For an outsider who grew up in the Scottish Highlands before moving to the Perennial dampness of Glasgow, Detroit Techno was always a vision and sound that represented something that British music – even electronic music – seemed to lack. I was lucky enough to be the right age in the late eighties and early nineties that my friends and I were able to come into it relatively near the start, just as the Second Wave were beginning to find their feet as well as fame in Europe. We already knew the likes of Derrick May and Juan Atkins, of course, and understood why they were important, but it was likely that blossoming second generation that really closed the deal. The clubs we went to, and the sets we played were full of Underground Resistance and Drexciya and Suburban Knight. In many ways these and other artists represented something more than the classical Detroit sound. In much the same way as the original Rhythm and Blues schematics of American rock n roll were sold to a generation of British youth which stripped them down, altered them and sold the rebuilt sound back to the land of their creation in new and ever more vibrantly alien forms, Detroit Techno found itself increasingly influenced by the very same European producers who had fallen in love with it in the first place.
By the end of the nineties, though, Detroit Techno seemed to be losing ground. Was it a hardening of the creative process, where the Detroit sound really did become ‘just’ a sound – a collection of pre-set chord progressions and tones largely divested of feeling and form and emotion? or was it a diaspora, the producers heading off to new worlds where fame and adventure and money awaited? or was it simply that the cross-pollination had diluted something of the original purity, warping the original ethos into something not that much different to what you could find in one of the big European Techno hubs like Berlin or London?
I don’t think the why particularly matters. I’m not even sure any of that tells the whole story, because the fact remains that whatever fate befell those original proponents in our cynical European eyes, there were still artists in the Detroit underground who were doing amazing things away from our jaded and grazing gaze.
Omar S first came to the wider worlds attention over a decade ago now, riding in the back of a series of 12″ which showcased a remarkable hunger for screwing with people’s perceptions of genre boundaries in general and what Detroit Techno could and should be. Since then both Omar S himself and the artists on his FXHE Records label have consistently remained true to doing their own thing. Each Omar S record surprises as much as it thrills. You can never be sure what you are going to get: Techno – sometimes classically Detroit – sometimes wilfully experimental and ferocious – Acid, and very pure House music that takes soul or disco or even other, more left-field influences as their starting points.
Romancing The Stone! is Omar S in full flight. 4 tracks spread over a double pack of vinyl gives plenty of room for the music to breathe and explore itself. Leave is a starting point of fiery High-tech soul; its a starship built of organic technology, capturing the solar flares of Detroit’s musical heritage to propel it forward to unknown vistas above huge washes of gorgeous pads and tumbling drums, it’s bass skippering it always forward, always coaxing.
Romancing The Stone! is just about as different as it is possible to get. A lot of producers wouldn’t have put this on the same record as Leave. Most producers aren’t Omar S, though, and even as the emotions and sounds are as different to those of the previous track as chalk is from cheese, there is common ground in the playful invention. It’s a storming piece of late night House, simple motifs and the sort of heavenly synths that Chez Damier would be proud of colour the euphoria with poignancy. A tough drum track supplies the glue, but never oversteps it’s role in the proceedings. It’s a testament that when the music comes to its sudden end it feels much too soon, and there aren’t many tunes pushing seven minutes you can say that about.
Surpass is a similar beast, but wilder, on a longer leash. Crashing jazzy pianos and a wailing synth carry the tune into a dervish dance. It’s grittier, and more reckless, Bacchanalian even, and even though there is as much a nod to heritage here (subconsciously or otherwise) it’s to something far older than the Detroit sound of the 80s and 90s, or even anything of the preceding decades. It’s probably the stand out track on a record of stand out tracks. Explosive, free and expansive in a way that seems to have become outside the remit of House music these days. Music for the head and body in perfect unison.
Frogs, in the hands of any sane man, would have restored calm. But for Omar S it’s the opportunity to push us into new directions whilst we are still reeling. It opens on a downbeat vibe with the soulful feel of a quiet, building disco groove. Before you are quite sure what’s going on its morphed into slow, ambling acid workout with a dirty, squawking 303 and a wondering beat leading us back to what Frogs thinks of as ‘safety’. It’s cheeky, its funny but it’s also a serious piece of funky as hell old school Acid House.
Romancing The Stone! is a rare record in these days of mass media saturation: It has all the hallmarks of a true classic. It’s deep, it’s funky and it carries the imprint of its creators vision like DNA throughout the four tracks – each one neatly and exhilaratingly and massively different from everything else upon the four sides of wax. We’ll still be listening to it in ten years time. I couldn’t find a Soundcloud link for this one, but that isn’t such a bad thing because if you want to hear it, you will have to go buy it instead. And that’s just about the best deal your going to get all year.