Carl Finlow – A Selection Of Works Part 1 (For Those That Knoe)

Whether the strangely fertile nature of UK electronic music helped to crowd it out, or the deeper, harder, louder sounds of the genre emanating from the states or the continent were more in vogue, or whether it was simply a little bit out of phase with what else was going on I don’t know, but British electro always seemed to have a harder time convincing the wider world of its merits than it should have. Where other home-grown takes on particular genres shone, UK electro languished in the shadows, getting plenty of kudos from those who gave serious consideration to the real thing, but remaining a curiosity to most.

The climate has changed though. The last couple of years have obviously been good ones for electro, and while a lot of the newly lit limelight has tended to fall mostly on the newer members of the gang, there has been a quiet revaluation of the old team, and a sense of energies surging. Perhaps, then, it’s the right time to re-evaluate the work of the producers who built the scene and helped shape a sound which in its own way is as important to the history and growth of modern electro as techno bass or European noir.

Which brings us to Carl Finlow, an artist who has been right at the hard edge of the genre for nearly a quarter of a century. Along side the likes of Ed Upton, Phil Bolland, Dez Williams, and a small handful of others, Finlow has helped to define an electro sound that’s both incredibly potent in its own right, but remains subtly different from the sounds emanating from elsewhere. And given the fact his career has covered so much ground,from the initial bang in the 90s right up to now, the concept of a retrospective of his work is an intriguing proposition. The reality of A Selection Of Works Part 1 is just as intriguing. Much of the focus falls on his work as Silicon Scally – the guise he remains best known for – and is largely drawn from releases hailing from the early of the Millennium, including tunes which only ever appeared as extras on CDs.

This is electro of a particular sort. In some ways it’s a forerunner of the deeper shades which have been so prevalent recently, but where a lot of contemporary electro makes it point by travelling through a heavy atmosphere of thick, symphonic, and patiently curated moods, Finlow creates horizons in the sound, and builds the means to reach them through a sonic world where the accent is on the grooves and a sparse, locked down, cerebral energy. A lot of UK electro in the 90’s felt as if it was reaching back a little bit, still in love with the moves of an older school. This isn’t the case here; this is forward-looking music, accelerating onwards and drawing on a greater wealth of influences. The stunning, empty, and evocative Pace, for example, doesn’t even feel like electro so much as a blend of darkly billowing trip-hop and noirish story telling. It’s as modern as anything you’d find on a Brokntoys record.

And although the three different projects which the record draws from – there are a pair of tracks here under Finlow’s own name, and a single tune from his excellent Voice Stealer work – pitch and pull in differing directions, this mix of the physical and the mental, and of a deep sense of experimentalism informing the nature of the music rather than being its point, remains central to them all. The Silicon Scally material, however, perhaps benefits the most. Tunes such as moonax and Dark Matter are lithe, prowling creatures, but little bursts of light, fragments of melody and movement, temper the forward momentum with purpose and adventure. The one Voice Stealer track, the wonderfully downbeat yet optimistic Unintensional, reverses this, using the slow, skipping beats to add a sparkling warmth to the languid torpor.

It would have been nice to have had more Voice Stealer work on offer, but I’m sure the follow-up volume will rectify that. The track listing has been put together with an ear for music that means something to Finlow and For Those That Knoe label-head Ben and, as such, probably can’t be regarded as a definitive snap-shot of Finlow’s career. But given how much material there is in the archives, and over how years and styles it falls (way back to the straight up house he made with Ralph Lawson and Dominic Capello, and the Wulf-N-Bear work with Lawson, again, and Huggy) there are really few more sensible ways that this could have been done. I have a slight preference for some of the looser, heavier sounds from his releases on Device or Electrix for example, but that’s just me, and there is no doubt that A Selection Of Works Part 1 is an incredibly useful guide to the work of one of the outstanding pillars of the scene even if it doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. The nature of the tunes makes it as vital for those of us who think we’re entirely familiar with Finlow’s work just as much as it will be for those who are looking for a way in, not only to his own history, but to the wider past of British electro. Very much to seeing what volume 2 is going to bring.


Review: V/A – Mechatronica 5 (Mecahtronica)

OK, let’s not waste any time on small talk.

Various Artists – Mechatronica 5 (Mechatronica)

I’m always happy to admit that I really like Mechatronica. For a label which is still very much an embryonic project, each release has been a delight in the way it adds another clue to where this Berlin based outfit are going. Whether they really have a grand plan for all of this I don’t know. What I do know is that their slender output has been pretty impressive so far, and their love of the Various Artist mini compilation has provided us with a far broader body of work that one could ordinarily expect from such a young project.

So far we’ve seen the likes of Dez Williams, Privacy, Luke Eargoggle, and a host of others dropping cuts on the label which both reinforce and take apart our idea of what electro is. And here at the outset of 2018 they’ve provided us with a snap shot of the genre’s health as we head into what I suspect might well become a very strange year for electro, what with the increasing ‘I’ve always been into it’ jabber of chancers from other ends of the electronic spectrum who don’t seem to have ever played an electro track in anger before.

