Review: Second Storey – Bismuth (Houndstooth)

Sometimes when I hear claims that a producer is straddling the lines between various genres I get a strange tingle of worry. Part of that is probably a hangover from the sort of thinking that gives us adages like ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ and all the other fun, doom laden epithet we enjoy flinging around when the devil is in us. Whatever the reasons, it’s probably deeply churlish of me, and the fact is that modern British electronic music has, perhaps more than almost any other national scene, got where it has largely because there has always been a fantastic refusal to stay in one place, and a serious, almost pathological, desire to chuck as many different influences into the pot just for the hell of it.

While Alec Storey’s first release on Houndstooth since last year’s One Sound/Layer Lock 12″ arrives with such claims already in place, promises of music which draws on electro, bass, and IDM for sustenance, the exciting thing isn’t that the sounds here nod between the various genres with abandon. Rather, there is a steadfast refusal to duck too far towards any one sonic theme and Bismuth is at its best when it’s seeking out a commonality of mood and energy rather than anything as simplistic as tones and chord changes.

In fact, while the record may indeed be rooted in UK Bass (like IDM, an increasingly meaningless catch-all term) for much of its heft, it never ceases to throw shadows under the grainy light of classic electro. Not only electro, to be truthful, for there are flecks of vintage Detroit techno here and there, and more than just traces of the joyful experimentalism once so prevalent in electronica in the years following acid house’s rise where big dollops of ravey energy were worked into the sound.

But through it all, Second Storey never let’s go of something that is entirely of his own making. While the influences are bold, they are relegated to the grunt work instead of being held up as the heroes there often made out to be elsewhere. Opener Bismuth carries a vibe that is recognizable enough, but it’s refracted through the claustrophobic atmospherics, ably assisted by the taut, lashing drums and snaking melodic touches which feed into little motifs which saturated the tight groove with bittersweet and fragile aura. Vapour Valve in turn, carries less of its brethren’s clarity, but makes up for it once it gets going with a vintage slice of silicon funk, endlessly ducking and rising, until it eventually seems to fracture away in its own wide-eyed lunacy.

Even when the music leans more towards the purer end of his sound, as on the compressed, no-nonsense Grand Rapid, or is stretching things out to a delirious degree across Helicat’s shattered vistas, it’s all underpinned by the feeling that Second Storey understands it isn’t the eclecticism of his tastes that gives the music life, but the fact that underneath the aural costumes and theatrics the energy all comes from the same place. UK music is in rude health just now, but Bismuth stands out in particular as a record which encapsulates much of what makes the scene not only so exciting, but vital too. This is proper mutant funk.

Review: Adjowa – Heartstrung (Happy Skull)

Although Bristol has long been one of those British provincial towns that can boast a strong local scene there has been a definite surge over the last couple of years which has seen their mix of house, techno and other, wilder, influences reach out to become one of the defining movements of the moment. While Happy Skull are still a young label, they have increasingly come to define a sound which not only has its roots in Bristol’s flourishing clubs and artists, but help mount a challenge to the pre-eminence of the larger musical centre of London. Strong 12s by the likes of Marco Bernardi, Creta Kano and the not long departed but very much missed Andreas Gehm have all pointed to refreshingly varied tastes and influences, while Rhythmic Theory’s Decadence Of Delay remains one of my favourite releases of the last few years.

Adjowa returns to the label for the first time since 2013’s 8 Ball with Heartstrung, a three tracker which, in many ways, picks up where the previous release left of. Where 8 Ball though was a slice of acid tinged cosmic disco, Hearstrung is harder to place, seemingly less content with stalking familiar territory or leaving influences unruffled. At first I was really only aware of a similarity across the three tunes – a heady sense of melody and form which seemed to take its lead mainly from the admittedly pretty yet slightly cold Hearstrung. The track itself borders on new age house (if we’re still using that term,); a gentle, lilting piece of careful arrangement, studded by misty drums and punctuated by the occasional thunder-clap of snare. While it takes an eternity to make its presence felt, it eventually opens into something which mixes the atmospherics into the subtlest of grooves.

And while there is indeed a certain commonality of mood and texture across all three tracks, the other two broaden that theme, rolling in more eclectic elements which bring to life something which was all but dormant in Heartstrung. Sylvie Always Goes In does indeed broaden the approach, only to immediately narrow it down again into a deeply effective shuffle-stepper which loses the carefulness and replaces it with bursts of verbed out acidic squirts, and injects a similar DNA to classic Carl Craig. The melodic touches, so much the focus in the first track, better accent the mood of midnight adventures and journeys under sodium lights.

