Friday Night Tune: Robert Hood – Unix

The heavy mass of genres and styles which have influenced electronic music are well known, and we’ve been subjected to plenty of guff about it over the years. I used to be surprised by the amount of producers willing to spraff on about their affinity with hairy-arsed, self involved, proggy bollocks in interviews, or the sort of harsh krautrock which sounds like a psychology experiment gone wrong. You don’t see so much of it nowadays. I don’t imagine this is because there is any less desire to out oneself as a fan of the sort of music which makes you question your life choices, but more because – simply – the years have rolled on enough that the influences have changed in a way which allows this stuff can be consigned to the past.

There was, I think, another reason for it. By claiming a lineage to music which had undeservedly gained a reputation as somehow intellectually and musically superior, you are sticking your own flag in that endlessly trodden ground. In the earlier days, when you could get yourself into pointless arguments with all sorts of indy knobs and snobs once it was known your tastes in tunes ran to stuff that went doof and squelch, it was natural to adopt a defensive position, to pretend that your taste was important.

It was the same reasoning which led people down that boring little road where they squirted all that pish about 126 bpm being at the same speed as the human heartbeat, as if they were welding their love for acid house to a shamanic tradition which predated the fall of Atlantis. It’s interesting to note that although this sort of thinking had thankfully been battered around the head over here, as even the indy kids realised that electronic music wasn’t some weird virus that would turn you into one of those day-glo rave clichés you used to see upsetting farmers and Tories on the 9 0’clock News, the growth of EDM across the pond has fostered a resurgence. I imagine the circumstances are the same. As electronica fans over there have begun to admit it, they’ve probably been having to explain it to the sort of people who still think Rage Against The Machine are the cutting edge of underground music.

Still, that’s by the by. I’m lucky enough that both the prog rock and the dodgy heart based symbolism were things I missed. It’s not that I didn’t have arguments with Neds Atomic Dustbin fans who were strangely angry I liked techno, but more that I never realised I was supposed to be embarrassed about liking it. I did, however, find moving on to house and techno a natural progression from the music I had already been listening to. While nowadays we tend to remember the role disco played in the evolution of so much electronic music, we remain a bit reticent about giving soul its due. It’s there, though; particularly in the development of Detroit techno, for obvious reasons. In Britain these links were perhaps even stronger – the Northern Soul movement of the late 60s and the 70s was in many ways a massive precursor for rave and acid house, and the two are tied together in a common heritage.

But it was punk that I found to be the closest. Perhaps not in sound, nor in the popular meaning. It’s a difficult task to recognise the symbolism of peace and love and unity in the hard cynicism of Nation Of Ulysses or Scratch Acid; it’s virtually impossible to draw a line from Barbara Tucker’s luscious vocals to Steve Albini’s harsh sneer (and I bet that’s the only time in history you’ll see both of those names in the same sentence.)

It’s there though, the common heart, and the energy. And when I listen to a lot of Robert Hood’s earlier music it jumps out at me. I’ve written about Hood’s minimalist take on techno plenty of times before, the way he takes a tune and pares it down until nothing is left but a lean and furious groove. Many people tried to imitate him, but very few got close. There was always the need to throw something else into the mix which alleviated the almost terrifying starkness of the sound. And when that happens, the music loses its edge.

Rather than house, or even the great mass of techno (Detroit or otherwise) I’ve always felt that Hood’s tunes have a kindred spirit with the hardcore of Fugazi. The DC band often showed a similar take on sound, even though they came at it from a very different direction. Their own militancy, their anti-authoritarian stance, and fierce independence echoed something of Hood’s first band, Underground Resistance, and their music contains that same approach, the same stripped down, lean grooves powered by a compressed rage and potent, erudite, take on the world around them. That their tunes were largely powered by some of the greatest bass and drum patterns in rock music has often been overlooked as people focussed on Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto’s sharp lyrics, but Brendan Canty’s drums, and Joe Lally’s bass provided direction, and control, and – most techno of all, perhaps – a strange, alien sense of melody and completeness.

I’ve often felt that Fugazi’s seminal Repeater – one of the greatest records of the 90s – is what Hood may well have come up with had he been into punk instead of techno. Sometimes we look for links in places which are too direct, too obvious to really make sense. Often its only when we get past the surface noise and concentrate on the energy, the vibe, and the meaning, that we begin to realise that inspiration, influence, rarely comes from where we expect it too, and that sometimes we have far more in common with those who are supposed to be strangers than with those we are supposed to recognize as our own.

