A Couple Of Record Reviews Via The Scenic Route

No matter how comfortable, a prison is still a prison. There is a window which looks out upon a scruffy tree and a concrete wall, and the room, small but not tiny, contains everything I might want for my work; note pads and an ancient computer, piles of records and books. The door leads to an airless corridor of peeling paint and scuffed linoleum. At one end is the bathroom with a small, high window through which you can sometimes hear snippets of distant conversation. At the other is the one door which leads to the outside world. It is never locked, and I can leave any time I want. Except, where would I go? and what would I do? Somehow that makes my sentence worse.

I sit at the desk and patter out loose words which describe the way I imagine the people who make the music want me to feel. I suspect I’m rarely right but I don’t really care because once the music’s in the wild, the only interpretation which matters is the one each listener brings to it. You can love your children, but once they leave the nest they are the only ones who can define themselves.

Once a week the doorbell will ring and I’ll swear, drag myself to my feet and shuffle down the corridor to let in The Archivist. He will lope past me; black jeans and a blacker mood, a stab of the eyes letting me know to leave him well alone. I am the scribe, and he is the archivist and so our work goes on.

He’s only ever happy when drifting through the shelves and the piles on the hunt for records. He seldom looks it though, and in this I think we are the same. I am only ever happy when I am writing but I will do my damnedest to avoid doing any. I will pull books apart to find out what makes them tick; I’ll construct cunning excuses with the same level of effort it would’ve taken to have written a novel; I’ll dilly and I’ll dally; I’ll hide, I’ll fuck about. The only thing I won’t do is work. Not until I’ve run out of every other available option.

There is a telephone in the room with The Archivist and I. They had it installed years ago and it’s an ugly thing of thick, moulded plastic the colour of over-ripe avocado, and with a handset so large and heavy it strains your hand to hold it for more than a minute. They got it from the reception desk of an A+E ward which was being closed down, and They smirked at the irony that something so essential could end up serving something so ephemeral. I hate phones at the best of times, but this one, this hideous thing, I despise. And of course, it senses when I have finally started to write because it begins to ring, it’s anxious, fussy trill filling the room. I try to ignore it, knowing I won’t be able to, and out of the corner of my eye I can cam see The Archivist glaring at me; He’s holding a battle-worn Jeff Mills EP and he hisses “Aren’t you going to answer it?” I shrug, knowing full well all that will do is piss him off.

I pick up the receiver before The Archivist blows his top, and say hello. There is nothing on the other end but silence and static at first, and I wonder briefly whether they are screwing with me. Eventually, just as I’m about to hang up, a voice, tiny, tinny and far away, says “have you heard it yet? Did you listen to it?”

I say nothing, letting he voice continue. It develops a slightly maniacal edge, pleading, and then demanding, I listen to the record it’s talking about, an anonymous 12″ by an unknown producer on a label called Keep Your Mouth Shut.

“I think it’s the Aphex Twin,” It says. “I think it’s him. There is an Aphex Twin sample on it. It would be delightfully ironic, wouldn’t it?” I Look over at The Archivist. I had put the phone onto speaker and now The Archivist is standing there, shaking his head at me.

“Sure, “I say. “Ironic.” And it would be, wouldn’t it? The Aphex Twin, once famous for his obtuse remixes which left not a trace of the original producer, identified as an unmarked, unknown artist, purely from a sample culled from his best known work. Ironic. Yeah. But I don’t know whether it’s true. I doubt it. It’s probably someone vaguely known to those of us who haunt the edges of The Music. Either that or a huge star harvesting easy kudos and their ticket back to the underground. Maybe. The rest of the record doesn’t really sound anything like him. The first track, for instance, is really just an average, middle of the road bumper that doesn’t go anywhere. Inoffensive, but lacking anything identifiable or unique. It could, literally, be anyone. It’s an American label too, not that it means anything in this day and age, but the clues are often found in the most unlikely of places.

The rest of the tunes are pretty good. No, scratch that. They’re excellent.

“I hope it’s not the Aphex Twin,” I tell the voice on the telephone. “I’d be much happier if it turns out to be a genuinely unknown artist. That second track with the AFX sample is a killer, but the B side – wow!”
“A strong release would you say?” the Voice enquires.
“As strong as it gets.”

