Friday Night Tune: Robert Hood – Unix

The heavy mass of genres and styles which have influenced electronic music are well known, and we’ve been subjected to plenty of guff about it over the years. I used to be surprised by the amount of producers willing to spraff on about their affinity with hairy-arsed, self involved, proggy bollocks in interviews, or the sort of harsh krautrock which sounds like a psychology experiment gone wrong. You don’t see so much of it nowadays. I don’t imagine this is because there is any less desire to out oneself as a fan of the sort of music which makes you question your life choices, but more because – simply – the years have rolled on enough that the influences have changed in a way which allows this stuff can be consigned to the past.

There was, I think, another reason for it. By claiming a lineage to music which had undeservedly gained a reputation as somehow intellectually and musically superior, you are sticking your own flag in that endlessly trodden ground. In the earlier days, when you could get yourself into pointless arguments with all sorts of indy knobs and snobs once it was known your tastes in tunes ran to stuff that went doof and squelch, it was natural to adopt a defensive position, to pretend that your taste was important.

It was the same reasoning which led people down that boring little road where they squirted all that pish about 126 bpm being at the same speed as the human heartbeat, as if they were welding their love for acid house to a shamanic tradition which predated the fall of Atlantis. It’s interesting to note that although this sort of thinking had thankfully been battered around the head over here, as even the indy kids realised that electronic music wasn’t some weird virus that would turn you into one of those day-glo rave clichés you used to see upsetting farmers and Tories on the 9 0’clock News, the growth of EDM across the pond has fostered a resurgence. I imagine the circumstances are the same. As electronica fans over there have begun to admit it, they’ve probably been having to explain it to the sort of people who still think Rage Against The Machine are the cutting edge of underground music.

Still, that’s by the by. I’m lucky enough that both the prog rock and the dodgy heart based symbolism were things I missed. It’s not that I didn’t have arguments with Neds Atomic Dustbin fans who were strangely angry I liked techno, but more that I never realised I was supposed to be embarrassed about liking it. I did, however, find moving on to house and techno a natural progression from the music I had already been listening to. While nowadays we tend to remember the role disco played in the evolution of so much electronic music, we remain a bit reticent about giving soul its due. It’s there, though; particularly in the development of Detroit techno, for obvious reasons. In Britain these links were perhaps even stronger – the Northern Soul movement of the late 60s and the 70s was in many ways a massive precursor for rave and acid house, and the two are tied together in a common heritage.

But it was punk that I found to be the closest. Perhaps not in sound, nor in the popular meaning. It’s a difficult task to recognise the symbolism of peace and love and unity in the hard cynicism of Nation Of Ulysses or Scratch Acid; it’s virtually impossible to draw a line from Barbara Tucker’s luscious vocals to Steve Albini’s harsh sneer (and I bet that’s the only time in history you’ll see both of those names in the same sentence.)

It’s there though, the common heart, and the energy. And when I listen to a lot of Robert Hood’s earlier music it jumps out at me. I’ve written about Hood’s minimalist take on techno plenty of times before, the way he takes a tune and pares it down until nothing is left but a lean and furious groove. Many people tried to imitate him, but very few got close. There was always the need to throw something else into the mix which alleviated the almost terrifying starkness of the sound. And when that happens, the music loses its edge.

Rather than house, or even the great mass of techno (Detroit or otherwise) I’ve always felt that Hood’s tunes have a kindred spirit with the hardcore of Fugazi. The DC band often showed a similar take on sound, even though they came at it from a very different direction. Their own militancy, their anti-authoritarian stance, and fierce independence echoed something of Hood’s first band, Underground Resistance, and their music contains that same approach, the same stripped down, lean grooves powered by a compressed rage and potent, erudite, take on the world around them. That their tunes were largely powered by some of the greatest bass and drum patterns in rock music has often been overlooked as people focussed on Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto’s sharp lyrics, but Brendan Canty’s drums, and Joe Lally’s bass provided direction, and control, and – most techno of all, perhaps – a strange, alien sense of melody and completeness.

