Friday Night Tune : Skinless Brothers – Backyard

It started with a hankering. Other music addicts and record nerds get these as often as I do, I expect; it’s obsessive, slightly mental and probably a wee bit creepy for those who aren’t used to our slightly more, err, focused outlook on life, but it’s got to be pretty common in our gang. I’m guessing this is magnified to a terrifying and hilarious level for those of us who like to pretend we’re DJ’s. For me it usually starts when I begin to notice something missing from my listening, a sound or vibe that doesn’t seem to be there.

For DJs I guess this feels like missing a piece of the jigsaw; you know there needs to something else in a mix, but you can never find it. Often something else does a similar job, maybe even taking things off in a new direction, making it better than it would have been. Sometimes, though… It’s even worse when you know exactly what your after, but don’t know where to start looking.

I tend to be relentless when I can’t find something I know I need. With music I’ll watch entire evenings disappear in a weird and almost out-of-body way as the tiny sensible part of my mind stands back, witnessing with growing horror the sight of a sweaty, swearing me frantically clawing through stacks of vinyl for a tune – not a record, but a single bloody tune – that I realize I need to hear more than I need the sun to rise in the morning. To make things worse, it might be a tune I only ever listened to a couple of times, occasionally in passing, in the midst of a mix when I was just seeing what went where. Worse still, my long break from electronic music means those fragile memories have long since been buried under a lot of complete and utter nonsense: Put bluntly, I can’t remember the names of anything, even though the basslines might be seared into my brain.

This happened a few months ago, a sudden need for some vocal tunes in a style I didn’t really have available. This has been a bad one, and one that still has no resolution. Endless record listening, stalking various websites, and setting up camp on Discogs and Youtube have yet to scratch that itch. That’s how it goes. If anyone has any ideas for some techno-ey, dirty, fast, acidy, raw tunes with vocals let me know. Older the better in this case, I think.

I had an easier time of it a couple of weeks back. I knew the tune inside out, but couldn’t find it anywhere. I was convinced it was there in the stack, smirking at me from the wax, but every possibility found itself quickly ground down to a dusty pile of ‘nope’. I almost conceded defeat, resigning myself to a probably life long irritation that would make me even more horrible to live with than I am now. Then I remembered something. I forgot to check the CDs. I always forget to check the CDs.

And there it was, not front and center on a 12″, or leading the charge off an album, but nestled away in the middle of a mix CD by Claude Young that I hadn’t really listened to in a decade. The CD is Young’s DJ Kicks mix from 96, and the track is Backyard from the 1995 record Escape from Venice by the Skinless Brothers, an Austrian duo who are perhaps better known as their other guises, Ratio, and The Memory Foundation. It’s a blinding track, and I couldn’t believe I had never owned it. It’s not so much raw as in possession of a fine, no bullshit toughness that puts it at odds with a lot of the early minimal crowd who were beginning to make their presence felt. It morphs constantly, swaying in several directions at one before being gifted focus by the dramatic crash of the chords. It’s a peach.

I sorted out my oversight quickly via Discogs. Well, you need to don’t you? Got to scratch that itch. And I think you have to hand in your badge and gun to Music Obsessive HQ if you don’t. Turned out even better than expected, because there were another couple of tracks on the record I’ve been after for many years but never managed to find any information on. I’d love to say there was a moral to this little story, something about beating the odds and sticking to your beliefs, but there isn’t really. It’s just a bit about an idiot and his idiotic itch, and how good it is to finally get right at the little swine. And when it’s backed up by fine techno, it beats any amount of profound philosophizing hands down.

