Friday Night Tune – Beaumont Hammant – Awakening The Soul.

As far as labels go, Positiva was one that went a long way to defining the concept of ‘hit and miss’. Some of the earlier releases, featuring the likes of Barbara Tucker, George Morel and The Disco Evangelists (and a few others) remain enduring examples of early house and techno, coloured with the glow of a musical world that has largely vanished now. Much of the bulk of their output was resolutely big time house, aimed equally at the larger clubs and the charts and not especially the sort of stuff that, with a few notable exceptions, ever filtered down to the underground. In fact, it is perhaps possible to view the increasing commercialisation of this strand of house as the beginning of the great schism when the ‘all in it together’ feeling of unity that acid house had fostered began to fracture.

Given the size and aims of the label, it still seems surprising that they were responsible for the release of 1993’s seminal ‘Positiva Ambient Collection’ – a compilation of music that represented tastes which lay about as far away from the day-to-day ethos of Positiva as it was possible to get at the time. Whether it was purely a cynical move aimed at cashing in on the burgeoning ambient dance scene that had grown to a level of importance (that it would never see again) on the backs of acts like Future Sound of London, The Orb and the Aphex Twin, I don’t know. What I do know, though, is that for many people it was an introduction to a strand of electronic music that you weren’t likely to be hearing in the sort of meat market provincial clubs that dominated British nightlife outside of the big cities. That alone was worth the price of admission.

The artist listing itself still remains thrillingly off the wall. Some of the bigger names are to be found in The Orb, Orbital and, err, Moby. Richard D James crops up a couple of times, once on remix duties for indy dance outfit Jesus Jones, and once under his Polygon Window guise. There are a host of genuine underground ambient talents in Visions of Shiva and the Infinite Wheel and, most excitingly to a Detroit geek like me, Derrick May makes an appearance with Kao-tik Harmony, a tune that still remains one of the most hearbreakingly beautiful and alien moments of techno ever recorded.

Beaumont Hammant’s Awakening The Soul is, in context, fairly atypical of a great deal of the ambient techno that proliferated in the period, but is easier to understand when put against a smaller band of producers who were making music that seemed to have more in common with more traditional artists. Many acts, such as FSOL and The Orb seemed to often be defined by the montage of concepts and samples that comprised the bulk of their material. On Awakening The Soul , Hannant slowly weaves a tale that gathers itself into a sparse and atmospheric thing, accented by the pulse of the almost acidic bass and a drum pattern that seems organic despite its obvious machine roots. The slow wash of the melody and the tight vibrancy of the chirping and incidental bleeps provide the deepest and most gorgeous of backdrops to an electronic dusk. Although elements of the approach are common enough nowadays, there is a simplicity to the arrangement that is rarely matched. A quiet beauty full of light and shade, and just enough drama to catch the breath all these years on.

Review: Transllusion – Mind Over Positive And Negative Dimensional Matter (Tresor)

Pitched somewhere between the Afro-Futurism of his previous work as half of Drexciya and a looser, more classically Detroit techno aesthetic, James Stinson’s Transllusion project was originally released at the start of the millennium as part of a year-long ‘Drexciyan Storm’ which encompassed full Drexciyan material and ended with Stinson’s astounding ‘Lifestyles Of The Laptop Café’ as The Other People Place. Long out of print and unobtainable, the Transllusion records have been known to change hands for upwards of £100 as fans searched out every available crumb in the wake of his untimely death in 2002.

‘Mind Over Positive and Negative Dimensional Matter’ represents three tracks available of vinyl (and digitally) for the first time and were originally bonus recordings of the CD version of the album ‘Opening Of the Cerebral Gate’, also recently re-released and for which this EP acts as a companion piece. Anyone looking for a review of that should check out Terminal 313’s recent coverage over on his site.

While there are obviously many elements to the music that recall Drexciya’s almost unique blend of techno and electro, Transllusion is perhaps a less elemental take on the genre that Stinson and Gerald Donald almost single-handedly invented. Where Donald’s solo work as Dopplereffekt, Arpanet, Japanese Telecom and a host of others is often dark, mood-hugging and claustrophobic, Transllusion feels beguilingly open, perhaps more free from the constraints that must have been great as a member of such a legendary outfit. While no one could really claim that the three tracks on offer here are anything less than a fully realised vision of Detroit electro, each of them seems somehow softer, more rounded perhaps; mind music in a way Drexciya did not always seem to be.

