Friday Night Tune: M500 and 3MB – Jazz Is The Teacher (Magic Juan Edit)

For all the clubs packed out every weekend, for all the debauchery and chaos, for all the streamlined marketing and PR of the big players, electronic music still remains, at heart, nerd’s music. It’s 30 odd years now since house music first started making an impact on the main stage. With 30 years under its belt rock music went from an oddity to an irritation to a global phenomenon. But leaving aside the empty commercial trap of EDM, electronic music still lingers in the darker corners, rarely rivalling other genres for dominance. For many people house is the sound of a Friday night, with little impact beyond that. With other styles, techno or electro or dubstep, it seems to have evolved beyond that and into something like a lifestyle choice, and one even less likely to be picked up by the casual listener.

As with other scenes (punk, in particular, or the old Northern Soul movement) fans of electronica probably revel to a big degree in the relative obscurity of their taste in music. I know I do. That’s says something about me that I’m not overly proud of admitting – when you reflect on it, claiming one of the reasons you like something is because no one else does seems a bit, well, childish – but it doesn’t stop it being true.

Of course, there are bonds to be made with others who enjoy the same stuff; there is the undeniable thrill of being a member of a gang, and being indoctrinated into the secrets of the cosmos that the greater mass of humanity will never know. This isn’t purely a musical thing of course. Similar attitudes have existed as long as human being have gazed at the dawn and proclaimed ‘yeah, that sun god isn’t obscure enough for me to follow.’

Still, it got me thinking. I’ve been working on a wee project recently, and a thought popped into my head that I couldn’t quite shake. With all other genres that I can think of, be they jazz, rock, country or what have you, there have always been a small number of tunes that every one knows and loves. We tend to call these classics, we think of them as paragons of whatever musical virtues their specific genres hold dear. When you think of rock music, for instance, what tunes do you hear? Is it Smoke On The Water? What about Brown Suger, or Smells Like Teen Spirit? I’m talking about tunes that everyone is likely to know, not A Kid Who Tells On Another Kid Is A Dead Kid by Nation Of Ulysses (which is a great song but rather limited in terms of world-wide fame.)

Does electronic music have tunes that we think of as standards? If we were to create an album with the ten greatest techno tracks of all time on it, what would be there? For a while I thought it would be an impossible thing to do. To paraphrase William Gibson, electronica is musical Darwinism with the researcher’s thumb stuck on fast forward. The creation and splintering of new styles, sub genres and sometimes even single, ill-conceived ideas, is usually at light speed. Given this, can there possibly be any tunes which linger in the mind months, years, or decades after they’ve had their time in the sun? And if there are, the question becomes simpler: Why? The answer to the first part is yes, there are indeed tunes which still retain their power and fame. The second part, while simpler to ask, is harder to explain.

My first choice for this imaginary album of techno standards is Jazz Is The Teacher, a tune first released in 1992 by 3MB, an outfit consisting of Thomas Fehlmann and Moritz von Oswald, and their old sparring partner ‘Magic’ Juan Atkins. It was a big tune in its day, permanently in the boxes of some of the worlds biggest DJs. The reason it’s here though is even simpler. One of the hallmarks of a genuine and true classic is that it is often a tune you know even if you have no idea who it’s by or what it’s called. While the world continues to turn, and new scenes spring into life, there cannot be many people with even a passing interest in techno who haven’t had a chill sent up their spine by the unfolding drama of that intro, or know to a microsecond when the first beat will kick in. I’m sure there are many thousands more people who have lost their shit to Jazz Is The Teacher than have ever known its name, or the names of those who wrote it.

Personally, I think Jazz Is The Teacher deserves its place at the top table for more than just that. It remains the perfect balance between playfulness, soul, and drive – three traits which have long defined Detroit techno for me. It’s too wonky to be thought of as genuine high-tech soul and too soulful to ever be a true techno banger.Instead it wraps all those facets up tight in its DNA and delivers something magical, memorable and truly timeless.

Review: 214 – Fuel Cells (CPU Records)

Listening again recently to 214’s album from last year, North Bend, I was increasingly aware that my first impressions of it were perhaps a little off. I thought it a great album, but hadn’t really picked up on some of the little things that made it so: the shifts of mood for instance, or the harder edge which lurked under the record’s veneer of almost cinematic emotion. And I never rally paid attention to the ways in which it moved between facets of electro, almost creating a narrative which encompassed the last 25 years of the genre’s evolution.

