One of the interesting and perhaps unintended plus points to Opal Tapes’ limited vinyl ‘Black Opal’ project has been the way it’s provided a doorway into this most dense of labels for new fans, allowing them to find their feet in the sheer amount of material released by the English stable over the course of the last few years. Whether or not the four releases so far represent the very best that Opal Tapes has to offer is a question someone more qualified than myself would have to answer, but it would certainly appear true that there is something about each of them that seems more accessible than many other Opal Tapes releases – although ‘accessible’ in this case is a relative term. Within their usual fiercely experimental ethos the loose, frayed grooves of Patricia, Cloudface and Ñaka Ñaka really do stand out. Not so much because they are a departure from the label’s usual fare, but because they represent a tight union between the angular thinking of experimentalism and something closer to the contemporary dance floor underground.
Sheela Rahman’s Xosar project makes up the fourth part of the Black Opal quartet with her first album following a string of releases for the likes of Rush Hour, Creme and L.I.E.S, and there is a lot here that is going to be familiar to anyone who has followed her career so far. Of the four records to come out under the ‘Black Opal’ banner, ‘Let Go’ is the most dance floor-centric, and the first to really push away from the new wave house template into something genuinely harder.
At first listen you could be forgiven for thinking that ‘Let Go’ is ploughing a similar furrow to a lot of other modern techno that has come into being in a world dominated by the punkier styling of L.I.E.S. A large part of the album definitely has that familiar snarl, a symphony of broken machines marshalled by punching beats and snapping percussion giving it the feel of brutalized Chicago house. Once you get past that initial rush, though, there is much more going on.
In actual fact ‘Let Go’s’ tone lies closer to a host of older producers. There are touches here and there of Luke Slater in his various guises, and streaks of Detroit techno and messy Djax Upbeats style acid shine through from beneath the grime, such as on the wonderfully unhinged Watching, Waiting, Wanting where the burble of a closely controlled acid bass ties knots in a tune that sounds like Steve Poindexter getting back to basics with a full on machine throwdown.
While there are occasional moments where the invention sags just a little, such as on the muddy Sail 2 Elderon, the album really cracks into a life of its own when Rahman’s musical imagination is given free reign to push beyond the strictures of straight up techno. Prophylaxis combines skewed, grubby beats with the hum of heavy machinery attaining consciousness, and while it doesn’t quite break out of the mould, its intent is palpable. The dark thrash of Hades Gate, clocking in at not far off 150 BPM, moves the record into hell fire mode, hissing out threats and growing ever more malicious on the rubbery thrum of its bass, breaking down the relentless energy here and there with a thick wash of evil synths.
The star here, though, is probably Tales of the Tenderloin which makes you yearn for the days when house, techno and rave could all be thrown together into one tune without anyone batting an eye. Tumbling beats, laser squirts and little glimmering touches of cosmic light play off underneath the hypnotic melody that provides a warm, almost life affirming counterpoint to Hades Gate’s venomous swirl.
Like I said at the top, ‘Accessible’ is a relative term and I suspect that, for many, ‘Let Go’ will seem like a bit of a square peg in a world of round hole techno. But those people are wrong, and if the current scene is any indication, we’re going to need a lot more square pegs before we’re through. Let’s hope ‘Let Go’ is just the start. A much needed blast of fresh air fury.