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.

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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 début 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.

Best Of The Represses Jan 2019.

What the actual drokk! 2019 is a made up year, isn’t it? IT’S ONLY SUPPOSED TO EXIST IN SCIENCE FICTION! Personally, I think this is at the heart of the human race’s current weirdness – we peaked in 1991 and now we just don’t know what to do with ourselves, and as we’re human (so I’m told) we’ve attempted to blast our way back to that temporal safety blanket by being fixated by walls, being fascinated by Bros, and listening to all our music on vinyl which is actually a bloody terrible way to listen to anything – although I guess it’s still better than having some dingbat like Kanye teleport the sounds right into our brains, and charge us every time they makes us blink.

2018 was a pretty decent year for the represses, I think, although I suspect that whether you agree with that statement largely depends on what your electronica postcode is. Obviously from an electro point of view it was a smashing 12 months where it felt at times that the represses were edging it over the brand new releases in both quantity and quality. Down at the other end, I sometimes wonder why we’ve really not had a huge avalanche of quality jungle and d&b returning to us from the distant past – or hardcore for that matter, given the wee waft of love for all things ravey and breakbeaty we’ve seen in some quarters. Mind you, the slightly underwhelming rave revival seems to have shrunk away as quickly as it came, leaving little behind but a vague impression of something started without a clear plan for what to do next. If you’re British, that’ll be a little bit familiar just now….

Elektroids – Elektroworld (Clone Classic Cuts)

I’m sure Elektroworld by Elektroids will be just as familiar. Well, it has to be, hasn’t it? It was pretty much the definition of ubiquitous at one point – certainly up here, anyway – and I imagine at least half the tracks on it remain just as familiar now as they were in the late nineties. While a portion of the record’s enduring fame probably owes something to the ongoing question of who exactly wrote it (the blurb on the record claimed it was ‘four young brothers’. Everyone else says it was Drexciya), it remains a smart collection of Kraftwerk inspired electro which mixed in a massive dose of Detroit soul and funk, and had a big a role in helping electro’s transformation from interesting diversion into the all-conquering genre it sometimes is these days.

What else it there to say? The chances are that if it’s your sort of stuff you probably have it in some form – the previous reissue, perhaps, or the long available digital files. Still, simple availability doesn’t usually detract too much from a good repress, and this one is certainly that, with the memorable original cover, and a light tarting-up of the mastering helping ease out the few doubts and creaks. Everyone will witter on about Japanese Telecom, or Future Tone as the album’s stand out track, but although they’re excellent tunes the best thing on it by far is the utterly funky Midnight Drive – still a moment of captivating, hazy, brilliance nearly a quarter of a century on.


Ectomorph – subsonic vibrations (Interdimensional Transmissions)

Unlike Elektroids, Ectomorph have probably never quite got the attention they deserved – particularly for the run of releases early on in their career where they displayed a fine understanding of a form of electro which seemed to borrow liberally not only from Detroit but also from Rotherian noir without ever becoming beholden to either. The end product was something distinct from either discipline – starker than Drexciya, sparser than anything to come out under the UR or 430 West banners but also fiercer and more embracing than their northern European peers.

Although the Stark EP remains my favourite of Ectomorph’s early run (and I’d love a repress of that one, particularly for the fantastic Time Fold), Subsonic Vibrations is a pretty remarkable début by any standard. Right from the very start, the little kinks that separated them out from everyone else are evident. The title track with its wonky, drifting, bass; Last Days Of Skylab’s bubbling acid mayhem; Parallax View’s shuffling, compressed, energy. All led off by Skin’s charging, righteous, grooves. Like the Elektroids album, this is a magnificent snapshot of the point electro began its metamorphosis. And for anyone one unfamiliar with Ectomorph (and there seem to be more than I thought), what better place to start than right at the beginning?

No Smoke – International Smoke Signal (Warriors Dance)

Ok. Aside from a vague recollection of someone mentioning this to me at some point, and a suspicion I’ve heard a couple of the tunes before, this repress of a 1990 release is pretty much an unknown to me. It probably shouldn’t be but there it is. My God, though, It’s brilliant. And I’m slightly embarrassed not to have really known about it before, especially seeing as one of the members is Tony Thorpe whose work as Moody Boyz took British electronic music off on so many insane journeys.

