Review: The Normalmen – Dorko’s Antruum (Early Sounds Recordings)

Massimo Di Lena, Leskin and Rio Padice’s Early Sounds Recordings, and the producers herded therein, have a fine collective heritage in the sort of dusty, analogue-y House and Techno that is currently on its way to becoming something of a proper movement across two continents. Although releases still remain scare, they have upped their game with this, their third record of the year and there is enough in the run to suggest that there could be something very special happening down in Napoli, particularly if Di Lena, Leskin and Padice continue to unearth talent that match their own mindsets so well.

Any scene though, however grand, relies on the aesthetics and influences that their leading lights and innovators carry with them into music making. In the case of New York, for instance, there is much that is owed not only to the ferocity of early nineties NY Techno, but also to the heritage of No Wave and other forms of exploratory madness, particularity in the way many of its practitioners have come at electronic music from more Post-punk thinking. With Early Sounds Recordings there is are obviously similarities to the likes of L.I.E.S in their tastes, but there are other influences at least as overt.

Dorko’s Antruum is perhaps a handy encapsulation of those influences. The currently in-vogue House sound is a starting point for this d├ębut record by The Normalmen, but it is the wealth of other sounds that makes it so interesting. Opener Empty Silence seems at first glance to share much common ground with the current sonic Zeitgeist, but there is a heady dose of garage and dirty, warehouse-y acid mixed well in, and the way the fuzzy, pulsing bass scuttles between the upfront clatter of the hi-hats takes it somewhere very different. The otherwise joyful rush is tempered slightly by the maudlin synths and vocal samples, but this is no bad thing, and lends the piece an emotional pull that sets away from being a simple acid-wriggle.

Mazine Order continues the mid-night emotional flickering with an effective approach to deep House. Crystalline synths and its jazzy insistence keep things moving but it doesn’t quite have the same zest as Empty Silence, and suffers slightly for being a little too knowing, perhaps. It does carry off a pleasingly drowsy warmth, however, that goes along way to offset the formulaic edge.

The record really opens up on the B-side, though. No Limits seems at first to be of similar stock to Mazine Order, but blossoms quickly into some fine, early nineties tinged House of the sort of trippy sunrise on Ibiza stuff that always made it home in time for the tail-end of summer. Beneath the dreamy synths, though, there is a real drive and the kicks carry some seriously kidney punching heft.

Invasion 271 is, for me, the stand-out track, fusing as it does hardcore trappings and breakbeats with some serious mangled jungle-tekno bass, and the sort of Kitch sc-fi trappings Teknotika would have been proud of. Hardcore tracks tend to run to the claustrophobic, but the occasional pads and the mutant beat propel this along into cavernous territory just fine. Its as proud a slab of mutant dance floor madness as you will find this year.

MX22 delves further into the rave with its jangling, jacking, dark side of garage growl and woozy, descending chords that force implanted memories of parties in abandoned fun parks to flair into your mind. The rumble of bass and mutter of samples layer the euphoria over the rampant drums, and hold it steady as it drives home.

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Friday Night Tune – Bango: Ritual Beating System (Systematic mix)

These days it is sometimes difficult to look back on the last twenty or thirty years of electronic music and see quite why there was so much fuss about various records or artists or genres. Aside from the obvious fact that we are spoiled for choice by the endless stream of new talent and music, we are also able to reach back to those archaic times with an ease that would have seemed pretty amazing even 10 years ago, and pull almost any track we (barely even) remember into the present where it stands under the same glaring scrutiny as something we just got our hands on yesterday.

Although I wouldn’t like to suggest that familiarity breeds contempt, it certainly lends itself to an amiable complacency. Sometimes we need to be reminded that the distance between then and now has allowed nostalgia to colour our response and, for a new generation of fans, it is sometimes difficult, if not actually impossible, to understand why a form of music was so important.

Detroit Techno sometimes falls into this. I’ve heard people occasionally suggest that it wasn’t as important as is often made out, that other genres were equally, if not, more important. For sure, I can think of many tunes from way back that, by modern standards, seem basic, with limited sound palettes, naive musical choices or were hampered by poor production techniques or equipment. In a way it’s like judging the rock n roll of the early 50’s with ears attuned to Joy Division or Sonic Youth. Times change, yes, and sounds and taste alter, but the impact remains the same.

With Detroit Techno, there is a less audible influence than there once was. At one point it seemed like every European producer was worshipping at the altar. But the reason Detroit Techno remains important today isn’t so much about the sound or the chord structures. It’s about the way Detroit Techno spread out from a single city to reach into many different genres. You might not hear so many Detroit-y cascading synths nowadays, but that is because the sound of the city became part of the fabric.

