Best Of The Represses: May 2018

The increasingly ironically named Best Of The Represses comes to you from the far side of Record Store Day – the controversial annual event which at one time had the relatively good sense to shut you up with a handful of interesting re-releases. Nowadays the RSD schedules are mostly made up of the Big Label Crooks trying to convince you that yet another goddamned reissue of Pink Floyd’s widdly bollocks is a Good Thing. As far as our stuff goes, it increasingly feels like those sketches crapped out by shit comedy writers that know not even the most myopic of commissioning editors will allow them on normal TV, so they end up dumping them on Comic Relief instead because, y’know, it’s only charity and who really gives a fuck?

Anyways, what has this to do with the subject in hand? Probably nothing, but quite likely everything. The repress game is a dungeon of fairground mirrors where things are rarely quite as stupid or exciting as they look when you glance to the side. The only thing that still surprises me about any of it is my weird capacity to keep caring. And the only reason I keep caring is that, almost every month, some silent god picks me up and turns me around, pointing me in the direction of something of genuine worth. Mind you, if the mute omnipresent prick does that to me when the inevitable Sandwell District represses start appearing we’ll be having words. Let’s move it people; I’ve got places to be.

Textasy – Dallas Gun Club (Craigie Knowes)

Yeah, I know. It only came out for the first time in January or something, but it’s here for two reasons: 1, it got repressed (look at the title of the column. Sometimes it’s accurate); 2, I really like it.

Textasy haven’t been around that long, but even though there are less than half a dozen releases under the name, pretty much every one has been a corking example of Texan electro (which, personally speaking, is a genre name I can get behind). This one sets its stall out a bit of a ways from the rest, and uses the electro as a base for some sweaty, ravey, shenanigans. It’s genuinely great – a rough-housing blast of dirty great breaks, stinking huge rave stabs, and nasty piano rolls.

It’s magnificent. You can almost imagine it as the soundtrack behind one of those old photos of a light-house eyed scally giving it some big fish, little fish action while his mouth blows on an imaginary whistle as he not-so-gently unspools his sanity into a farmer’s field beyond the slowly massing ranks of the Old Bill come to murder the fun. It’s so good I don’t even know what that last sentence meant. It’s virtually impossible to pick a stand out track, but if you forced me, I’d suggest you start with the warped, piano led nonsense of Eternal Gurn (Manik Piano Edit) and work backwards until your brain dissolves.

Sonar Bass – Dark Matter (Deeptrax)

Like some sort of moody knobber I totally forgot to flag up the first of this very welcome and very overdue run of Frank De Groodt’s Sonar Bass represses when it arrived just before Christmas. It was a great thing – a new release of the eternally brilliant Sonar Bases 4 – 10. It was a brilliant mix of lithe, experimental, techno, and shimmering, warped, electro from a time when the phantom powers were beginning to set the rules in stone. Dark Matter, released nearly a decade after that first explosion, is smart enough to avoid major changes to the foundations even though it shifts everything around.

It’s the ways it plays fast and loose with elements of electro, Berlinny techno, and Detroit aesthetics that makes it such a blast. Occasionally it puts you in mind of De Groodt’s other project, the brilliant Fastgraph, at other moments you can hear the proto-molecules of a very modern strand of techno DNA being put into place, long before other less imaginative sound-smiths began to get it all wrong.

But what makes it so strong is that for all its experimental endeavours it remains a potent collection of grooves, even if they are sometimes so alien you might actually need half a dozen legs and some tentacles to really appreciate them. It’s an album that might seem dark, but that’s only because the intermittent bursts of light and gamma radiation have probably left you momentarily blinded. A proper trip through the wormhole, this one. Hopefully we’ll get some of those Fastgraph monsters coming this ways soon as well.

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Best Of The Represses. April 2018: The Vision – Spectral Nomad (Metroplex)

Only the one this month. Just because.

