Review: V/A – Mechatronica 5 (Mecahtronica)

OK, let’s not waste any time on small talk.

Various Artists – Mechatronica 5 (Mechatronica)

I’m always happy to admit that I really like Mechatronica. For a label which is still very much an embryonic project, each release has been a delight in the way it adds another clue to where this Berlin based outfit are going. Whether they really have a grand plan for all of this I don’t know. What I do know is that their slender output has been pretty impressive so far, and their love of the Various Artist mini compilation has provided us with a far broader body of work that one could ordinarily expect from such a young project.

So far we’ve seen the likes of Dez Williams, Privacy, Luke Eargoggle, and a host of others dropping cuts on the label which both reinforce and take apart our idea of what electro is. And here at the outset of 2018 they’ve provided us with a snap shot of the genre’s health as we head into what I suspect might well become a very strange year for electro, what with the increasing ‘I’ve always been into it’ jabber of chancers from other ends of the electronic spectrum who don’t seem to have ever played an electro track in anger before.

That aside, one of the things I like most about Mechatronica is the way they’ve never been content to propagate a single idea of what electro is, preferring an approach which helps to cast its light over a wide section of what is increasingly a very broad church. While the names here – Norwell, DJ Nephil, Gestalt, and Innerspace – may well, with the exception of Innerspace, be less immediately familiar to anyone except the truest heads, the comp more than holds its own with four choice tunes that do a bang up job of getting over something of the strange invention and scruffy majesty that has defined some of the best electro over the last couple of years.

Innershade kicks it off with the shoulders-out electro-pop stylings of Aalst To Charlois, a rakish charmer roughed up by clawing acid lines and a profoundly stompy sense of urgency before it gives way to Tranzs by Norwell where a gentler and more playful mood emerges from beneath the stern beats to elevate the tune up into the starlight.

Gestalt’s Mndfck and DJ Nephil’s White Dwarf roll out from a similar starting point but quickly slide off into very different places. Mndfck keeps the heartbeat high with a wobbly, wonky grooves tied together by a honk of bass and the infinite warble of a hungry 303, circling above White Dwarf’s looser, grittier, and down right more ornery take on the same themes. The acid here is plucked of its warmth and left to curl around the scattered beats for heat.

You know what: you should know by now. Mechatronica have done some pretty bang up work so far and this is another example of their ability to choose some of the best work in the genre. They deserve to be spoken about along side CPU and Brokntoys. This is great electro that never falls into the trap of doing what it’s expected to do. And the way things are going just now, that’s a quality you can’t put a price on.

Review: Lab Rat XL – Mice Or Cyborg (Clone Aqualung)

Like everyone else, I’m a sucker for anything Drexciya related, but I’ve begun to grow a little anxious about what could possibly be described as the ‘Drexicyan Heritage Industry’ over the last year. While it hasn’t quite hit the same level of recycling you see with some big-name rock bands, where every demo and out-take is lauded as evidence of burgeoning genius, you might still be forgiven for wondering whether there is really that much more which is worthy of being dug out of DATS and released in a pretty sleeve. Some of it for the third time.

Like I said though, if it’s Drexciyan related I’m probably gullible enough to buy it. That hasn’t really been a problem so far; the quality of most of the re-releases has been as high as you might expect. There has been the occasional number which remains more interesting for the background it provides (a bit of the ‘Burgeoning Genius’ syndrome) such as James Stinson’s Hyperspace Sound Labs as Clarence, but mostly we have been pretty well served.

It isn’t the record’s first time under repress – it was last spotted in 2008, with the vinyl being followed a couple of years back by the digital version – but it has arrived at a time when there is a lot of great electro getting another day in the sun, and interest in the genre’s past is on the increase. Lab Rats XL’s Mice Or Cyborg carries some added interest for being work by the actual duo as opposed to solo work by one of the two, and forms a neat triangle with their Abstract Thought, and L.A.M projects, falling somewhere between in terms of tone and mood.

Let me get this said: Mice Or Cyborg is a decent record. It displays a breadth of nuance and ideas in a way which has perhaps become a little rare in the genre today, and it does so without losing sight of a central and overarching ethos, one which guides and glues everything together. It also weaves its experimentalism deep into the fabric of the music, making it feel as integral to the tunes as the beats or the grooves, instead of relying it to provide a meaning all by itself.

