A Couple Of Record Reviews Via The Scenic Route

No matter how comfortable, a prison is still a prison. There is a window which looks out upon a scruffy tree and a concrete wall, and the room, small but not tiny, contains everything I might want for my work; note pads and an ancient computer, piles of records and books. The door leads to an airless corridor of peeling paint and scuffed linoleum. At one end is the bathroom with a small, high window through which you can sometimes hear snippets of distant conversation. At the other is the one door which leads to the outside world. It is never locked, and I can leave any time I want. Except, where would I go? and what would I do? Somehow that makes my sentence worse.

I sit at the desk and patter out loose words which describe the way I imagine the people who make the music want me to feel. I suspect I’m rarely right but I don’t really care because once the music’s in the wild, the only interpretation which matters is the one each listener brings to it. You can love your children, but once they leave the nest they are the only ones who can define themselves.

Once a week the doorbell will ring and I’ll swear, drag myself to my feet and shuffle down the corridor to let in The Archivist. He will lope past me; black jeans and a blacker mood, a stab of the eyes letting me know to leave him well alone. I am the scribe, and he is the archivist and so our work goes on.

He’s only ever happy when drifting through the shelves and the piles on the hunt for records. He seldom looks it though, and in this I think we are the same. I am only ever happy when I am writing but I will do my damnedest to avoid doing any. I will pull books apart to find out what makes them tick; I’ll construct cunning excuses with the same level of effort it would’ve taken to have written a novel; I’ll dilly and I’ll dally; I’ll hide, I’ll fuck about. The only thing I won’t do is work. Not until I’ve run out of every other available option.

There is a telephone in the room with The Archivist and I. They had it installed years ago and it’s an ugly thing of thick, moulded plastic the colour of over-ripe avocado, and with a handset so large and heavy it strains your hand to hold it for more than a minute. They got it from the reception desk of an A+E ward which was being closed down, and They smirked at the irony that something so essential could end up serving something so ephemeral. I hate phones at the best of times, but this one, this hideous thing, I despise. And of course, it senses when I have finally started to write because it begins to ring, it’s anxious, fussy trill filling the room. I try to ignore it, knowing I won’t be able to, and out of the corner of my eye I can cam see The Archivist glaring at me; He’s holding a battle-worn Jeff Mills EP and he hisses “Aren’t you going to answer it?” I shrug, knowing full well all that will do is piss him off.

I pick up the receiver before The Archivist blows his top, and say hello. There is nothing on the other end but silence and static at first, and I wonder briefly whether they are screwing with me. Eventually, just as I’m about to hang up, a voice, tiny, tinny and far away, says “have you heard it yet? Did you listen to it?”

I say nothing, letting he voice continue. It develops a slightly maniacal edge, pleading, and then demanding, I listen to the record it’s talking about, an anonymous 12″ by an unknown producer on a label called Keep Your Mouth Shut.

“I think it’s the Aphex Twin,” It says. “I think it’s him. There is an Aphex Twin sample on it. It would be delightfully ironic, wouldn’t it?” I Look over at The Archivist. I had put the phone onto speaker and now The Archivist is standing there, shaking his head at me.

“Sure, “I say. “Ironic.” And it would be, wouldn’t it? The Aphex Twin, once famous for his obtuse remixes which left not a trace of the original producer, identified as an unmarked, unknown artist, purely from a sample culled from his best known work. Ironic. Yeah. But I don’t know whether it’s true. I doubt it. It’s probably someone vaguely known to those of us who haunt the edges of The Music. Either that or a huge star harvesting easy kudos and their ticket back to the underground. Maybe. The rest of the record doesn’t really sound anything like him. The first track, for instance, is really just an average, middle of the road bumper that doesn’t go anywhere. Inoffensive, but lacking anything identifiable or unique. It could, literally, be anyone. It’s an American label too, not that it means anything in this day and age, but the clues are often found in the most unlikely of places.

The rest of the tunes are pretty good. No, scratch that. They’re excellent.

“I hope it’s not the Aphex Twin,” I tell the voice on the telephone. “I’d be much happier if it turns out to be a genuinely unknown artist. That second track with the AFX sample is a killer, but the B side – wow!”
“A strong release would you say?” the Voice enquires.
“As strong as it gets.”

