Review: CEM 3340 – Polaris 1° (Lunar Orbiter Program)

OK, here’s a thing, had you asked me to describe my perfect electro I would have instinctively babbled on about dirty, nasty, beats, about darkside vocals, and the still potent thrill of techno-bass. For all the delicate, studied, tonality inherent in a lot of modern electro, I remain disappointed there isn’t more thunder and fire. It’s not that I don’t like a lot of it, it’s just I find myself lamenting the way the grooves have often become subsumed by a more patient and intellectualised approach.

Which is probably not a complaint you could level at Polaris 1° and its rough-housing blast of old school techno-bass and twisted electro. What we have here on this double debut (both the producer and the label are, to the best of my knowledge, brand new to the scene, although I suspect the producer may well turn out to be a well kent name) is the sort of electro which was once very common and now not so much. Beyond the obvious similarities to certain Direct Beat material, and peak period UR, it shares DNA with certain snarlers like Valve, Sole Tech or, at perhaps a bit more of a distance, Erotek and DJ Di’j’tal. There is even something of I-F and Murder Capital here.

A year ago I think this would have very much been an outlier, a record haunting the edge of what everyone else was doing. More recently though, there has been the beginnings of a resurgence of these stronger shapes and textures, and a renaissance for several of the above names as older material has slowly been rediscovered by a scene perhaps, like me, hungering for something a little bit more visceral.

All of this makes it sound as if Polaris 1° is dumb, route one music designed to be played fast, to floor it during a particular time of night. Well, yes, there is an element of that I suppose, especially on the first two tracks, Sedna and Salacya 2004, and it takes a couple of listens before the original image fades. Even still, the record hits all those same markers which made the first crop so thrilling back in the 90s.

But still, but still….Digging deeper reveals new layers. Beyond the heavy beats, the winding, lithe bass lines, there is something else at play here, something far more modern. I think this extra factor makes its presence felt most obviously in a couple of ways. Firstly, the over all sound is a world away from the sonic perfection of a lot of contemporary electro. It’s rough, harsh even; serrated by electronics and cut up more in the mix until it almost engenders an aural vibe not entirely dissimilar to what we’ve heard in lo-fi house. This sense is further amplified when the synths drop in. Sharp, often woozy, and always seemingly on the verge of splitting apart into shrapnel they add a strangely spectral energy to the music. Salacya 2004 in particular makes great use of them, and the way they roll out over the top of the barked, sore-throated, sawtooth riff simultaneously adds a gossamer grandeur to the track while leaving the meat free to really knock you down. Their use on Sedna is less centre stage, but still accents and shapes the fury. On the last track, Hygiea, they whisper and evoke memories of early, dirty, Dutch electro.

There is an argument that perhaps Polaris 1° is a little too perfectly ‘my sort of electro’, that the whole thing hits too many buttons to be anything other than cunningly studied, almost an homage to a whole bunch of memories. I’ll be honest, I can’t entirely be dissuaded from that. It also makes me wonder whether one of the reasons I like it so, so, much is because of a very real emotional connection to all the influences which went into it. Do I like it because I’m an old bastard and it does a job on me? Is this me turning into the old guy at work who likes modern bands because they sound like classic rock?

I think the answer is ‘yes, a bit’ but that isn’t the whole story. The music on Polaris 1° doesn’t entirely work those ageing synapses into a fugue state of memento mori. In reality, it’s a very modern take on an older sound, one which takes admirable liberties and augments it all with a sharp panache which leaves you knackered and happy. The fact that a lot of records used to sound like this doesn’t really detract from the fact that very few modern records do, and I quite like that about it. And if, at the end of the day, the worst thing you can say is that it’s a bit knowing, perhaps the best response is to admit that you know too, and then keep dancing. That’s the best response of all.

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Friday Night Tune: Space DJz – Lights

Like most people my tastes have changed over the years, often rolling from one extreme to another as experiences have washed over me. There are stacks of records here that I once would have thought of as some of the best music ever made, timeless examples of everything I thought was good in electronic music and other genres but now just sound tired and frayed, dated by the passing years, emptied and discarded like bottles of wine enjoyed long ago.