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Friday Night Tune: Goldie – Inner City Life

Generally with electronic music, it’s easy to follow the threads of DNA right back to the slurry of the original gene pool. Even today, all these long, cold, years on, we can trace them from their beginnings, slender filaments of light illuminating the creation of the genres. We can see the paths from soul and disco, from jazz and rhythm and blues, from primitive experiments on archaic synthesizers and drum machines which sounded like a child beating a tin can against the future. And we can see the eras webbed together, common highways always running forwards from their yesterdays and into the big bang of house and techno and everything else, and onwards. What ever other data might be hidden away in the invisible flow, there will always be the knowledge of the ways in which A became B.

There are gradual changes; tiny, cellular alterations which provide the foundations for the next step. It took time for Detroit techno, for example, to morph from its earliest forms, to exchange its experiments with house for a wider approach, and to slowly tighten the sounds, adding weight and philosophies, until the musical style the mid 90s bore few surface similarities with what Juan Atkins and others had being doing more than a decade earlier. House, too, took time to evolve. From disco to acid, to the interplay with harder European forms which sharpened the music. A slow change, played out over a decade and a half, led outward to a larger world. What is worth pointing out though is that the beginnings of house, like techno, are recognizable to the outsider, to the stranger whose interest in the music may be no deeper than the aural wallpaper of a club on a Saturday night. They know the rules to this stuff, they understand – largely – where it came from, even if they don’t realise it or care. The DNA forms deep, scarlet, channels through the chromium surface, as visible as the sun on a bright day.

With Drum & Bass, however, it’s not always so easy follow the paths. It’s not because D&B appeared suddenly from a vacuum, an emergent organism born out nothing more than an act of sheer will. The roots are there, the DNA is there. D&B grew just as organically as the rest, shoots of growth rising out from hardcore’s fertile garden of Eden, and bringing with it rave, and breakbeat, dub and sound system culture. Like all the others, it is a child of many parents.

Yet what astonishes even now is the speed it grew; virtually fully realised in the womb it arrived as something almost complete. When placed in its original time, amongst the other electronic brats, it seemed almost alien. It felt like a profound break with the past. The other genres, as futuristic as they are, are continuations, variations on a theme. D&B, though, was a year zero, its history curtailed, its growth accelerated. And the xenomorphic nature of the sound, the flexing, razor-edged, tendrils of its breaks, the curling, twisting bass, the interface of raw fury with delicate beauty, separated it from the others who were still finding their way. It was that rarest of things: something genuinely new.

There will be many people who don’t like Inner City Life, that it doesn’t embody the right stance, the right ethos, to represent a genre. Maybe they’re right. After more than twenty years I’m still a tourist when it comes to Jungle, skirting the land and looking for a way in. I’m a lightweight who remains happy to hear what there is to hear. What I know about it all you could write on a stamp. Even so, I think of this tune as something defining, something that encapsulates all of what I’ve just written. It’s easy to be cynical now, so long after the start, but when you get back to it, what remains shocking about Inner City Life is how beyond almost everything else it seemed to be. I don’t just mean house and techno, yet to break away from the worlds they lived in, but against the backdrop of the larger musical world, the charts, the rock, the pop. The language we developed, all the concepts of underground or overground, were essentially meaningless because this was music which existed in a time and place entirely of its choosing, with little regard for what came before or what would come after.

The shockwaves contract, change becomes ever more gradual, and it might be that Drum and Bass will eventually be remembered as the last true explosion of invention within electronica. Techno was always supposed to be the embodiment of a science-fiction mindset as music, yet here was a sound that really was all that, and more. it didn’t wear it on its sleeve; it simply was. An echo from a far future. And whatever else might happen, within its rolling thunder it made it possible to remember that regardless of how important the past, we always need tomorrow too.

Friday Night Tune: Space DJz – Lights

Like most people my tastes have changed over the years, often rolling from one extreme to another as experiences have washed over me. There are stacks of records here that I once would have thought of as some of the best music ever made, timeless examples of everything I thought was good in electronic music and other genres but now just sound tired and frayed, dated by the passing years, emptied and discarded like bottles of wine enjoyed long ago.

There were brief infatuations: various forms of rock and jazz I was momentarily obsessed by before quickly becoming bored; ambient records which once felt like indescribably beautiful sonic paintings which now sound like yawns timestretched across infinity; IDM tunes which soon dulled through their cleverness and lack of anything approaching passion or soul. There’s a lot of stuff in that pile. I really should get rid of some of it. I know I won’t. It’s as much a part of my musical upbringing as everything else.

There are, however, some things which I tired of but have found myself recently swinging back to. There was a long period where the idea of listening to crumbly acid techno wouldn’t have gone down well. It had been one of the staples when I was getting into all this for the first time. For what seemed an age it was everywhere; every club felt as if it was pulsing with this stuff and I slowly came to hate it. Not because of its popularity, but because, like weeds, it choked out every other sound. A little later the same thing happened with ghetto house. What was, at first, a thrillingly alien and explosive change of direction soon became the new and boring normal, and it reinforced a lesson learned – familiarity breeds contempt, and over-familiarity murders scenes. In both cases I’ve slowly returned to them, feeling sheepish but knowing that the new space around them has allowed them to shine once again.