Of the three tracks on offer here, it is Disrupted Neural Gateway that comes closest to providing a link to his previous work in Drexciya. It is, like so much of the Drexciyan canon, a darkly atmospheric work out replete with the taut breakbeats that defined so much of their material. A boiling furnace of stabbing chords and superheated pads, it stalks with a brooding, protean menace that most electro has never learned.

The other two tracks offer a differing, but equally exciting glimpse at a vision that was so tragically cut off in its prime. Power of the Third Brain is a sucker punching slice of Motor city techno that owes much to Underground Resistance or Suburban Knight in its prowling, barely restrained potency. The individual notes of the lead, like atoms scattered through an experiment of the edge of science, lend the track an almost nervous quality that’ll have you looking back over your shoulder for the approach of the corrosive snare.

But it’s Do You Want To Get Down that ties together the heady mix of past and future. A downbeat, hauntingly groovy take on hi-teck funk that burns with silver like a midnight moon rising on a starlit sea, it remains a startling lesson in the power of electronic musics almost unique ability to move the body and mind as one. Enthralling and exacting, Transllusion is the sound of a tomorrow that never came to pass but is still, perhaps now more than ever, worth aiming for.

Review: Marco Zenker – 2626 (Ilian Tape)

Given that Ilian Tape have been in existence now for the better part of a decade, one of the most surprising things about them remains the fact that they seem to be something of an open secret within the community. They do their own thing, not really affected by the swings and trends of the scene, releasing material that refuses to be easily placed – some it straight up dancefloor fare, some of it inhabiting the frequency washed borderlands of experimentalism – and they appear to relish bringing onboard producers who likewise refuse to be beholden to more common tastes.

A case could be made that the label is part of a small and rather select group that includes the likes of Giegling and The Trilogy Tapes: Small and fiercely independent set ups who have crafted some downright fascinating and vital music without too much glare from self-proclaimed movers and shakers within the scene. One does not have to look much further than the recent release by Skee Mask for evidence of this; a record shimmering with the golden glow of classic techno but using those influences to create something compelling, modern and experimental.

While co-founder Marco Zenker’s new release, ‘2626’ doesn’t quite hit the same radical heights as Skee Mask, he similarly crafts something that seems to stand a little away in contemporary terms. While ‘2626’ is, primarily, functional club music the bulk of which would work well as builders tools, there is a distinct feel of Zenker playing with expectations and pushing conventions to one side.

Such a theme is there from the outset with Geezin, a track which may well take a few listens to fully involve the listener in its workings. It does not seem to go anywhere at first. The whole of its length feels, to fresh ears, like a long tease designed to set you up for a rush that never quite comes. Rewind it a couple of times, though and certain elements begin to make sense, especially the delicious and strangely affecting synth that controls the pace without ever dominating. The drums used sparingly, accenting a surprisingly delicate arrangement with fractional breakbeats, aren’t allowed to overawe the tapestry of pads. It won’t, I’m sure, be for everyone; perhaps too skittish for the banger brigade and too muscular for those hunting ambient pastures. But its beauty lies in its breathless orchestral workings rather than in dedication to a particular mindset.

Splifer, then, comes as something of a wrench, dragging the listener back into a crowded world of movement and industry on the back of a rolling kick and tightly syncopated percussion. Like Geezin, it takes a little while to get going and form up into some finely pulsing techno that eventually opens into a wide arena of sound courtesy of the wash of some distant pads and a buckling little riff that put me in mind of Aubrey or Mark Ambrose. Little touches offset what could otherwise turn into muggy heaviness and lend the tune an airy and ever so slightly detached vibe.

Darai, a companion piece of sorts to Splifer, delivers a hands-in-the-air borderline jacker designed to bring prime time explosions to an already incendiary situation but, unfortunately, fails to bring any of the warmth or alien charm of it predecessors. It’s a simple tune, which is no crime in itself. But it rolls like a five-minute long, pitched down Drumcell track; workman-like and monotone it’ll have its place as a tool, but seems brutish and basic compared to the subtle accents to be found elsewhere on the EP.