There were brief infatuations: various forms of rock and jazz I was momentarily obsessed by before quickly becoming bored; ambient records which once felt like indescribably beautiful sonic paintings which now sound like yawns timestretched across infinity; IDM tunes which soon dulled through their cleverness and lack of anything approaching passion or soul. There’s a lot of stuff in that pile. I really should get rid of some of it. I know I won’t. It’s as much a part of my musical upbringing as everything else.

There are, however, some things which I tired of but have found myself recently swinging back to. There was a long period where the idea of listening to crumbly acid techno wouldn’t have gone down well. It had been one of the staples when I was getting into all this for the first time. For what seemed an age it was everywhere; every club felt as if it was pulsing with this stuff and I slowly came to hate it. Not because of its popularity, but because, like weeds, it choked out every other sound. A little later the same thing happened with ghetto house. What was, at first, a thrillingly alien and explosive change of direction soon became the new and boring normal, and it reinforced a lesson learned – familiarity breeds contempt, and over-familiarity murders scenes. In both cases I’ve slowly returned to them, feeling sheepish but knowing that the new space around them has allowed them to shine once again.

At one point I found myself disliking fast, banging techno. Everything seemed to blur together into a beige mash where only the loudest, most strident, and frequently the most boring elements, made it through into your conciousness. I began to seek out slower music, a lot of deeper house and lush electronica. At first it was a pleasant and interesting diversion, but it couldn’t really hold my attention. Of course, the problem wasn’t really the music; having gorged myself on it for years I couldn’t stuff any more into my ears. Something had to give.

Yet faster, harder music is something I’ve also drifted back to. I think the surrounding tastes for acrid myths of deepness, coupled with a harsher world to the one I remember from even a few years back has found me seeking out something more visceral. Some people turn to sedative music when everything sharpens. I don’t. I’m not someone who dips into a Sunday reverie of gentle, good time-ish tunes.; too light a touch has always irritated my skin. Part of it is that I don’t think I’ve ever looked towards music for chills. It’s not that I wouldn’t want to, but I can’t really detach the music from the obsession long enough to reach that cloudy passivity. I tend to only relax when I’m utterly immersed in something, anything, be it music or reading or writing. It’s a kink in my particular make up, and I’m sure that it’s unhealthy, but I don’t care: it’s mine.

My rediscovery of Space DJz’ Lights awoke all kinds of competing emotions, as this was a tune I really did obsess over for a long time. I was already aware of Space DJz when the EP was released on Soma back in 1996, mainly because Jamie Bissmire was a name I’d followed for a while because of his work as part of Bandulu, one of the first non Detroit techno acts I really loved. The work he did with Ben Long was a different creation from Bandulu; closer to a prime time burst of speed and colour, but with enough shadows playing across the surface to provide the all important contrasts.

I used to spend entire afternoons playing Lights, using it as the basis of a mix, dragging it for hours in an out of dozens of other records. I found an old practice tape not long ago, with moments of Lights scattered across the whole 90 minutes, like a recurring motif in a long classical work. Sometimes it was a few seconds, just long enough to dip out of one tune and cue the next up, other times it was long minutes, flowing across the tape and marshalling everything else.

Lights is still a paragon of faster techno. It’s just about the perfect example. Hard techno often cuts in links with both soul and groove, but Lights is all about both. The speed of the tune – and at about 140 BPM it certainly sails along – tenses everything else; the pure born flutter and flurry of the Detroit-ish melodies, the touches of Spastik style percussion, and that strange little bass which is at once so neutral yet controls and dominates the light speed funk.

It’s a reminder that soulfulness in music doesn’t tend to come from conventional approaches, from jazzy touches and minor chords. Often, it’s the outliers which provide the real soul, and only reveal exactly how soulful when you let them get right into your face, and right under your skin. It’s also a reminder that while tastes change obsessions rarely do. The trick is to make sure they’re worth it.

Review: DJ Trump – Trumpin’ Trax Vol 1 (Black Beacon Sound)

Chief amongst the modern age’s extravagant weirdness is the lumbering orange gonk enthroned in the Whitehouse. Language has remained almost powerless to explain it. And now, even a year on, a large swathe of the planet still wakes up in the morning and begs an answer from whatever deity they hold sacred to give them an answer, an explanation, as to how the actual fuck Donald Trump became President of the United States of America.

Still, we’ve had a while to think on it and the responses are beginning to slowly drift out into the wider world. For electronica, a scene which has always seemed a bit reticent to involve itself in anything other than a handful of laudable causes, commentary is often sheltered if it’s there at all. The signs, though, are that this is slowly changing.

