Friday Night Tune: CiM – Edit Micro Tune

The late nineties was a particularly uncertain time for techno. As the sheer amount of records began to reach critical mass, it paradoxically started to become much harder to find anything as ground breaking, unique or simply as interesting when compared to the pioneering days at the other end of the decade. With hindsight such a state of affairs shouldn’t be that hard to fathom; the mass uptake of the genre, both in terms of a fan base and those actually making the music, tended to dilute the strengths of the various sub genres. Fiercer strains of techno began to fall into the trap of cookie cutter mediocrity marked only by an increase in their brutality and noise. For other, subtler genres – many spawned by IDM – the music became increasingly tepid as it slowly diverged from the founding ethos.

But it wasn’t all bad. How could it be? Away from all the techno that shamelessly aped the sound or speed of Jeff Mills or Surgeon without trying to understand the meaning or the attitude there were still a large number of records being released which kicked against the contemporary conservatism and managed to bring something new to the table.

I forget where I picked up CiM’s ‘Series 2’ EP on Headspace Records. I had been vaguely aware of the previous release but had never bought it, being somewhat devoted at that time to the sturm und drang of ghetto house and reborn electro. The irony was that another tune by CiM’s Simon Walley – the fire-storm electroid funk of Multi Ordinal Tracking Unit by Unspecified Enemies, the outfit he was part of along with Louis Digital – was being pumped out on a fairly frequent basis at Club 69. Not that I knew it at the time. In fact, I never even made the connection until recently.

There were clues, though. Although Edit Micro Tune is a far less furious piece of work than Multi Ordinal Tracking Unit, both are thick with Walley’s fingerprints. There is something kindred in the way the drums circle the rest of the music, gathering up the pulse of the bass and the flow of the leads, redirecting and adding immediacy.

In Edit Micro Tune’s case, the track orbits the heavy gravity well of Detroit techno and British IDMs binary system without dropping too far towards either. The drums are tough, rattling and very certain of themselves, lending the tune a rhythm that borders on tribal techno territory but might actually be closer to the pop and flare of early acts like LFO or Orbital. The real meat, the actual sustenance, though, is in the scattered light of the pads and the majestic swoop of that glorious lead line that is as pure an example of high-tech soul as you are ever likely to hear.

Multi Ordinal Tracking Unit enjoyed a re-release a couple of years back by Numbers, who also have another Unspecified Enemies record in the works. Personally, I’d love for some of those early CiM records to get the same treatment. I can’t help but feel that given the current mood for repressing so much old material, and the hunger people seem to have for electronic music’s increasingly archaic past, maybe the future might be better served by bringing something like ‘Series 2’ back into the stores rather than the millionth repress of ‘Acid Tracks’. Given the choice, I know which one I’d go for. Every damn time.

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Review: Jeremiah R – Underwater Title (Tabernacle Records)

Electro is a genre that has gone through so many changes that its roots in funk, boogie and hip hop look increasingly distant with every passing year. Although there are a number of acts who have remained faithful to the orginal musical ethos, there can be little doubt that the period of the greatest change, and of the most importance to today’s electronic music scene, lies with the mid nineties explosion that fused the basic, traditional sound with driving drums, acidic bass and the potent, celestial thrum of electronic Detroit to create a musical form that more than held its own on dance-floors otherwise in hock to hard, loopy techno and the weaponized dirt of ghetto-house. Whether it was the claustrophobic grooves of Anthony Rother, the pure breed acid stomp of Aux 88 or the unique, other worldly spell-weaving of Drexciya – to name but three of many – the effect of the music was profound in the way it altered forever the DNA of the genre. Whether the genre has continued to be motivated by such electronic evolution is open to debate, however, and it is perhaps down to a failure to keep moving forward that the scene eventually began to sink back into relative obscurity, with only the big names of the original nineties explosion continuing to gleam in the light of major public interest.

Jeremiah R’s mini album for Tabernacle records, ‘Underwater Title’ is probably not going to challenge current preconceptions, nor is it likely to win too many converts to a genre that in the eyes of many people has already seen its best days go past. This I think is real shame, but it actually says more about the lack of current interest in anything too far outside the accepted norms (as big a problem in the underground as in the mainstream, I’m afraid: it just manifests differently) than it does about the genuine quality of this beautiful and largely unheralded collection of pieces which brings together strands of electro and deeper techno before uniting them with a lyrical and orchestral feel that puts to rest the sense that electro often tends to lean too far into the direction of body music. It’s not something I believe in – hell, it’s not something that anyone who has ever heard Drexciya can believe in – but there you are.