CPU records have been at the fore of electro’s changed fortunes over the last few years, and forged themselves an enviable stable of talent and a house sound that has as much to do with the broad experimentalism of IDM and braindance as it does with anything that came out of New York in the 80’s. That sound in particular has become increasingly important to the scene, and while it may not have come to define what modern electro is (not quite yet anyway) there is little doubt that the blending of older-school influences with a blossoming, almost orchestral, deepness has reinvigorated the genre’s sound without softening any of its abstract energy.

What was surprising about Fuel Cells on first listen, then, was its directness. Largely stripped of the modern accoutrement of symphony, pushing towards a sound that has its roots in Detroit’s techno bass, Fuel Cells feels like it’s on a mission to restore electro’s visceral energy to a place of prominence and to swap the grand statements for one far more taciturn. In some ways 214 revisits similar vistas as those on North Bend, and anyone familiar with that album will recognize the echo of atmosphere, and the tight drums which marshal the looser vibe up top. But beyond that, the music feels more willing to abandon careful craftsmanship in a bid to get the blood pumping.

Opener Overbridge stalks an almost classically electro soundscape of taut arpeggios and rasping bass, part Detroit, part northern European in soul, and scatters the tune with diffuse light as it grows more sure of itself. It does take a while to unwind and properly reveal its meaning, but the final transition from workout to groove is almost imperceptible, the track slowly locking it down as the energy levels increase. Fuel Cells is less eager to play with its form. Almost straight away it descends into spikier territory, the sort of place Carl Finlow or Dez Williams seem to have been hanging around and getting up to no good in recently. Acidic and dark, it rolls with the gaunt, raw, vibe of a true dance floor bomb.

And while Keep Right, with its wonderful Direct Beat bop and thunder, and its wistful IDM’y melody or Greenbelt’s spiralling, claustrophobic air and tight twisting beats, delve into different areas in much the same way as North Bend did, Fuel Cells feels a more unified record. Obviously a sense of continuity is easier to achieve across four tracks than eight or twelve, but that’s really not what I mean. What brings all the tracks together, regardless of the atmosphere they create or the energy they feed on, is the sense that they are all built first and foremost for what they can do to a dancefloor. Fuel Cells is a record of body music, of grooves which will come to life most authentically on a dancefloor in the darkness and humidity of a Friday night. While it doesn’t eschew entirely the contemporary sense of painting across a bigger canvas, it draws its life from what it will do to you at two in the morning when the sweat is broiling you alive.

Labels That Changed My World: Djax-Up-Beats

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Let’s start with a confession: I didn’t always love Djax-Up-Beats, and even now there are more than a few of the records carrying their logo which simply make me want to turn the record player off and go do something else with my spare time. This isn’t actually that unusual a situation for me – there are tonnes of labels, then and now, I would cross the street to avoid. But what makes Djax different, the reason they are stuck there in my brain even after all these long years, is that when they were on form there simply wasn’t another European label that could touch them.

The original Djax label was formed in 1989 by an Eindhoven record store employee, Saskia Slegers AKA Miss Djax, in an attempt to champion the producers she knew who she felt were being unfairly overlooked by an overly conservative record industry which had no interest in anything but the bottom line. True to her uncompromising vision, the first release was an album, No Enemies, by an underground rap act, 24K.

While Djax would go on to support the Dutch Nederhop scene, it’s the house and techno that made them famous. Djax-Up-Beats was really a sub label to start with, but quickly came to eclipse the parent to the extent that for most people it’s a difference that simply didn’t matter. Those early records, releases largely by local Dutch acts such as Terrace (who would become a label staple), or Boards Of Wisdom, were thick with a sound that was a European distillation of acid house and rave. But even then there were leanings, nascent influences, towards the music filtering through from Chicago and Detroit in increasing amounts.

In the early 90’s Miss Djax spent time in the States, visiting some of the legendary clubs and meeting many of the producers who would grace the label during its most fertile period. There were plenty of labels in Europe which had taken the US sounds to heart and furthered the links between the artists of the two big cities and a scene which took it all onboard. But where outfits like Tresor, for instance, really pushed a far more purist techno sound, Djax brought something new, something that felt like a hybrid of Chicago’s fluid acid and a much, much harder vibe. Several of these early crossovers were licenses of fairly well-known tracks, often remixed by Dutch stalwarts like Speedy J or Terrace, who warped them to their own tastes, altering the basic structures until they gained a surliness that the originals seldom had. In their own way, many of these records pre-empted what Chicago labels such as Relief would later do: Stripped down, machine rhythms; often light on the tunefulness but heavy on the grooves. Beyond the music, the artwork by Detroit illustrator and musician Alan Oldham (best known for his work as DJ T-1000) provided an instantly recognizable visual style with the producers re-imagined as fantastic sci-fi comic book heroes.