Which brings us here to Trumpin’ Trax Vol 1 by DJ Trump and a dose of satirical, cynical house music. Whether or not you’ve been waiting for a collection of tunes by a mysterious producer and featuring a narcissistic, tiny handed, manchild is neither here nor there. We needed some sort of response. We’ve got one now, and the spotlight burns bright over that awful, weird, haircut.

But how is the music? Interestingly, although the record’s label, its imagery and symbolism, would have you believe that it leans heavily towards the tight avenues of Dance Mania’s pugnacious, stomping sound, the music actually casts its net wider, and that energized DM feel provides only a small part of the power. Largely, this is dark, prowling, scything UK acid house; bleached by a glorious tongue in cheek cynicism, and tensed with rave’s tempering effect on homegrown acid.

Work The Box Trump The Box and Trump Dat revel in the fierce snarl of Armando doused 303s and crumbling kicks. The former stretching the garrulous rhythms until they pound your brain into tiny pieces with its dirty wobble, the latter throws itself straight up, harnessing the dripping clip of the acid lines to marshal some choice Trump vox. Its chorus of ‘dirty Trump, nasty Trump, filthy Trump’ pumps it beyond a simple acid kicker, the vocals locking it down into proper mid period Dance Mania filthiness and elevating it into the sort of demented Friday night anthem you never knew you needed. God, I can think of some parties where this would lock the floor solid.

Elsewhere, the format is finely kinked. Trump That Body evokes French Kiss’ sophisticated simplicity, but adds in more 303s and a ruffle of bright, primary, colour which gives it the feel of a maniacal euro-house banger going off on a real tangent. It’s a simple trick, but one done with real aplomb. It’s also quite, quite, insane; the wide grin of the music pulling heavily at the happy cheesiness at its heart. Ghetto Trump rolls out with a wild pitching burst of jacking house and is happy enough to just kick around, piling on the beats.

The two best tracks here are the ones which reach out further from their beginnings. American Carnage, again with snippets of the lummox in full, fecund, throw down, starts out as more primo acid, but slowly becomes more ambitious, building in collapsing riffs alongside the 303s and flavouring the smoky atmosphere with nitrous tang of hard, early techno and classic acid house.

Feel My Trumpin Bass is even better, and expands the sordid trip further with an accent on a sort of lithe, poppy, swagger which powers the mayhem. The acid is held slightly in check, allowing the tune to open up and build on interlocked themes and frills, rounding out the sound and drawing in a sense of shiny nihilism. It’s fresh enough you could envision it on Top Of The Pops. A really sick and twisted ToTP maybe, but ToTp nevertheless.

What gives the music its strength is the way that, although its riddled with dark humour, it never plays for laughs. Yeah, the kookiness of the name and the theme might give lie to the idea this is some sort of bleak novelty record, but it really isn’t; the snap and snarl of the music, the seriousness that sits at its heart quickly forces that idea out of your head. And if it still contains a slight feel of surreal art terrorism, then that is surely something which is more indebted to a sort of heavy KLF style playfulness than anything less biting. A record for our times, created from discontent. Buy it now and play your resistance loud.

Wee Reviews: Nachtzug – XP Lore (Possblthings), Diasiva – Station 1805 (Acroplane)

Well, Like I said the other day, I’ve been a bit drifty with regards to getting stuff done and the big pile in the corner is getting scary and wobbly. Luckily for me, if not for everyone else, the summer was a season of fairly slim pickings as all your favourite producers tootled off to Ibiza or wherever it is they go to cluster together in a great big techno-nest and jabber themselves to sleep with talk of cables and machines that go ‘wheep’.

Nachtzug – XP Lore (Possblthings)

Still, there’s been some decent stuff floating about. first up is Nachtzug. A German duo ( I think) who may not be overly familiar even though they’ve been tune-smithering for a decade or so. Most recently they cropped up with a fine release on Vortex Trax, and now appear on new label Possblthings with XP Lore, a record which comes at electro and techno from a slight tangent.