I’m not sure that’s enough, though, to make it a great record. If this had been released today by a new act we’d maybe be hailing it as pretty special. Unfortunately Stinson and Donald’s work as Drexciya colours the reaction. Whether or not that’s fair is a difficult question to answer, but it’s difficult to avoid the comparisons. This works in both directions, however, as some of Lab Rat’s issues are also to be found in Drexciya. With both there is a tendency, at times, towards the meandering, to locking down a movement for just a little too long, pushing it into that region where the heat begins to dissipate. With Drexciya it’s rarely an issue; often it tightens other ideas up, and provides a genuine springboard from which they can push outwards and upwards, but here it occasionally betrays, warming a suspicion that maybe some of the material is a little lacking in anything else.

It’s not that the tunes feel unfinished, more that they haven’t quite reached that level where they can be left to guide themselves to a truly meaningful ending. Lab Rat 2, for instance, wobbles out into the world upon a squat 4/4 beat and a finely worn bass line, but it never seems to have enough energy to propel itself beyond an initial judgement, the delicate chords which should tone the piece forever swamped by the repetitive insistence of the bass. Similarly, Lab Rat 5 frustrates and not only with the irritatingly stop/start nature of the rhythms, but also in the way it feels as if it has been designed to be obtuse, constantly feeling on the verge of pulling everything together before once again yanking away any sense of completeness.

There are elements to the music, however, which saves the album from falling too far out of the light. Its way with melody, the way it lies at the heart of the most potent moments, allows a glimpse not so much of burgeoning genius, but growing maturity. It tempers even the rawer moments, and often combines with grooves in ways which surprise. Likewise, the whole of Mice Or Cyborg is filtered through an air of introspection, giving a sense of lived-through world-weariness and adding a warm sense of soulfulness which helps bind things together.

And when these elements combine, the album becomes much more interesting; even more so when it seems to be deliberately sidestepping any solid comparisons with Drexciya. Lab Rat 3 is a beauty of a track: a long, drifting paean to a far more Kraftwerkian take on electro than we tend to expect from this pair of minds. A long machine hymn which returns time and again to simple motifs and movements, layered with a lazy, quiet, charm, it evokes a rare sense of serenity and gentle wonder. There is a sense of Stinson’s Other People Place work at the root of it all, but it remains woozier, less inclined to douse its robotic soul with more human touches.

The strongest tracks are found right at the start, where the mood of exploratory mischief is at its strongest. Lab Rat 1 defies easy categorisation in the way it brings its submerged grooves together with melodies that are sometimes jazzy, sometimes strangely alien, like creatures calling over a silicon landscape. Lab Rat 6 feels closest to the Drexciyan ideal, lithe and stark, breathless and compressed, it is darkly affecting, and quickly draws you into to its grasp.

Is Mice Or Cyborg essential? No, probably not. Originally envisioned and released as the last part of their ‘Drexciyan Storm’ sequence, Mice Or Cyborg doesn’t really feel like a logical end-point. None of the six tunes really feel like a final word, and even the good ones can’t quite escape the thought that their better qualities had been echoed previously, and to better effect, elsewhere across the duo’s insanely exemplary oeuvre – both together and in solo work. Does it remain an interesting and important record? The answer is yes, mostly, although some of the lustre which could be present in that answer is scuffed by the fact that this is not an album from their early and formative years, but from right at the end when they should have been at their peak. It doesn’t really come close to the highs of Dopplereffekt, or The Other People Place, and it doesn’t even begin to suggest anything of Drexciya’s off the scale majesty.

For us Drexciyan geeks it will always carry an importance far beyond the reality of its offerings, but for anyone wanting evidence of Donald and Stinson’s talents, there are far better places to be looking. Buy it for what it is, definitely, but be prepared to search elsewhere for what it isn’t.

Best of the Represses – Jan 2018: Aux 88 – Bass Magnetic (Direct Beat Classics)

Aux 88 – Bass Magnetic (Direct Beat Classics)

The announcement back in the Autumn that Aux 88’s Tommy Hamilton and Keith Tucker were launching Direct Beat Classics with the intention of repressing some of the treasures from Direct Beat’s back catalogue was greeted in Pattern Burst Towers with a level of excitement that is normally kept for winning the lottery. Whether the new label was a long-term plan or something that grew quickly from necessity is, like worries of license hell, suddenly unimportant, for the first of these long-awaited reissues is upon us, and it’s a bloody good choice of starting point too.