That aside, one of the things I like most about Mechatronica is the way they’ve never been content to propagate a single idea of what electro is, preferring an approach which helps to cast its light over a wide section of what is increasingly a very broad church. While the names here – Norwell, DJ Nephil, Gestalt, and Innerspace – may well, with the exception of Innerspace, be less immediately familiar to anyone except the truest heads, the comp more than holds its own with four choice tunes that do a bang up job of getting over something of the strange invention and scruffy majesty that has defined some of the best electro over the last couple of years.

Innershade kicks it off with the shoulders-out electro-pop stylings of Aalst To Charlois, a rakish charmer roughed up by clawing acid lines and a profoundly stompy sense of urgency before it gives way to Tranzs by Norwell where a gentler and more playful mood emerges from beneath the stern beats to elevate the tune up into the starlight.

Gestalt’s Mndfck and DJ Nephil’s White Dwarf roll out from a similar starting point but quickly slide off into very different places. Mndfck keeps the heartbeat high with a wobbly, wonky grooves tied together by a honk of bass and the infinite warble of a hungry 303, circling above White Dwarf’s looser, grittier, and down right more ornery take on the same themes. The acid here is plucked of its warmth and left to curl around the scattered beats for heat.

You know what: you should know by now. Mechatronica have done some pretty bang up work so far and this is another example of their ability to choose some of the best work in the genre. They deserve to be spoken about along side CPU and Brokntoys. This is great electro that never falls into the trap of doing what it’s expected to do. And the way things are going just now, that’s a quality you can’t put a price on.

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.


Best of the Represses – Jan 2018: Aux 88 – Bass Magnetic (Direct Beat Classics)

Aux 88 – Bass Magnetic (Direct Beat Classics)

The announcement back in the Autumn that Aux 88’s Tommy Hamilton and Keith Tucker were launching Direct Beat Classics with the intention of repressing some of the treasures from Direct Beat’s back catalogue was greeted in Pattern Burst Towers with a level of excitement that is normally kept for winning the lottery. Whether the new label was a long-term plan or something that grew quickly from necessity is, like worries of license hell, suddenly unimportant, for the first of these long-awaited reissues is upon us, and it’s a bloody good choice of starting point too.

I’ll admit something up front: I was particularly excited to find out Bass Magnetic was to be the first one out of the gate. I’ve never owned a copy of it. Originally released in 1994, I came to them slightly too late to pick it up, and by the time I realised how much I wanted it, copies were pretty much impossible to find. While I’ve spent plenty of time over the last two or three years convincing myself to pay over-the-odds for it from Discogs, something at the back of my mind suggested I waited. I’m glad I did.

Bass Magnetic, Aux 88’s second release, was a real statement of intent, one that utilised the 8 tracks to begin to codify not only the duo’s own sound, but also that which would quickly become known as techno bass, that blend of old-school electro, Miami bass, and techno, which would become such a defining factor for Detroit’s second wave. There were, of course, others who did techno bass, but Aux 88 were pretty much the definitive act, and their influence hangs over countless producers in the same way as that of their peers, Drexciya, even if it is not quite so apparent just now in a revitalized electro genre where there isn’t always such a focus on the raw groove.

And at heart, beyond everything else it does, Bass Magnetic is a collection of grooves. Whether it’s the hot, heavy, shuffle of Fly By Night, or the stalking tightness of Let’s Dance, every element is turned towards creating movement. Perhaps because of that necessity, the tunes themselves are stark and paired down – certainly in contrast to the swelling sound scapes that are to be found in a lot of modern electro – but there are still traces of something else, most noticeably of Detroit’s own relatively recent past. Model 500’s role in the evolution of the sound is apparent in many places, particularly on Time Space and Technology where it floods the tough jams with the glimmer of cosmic lighting.

This mix of past and future – in itself an important hallmark of all Detroit techno – runs like a river through Bass Magnetic but it never holds the music back from forming its own meaning, or stops it from pushing onwards to become an important stop, in its own right, in the city’s musical journey. It isn’t always a perfect record. Occasionally there is a sense of finding its feet, as if still forming the sound; here and there the beats echo into repetition as the soul and the groove don’t quite come together. Elsewhere, now and again, the ideas on offer drift into something a little one-dimensional, as if waiting for a missing element to be introduced.

There are people who think that, in terms of definitive statements, it’s 1996’s Is It Man Or Machine? which really nailed things down. And there is a lot of merit in that, but it was also, in some ways, the start of a period when the Aux 88 sound began to be refined to the point where further invention was rare. On Bass Magnetic there is a looser vibe, the beats less crisply executed. There is the sense of a band following different paths just to see where they go. Bass Magnetic, the tune itself, is certainly a premonition of later material, but its evocation of classic electro was straighter, less directly fuelled by Miami and Detroit. The quite frankly marvellous Sonic Boom, a stand out track in an already ridiculously good album, displays a sense of deep, joyous, funk-abandon that Aux 88 didn’t really approach again. It feels the odd one out, not because of its quality, but the way in which it feels closer to the energies of acid or even rave than technobass. It is a pure hit of good time accelerant, wobbly and all-embracing.