At one point I found myself disliking fast, banging techno. Everything seemed to blur together into a beige mash where only the loudest, most strident, and frequently the most boring elements, made it through into your conciousness. I began to seek out slower music, a lot of deeper house and lush electronica. At first it was a pleasant and interesting diversion, but it couldn’t really hold my attention. Of course, the problem wasn’t really the music; having gorged myself on it for years I couldn’t stuff any more into my ears. Something had to give.

Yet faster, harder music is something I’ve also drifted back to. I think the surrounding tastes for acrid myths of deepness, coupled with a harsher world to the one I remember from even a few years back has found me seeking out something more visceral. Some people turn to sedative music when everything sharpens. I don’t. I’m not someone who dips into a Sunday reverie of gentle, good time-ish tunes.; too light a touch has always irritated my skin. Part of it is that I don’t think I’ve ever looked towards music for chills. It’s not that I wouldn’t want to, but I can’t really detach the music from the obsession long enough to reach that cloudy passivity. I tend to only relax when I’m utterly immersed in something, anything, be it music or reading or writing. It’s a kink in my particular make up, and I’m sure that it’s unhealthy, but I don’t care: it’s mine.

My rediscovery of Space DJz’ Lights awoke all kinds of competing emotions, as this was a tune I really did obsess over for a long time. I was already aware of Space DJz when the EP was released on Soma back in 1996, mainly because Jamie Bissmire was a name I’d followed for a while because of his work as part of Bandulu, one of the first non Detroit techno acts I really loved. The work he did with Ben Long was a different creation from Bandulu; closer to a prime time burst of speed and colour, but with enough shadows playing across the surface to provide the all important contrasts.

I used to spend entire afternoons playing Lights, using it as the basis of a mix, dragging it for hours in an out of dozens of other records. I found an old practice tape not long ago, with moments of Lights scattered across the whole 90 minutes, like a recurring motif in a long classical work. Sometimes it was a few seconds, just long enough to dip out of one tune and cue the next up, other times it was long minutes, flowing across the tape and marshalling everything else.

Lights is still a paragon of faster techno. It’s just about the perfect example. Hard techno often cuts in links with both soul and groove, but Lights is all about both. The speed of the tune – and at about 140 BPM it certainly sails along – tenses everything else; the pure born flutter and flurry of the Detroit-ish melodies, the touches of Spastik style percussion, and that strange little bass which is at once so neutral yet controls and dominates the light speed funk.

It’s a reminder that soulfulness in music doesn’t tend to come from conventional approaches, from jazzy touches and minor chords. Often, it’s the outliers which provide the real soul, and only reveal exactly how soulful when you let them get right into your face, and right under your skin. It’s also a reminder that while tastes change obsessions rarely do. The trick is to make sure they’re worth it.

Friday Night Tune: Adonis – No Way Back

Going back to old tunes can be taxing as often than rewarding, but it probably says something about the age we live in that we continuously seek comfort in it, even if we weren’t around for it all originally. In actual fact, it’s probably better if we are coming to old music that we never experienced the first time around. Nostalgia is the killer of the future. We return, expecting the sounds of our youth to elicit the same emotions, and end up disappointed. Much better to come at it with few preconceptions of what to expect. To weave fresh experiences from old fabrics.

Partly I assume that this is because of how often the most important reasons you remember a track as being special have little to do with the music itself. Most often it’s a combination of factors: good memories of past times, the people you were with; the sort of odds ‘n’ sods of a life lived and remembered. The music, the actual notes and movements, lies there almost ephemeral; they remains in your head as triggers, activating those thoughts like hitting the play button on a loop in Ableton.

The way your musical memory plays tricks on you is one of things that keeps your interest up. I’ve lost track of the amount of times I’ve gone back to an old tune and realised that the very thing I’d long associated with it, the magic I’d thought it contained, is conspicuous by its absence. Sometimes that missing element is replaced by another facet, another special ingredient which was one buried under everything else but quickly comes to flavour the experience in a new but equally exciting way. Sometimes though, you just realise that the tune is simply not very good.

With techno and electro, and a few other genres, I don’t find I have too many problems adjusting my ears to 20-30-year-old sounds. Sure, both electro and techno have their share of shaky ‘you had to be there’ moments but it’s interesting just how much has stood the mysterious test of time. With jungle I find a lot of it even more listenable today than I did then, perhaps because I was never so immersed in that scene. Hardcore too – divorced from the things the younger, snobbier, me hated about it, I find its explosive moodiness brilliant.