There’s too much here to really get my head around. Vocals from The Mali Singers scent tracks like Don’t Touch Me or the sprightly funk of International Smoke Signal, with smokey atmospherics which stretch the house in deep and wonderful directions. Just listen to the ace Anti Galactic Devotion, replete with a cheeky Star Wars sample, and the sort of beats which ride as if they know UR and the future lie just up the road. There is so much excellence on offer. Best of all is Ai Shi Temasu (Japanese Love) – deep and throbbing, it cuts house down to its constituent parts and focusses on the music’s raw, physical presence. It’s just superb.

See, this is the reason represses can and should be more than a simple exercise in commodifying nostalgia. Every so often something like this appears, something you’re not familiar with, and just floors you, making you wonder why you haven’t loved it since the day it first came out. An absolutely essential blast of UK house, acid, and breakbeat from the days they were all part of the same creation. Go and buy it right now. We need more of this.

A festive Clearing the Decks. Ho ho ho. Featuring Perko, Ben Pest, 214, and Carcass Identity

Jesus Christ once said, “get up you whinging slob and stop feeling sorry for yourself. Pull yourself together and write about some records”. So that’s what I’ve done. It might not have been Jesus, come to think of it, it might have been Christopher Reeves. I’m not sure. One of those guys, anyway. So here are some really quickly written and probably not all that informative reviews you can slip into your loved ones line-of-sight this festive period in the hope that Santa might bring you some tunes. Santa or Jesus. I’m not sure. One of those guys, anyway.

Basically, I’ve not been myself for the last few months. I’ve been a bit unwell. The result is that there is a build up of music around here, like sonic plaque on your techno-teeth. So, like a mad toothbrush, here’s the first of a bunch. I’m embarrassed that it feels like I’ve been sitting on this Ben Pest EP (that’s BN PST – although I still don’t understand electronica’s hatred for lovely vowels) for what feels like a billion years (because reasons) and it’s a shame because it’s a very likeable and daft example of everything I like in current British electronic music. Basically, this means that it reminds me a bit of Unspecified Enemies in the way it refuses to stay still. Mind you, it’s not quite as scabrous as UE but very few are. Instead it hovers around a bunch of genres. Electro, house, and techno, all get thrown into a blender and come out the other side in a big shiny bouncy, smiling, acidic electro form. Extra points for taking great delight for smashing between breaks and 4/4 in the same tune. Not enough people do that, probably because they’re miserable. Kudos to Ben whose records always sound like they’re having a ball. Top of the lot is probably Carbs Live VIP, which sounds like your pet ferret going to town on your hidden stash of naughty pills before heading off into the night. Bright, cheeky and wriggly.

Next up is one which is getting a lot of praise just now, and that’s Perko’s NV Auto on Numbers, which I’ve seen described by various bods as ‘next generation club music’ – a phrase I’m always suspicious of (unless I’m the one saying it) because it so frequently seems to refer to stuff that sounds designed to be discussed rather than actually danced to in any club I’ve ever been too. Weirdly, NV Auto doesn’t really hit me as being next generation anything, and instead comes across as a collection of fluid, quietly funky, grooves which draw together various strands of DNA from the last 20 years or so of dance music in a similar way to some of the Bristol crowd. There are touches of garage, of Intelligent d&B, and what it really comes across as is a decent example of contemporary British electronica, one that evokes the high times of several byegone club eras while remaining true to its own sense of modernity. It mounts shimmering threads over bare-bones beats and thrumming, heavy bass, and mixes up the more lively moments with glistening ambient interludes. Perhaps surprisingly (perhaps not) it’s a big sound, and one sure to find a place in certain record bags.