The grooves and feels of the genre are to be found in many far-flung places now, because Detroit Techno was far more than just one sound. The music was always expressive even in its velocity, and the little touches and flourishes, born of countless influences and tastes were woven together into something that could be taken away by a host of other producers from other backgrounds to do their own things with, be it Techno, or House or whatever else.

Ritual Beating System by Stacey Pullen under his Bango guise is one of those tunes that defines Detroit Techno even though it strains to defy such easy categorisation. And yet it is very much of Detroit. Right from the start, the drive and the low slung groove mark the common ground. The sample – Also used by Santana – add verve and fire to the mix, the tribal drumming gathering the whole thing together into a storm. The bleeps and pads so very emotive, opening the track up into wide open spaces.

But its something less tangible that marks this down as purest Detroit funk. It’s the warmth and expansiveness of the track that linger in the memory as it ends. The best Motor-City had to offer were rich with a sonic curiosity and playfulness that was less about naivety and innocence than excitement in the possibilities of Techno. It was about seeing where things led. And it’s in this that the real influence and importance of Detroit Techno lies. That was the spark that lit the fire. I hope it burns forever.

Anatomy of a Habit

Having been starved of music buying for a couple of weeks I finally got myself a fresh hit on the back of a generous birthday present and the arrival of some interesting looking records. the last month or two had been a bit lean for genuinely quality releases, and here we are again about to feast after the famine.

As I went through my basket, trying to decide which titles to cull in a vain attempt to keep it decent, I realised I had a marked tendency to cut the ones which were either fairly straight House or too left field. Although not one of the records I ended up buying could really be described as anything other than ‘predictably underground’, something about my purchases seemed ever so slightly safe – a collection of records from producers and labels I liked from previous experience or because they tied in with something I already enjoyed. Nothing genuinely new.

This, of course, is how most people buy music, the majority of people who want to hear music they like by people they like. We, my friends, are not normal people though, are we? We are a strange crew; we listen to music as part of an extended whole. We seldom hear the start or end of a tune except in the headphones as we wind it in and out-of-place with whatever its supposed to mix with. DJ’s are supposed to be masters at crate digging, of finding something that few others have found and using that new acquisition to do great damage.

The more I pondered this the more I came to realise it is something I only do with vinyl. When I buy digitally I lean heavily towards the more experimental edge, and I seem more likely to take risks on producers I would probably never buy on wax. Some of my favourite releases of the last couple of years have come my way on FLAC: The debut albums by Austin Cesear and Patricia stand out in particular, but there have been a pile of others that left an indelible mark on me that I might never have gone for had I stuck to vinyl.

Perhaps it is the cost. An average 12″ can run from about seven quid up to eleven. An album might well be twice that. Digitally, things are much lower of course (with the concomitant reductions in royalties to the producer, unfortunately) and maybe because of that I’m more likely to take a punt of something I would normally miss? Partly, I suspect, but I’m not sure this tells the whole story.

Is it that record labels themselves are more conservative, putting out records only by those artists it thinks are most likely to sell a run and therefore cover costs? Going for a sure thing? Doubtful: it might have been true a few years ago but now, in the midst of a vinyl revival, the slump in digital sales and the sense that one of the better ways to combat piracy is a physical product, I think there is more genuine underground talent getting released on vinyl than ever before.

I suspect the answer is simply that I’ll buy the records I like the most, that I’m most comfortable with, and that have something about them that make them worthy of the permanence of vinyl and a place in a physical collection, and its in that implied significance a physical object has over an etheric digital release that we have the crux. Records, like books, have importance as both objects and holders of memories. They occupy a psychic space where emotion is the dominant form of gravity, and where we seldom make decisions based on the musical content alone. As DJs, as users and abusers of music, we sometimes look to buy records based on some criteria or other, like how it will fit into a set (don’t lie, you know you’ve done it), or how absurdly underground it is (30 copy run – handed to those who ‘in the know’). It sometimes comes as a shock when you remember you can buy a record because you like it, not because you feel you have to, and because you want to return to it time and time again as part of a weird ritual involving a turntable and a needle. And that’s reason enough, I think.

Friday Night Tune: Technique – This Old House

I’m going on holiday tomorrow and, to be quite honest, my mind is on anything other than writing this column. I have much to do: clothes to pack, books to choose and podcasts to burn to my Ipod, the usual run of the mill chores to get out of the way before I sit on the plane at take off and squeeze my partner’s hand into a messy pulp as the terror of flying sets in.