Oddly, the stuff that I find has lasted best is the material which verged on the cybernetic. I can think of several Detroit classics which are now beginning to feel ropey, not because they are bad tunes – far from it – but because the soulful, humanized elements which made them so damn good originally are the very things which anchor them in the past.

House music in particular doesn’t seem to age well. I sometimes wonder whether the current love of disco is, amongst other reasons, down to the fact that a lot of it seems to have dated better than a lot of early house, while bringing with it the esoteric excitement of true temporal distance. A lot of the house I gorged on in my early 20s is close enough that it doesn’t have that edge to it; it’s still too close in time, and that paradoxically seems to make it feel all the older. The vocals, the beats, the often pedestrian and wobbly speeds. At the heart, though, is that human element, the thing which separated it from the other electronic sounds. It ties it to a world where the escape velocity is too high to let it go.

Some old house tunes manage to break free. No Way Back by Adonis is one of these. Its one of a handful of old house records which still sounds as absolutely fierce as when I first heard it. Even better, it towers over many newer records. The combination of that tightly syncopated beat with that menacing, but joyously unhinged bass line, gives it an energy which sounded alien at the time, and even now that same combination – and the way the simplicity of it fires such complex heat – lends it a freshness that’s almost impossible to recreate. The vocals avoid soulfulness but ratchet up the demented emotional potency instead. It’s a very modern vibe, locked away in a 30 year old tune.

There shouldn’t be any way back, I guess. Not really. But if you’re headed that way its worth remembering that going in search of the past is really only any damn use if it shows you the way to the future. If you forget that, if you’re just there to holiday in your own or other people’s memories, at least find the good tunes and let them move you forward.

Friday Night Tune: CTRLS – Socket

These days we have a habit of chucking certain words around as if we are trying to ward off reality. We use the word ‘underground’ in its loosest sense, as if it feeds any amateurish, unlistenable bollocks or slick, mainstream blandness with the kudos it needs to transform it into something vital and edgy. We call stuff ‘analogue’ as if it imbues any old bunch of badly written wank with authenticity and artistic importance. And we torture the word ‘classic’ until it means nothing more than something we heard in a club two weeks running.

These misuses aren’t really new. The scene has being doing them for years, but it’s got worse as marketing and PR have made inroads into Our Thing. As electronica has become more and more commodified, the language used to polish turds has grown more and more strident, and reached the point where it happily co-opts original meanings for its own ends.

And it’s the meaning and the message which suffer. You are not longer being sold music, of course, but a dream and a lifestyle choice. Again, this is nothing new. The industry has been doing it since the very beginning. Even the blues, that by-word for irreproachable authenticity, was largely the creation of the early music industry, a dream dreamt to draw money from the sleepers.

Still. In techno, in much of electronica in fact, where all of these suspect words – and more – still carry a weight of meaning it’s hard to be too angry. That they no longer have the same importance they once did is true enough, but they still tend to echo something of the romanticism which was at the heart of everything when the music was young. And that’s warming, not because of the what they mean now, but because for all their abuse, it suggests that those original values still carry importance no matter how far everything has moved since then. It points to an innate sense that the music can and should be more than just an accompaniment to wearing the right trainers, or what listening to the right producers says about you. It might now lie in the subconscious more than anywhere else, but it’s still there. And that’s good.

The number of producers still kicking out music which hits up all these things might not seem as large as it once did, but that’s probably because the pond is bigger now. Even so, there are still producers out there doing special stuff, music which lights up the right part of the brain. I’ve always liked the techno of Troels Baunbæk-Knudsen because aside from his increasingly unique ear for the sounds, his music still feels unbelievably pure; created with little regard for what anyone else is doing. What is special about his techno is that it sounds the way techno should but rarely does. Often hard but never harsh, it’s melodic and funky in the way you always thought techno should be – alien and cyborg like, with the human elements not so much discarded but elevated and changed, incorporated into a larger, sharpened whole until the ghost becomes the machine.

Sockets was the first Ctrls tune I remember hearing, and something in my brain was stretched when it swung into life. It remains one of Baunbæk-Knudsen’s best moments, and epitomises, I think, one of the only real markers of a true classic – it sounds and feels familiar, like you’ve heard it before even though you really, completely haven’t. And it’s instantly recognizable; a rain dance belonging to a tribe of robots lost in a forest of metal shards, and powered by grooves tightened with strangely, impossibly, precise geometry.

A true underground classic, one of very few in the modern era. In the way it simply flows outwards from its own ideas of what techno is, it reminds you that the underground is about a feeling, a mood, and a sense of being. No matter how little language tells the truth any more, you can’t fake the music.