In this I’m right. While the first track is OK, and the second, with its sample taken from AFX’s remix of an ancient St. Etienne song, is a deep well of lively nostalgia reworked into a hard and energized groove, it’s the other two tracks which really kick it into the next level. Track 3 with its heavy, slow breakbeats, wonderfully languid melody (another AFX sample?), and shadowy touches rises above the day-to-day and brings depth and imagination to a style that often locks itself down in a single direction. Track 4, a radioactive dose of cosmic craziness, neurotic and acid burned fluidity, is one of my favourite tracks of the year so far. I’d find a place for this gorgeous hit of wistful darkness in every set I’d play if I could ever get out of here.

“You don’t think…..” The Voice tails off, as if teasing.”you don’t think there is something to it that’s a little bit, well, old-fashioned? A little too set in the early nineties?”
“That’s why he likes it!” Hoots the archivist. “He can’t see that he automatically favours new music that reminds him of when he used to have some sort of a life!”

I give him the V’s and take the record off the deck, placing it on top of a pile of books and papers out of The Archivist’s reach just to annoy him.
“I can’t find a sample of it online to link to,” I moan. “I don’t like it when I can’t find a sample to link to.”
The Voice giggles. “Never mind. I’m sure they’ll get the gist from your amazing descriptive powers.”

The doorbell rings again, and The Archivist shuffles off to see who it is. He returns a moment later with a box of records he lovingly, carefully slices open with a craft knife. He doesn’t let me do it any more, having seen the way I tear at the card and the glue.

He holds up one of the fresh records. “You should review this. I think it’s going to be very popular.”
“Who is it by? what label is it on?” He reads the names.
“Oho! It’s them! I wondered why they’d been Liking so many of my posts on social media! Kiss arses! Brown Nosers! Trying to smooth me up after they ignored me for months!”

The tiny voice on the telephone speaker chimes in. “Calm yourself you dingbat, you dilettante. You’re paranoid. The pressure is getting to you. I’m sure they’re not kissing your arse. I’m sure they’re just admiring your writing.” The Archivist and The Voice break up into hysterics. I slam the receiver down and glare at The Archivist who stares back. We square up over a pile of filthy Dance Mania records. The phone rings again and I pick it up, dumping the handset on the desk as I press the loudspeaker button. I reach over and grab another one of the new records from The Archivist. A different one. “What about this one? It’s on Happy Skull, isn’t it?”

“Charnel House by Bass Clef,” he mutters. “You like Bass Clef.”
“Some of his stuff, Yeah. Didn’t go for that last one on Trilogy Tapes though, did I?”
“Neither did I.” Says the voice on the telephone.
“Who asked you?” I snap. “We don’t even know who you are. Maybe you’re from that arsekissing record label, maybe you’re that guy on social media who told me to go read a book! Maybe you’re the bastarding Aphex Twin. Maybe this is all just one of your marketing ploys!”
“Chill out, you oddly cynical illiterate.” The voice chided. “How do you get through a day without falling apart?”
“He doesn’t” snickers The Archivist. He takes the record off me and slides the vinyl out of the sleeve. “Shall we give it a listen?”

I drop into my knackered chair, sulking, as the archivist puts the record on the 1200 and places the needle.

“What’s this one called?”
Charnel House” The archivist sits down on his stool by the window and lights a rollie, taking heavy draws and staring into space as his head bobs along with the tune’s fat, wonky, rhythms. I’m not so sold on it, not at first anyway. It seems like a beat and a bass quacking out a rudimentary melody. But when it ends I signal for The Archivist to roll it again. He does and he quickly locks down in time with the groove. It’s growing on me too. Something about its simplicity, the way it blends a certain tongue-in-cheek Super Nintendo vibe with a particular rawness begins to do a job on my brain. Before long we’re all quacking along with it.

“Nice,” I say, and cadge a rollie from The Archivist.
“I liked it too,” The Voice interjects.
“Nobody asked you!” The Archivist snaps. I grin and give him the thumbs up as he turns the record over.

This one, Acid Hearse, feels less knowingly daft but more exploratory, as if it spends the first couple of minutes trying to stake out its territory before it gets going. When it does, though, it fuels itself with a pleasingly early ravey mood that weaves in and out over the top of the breaks. There’s a little flurry of dub techno-ey reverb somewhere in the background. I mention that this is the best way to do dub techno. The Voice on the phone sounds a bit piqued. The Archivist gives me a look.

