Austin Cesear/Stefan Jós – Opal Tapes

Eclecticism in electronic music is not a new phenomenon. In many ways it has been part and parcel of the scene for a long time. Over the years various artists have happily moved between the genres; some with great abandon, others merely flirting with new sounds. Recently there has been an explosion of well-known producers taking on new, anonymous handles in order to cloak their involvement in some new project or other. How successful this is, or whether it’s merely a device for creating attention I’ll leave up to you to decide.

Record labels themselves tended to be slightly more conservative. There were always exceptions, of course. Warp Records have always been unafraid to put out material only vaguely linked by anything as overt as genre or scene. It’s equally applicable in this day and age, when so many of the new arrivals seem to be determined by singular ideas about their identities. I can understand labels wanting to push only one sort of music. We live in a saturated age where conservatism is often a better guarantor of safety.

Stephen Bishop’s Opal Tapes, however, is probably the closest to that Warp ethos. Over the last few years they’ve put out some genuinely groundbreaking, crazy and inspirational stuff, much of it on cassette tapes, that most cranky (and, in my experience, fragile,) of formats. Nowadays these releases are backed up by digital downloads and the occasional vinyl release as well, but the lo-fi, DIY feel of tape persists.

And as for the material: Huerco S, IVVVO, Ford Foster, Yves De May have all released some dynamite stuff on Opal tracks recently, and the Body Issues album by Patricia was one of the best records of last year. All of them, as different from each other as is possible to get, have shown a delight in the purity of sound and creation that is so often lacking in much of the big room, dance floor orientated flood of contemporary House and Techno, and this new release, a split by Austin Cesear and Stefan Jós, fits right in.

I’ll happily admit that I’m a bit of an Austin Cesear fanboy, and the four tracks here pick up from where he left off from his recent record for Anthony Naples’ Proibito stable. Finely honed, lovingly shaped samples flutter and glide in the sonic breeze, sometimes so indistinct they threaten to vanish into the haze. There is nothing here as dance floor bound as One Year from the Proibito record, in fact, the closet to it, the whimsical 7HF9B…. only introduces the beat about two minutes in and even then it’s less an invitation to dance than a memory of rhythm that serves to accentuate the playfulness of the track. Cesear is fast shaping up to be a producer of real interest and talent, precisely because he so obviously understands and enjoys the sort of ambience that many others relegate to filler status on albums or B-sides. There is nothing Lo-fi or raw about his ability. Indeed, there is vast sophistication on show, and a keen ear for spotting grooves in places they should not exist.

Stefan Jós is an artist I know very little about. No, strike that – I know nothing about him at all. His half of the album is expansive and abstract; different in tone and feel to Cesear’s work, but born of a similar impulse. Of all the tracks on offer here, 04 is the most forward moving. Dubby tones and gorgeous, hypnotic synths underpinned by playful percussion that stroll towards its eventual conclusion. Beyond that, 05 elicits moods that most electronic music wouldn’t even try for. It’s ancient and impossibly deep; folk music from the future performed by ghosts. Across his five tracks there is a fine analogue fuzz – you can almost here the whirr of the tape, the sigh of transistors and the fizz of warm circuitry in some archaic modular synth creation. Machine music, the detractors still call it. Isn’t it interesting how human it sounds, especially here, enraptured with its own bruised, quiet beauty? I don’t know anything about Jós, but I think that might be about to change.

Friday Night Tune: Blake Baxter – When We Used To Play

I’ve been a bit lost this week when trying to choose what tune to talk about. I wanted to pick something a bit more recent than I’ve normally done. Ever mindful of ‘Ageing Rocker Syndrome’ I’m always alert to the dangers of plundering the archives when I’m more than aware there is just as good music being released now as there always has. Still, I’ve been listening to this a lot recently. Maybe it’s because I’ve actually been raking through a bunch of old mix tapes from the 90s and rediscovering tunes I had all but forgotten. Or maybe it’s because there is never a bad time for some classic Blake Baxter.

