house music done right, with no quarters given, and fuelled by a deep and abiding love of jacking machine music. Released way back in 1997 on Relief Records (as Classics From The Vault) it’s actually a pretty primo primer for the better sounds which came out of that most capricious of labels. Funnelling in almost ghetto style rhythms, tight silicon soul, bursts of spacey jazz, and touches of acid, it jumps across the gap of the last twenty years to end up sounding every bit as vital and modern as that record you bought yesterday. In fact, it’s probably better because it carries within its DNA enough attitude to floor a dancefloor full of elephants. Worth buying for the shuffling, grimy, acid-tinged funk of Late Night At The Music Box alone. Shout out to the Trax Mystic Bill sampler which is just out as well – some damn fne music there too.

Orinoco – Stolen Moments (Flash Forward)

Although this was actually repressed a year ago as a sort of limited edition deal, there seems to be some new copies of it floating around, which is good because this is a very special record. Out way, way, WAY back in 1991, Orinoco hails from Italy, and was picked up by pretty much every one of those DJs you’ve heard me banging on about, including Derrick May. And if that isn’t a seal of quality I don’t know what is.

It’s one of those rare records which you can describe as being ‘of it’s time’ without being cruel. It’s a wide-eyed affair which draws on acid, tribal techno and something Orbital-like to create some warm, twisting music which just seems to float there in your head. While Stolen Moments and Echo are a pair of wobbling belters, replete with the sort of dripping chord progressions, dreamy synths and bleepy leads that’ll have you rethinking whether dungarees and bandanas were as shite an idea as they now seem (hint: They ARE as shite as they now seem) they both sound like nothing else around just now. The other two tracks, Orinoco itself and the quite frankly brilliant Tribal Echo will just do a number of you and leave you doing one of those embarrassing shuffle dances around the house. Buy it and rejoice as reality turns into a rubbish and wonderfully compelling day-glo, early 90s dance music video featuring fractals. Lots and lots of fractals. Lots of fractals.

Review: Willie Burns and DJ Overdose – Sonny and Ricardo Give Good Advice (Unknown To The Unknown)

Willie Burns and DJ Overdose – Sonny and Ricardo Give Good Advice (Unknown To The Unknown)

A decade ago, even five years back, a record like this would probably have had the sneery and overly serious sections of the peanut gallery getting all preachy and whining about ‘ramifications’ and ‘responsibility’ and all sorts of shit which seems really important to the sort of slick and professional meedya sorts who want to make Our Thing Their Thing. Now, given the flood of high weirdness which is engulfing the world, and the way in which an ultra-orthdodox conservatism seems to have got it together with the genuinely, weaponized, bat-shit crazy, any tune that can lift a vocal snippet from (I’m assuming) Miami Vice and lash it to a proper old-school jack track like this ends the day sounding like a victory anthem.

Anyways, that’s kind of setting a high bar I guess, but the beauty of this is that the music comes up to snuff. The B-side, firstly, is packed with about a million locked grooves – something which seldom makes good on the promise but works pretty darn brilliantly here. Veering between squirts of acid and rumbling toms they’re light years away from the smear of hi-hat samples so beloved of the ‘I don’t DJ – I remix on the fly’ gang in their Hitler Youth haircuts. Almost worth the price of admission on their own so numerous and excellent are they.

The main attractions though are the two slammers on the A-side, dirty ripped-up throwbacks to the dingiest of club nights. Sonically they evoke the messy chaos of the sort of house music which remained resolutely under-the-radar during the genre’s original hey-day, taking the basic formula and swirling in a dose of gleeful nihilism to the mix, creating something which was the flip-side to the Second Summer of Love’s bright and shining accession. The first one up rolls straight in with that fecund ‘Take Drugs’ sample leading the way before unleashing the demonic toms which rule over everything. The unfolding darkness is held off with a belt of acidic bass and its chirpier top-ended buddy, lending the tune not only a demented smile, but a mean dose of slanted funk.

The following beat mix is exactly what you both expect and need. Shorn of the original’s acid accoutrements, it gets back to basics – or, to be precise, back to even more basic basics. It simply sinks it rhythmic fangs into your feet and shakes you around, letting the toms and rimshots take turns in banging your brains to mush.

It’s in this absolute disregard for anything beyond the simple, scuzzy nature of the tunes that the music finds it’s soul. The soundtrack to a crusty infested squat somewhere on the edge of the early nineties it may well be, but that’s just layers on the vibe. Tunes trying to hark back to a more honest, less slick time may well be ten a penny nowadays, but very few wear their hearts on their sleeves like this. Huge, filthy tunes that stick two fingers up to an increasingly homogenized scene. The antithesis. And the antidote. Turn it up on election day and make a point.

Review: Jerome Hill – Toybox Part 1 (Don’t)

Jerome Hill – Toybox Part 1 (Don’t)

Glasgow’s spring time weather is notoriously fickle, and the last few weeks have been no different as it veers between blue skies and torrential rain. This was unexpected though.