In this I’m right. While the first track is OK, and the second, with its sample taken from AFX’s remix of an ancient St. Etienne song, is a deep well of lively nostalgia reworked into a hard and energized groove, it’s the other two tracks which really kick it into the next level. Track 3 with its heavy, slow breakbeats, wonderfully languid melody (another AFX sample?), and shadowy touches rises above the day-to-day and brings depth and imagination to a style that often locks itself down in a single direction. Track 4, a radioactive dose of cosmic craziness, neurotic and acid burned fluidity, is one of my favourite tracks of the year so far. I’d find a place for this gorgeous hit of wistful darkness in every set I’d play if I could ever get out of here.

“You don’t think…..” The Voice tails off, as if teasing.”you don’t think there is something to it that’s a little bit, well, old-fashioned? A little too set in the early nineties?”
“That’s why he likes it!” Hoots the archivist. “He can’t see that he automatically favours new music that reminds him of when he used to have some sort of a life!”

I give him the V’s and take the record off the deck, placing it on top of a pile of books and papers out of The Archivist’s reach just to annoy him.
“I can’t find a sample of it online to link to,” I moan. “I don’t like it when I can’t find a sample to link to.”
The Voice giggles. “Never mind. I’m sure they’ll get the gist from your amazing descriptive powers.”

The doorbell rings again, and The Archivist shuffles off to see who it is. He returns a moment later with a box of records he lovingly, carefully slices open with a craft knife. He doesn’t let me do it any more, having seen the way I tear at the card and the glue.

He holds up one of the fresh records. “You should review this. I think it’s going to be very popular.”
“Who is it by? what label is it on?” He reads the names.
“Oho! It’s them! I wondered why they’d been Liking so many of my posts on social media! Kiss arses! Brown Nosers! Trying to smooth me up after they ignored me for months!”

The tiny voice on the telephone speaker chimes in. “Calm yourself you dingbat, you dilettante. You’re paranoid. The pressure is getting to you. I’m sure they’re not kissing your arse. I’m sure they’re just admiring your writing.” The Archivist and The Voice break up into hysterics. I slam the receiver down and glare at The Archivist who stares back. We square up over a pile of filthy Dance Mania records. The phone rings again and I pick it up, dumping the handset on the desk as I press the loudspeaker button. I reach over and grab another one of the new records from The Archivist. A different one. “What about this one? It’s on Happy Skull, isn’t it?”

“Charnel House by Bass Clef,” he mutters. “You like Bass Clef.”
“Some of his stuff, Yeah. Didn’t go for that last one on Trilogy Tapes though, did I?”
“Neither did I.” Says the voice on the telephone.
“Who asked you?” I snap. “We don’t even know who you are. Maybe you’re from that arsekissing record label, maybe you’re that guy on social media who told me to go read a book! Maybe you’re the bastarding Aphex Twin. Maybe this is all just one of your marketing ploys!”
“Chill out, you oddly cynical illiterate.” The voice chided. “How do you get through a day without falling apart?”
“He doesn’t” snickers The Archivist. He takes the record off me and slides the vinyl out of the sleeve. “Shall we give it a listen?”

I drop into my knackered chair, sulking, as the archivist puts the record on the 1200 and places the needle.

“What’s this one called?”
Charnel House” The archivist sits down on his stool by the window and lights a rollie, taking heavy draws and staring into space as his head bobs along with the tune’s fat, wonky, rhythms. I’m not so sold on it, not at first anyway. It seems like a beat and a bass quacking out a rudimentary melody. But when it ends I signal for The Archivist to roll it again. He does and he quickly locks down in time with the groove. It’s growing on me too. Something about its simplicity, the way it blends a certain tongue-in-cheek Super Nintendo vibe with a particular rawness begins to do a job on my brain. Before long we’re all quacking along with it.

“Nice,” I say, and cadge a rollie from The Archivist.
“I liked it too,” The Voice interjects.
“Nobody asked you!” The Archivist snaps. I grin and give him the thumbs up as he turns the record over.

This one, Acid Hearse, feels less knowingly daft but more exploratory, as if it spends the first couple of minutes trying to stake out its territory before it gets going. When it does, though, it fuels itself with a pleasingly early ravey mood that weaves in and out over the top of the breaks. There’s a little flurry of dub techno-ey reverb somewhere in the background. I mention that this is the best way to do dub techno. The Voice on the phone sounds a bit piqued. The Archivist gives me a look.

