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.

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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.

Friday Night Tune: Santos Rodriguez – Road To Rio

Although it may have become fashionable in the later years of the 21st century’s opening decade to slate Richie Hawtin’s trilogy of mix CDs, the Decks & Effects series, anyone not suffering from virulent Cool-Kid syndrome would have to admit that, for all their supposed faults, they provided an interesting and useful snapshot of electronic music over the course of a decade, showing where it had been and where it was going, and indicating the massive changes that were beginning to alter how we perceive DJing.

Although none of the three can really be thought of as a ‘live experience’ that really shouldn’t be used as a complaint. Mix CDs have often attempted to provide something different to what we find in a club on a Friday or Saturday night. From the easily forgotten details such as licensing of tracks which can have a profound influence over the DJ choices and the overall flow of the mix, to the use of studio equipment and editing, to a simple desire to explore a different facet of the music, mix CDs are an end-point of sorts, a genre of their own almost, where the DJ is given the room to create an ideal vision of what the music is and how it works.

Even so, of the three Hawtin mixes, my favourite remains the very first one, the original Decks, EFX & 909 which first came out in 1999 and felt less separated from the common DJ experience than the other two did. While both Transitions and Closer To The Edit are ear opening from a technical perspective, essentially using fragments and elements of the original music to create a new whole, neither have the immediacy and vitality that the first one has. Where the second to are very much ‘listening’ records, the first still retained something of the physicality and immediacy of the club. You could stick it on an Ipod, go to the gym and sweat to it. The others may move you, but the first got you moving.

It isn’t just that which keeps it in my top spot, it’s the music as well. The later additions to the series increasingly documented the changes which were filtering out from minimal techno’s ground zero in Berlin, mixed in with bits of dub and the harder edge of the European scene, but the first remained more recognizable to those of us kicking around in the nineties: lots of Jeff Mills, some Surgeon, Pacou, and Baby Ford. It wasn’t in fact, a million miles away from the standard playlists of countless residents back then who were banging out the tunes every weekend.

I had heard probably heard Road To Rio a few times in passing before I found it on DE9. It was that sort of tune, and a paragon of the sort of track which became later known – somewhat dismissively – as the loopy banger. Techno was full of it at that time. What made Road To Rio different though was that it was a beautifully pulsing number, rich with little tribal touches that accented the groove and propelled it outwards in a way most others of the type could barely aspire to. Far from dumping a few functional elements on you over and over again, it coloured them in, and mounted them cleverly, getting the maximum out of the tools available. It contained a similar energy to that which informed Robert Hood’s earliest Floorplan excursions, and for a while, catching it in clubs, I assumed it was possibly the same producer. It wasn’t.

The artist was a guy called Arthur Smith, somebody who deserves to be very well-known in the wider history of British techno but isn’t. He’s always seemed happier behind the scenes. His best known work as a creator of electronic music continues to be the Santos Rodriguez guise, and his Grain material (also appearing on the mix), but his output has always been limited. Despite that, he’s had a major role in modern music far beyond the confines of techno. He had a big hand in the creation of dubstep, has involved himself in garage, and has written for, and produced some of the biggest names in music. Seriously, go check out his Discogs page.

Anyway. I don’t have any clever way of bringing it all together here, nor do I have any major point to make. I kinda screwed that up, huh? I’m really tired and want to eat some food. So go and listen to the tune. Cheers.

Friday Night Tune: The Shamen – Ebeneezer Goode

For all the love I have for house, techno, and all the other members of the family, I find sometimes you need something else to get you through the day. I probably never gave The Shamen quite as much attention as they deserved at the time. Like a lot of people who obsess over niche music, I was an aural snob from an early age and the official charts were a strange and disorienting territory.

But the late eighties and the early nineties were a watershed time in all sorts of ways. The influence of music coming from somewhere other than the boardroom meant for the first time in a very long time there was room at the top for the sorts of freaks and weirdoes who rarely got a look in. House music and Madchester were a double pronged assault on the status quo, and although neither had a very long stay at such lofty heights, they had a profound effect in the sort of music which would later bleed into the mainstream from outside.

I doubt whether a band like The Shamen could exist at that level nowadays. Even if we ignore the fact that the charts as we knew them are long gone, fractured into countless pieces, there still probably wouldn’t be much room for The Shamen’s full-on blend of pop, techno, house and fecund, cosmic, psycho-sexual bobbins. They – perhaps unwittingly – capitalised on the sea change which took place in those weird days, when the KLF blew the bloody doors off with art-sound terrorist shenanigans, bands like 808 State, Orbital, Altern8 and Happy Mondays were on Top Of The Pops, and – sweetest of the sweet – the Jesus and Mary Chain could get to number bloody ten with a record which opened with the line ‘I wanna die just like Jesus Christ/I wanna die on a bed of spikes’. One Direction it ain’t.

Ebeneezer Goode was a controversial number one at the time, and listening to it now it seems even more incredible that it could have got there at all. No. Not incredible: Impossible. A tune with such overt drug references – For God’s sake a tune extolling the virtues of Ecstasy no less should never have got that far. Even then that is beside the point. Yes it certainly is a ditty about pills, except that, if you listened to anything the band said, it wasn’t, except it really was, except…except….

Except it was about far more than that. It represented the simple fact that something had changed in the British psyche. Thatcher was a year gone, people could smell the end of Tory rule (even though it would be another five years until they were cleared out), and the massive explosion of acid house hadn’t so much changed us, but drawn out something which had always been there. In the same way that punk had infected British life with new ways of looking at things, so too had acid house. Its influence seeped into fashion and art and music, and it reminded us that for all the ‘make do and mend’ mentality we were supposed to represent, the actual truth was we were always a people who liked to get blasted and go dancing, and more than even that, we liked to stick two fingers up at authority, to take the piss out of constraints and conventions. Essentially, we are a nation of Ebeneezer Goodes.

There are always going to be those who remain sniffy about The Shamen. Fair enough. But in Our Thing, where we obsess over misplaced notions of the underground and authenticity it is sometimes important – and perhaps a little humbling – to remember that for all the finely constructed slices of dystopian techno you have in your stack right now, it was a number one song featuring the refrain ‘Eazer good, Eezer good – E’s Ebeneezer Goode!’, carried along in a video starring a sweary Glaswegian in a cape with a little dog which really upset the apple cart. And looking around at the state of the world just now, I think I know which one we need more. LAVELY!!