Vision – Spectral Nomad (Metroplex)

After what seems like an eternity lingering on the edge of a re-release, Metroplex have finally managed to get this absolute corker back in to circulation. Originally released in 1996, Spectral Nomad came in the middle of what might still be Robert Hood’s greatest period. Aside from the way in which he continued to tighten and amplify the sophisticated, utterly stripped down grooves of the minimalist techno he had begun with Internal Empire two years before, he was also taking his first steps into a wider, less constrained world with his looser, thicker, Floorplan material as well as creating the deeper, Basic Channel infused sounds of Monobox. All three bore a striking family resemblance – a focus on sharpening the funk, and removing everything except the bones, the muscle, and the sinew – which was already apparent as something inherently Hoodian above whatever else the individual projects might bring with them. Where his old partner in crime, Jeff Mills, shared much of Hood’s basic ethos he used it as the foundation of a larger, more sweeping sound. Even the tightest of Jeff Mills’ tunes seem to reach outwards and upwards until they envelop the listener and the dancer. With Hood there is no such release; Everything is either movement or energy and every other element is jettisoned. The music turns in on itself.

The Vision was an older project, and one which actually had far less sonically in common with what he would later begin to create. A pair of early EPs – Gyroscopic on Underground Resistance, and Toxin on Hardwax – are brilliant, but they lean closer to the harder European rave tinged sound that Underground Resistance were making (which is hardly a surprise given Hood’s history and former place in the collective). They sound raw as hell. Heavy too; laden with acidic, porpoising riffs, light bending bass, and collapsing beats they represent techno from a period where the fury of the music is wound up with a soulfulness that came directly from house, lending an emotional edge which cuts right through the fuzz and the snarls.

Spectral Nomad was the third of The Vision records, and the last. Brought back by Hood after a four-year lay-off it didn’t seem interested in revisiting anything except the name. Certainly there was a dirtier vibe than was usually found in Hood’s other work of the period, but the music was denser, less concerned by a need for an immediate, visceral, thrill. More importantly, it also feels less willing to trade space to outside influences for Hood’s own ideas. Spectral Nomad is a very pure record in that sense, and only occasionally does it nod its head to others: Spectral Nomad itself is one of the few moments on the record to cast back to Hood’s older tastes. Its exploratory, jazzy, atmosphere echoes a lot of Juan Atkin’s work, and although it is expertly marshalled by Hood into a swaggering bop, its heart lies in an older – and perhaps more playful – Detroit.

The core of the record though is dominated by Hood’s focus on the grooves. Explain The Style unfolds in classic style with the endless flank of a slowly growing, precision crafted riff sliding by and the mammoth heft of a single kick drum leading the way. It could easily fit into Internal Empire or Minimal Nation. But it builds imperceptibly until it brings wobbling non-melodies borrowed from Mills to the fore, and releases the tension with the tiniest crackles of percussion. Detroit: One Circle flares into being like the first tune’s malicious, spectral, twin; travelling exactly the same ground, it cuts out Explains… willingness to meander and instead deepens and darkens the journey, scratching out a new path with snapping percussion and a looser but more urgent groove. It may not be absolutely one of the greatest techno tunes to emerge from Detroit but it isn’t far off, and its influence has probably touched more people than you’d imagine. You can sense its presence behind the early work of a number of Motor City producers, chief amongst them DJ Bone, whose own taste for rolling, expansive, yet stop-on-a-dime tight tunes shows a genuine understanding of what Hood was trying to achieve here.

Modern & Ancient feels like the sole misstep on Spectral Nomad for the first few times you hear it. It doesn’t really have much in common with anything else on the record – nor, in fact, with much else Hood was creating at the time – and seems isolated when you try to put it into context with the rest. But the tune itself make busy with its stark positioning and strange sense of adventure, climbing high enough, showing enough of itself that you can gradually understand its place here. Probably not enough, though, to stop you noticing what it isn’t over what it is.

