Reviews: L-R – The Rambler (Asking For Trouble)

The fourth release on Radioactive Man’s Asking For Trouble label sees the L-R electro supergroup reuniting for the first time since their debut in 2017. Ok, I say ‘supergroup’ even though we all know Sandwell District still hold the copyright on the term, but the first outing for this collaboration between Radioactive Man himself, Simon Lynch of London Modular Alliance, and Johnny Oakley of Monoak was an unexpected treasure, not least for the way in which it eagerly kicked against many of the genres current trends.

The Rambler is a slightly different proposition to the debut, being somewhat less fierce in the way it wields its beats. Nor is there anything as precise as Land, a track which fed its exquisitely frosty frequencies into that record’s overarching vibe.

Instead, The Rambler shifts down a gear, and opens itself up to something earthier. Some of this is to do with the sustained attack of the growling, booming, 303s which congeal around the low-end like a foundation of thick quicksand. This is particularly true of the opening tunes, with both Doctor Dark and Rings holding the velocities at a breathless strut as the bass winds in coils around the beats. Neither track mounts itself towards a full-bore assault; they delve deep into the muck and grime, and return with something more fluid than you would expect given the heft of the music.

And it is a weighty sound indeed, one that plays with the lower registers more than a lot of modern electro where the accent is on a more crystalline mood. Part of me thinks this is because the tunes here are much more focussed on physicality, on the kinetic structure, but that really only covers part of the sound. The way many of the other touches are compressed down into the soft and malleable bedrock suggests a rogue sense of experimentalism at work. Rings, especially, is a good example. Behind the bass the beats are loose, wobbling, deliberately haphazard in the way they always feel just about ready to jump forward or fall apart. They don’t follow electro tradition so much as echo to the vibe of soul, and rhythm and blues; organic beats following the groove rather than suggesting its own path. Rings’ liveliness makes light work of its low-speed.

Dinky’s Tone does something similar, at least in the sense that it seems just as determined to incorporate those humanoid touches to the music. Perhaps even more so. Here it works as winding bass over snarling beat’s and razor-sharp percussion which evokes something closer to light-speed hip-hop, or brutally rolling funk. Once again the heart of the tunes is made of a loose, living, energy that provides the ghost in the machine, an intelligence that is both empathic and vampiric. Where The Lights Are tugs hard on the soul, and focusses on a deep, sensual, and fiery groove that buckles and corkscrews, and leads the tune through a virtual future-disco of machines and drunk AI. It emerges on the far side as a surprisingly deep and playful high-point of the record, and one where the funk is rainbowed by jazzy exploration and and a subtle but disarming vulnerability.

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Best Of The Represses – February 2019: Internal Empire Special

Robert Hood – Internal Empire (Tresor)

It probably goes without saying, but Robert Hood’s music has changed by quite a bit over the last 25 years. There is perhaps no greater evidence of this than the current primacy of his Floorplan project, with its emphasis on warmer, fuller, and more straight-up dancefloor friendly techno. It has also helped introduce him to a new generation of fans for whom the term ‘minimal’ has greater connections with Berlin, Richie Hawtin, and a more recent take on the sound, than anything Hood was doing back at the Dawn Of Time.

Minimal techno in its original form had many masters, but few pushed the sound so far, or became so symbolic of it, as Robert Hood. Not long separated from Underground Resistance, and reacting against what he considered a loss of feeling and meaning in techno, Hood spent the middle years of the 90s creating a sound which took everything back to the genre’s most basic and functional form.

The results are still startling, perhaps even more so today than at the time when innovation crowded the woods with trees. Hood’s vision was a techno in which everything that didn’t help carry the funk was pared away until all that was left were grooves and sinew. It was, and remains, a devastatingly futurist take on the genre, one where everything is predicated upon movement, and Internal Empire is still the album which best encapsulates this ethos. On a personal level, Internal Empire also remains one of my three favourite techno albums of all time, along side Carl Craig’s Land Cruising, and Model 500’s Deep Space. Something within each of them contains not only the DNA of techno in its original, Detroit form, but a blueprint for the future.