The mid nineties, with the US contingent well onboard, and the lessons and information flowing between the Netherlands and the States, was when Djax-Up-Beats moved into a diferent gear. For a period of about five years, there was barely a label on the planet that could touch them for the both the quantity or quality of their releases, and when I say quantity I mean it. For almost that entire period it felt like there was a new record hitting the shelves almost every week, and more often than not they featured the cream of the Detroit and Chicago talent – well, largely Chicago in fact. Claude Young, Robert Armani, DJ Skull, Armando, Steve Poindexter, Mike Dearborn, Mike Dunn, Felix Da Housecat – their release schedule still reads like a who’s who of the electronic underground. What’s more, Djax-Up-Beats came to define what I thought of as Chicago house for a long time to come. Even today I still favour the meaner and dirtier end of the spectrum.

It wasn’t just the American acts who gave their all to Djax though, or the Dutch producers who contributed so much over the years to the label’s sound and soul. Luke Slater’s Clementine project (still his finest work) found a natural home on Djax-Up_Beats, with something in his melding of furious rhythms and ear for a fine Detroit-esque funk sharing a real affinity for what the label was doing. The earliest work of Scottish producer Stephen Brown – who would go on to release some stunners on DJ Bone’s Subject: Detroit – was to be found on Djax, and remain impossibly potent, particularity his very first release, A Function Of Aberration.

Everything changes, though. As the years passed the grooves seemed to disappear from the records and they grew ever heavier, favouring a brutal acid techno style in which the BPM increasingly shot upwards, and left little room for anything but crunching, distorted beats and howling 303s. The more recent records inched into sub-gabber territory that felt alien to anything from the label’s glory period.

The label is still going, although the releases have become far more occasional that they once did. That’s not saying much, mind you. the output of LIES or Lobster Theremin seems occasional compared to Djax in their prime. Brilliantly though, and one more reason to love them if you needed one, is that they remain one of the biggest labels of their era to have got down with digital. You can certainly spend all you cash on Discogs hunting down playable copies of stuff by Acid Junkies or DJ Rush, but almost every release that mattered is available digitally. I could never afford to keep up with the label back then, I would still be paying the debts off even now, but if you have a few hours to spare, go see what’s there and treat yourself to music from a label who really did change our world.

Review: V/A – Mechatronica 1(Mechatronica Music)

There is something pleasingly ballsy in a brand new label choosing to dive right into the deep end of the electro pool rather than hanging around in the shallows testing the water. We all know that launching an electro label, even more than with techno and house, and regardless of the genre’s rising kudos, is one that might still not be a particularly easy sell. But still, if anything has been proved by the likes of CPU, Shipwrec, and Brokntoys in particular over the last couple of years, it’s that there is a thirst needing slaked for some finely warped mutant funk.

Mechatronica’s first release hits up some of the bigger names on the scene just now, such as Luke Eargoggle, Sync 24 and the increasingly prolific Privacy, along side a couple up and coming underground producers in Etcher and -=UHU=-. In terms of ideology its similar to the sort of thing Brokntoys have been doing of late with the excellent series of split EPs. The difference here is that where the Brokntoys records feel like differing ideas sparking off from the same, universal concept, Mechatronica 1 feels wider ranging, bringing in more of a mix to the job and placing artists together without so much of a common theme. Neither is a bad approach.

I meant what I said about diving right in there; this is music for the real electro heads, and doesn’t really give much quarter. Even so, there is perhaps a slightly lighter take on the genre here and there, incorporating elements across the four tracks which range from the genre in its purest form to something bordering on industrialised electro-pop to something altogether wider in scope.

The Eargoggle/Sync 24 collaboration brings together the two biggest names for Broken Electronix, as straight up a blast of pure electro as you could ask for, and it’s as good as you would expect from these lads. Whiplash snares, hissed robo-vox, and crunching, bass riffs build up a seething, uncoiling dose of late night mayhem which doles out floor mashing grooves and deep hypnotica in equal amounts. it’s not revolutionary in any way, but it doesn’t have to be. Rather, it’s a perfectly formed dancefloor weapon, tight and prowling, which is unfettered by a need to do anything but deliver. And it does that for sure.

