Review: Snow Bone – Live Elements, Ben R Brown – Play Politics (White Metallic)

I’m beginning to suspect that, like Cockroaches and Keith Richard, tapes will survive the coming apocalypse. There is something in their below-the-radar simplicity and cheapness that not only seem to evokes a simpler, less artifice obsessed time, but positively resonates with a certain punk chic. And beyond even that, their lo-fi, work-in-progress feel has a connection with techno that in some ways even supersedes the ubiquitous black wax. You can download all the carefully curated podcasts you want because nothing – nothing – will beat the scabby thrill of a hissing mix tape knocked out from your favourite deejay’s set at a local club and bought in a Sunday market for pennies.

White Metallic is a new label from Rob Hare, better known for his series of EPs on Lobster Theremin as Snow Bone. Amongst the seemingly endless vistas of Lobster’s roster Snow Bone’s work always stood out – a sort of fierce, frayed maelstrom of techno of the type which sometimes seems in danger of dying out with its nods not only to Mills, but to that generation of searing electronica which included Surgeon, Regis, and Luke Slater. While it’s certainly a brave move debuting with tapes rather than vinyl or even a digital release, it’s a decision that works pretty well. And, even better, in the context of the music on offer, it’s one that makes a particular sort of twisted sense.

The Snow Bone tape is comprised from material culled from live sets and studio work, and walks a line between a proper album and a mix tape. It’s an intriguing move, not least because it delivers an energy which entirely studio base productions lack – a randomness of tone and noise. Well, not quite randomness, but a sense of unlocking, of movements outside carefully controlled parameters.

Musically, any fans of Snow Bone’s previous work will be well served. This is techno of the sort which has little in common with the considered, overly academic approach to the genre which has been in accession over the last few years. The A side in particular is home to bursts of raw, visceral noise. Tracks such as Reply All, or Element 3 pulse with barely contained fury, locking sledgehammer beats down under crawling, almost spectral non-melodies and leads reminiscent of mid 90s techno at its most strident. It’s lazy to compare modern techno producers to Mills – Lazy but often undeniable, and parts of the A side are dominated by a similar alien jack to which Mills made his own; Occasionally discordant, but often sublimely pummeling, The first 30 odd minutes keep you climbing upwards before the tone subtly, but quickly changes with the last track, Redshift, where a great deal of the pounding furore is replaced by something more focussed, and quietly and effectively sets up the B side.

It’s here, on the flip, Snow Bone really impresses. Freed from the stridency of the A side, the outpouring and freed up energy is redirected into something different. It’s more experimental perhaps, and tunes such as Ferrous Type, XOX, and Antigravity, both slow things down and open up new directions for the music to explore. Ferrous Type, in particular, is a highlight of the tape, a buckling tune which pushes as far as it can from the more obvious techno influences, cradling the build with the feel of Jamal Moss’s weaving, growling, grooves. And even though final track, Steel Version reinstates some of the earlier swagger, it’s shot through with a housey, almost ravey potency which lightens the load while twisting in the funk.

Ben R Brown’s tape, Play Politics, is very much a departure. Gone are almost all the early techno influences and they’re replaced by a welter of ideas and sounds which have formed the bedrock for an often overlooked side of the current US underground. While techno is still part of the equation, so too are the sort of textures native to the output of labels like Nation, or even LIES. It’s a heady brew, part jackbeat and EBM, part seedy, gutter level house, and it’s all bound together with the faintest strands of de-constructed, broken, acid. Where the Snow Bone’s Live Elements rose quickly and brutally, Play Politics stalks the listener, playing with rough tones and weird angles, and letting you fall along dead ends before being guided by shadows back towards the path.

There is a similarity of tastes here between Brown and other figures of modern American techno. Tunes like Duo, or the phenomenal Waves inhabit a similar head space to the work of artists like Svengalisghost of Beau Wanzer, and the playful yet unsettling Palaces rolls with a sense of fractured melody which evokes thoughts of where lo-fi house could have gone if it hadn’t so quickly become infatuated with its own press. Closing track, Night, is also a proper keeper; lopsided, bleak and dark, it’s also grown from the most subtle of grooves on which it hangs billowing shades of acid drenched drama.

There is apparently the possibility that some of the tunes from both releases may make it to vinyl in the future. I hope so, because some of the material on offer would be great freed up to continue their work in another setting. But even if they don’t it shouldn’t matter too much. Both tapes deliver more than just snap shots of different takes on electronica, they provide something different, space in which ideas can unfold in their own time, allowing them the room to push beyond the usual confines and deliver somethinng not only more alive, but also more vital.

Best Of The Represses – July 2017

Blake Baxter – When We Used To Play (Mint Condition)

Mint Condition have now officially ruined this repress malarky for every other label by actually making it interesting. Where, once upon a time, various outfits could chuck out endless re-releases of well-known hits from yesteryear, safe in the knowledge that they’d be lapped up again and again, Mint Condition have arrived on the scene and promptly spunked all that cynicism right up the nearest whatchamathingmy with the simple act of releasing a slew of interesting selections that seem all the more exciting because they aren’t really titles that you would have thought of if asked.

Anyways, This is one of two Blake Baxter represses appearing on Mint, and it’s a blinder. The other record, When The Thought Becomes You, essentially a re-release of his Prince Of Techno EP with a slightly different track listing, is probably up there with Sexuality as his most loved track – and that’s fair enough; it’s an eternal jam, as beautiful as it is groovy and a permanent reminder of just how intoxicating techno can be. But I’ve always loved When We Used To Play the most out of the three. I’m not sure why, only that I know it does something to the hairs on the back of my neck and drags me back through time to when I first heard Baxter’s music. It’s a great release, and every track is a corker, but it’s worth it for the breakbeat mix alone which is a true work of wonder. Buy now and try to work out why Baxter isn’t held in as much esteem as the Belleville three – if not more.