“This isn’t dub techno.”
“I know that. I never said it was. I said that there’s something a wee bit dubby now and again.”
He shrugs. “That’s your opinion. I like it.”
“I like it too. It’s got a bit of cheekiness to it without losing sight of something a bit more meaty. It sounds fresh.”
“Fresh.” Something in the way The Archivist intones the word gets my hackles up but I stay quiet. So does The Voice, strangely.

“Shall we do another one?” Asks the Archivist.
“Nah. I’m tired now and it’s getting dark. I’m hungry. Let’s order a curry.”
“I’d rather have pizza.”
“What about me?” The Voice whines from across its infinite distance.
“Nobody care about you” We both shout at the same time. I hang up the phone. The Voice doesn’t call back.

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Monrella: Process and Report EP (Berceuse Heroique)

I should have probably written about this one last week when I did the repress stuff but, y’know, that’s the way it goes sometimes. Ok, the background is that this is essentially the first two Monrella 12″s from the mid nineties whacked together into one easily digestible EP. Well, I say easily digestible but that might not be entirely accurate. Monrella was one of the nom-de-plumes of Mick Harris, one time drummer for the legendary Napalm Death, and Extreme Noise Terror, and a creative force of nature who also released some pretty outstanding work as Scorn, Lull, and Trace Decay as well as collaborating with such luminaries as Anthony Rother and Meat Beat Manifesto. Given all of that you’d probably expect the music here to be of the kill-em-all-ask-questions-later variety. You’d only be partly right.

There is no doubt that the four tunes here would naturally be at home on something like Jeff Mill’s Live At The Liquid Rooms mix CD. They’re natural bedfellows not only of Mills’ own brand of molten 90’s slammers, but also of the likes of Surgeon. Each of them carries considerable heft, and propel themselves along with the sort of absolutely huge, planetary kick drums which used to be all over the place before techno producers got together and decided they wanted their beats to sound like a finger click surrounded by cold chip-fat. These are vast tunes, and disturbingly lively.

But they are also full of unexpected subtlety, and little glimmering touches of shade and contrast. While the beats steam right on, everything else helps to add definition to the movement, shaping something which is far less monolithic than it has any right to be. Process 2, for instance, is ablaze with the colour of early morning light, the riff both simple and to the point but holding a mirror to the grooves; accelerating and controlling the gathering storm but always keeping the murk from closing in. Report, a fraction slower, throws a curve ball in the form of a woozy, lop-sided lead which lends the tune the vibe of a ride in a demented fairground, the strange journey punctuated by sparse handclaps and frosty percussion.

That they sound of-their-time is probably unavoidable, but I think it’s also partly the point. Techno and its DNA have altered so much over the last 20 years, and it has done so in a way that sometimes makes it difficult to notice until you are once again confronted with its earlier form. A tune like Fixed, forever prowls around in that section of the brain where I hold my definitions of techno; angular, buckling, and edgy with a nervous energy, it sums up so much of what I want techno to be. Process 1 is like a slingshot back in time, but one which reminds you that the grimy snarl which used to be such a regular thing is nothing to be afraid of – particularly when you remember that the energy of these tunes were entirely predicated upon their desire to make you move, to get you on the floor. Not only is this dance music of the most stark sort, it’s dance music that isn’t embarrassed about that fact. There’s a lesson here, but only if you’ve got the guts to learn.

Best Of The Represses – August 2018

In which the Scribe pisses and moans about things which are – mostly – not your fault, gets annoyed at the way the Glasgow/Turkish bath level humidity is making his arms stick to the desk as he tries to write, leading to an unpleasant variant of Skibberene, and debates with himself the correct way to ignore Aphex Twin advertising campaigns. One of these things, dear eletronichildren, is true. Or perhaps none of them. Read on to find out!

Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (R&S)

While a small and boring section of the world continues to confuse an Aphex Twin marketing campaign with something tangible, interesting, and – you know – musical ahead of the piss-taking maestro’s newest album, R&S have sneakily put out another repress of his d├ębut, the still wonderful Selected Ambient Works 85-92. Ordinarily I probably wouldn’t cover this here (or at all), not least because I’ve a strange feeling that I’ve already written about a previous incarnation in BoTR but mostly because I assume that pretty much everyone who wants a copy already has it. I’ve got about 4 spread across different formats, including the brick-like cassette album and a CD that long ago did it’s very best to disprove the notion that the format was somehow indestructible.

