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?

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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.

Best Of The Represses – November 2018: Marguerita Recordings Special

V/A – Marguerita 1, 2, 3 (Clone West Coast)

The big repress news around here is probably the forthcoming re-releases of The Kilohertz EP and the Elektroworld LP by that electro super-group of yore, Elecktroids. While their exact line-up has always been one of those weird open secrets the scene seems to get it panties into a right old bunch about (and it was mostly the Drexciyan lads anyway), you can’t really take anything away from Clone’s public service reissue. Well, you can a tiny bit because Elecktroworld has been available in digital format for blooming yonks. But it’ll be nice to get our hands on Kilohertz again, and I guess for those of who value actual, proper, hold-it-in-your-hands-and-weep physical authenticity (and let’s be honest, most of us are in that particular club) it’ll be just lovely to get the album without paying some Discogs weirdo seven large for the privilege. Musically they’re both pretty important records, so we’ll have a little proper looky when they finally turn up.

It’s fitting that the Elecktroids material should reappear on one of the many Clone sub-labels. There have been a few outfits over the last couple of years who have made good on reissuing classic electro, some of them pulling out all the stops to secure licenses from a host of genuine underground beauties which seemed to have escaped everyone else’s attention. In Clone’s case they’ve built a reputation as an archivist of sorts for the billion-odd reissues of material from Drexciya/Gerald Donald/James Stinson, but they have also seen fit to repress music from other, perhaps less well-known sources, some of which occupies particular and important places in the history of the genre.

There have been reissues of material from the likes of Unit Moebius, the inventively fecund Dutch outfit who were a major influence on an entire constellation of European electro producers; last year saw Clone releasing a beautiful and absolutely essential retrospective of Le Car, the Detroit art-electro collective, and this year we’ve had re-releases of both parts of Detroit In Effect’s The Men You’ll Never See, which ranks up there with some of the best-in-show since the start of the millennium. And while it’s certainly true that there have – perhaps – been others who have delved further into the muddy past of the underground’s history and returned with rarer or even brighter diamonds, Clone reissues have allowed the strange jigsaw of this particular end of electronica to look far more complete than it could have been, and that’s before we even discuss the way they have continued to fly the flag for a huge amount of contemporary electro.

Their latest venture into the world of classic electro is perhaps even more interesting. Marguerita Recordings was a brilliant outfit operated by Ben Spaander – AKA Cosmic Force – which rocked out of Amsterdam from the start of the millennium until about five years ago. I’m unsure whether it’s still a going concern, although if it was I don’t suppose there would be a need for another label to license their stuff. They had a great run though, with a catalogue of extraordinary music, much of it from Spaander himself under a number of pseudonyms, or collaborations between himself and Edo Edens (who also recorded for the label as E8) and a small handful of other like-minded individuals. Beyond their own music, there were releases from a number of genuine luminaries such as Detroit In Effect, Dexter, and a mix CD by none other than DJ Stingray (who has played the hell out of a lot of the Marguerita tracks over the years). They even released a notable series of sampler EPs under the 030303 name which boasted an extravagant collection of big-name producers, with the likes of Mike Dredd, Neil Landstrumm, Legowelt, Like A Tim, Ceephax Acid Crew, and Luke Vibert all featuring. Now, by anyone’s standards that’s a special gang to feature on your label.

The three records of material Clone have reissued, though, keeps it in the family. There isn’t anything here by the more famous producers, but that isn’t a problem in the slightest because what we get is some of the most insane electro to emerge over the last twenty years. While a lot of the electro we’ve had from the Netherlands over the decades has been special, the Marguerita stuff seemed to take pride in being out there, following its own weird path into the future. Having said that, the links and influences on their own material and that of the US always seemed more pronounced than you tended to find with that of, say I-F’s Viewlexx/Murder Capital releases. Where the Viewlexx records are scratchier, and as in love with italo, disco, and a host of heavier (and often non overtly electronic) sounds as they are with electro, Marguerita Recordings championed a creation which was bouncier, brasher, and purer.

What we get here is essentially a collection of tracks culled from the earliest releases on the label, with Spaander, Edens, and their closest collaborators appearing under a number of guises, with the bulk of the tunes drawn from Eden’s work as E8, or from the single EP the pair released as Doubledutch. There are also a couple of other tunes featured from their work as Proskool, and a single track by Ototax which may or may not be its first time released anywhere – even with the aid of Discogs my old brain can’t seem to place it in a prior release.

And – oh, mate – this is a holy trinity of vinyl. While it’s perhaps fair to suggest that the quality is a little uneven here and there, there are so many riches on offer that you simply won’t notice or care. While there are a couple of tunes, such as E8’s H20, you wish had made the cut (hopefully Clone have held a bit back for a further release), nobody in their right mind could really object to the curation; and there is a simple thrill in having such utter monsters as Doubledutch’s Launch Detected or the compressed, nasty, brilliance of E8’s Micropacer 1 causing mayhem within earshot of each other.

Aside from these two giants the records provide a pretty good snapshot where the label’s head was at in its early days, and pleasingly indicates just why so many big names were lining up to work with them. This is electro which burns white-hot. Even the tunes which aren’t balls-to-the-wall mental, such as Proskool’s Hit $ Run, display a sleek and dirty sense of groove and fun which is worlds away from the dryness a lot of contemporary electro seems to find itself specializing in.

This is electro written to be played loud. Sometimes stripped down, acidic, and wonky – as on the single Ototax track Voices Of The Universe, at other times heavy-loaded and brutal, there is such a crowd of lunatic mindsets at play there can be little wonder they utilized so many pseudonyms.