I’ve often felt that Fugazi’s seminal Repeater – one of the greatest records of the 90s – is what Hood may well have come up with had he been into punk instead of techno. Sometimes we look for links in places which are too direct, too obvious to really make sense. Often its only when we get past the surface noise and concentrate on the energy, the vibe, and the meaning, that we begin to realise that inspiration, influence, rarely comes from where we expect it too, and that sometimes we have far more in common with those who are supposed to be strangers than with those we are supposed to recognize as our own.

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Review: Cignol – Hidden Galaxies (Computer Controlled Records)

Although it might seem as if Computer Controlled Records have a dedication to keeping the flame of a particular form of old school techno and acid alive, it’s not really something that bears up to close scrutiny. Although the label are unlikely to give the likes of Lobster Theremin or LIES stiff competition in terms of quantity, each of the their records so far have certainly helped define and strengthen a place within the current scene where rawer and differing forms of house and techno can flourish. I think this is partly possible because the music, far from being simple facsimiles of stuff you would have heard in late 90s clubs, takes the basic sounds and reforms it into something that understands standing still isn’t really an option, that the music has to evolve in order to retain both its relevance and its potency.

It’s a tricky thing to ask of a producer, and even more tricky to pull off. Irish producer Cignol’s début on the label is one which, at first listen, seems pleased to deliver a straight up dose of acid techno. But it doesn’t take too long for other forms to start unfurling underneath the 303s.

Essentially this is acid which has been subjected to a concerted blast of information, opening its eyes to the wider possibilities of the changing sonic world. Although the acid provides a true foundation for Cignol’s increasingly complex take on the genre, it never becomes dominant – which is an interesting fact in itself given the ubiquitousness of the little silver box across the EP’s five tunes. Tracks like Final Approach, or Galway Acid Are imbued with rolling acid lines, and certainly hark back to the mix of techno, acid, and trance which was once to be found in some of the wider ranging and less frenetic Harthouse releases. But what makes things different here, and adds a deepened, widened, take on the genre is that interplay of icy, gossamer melody. At times, especially on Galway Acid where a certain suggestion of heavy energy weights the tune towards a particular breed of classic Chicago acid, it loosens up the tight, compressed grooves, shuttling mood upwards and unlocking a sense of grainy, introspective drama.

In fact, it’s this which is the dominant theme, and it’s well partnered by Cignol’s sense of movement which makes great use of a much lighter touch than we typically find in acid house of any era. For all the little genre hallmarks which are scattered around, Hidden Galaxies has more in common with the likes of Versalife, Morphology, or – in particular – ERP: artists who have taken techno, electro and IDM and sliced out many of the more obvious approaches and added a cinematic sense of place and time to the music.

It’s particularly evident on the gracious, swirling and break beat powered electro of No Reply From 806 – a deep, noirish tune which folds in on itself and lets little light escape. The grooves hatch from the half-space between the acid lines, but draw their energy from the dizzy roll of the cold, lost pads. Submerged Aegis is a note harsher – a crushed rave anthem falling through time, but propelling itself towards a frozen dawn. It’s a gorgeous and unsettling fantasy; the 303s kept slowly coiling around the flickering melody and the beats rising to fill the emptiness.

Anyone looking for solid acid bumpers are going to come away feeling a little lost, a bit out-of-place. Hidden Galaxies isn’t a record which plays to the genres strengths. It does quite the opposite. It takes certain elements and sends them scurrying and hunting towards a far larger, and colder, horizon. It stops short of breaching the barriers of IDM perhaps, but this is a good thing I think. It remains recognizable in tone and texture, but almost effortlessly shows how the music can find a new place amongst the vistas of a much larger world if it’s allowed to stretch it body and its mind. Excellent, sublime, and unexpected acid house from a dark and haunted future.

Review: DJ Spider And Franklin De Costa – F Planet (Berceuse Heroique)

I’ve grown a little jaded about techno over the last few months, a little weary of what is beginning to feel like a game of generics where a host of electronic men-in-black seem increasingly tied into a competition where the aim is to out donk each other, to create sounds where the individual tunes can only be differentiated by how much more TECHNO!!! they are than the last. There are no doubt a number of doozy old reasons for this (and those reasons include the possibility I am talking out of my arse), but the first and foremost suspect is the old killer of all genres – a lack of imagination.