So, why am I talking about it now? Well, quite aside from the fact it still contains a selection of tunes that defy any sort of easy categorisation, it’s a reminder that there was actually a time when the Aphex Twin wasn’t about the myth. Selected Ambient Works… is from an era before the stories of him living in a bank vault, before the urban legends of him terrorizing Cornish B roads in an armoured car, before he achieved an admirable level of anonymity through the creation of a massive media mirage which reflected not what he was but what everyone wanted him to be. That was a clever move, no mistake, but the knock on has long been the near impossibility of discussing the actual Aphex Twin music in a sane and useful manner.

Which is a shame because his work has often been more than good enough to do its thing without any of the concomitant bollocks, although I’ve always had a suspicion that James’ Aphex Twin music is the price he pays in order to work on other stuff free from it being dissected by tits like me. But then, I reckon at any given time half the one-off white label records by a ‘unknown artist’ are probably him on the sly so what do I know.

Look, you know the record as well as I do. Parts of it are truly beautiful, parts are alien hymns blasted out towards earth, across light years and infinite frequencies, a billion years ago, and parts are like dangerous shifting sands always ready to suck you down the moment you think you’re on solid ground. Every track on it still sounds utterly timeless because even when it was released it didn’t sound of its time. If you forced me to choose just one tune, I’d have to go for the languid, captivating, and soul stealing Ageispolis as my choice. Those slowly unfurling breaks, that bass….that bass….Somehow, when you’re talking about Selected Ambient Works, the word ‘classic’ seems far too small.

Spesimen – Infocalypse Era (Frustrated Funk)

Even veteran electro fans have glaring gaps in our collections, and for me that is found where the Spesimen records should be. Partly this is down to the fact that there were never more than a handful of releases; a slim four records released between 1996 and 2003. Even worse, they’ve now landed in that Discogs category of pricing that, while not entirely unaffordable, are pricey enough that you don’t want to throw good money at the vagaries of Discg-sharks grading. For a long time the only one that was easy to find was 2003’s Archaeology – and even then it was only because Pomelo Records have been selling the digital version on their Bandcamp.

Since then it was pretty much all quiet until Spesimen quite unexpectedly turned up a couple of years ago with a couple of tracks on a split EP on Libertine. While it’s probably harsh to describe them as a disappointment, they certainly paled in comparison to the expectation that had been building up for the best part of 15 years. And so we settled down and counted our pennies in case a decent price appeared on Discogs.

Well, thank God for Frustrated Funk, who have delved into the Spesimen back catalogue for this new release. First thing to state is that the label have gone down a route I’m not usually overly excited about, to wit: the picking and choosing of tunes from different EPs rather than just re-releasing the damn thing the way nature intended. However, I’m willing to overlook it this time because the treasures here are worth it, and I suspect there may be mitigating circumstances.

Infocalypse Era, then, takes tunes from the first two Spesimen records, which were both originally released on their own label, Infocalypse. From the debut release, 1996’s The Pupae EP, we have PSIO and Harmonik Science, and from 1998’s The Larval Stage EP we get Satellite and Astrologer. All four are good choices – no, they’re great choices – but it leaves a lot of material behind, especially from the larger second EP. It may be our old enemy, the licence issue. It usually is. But I suspect a more prosaic and, unfortunately, terminal reason: The tunes on my copy are intermittently distorted (and not in a good way) as if the record is filthy or I’m playing them through a dirty needle. The fact is the deck and needle are fine, and the record is in perfect condition. I wonder, therefore, whether the reason for the cull is simply that the original tapes or DATS are too badly degraded for any other tracks to be included. I hope I’m wrong and that my copy is just a shite press, and I pray that there is another volume on its way. But if there isn’t I’ll give thanks for what we have.

And boy do we have a treat. This is wonderful electro that sidesteps all of the prevailing tastes of the era. This is neither technobass, nor the smoother, darker, European electro-noir. It’s not Dutch squatter bangers, nor is it cheeky, cheesy, old-school fizzers.

The music doesn’t exist in a vacuum though, and there are kindred spirits sharing Spesimen’s nebula. Most obviously, perhaps, the music of Andreas Bolz, particularly in his Third Electric partnership with Gregor Luttermann, shares a similar vibe. Ectomorph’s cold funk also echoes with a common interest in precision yet abstracted grooves. And yet, Spesimen’s box of tricks seems to draw from another source, an endless well of zero-point energy constantly feeding a particularly compelling funk, and powering the strangely angular breaks into a realm where experimentalism and the commonplace become one and the same.