“This isn’t dub techno.”
“I know that. I never said it was. I said that there’s something a wee bit dubby now and again.”
He shrugs. “That’s your opinion. I like it.”
“I like it too. It’s got a bit of cheekiness to it without losing sight of something a bit more meaty. It sounds fresh.”
“Fresh.” Something in the way The Archivist intones the word gets my hackles up but I stay quiet. So does The Voice, strangely.

“Shall we do another one?” Asks the Archivist.
“Nah. I’m tired now and it’s getting dark. I’m hungry. Let’s order a curry.”
“I’d rather have pizza.”
“What about me?” The Voice whines from across its infinite distance.
“Nobody care about you” We both shout at the same time. I hang up the phone. The Voice doesn’t call back.

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Monrella: Process and Report EP (Berceuse Heroique)

I should have probably written about this one last week when I did the repress stuff but, y’know, that’s the way it goes sometimes. Ok, the background is that this is essentially the first two Monrella 12″s from the mid nineties whacked together into one easily digestible EP. Well, I say easily digestible but that might not be entirely accurate. Monrella was one of the nom-de-plumes of Mick Harris, one time drummer for the legendary Napalm Death, and Extreme Noise Terror, and a creative force of nature who also released some pretty outstanding work as Scorn, Lull, and Trace Decay as well as collaborating with such luminaries as Anthony Rother and Meat Beat Manifesto. Given all of that you’d probably expect the music here to be of the kill-em-all-ask-questions-later variety. You’d only be partly right.

There is no doubt that the four tunes here would naturally be at home on something like Jeff Mill’s Live At The Liquid Rooms mix CD. They’re natural bedfellows not only of Mills’ own brand of molten 90’s slammers, but also of the likes of Surgeon. Each of them carries considerable heft, and propel themselves along with the sort of absolutely huge, planetary kick drums which used to be all over the place before techno producers got together and decided they wanted their beats to sound like a finger click surrounded by cold chip-fat. These are vast tunes, and disturbingly lively.

But they are also full of unexpected subtlety, and little glimmering touches of shade and contrast. While the beats steam right on, everything else helps to add definition to the movement, shaping something which is far less monolithic than it has any right to be. Process 2, for instance, is ablaze with the colour of early morning light, the riff both simple and to the point but holding a mirror to the grooves; accelerating and controlling the gathering storm but always keeping the murk from closing in. Report, a fraction slower, throws a curve ball in the form of a woozy, lop-sided lead which lends the tune the vibe of a ride in a demented fairground, the strange journey punctuated by sparse handclaps and frosty percussion.

That they sound of-their-time is probably unavoidable, but I think it’s also partly the point. Techno and its DNA have altered so much over the last 20 years, and it has done so in a way that sometimes makes it difficult to notice until you are once again confronted with its earlier form. A tune like Fixed, forever prowls around in that section of the brain where I hold my definitions of techno; angular, buckling, and edgy with a nervous energy, it sums up so much of what I want techno to be. Process 1 is like a slingshot back in time, but one which reminds you that the grimy snarl which used to be such a regular thing is nothing to be afraid of – particularly when you remember that the energy of these tunes were entirely predicated upon their desire to make you move, to get you on the floor. Not only is this dance music of the most stark sort, it’s dance music that isn’t embarrassed about that fact. There’s a lesson here, but only if you’ve got the guts to learn.

Best Of The Represses – August 2018

In which the Scribe pisses and moans about things which are – mostly – not your fault, gets annoyed at the way the Glasgow/Turkish bath level humidity is making his arms stick to the desk as he tries to write, leading to an unpleasant variant of Skibberene, and debates with himself the correct way to ignore Aphex Twin advertising campaigns. One of these things, dear eletronichildren, is true. Or perhaps none of them. Read on to find out!

Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (R&S)

While a small and boring section of the world continues to confuse an Aphex Twin marketing campaign with something tangible, interesting, and – you know – musical ahead of the piss-taking maestro’s newest album, R&S have sneakily put out another repress of his d├ębut, the still wonderful Selected Ambient Works 85-92. Ordinarily I probably wouldn’t cover this here (or at all), not least because I’ve a strange feeling that I’ve already written about a previous incarnation in BoTR but mostly because I assume that pretty much everyone who wants a copy already has it. I’ve got about 4 spread across different formats, including the brick-like cassette album and a CD that long ago did it’s very best to disprove the notion that the format was somehow indestructible.