To anyone reared only on the electro of the last couple of seasons Bass Magnetic will probably be a slight shock with its direct and relatively austere execution. Even those of us who remember it from before might have our ears reopened, and be reminded that it’s this very directness that made Aux 88 such an amazing prospect. It’s electro with no quarters given, existing purely as a device for causing panic and delight on a packed dance floor, and quietly (actually, no, not quietly at all) reinventing the genre, setting it on a course with the future by taking the best bits of what had come before and adding in something new. Very few records are really deserving of being called a classic, but that it what Bass Magnetic is. An absolute treasure which sets the bar high for the rest of 2018.


Best of the Represses – Nov 2017

So I’ve been away in India for a bit. Not so much ‘finding myself’ as avoiding getting run over by psychotic bus drivers, motorised rickshaws, and camels, whilst eating twice my own weight in garlic naan. And although I’ve come back home with one of the meanest colds I’ve ever experienced, I’ve also returned with an unwillingness to give the benefit of the doubt to this whole repress malarky anymore. Seriously, label folks: this is about the third month in a row I’ve had to scrape around to avoid writing about endless disco edits and re-releases of watery 90s deep house. My brain, feet, and other less remarkable bits of my anatomy demand old school sonic fun and it just ain’t happening. It really isn’t. And with that, here’s the cream of a very, very, slender crop:

Model 500 – No UFO’s – Metroplex

Metroplex’s anouncement that it was going to start repressing some it’s classics was pretty much acclaimed by everyone with ears. Unfortunately the whole project seems to have gone off the boil a bit, with a number of scheduled bangers failing to appear. Even worse, the long-awaited repress of No UFO’s does that currently fashionable dirty trick where the original’s full arsenal has been ransacked to make room for stuff that, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, really isn’t all that great. In this case, both version’s of Future’s screwy, sleazy funk have been tossed out and replaced with remixes of the title track courtesy of Moodyman and Luciano. Both are unwanted and unneeded. While the Moodyman version is just -just- about passable, it tries too hard to straighten out the unstraightenable and turns in something fairly limp but bearable if you squint at it enough in low lighting. The Luciano version, though, is gash, and seems designed to be played in a god awful wine bar setting at 6.30 on a Wednesday night. For shame. I mean, if you hate Juan Atkins that much, why not just kick him in the nuts and leave the rest of us out of it? Luckily, the original versions of No UFO’s still sizzle with the same cyborg electrofunk energy they always have, their sense of fun, adventure, and machine-mysticism undiminished by being more than 30 years old. Buy for these two examples of effervescent genius and pretend the rest of it doesn’t exist.

Cube 40 – You Make Me Function – Was/Is

Although I’m not entirely sure of what came first, I think it’s safe to describe Cube 40 as a side project of Air Liquide’s Cem Oral and cocreated with his brother, Cam, way back in 1995. This is actually one of two Cube 40 represses which came out recently but, strangely, this one appears to have been a limited edition. The other, Bad Computer came out on another label and should also still be available.

You Make Me Function is, simply, a bunch of fun that really doesn’t try to do anything other than shift its arse around a wee bit. There is a really strong vibe of very early Relief records here, and its funk-slinging dumbness also works up a bit of a Dance Energy sweat which is all the more interesting because it predates the whole darn massive ghetto house DM explosion thing by a year or two. But even though bumptious Chicago second wave house is the obvious influence there is a bit more to it than that – little slivers of sound from Plus 8 and early European experiments in the genre tie it all together. I think Fun House on the B side is actually the better of the two tracks, kicking it out with the sort of wobbly acid shuffler that entire nights out once built themselves on. Maybe not the classiest thing you’ve ever heard, but if you can listen to it without smiling you’re dead inside. Dead. And you probably really like the Luciano remix of No UFO’s too. Get out of here, you bum.

Microthol – MicroKosmos (Anniversary Edition) – Trust

I wrote a bunch last month about the way in which Bandcamp was on its way to becoming a great resource and archive for all sorts of old music no longer available. I had planned to write a bit about some dinky Fastgraph stuff I found on it a while ago, but it seems to have been removed for God knows what reason. Never mind, because DJ Glow’s might Trust has supplied us with an even better option in the shape of Microthol’s debut album from 2006.

This is simply spiffing; a mix of vibes, atmospheres, and energies which take in a number of genres. MicroKosmos locks down a heavy mass of invention and sophistication with some potent grooves – some delicate, some prowling. While the electro forms the core of this collection, it reaches out towards EBM, Detroit flavoured techno, acid and all manner of gorgeously synthy madness. Comes complete with some excellent additional remixes from Dynarec, Marco Passarani, Alexander Robotnik, and Old Man Glow himself. While each of them is great, the Passarani and Robotnik reworkings really hit the spot. Just superb. Get it now.