Regardless of my personal feelings about the lack of the other tracks, this is a superb release, and all the better for being entirely unexpected. Lose yourself in Satellites oddball, occult arms, glide above a gravity well on Astrologer’s broad back, and bounce across the surface of a strange, impossible, world with the utterly irrepressible PSIO at your side. One of the cleverest, most important, and stand out represses we’re likely to get this or any other year. Buy on sight.

Reviews Ahoy! Dead Sound – This Is Human (Null+Void Recordings); CEM3340 – Perfect Stranger (Lunar Orbiter Program)

CEM3340 – Perfect Stranger (Lunar Orbiter Program)

A first album for the shadowy electro act lands on Lunar Orbiter Program, brining with it a collection of tunes that burn through the harsher parts of the genre’s last 20-odd years without offering much new information to that which you might have gleaned from the two previous EPs. The blend of electro culled from the harder end of the spectrum, and run through a heavier lo-fi take on the basic sound than we usually hear in the genre, is immediately pleasing. As are CEM 3340’s grooves, many of which recall the likes of old-schoolers such as Posatronix and similar Detroit technobass heroes, as well as newer acts like Go Nuclear and Detroit’s Filthiest, in their floor shattering simplicity and movement. I’ve spoken before about the suspicion that the music is a little too perfect, a little too designed to push the buttons of old bastards like me, but I’ve mostly made my peace with that. When the tunes are as solid as this, who cares about anything other than the end result?

The breakbeat tracks here are every bit as grimy and thrilling as you would expect. Tunes like Shadow Of A Blond, and Story Of An Egyptian Man, are big hitters; thick bass and crunching beats; melodic touches serve to accent the pumping rhythms. It’s a template that works well throughout, even if it is occasionally a little short on true invention. This mix of new school methodology and old school kicks finds its peak on the relentlessly wriggling I Can’t Get Wrong where a low slung bass holds court and the razor-edged pads hold you at knife point.

When the album deviates from the breaks, it moves onto less certain ground. Jammin’ In The Dark, and Platform Discovery pitch themselves towards the more Body Music end of the proceedings and lack the fizzing energy which make the pure electro hitters so fine. Tormented Man struggles under a thick bass that isn’t nearly as precise as it needs to be for the task at hand, and the tune ends up orbiting the sand-blasted landscape of the sort of wonky, vageuely weird techno that flickered briefly in the 90s. Not a bad tune, just underwhelming compared to the high promise elsewhere in the album.

Dead Sound – This Is Human (Null+Void Recordings)

Dead Sound’s previous work has mostly been found in the world of harder techno, and scattered across a host of like-minded labels such as Perc Trax, Gynoid, and DSNT, but this first release on Null+Void reveals a far more rounded and looser sound. While it’s interesting to see what established electro acts take from elsewhere, we don’t really tend to talk about what other genres take from us; This Is Human provides some interesting insights to that conversation.

Of course, it’s not all electro, and the one straight-up techno piece, title track This Is Human is a fine, borderline-sleazy knockabout replete with a frayed, gurning, vibe which lollops pleasingly in subterranean shadows. Neither builder nor peaktime, it simply bounces back and forth, happy just to entertain itself. It’s a lot of fun, and there seems to be less and less tunes we can say that about these days.

From the point of view of our usual geekiness, though, it’s the other tracks which offer something closer to home. First Line is both the most serious and the most evocative. Perhaps it’s the way it skirts around the edge of a loose take on IDM, but it feels like a gateway rather than the journey itself. Having said that, there is something about its slow build and it’s retrained box of sounds and tricks which emphasises a particularly anxious tautness that manages to both energise the track and pick up the slack left by the underweight beats.

I Want You feels at first as if it should be flickering around the same neighbourhood as First Line, but instead it pulls at loose threads of classic electro and weaves them into new fabrics with which to dress up a tight, noirish, mover. This is a great tune, sounding as it does like the theme from some bleak Scandinavian thriller about murderous shenanigans set against a high-tech back story. Luckily, it doesn’t overdo the vibe, and locks it all down with some fine, very low slung grooves. Fair, finally, goes for broke, dragging in something of This Is Human’s joyful wobble with a rolling breakbeat and coming out at the daylight end with a smile on its huge, daft face. And, like the rest of the EP, what it might lack in a bona fide stand out moment, it makes up for with simple and effective funk.

The Long Player – Looking Back At Underground Resistance’s Interstellar Fugitives.