The story of Detroit Techno is heavy with the legends of the Holy Trinity. Derrick May, Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson are generally credited with the creation of the Motor City take on Dance music that we all know and love. Like all stories, however, it’s not complete. The summation of the First Wave usually fails to take into account others who were present at the start; Eddie ‘Flashin’ Fowlkes, for example, is often knocked off the group photo like a dissident falling from grace with Stalin. I’ve never been entirely sure why. His music is every bit as exhilarating as the work of the others and in terms of a legacy he is up there with the rest.

Blake Baxter is in a similar position although, if anything, he deserves to be elevated even higher. The man has made some incredibly sublime music in his time. At least as good as May and Saunderson, Baxter seems to have understood from the very start the impulses which drive dance music. He doesn’t seem to give two shakes about whether there should be any difference between House and Techno and has always delighted in drawing his influences from as wide a range of sources as possible.

Most of us are probably aware of his two big killers from early on, Sexuality and When a Thought Becomes You are sophisticated and weaponized takes on House Music, even when the rawness, say, of Sexuality threatens to shake the music into its various elements. When We Used To Play has never seemed to have had the cachet of the other two big tracks, which is a shame, because it is every bit as deadly.

This is an old tune too, dating back to Baxter’s first release in 1987 – which puts it right at the epicentre with May’s famous brace, Nude Photo and Strings Of Life. If anything, it is the stronger song; aimed very squarely at the dance floor it blurs the ridiculous genre lines until they are little more than smears under the feet. From that much imitated but never bettered intro to the seductive, sultry vocals it’s a lesson on what dance music should be, can be, and is. It’s a smokey creature of the night that evaporates into memories as the dawn breaks over it.

Ladies and Gentleman, I give you The Prince, Blake Baxter.

Kel: Kel EP – 7777

One of the dangers of digital delivery systems for music is the ubiquity of sites offering single track purchases. In fact, this tends to be about all of them nowadays. With vinyl you pay for the full record. Sometimes you get a bunch of tracks that work and speak to you as a whole, other times you get unlucky and come away paying a premium price for maybe one track out of three or four that you are going to listen to more than once. Sometimes, though, you get end up with tracks that, on first listen, don’t seem to do much to you but, before you know it, they are consuming your every thought. You find yourself on the subway humming ‘Ignored B-side 2’ rather than ‘Hit Tune ‘.

This is one of the beautiful things about music: that feeling when you’ve found a track, maybe buried away deep within an album, that you come back to over and over again. It’s what makes all the digging worthwhile. As DJs, we are perhaps even more enthrall to this feeling. I think it’s a danger that so many DJs ignore everything except the hits, because so often it’s the tunes that you miss first time out that turn out to be the real killers.

Kel – real name Elias Landberg – is better known as one half of Skudge (and owner of Skudge Records), a Swedish act that I’ve often enjoyed without getting entirely behind. A string of records that other people I know and respect seem to rave about have left me not so much cold, but a little indifferent. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps it is simply that there has always been something else to buy ahead of them. We live in a time of audio deluges; it’s impossible to catch everything.

I’m wondering whether that has been a bit of an oversight on my part. Jared Wilson’s 7777 label is hardly L.I.E.S when it comes to its release schedule. This is the labels sixth release in seven years. However, given the slightness of 7777s oeuvre, you cannot accuse Wilson of messing about; he knows his stuff.

The lead track, Phyta is both very modern whilst being utterly old school. It eschews the Lo-Fi approach of so much contemporary Acid to create something that pulses with a life I haven’t heard in a very long time. I mentioned Hawtin’s seminal Plus 8 label recently in another review – Phyta echoes with that acidy, edgy energy of so much of the Detroit second wave that passed through Hawtin’s grasp. It’s a slow roller: precise 303s add funk to the spectral pads that subtly give lift to the tracks angelic flight.