Review: Casio Royale – In Basements Vol 1 (Dixon Avenue Basement Jams)

While I generally prefer to be a forward-looking kind of guy when it comes to house music, more happy to embrace whatever new sounds the future brings than cast my ears back for yet more mid eighties influences, I seem to have been digging out a lot of old records over the last couple of years that seem to provide an experience I just don’t get from the current scene. While the music put out by Relief Records, for example, or Dance Mania may not always be the most amazing in the genre, and sometimes feel a little one-trick (and a little dated), they still hit up a dirty, nasty, mischievous vibe, a vibe that has been sidelined a bit in recent years. Likewise the music of Mike Dunn may not have the slick sophistication and depth of a producer like Tin Man, but damn. You know, Damn!

It’s lucky for me, then, that there are still a handful of labels out there showing strong love for the seedier, rawer and more acidic end of the spectrum. Since Dixon Avenue’s first release, that murky, funky record by Jared Wilson, they’ve pretty much been bang on point every time I needed a go-to for some proper jams. Since Modini’s Turk EP and Denis Sulta’s Sulta Selects back in 2014, though, they’ve hit a real roll, putting out a sequence of records where every one has been somehow bigger, brasher and filthier than the one before it.

Casio Royale’s first record for the team is right in there, and builds up nicely with some balls out, toy-town jackers pushing a Chicago-ish sound that’s filled up with Armando like cheek and Relief’s pogo-ing stomp. I say Chicago-ish because there’s more to it than that, and it’s DNA is infused with an acidic wonkiness that owes as much to home-grown acid madness as it does to anything from the other side of the water. It’s a ballsier sound, Casio Royale have – fatter too – and one that’s less prone to losing itself in a cul–de-sac even though it likes its beats just as direct and to-the-point. It chucks deepness in the bin and sicks up on the shoes of subtlety, instead letting the grooves spiral up from the gut to fill their boots from the gleeful sonic mayhem going on all around them.

Crucially it’s this mayhem that brings everything together. It adds in the glee and sense of fun that were always as important to house and acid as the Roland gear. From the way Hell House chases Green Velvet up a stairwell with malicious intent before layering in some billowing, doom laden pads for no other apparent reason than they make everything crazier, you get the sensation that some mad house scientist is seeing how far he can push it before it explodes. Fun House retools for a wobbly jive that gets direction from the chiming riff and chirping bursts of acid.

Joyrider is a full on killer, born in Chicago but brought up in Manchester or Liverpool or Glasgow. Furious, prowling and funky it uses the thick toms to swat you around.It’s more serious about its business than either of the A-side tracks. The grimy shimmy of the riff slides here and there into a slanted middle eastern vibe that broadens the tune’s horizons. It’s a hard thing to decide whether this or I Finish takes the gold. I Finish might still be stormer, but it’s tighter than the others. Darker too and less in your face, it relies on a frosty, creeping acid line to get under your skin, and it holds the madness in check, stripping away much of the previous onslaught and letting a more nuanced mood filter through.

And there was me pretty much complaining they don’t make them like this anymore. The thing is they do, and they’re as jacking, fun and life affirming as ever.

Friday Night Tune: Studio 1 – Grün 1

Music and art tends to thrive when it has something to react against, and the protean nature of techno has often made it seemed like a lab experiment for this idea. Usually the spark that provides techno with its desire to tear everything up and start again is more techno; it reacts against itself, growing bored with whatever dominates until it begins to shoot off in a different – and usually polar opposite – direction.

Compared to the major part of electronic music in the first years of the millennium’s last decade, electronic music which was loud, large and brash, and coloured by the experience of acid house and rave, dub techno offered a very different trip. Stripped down, built on the throb of the bass and scrambling effects, and more focused on the journey than the destination dub techno provided a deeper experience, and one that seemed designed to luxuriate in and take your time over. In its way, dub helped to reset techno’s value system. It ushered in an era where sound design and structure took on a paramount importance, almost as if techno was beginning to really mature and take itself seriously.