Internal Empire sits as the middle child between those other great markers of Hood’s approach, Minimal Nation, and the run of records which began with Protein Valve, and led into the various Moveable Parts sessions. What is apparent, with the aid of hindsight, is the way in which Internal Empire now stands as perhaps the greatest expression of minimalist techno. With Minimal Nation (and, to an extent, with Protein Valve) there are traces of something else in the sound which harks back to Hood’s earlier incarnation as Underground Resistance’s ‘Minister of Information’, with tracks like Acrylic snarling along with a very Mad Mike feel, or the original The Pace, with its vaguely discoid honk acting as a precursor for the Floorplan genotype. By the time the Moveable Parts material arrived, the music had begun to reach a logical end-point, its tones and moods stripped down almost to nothingness, with what was left set to exploring an increasingly experimental realm of endless motion.

Internal Empire, then, was the point at which the idea of minimal techno found the perfect balance between movement and emotion, and its connection to the music which later took on the mantle of ‘minimal’ remains tangential. While there are obvious similarities between this and the sound as interpreted by a younger, Berlin based, generation, the differences keep them from every becoming too cosy. It’s like comparing a leopard seal to the ones bobbing along in the surf off your nearest beach.

Hood’s take is sharpened by his need to lay down not only a sound, but a belief in what it represented. Such philosophies are achingly difficult to transmit from one producer to another, and most, sensibly, don’t even try. It’s possible that this is the reason Internal Empire, and Hood’s minimalism generally, sounds so thrillingly individualistic – it was built by one person for a particular reason, and that has imparted the music with a soulfullness that is difficult (if not, in fact, dishonest) to try to copy. As a result, very little sounds like Robert Hood at full tilt, and it has helped to keep the music distinct and pure even in an age of endless conceptual recycling.

And the music itself? Well, where can you begin? With Minus, perhaps, still astounding in the way a repeated, three note motif can provide such gorgeously, mournful depths. Or Internal Empire, where skeletal fingers of sound reach out to guide a frosty, clattering, stomp. My favourite was always Home, with its washes of languid synth over a tight symphony of beats and snaps, forever carrying the seed of classical Detroit techno into a new era.

In fact, this is the thing which is always the last to be remembered. It wasn’t just the way the music had been stripped down that made it so powerful, but the way the emotional content was suddenly able to fill the space, and rely on tiny little touches, and the simple repetition of a handful of key elements, to convey meaning and ideas. When we talk about minimalism we rarely mention the way in which the music is dense with the intangible, and the way in which those invisible tones colour the sound and provide depth. This is especially true of Internal Empire. It defines the music, it drives it, and provides such a total re-imagining of what techno can be, and what it can do, that twenty-five years on it continues to open our ears to new ideas and toy with our expectations.

HVL – Mumdiva (Tabernacle)

I’ve banged on here and there recently about electro’s need to open itself up to more diverse influences, worrying myself that the genre has a tendency towards thinking that a variation on a theme counts as exploration of the possible. There have been some outstanding electro releases over the last couple of years, but you often have to have yourself pressed firmly up to the ear-trumpet of obsession to sometimes be fully aware of the little wobbles and variations that seem to count as invention.

It is true that any genre can sound a little monotone if you’re a newcomer, or simply haven’t been paying invention, but electro can often have a particular dislike in moving too far away from its favourite stomping grounds. This has begun to change a little bit recently, with more producers finding worth in influences beyond the usual reliquaries of Drexciya, or Rother, or what have you. This often translates into a dalliance with IDM or other, more cerebral, forms of The Art, but it has also begun to feed back into itself with a number of more organic records which borrow a bit of other genres funk and grooves to re-educate the breakbeats. DJ Tiffany’s house-flecked Feel U, for example, Or Mor Eilan’s silicon soul infused Persona Non Grata.

HVL’s Mumdiva pushes this further, moving on from directing the methodology of other influences to accent and tone the music, to emphasise instead the shared histories and evolution. It helps, perhaps, that Mumdiva’s electro is allowed to act as a framework, a platform, for these other sounds and ideas to proliferate. It allows a deeper sense of exploration to work without the baggage of trying to keep the overriding vibe tied down to any one base.