I’ve got to be honest now, I’m not sure that calling a techno act Carcass Identity bodes well for domination of the all-important friday night debauchery and decadence crowd, but as the rest of the world has officially gone pure 100% mental I guess we can forgive and move on. They’re here with a self titled EP on Italian label Random Numbers which pushes as far away as it can from what most of us consider dance music. This is slow, treacle thick, grimy, and seemingly happiest when it’s pressing unexpectedly hard on various synapses. While the name might well give you the fear that it’s going to drag you into terrible death metal territory, it in fact works some surprisingly subtle and nagging grooves into its quicksand-like form. Here and there the rhythms evoke something not entirely a million miles away from the period of Tom Wait’ career when he started folding cabaret and Kurt Weill into his trademark gutter-blues – particularly on the opener Reflection Ocean – and in fact the music’s arc lends it a weird electronic gothic-folk vibe that is probably fairly unique at the moment, with the possible exception of the sort of strange broken-funk techno the excellent Maghreban has been doing for a while. Dark, heavy, but certainly not without a sort of achingly playful energy that has you imagining a wooden puppet of the devil from one of those strange and wonderful Czech animations you used to get on TV in the early 80’s is about to pop up. I admit I wasn’t sure at first, but I can well get on board with this. It’s like the soundtrack to one of those fucked up central European folk tales people don’t tell to their kids anymore because they don’t want to scar them for life. Brilliantly out there.

Well, where do go after reviewing the sort of record which has you thinking you’re about to trade your soul to Old Nick for a magic violin? Why not listen to one of the most consistent electro producers of the last few years? Shall we? Lets!

214’s Exit 32 on Berlin based Klakson is another record I’ve been sitting on for a while and enjoying like a fine whisky, taking a sip here and there and trying to savour. There has been some damn fine electro this year, and Exit 32 is pretty much up there with the best. What I love about it is that 214 has made it into that team where his music is very much his own – not an easy thing in electro given how heavy the dogmatism of Important Influences (you know which ones I’m talking about) lie on the genre. That being said, Exit 32 seems to aim itself with a harder silicon groove than we’ve heard from 214 a while. It’s less loose and fluid than normal, instead building up a whirlwind of tight, breathless, scores which flare out into the sunset with jacking, acidic bass and infinitely deep Ibizan strings. While Pattern Rotate and Soap Dish evoke a less constrained and earlier age of electro, and Synthesizer Made Of Paper holds you between wings of glass, it’s Snow Banks deep, inquisitive machine soul that best sums up the record with its quirky, restless, desire to move you. Sophisticated, exploratory and endlessly funky. What more could you want?

And Another (Electro) Thing: Part 1

Even though virtually all modern music is essentially an artificial construct which runs on fads and momentary, almost random, changes in taste and direction, electronica has a habit of taking it to an extreme. It’s always been like this; no scene, no movement within the larger framework seems destined to last more than a couple of years before a Darwinian need to evolve kicks in. In many instances this is a very good thing: a natural (well, sort of) method of ensuring that nothing gets too stale, that nothing outlives its welcome. For a form of music which is largely about movement, and has embraced both technology and concepts of forward thinking philosophy (well, sometimes…) to the extent that electronica has, this rapid evolutionary nature keeps it fresh, and keeps it vital.

That’s the idea, anyway. It hasn’t always managed to do that. Generational changes within electronica are, perhaps unsurprisingly, much the same as they are in other genres. The first port of call always seems to be to raid the past but rarely does that mean exploring themes or narratives. More often than not it is simply reduced to dressing up in older styles. After all, its much easier to wear the classic trainers than to understand why people might have wanted to invent them. Sometimes a classic sound is all you want. That’s fine (although you have to ask why not just listen to the classic records if that’s what you want) but there is something regressive about this which as odds with electronic music.

Luckily we’ve always had producers who get this, who are obviously fascinated by something other than the most obvious facets. Both house and techno have benefited enormously from these people. They swim in the deep currents of tomorrow when everyone else seems content to tread water in the kiddy pool. Without them we would have had no acid house, no Detroit techno. No breakbeat. No Jungle. Without the desire to deconstruct the music to see what goes where, and how it all fits together, we’d have been left listening to vague variations on an early crop of Chicago house until everyone got bored and faded back into metal, or pop, or jazz, or wherever the hell it is we all originally came from in the first place.