In fact, it might be best to describe XP Lore as an electro outrider. Although its core is very much electro, it skirts many of the more obvious sounds, reaching instead for a toolbox of influences that take in IDM, the waviness of early techno, and a rosey mist of ambient. Tunes such as Side Track and Cable Cake are tied tightest to the genre, and are both pretty darn good. Mixing crisp breaks with acidic grooves and flurries of angelic synths, they lock down their moods quickly to draw out some icy funk. Elsewhere the electro feel is toned down in exchange for a greater sense of IDM exploration. Komitee Kosmos danks down the speed until it becomes a slowly unfurling coil of shifting gothic emotions. Transmit rides a similar road, but stretches out a belt of acid to give it direction. While XP Lore never really convinces about what exactly it wants to be, it’s content to explore the shadows at the edges of a number of genres, doing so with a certain amount of panache.

Diasiva – Station 1805 (Acroplane Recordings)

A collaboration between Monolog and Swarm Intelligence, Station 1805 was very nearly victim to me not properly getting it at first. The first time it barked out the speakers at me I wrongly assumed it was going to be a slab of industrio-goth mentalness and I got ready to treat it accordingly. While my initial reaction was not entirely racing off in the wrong direction, there is a heck of a lot more going on that I first gave it credit for.

Once you dig below the crust of static and distortion, the leads and chords bent out of shape and the ricocheting beats, Station 1805 is a record of much invention.A lot of modern techno at the harder end of the circus has reached a point where grooves and funk have been almost surgically removed (well, as surgically as anything can be removed with a rusty penknife and lots of shouting) in order to cram as much bleak noise as possible into a limited frame-work. While Station 1805 feels at first as if it’s aiming for the same burning horizon, it actually veers away towards something very different.

It’s those very same ricochetting beats which make the difference, cutting through the clouds of noise with precision and giving the music a clarity of vision. Ethereal and Scrape are the biggest threats, both of them twisting the rhythms until the tracks lean away from raw techno, dragging out nuance from hardcore and jungle until they become pitch black slabs of alternative rave swaddled with echoing chiming insanity and dispassionate, cinematic, angles. Neckbrace ducks back into a tunnel-like 4/4 structure, and pumps out a nasty skanking mover which is reminiscent of 65D Mavericks’ sweet viciousness. Closer, Suffer Your Woes is a thick morass of despondent frequency, barely alleviated by the puncture-wound beats. It’s slow, heavy, and fascinating to witness. Like the back of some vast primordial rising through the brackish water it is thrilling and compelling and very unsettling.

Even so, it is the proto-grooves which keeps the music going. Not an easy feat in such a darkened and cloudy environment. And while Station 1805 is never going to be a record of choice for peak time escapades, there is a lot here to fire you up and out as the sun dips below the world’s edge.

Best Of The Represses – August 2017

Well, heck. I should admit something right now: I’ve kind of being running around a lot over the last month and have barely had time to look at any records at all, let alone gather up a sweet posse of represses. About the only one I’ve felt any real excitement about is the return of is DJ Bone’s Riding The Thin Line which I covered away back in what now feels like another life time but is now available from the linked site above as well as all your favourite stores. It’s a genuine classic and you’d be an idiot of sorts to pass it up. Elsewhere, the rumours of Direct Beat represses seem to actually have some truth to them, with the Aux 88 lads themselves revealing the existence of Direct Beat Classics, a new label which’ll print up a bunch of, uhh, Direct Beat classics. No news yet what records will actually be getting touched with a beam of magic sunlight but they’re pretty much all gold so it’ll be good whatever happens. Not quite so brilliant is the way the much vaunted Metroplex re-releases seem to have funtered out into nothingness. We had high hopes of some real doozies being pumped towards us, but the way in which the above mentioned DJ Bone release (originally on Metroplex) was shunted off to another label has us a wee bit concerned. Mind you, Juan Atkins has been rocking around the place for the last few months with his old muckers Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson on a big time Belleville Three tip so perhaps once all that’s over things will get going again. Anyways, Here’s some stuff I’ve snuffled around in for your perusal.

LNRDCROY – Unthank 8 (Unthank/Firecracker)

As regular readers probably know, I am apparently the last person on Earth who is still to be convinced by the merits of the whole Moodhut/Vancouver thing. I don’t get it. God I’ve tried, I really have, but far from feeling it as some sort of charge towards on-point futuro-authenticity it kind of strikes me as the soundtrack to a really underwhelming afternoon in the sort of coffee shop that chunders on about how they roast their beans before selling you a thimble of tepid, bitter, bum water for a fiver. AAAND relax….