Essentially, ‘Underwater Title’ is a fine balance between the break beat fuelled tracks and those tied to the 4/4. What pulls them together is a depth of emotion that owes a debt to early techno at its most introspective and romantic. There are touches scattered through the seven tracks that recall Carl Craig’s subtler work, or Atkin’s hypnotic exploration of inner – and outer – space. Not that name checking legends such as these tells the whole story. Jeremiah has his set of influences just as we all have, and yet he never lets them get too much in the way. Blue Algae for example, is replete with Drexciyan touches, the fluttering interplay between the percussion and the snares gives the haunting, ever heightening introspection of the lead the life to extend past the humdrum into the spiritual. On Pineal Gland Stimulation the sparkling synths fall like shooting stars upon the swelling pads and lively kicks, drawing everything together into a silver rush of hope and adventure.

It’s these themes that are returned to time and again. Such openness, so expansive and yet fragile. It might not be so apparent on tunes like Phase Space or Far Sight where the big square wave bass lines roam the sonic planes but the tenderness is always there, in the ripple and drizzle of the pads and the leads.

Electro is a genre that for all the undoubted quality material that is still being released in its name can often seen like a cul-de-sac inhabited by those who don’t really care how the outside world perceives them. And yet here is an electro record that subtly propels itself into the stars. The greatest influence it takes from the past isn’t to be found in the sounds, nor in the drive of the rhythms but in it’s desire to push itself past what is expected. In that sense – and although it might not necessarily sound it – it is a deeply experimental record that is truer to that great spark of mid nineties electro life than any other dozen records which trade on the pounding beats or acid snarl alone.

Review: Steve Summers – CCCP13 (Russian Torrent Versions)

Although LIES sub label Russian Torrent Versions is in no danger of accelerating past the prodigious output of its parent in terms of shear volume of releases, it might well be on its way to overtaking it as far as raw quality is concerned. Although even RTV now seems to boast a release schedule would put almost all other labels except LIES to shame, there is still very much the feeling that it remains a splinter of the New York Labels usual material, a premium brand dedicated to a smaller cut of LIES growing diversity and experimentalism where quality is paramount.

At some point over the last few months, however, Russian Torrent Versions transitioned from an interesting yet esoteric satellite to a major deal in itself. And although there has been the occasional downward turn along the way, it’s otherwise unblemished rise can hardly be disputed. In fact, the records by NGLY and Person Of Interest, as well as the brutal, clattering skank supplied by British artist Randomer, have actually been better than almost anything on LIES itself this year (save, interestingly, the LIES releases by those same artists and a kicking release by Inhalants.) Part of RTVs charm lies in the opportunities it has afforded to various LIES alumni to branch out into braver, murkier territory – sometimes hidden by new guises at least until the Discogs posse root out the truth.

Steve Summers is the latest LIES old boy to work his way eastward. He’s an interesting choice for the label. Musically far less harsh than some of the acts, he combines a subtlety and analogue warmth to finely tooled machine workouts that keeps him separate from some of the labels more head-banging stars. Even so, across CCCP 13’s three tracks he cuts out a growling, prowling arc where the music struts instead of pounds. Its immediate successor in terms of heritage is probably his own ‘Outermaze’ EP for LIES which appeared last year, and upped the respect given to the American producer. CCCP 13 is in a similar style but dirtier and looser. All three of the tunes keep the tempo down. Jack them up, though, and mix them in with some fine Chicago nastiness courtesy of QX1 or similar and the effect is electrifying.

Don’t let that sound like I’m trying to do them down. All three take ground on their own bruising merits. The QX1 tip is a useful guide, though. Summer’s taste for stripped down Chi-town jackers has probably never been more apparent than here, and they all owe a debt to the vigorous and banging nature of the underground. Opener Anhedonia is a trippy rocker where airy, almost spectral melodies roll above the clanking body music, turning on a die and growing boisterous on its sodden adrenal work out. Partial Print cranks it up into proper thug music territory. Peels and squalls of distortion patrol the length of the tune, occasionally breaking away to allow the heavy thunder of falling toms to take over. It’s far closer to Summer’s live sets than most of his recorded output and benefits from the freedom granted, a darkened alleyway of ideas where frequencies mug the muses.