Lubiana, however, reaffirms the inventiveness of 2626 with a snapping burst of voodoo funk. The sparkling synths display a lightness of touch and grace as they dive and fold over the thunder of the drums. Some clever work on the claps – dragging into reverse and throwing them forward again – adds a burst and crackle to the movement. It’s an exploratory ride, part old school techno, part equally old rave, that has been re-imagined as a shamanistic journey under summer rain. a keen and ambitious ending to an EP of stomping visions.

Short Route To Everywhere I Want To Go

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I think it was Laurent Garnier who started it all. There had been a history of long sets before, of course; Legendary Larry Levan and François K sessions stretching from Friday nights to Monday mornings; sweat drenched weekends in the humid darkness of clubs in Chicago and New York and escape from the strictures of 70s and 80s conservatism. But for us, weighed down by house and techno records in little towns, it was Laurent Garnier that started it all.

It had been a flier, or an ad for a forthcoming night somewhere down south, which had been clear about the main attraction. A Garnier set. Eight hours of the master banging out tune after tune. For those of us use to the tight licensing of British clubs and pubs it seemed like something utterly alien and paradigm shifting, a real change in how things could be done. For Garnier I’m sure it was business as usual. But for everyone else it was an eye opener.

The problem was that back then, as now, I remain unconvinced that extended DJ sets are anything terribly exciting. I’m not even sure that they are often all that great in a musical sense. Nowadays, when the number of DJs willing to stand up in a booth and play for a dozen hours – if not even more – are increasing exponentially, A bit of opposite thinking may be in order.

Let us get this out of the way first. I know I’m probably not going to change many minds here. I’m sure I know scores of people who would get dizzy with excitement of spending 60 or 70 hours in Berghain listening to Ben Klock playing one of his extended sets, and I can see from the internet that people playing upwards of 24 hours seems to be a Thing now. I’m just not entirely sure why.

Coming from Glasgow where you were lucky if the club had a licence to remain open past two or three AM there simply wasn’t time for a DJ to play for more than an hour, maybe an hour and a half. And if you have three DJs playing across a four-hour period it becomes essential to be on top of your game from the word Go. To those used to clubs which last for days this probably seems incredibly restrictive, as if there isn’t even enough time to warm up. Well, that’s the thing: it creates an energy all of its own and I’ll take that raw Glaswegian club energy over a lot of other places any day of the week. From a technical point of view, these shorter nights are anything but easy. In many ways they are far harder for a DJ to get used to. You have to judge the mood quicker and have your mixing and tune selection down pat. Not that this means ‘All The Hits’. The idea that only a longer set affords you the time to experiment is a myth. If you need four hours to play ‘interesting’ records we may have a problem, and too often ‘Interesting’ is a euphemism for indulgent.

I’ve seen more than a few guest DJs coming north who simply can’t get into the swing of it, so used they are to the luxury of time. Glasgow crowds won’t let you away with fannying around. It’s one of the few places I’ve been where a call of ‘Change The Tune’ is a demand and a threat rather than a bit of matey banter.

A second influence was the good old C-90 tape cassette. learned behaviour more than likely, but 90 minutes as always seemed a damn good length for a decent set with more than enough time to build and fall, more than enough to tell a story and create a vibe. These days, when there are podcasts out there that take longer to get through than War And Peace, my interest can vanish before I reach the end of the second track. I don’t need, or want, a wandering skank through all sorts of vaguely tangential sights. Finite time creates a need for focus and restraint. Like in the days of the Hollywood Golden Age where censorship was so tight that scriptwriters and directors worked so hard to get around it there was an explosion in news ways of doing things, in the language used, and in the cadence. Limitations force people to up their game. Used properly, restraint and restrictions are important creative tools.

My third reason is a particularly personal one based on a background of soul music and punk rock. Coming from genres where tunes could be as short as 40 seconds and pack one hell of an emotional wallop, I basically feel uncomfortable with spending an eternity to get anywhere. It’s a feeling I get now when I hear people getting excited by a 40 minute long Villalobos remix. The longer it goes on, the more it collapses under the weight of its own self-importance and self-indulgence.