It can be difficult, in this internet saturated era, to remember a time when finding new music wasn’t always easy. Great tunes heard in the club could all to easily vanish into the ether without you ever knowing who they were or even what they were called. DJ’s, in a time of white labels, were not always very forthcoming about what they were playing, and although a good record shop could sometimes help to cut through the thick smog of confusion, disinterest, and elitism, even their knowledge could be down to the mercy of the occasional savant-like gonk with an encyclopaedic understanding of music.

Compilation albums offered a way for the average idiot to join the dots and connect the differing strands until something suggestive of a complete picture began to emerge from the fuzz. At their most basic a comp was simply a collection of tunes, often the bigger numbers that you had probably heard a million times. In the very early days, house compilations – acid ones especially, for some reason – were almost identical; the same tracks, the same artists appearing over and over with little regard to anything other than cashing in on a particular vibe. At their best, though, they illuminated not only the artists but the labels too, and provided a portal to a larger world. They were instructive as much as entertaining. And throughout the nineties, as the various scenes and genres developed so did the role of the compilation. They moved on from simply being a bunch of tunes brought together on the same records and became something of an artform in themselves.

Underground Resistance’s Interstellar Fugitives album took this to a new level entirely. In its most immediate form, Interstellar Fugitives was a sampler of the various talents who had hooked up with both the band and the label itself over the years, and from that simplistic point of view it can be seen as a jumping-on point, a place for those new to UR to get themselves initiated into what the label was all about. The truth, however, was a little bit more complex.

First released in 1998, Interstellar Fugitives was perhaps the definitive document of an electronic phenomenon then at the height of both their importance and powers. There had been other compilations on the label before: 1992’s Revolution For Change had brought together a number of explosive tunes by the original Banks-Mills-Hood line up that still holds up to the test of time even though its more British/European rave energy now infuses the collection with the retrospective air of a world long vanished. 1995’s Electronic Warfare – built around the fire-starting call to arms of the title track and expanding out into a stellar remix EP (and a later reissue which included the peerless X2 by Banks’ Electric Soul guise) – was a true landmark of nineties electro and technobass; a double EP which explored not only UR’s fury but their more playful and soulful side.

What set Interstellar Fugitives apart from those other releases was the way it brought several important members of the UR into the light. While Mike Banks had always been the driving force of the outfit – even in the days of Jeff Mills and Robert Hood – the fact was that it had always been a collective, a family of like-minded individuals who each brought something unique to the music and to the label. Interstellar Fugitives afforded an opportunity for many of us of to better get to know some of the other members.

Several of them needed little in the way of introduction. By the time of the album’s release Drexciya were every bit as big and important as UR, perhaps more so. James Pennington AKA Suburban Knight was, like Banks, a brilliant producer whose career straddled Detroit techno’s first and second waves. His first release, The Groove, having arrived on Derrick May’s Transmat back in 1987. Others such as Gerald Mitchel were long time Banks collaborators, and an important member of the collective, particularly in a live setting. DJ Rolando, UR’s tour DJ (amongst other things) would go on to have a major breakout hit the following year with Jaguar – a tune that, for a variety of reasons, achieved a certain notoriety (but that’s a story for another time). He would also go on to mastermind another important UR document – the mix CD The Aztec Mystic Mix.

Even the other artists, those who are not perhaps as ‘box office’ as those listed above, are not here to make up numbers. Marc Floyd, operating here as Chaos, is a real great of Detroit technobass, with a slew of essential releases across a number of labels. Chuck Gibson remains a fairly low-key name, but here, as Perception, his addition to the line up adds something thrillingly different and unexpected.

This was more than just a collection of artists. This was UR opening the door on their family, on their community. In fact, this is probably one of Interstellar Fugitives‘ most important factors. Since their inception, Underground Resistance had been about far more than just the music, and their sense of community was one rooted in Detroit’s inner city: a real place, with real people, and real lives. Often across various electronic scenes the concept of community is one which is virtually meaningless. It frequently has no purchase beyond the immediate, and no sense of itself beyond a rather banal and often fairly selfish connection between a handful of friends or like-minded individuals. With Underground Resistance though it was far more than that; it was the foundation of their music, the guiding hand which shaped their philosophy and sound. It’s a reflection of black, inner city communities, their lives and their struggles; it’s about supplying school bags and books to kids; it’s about positivity and strength; It’s music as a form of direct action.