Spectral Nomad is not the definitive Detroit techno record, as some would have you believe, and it perhaps lacks a little of the magic that the very best of Rob Hood’s creations all have, but it is a definite piece of the puzzle and anyone seeking to understand how we got from their to here should try to get to know it. This was Hood in the middle of a transition, translating not only between his own eras, but those of Detroit. It is techno of a different sort; not minimalist but trimmed by the same knife, and possessed by a mesmeric charm that keeps everything guided on the sonic beliefs which shaped so much of his music. It seems cheap somehow to say it, as if it detracts from the power of the music, but Spectral Nomad is an important document; it’s not the whole story, but offers instead a major perspective on one of electronic music’s most seminal genres. It’s that important. That it happens to bang so very hard is just the icing on the cake.

Best Of The Represses March 2018

I think the title of this column is occasionally a bit misleading. Not tonight, though.

Timenet – Dishwasher (Frame Of Mind)

Now, this is an example of someone really, really, digging back and returning with something unexpected. The original was released in 1992 as a white label by the members of the short-lived techno outfit Ubik, and that’s about all I know of it. Judging from the fact that the same PR blurb is out there on about 100 record store sites, I’d say that’s about all most seem to know about it which is pretty cool and interesting because it’s not often we get something genuinely obscure popping up as a repress at the moment.

Musically it’s very much of its time with its mix of Acid, techno, and rave, lending it the distinctive UK sound of the early nineties. While Dishwasher feels far more classically Chicago – mainly because it’s an homage of sorts to Mr Finger’s Washing Machine – the other tracks cram in a good dose of messy, day-glo, fun alongside some wobbly grooves. On The Move comes straight out of a dingy club at the wrong end of the high street with its baggy T-shirt stained with sweat and dry ice; ravey stabs and grinning daftness do something similar to the inside of its mind. DX Moods is the pick though, with its low-slung, electro tinged, moodiness eventually bursting into a smiling, fractal, sunrise.

Aux 88 – Technology (Direct Beat)

Although not the highest ranking record in my personal ‘Direct Beat represses I need right now’ list, not least because Technology is one of the tracks on last month’s repress of Bass Magnetic, this is still an important one to get back out seeing as it represents not only the first ever release on Direct Beat but – I might be wrong about this – also the first appearance of Aux 88.

While Technology feels a little rough and ready compared to some of their later, slicker, work It remains a great tune and one which helped to define the entire techno bass sound with its blend of electro, house, and soulful Detroit techno. But where techno bass – as a whole – eventually began to suffer from a little too much in the way of cookie-cutter sounds and off-the-shelf attitude, Technology remains wonderfully alive to the possibilities. Even better is the Rhythm mix which swaps the fluid breaks for a stomping 4/4 beat, head-rushing energy, and connects the Detroit sounds of the early 90s with something altogether more up-front and explosive. This Direct Beat Classics thing is beginning to shape up very nicely.

k Alexi Shelby – All For Lee-Sah (Transmat)

One of a very small band of producers whose work truly crossed the – mostly imaginary – boundaries between Chicago and Detroit, K-Alexi could always be counted on to deliver the sort of utter banger that everyone knew even though they lived in the ‘secret weapon’ category. This repress of his Early Transmat release – the first proper repress we’ve had from the label in a long while – brilliantly sums up that rare duality with three tunes that you’ll have heard plenty of times even though you didn’t know who made them.

My Medusa is probably the most familiar, particularity as its wonky, eternally optimistic, skank has been out on a couple of other relatively recent represses, but the other two tunes bring very different facets of K-Alexi’s sound to the fore. Vertigo is one of the dirtiest, funkiest, acid tracks ever released. It’s a tune so pungent you’ll be catching it at the edge of your senses for weeks. All For Lee-Sah is just a work of near genius. A swirling, compressed, storm of emotion and mood it floods over a stone cold groove which gradually winds itself up into some brilliantly subtle acidic funk. Bring the strobes for this one.

