Best Of The Represses: Feb 2016

Although I imagine there are plenty of disco/soul/krautrock/industrial fans who will disagree with me, February has not been a classic month for all things repressy. We’re once again in the run up to the dubious pleasures of Record Store Day, and you wonder how many decent re-releases have been held back to fatten that particular calf. Even so, there have been a few interesting bits and pieces here and there. Let’s get down to brass tacks:

I-F: Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass (Viewlexx)

The Viewlexx/Murdercapital axis continue to pump out the quality re-releases with this repress of I-F’s seminal Space Invaders are Smoking Grass. Fair enough, it’s probably about the 6000th time this has been put back out, the last occasion being in 2014, but you would have to be a bit of a sod to knock it for that reason. Space Invaders… remains one of the finest tunes of the last 20 years. Its robot vocals, sawing bassline, and scruffy beats hoist all manner of melodies and catchy hooks on their shoulders in a way that neither techno nor electro are usually comfortable doing – or capable of. The rest of the EP is a pretty strong offering. In particular Playstation #2 delights big time with its unhinged acid soaked playground skank. Look, you’ve all probably got this, but buy it again: It really is that good. One of those rare records that’s as important as it is funky.

Paul Johnson: 11PM Music/2AM Music (Dance Mania)

There’s a decent chunk of Dance Mania wax flying around at the moment, and this reissue of Johnson’s 11PM Music/2AM Music is one of two DM records from the Chicago master’s incredible mid 90s period to get the repressed and remastered treatment. It’s top stuff, tying the two prime Chi-town jackers on the A side to the deeper groovers on the flip. The Speaker Buster is guaranteed to do exactly that, while Don’t Stop Movin That Ass slaps out a raw, dirty stomp that’s still snarling after 20 years. The B side carries the tunes deeper, with a couple of ultra-smoothies that float and caress, and equal the A side’s bumptious energy with grace, style and languid mood. This DM repress thing could really get interesting….(DJ Funk’s Street Traxx II next, please.)

Octave One: – The X-Files (430 West)

Just when you thought that getting your eyes on some fresh Mulder and Sculley madness was the pinnacle of X-Files related nostalgia along comes Octave One in the form of 1994’s double EP. A great record, it nevertheless loses points for the fact all of it’s track names appear culled from Star Trek rather than the show in question. Sci-Fi TV grog nitpicking aside, though, this is one of those records which no DJ would have been without at a certain point of time, a fact represented in some silly Discogsing over the years. It represents a period where Octave One really began to hit their stride and really began to move away from their original housey sound towards one that was sharper, more techno, and heavy with deep, snaking grooves. Stand out tunes are the rugged, crashing funk of Dema, and The Neutral Zone’s juiced up, loose-limbed high-tech space soul. A classy reminder of how good a band they are. Please though, 420 West, please sort out whatever license issues there are with the Direct Beat Stuff. We actually, physically need some Aux 88 represses and we need them now.

Friday Night Tune: The KLF – What Time Is Love?

I’m not always the smartest creature on the planet but there are still a few things I’ve managed to figure out over the years, a few tiny observations of life I’ve come to regard as almost transcendentally true. Firstly, the condition ratings you find on Discogs are often works of fiction that give the novels of Tolstoy a run for their money; that ‘human resources’ departments rarely contain much of either; and that awards ceremonies are what happens when great lumps of cosmic evil congeal around the twin stumps of money and fame.

Not all awards shows, I have to say. I have no truck for awards that seek to boost the profile of worthwhile organizations, or give a bit of praise and respect to people who have worked hard with little reward for the benefit of other people. The British Guide Dogs Awards is fine, for instance. It’s a worthwhile cause and features very clever dogs, so it wins all over the shop. That’s cool. I have no problems with the guide dogs. Nah, where I get snarky is with what Billy Crystal described as the sight of millionaires giving each other tiny gold statues.

We’ve already had the yearly bonanza of backslapping bellendery that is the Brits – a celebration of a music industry so middle of the road they should just give out Cat’s Eyes as the awards, and a show that has only been worth watching once (twice if you count the weird Sam Fox/Mick Fleetwood match up) – but we’ll get to that in a minute. I won’t even mention the Oscars which will be along before you’ve finished reading this.