I’ll admit something up front: I was particularly excited to find out Bass Magnetic was to be the first one out of the gate. I’ve never owned a copy of it. Originally released in 1994, I came to them slightly too late to pick it up, and by the time I realised how much I wanted it, copies were pretty much impossible to find. While I’ve spent plenty of time over the last two or three years convincing myself to pay over-the-odds for it from Discogs, something at the back of my mind suggested I waited. I’m glad I did.

Bass Magnetic, Aux 88’s second release, was a real statement of intent, one that utilised the 8 tracks to begin to codify not only the duo’s own sound, but also that which would quickly become known as techno bass, that blend of old-school electro, Miami bass, and techno, which would become such a defining factor for Detroit’s second wave. There were, of course, others who did techno bass, but Aux 88 were pretty much the definitive act, and their influence hangs over countless producers in the same way as that of their peers, Drexciya, even if it is not quite so apparent just now in a revitalized electro genre where there isn’t always such a focus on the raw groove.

And at heart, beyond everything else it does, Bass Magnetic is a collection of grooves. Whether it’s the hot, heavy, shuffle of Fly By Night, or the stalking tightness of Let’s Dance, every element is turned towards creating movement. Perhaps because of that necessity, the tunes themselves are stark and paired down – certainly in contrast to the swelling sound scapes that are to be found in a lot of modern electro – but there are still traces of something else, most noticeably of Detroit’s own relatively recent past. Model 500’s role in the evolution of the sound is apparent in many places, particularly on Time Space and Technology where it floods the tough jams with the glimmer of cosmic lighting.

This mix of past and future – in itself an important hallmark of all Detroit techno – runs like a river through Bass Magnetic but it never holds the music back from forming its own meaning, or stops it from pushing onwards to become an important stop, in its own right, in the city’s musical journey. It isn’t always a perfect record. Occasionally there is a sense of finding its feet, as if still forming the sound; here and there the beats echo into repetition as the soul and the groove don’t quite come together. Elsewhere, now and again, the ideas on offer drift into something a little one-dimensional, as if waiting for a missing element to be introduced.

There are people who think that, in terms of definitive statements, it’s 1996’s Is It Man Or Machine? which really nailed things down. And there is a lot of merit in that, but it was also, in some ways, the start of a period when the Aux 88 sound began to be refined to the point where further invention was rare. On Bass Magnetic there is a looser vibe, the beats less crisply executed. There is the sense of a band following different paths just to see where they go. Bass Magnetic, the tune itself, is certainly a premonition of later material, but its evocation of classic electro was straighter, less directly fuelled by Miami and Detroit. The quite frankly marvellous Sonic Boom, a stand out track in an already ridiculously good album, displays a sense of deep, joyous, funk-abandon that Aux 88 didn’t really approach again. It feels the odd one out, not because of its quality, but the way in which it feels closer to the energies of acid or even rave than technobass. It is a pure hit of good time accelerant, wobbly and all-embracing.

To anyone reared only on the electro of the last couple of seasons Bass Magnetic will probably be a slight shock with its direct and relatively austere execution. Even those of us who remember it from before might have our ears reopened, and be reminded that it’s this very directness that made Aux 88 such an amazing prospect. It’s electro with no quarters given, existing purely as a device for causing panic and delight on a packed dance floor, and quietly (actually, no, not quietly at all) reinventing the genre, setting it on a course with the future by taking the best bits of what had come before and adding in something new. Very few records are really deserving of being called a classic, but that it what Bass Magnetic is. An absolute treasure which sets the bar high for the rest of 2018.

Favourite Tune of 2017: Hodge and Peder – All My Love

2017. Gone but not forgotten. Here we are with the last of the festive round-up things, like a Christmas tree up past the 12th night, looking like it’s needing watered, its decorations embarrassingly bright and hopeful in January’s bastard glare.

My favourite tune of 2017. I don’t know what my favourite tune is, how would I know? What a horrible question to ask anyone. Hyperbole aside though, it’s usually a fairly easy one to answer when you actually sit down and think about it. Unless you’re a shop-soiled musical academic sort, bent on making some terrible and prescient point on the music’s role in the contemporary strata, and building complicated data models to support your oddball, joyless, thesis, deciding whether we like something is usually a fairly innate act. I usually base this kind of thing on how often I listen to a tune. What a weirdo I am.