Penny Black, like the opener, takes a while to fully warm to its vibe. But when it does it unfurls quickly into something very different, its loose-hipped funk rivalling Sylvie Always’… heightened sense of quiet wander. Part of what makes Penny Black such a charmer is that it rarely – if ever – gives into any desire to pump the groove up with artificial grit, instead allowing the warmth, humour and life to shine out. It’s the sunny day to Sylvia’s.. dusky travels, and floats happily in the sure knowledge that it dinks the vibe just right.

Friday Night Tune: Orbital – Halcyon

While Top Of The Pops, that global brand of schmaltz, cringe, and well, well, WELL dodgy hosts (as we would later discover) was for many of us an important staple, and a part of our musical education – no matter how hard we try to pretend otherwise – the simple fact is that by the early 90s it was pretty much dead in the water. There are many reasons for this, declining sales of singles and the increasing irrelevance of the Top Ten chief amongst them, but I have often wondered whether the real reason is very simple. It just didn’t matter anymore.

Even during the late 70s, when punk was on the up, and when the BBC could have been forgiven if they had shied away from the noise of wannabe anarchists, the preaching of teenage socialists and the inanity of Dadaist art posturing, they still rose to the challenge. A quick glance of the acts who graced the ToTP soundstage during the era shows a remarkable amount of bands who were full of these qualities. Aside from those you might expect to be allowed through the door like The Undertones or the Buzzcocks, there were also some more out-there acts: The Vibrators, Iggy Pop, X-ray Spex, Sham 69 and The Stranglers all played (well, ‘mimed’ is technically more accurate). Some even did the show more than once.

What was probably missed at the time though, was that punk and what came after it might not have led to an immediate change in music itself, but had a profound effect in the fracturing of youth culture. It was really a watershed moment for the idea of music as something infinitely smaller and personal, something reflected in the growth of the indy scene where bands who might well have had a large enough level of popularity on their own terms were never going to compete with the big acts and labels when it came to sales. They began to vanish from the public eye as the industry began the splinter into ever smaller shards. In a way that had been hinted at for years, but never really commented on, music broke along a fault line into two parts – music that was commercial, and music ‘that mattered’. And the crossovers which had always been so important went into decline.

By the time we got into watching ToTP on a regular basis in the late 80s, it was far less of the near religious experience it might have been a decade earlier. TV listings in newspapers were scanned the day of the show in a hope that we might find out whether someone worth watching would be on it. Sometimes you got lucky, like when a visibly wurzelled Kurt Cobain improvised the words to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit‘ when Nirvana played, or when someone like the KLF or Happy Mondays would appear, weirdly, from the pages of one of the music papers and look strangely and deliciously, out-of-place. Mostly though, it was Cliff, and Sheena Easton. Sometimes at the same time. Christ.

But while the BBC may well have considered many of these young bands dangerous enough to keep at a bit of arms length (somewhat ironically considering what they were allegedly letting their presenters get up to), the arrival of house music simply seemed to confuse them. If acid house and techno acts had found the cool, indy-centric nature of the British music press a difficult enough challenge, the BBC were at another level entirely.

We knew this would be the case without having to be told it. It was, after all, a chart show and if the acts didn’t chart we couldn’t expect them on. Even in those days when house and techno were shifting in volumes that are impossible to imagine now they weren’t usually being sold through the vendors and distributors which transformed sales into the official music industry approved figures which mattered. Even at the most basic level, that of the performance, BBC producers must have had strokes over the idea of putting a spotty, bald herbert in a crap t-shirt on television when all they were going to do was ponce off behind a couple of Roland boxes. Who can blame them? We’re not talking about the Stones at Hyde Park here.

The brilliant and scary thing though is that, eventually, that’s exactly what they did. While house music was never (and never is) going to be embraced in the same way rock music, or even rap, was, certain acts began to sell enough through the regular channels that it became impossible for even the Beeb to shy away from this alien youth movement which was filling the heads of so many young people with dubious ideas about dungarees and bandanas. Gradually, and with all the obvious hunger of a man offered a monkey’s arse for his dinner, The BBC allowed house music into the club.