Not that this is something you could really accuse either DJ Spider or Franklin De Costa of. Both of them have shown many times a taste for deep, fluid, and effective techno which, while orbiting the familiar take on the genre we all know and occasionally love, tends to travel to more esoteric worlds, propelling the music with sounds drawn from a wider range of sources than whatever’s fallen out of Berghain or Tresor recently.

F Planet marks the duo third (I think?) collaboration together, and in some senses it feels like a continuation of work begun on the two Genetically Modified Tracks Eps previously released on Killekill. Actually, ‘continuation’ is probably the wrong word. There is a greater sense of evolution. Where the Genetically Modified was, in turn, aggressive, funky, and playful (the still phenomenal Buzzaw remains a case in point) F Planet approaches with a far away look in its eye.

Overall, perhaps, the music is more mature and rounded. It doesn’t lose sight of the funk – both the original tracks here retain a rare ability to move your feet as well as you ears – but the rawness, the ground down, ragged steel that was once more apparent, has been newly tempered, folded in on itself to provide a stark emotional foundation which has allowed the duo to simply do more and take the music further.

Part of this is down to a noticeable absence of Proper Techno Nonsense: No light sucking kick drums, no perc which sounds as if it was rendered from field recordings of bin lorries at work; no attempt to retrofit the music to a particular template. Even in its harsher moments (and there are, still, enough to rattle your skull) F Planet revels in a subtle vibe grown out of a deepened well of influences. You can feel the gritty soulfulness of East Coast deep house in it, as if the music of DJ Q or Joey Anderson had washed against it in the depths of night; there are little kinks: half observed flashes of old style low countries techno, signal bursts from the mid west, cold frosts of the bleakest of noir soundtracks.

The two original tracks excel at creating a tightening hold on the imagination. F Planet and Astral Pilot rattle between a dark snarl and a far more shimmering, icy, energy where they delve into cold fogs and claw unsettling beauty from the mists. Astral Pilot is a touch less biting than the sibling, particularly when, about three minutes in, it begins to unfurl thick pads over the top of the haunted groove. The Shifted Remix of F Planet is, perhaps understandably, a more conventional affair. Hardly surprising considering the way the original takes pleasure in wrong footing you between its growl and its sighs. It’s still a damn good attempt, heavier in mood than either of the original tracks, but suffers from the way in which it straightens the alien curves which led you out into the weird hinterlands. But the way in which it screws down into its own, odd path through the shadows makes it easy to forgive. Another deep hit of occult techno from a duo who are really beginning to think as one.

Best Of The Represses (Sort of) October 2017

One of the drawbacks of focussing on vinyl reissues is that it quickly becomes difficult to see the wood for the trees. Over the last couple of years we’ve been blessed with a lot of represses. Some of them have been interesting, most have been OK, and a very small number have been superb examples of labels going for broke in providing us with occasional items of genuine splendour. This year Clone’s reprint of its Le Car retrospective, Auto Reverse, Warp’s sterling repress of Lifestyles Of The Laptop Cafe , and Boidae’s remastered collection of work by The Mover stand out as releases that have hit all the right marks. These records represent not only simple re-releases of old material recently commanding high prices on various on-line vinyl bazaars, but also as examples of how good it is when you see some love and slightly left-of-centre thinking put into it.

It’s not always like that, though. Too often represses are hawked out to labels who, regardless of their actual intentions, seem to delight in poor presses, sound quality, or even a lack of any of the original art. This last one might not seem important – we are talking about an aural medium after all – but for many people buying new copies of these old records the artwork remains an important hook, something that elevates the record to new territory.

Electronica remains a strangely fecund environment for represses; the nature of the genre, it’s reliance on limited original presses of 12″s, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them nature of so many of the acts and labels, and the fact that, particularly in the earlier years, it was a genre which took the ethos of true label independence to a level perhaps unseen since the thirties, meant that for most of us a lot of the music we heard out and about, and perhaps only fleetingly, is largely lost, except perhaps to a small, select group. Compare this with rock music where it seems even the most forgettable third album by whatever 90s outfit you care to name is kept in circulation forever because the labels are large, wealthy and – most importantly here – stable enough to do this and it’s no wonder that electronica is thriving on represses. Whether the hunger stems from rekindled memories or a desire for musical education, the need so many of us have to reconnect has led to heavy archaeology in the garden of lost musical treasures.