So, why am I talking about it now? Well, quite aside from the fact it still contains a selection of tunes that defy any sort of easy categorisation, it’s a reminder that there was actually a time when the Aphex Twin wasn’t about the myth. Selected Ambient Works… is from an era before the stories of him living in a bank vault, before the urban legends of him terrorizing Cornish B roads in an armoured car, before he achieved an admirable level of anonymity through the creation of a massive media mirage which reflected not what he was but what everyone wanted him to be. That was a clever move, no mistake, but the knock on has long been the near impossibility of discussing the actual Aphex Twin music in a sane and useful manner.

Which is a shame because his work has often been more than good enough to do its thing without any of the concomitant bollocks, although I’ve always had a suspicion that James’ Aphex Twin music is the price he pays in order to work on other stuff free from it being dissected by tits like me. But then, I reckon at any given time half the one-off white label records by a ‘unknown artist’ are probably him on the sly so what do I know.

Look, you know the record as well as I do. Parts of it are truly beautiful, parts are alien hymns blasted out towards earth, across light years and infinite frequencies, a billion years ago, and parts are like dangerous shifting sands always ready to suck you down the moment you think you’re on solid ground. Every track on it still sounds utterly timeless because even when it was released it didn’t sound of its time. If you forced me to choose just one tune, I’d have to go for the languid, captivating, and soul stealing Ageispolis as my choice. Those slowly unfurling breaks, that bass….that bass….Somehow, when you’re talking about Selected Ambient Works, the word ‘classic’ seems far too small.

Spesimen – Infocalypse Era (Frustrated Funk)

Even veteran electro fans have glaring gaps in our collections, and for me that is found where the Spesimen records should be. Partly this is down to the fact that there were never more than a handful of releases; a slim four records released between 1996 and 2003. Even worse, they’ve now landed in that Discogs category of pricing that, while not entirely unaffordable, are pricey enough that you don’t want to throw good money at the vagaries of Discg-sharks grading. For a long time the only one that was easy to find was 2003’s Archaeology – and even then it was only because Pomelo Records have been selling the digital version on their Bandcamp.

Since then it was pretty much all quiet until Spesimen quite unexpectedly turned up a couple of years ago with a couple of tracks on a split EP on Libertine. While it’s probably harsh to describe them as a disappointment, they certainly paled in comparison to the expectation that had been building up for the best part of 15 years. And so we settled down and counted our pennies in case a decent price appeared on Discogs.

Well, thank God for Frustrated Funk, who have delved into the Spesimen back catalogue for this new release. First thing to state is that the label have gone down a route I’m not usually overly excited about, to wit: the picking and choosing of tunes from different EPs rather than just re-releasing the damn thing the way nature intended. However, I’m willing to overlook it this time because the treasures here are worth it, and I suspect there may be mitigating circumstances.

Infocalypse Era, then, takes tunes from the first two Spesimen records, which were both originally released on their own label, Infocalypse. From the debut release, 1996’s The Pupae EP, we have PSIO and Harmonik Science, and from 1998’s The Larval Stage EP we get Satellite and Astrologer. All four are good choices – no, they’re great choices – but it leaves a lot of material behind, especially from the larger second EP. It may be our old enemy, the licence issue. It usually is. But I suspect a more prosaic and, unfortunately, terminal reason: The tunes on my copy are intermittently distorted (and not in a good way) as if the record is filthy or I’m playing them through a dirty needle. The fact is the deck and needle are fine, and the record is in perfect condition. I wonder, therefore, whether the reason for the cull is simply that the original tapes or DATS are too badly degraded for any other tracks to be included. I hope I’m wrong and that my copy is just a shite press, and I pray that there is another volume on its way. But if there isn’t I’ll give thanks for what we have.

And boy do we have a treat. This is wonderful electro that sidesteps all of the prevailing tastes of the era. This is neither technobass, nor the smoother, darker, European electro-noir. It’s not Dutch squatter bangers, nor is it cheeky, cheesy, old-school fizzers.

The music doesn’t exist in a vacuum though, and there are kindred spirits sharing Spesimen’s nebula. Most obviously, perhaps, the music of Andreas Bolz, particularly in his Third Electric partnership with Gregor Luttermann, shares a similar vibe. Ectomorph’s cold funk also echoes with a common interest in precision yet abstracted grooves. And yet, Spesimen’s box of tricks seems to draw from another source, an endless well of zero-point energy constantly feeding a particularly compelling funk, and powering the strangely angular breaks into a realm where experimentalism and the commonplace become one and the same.