I sat down a few days ago to listen to Toy Box Part 1 and take notes. As I did it was still dry, and motes of dust fluttered in the beams of sunlight. It didn’t last. Almost as soon as the needle touched the first grooves of the record, things began to change. Suddenly, as Egg Roll’s moody beats lashed the office, the light beyond my window began to fade. No, that’s not right; it didn’t fade, it was like the light was being sucked out of the day as a cloud as black as a Tory front bencher’s soul billowed and loomed above the flats on the other side of the lane, blotting out the sky and throwing everything into terrifyingly sharp relief.

The temperature plummeted but the humidity grew oppressive, matching the tune’s wicked jack; as perfectly in sync as any laptop DJ hero. Egg Roll ended and Skez Princess’s razor-sharp breaks crackled through the room, scattering outward and hacking at the growing storm. Down came the rain. Jesus, down came the rain; thick, almost metallic sheets built from drops as fat and heavy as rivets, smacking into the tired, hot, earth and reaching back up as Skez Princess’s beats and dark matter bass filled what little room was left within the claustrophobic atmosphere.

It didn’t let up with the B-side. I know slowed the raucous energy but replaced it with a seedy intent which curled around the sound of the raindrops exploding against the roof and the glass of the window, the music and the elements conjoining, building a snarling symphony which hummed and shimmered in the thick, dead air. Mono Skank, I prayed, might slacken the damaging thirst of whatever malicious and forgotten demon had been let loose on heaven’s decks but it wasn’t to be. The tune’s proto-industrial bass line thrummed and buckled this way and that, prowling at the edge of my increasingly questionable reality. For a moment, as the beats peeled back, as the music quieted itself in preparation for the final stomp I thought I glimpsed mean old faces in the rain, laughing and gurning. And then the grooves were alive again, pumping in competition with the busy sky.

Mono Skank ended and, almost as soon as the last burst of bass had scraped itself into silence, the elemental percussion of the rain stopped. Stopped dead, as if the clouds no longer had any interest in flooding the world. I sat there for a moment, shaky and uncertain, before hoisting myself from the chair and walking over to the window. Above the smeared glass there were already patches of blue widening in the bruised evening sky. The light was returning, soft and forgiving, brightening the colours of the springtime with warmth. And I thought “if this is what it does to the weather, just imagine what it would do to you in the depths of a Friday night”. Primordial hardcore fuelled burners, fully recommended by the rain-gods themselves.

Review: Hodge and Peder – All My Love (Peder Mannerfelt Productions)

I’ve written this damn thing about 30 times now, and each and every attempt falls apart on the second paragraph. I started arse-over-tit by beginning with some conclusions that could only be borne out with some primo-grade reality bending, and now I’ve decided that honesty is the best policy. I know: you don’t get this sort of thing in the Wire, do you? It’s amateur hour around here.

So, at the risk of seeming a little off, here’s what you need to know: Hodge and Peder’s first collaboration pretty much came out of nowhere and did a number on my brain. I had meant to draw cunning and sophisticated allusions to hardcore and rave culture, to avoiding homage and smash ‘n’ grab nostalgia runs back to the early 90’s but the fact is that all of this sort of thing just slides off the music as if it’s wearing teflon armour. Yes, the tunes are coloured with a certain hue of day-glo insanity but All My Love isn’t really a nod to the current (and admittedly welcome) trend for snarling, compressed, rave bombs from yesteryear. There is a lot more going on here than that.

If I was trying hard to stick to that theme, I suppose I could describe All My Love as less of a reworking of classic genre influences, and more of a re-imagining. While certain tones and ways of movement will be familiar to anyone who has a passing interest in these genres, the way the music rises up is very modern and absolutely without any interest in revisiting the past as you might know it. There are moments it bolts away from all your preconceptions entirely, veering close to a sort of mayhem that KLF once described as ‘stadium house’. At other times it evokes the heavy swirl of the sort of dirty, acrid, techno which seems to be very much in decline these days, a form of techno which simply does not give a toss what you think about it, a form of techno which exists for the sole purpose of making you dance and shout and sweat.

Bird Chant on the flip hits all those switches almost from the start, stumbling on its beats like it’s been shot up with vodka and gravel and hasn’t washed in a month. It pulls hard on the feet, channelling itself by means of a riff so huge and heavy it has its own gravity well. And while the riff dominates proceedings, little, equally fierce textures spiral around it, congealing and feeding the brutal movement. Inside the Rain is a necessary palette cleanser, a mind-wash of fractals and pinches of disorienting dreams which seethes and surges downward, drawing the light away until the shadows billow.

But All My Love itself is the king in this broken place. It’s immense – a summation of darskide vibe. The hardcore leanings are at their most obvious here, but Hodge and Peder compress them, and keep compressing them until the breaks take on an almost tribal shape before being blasted further by hoover bass. The vocal ties it together, bonding the explosive martial kicks with a demented, majestic, anxiety. Unbelievably, wonderfully, nasty and one of the stand out moments of the year so far. Hardcore for the 21st century. And the 31st. Yas.