Chiral is more playful; a tiger cub chasing a ball of steel wool. The 303s are down low in hunting mode, snapping at prey as they pass by, following the thunderous claps as they carve a path through the thick hi-hats and tumbling toms. I’ve been playing it all night, mixing it in and out of a Anthony Shakir tune, astounded at how well they go together. Like twins separated by a generation. Landberg doesn’t just give the primal urges free rein, though. The choral sublimity of High Tech Soul hangs above the rest of the track like mists over the forest.

But it’s Airwalk I think I’ll be coming back to. If I was the sort to buy one tune from a release this is the one I would have missed. Less grand than Phyta, less immediate than Chiral, it is probably the least fully realised of the trio, a fragment in some senses, but somehow more wonderful for all that. The same pads that haunted Phyta are here married to a taunting, taut, scatter-step beat. By far the most aggressive thing on the record, even if so much of that is internalized. It comes at you from behind a curtain of synths and makes it mark before vanishing again into nothingness, leaving you wondering whether it was really there at all. A creature of the shade that deserves many moments in the light.

Bubbles Are Meant For Bursting.

Nick Sabine, the co-founder of dance music listings behemoth Resident Advisor, has an article today in everybody’s favourite internet news rag The Huffington Post (rather wonderfully and succinctly summed up by 30 Rock as: Telling the world what they already knew) about the EDM ‘bubble’ and whether it’s good for dance music as a whole. You can read the whole thing HERE. It’s probably worth bearing in mind, though, it’s not aimed at those of use who have actually ever heard dance music. Forewarned is forearmed.

I can think of a couple of problems with it. Firstly, I kind of expected a better line of argument from Sabine than ‘Some kids who listen to EDM might get into underground dance music because, you know, it’s a kind of dance music too.” It’s an argument I’ve seen regurgitated by several big names over the last few years – mostly those who have moved from dance music into a world of arena gigs and Saturday morning kids TV. (I wouldn’t like to say it’s about selling out – those who have followed the money into the big league probably weren’t entirely bothered about any underground or artistic ethos anyway, and that is fair enough. I can never blame anyone who simply needs to make enough money to feed their family, even if that family consists entirely of private jets.)

Part of the problem I have with this argument is that I simply don’t think its true. Years ago I was working in a bookshop when the Harry Potter craze started. I saw parents buying their brats two or three copies each (because each of them need their own copy to read and their own copy to store away in pristine condition. No, I’m not joking,) and I was told time and time again that Harry Potter was inspiring kids to read, to get into literature. It wasn’t, it was inspiring them to get into the Harry Potter franchise and very little else. That other guff was a myth the parents fed themselves to make themselves feel better for ponying up the cash to feed their kids habit. Did any of those kids get into Dostoevsky or Philip Roth? Of course they did. But I suspect those kids would have got into Dostoevsky or Philip Roth anyway, because people gravitate towards the ideas and concepts that excite them. They always have. It sure as hell wasn’t because Walter the Softy had started flying a broom around.

Will some kid from the middle of a 10 000 square mile corn field who listens to Calvin Harris walk into a used record store one day and start digging out DJ International 12s? Very possibly, but it won’t be purely because he’s watched a Youtube video of some tit in a shiny shirt throwing Christ poses in front of thousands of moshing gonks. It will be because the impulse is there already. See, the idea that EDM provides the listener with a gateway to a form of music he would never have managed to experience otherwise is utterly ludicrous. Dance music – even ‘underground’ dance music is not some super secret, hidden kabbalistic religious mystery that you must be initiated into. It’s ALL OVER THE INTERNET. There are dozens of online stores from which you can buy Levon Vincent or TX Connect records! There are hundreds of blogs and websites that exists to celebrate all of this good stuff! All it takes is a little bit of effort, and those involved in EDM should cut out the disingenuous crap that they have been appointed the High Priests of all that is cool and vital.  There is also something rather odd about trying to justify a genre and scene by claiming that people will use it to find something better. Talk about damning something with faint praise.