My major kink is, of course, electro. As a genre, electro weathers change better than most. Where house and techno often seem overly willing to augment their own natural evolution with whatever fluff is floating through the hive mind at the moment, electro takes its time. Yes, it changes, but it is more gradual. It measures twice and cuts once. I think it allows the music a longer gestation, a stretched out development, which helps the music develop a strength of meaning and belonging which is increasingly rare in some of the other electronic scenes. Of course, there are factors which influence this, not least the fact that electro as a scene exists as a far smaller concern than either of the two dominant electronic genres thus allowing the back and forth of ideas to work without a lot of extraneous noise. For all the exposure that the recent resurgence brought us, the column inches in the big danced music journals, the bandwagon jumpers proclaiming their endless – although hitherto unnoticed – love of electro, the surge in records and pod-casts and publicity, the scene has probably not grown that much. I say this with the weight of past evidence. This isn’t the first time the outside world has sat up and said ‘wow, there is electro. Would you look at that?’ and it won’t be the last. In all those prior occasions we’ve never really seen much in the way of a permanent shift. Why should this one be any different?

If I’m honest, though, I have concerns about long-term viability – which is essentially an ugly way of asking whether enough people care about electro. A long while ago now Jeff Mills said that techno was a music for an ageing audience. I don’t necessarily think he was entirely right – for one thing, large chunks of it seem to have ended up as the music of choice for those sort of vaguely angry young men who, not too long ago, would have been smugly telling you why their love of god-awful Scandinavian death metal meant their taste in music was more finely developed than yours – but it’s a point which has always been worthy of discussion.

What really worries me about electro right now is not that it is a music for an ageing audience, but that it is a music for ageing producers. Such a large amount of contemporary electro seems to be created by a relatively small handful of producers who have been doing this forever. This isn’t an attack on any of them. In many cases the people I’m thinking about have created – and continue to create – art which occupies a place of particularly high praise in my brain. I’d no sooner be without their music than I would be without new work by Juan Atkins or Luke Slater.

A smaller scene, one that is top-heavy with producers who practically invented many of the sounds we now think of as electro, has probably helped keep the scene at a certain level. It’s certainly helped create a feeling that electro is something ‘purer’ than many of the other genres. But I fear it fosters a sort of siege mentality, one where new ideas are slow to be accepted (both by the people making it and those of us listening to it). It elicits an air of elitism where music is accepted if it follows particular rules, particularly if it is being created by those who have’t really paid their dues yet. It’s so easy, when in a minority, to believe you’re the ones in the right; it’s you against them. It cements bonds, but it also ingrains dogmatism.

It doesn’t help that the influences are often very particular – especially when we think about newcomers. Not every electro record has to sound like an out take from Drexicya’s back catalogue, nor does it have to pretend to be Kraftwerk, or technobass. And yet, that is what we hear over and over. Donald and Stintson took, I think, the Drexciyan sound to its logical end point, and it’s interesting to note that neither of them seemed to feel compelled to continue down that road with their solo material. Likewise, Kraftwerk haven’t actually done anything interesting in over three decades. The constant harking back to a long gone time and sound makes no more sense in an electro framework than a rock band deciding they’re going to start playing skiffle.

There is a real danger here. What ultimately saw Detroit techno weaken as a major force wasn’t that the guys who lived and died for the music started to make worse art, it was that in the hands of other people it became a template of sounds and chord movements which were utterly divorced from the world and the urgency which created it. It became Detroit-techno-by-numbers. Anyone can go out, by some gear, and copy Drexciya’s scratchy rhythms but it doesn’t follow that you’re going to understand why the weird pulses of grooves work.

Electro can stand to be a broader church, both in terms of influences and personnel. My worry isn’t anything to do with popularity. To paraphrase Paul Theroux, at times electro feels like owning your own dragon. Something unique and private and awesome. But for its survival it needs to open up and branch out. It needs to take what it can from elsewhere because as wonderful as its relative isolation can feel, the shallow gene pool will eventually lead it either to extinction or into a tiny, closed away world where it is at best an irrelevance.

You know what, though? It doesn’t have to be like that and, if you look hard enough, you can see the fresh shoots of new growth breaking through the earth. In part two I’ll look at some of the stuff that makes me smile for tomorrow. When that’ll be I’m not sure. Hopefully not very long. Cheers.