Pick of the bunch is Blank Frames Which combines a restraining hand with a scuzzy, anxious atmosphere. It’s easily the most indebted to Chicago, to the extent you keep waiting for a vocal to pick up the baton. Instead we get a perfectly weighted riff that just about emerges from the filthy swell of the bass and the just about perfect percussion. A true jacker whose only failing is to be half as long as you want it to be.

Down and Out With The Poet Of The Bottle.

Even when I was younger I never really got Charles Bukowski. This was a point of irritation for a literature mad adolescent determined to find hidden truth buried in the words of paperbacks I found in libraries or second hand shops. Bukowski, even in the late eighties or early nineties, was one of those literary rites of passage – a discovery you were supposed to make on your own just as everyone else was. To an extent I had gone through this before, first with Steinbeck and then with Hunter Thompson. Steinbeck was a writer with a merciless but sympathetic eye for the harsh landscape of poor lives. Grapes of Wrath was pushed on us in school, the first serious writer many of us read in fact, but I always struggled. Not with the content, nor with the powerful parable like nature of his writing, but with his voice. It was the saccharine condescension of a long time primary school teacher talking to other adults and no longer able to converse in the language of grown ups. It wasn’t deliberate but it lingered in the cadence nevertheless.

With Thompson, a writer I grew to love and then draw away from, it was a different thing altogether. A great literary talent who gradually fell into a parody of himself. Everyone starts with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – an immediate sugar hit of a novel swathed in chaos; the child of an unhinged imagination deeply in love with the hellfire language of the south and the King James bible. And it’s no coincidence that his best work, the writing that stays in the mind decades later, were the early books and collections of articles. Hells Angels remains one of the classic works of American reportage, as does ..On The Campaign Trail ’72 which redefined political writing, turning it into a crazed spectator sport where people gambled away their souls on the highest stakes, throwing down promises, hollow words and hollower deeds as chips on the green baize of public opinion.

I don’t think, excepting a handful of articles scattered over the rest of his career, Thompson ever came close to reaching those same heights. He fell in love with the fiction of the Good Doctor that he himself created and the rest of the world began to demand. Coming to the later work was a crushing disappointment. Although there were still at the heart of his work the sentiments expressed in the simple statement of intent given in his novel The Rum Diaries that he was ‘..putting the bastards of the world on notice: I do not have your best interests at heart’, there was a palpable feeling that, creatively, he had begun to tread an easier road. It was one where he could indulge the drug addled, gun mad pantomime dame that the world seemed to want, and surround himself with rock star buddies and those who would swear he was still relevant.

But with Bukowski I’m not so sure there was the same thrill and understanding of how powerful, how exiting and how life changing language could be. I’m still not entirely sure what his continuing fame is predicated upon. Martin Amis once said of Graham Greene that the reason Greene is so well loved is that he is one of the first serious literary writers that we tend to encounter and that we never forget our first love. With Bukowski I think there is some sort of similar magic being worked. Does anyone reaching Bukowski later in life feel the same thing, or is his writing a confidence trick pulled on an inherent adolescent need to rebel? Are older readers more inured against these stories, these adventures in the guts of failure? Years after reading his novels for the first time I came across a few interviews with him and was struck not by his wisdom but by a sleazy cunning with which excuses were reworked into philosophy. It did not bring me into the fold.

I’ve had old friends rave about his poetry, and there is  perhaps something in them that shows maybe the old soak had a bit more going than it would at first seem. All the same, it is telling that among my friends he is the favourite poet of people who don’t read poetry.  His novels  though were a conveyor belt of repetition. Bukowski was not the first person to write the same book over and over again and he would not be the last. His ‘powerfully’ autobiographical work seemed little more than a procession of ‘get up, get drunk, get fired, get laid’ in which little space remained for anything else. Bukowski claimed that, bumming in a library one day, he had come across the novels of John Fante, a writer active in the 30s who later became a scriptwriter for pulp TV, and that the discovery of Fante’s writing became Bukowski’s own Road To Damascus moment, the point at which he himself began to write.

Fante’s work, though, is characterized by a hunger, a desperate need to explain and document the world around him and to relate it to his own experiences. Some might well say that this, exactly this, is what Bukowski brings to his own work. And he does, mostly, but it lacks the transcendence. Bukowski’s great failure as a novelist is that he never learned, nor seemed to understand, the need to translate his poetry to his fiction. Where Fante was the prototype of the young Updike, the young Roth, Bukowksi became a down and out Donleavy, occupying the same literary space but lacking the wild, violent love affair Donleavy had with language.