The second problem I have is the idea that EDM is some sort of bubble, some sort of edgy, new thing that has never before existed. Sabine asks why it has grown so quickly before answering his own question by making a point that is so obvious that it’s amazing it needed to be made. The reason that it has become such a huge Thing is that it is pop music, pure and simple. That is all it has ever been. Yes, it’s an industry – it is the pop music industry. It has been around for a very long time. Let’s not pretend EDM is something different. It is simply the continuation of something that began a very long time ago. In Britain and much of the rest of the world music very similar to this was all over the charts two decades ago. So what if it’s taken mainstream America until now to start listening to it? It isn’t new.

I am taking this too seriously.  Look, EDM is what it is. Why can’t the people with interests in it simply celebrate it for what it is instead of trying to excuse and justify it by attaching it to other scenes with vague promises of future authenticity? Is it because if you build a fad with no other foundation but money it will eventually topple into the dirt? What happens then?

Well, I’ll leave the last word on that to Steve Albini. Years ago, he got into a fight with his former friends, the rock band Urge Overkill who, on the back of having one of their songs featured in the ‘Pulp Fiction’ soundtrack reached massive – but short-lived fame. Albini took exception to the idea of anyone living for money rather than integrity. And as he said when quizzed about it: “In ten years time we’ll see which of us are still making records and which of us are sucking cocks in empty parking lots for small change.”

Is the bubble  going to burst? Maybe, maybe not, but history suggests that it probably will.  And when it does, I think  those parking lots are going to be a damn sight busier.

Clay Wilson: The Bunker 002 – The Bunker New York

Of all the electronic genres that have passed in an out of my conciousness over the years, the one that has probably made the least lasting impression on me – aside from Happy Hardcore – is probably Trance. There is something about it, something I just can’t get on-board with, that has led me to avoid it at almost all costs. Some of this dislike is entirely based in the sound: an over reliance on breakdowns, snare rolls and arpeggios, overdriven 303s going up instead of down, all tied together with a relentlessly oppressive chirpiness. It’s like rave music that’s taken a first year course in environmental philosophy as taught by a tie dyed t-shirt wearing professor who has never quite returned from a Disney-esque version of the 60s.

I am aware that most of this is probably ill-informed nonsense. Most prejudices usually are. Still, the fact remains that the last thing Trance does is put me in one. As psychedelic adventures go, Trance makes me feel like I’ve gone to a Grateful Dead concert dressed as the Main Cop. Without a gun.

And yet, there is a place in my heart for expansive, musical exploration that nods its head towards the psychedelic and open horizons. Clay Wilson’s music cannot be described as ‘Trance’ in the traditional genre-specific sense for the simple fact that it has nothing what so ever to do with it. But Trance it is, albeit a far older, far more alien breed, one that walks an ancient path carved out by forgotten tribalism and experience.

E4 is a Dreamtime march; simple and recurring motifs and textures weaved together into a hypnotic whole. A subtle but enormously powerful bass marshals the track superbly, a dub elemental that has travelled into a different world. It’s the drums that capture you, though. Each beat shifting its velocity, stepping with an alien precision into tribal rhythms and driving the track into becoming genuine body music rather than something only of interest to the head. It’s deepness articulated by the vast spaces between the various sounds and the way the whole thing seems to constantly morph without changing very much at all.

Oizumi takes it lead from E4 but while it owes a debt to the rhythmic tribal pulses of the opener, it is more urban – surprisingly so, in fact. It’s tribes here are those of the modern world, and it’s patterns the complex tapestries of life bleached by the glare of the sodium night. It’s less hypnotic, somehow more unsettling, and perhaps more functional.

Socorro is a departure, it’s rhythmic structure almost buried under some heavy, rumbling bass and kicks that scramble awkwardly in the same frequency field. It threatens darkness and yet light is provided by some gorgeous chords born of free jazz, which help to bond together the rambunctious squeal of muted trumpets, unquiet spirits that they are. Of the three it’s the most simplistic – for all it’s noise and grit – and it’s the most traditional Techno piece here. A finely downbeat ending to a psychedelic, twilight adventure. This is Trance as it should be.