Regardless of my personal feelings about the lack of the other tracks, this is a superb release, and all the better for being entirely unexpected. Lose yourself in Satellites oddball, occult arms, glide above a gravity well on Astrologer’s broad back, and bounce across the surface of a strange, impossible, world with the utterly irrepressible PSIO at your side. One of the cleverest, most important, and stand out represses we’re likely to get this or any other year. Buy on sight.

Reviews Ahoy! Dead Sound – This Is Human (Null+Void Recordings); CEM3340 – Perfect Stranger (Lunar Orbiter Program)

CEM3340 – Perfect Stranger (Lunar Orbiter Program)

A first album for the shadowy electro act lands on Lunar Orbiter Program, brining with it a collection of tunes that burn through the harsher parts of the genre’s last 20-odd years without offering much new information to that which you might have gleaned from the two previous EPs. The blend of electro culled from the harder end of the spectrum, and run through a heavier lo-fi take on the basic sound than we usually hear in the genre, is immediately pleasing. As are CEM 3340’s grooves, many of which recall the likes of old-schoolers such as Posatronix and similar Detroit technobass heroes, as well as newer acts like Go Nuclear and Detroit’s Filthiest, in their floor shattering simplicity and movement. I’ve spoken before about the suspicion that the music is a little too perfect, a little too designed to push the buttons of old bastards like me, but I’ve mostly made my peace with that. When the tunes are as solid as this, who cares about anything other than the end result?

The breakbeat tracks here are every bit as grimy and thrilling as you would expect. Tunes like Shadow Of A Blond, and Story Of An Egyptian Man, are big hitters; thick bass and crunching beats; melodic touches serve to accent the pumping rhythms. It’s a template that works well throughout, even if it is occasionally a little short on true invention. This mix of new school methodology and old school kicks finds its peak on the relentlessly wriggling I Can’t Get Wrong where a low slung bass holds court and the razor-edged pads hold you at knife point.

When the album deviates from the breaks, it moves onto less certain ground. Jammin’ In The Dark, and Platform Discovery pitch themselves towards the more Body Music end of the proceedings and lack the fizzing energy which make the pure electro hitters so fine. Tormented Man struggles under a thick bass that isn’t nearly as precise as it needs to be for the task at hand, and the tune ends up orbiting the sand-blasted landscape of the sort of wonky, vageuely weird techno that flickered briefly in the 90s. Not a bad tune, just underwhelming compared to the high promise elsewhere in the album.

Dead Sound – This Is Human (Null+Void Recordings)

Dead Sound’s previous work has mostly been found in the world of harder techno, and scattered across a host of like-minded labels such as Perc Trax, Gynoid, and DSNT, but this first release on Null+Void reveals a far more rounded and looser sound. While it’s interesting to see what established electro acts take from elsewhere, we don’t really tend to talk about what other genres take from us; This Is Human provides some interesting insights to that conversation.

Of course, it’s not all electro, and the one straight-up techno piece, title track This Is Human is a fine, borderline-sleazy knockabout replete with a frayed, gurning, vibe which lollops pleasingly in subterranean shadows. Neither builder nor peaktime, it simply bounces back and forth, happy just to entertain itself. It’s a lot of fun, and there seems to be less and less tunes we can say that about these days.

From the point of view of our usual geekiness, though, it’s the other tracks which offer something closer to home. First Line is both the most serious and the most evocative. Perhaps it’s the way it skirts around the edge of a loose take on IDM, but it feels like a gateway rather than the journey itself. Having said that, there is something about its slow build and it’s retrained box of sounds and tricks which emphasises a particularly anxious tautness that manages to both energise the track and pick up the slack left by the underweight beats.

I Want You feels at first as if it should be flickering around the same neighbourhood as First Line, but instead it pulls at loose threads of classic electro and weaves them into new fabrics with which to dress up a tight, noirish, mover. This is a great tune, sounding as it does like the theme from some bleak Scandinavian thriller about murderous shenanigans set against a high-tech back story. Luckily, it doesn’t overdo the vibe, and locks it all down with some fine, very low slung grooves. Fair, finally, goes for broke, dragging in something of This Is Human’s joyful wobble with a rolling breakbeat and coming out at the daylight end with a smile on its huge, daft face. And, like the rest of the EP, what it might lack in a bona fide stand out moment, it makes up for with simple and effective funk.