Almost as quickly as it arrived, it seemed to be joined by other forms that shared an interest in this approach. Minimal techno in particular, which had already been defined by Robert Hood’s lean, naked grooves, seemed to take the lessons dub techno taught to heart. The early minimal teased out ideas from a deliberately limited palette. The emphasis on drums and bass, and the exploration of the space between the sounds had their strong parallels with dub, but seemed more analytical, more precise. Good dub is frequently hazy and heavy; it works its tricks through the deepening repetition that can be both expansive and claustrophobic. Minimal often seemed to sidestep this, using effects to accent instead of define, and building on the interplay between the handful of elements to push forward.Here the repetition was tighter, verging on something hypnotic.

Wolfgang Voigt’s Studio 1 project was designed to explore minimal techno over 10 records released in the mid nineties. Listening to them in order, it is easy to sense a development of the ideas. Each of them are very much dedicated to the genre’s austere approach, lacking almost everything but kicks, bass and perc, but here and there are touches of a more fluid take, either subtly making their presence felt on the surface, but more often appearing like one of those dried up river beds on Mars: defining and influencing but no longer really there.

Grün 1, the first track on the very first release, shows this cross over between dub techno and the ideas of artists like Hood, Dan Bell and the other early movers. While there is a crispness to it, and an arrangement which is impressively empty of anything ephemeral, it is the massive throb of the bass that defines it. Cleaner perhaps than it would be in dub, the bassline carries the tune forward, creating the bedrock that everything else clatters against. It is also more driving than most dub manages to be, harder too: Dub’s softened, rounded edges are sharpened here, more angular, providing a raw skank that is as sleek as anything that came out of Detroit.

Like any successful genre the stars in the firmament soon became crowded by the smaller, more leaden bodies. Both dub and minimal were easy to make but very hard to get right, and the heritage of both suffered from music that failed to understand that the lack of clutter throws the light on everything that’s left. Dub seemed to become marshier, perhaps more one-dimensional as people gave too much attention to the bass. Minimal seemed to lose sight of the fact it is the way in which the barest necessities work together to create the groove rather than how few or clever those barest of necessities are that was the point. Not that it mattered by that point. The job had been done and new ways of doing things had been cast into the air to pollinate new minds. Before long the shoots of new music began to bloom and techno’s protean, almost Darwinian nature reasserted itself once again.

Review: Coni – Imaginarium Essai EP (The Trilogy Tapes)

Looking through the TTT listings on Discogs is a useful way of reminding yourself just how busy the label has been over the last couple of years. It’s also a great method to refamiliarize yourself with a body of work which helped to usher a sense of experimentalism and prime sonic mayhem back into the wider underground, a place which had begun to feel a bit sleepy under the weight of all the slick, polished and ultimately safe techno and house that appeared as minimal began to retreat.

Coni’s entry into the club is maybe a departure, seeming a straighter affair and one that is less prone to bursts of boundary pushing, except the ClekClekBoom teamster’s first record away from his home label is deceptive in that respect. Imaginarium Essai might sound at first like a late arriving example of dusty outsider house (and Coni’s previous records certainly fit well into that framework), but once you get past the surface similarities it opens up into something altogether wider.

The beats are treacle thick and reminiscent of the drowsy heaviness that producers like Vester Koza specialize in, a sort of future-dub that swaps the foundation shaking bass and other traditional trappings of the genre for less tangible touches of mood that work in the space left behind. On Imaginarium Essai this is only the starting point, and it quickly becomes apparent the woozy deepness isn’t really the point, that Coni is more concerned with an exploration of tone than he is in dealing out ambling late night numbers.

Imaginarium Essai trawls a jazzy, noirish hinterland that owes a debt to trip-hop’s angular and often languid soundscaping, regardless of its loosely regimented 4/4 kicks. Its moodiness articulates a groove that is otherwise almost incidental, bringing it to life as a shuffling half-stomp that plays back into the tune with a world-weary vibe, accenting the bass and little shivers of synth with quiet despair and drama. Zex Plongeon starts with similar pretensions but favours a slow approach which gradually grows into a long, hypnotic trip along a sunless road. It’s the deepest track on the record, and heavier than you would suspect, with granite, mud encrusted kicks dominating its direction, but there is little else in the tune that could add a dissenting voice, stripped as it is of all but the necessary. As a result it can sometimes feel oppressive, lacking some oxygen under its own heft.