Best Of The Represses, Feb 2018

Damn it. I hate buying records at this time of year. It always feels like I’m doing it to get back at the long darkness. It sometimes feels as if producers and labels know that too, and dump their also-rans into the mixer, grinning like Tories because they know I’ll buy whatever they have. What’s the option, go without? Man, you haven’t been paying attention have you? You’re no collector; you’re no fan – just a chancer with rudimentary reading skills. Off with you, your Beatport account needs seeing to…

Represses seem deserving of your time round about now. There is something in the season which makes you want to dig up older sounds. What’s still slightly irritating is the way we seemed to hit peak flood after months of famine. There’s a bunch of good stuff about. I had wanted to write about the new Carl Finlow anthology that’s out now on Those That Knoe, but my copy hasn’t arrived yet. It’s stuck in a box somewhere, its serious electro muscles kept in check by the twin bastards of heavy-duty cardboard and a lazy postman. Expect words when it finally makes its appearance.

214 – Lyle At Dawn (Frustrated Funk)

214’s 2015 release on Frustrated Funk, Lyle At Dawn, has come around for a second pass, which is a good thing. Chris Roman’s take on electro has been an important touchstone in the genre’s current resurgence, and it’s one that has shown an impressive disregard for remaining loyal to any one facet of the modern sound. While I don’t quite love Lyle At Dawn as much as a couple of his later records – North Cascades in particular – it’s still pretty impressive in the way it loosens up stark, Rothian noir just enough to inject a dose of Metroplex era electro’s smart and fluid funk. Cut of the 12 is definitely the aurora-skimming Time For, where Autechre and Model 500 come together in the gloriously languid depths.

Future Sound Of London – Lifeforms (Virgin)

Next up is Future Sound Of London, who return to the land of the living with a quite frankly huge re-release of 1994’s Lifeforms. Remastered across 4 sides of glistening and weighty vinyl, it’s replete with a download code befitting the trendy nerd-about-town lifestyle you’ve all bought into, even though you all work in an office and cry yourselve’s to sleep. It’s a pretty nifty package – even if you quietly wonder why they didn’t just go the whole hog and do it as a 3×12″ just for the thrill of it like every other label is doing just now. I won’t bore you by banging on about what it sounds like because I imagine you’ve heard it. For a while, back there, it threatened to become techno’s own The Wall, which is a terrifying thought for anyone who hate Pink Floyd as much as I do. For the three of you who haven’t heard it, well, you can recreate it by chucking some rainforesty samples around on top of shuffling breakbeats for about six hours and getting some environmental studies students to pretend to be travellers while they sit in the corner and spraff about how ace fractals are. Welcome to 1994.

I’m joking! Well, mostly. In actual fact it’s not a bad record when it gets itself going, and it feels very much like the last document of a world of electronica which has all but passed out of sight now. Here and there are moments of genuine, mind bending beauty and complexity but, as a whole, it never felt quite as ground breaking as ISDN, nor as fun as Accelerator. Having said all that, the tune Lifeforms itself is a triple-headed ambient-techno monster, and up there as one of the best things FSOL ever did.

V/A – Scopex 90/00 (Tresor)

Last but very much not least is the startlingly mental and deeply impressive set of Scopex Records 12″s which have been repressed into an enormous retrospective set by Tresor. For those who don’t remember them – which is going to be most people, I expect – Scopex was a British electro label which flared into life at the end of the last millennium just long enough to furnish us with a tiny number of brilliant records. Tresor bring together the two releases by Simulant with the single Pollon release, and throw in a dinky little 7″ as well.

This is an astounding set. Really, it’s phenomenal. Tresor deserve every bit of praise you can muster for putting this out. I’ve a suspicion this’ll really only be picked up by the hardcore electro geeks (scratch that – the hardcore electro geeks with deep wallets; it’s a pricey set) but it deserves to be owned by everyone. The music on offer here is fantastic, rolling between angular Drexicyan melodies, housey funk, and grainy, expansive, atmospherics. Even in the moments where it fuels itself with old-school vibes, it still like the soundtrack to a future you’ll spend dancing in the eye of the cyborg. This is a stunning collection, and if you have even the most passing interest in the genre, you should hunt a copy down. Do it soon, though. I suspect that unless Tresor keep pumping out new copies this repress might soon be going for the same sort of stupid money as the originals do. You have been warned.

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.