It also helps to keep things burning with a particular energy that many of Mumdiva’s strengths are derived from a distinct era rather than genre, and much of the record recalls the wide open creative environment of early techno where cross-pollination was the norm. Opening cut, Tea and Sympathy, comes closest to sonically invoking the Gods of Classic Electro, even cleansing the tune with a mid-point wash of languid, Drexciyan synth. But the feel is dominated by the sprightly spirit of pioneering UK techno, warming colder tendencies and allowing room for a looser sort of groove to grow in the space. A similar vibe lies at the heart of Dirty Hardwood (Vox), where the harder ranging breaks offset the more skeletal form of the track, and distant throbbing 303s whip up a fine, billowy, funk.

It’s probably the other two tracks which best carry off this dominant mood, though. Tamar 1160 (Mix 1) dumps the electro aesthetics entirely, painting a bitter-sweet swirl of colour, before letting it clear away and allowing light to fall on the forthright and clattering 4/4 beats underneath, releasing a delicately weaving riff to prowl through memories of that point where techno, trance, and house were no more than different limbs of the same organism.

Inhabitable Earth Analogue crowns the record, a gorgeous, burst of frequencies, erupting in slow-motion, and with all the hazy, lazy urgency of a tune which knows exactly where its going and how it means to get there. The surprising heaviness of the collapsing beats drawing nothing away from the twist of electronics which cajole the track into stately movement.

Friday Night Tune: 5th Birthday Special.

Five years, particularly in our strangely whacked-out world, feels a lot longer than it sounds. When I wrote the first of these way back at the start of February 2014, I had no real idea what I was going to do, except to blurt out a few disjointed thoughts about some electronic music I liked. I wasn’t even sure whether there was any worth in a blog beyond that of a slightly massaged ego. Did people really read blogs? Did I care if they didn’t? I’d always told myself I was doing it to get back into writing again. What else mattered? Well, The fact I read mattered.

I read. I find blogs and devour the content, one post after another. In the year before I started this I went through places like MNML SSGS, Little White Earbuds, Infinite State Machine, and others with the sort of ferocity that only gets going when it’s got the teeth of a new obsession to chew things apart with. I’ve always been a sucker for music writing, and the teenage me, trapped in a bedroom behinds piles of Melody Maker, and NME, and Sounds, would have probably blown something important in his brain had there been access to blogs. Even now, when a lot of my reading time is taken up with panicking that I’ve just written another review of a record I might have covered a month before, I like to lose it in blogs whenever I can.

I like the feel of blogs, the way they provide something off on a spiky tangent from the smoother, and better adjusted, Resident Advisors and Mixmags of this world. Too young to have any real memories of punk the first time around, blogs always felt to me like an extension of that genre’s fanzine ethos – cooked up by nobodies and thrown out into the world to see what would happen. And the fact that they do seem to exist in a strange half-light between the underground and the mainstream further heightens the appeal.

But covering something as unwieldy as electronic music can be annoying. It’s impossible to keep up with everything that happens; the way genres split away, forming new and every more niche shapes, has been both a fascinating process to watch, but also a slightly fraught one. It’s one of the reasons I need to excuse myself when I hear people talking about ‘the community’ as if it’s some overarching, exquisitely formed, hive-ethos. If there ever once was such a thing, it is surely long gone, at least in any honest sense. And the idea of a community stretching from Moscow to Detroit, or from Capetown to Chicago frequently feels designed to flatten differences which should be celebrated. Again, the cynic in me tends to think of this as a sort of pan-global form of gentrification, a techno-Macdonald’s in every venue. It sometimes seems a device for bestowing the power to dictate direction, to decide tastes, and enforce authenticity, none of which really promise more than frothy argument in a world of infinite ideas and intentions. The billion or so forms of house, techno, electro, jungle, dubstep, and Lord knows what else, don’t really need to care about where they came from, they only need to know where they’re going, and watching how they react to each other, the tensions growing, the common interests blossoming, is all part of the fun.

This endless, shifting, mass of sounds and ideas is the real reason we all get excited, though, even if there is simply too much for one person to go through in a single lifetime. Occasionally I worry that the sheer availability of the music I like – both new and old – makes it far too easy to stay put, to gorge myself on familiarity when I could be exploring. It’s a danger, to be sure, and is another reason I doubt the idea of a monolithic dance music culture. The crossover is increasingly rare, and once the movement comes to a halt, even for a moment, it is startlingly easy to lose track of what’s going on. In a world which caters to all tastes we quickly alight on the ones which appeal the most, and as the gap between genres and styles widens, we end up on separate islands and evolving down separate paths like those cool flightless parrots in New Zealand. Wait, did I write a parrot metaphor? Erm….