But while a remastered vinyl reissue probably represents the best everything, we tend to forget it isn’t the only way to get your hands on old music. Discogs, eBay, and other markets has given us unparalleled access to the originals. Whatever your views and experiences, you can’t argue against what the opportunity provides, even if your choice 50 quid slab of early nineties Dance Mania arriving packed in what appears to be crisp packets does take a bit of the excitement off.

A lot of labels have realised that there is a thriving market in sticking out old material in digital form. For those of us less bothered by the need to hold the holy artefacts in out hands this has turned out to be a godsend. You can pick up superb music from a galaxy of great labels relatively cheaply, passing on cash to the label rather than to some insane Discogs weird-boy. The downsides are in the quality control. For every label who works hard to create a decent transfer, there is another content to stick a scabby vinyl rip up and charge for it.

I’m slowly coming around to the idea that buying from Bandcamp might eventually be the best of the lot. Aside from feeling virtuous that the larger portion of you money is going to the labels and, increasingly, the producers themselves, it seems to be on its way to becoming an archive of the lost and unusual. There is so much good stuff there if you look for it. Unfortunately, this is Bandcamp’s Achilles heel: its search function remains, to put it bluntly, shite. Whether it stems from a slightly hipster-ish desire to dump you in a realm of music with the intention of having you blindly stumble into things, or whether it’s simply because a decent, modern, search function is beyond them, I don’t know. What I do know is it can be needlessly hard to get anywhere unless you know exactly what you’re looking for.

It’ll get better as more people use it, I expect. With the likes of Underground Resistance currently working themselves up to getting material on the site, and a host of producers coming around to its tangible benefits, this side of Bandcamp will grow exponentially. Whether it’ll ever replace the thrill of buying a long desired 12″, I can’t say. Probably not – there’s a thrill there that digital files can’t really replace. What is certain though is that it’s about time we started widening our horizons to the possibilities because a reliance on physical represses by the largest labels will ultimately limit us to an increasingly small pool of music, and may well see some real treasures lost forever. Next time you’re thinking of splashing out on the 150th repress of Acid Trax with one slightly different mix on it from the last one you bought, why not just buy it digitally and use the savings to buy some wicked tunes from the past that you might not necessarily have gone for from Discogs? Even better, remember that today’s new music is tomorrow’s old, and support some up and coming label or producer who are doing good stuff right now. Why wait 20 years before recognizing the talent in front of you?

Oh yeah, I’m supposed to be writing wee reviews on this, aren’t I? well, I’ve pretty much spunked my word count today so we’ll just have the one.

Being – July 1995

Dave Paton is probably better known these days for his work as Wee DJs, but 20 years back he was known as Being and was responsible for some quite crazy music. It’s difficult to know with Being’s stuff quite where the ambient ends and something harsher, less ethereal begins, but it’s this tightening in the throat and gut which makes July 1995 such as great compendium. In many ways it’s of its time: rougher, heavier rather than deeper, but lost in a universe of its own creation. It has the feel of a truck load of slightly broken machines singing songs, and whispering threats, to each other, but it’s never less than utterly captivating.

From Shify’s fluid, jazz touched, and increasingly snarling ride into the vacuum, to Berl’s compressed, zero-point wobble July 1995 mixes up its influences. You can feel Detroit’s silver spirit floating high over the music, and little quick silver flows of dub, true old-school ambient, and something even more esoteric cut their courses through the precise and haunted emptiness of the tunes. This is electronica like you don’t really get any more. It’s utterly disinterested in the ways of the world, entirely content creating fresh and lonely horizons to explore.

My favourite here is Cat, a deep and pulsing exemplar of a particular, (and increasingly forgotten) strand of UK electronic music which, rather than recoil from the dancefloor, understood that those same touches that made you want to move your body could also make you want to move your mind. Absolutely sublime.

I met Dave once. It was in Drummonds in Aberdeen in 94 or 95. He was a friend of a friend. Played a blinder of a set. Asked me to swap seats to he could keep an eye on his gear. True story. What lives we lead.