My listening was all over the place in 2017. I probably listened to less electronic music than I’ve done in years, filling the spaces with hoary old rock and Derrick and Clive CDs. When I did give the machine music a go, I drifted fairly evenly between the various camps, but rarely alighted for longer than a quick shuffle at each. Some tunes, like Finn’s excellent Late At Night or the creepy shoogle of Forest Drive West’s Static wormed their way in to my brain and stayed their long after they should have moved on. Others, like Tinfoils’s Twerp, Stenny’s Old Bad Habits, and a host of other bad-tempered, crumbly, bangers briefly flared at the moments I needed a hit of something harsher (and there were quite a few moments like that,) and departed as the moods subsided. The less frequent needs to luxuriate in house were dealt with too. Casio Royale’s acid peaker Organa, and Posthuman and Josh Caffe’s dark and brilliantly malicious Preach fed on the same well of energy, but took it in different directions. Jared Wilson’s lazy, tumbling, Getting That Feeling stole at the quieter minutes.

But as for something more permanent, those tunes were strangely absent. Even electro seemed devoid of something longer lasting. I rattled through piles of electro records this year, some of them brilliant, but very few individual tracks clawed their way to the surface for anything more than a moment, although the ones that did, like Privacy’s old school invoking U Can Tell, Adapta’s dirty funkbomb Drapse Harmonic, CEM3340’s Salacya, and the tight tremor of London Modular Alliance’s Wolves, stayed up there for the way they each captured a different facet of what is still the most inventive genre around. While Frankie Bones’ two Bonesbreak records weren’t strictly electro they kicked some ass, with Mandolay Break leading a dirty charge through a large part of the year.

It was albums which ended up providing the bulk of the special moments, in fact. Perhaps it’s an indication of a growing confidence producers have in creating these larger bodies of work, of tying things together, and using it to feed the music that made the difference. Maybe, but I suspect there was more to it than that. The two albums I probably listened to most, John Heckle’s Tone To Voice, and Karen Gwyer’s Rembo played on deep memories of an era when genres were fluid. For some reason I spent a large part of 2017 on a vague nostalgia trip, but one not easy to define. These two albums helped to solve the condundrum. It wasn’t really old sounds I was looking for, but something more fundamental to why I started listening to all this stuff in the first place. They brought together those incessant ghosts with the drama, whimsy, and adventure of earlier forms of house and techno, allowing melody and drive to form new bones for the spirits. John Heckle’s Obsidian Cityscape locked all that down – and more. Relentlessly groovy, it built a new world for itself out of classic Detroit and IDM, colouring itself with flushes of Model 500, Kenny Larkin, and Black Dog, it shone with rare optimism and excitement, the melody blooming over the rogue stammer of the kicks.

Gwyer’s Rembo was perhaps less informed by that vibe, and the ghosts were blurred by her talent for a sort of quiet experimentalism which often goes unremarked upon, but is central to the way the tunes unfold. The Workers Are on Strike, endlessly effervescent and fizzing with rude invention, is a long moment of continuous discoveries. The initial vibes are much the same as they are with the Heckle track, but the point of departure is much earlier, and is more determined, perhaps, to investigate how those starting points influence the future. It too is a beautiful track, shaping a gracefulness from the tune’s coltish movement. At times it feels like a piece of Cronenberg soundtrack accelerated far out of sync with the movie, at others a garbled radioburst from a distant, glimmering, star.

But it was Hodge and Peder Mannerfelt’s All My Love which I came back to more than anything else. In the increasingly occasional mixes I messed with it became a vital component, powering up and throttling down the ride when needed. I don’t really recall why I took to it as much as I did. It opens fairly unassumingly, unfolding carefully like a piece of flat packed Blawan before it flies right up your brain and slaps it around. Oh, balls; you know what? I’m going to go all soiled academic here after all. All My Love felt like a distillation of a lot of what was good in music this year. It brought something of the fundamental fun and darkness of the hardcore and rave resurgence without resorting to simple musical theft. It locked down techno DNA from the very earliest days, and brought a freshness and moodiness which we were in dire need of. It was neither big nor clever, it didn’t open doorways to new and fundamentally different styles. It simply provided a sliver of dancefloor dark matter that felt joyously, brilliantly, right. All My Love was ‘just’ a great tune. And as the outside world continued to fold in on itself that alone was more than anyone could wish for.