Look, it’s getting late, and this piece is getting long, so I’ll finished by saying the obvious: go and buy all three right now. Clone deserve all your praise for these completely unexpected treats, and even though we’ve become a bit spoiled for choice with quality electro represses, these stand out as particularly fine examples of how unhinged, how massive, and how downright exciting it can be when it finds itself in the hands of people who are fuelled by nothing more than their own demented sense of what the music is, and what it can do.

Review: No Data Available- The Night EP (Null+Void)

 

There are so many electro labels now its becoming difficult to keep an ear on them all. Not that this is much of a problem when it comes to Null+Void, however. For a label with such an, err, economical release schedule – that’s four releases in nearly four years – it’s impressive that they’ve managed to nail their colours to a particularly virulent strain of electro so successfully. Each record has been a departure from the prevalent trends in the genre; eschewing the braindancey/synthwavey stuff that keeps fouling up the nets, they’re instead pushing a sound which has its feet in a very British take on the scene, and mixing in a blast of old-school grooves just to make sure.

No Data Available’s d├ębut on the label pushes all of those buttons right from the off, and it’s just so damn more-ish.  The Night EP is a record which draws energy from a whole bunch of sources, but never lets that interfere with a very strong sense of self.

And what a sense of self it is. This is music that takes liberties with the electro of Detroit and New York, as well as the wonderfully pungent UK homegrown, and delivers something which absolutely hits it. You can hear it in the opener, Yes Mate, where huge, solid steal beats punctuate the drizzle soaked moodiness of the synths before the growling, dirty, bass snaps in to assert itself. It’s a corker of a tune: completely in your face and yet strangely downbeat. It pulses with a hi-tech, grimy, energy but keeps it’s eyes skyward.

This duality is revisited several times as the record unfolds. Oh Now Really is heavier than it’s forerunner, but simpler. Everything comes second to the massive wave of bass that unwinds through the track, and yet the spiral of lines which haunt the open space above the wall of low-frequency constrict the moods, shrinking everything down to more human vistas. Traitor takes it further: A squirt of acid and a collapsing ravey piano riff slap the tune down into a particularly day-glo stained time and place, locking the grooves down into something more frantic and debauched without losing sight of the warm and wonderful roll and slide of the beats. By the time The Night slowly thickens into being, allowing the snapping pace to boil away into darkness, you are aware that this is a record which does it right. It knows where it’s come from and it knows where it’s going.

There is an element to modern electro which plays up far too much to the lazy idea that it is abstract, that it is difficult to dance too. This is a record that doesn’t play nice with those kind of thoughts. Quite frankly, if you can’t get your feet moving to this, alongside your brain, you’re all done with dance music. Belter.

 

 

 

 

Review: Versalife – Nova Prospekt (Trust)

Boris Bunnik re-activates his Versalife project for an outing on Austria’s Trust, and while Nova Prospekt is full of trademark pulses of sonic, cosmic, radiation, and wide, rainy sweeps of atmospherics there is, here and there, a slightly less recognizable steeliness at work underneath a lot of the material.

Versalife remains one of the big electro projects that people from outwith the scene are probably familiar with. It’s not all that surprising; beyond Bunnik’s work as the well-known Conforce, Versalife’s music draws from a pool of sounds and influences which are hardly exclusive to electro, and as a result it feels hybrid in its creation – electro beats, certainly, and a bit of techno’s grunt as well as something less tangible, less immediately obvious.

Here that intangible quality works its way between the notes and into the fabric of the music. Echoes Of A Resonant Cascade hooks deliberately lopsided beats of glass with fragments of shimmering light. It does so with subtle nods to the rainy textures once so common to the expansive horizons of earlier IDM. It lends the tune a downbeat mood, one which is never far from the surface across the whole EP.

Part of that comes from an air of quiet experimentalism which informs much of the music, and heavily supported by Bunnik’s love of expansive synths and pads. They build and roll like clouds in Autumn, changing shape and meaning as they unfurl. Occasionally they overstep their mark. Nova Prospekt itself fills the empty space between the chiming bassline with drifting and silvery pads, but they draw the nascent groove away from the bass, which hints at deep, prowling, funk, and aims the tune towards the sky instead of letting it get its feel dirty in the dance.

2 A Spacts finds a remedy for this gentle intrusion by shifting itself a bit more, shortening the time available for introspection while keeping open wide avenues for the atmospherics to paint their pictures. There is a vibe of proto-rave here; not frenetic nor posturing, just a simple sense of self which adds a bite to the drums and propels it along with a greater purpose. The closer, Exosuit is a compressed, nervy, twist of electronics on a spine of clattering beats. It’s sparseness a counterpoint to the rest of the EP, and it cleverly retools the overarching mood, turning the shining highs into shadow-filled depths.

Do I love Nova Prospekt? I’m not sure I do. But I’m not sure it’s a record which is supposed to elicit love. It’s so measured, so precise in its tonal shifts and use of swirling, frosty, synths that it instead demands respect for something that falls beyond the usual remit of dance music as a whole. In this it is once again evocative of early IDM, and the sense that the electronics, the man-machine, could be pushed further than the framework allowed, if they could avoid becoming trapped in a newer structure of orthodoxy.

When Nova Prospekt does come into its own, though, such as on the fuzzy and funky Echoes Of A Resonant Cascade, or Exosuit’s tight emptiness, all of those structures come together, the grooves informing the structure, the structure guiding the grooves. As parts of electro continue to deepen themselves, its worth stopping here for a moment to witness the fact that balance can give the music something that transcends trends and draw heavily on a tradition of electronic sounds which served to unlock worlds as much as moods.