The wost of the lot appears to be the soon to be all-to-real Electronic Music Awards which will be hosted in LA in April. I can barely imagine the depths of loathing towards humanity that must exist for something like this to come into being. It’s easy to say that this has nothing to do with us, that it’s about a strand of electronica which is far closer to being about brands and sales than anything that we would consider important. That’s true enough, but it’s also true that it hijacks an entire form of music rich with its own history, flavour and impact – and cuts out all of that, casting adrift everything that matters in exchange for a cold, hard dollar. That it’s being hosted in LA, (and no offence whatsoever to any LA readers) instead of a city with a heritage of electronic music – the Berlins or Londons or Chicagos or Detroits – says an awful lot. As does the fact the nominations seem to contain only one black artist in Carl Cox – an electronic music awards with only a single black nominee? That’s next generation wrongness.

But you know what? It really doesn’t matter because I was right the first time – it has nothing to do with us. Let them do their thing and we’ll do ours. Besides, no awards show is ever again going to be as chaotic, hilarious, exciting and genuinely mind-blowing as when The KLF won Best Group at the Brits in 1992.

They shared the award with Simply Red, which was itself the act of a bloated music industry damning the outsiders with faint praise. The KLF were one of those bands who changed lives even though they would probably loathe the idea that they did. Their entire career was one long snort of derision towards the very people who were now pretending to honour them. Their art-techno-punk shtick rubbed countless people up the wrong way. You could hate their knowing cynicism even though you loved the fact they were absolutely authentic about it. And they spat out some of the most lunatic records to ever get in the charts. They were as mainstream as they could get away with, but they were our sort of mainstream.

They opened the Brits in brilliantly vicious style, playing 3AM Eternal with thrash rockers Extreme Noise Terror and scaring the pets of countless households across Britain. That was nothing compared to when they reappeared later. Bill Drummond limping out onto the stage with a crutch under his arm and cigar in his mouth, clad in a leather greatcoat he claimed had once belonged to Rudolf Hess, before drawing out a vintage machine gun and firing blanks into the crowd, finally leaving the stage to the immortal words ‘Ladies and Gentleman, the KLF have now left the music business.’ They returned later in the night, after the cameras had stopped rolling, to dump a dead sheep outside the afterparty. For a 17-year-old, this stuff leaves a lasting impression.

This What Time Is Love is taken from their album, The White Room (which remains one of the stand out records of the era) and is one of those tracks that don’t seem to exist anymore (and rarely did). It’s extremely radio friendly, a tune for Radio One, but it keeps both feet planted firmly in the underground, and retains a punk spikiness that in a time becoming dominated with the limp rock styling of grunge made it seem that it was the one that actually knew what it was talking about; a real deal clawing itself from a scene that had largely been ignored by the mainstream. The claims they had left the music business were pretty accurate too. After this they deleted their catalogue and only performed together again on a tiny handful of occasions. Enjoy what they left behind. We’ll never get another band like them. I still don’t know whether to applaud that, or break down in mourning. Ladies and gentleman, The KLF.

Review: Protic – Vector (Unity Glasgow)

Club night Unity Glasgow have been going a while now. Although it’s easy for a night to disappear into the background noise of everything else that’s happening, it’s usually worth paying attention when the next step is taken. In Glasgow, that usually means starting a label and seeing what happens.

Unity resident Protic’s debut is (I think) the young label’s second release, following on from Aita by Nois last year. As an example of any Glasgow sound (itself an ill-defined and expansive thing) Vector tends to shy away from the more openly debauched and experimental side of things, leaning closer to a purer form of dancefloor energy than is sometimes seen here.

Let’s say this first. I’m not sure whether Vector is entirely certain of the direction it wants to take. While the overall feel of the EP is one aimed at a big room sound, it layers in the slighter slink of tech-house, occasionally bursts out in a sort of old-school ravey energy and rounds thing off with a some (very nice, I have to say) synth work that pushes everything towards melodic techno territory, and even dips towards a sort of neo-dub flavouring here and there. While this sort of approach can work – and work well – it takes iron will to stop it from becoming too much of an influence soup.