All this fed into the sense of militant-ism which UR remain known for, and shaped their outward image: the bandanna and face masks, the real personas anonymous behind a carefully created image of underground techno warrior-monks fighting a guerilla war against a dangerous and shadowy establishment. Some of it can also be seen in the vistas of Drexciya’s expansive afro-futurism – an entire universe of myths and legends and stories which fed back and forth into the music. But where Drexciya’s world view was perhaps always as subversive as that of UR, it also seemed less concerned with the day-to-day; it promised a utopia of sorts. UR promised no such thing. It was far more direct, the sense of direct action dialled up. In certain ways it was a mirror of what Public Enemy had done a decade before, except here the politics were accentuated with an even stronger visual identity which tied in perfectly with the various guerilla and science fiction motifs.

On Interstellar Fugitives this manifesto was underscored in the cover art itself, particularly on the rear panel where Chuck Gibson’s artwork rendered the contributors along those very strong, strident, and militaristic lines. He took the artists and recreated them in a way that was reminiscent of Saturday morning cartoon superheroes – dangerous but honourable men fighting for something larger than themselves. The accompanying text reads like the charge sheets from the forces of darkness bent of stopping them. Mike Banks becomes one of the ‘shadow warriors (special forces); Drexciya become UR’s ‘aquatic assault unit’ skilled in ‘beach head preparations’. Much of it is tongue-in-cheek; often playful, but in a way that never detracts from the seriousness which underpins every conceit.

Of course, none of this would matter if the music on Interstellar Fugitives failed to live up to the high standards expected of it, but it does so with ease. While later revisions would add tracks, remove others, the original 1998 press of twelve tracks perhaps remains the definitive document of the Underground Resistance collective at their high water mark. Although each track explores differing forms of Detroit techno and electro, as well as drifting out into other, less easily defined areas, and all make great work of individual aesthetics, every one of them echoes with a shared, almost communal ethos and dedication to a particular approach.

At the album’s heart is a deep, intuitive reinterpretation of soul music. And while it might not always be evident, it shouldn’t really be surprising. Banks’ interests in soul, and gospel, had long been part of his personal musical canon. UR’s The Turning Point, released a year earlier in 1997 had taken soul, funk, and gospel as the record’s cornerstones, and Banks’ had reinvented them for the techno age. Where others had similarly delved into these genre’s riches, The Turning Point altered their basic DNA, and emphasised the way their kindred energies had a role in the development of Detroit music. Soul, in particular, remains one of Detroit’s greatest gifts to the world, but it was one where it’s obvious links with techno often remained hidden away and unremarked upon. On Interstellar Fugitives the sound of soul is altered beyond almost all recognition (its most noticeable appearance, if it can even be called that, lies on an uncredited Al Green sample within the wandering funk of Gerald Mitchell’s Soulsaver), but the meaning, that of emotion, place, and humanity, is at the album’s very centre. It informs every groove, every bassline. It provides the futuristic machine-funk with a tangible and solid essence. It understands that soul is both a physical music as much as a spiritual experience.

Perhaps in keeping with this, the music on Interstellar Fugitives remains accessible and welcoming, which is no mean feat considering the differing moods and tempos spread across the album’s six sides. The biggest tunes, Banks’ own Moor Horsemen On Bolorus 5, and Nanny Town, are hard, sinewy, blast of electro which stomp in at 150 and 155 BPM respectively. Yet it is a testament to their craft that neither feels as fast as that. While they both shift themselves at velocities which melt flesh, they refuse to fall into the trap of believing that faster is heavier. Both are strengthened by a lightness of touch, and by making much of a broiling funk which deftly draws you away from their weight. Moor Horsemen… in particular weaves elements of otherness into its explosive movement, the whip-like melody of African flute dousing everything with atmosphere until the tune develops its own narrative; it feels like your witnessing the terrible majesty of a Maghreban sandstorm rising above the Detroit skyline.

In fact, these two tunes feel like outliers against the rest of the material; as big and important as both of them are, they feel almost like book ends. An important role, for sure, and one which serves to emphasise important facets of the collectives work, but their fury, as playful and deceptively warm as it might be, serves to guard the deeper explorations contained elsewhere.