And this is the crux, the thing that makes me uncomfortable: Day long sets make me think of superstars and the masses paying fealty at their alter. 24 hours of filler and long mixes don’t suggest excitement to me, it suggests doing it because you can, because you can get away with it and because people will still come and name you a genius. Have all night gigs, sure, have clubs that remain open for days at a time by all means. But instead of one man being the centre of his and everyone else’s hedonism let’s have a bunch of DJs playing shorter sets and playing off each others energy. Instead of indulging the big guys, lets give more room to the little guys, the ones who are coming through. They’re the ones who might actually do something unexpected, something special, something new.

House and techno weren’t really built on the big events and the superstars, regardless of what the official histories say, they were built on little nights in basements and rooms above pubs where a few dozen people came together to hear some chancers with boxes of records change their lives. Lets get rid of the 40 minutes remixes and the two-hour ambient warm ups, lets strip it down, cut out the crap, get back to some sort of basics and have more of those little bits of wax that light up the room for a few hours and make you feel alive. I’m pretty sure that, and not an act of worship, used to be the point.

Friday Night Tune: Suburban Knight – The Warning

Although James Pennington and his Suburban Knight project is now probably inexorably linked with the second generation of Detroit techno, and with Underground Resistance in particular, his history goes back to the early days when the music coming out of that city had yet to crystallize into the forms and frequencies we now automatically associate with the mid west scene. Even in those early days, though, Pennington’s sound was heavy with the explosive funk that would become such a hallmark of his later sound.

His first release, the ‘Groove’ 12″ on Derrick May’s Transmat label sounds almost archaic to today’s ears; an early house jam for the most part but with certain elements to it that would grow in importance in the future. It’s in this rough elemental broth of sound that the DNA of the future is to be found. A tight, furious groove that grows as the tune proceeds and a darkening of mood that he would return to on his next couple of releases, the classics ‘Art Of Stalking’ and ‘Nocturbulous Behaviour.’

‘Nocturbulous…’, his first release for Mike Banks’ UR, would set the tone not only for his own work, but for a great deal of what would come out of the city afterwards. Three tracks of stripped down darkside funk; street tough machine music that was as far away from the cosmic symphonies of May and Atkins as you could get. Nocturbulous drips with an alien claustrophobia and swirling melodies that still sounds unsettling today, Infra-red Spectrum a searing, pounding workout that remains one of the true techno anthems, and a blueprint for much of today’s harder edged techno.

It was with his next UR release that everything came together. As good as ‘Nocturbulous’ and ‘The Art Of Stalking’ were – and they were – the ‘By Night’ EP still sounds frighteningly out there. A culmination of everything that Suburban Knight had been working towards. Echolocation, which opens the record, sounded almost violently harsh at the time. In some ways it is a distant ancestor of much of the rough house and techno that is so common today. It has the feel of a tune cooked up in a basement somewhere on gear on the verge of giving up the ghost. it crackles with a gleeful abandon. Nightvision is as different as can be. It is still dark, but the heaviness is reduced in it’s almost poppy, ravey riff that glides above some tight as hell electro beats.

But it is The Warning that stands out. The clatter of the percussion tightens the drive of the rhythm, both complimented by the grub of the sub bass. But it is that riff which gives the tune heft and potency. Descending and discordant it drags everything into its path, reshaping the rest of the music as it carves ahead. It also sounds so different from anything else that was coming out of Detroit at the time; explosive and riotous, but with a disciplined energy that separates it from much of the techno of the era. I’ve often thought that if America had created rave along with house and techno and garage, The Warning is what it would have sounded like.

Never forgotten but often overlooked now in the rush to give praise to so many other luminaries, Suburban Knight’s output remains enthrallingly different to what had come before. And as for what came after, we could sometimes do with being reminded of the massive and largely unheralded role Pennington had in shaping the sound of the future. Without Underground Resistance the contemporary techno of both Europe and America may well have gone to a different place, but without Suburban Knight’s influence and mentoring over UR and others, without his finely honed sense of shade and power, well…who can say? A true originator. It’s often the quiet ones you have to watch our for.