This is particularly noticeable on Vector itself, which opens with a downward pulling dub groove which never quite let’s go despite the track quickly departing in another direction. It feels too much like several disparate tunes trying to echo common themes for it to entirely come together. It tightens its focus considerably after the halfway mark when it begins to latch on to a slowly rising acidy warble which is all strobes and smoke, finally beginning to pull everything together. Structure suffers less from this initial confusion, and begins in a similar area to where Vector left off, but never strays very far from there. It leaves some interesting ideas languishing in a bit of a tech-house cul-de-sac, which is fine enough, but it needs to electrify its groove to really get things going.

The other two tunes are far stronger, both in terms of knowing what they want to be and understanding how to go about it. Formation delivers some swirling and playful sounds that beckon to the ears as much as the feet. The real star though is a beautifully understated bass line that provides the engine missing from the other two tracks. It grabs the tune early on, pushing and pulling at the synths and drums until it has them just where it wants them to be, and harkens back to an era when techno was still beholden to house music’s way of delivering a soulful groove from raw machine parts.

Best of the lot is Trajectory. Introspective and captivating, it draws on the slightest of electro touches and adds them to shimmering, liquid synths and some clever percussion. That’s all there is to it; for all the feeling of busyness it remains wonderfully sparse, and the simplicity of it is the vehicle which delivers its impact.

Sifting through influences is a skill that some producers never learn, much less understand the need for, but Protic revels in a lightness of touch and understanding of mood that belays some of the more obvious moments on display and is without doubt at his best when he lets his definite artistry guide him instead of his tastes. And while Vector suffers a bit from uncertainty of what it wants to be, there is plenty here to suggest that if this is Protic just getting started, we could be in for something special in the future.

Friday Night Tune: Barada – Detach/Observe

It’s been a long while so I can’t remember for sure now, but I think the first time I heard anything by Barada was on one of those CDs that you used to get free with music magazines back in the days when paper music magazines were still a thing.

The quality of these CDs typically ran from pretty poor to shockingly awful, with only a couple of genuine exceptions to prove the rule. The situation was often made worse if it was mixed. I say ‘mixed’ but mostly this was a euphemism for flumping the beginning of one track into the dying moments of the last. Perfunctory doesn’t begin to describe it. Every so often, though, you got lucky and heard something that took you off in a new direction. It was a rare occurrence, but an important one, especially for nerds growing up in the middle of nowhere, with no record shops or easy way to find anything out, and with the infant Internet still many, many years away from becoming the font of all knowledge it is now.

I don’t remember who else was on the CD. Heck, I can’t even remember which magazine it came from. I’d love to say something cool like Jockey Slut – one of the best music publications in any genre ever, and one that was essentially my bible for a bunch of years in the 90s. It was more likely Mixmag. Even in those days Mixmag wasn’t quite as cool as it thought it was. It was Blue Peter to Jockey Slut’s‘ Magpie, Multi Coloured Swap Shop to JS’s Tiswas, and many other clever references to things I am suddenly aware are making me look very, very, very old. Old but cool, right? Oh Yes.

Still, Mixmag wasn’t quite as much of a vacuum back then as it seems to be nowadays, and it was probably a more accurate gauge of most people’s experience of electronic music than any other magazine of the time. It was also never the most underground of publications – but that was less of an issue in an era when the gap between the underground and the big names may have been more apparent than it is now, but was paradoxically far less important. Jockey Slut was always pitched at a different audience (a fact you can’t help but wonder may have contributed to it not being around anymore).

I’ve never been a Chemical Brothers fan, but it was Jockey Slut who first interviewed them. It was the magazine that icons such as Mike Banks chose to speak to. And it may (or may not) have led to Daft Punk adopting their masked robot-head shtick because of a terrible Slut photo shoot. Not bad for a fanzine that started life as a slogan on a T-shirt. Not bad at all.

For those of us who were far too young to even particularly remember the punk era let alone be a part of it, there was always a sense that we had just missed out on something important. But house music, and techno, was our cultural moment in the sun and Jockey Slut felt like it was our own Sniffin’ Glue; written by the sorts of idiots we ourselves were, and far more likely to introduce us to something that would stay with us forever.