But none of this should be cause for existential teeth gnashing. Electronica is a wonderful organism, flickering with countless colours, and vibrating with a trillion basslines. It doesn’t matter if you’re locking yourself into a bunker with an armload of doom-heavy euro-techno, or fluttering between the brightest lights with only the vaguest understanding of the way they are all strung together, because it’s all just people finding what they like and, perhaps even more importantly, what they don’t. Forget community, and think about what people are actually doing. The scene in Glasgow better be different from the ones on Detroit, or Berlin, or Sheffield, or Bristol, because different movers, different histories, different politics, and different tastes have all played a part in creating them. Ignore the official histories. Chicago may have birthed the sound, but the acid that comes from Manchester, or Liverpool, or London is no less authentic, even if that authenticity has been sparked from different sources. Embrace the differences, Enjoy the clashes. Pay due where it’s due, but never listen to spokespeople, or ‘voices of the people’: they’re always playing the angles. And especially, definitely, particularly, ignore any ageing blog writers who try to convince you of anything. They’re just in it for the fame, and the occasional promo. If I’m still here in five years, somebody come round and unplug the computer. Cheers for reading.

PS, I was going to choose a record from the last five years that really meant something to me. But, well, I sort of couldn’t be arsed, so here’s a bunch that I quite like instead.

DJ Di’jital – Electrohop (Trust)

For those of you unfamiliar with the work of Lamont Norwood AKA DJ Di’jital – and I know there will be a few – here’s a brief recap. One time DJ for Aux 88, Di’jital has been a true stalwart of Detroit electro for more than twenty years. His original slew of records (released on Aux 88’s Direct Beat label) were thick with that particular tang of Kraftwerk, soul, and techno that we now tend to roll together under the term ‘techno-bass’. While this was certainly a close enough description of Di’jital’s music in a broader sense, it doesn’t really convey much of the scratchy, instectoid funk, or the corrosive acidic energy he brought to the party. It’s a sound he’s developed from his Direct Bass days onwards, whether it’s been on Twilight 76, his own Di’jital Access label or elsewhere, and it’s one he’s continued to perfect over a prolific career.

His d├ębut release on Austria’s Trust is very much an extension of this sound. In some senses this is the antithesis of modern electro, not only of the wide-screen, deeper and more symphonic breed we have become accustomed to over the last few years, but also to a great deal of the tunes which borrow liberally from the energy and movement of techno-bass itself.

What I mean by this is that Electrohop is not the fulsome, and genre flexing sound we’ve become used to in electro. These are stark beats, combative and taut. They are stripped down beyond the point where concepts like ‘functional’ have any real currency and, indeed, some of them lie squarely in the territory we once called tools. On occasion that exact tightness, the compression of tones and grooves, can take the breath painfully away, and leave you reeling with claustrophobia.

That never lasts. There is always something sliding into place; a slight change of direction, a ripple of acid bass. always accenting the drive of the beats, and shaping their throw. On the fleeting 808 Kits it is the radioactive pulsar burst of bass locking everything within its gravity. On Gamma Radiation it is the spidery creep above the searchlight flash of bass and the regiment of kicks and hihats. On the more rounded-out numbers, such as Entity (The Get Down) flashfloods of melodic bass, and stabs of synths loosen up the rhythms, adding a larger, lighter groove. On Input Main the occasional shiver of discordant, broken, chords, on top of the prowling acid bass catches a mood which makes overt a subtle playfulness at the heart of the record.

It is a harsh record, but that mentioned playfulness, a humour and warmth, smooths many of the sharper edges. But what stands out are the grooves which are whip-like and whip-smart, reminding us that this is first and foremost a dance music, regardless of where the experimentalism takes us. While Electrohop can sound alien in comparison to so much contemporary electro, that’s part of its charm. These tunes might be too much for ears tucked away at home, but drop them in the deep-night fury of your favourite subterranean sweat box and you will watch the room explode.