-=UHU=- takes a slightly different approach with Never See. While the tune’s roots in early period Dopplereffekt are there for all to see (particularly with the dispassionate female vocals) it scuffs the whole lot up. It seems heavy, and it should feel darker than it does, but all those little Heinrich Muller touches are chiselled down, leaving some nasty sharp edges on which hang a gleefully poppy energy which is strangely amplified by the quirky yet brutal fizz of worn down beats and rivulets of beeps which flutter off into the murk.

A lot of the fun in the EP in fact is to be found in that sort of messing up of expectations and conventions, even when it’s more subtly done, such as on Privacy’s Miss You. While on the surface the tune seems very much from the contemporary school of deepness, there is something underlying which revokes much of that sub-genre’s calming tendencies and fills the spaces left behind with something more abrasive and cold. The beats too, so often the first casualty in the deepness wars, remain frosty and sharp, ripples across a pool of ice.

But its Etcher track, Super Translations, that best sums up this attitude. It rides out on the ghost of vintage Anthony Rother before, quickly, turning it around on its head, warming it with a pulsing humour and glimmer of almost disco-esque glamour, neatly swapping electro’s abstract exploratory nature for a bubbly, house-y groove. It’s quite unexpected and perhaps all the better for it.

Review: Konx-Om-Pax – Caramel (Planet Mu)

It seems weirdly inaccurate to describe Caramel, the first album by Glaswegian multimedia artist Tom Scholefield since 2012’s Regional Surrealism, as an ambient record. Not all ambient is beatless of course, and just as importantly not all beatless music is ambient. The truth is that while it certainly lies closer to that end of the spectrum than in does to the brute energy of the rave era it draws heavily from, there is something about it that doesn’t really sit well with such clean and pat categorization.

Part of that is to do with preconceptions, particularly of the sort which bully the thinking into trying to understand something which has no real basis in simplistic, straightened conventions. Much has been already said about the influence of old rave tapes upon the production of Caramel, of the refraction of the day-glo euphoria into the music and the way it has introduced a lighter energy compared to his previous work. While it is certainly true that there is a brightness across most of the productions, I’m not so sure ‘Lightness’ is the word for it. And I’m also not so sure that the influence is limited to the sonic side of things.

Perhaps in keeping with Scholefield’s other life as a visual artist, Caramel is at its strongest when it’s evoking an imagery which is not only based in ideas and memories of packed, sweaty, midnight warehouses, but something more altogether cinematic. The title track, an immense unfolding of rippling colour, is painted with the broad strokes of Vangelis – except instead of a swirling Bladerunner-esque sci-fi world, it draws on other sources, echoing not with the usual machinic imagery favoured by electronica and techno, but something that is more personal and yet communal. It surges with the feel of worship, of people drawn together by common purpose and common interest. Such a religious undercurrent has always seemed strangely fitting for the practice of losing your shit in a darkened room packed with like-minded fools, and that vibe is neatly encapsulated here.

Caramel also rolls that feeling on its head. Cosmic Trigger, for instance, shows similar leanings, but replaces the open vistas with the claustrophobia which is to be found at the point where euphoria crosses the line into nervous intensity. Frozen Border and Manhunter accent this further. Manhunter in particular, with its rationed beats and taut piano, is close to being the darkest thing on the album, and a reminder, if any were needed, that euphoria is not an entirely warm emotion, that is carries within it the possibility of losing control altogether.

But it’s these conflicting emotions which load Caramel’s charge, and lend the record a depth that is usually lost when memories of rave are invoked. The shortened length of many of the tracks work in the albums favour also, providing something like snapshots of a larger life in motion, or as chapters in a travelogue of a journey through states of being. Occasionally it tips over into a space where the abstract nature of some of the pieces seem to cloud the larger meaning and it loses some of the cohesion of the otherwise clear sense of direction, and now and again there is a slight desire to see more things warped and clipped and painfully, playfully, brought to life as on the searing Perc Rave. But more often than not these niggles tend to remind you of just how strong the rest of the record actually is. What’s more, they reinforce perhaps the most important thing about the album: that as far as drawing on the memories of the almost gone rave era goes, Caramel is a truer and more timely record than the masses of breakbeat photocopies currently doing the rounds.