I’m aware, as I write this, of the place Bukowski occupies in the pantheon of counter-culture heroes. Problem is that I’ve never put much stock in the counter-culture. The only counter to culture comes from the philistinism of dead thought and hatred of anything that cannot be adequately and quickly explained in the pages of the Daily Mail, or broadcast, spittle flecked and wide eyed, on Fox. Culture just is and fringe elements cannot be shielded from comparison with more established forms by stint of artificial separation. When we stand his novels shoulder to shoulder with other writers who scoured the depths Bukowski does not bear up. He documents but he shows little interest in explaining. In fact, he shys away from asking the awkward questions. On their own, in isolation, Bukowski’s novels might seem to reverberate with truth born of authenticity. But authenticity in itself is no guarantee of truth. Truth is a concept that requires self examination, of the brutal understanding of the soul. It is not enough to know what happened, we must know why. This is the heart of my problem: If the author does not ask the questions, why should the reader? If the reader does not ask, they will remain unchanged. And to remain unchanged is, I think, a failure of literature.

Friday Night Tune: Her – Urban Tribe

Perhaps it’s the time of year. When Scotland hits mid autumn the daylight vanishes; what little is left comes shrouded each day in heavy, bruised cloud that chokes out the ultraviolet and leaves you wondering if you will ever see the sun again. We’ve been lucky so far this year. It’s been an abnormally dry and bright transition from summer but it lulled us into a false sense of security. And now nature has reasserted itself energy levels have wilted away to nearly nothing.

In my case it’s hit me with a growing irritation for a lot of the music I’ve found myself listening to. The easy-going, scratchy and faded house of the summer just seems too fragile to cope with the demands made on it at a time when it grows dark by three thirty in the afternoon. Some of it seems annoyingly chirpy. It’s not the fault of the music, nor does any blame lie with the producers. It’s with me and a need for something else.

I’m not sure that hard techno is the answer either. I have a love/hate relationship with the banging end of the spectrum that begins to roll out about now, just as the deck chairs and the shorts are packed away for the season. The aggression might be welcome but the sounds are not.

Away from the blog, I’ve been listening to a lot of electro. Not that old school stuff, replete with careful 808 breaks and frizzly peels of synth. I’ve never been bothered about too much of that, if I’m honest. Still, I’m a sucker for a breakbeat and I’ve been dining on the likes of Drexciya and a whole bunch of Underground Resistance related material recently, alongside other additions to the canon such as Clatterbox and Detroit In Effect.

It seems to be working. Something in these lithe, xenomorphic tunes is getting through the thick fog of disinterest that has appeared over the last couple of weeks. I think it’s the eerie combination of anxious, claustrophobic beats and life affirming, snarling grooves that has done the job. Thank God something has. And it seems to have come at an interesting time, what with the reissue of James Stinson’s Transllusion album, The Opening of the Cerebral Gate on Tresor and a growing re-interest in this most spiky and shape shifting of genres.

I’ve had Her by Urban Tribe on heavy rotation for a while now, turning to it whenever I need an endorphin blast. Urban Tribe is Sherard Ingram, better known as DJ Stingray, one time tour DJ for Drexciya. It’s aural lucozade with just enough grunt beneath the warmth to get me off my arse and into the day. The meat of the tune is that bass – a truncation, largely, of the one that propels Drexciya’s awesome Sea Snake – which just holds the mood somewhere between full on party mode and whimsical introspection. Way above it the shifting melody, forever expanding and contracting along side that rolling vocal sample and the springing percussive elements that gather pace and strength as the track builds to its distant climax, delivers a hit of the purest sunrise promise.

It sure as hell isn’t techno, but I’m not sure it’s electro either. The best of the tunes from way back were the same, stripping elements from many genres and bringing them together as Ingram has done here. There is the intellectual adventure of prime Detroit techno, the funk fuelled drive of old-time electro mixed together with the popping streetwise nous of garage at it’s most immediate and alive, all reborn as a chrome skinned dancer aware of its heritage but paying it little heed. Just as it should be.

It’s woken me up. A burst of sunlight to drive away even the most tenacious of the autumn’s rising shadows.