Into The Silly World and Louis & Juno inject something into the mix which isn’t lighter so much as less serious. Into The Silly World lock the beats down into a tighter pattern, and rides a fractured, wonky riff to deliver some broken funk that oozes with dirty humour and richer colours than are to be found elsewhere. Louis & Juno revisits some of the mood of Imaginarium Essai but eschews beats completely, focusing instead of teasing out a lonely, rainy melody that weaves around the pangs of bass and skittish, distant percussion to subtle but potent effect.

Friday Night Tune: Lonny And Melvin – Suck The Box

There is a line at the beginning of Johnny Mnemonic, William Gibson’s prelude to Neuromancer and rest of the Sprawl collection (the novels and stories set in the Boston Atlanta Metropolitan Axis), which sums it up pretty well. ” I put my shotgun in a bag and padded it out with 4 pairs of tennis socks. Not my style at all, but that’s what I was going for,” Johnny tells us as he describes getting ready for a job. “If they think you’re technical, go crude. And I am a very technical boy.”

I find this quote popping up a lot in my mind whenever I listen to electronic music, particularly over the last 18 months where we’ve seen tastes shift from the raw, ‘analogue’ sound of outsider house and bare bones electronica to something altogether more polished. Of course these genre shifts in electronic music are hardly rare. It maybe doesn’t happen as quickly or as often as it once did, but the scene can still seem a place ruled by Darwinian laws.

Electro has often seemed a more stable pool, particularly compared to house music, but change still happens. In recent years some strands of electro have begun to embrace a thicker, more orchestral sound, one which has less need for complex, clattering rhythms and prefers to weave melodies instead. Compared to the skeletal electro-noir of the music which grew up in Europe at the arse end of the nineties the modern take is larger, wider, and far less ferocious than the American techno-bass from the same period.

But one thing has seldom changed in electro. Regardless of whether we’re talking about the nineties or right now, electro has always been a very technical boy. Even the modern love of fat chords and astral melody doesn’t disguise the fact that electro has a machine soul, very different from house music’s profoundly organic heart but no less alive. There is something precise about a lot of electro; complex mathematics in the breakbeats; sharp movement and focused purpose; Skynet with snares.

Lonny and Melvin are better known as I-F and Pamétrax, the Dutch electro maestros at the head of Murdercapital and a host of other projects. Although neither of them really went down the Anthony Rother route, bringing instead elements of Kraftwerk, italo and 80’s experimentalism to the mix, they still delighted in electro’s cybernetic glamour. Even I-F’s best known tune, Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass, for all the warmth of its disco vibe, still rides on a brilliant android groove.

Suck The Box, from their 1998 record If You Want A Job Done Do It Yourself, is what happens when the technical boys get crude. And not just crude; this is a dirty tune, a matted hair and sunken eyes sort of filthy. Except for the crumbs of a vocal snip, and the swelling, dangerously unbalanced bass, there seems to be nothing in the tune except percussion. As Johnny Mnemonic goes on to say, ” these days, though, you have to be pretty technical before you can even aspire to crudeness.” That’s exactly the case here, two masters using all their skills to smash it apart. The rhythm seems to swing in and out of time, there are moments where you think there might be three different drum machines pretending to be working together, and the whole thing just seems to be constantly on the edge of falling apart. But Lonny and Melvin use the chaos to tease out a corkscrewing groove that is far tighter than it has any right of being. The imperfections are the key, the wonky gravity the rest of the tune coalesces around. Take away that vibe and the whole tune implodes. You have to be technical to do crude that well. It’s as true of electronic music as it is of anyone selling black market data in the Sprawl that when people expect you to go in one direction, it can really, beautifully, pay off to go in the other.