I had previously decided on choosing something relatively holiday-ish to write about tonight but one of the problems with Techno is that it doesn’t really do the Holiday tune particularly well, being far, far too much of a shaven headed, manly and grumpy sort of overly serious genre. As I’m not going away for a week in a steel foundry, I suspect any track I picked might well seem a little off. House music, of course, has no such issue with looking overly serious in its summer clobber, being a more light-hearted (although infinitely more twisted) kind of genre. Whilst This Old House isn’t quite your usual chunk of big room Ibiza holiday memories, there is something about it that is undeniably summery, sort of low slung and ready for anything. I do worry, though, that part of the reason for that is because, essentially, it’s a bit of a novelty record.

I hate novelty records with a passion that borders on the pathological. I just don’t get why people would buy something so one-dimensional and lame – and I speak as someone who bought an electro record that was constructed out of Jimmy Saville samples. I think part of my hatred stems from a six-week spell in hospital as a kid just as The Birdy Song was smashing the charts and was all that ever seemed to be on the radio for that whole period. It drove me spare and I still get a twitch in my eye every time I think about it. Summer always seem to draw them out of the woodwork too, an I’m not just talking about World Cup tie in crud either – If you go back far enough I bet you would find that Sultans of Ping FC released all their records in the summer, the bastards. They prey, like parasites, on people’s good humour and desire to have fun in the sun, but while you’re lying by the pool the inanity of the summer novelty smash is burrowing into your head like an insect about to lay its eggs….God help us all.

This Old House By Technique is very much a novelty record, but not in the same sort of way. While its ‘theme’ of a TV DIY presenter talking you through how to build a House track might seem a little on the cheesy side (alright, a lot cheesy,) it more than makes up for it by being a pretty mean piece of floor ready House. It’s what saves it and renders the narration ‘tongue in cheek’ rather than anything worse – and, to be honest, it’s all but impossible not to agree with his pronouncements – especially as the bass kicks in. Actually, I think there are a number of producers out there who could probably learn a lot by listening to what the man has to say….

Anyway, that’s me packed, taxi phoned and the hot water switched off. I’ll be back in ten days/two weeks and we shall pick up where we left off, except with a bit more of a tan. Hopefully. Ciao!

Review: Chemotex – Schrade Knives (The Trilogy Tapes)

Over the last year or two its been pretty difficult to think of another label that has turned out quite so much genuine A grade material as The Trilogy Tapes. Even this year, as their output seems to have rocketed into the territory where we fear ‘L.I.E.S fatigue’ may begin to set in for some people, there have been so many treasures that it remains all but impossible to say no. Here, at the halfway mark of 2014, there have been more memorable moments than I care to count – the astounding 71st Exchange Used To Be by Theo Parrish is still quite possibly the highlight of the last 12 months – and with records by Anthony Naples and Dario Zenker (hopefully) on their way in the near future, we’re going to have to shrug off any aches of exhaustion for a little while yet.

Chemotex is a new name for a well-known producer playing the game of guises that is so popular at the moment. I won’t say more than that other than his previous work and labels would suggest a natural enough fit for Will Bankhead’s growing and unruly stable of noise-niks. The fact is that whether the name is up front, or under a shroud, Bankhead has excelled in getting some classy sounds from his gang of disparate producers. He’s done it again here.

The concept of Industrial Techno is one that has little purchase with me. Often it’s used as a catch-all term for any body of music where the clanks outnumber the drops. It would be easy to dismiss explosive opener Schrade Knives as such, but it would be neither fair or accurate. Beneath the static bursts and brutalist percussive belts there is a deceptively subtle mover entirely in command. Chemotex is smart enough to know that six minutes of grinding noises often ends up sounding like six of grinding noises unless there is something else doing the heavy lifting, which is exactly what is achieved here through the constant evolution of the sounds and the way it ever so slightly mellows the vibe without taking of the acerbic edge.

Payphone Player is a straight up, dirty jacker that wouldn’t sound at all out-of-place with the Gene Hunt release I reviewed the other night. The trill of a ring tone a gallows rope that hangs through the entire track, the enormous thump of the kicks and the gratuitous wriggle of the hi-hats – this is a weaponized stomper that is going to be getting a lot of plays.

Although neither of the B-side tracks come up to quite the same standard of vicious scuzz-jacking that Payphone Player reaches, both delve further into the seam of experimental floor shakers that Schrade Knives first mined. 33140 is the heavier of the pair, rolling in on a breakbeat carved entirely out of sinew and induced neurosis, so rough it would take your fingerprints off if you rested your hand upon it. Early Death feels like a reprise of sorts of Schrade Knives but less sharp, more worn and toxic. The staccato chops thrash above the bulging bass pulses that drag everything else around it into its destructive orbit like a fat sonic singularity. But, like the other tracks, it marries the fierceness to a nuanced groove that provides buck and scuttle to the crowd of grunts and barks. Harsh but very, very fair. Modern face-pounders with the heart of a dancer.