The fact is very little stays with us forever. Jockey Slut didn’t. It never became the bloated style mag that some critics claimed it did, nor it really ever become part of the established musical press. There was a faint drift towards bands and themes I wasn’t so interested in, a drift that grew stronger as the years went by. Gradually, I detached myself from reading it; every spare penny I had went on records instead of magazines. And by the time it eventually folded in 2004 it had been several years since I’d even so much as seen a copy.

Barada’s Detach/Observe wasn’t the track from that CD. Rather it is their tune I loved the most. Barada were a good outfit, especially in the early years when they were still tingling from old school acid house. And while that sound eventually took a back seat to one which was far closer to tech-house, they could still put out tracks like this: tight electro, and coloured with IDM, tinged with funky techno. It’s a rubbery, fluid take on all of that. A stand out tune on their first album. And without a crappy, free cover-mount I might never have heard it or of them. I wonder how much else I owe to that form of lucky education? Probably everything, and then some more.

Review: VA – Invisible Darning EP (Brokntoys)

House music may make the most noise, and techno the angriest face, but if you’re wanting to spend time with a weird-wired genre that’s still got one eye on the stars then electro is the one. It’s been a great start to the year as well. Albums by Exalted, and Luke Eargoggle and Faceless Mind, plus 12s from Arcanoid, Diffuse Arc, Jeremiah R, VC-188A, Lost Trax and a dozen others have already nudged the scene into new areas, and there seems to be a greater willingness to experiment, innovate and mix up influences than I can remember in a long while.

London imprint Brokntoys has flown under many radars in the couple of years since their arrival, but the blend of electro, techno, IDM and raw experimentalism they favour has put the label right at the front line. While others like CPU and Shipwrec have really readied the troops for a full scale electro assault on 2016, it’s really pleasing to see outfits like Brokntoys delivering something a little bit different. Check out last year’s releases by Marco Bernardi and Rutherford if you still need convinced. If their dreams of gutter-electronics and dirty angels don’t do it for you, well…

This V/A release draws on the common ground between techno and electro to do its thing. The shared influences, sounds and atmospherics are often overlooked just as they are sometimes taken for granted, and it’s useful sometimes to have a little reminder that crossover is healthy, perhaps even essential. While any V/A collection runs the risk of lacking a bit of overarching focus (a natural side effect of enlisting multiple artists) Invisible Darning generally matches the producers up pretty well, each of them delivering strong evidence of a scene in rude health.

It isn’t quite in the same vein as the labels two previous releases, the tone being less grimy than the Bernardi record, and more likely to push past the rugged tumble of Rutherford’s Singularis. What unites the four producers and their individual takes is a slant towards a darkside vibe – one that is very different to the noir-ish mood more typically found in electro. Ground by The Pulse Project, in particular, weaves in something of tech-step’s collapsing star heaviness; the smashed up beats and wirey pads summoning up a devil of slowly unfurling dread. It perhaps lacks a little to alleviate the airless claustrophobia, but it certainly gets under the skin.

Interestingly, while the feel of proper full fat electro is held in check throughout the bulk of the four tracks, each of them manages to broaden the definition in different ways. Both of the tracks built up of 4/4s, Crystal Maze’s Crossroad Blues and Echo 106’s 100M Splutter, ramp up the tension. Crossroad Blues seems ponderous to begin with, but grows into a thick groove as it rides a fiercely primal acidic line right to the tune’s heart. 100M Splutter, retrofits classically electro touches and motifs to a tight, straightened up machine jacker that trades licks between frosty synths and a mean half-formed bass line through a hazy half light.

Dez Williams, an artist having a bit of a stormer of late, delivers a slice of prime Detroit inspired electro that funnels Model 500 and Carl Craig over a fractured yet tough break beat, and douses it with washes of deep, aquatic strings, while layering in little touches which warp its structure, turning it into a lean shadow boxer of a track. Four tunes from a common ideal, with excitingly different understandings of what the music means. Maybe it’s a sign that in 2016 electro will open up, spread out, and take over. I hope so.