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.