The effect was slight in the great scheme of things, yet it was brilliant. 808 State were first. Long one of the darlings of the indy press it was a sensible enough choice. In fact, Farley Jackmaster Funk – a true Chicago hero – had been the real first way back in 86. But 808 State were different. We knew who they were. They were followed over the next couple of years by bands like Altern8, the Orb, Frankie Knuckles, Bizarre Inc and other until the music industry began to latch on with its usual vampiric self-interest and these trailblazers were replaced with an endless procession of commercialised house.

Orbital got on early. Their debut, Chime, reaching number 17 and won them a spot on the show for which, famously, they had to quit their jobs to appear on as their boss wouldn’t give them the time off. This was why they were important. They weren’t a ‘proper’ band. They were a couple of lads cooking up tunes at home who got that chance. How brilliant is that? Radiccio, the follow-up from which Halcyon is taken, charted lower and only just hit the top 40. That doesn’t matter, though, because it’s still a knock out track, swimming into existence on the back of that famous sample from Opus III’s It’s A Fine Day (Opus III also appeared on the show, pop fans!)

ToTP is long gone now, passing into legend after a period of self parody and darker, less pleasant truths. Even though house and techno’s moment under the ToTP studio lights was as brief as brief can be, they set the stage for everything that dominated the show for many years afterwards. My one regret is that the Aphex Twin was never on. That would have been the TV moment to beat all.

Best Of The Represses – July 2016

In which the scribe gets a bit excited over a pair of proto-Drexciyan artefacts, shakes his head sadly at unfortunate coincidence, and ponders whether or not this whole repress thing is beginning to spunk itself out now that you can get Acid Tracks on the NHS, and everyone is pretending they’ve ALWAYS, like, LOVED Arthur Russel, before finally wondering away to gaze wistfully for a while at a pile of broken Direct Beat records and wish that licensing issues weren’t a thing.

LAM – Balance Of Terror (Clone Aqualung)

Although it has been available digitally for quite a while, this is the first vinyl repress of LAM’s Balance Of Terror since 2003 and arrives freshly remastered from those lovely folk at Clone. Originally released on Robert Hood Hardwax label and now mainly famous for being the original partnership of Gerald Donald and James Stinson before they went off and changed the world as Drexciya, Balance Of Terror is a fierce slab of techno which lies closer in spirit to the sort of stuff Hood was doing with Mills as H&M, or what UR was up to in 1992 than what Donald and Stinson would go on to accomplish. That said, and taking into account the fact it’s beginning to sound a tiny, teeny, bit ‘of its era’, there is still a hell of a lot to get your teeth into, not least the embryonic touches of a sound that would later be fully developed and deployed on the front lines of the techno wars. More than just a curiosity, it’s an important document of a sound and genre on its way to greater things.

Glass Domain – Glass Domain (Clone Aqualung)

Wait, what? Two Clone Aqualung represses at the same time? are you crazy? Gerald Donald’s solo flight here from 1991 is a slightly odd blend of old-school electro, synth pop and, err, general weirdness, particularly on the quite frankly bizarre Hiccups where the vocalist, um, hiccups a lot and seems constantly on the verge of breaking into a Spike Milligan impression. Elsewhere the music tends to be a bit more restrained than Donald’s later work generally is, although Shatter Prone remains a thrilling slice of barely controlled, hard-assed Detroit thunder (and one of the records few moments that show where his tastes were going, even back then. A less complete experience than the LAM record perhaps, but without a doubt an important release. Anyone interested in the development of modern electro and techno should probably get a copy sharpish before it vanishes back into the ether.

Suicide – Suicide (Superior Viaduct)

Re-released just a couple of short weeks before Alan Vega’s passing, this is about as timely a reminder of Suicide’s unique and quite frankly sonically terrifying heritage as you’re going to get. For anyone new to the duo’s weird charms it makes sense to start with the very first album. Mixing synth pop, industrial noise, and post-punk with Vega’s loose, languid poetry Suicide were the forerunners of so many bands and genres that they have a shot at being one of the most influential bands in history. Even a brief listen to their drawn out, drum machine punctuated genius should be enough to convince you that, without them, electronic music would surely have sound very different. Aside from anything else, it’s an opportunity for me to post a vid of Frankie Teardrop – a legendary monster of a tune (although, to be honest, I don’t know if ‘tune’ is really the word for it). I’m not sure if this has been remastered but considering the scuzzy beauty of the original recordings I’m not sure it would really be an improvement.