These deeper tunes, in particular the trinity formed from Aztec Mystic’s Mi Raza, Perception’s Mirage, and Andre Holland’s Unabomber, are subtle variations on the central theme. Mi Raza is the most open of the three; a twisting, rolling exploration of next generation funk as much as it is tight, spiky electro, it works its magic through a careful emphasis on a particularly un-electronic sense of movement. The beats are little more than sketches, but they echo something of the straight ahead swing of far earlier Motown music, and these ghostly memories drive a tune which angles itself towards a larger understanding of where electronic music is able to go. In 1998, as with so many of the tracks on the record, it sounded like the antithesis of contemporary techno, being less interested with cutting itself down to appease the constraints of predominately club based music, determined instead to explore the extreme edges of what a musical form based in both physicality and sound could be. Mirage is a similar case, but it lacks much of Mi Raza’s innate warmth. It is far more compressed; rain-swept and colder, it builds itself around swirling pads and Gibson’s ethereal vocals and slowly grows in tight, righteous rage. Unabomber barely moves. It’s a whisper on the edge of night, and it is interesting now to see its shadow across a number of modern records. Its sense of place and understanding of shade and contrast is a forerunner of the angry experimentalism of the likes of Vatican Shadow.

Drexciya’s entry, the wobbling Aquatacizem is perhaps the only tune on the album that feels out-of-place. There is something about it that lacks the natural soulfulness of the other. I’ve wondered before whether this is perhaps down to a clash of philosophy, that Drexciya’s world view was already sufficiently different to that of UR for it to really make sense to have Aquatacizem included here. Musically, it’s a strange piece – pitched somewhere between electro and ambient, and ending up sounding like an abstract of both. In some ways, it’s barely there, haunting the edges of the communal experience as it does. It is rare for Drexciyan material to crop up outside of their own records, and this suggests reasons as to why that might be.

At the album’s heart though is one of the very finest tunes to emerge from Detroit in any era. Marc Floyd’s work as Chaos has always been something for the heads more than for general consumption. His electro is shot through with a strong and profound psychedelic colouring; the tones and textures helping to create something within the genre which remains almost unique. Later releases, such as Dot Dot Dash on Metroplex, and The Safety Is Off, would emphasise this to an even greater extent. Dot Dot Dash especially is a high point for Detroit electro, and is fascinating for the way it harks back to a time when the music was allowed to be playful and full of fun and charm.

Afrogermanic may not emphasise such things in the same way, but isn’t required to. The title sets its stall out perfectly, and is perhaps a reference to Juan Atkins’ old maxim that techno is the music you would get if Kraftwerk and George Clinton were trapped in a lift together. What makes Afrogermanic so special is it is neither of these, and yet it draws heavily on both traditions. Beyond that it falls in a shadowy hinterland between electro and techno – a place where the conceits of genre can forgotten and room made for the actual point of the tune. Its closest sonic kin is not to be found in the music of Mike Banks, or any of the (at the time) other members of UR, but in that of the former member Robert Hood. While sonically Afrogermanic is very, very different from Hoods stripped down minimalist techno, it has exactly the same approach. Afrogermanic has been pared away until all that is truly left is the funk and the vocals, resulting in a track which is simply a burst of soul upon a snarling groove. it is tight and it is insane. And it is the absolute distillation of everything Interstellar Fugitives is about.

UR would release a follow-up to Interstellar Fugitives a few years later. While Interstellar Fugitives 2 – The Destruction Of Order has many great tunes scattered across its vast 2 CD form it is a very different creature. Released originally (I think) for the Japanese market it is far closer to a traditional label sampler. What it does show clearly though, is that the Underground Resistance of the new millennium was not the same as in the nineties. It no longer felt as tight a collective as it once did, and the record (or CD in this case) no longer has that documentary feel. Neither does it feel like a manifesto. Its musical remit is broader, perhaps, but the lack of clear focus, of a unifying and central ethos means that it is almost incapable of reaching the same heights.

This is perhaps unavoidable. The nineties were a high point not only for Underground Resistance but for Detroit techno. While both label and genre have done remarkable things since then, you can never really go back to the glory days – at least not the same ones. Not only do things change, but so do our reactions to them. There has been a growing sense over the last few years that UR’s earnestness, their values, and their music do not quite fit in with a scene that seems increasingly narcissistic and self-absorbed, that the very things which once made them so incredibly important now render them a little beyond the pale and of-their-time. Maybe so, but I think anyone with an eye on the ways of this world can sense that maybe, just maybe, some of these values and ideas might be about to have their place again. Interstellar Fugitives they might be, but if ever we needed a dose of righteous electronic fury, it’s right now. What better place to start with the manifesto, and the soundtrack, to a revolution of change?