I exaggerate (mostly), and their have been one or two records over the last couple of years which I’ve almost liked, and there have indeed been a smaller subsection of those which were pretty darn good actually. Chief amongst these have been LNRDCROY releases, either complete records or occasional tracks cropping up elsewhere. This repress is of his 2015 release on Unthank, a label which goes to almost insane lengths to provide the sort of overall experience in terms of artwork and all that jazz which makes you want to weep at all the blank-label-with-stamp records you own. It is a fitting union for LNRDCROYS deep, fluid meditations, and this is one of those releases where the concept of ambient really does harken back to a concept of space and beauty.

Both Donny On The River, and Freedom For Antboy II pitch and yaw in the nothingness, rising and falling with simple emotions which keep them hanging there in starlight. Terragem’s silken thunder, in comparison, is far more direct, and reaches back towards both early techno and the first steps of IDM to cook up a tune which sounds like a long-lost warehouse anthem still dancing on in the ruins of a carpet factory somewhere on the M25 even though a million sunrises have come and gone since a strobe last flickered across it. Beautiful and gentle, and utterly entrancing.

Gemini – On The North Star (Peacefrog)

As great as Peacefrog’s run of represses have been I’ve found it a little hard to get excited about them all, particularly knowing that the records from their back catalogue I’d love to see re-releases seem to be forever just out of reach. As cute as a lot of the house they recently restored to our record players has been, it’s done nothing to alleviate the hunger I’ve got for some of their techno from bods like Luke Slater, DBX, or Purveyors Of Fine Funk. And the fact they still haven’t gotten around to repressing Eddie Flashin Fowlke’s quite frankly brain squashingly brilliant Stella 2 is a crime, an actual crime.

Still, having said all of that, they have repressed On The North Star, a record which in my opinion is quite possibly the best thing Gemini ever did. I wrote about it way back in 2014 not long after I started doing the blog and it’s been a constant around these parts for many years.

Part of North Star’s beauty is the way in which it isn’t really a Chicago record. While it certainly has all the hallmarks of its home city, it actually draws from further afield for influences on which to build its magic. Most obviously, perhaps, is how techno it actually sounds; there are moments on North Star where the universe falls away leaving only the faintest tug of gravity to keep the music on course as it reconfigures itself into some of the finest high-tech soul to ever not come out of Detroit. Elements of it feel closer to Kenny Larkin or Octave One than to Paul Johnson or Glen Underground, and it’s probably heretical to suggest that it’s all the better for it.

Aside from the crackling heft of X, this is a record which places an amazing importance on the way melody interplays with the grooves, as if one could not fully exist without the other. Day Dreaming and Snow Drop both haunt a hazy world, following their own quizzical natures, but neither are mere wistful dawdling; the rhythms in both are complex, frequently flipping on their axis to drive a sophisticated funk. A Blue Night is Rhythim Is Rhythim whittled down to the barest components, the extra space filled with moonlight. This is house music as something utterly new – an alien, forward facing hybrid which was reaching out to the future. And I don’t think it ever got as close again. Pick it up now before it’s too late.

Model 500, 3MB – Jazz Is The Teacher (Metroplex)

**********STOP THE FLIPPING PRESS****************

Literally just as I was writing the nonsense above, my good friend Terminal313 alerted me to this which I had pretty embarressingly missed. What can you say about Jazz Is The Teacher? I wrote about it way back last summer, and I still stand by every word. This is one of a handful of genuine classics which went on to become one of the hallmarks of the genre. It did so because instead of coming to ecapsulate a particular time or scene, it instead became a sonic symbol for everything techno was supposed to be, that meeting ground between soul and art and electronics, their bonds tightened by a shared hopefulness and romantic notions of ‘tomorrow’. And quite aside from all that it remains, after a quarter of a century, one of the most recognizable techno tunes ever written. It’s not just that track which is legendary: Bassmental is both pounding and delicate like strands of frequency unspooling from a cooling supernova, and Cosmic Courier is very possibly better than Jazz Is The Teacher, an almost Platonic ideal of Detroit techno, a dream quest through the singularity. As collaborations go, I doubt whether this group of Atkins, Mauriz Von Oswald and Thomas Fehlmann will ever be bettered.