Keith Tucker – Detroit Saved My Soul(Mint Condition)

Look! It’s Mint Condition again, and they’re proving everything I wrote above! Gorblessem! While their release schedule is brilliantly off-to-one-side, this repress of Detroit Saved My Soul, first released on Glasgow label 7th Sign back in 2005, is a real treat for the electro heads. Seeing as Keith Tucker is better known for his work in Aux 88, Optic Nerve, Alien FM, DJ-K1, and a legion of other names, that aforementioned electrohead just happens to be me.

First thing to say here is that it’s a slightly curious feeling record. That’s not a bad thing – quite the opposite – but it’s not wall to wall technobass banging. In actual fact, this is an exploration of a slightly different side of Tucker’s musical personality. And although he brings an impressive, effortlessly cool slice of Detroit electro-futurism to the party in the form of Elektronik (and provides a snapshot of sorts of the musical links between Model 500 and Aux 88), the other two numbers are equally worthy of your time. The title track itself kicks on with a slick, laidback groove that’s part prowling, darkened house, and part pure Detroit techsperimentaion, all strung together with a shadowy energy which wouldn’t be out-of-place on either of the Baxter records I discussed earlier. My Metal State closes things down with a swirl of deeply introspective techno-soul which’ll climb through your mind like it’s looking for somewhere to hide from the world. A very different side of Keith Tucker. Get on it.

VA – Rhythms Of The Pacific (Pacific Rhythms)

This much more recent release (from 2014) seems to have got a wee bit of a much-needed repress recently, which is great because the original seemed to sell out pretty darn quickly all over the shop. I’ve never really bought into the whole Moodhutty/ Vancouver thing. I’ve tended to find a lot of the music either a little hazy and insipid, or a lot less fresh and new than some people claimed. Still, there’s no doubt of the scene’s popularity, and Pacific Rhythm’s little run of VA samplers was generally quite a good collection of tunes by an interesting bunch of artists.

LRNDCroy’s Time Zone, which sounds like Joey Betram’s Energy Flash shot full of tranks, and Hashman Deejay’s wonderfully scruffy and low-rent mix of Memory Man’s Memory Man are both great and ear opening additions to the canon, but it’s the other two tracks which do the real damage. Cloudface’s Panter Blue is acid house reduced down to the absolute minimum of drum track, a 303, and a weird springing noise. It needs nothing more to do its job as it wobbles around, always looking like it’s about to fall flat on its face. Cheeky and pretty damn funky.

The genuine highlight though is LNRDCroy’s opener, Sunrise Market, which is a tune so haunting and warm it should be considered worthy of that most overused sobriquet, ‘classic’. It really is. Not only a high point of LNRDCroy’s own work, but one of the real moments of the last few years of electronic music. An absolutely timeless piece of drifting, new-age funk which serves to prove that deepness needs soul in order to work its magic. Gorgeous.

Best Of The Represses: June 2017

Sorry for the lack of updates. I’ve been working, on holiday, and watching things go weird in my down time. I’ve also been taking stock of the big wide world of electronica and thinking about things. All sorts of things. Anyway. Here’s three choice picks for this, the allegedly the first month of summer:

DJ Bone – Riding The Thin Line (Another Day)

This has been up there in the top five of my personal repress wishlist for a very long time now and I’m delighted it’s finally available. Originally released on Metroplex, this is simply DJ Bone at his peak. A Peerless blast of brain twisting techno and electro, from the cosmic-tribalist stomp of Shut The Lites Off to The Funk with it’s tight, stark, and sparse collision of wiry beats, bass wonk, and robots-gone-feral vocals this is a record you really shouldn’t be without. The whole thing is close to techno perfection as you’re going to get without dying and going to techno heaven. Shipping at the end of the month, although you can get the DL right now if you buy from the Bandcamp page. I don’t know why you’re even still sitting here reading this.

The one thing that confuses me is why this isn’t part of Metroplex’s own current repress schedule. While I’m obviously happy to have it again in any forms, the nerd in me would love it to have the original art. Anyone know why? Answers on a postcard to the usual address. I bet the magic word here is ‘licence’. I’m beginning to hate that word.

D’Arcangelo – D’Arcangelo EP (Suction Canada)

Another record which has made the jump from its original home is this 1996 EP by Italian outfit D’Arcangelo. First out on the much missed Rephlex, it’s not hard to see why it found a place in the Aphex Twin’s own stable. Pushing between bone snapping, hard as nails, experimentalist industria, and something akin to Kraftwerk having a happy picnic in the country, there’s no doubt it’s a brain masher; the way it jumps from the mind shredding heaviness of the A-side to the complex, smiling, and frequently beautiful, melody led material on the B might leave you wondering what the hell is going on, but it’s also indicative of a pair of producers rich with ideas and who weren’t scared to keep themselves out in front of the genre trap.

While the searing Somewhere In Time still does the damage after 21 years, the real keeper here, for my money, is the gorgeous, snare-flaring, Diagram VII (80’s Mix). That such a trippy, wistful and grinning piece of sunshine can wander into existence after the record’s distortion drenched openers is a minor source of amazement. That it sounds like the theme to a long-lost 80’s travel show, or a schools program about European countries, just makes it even better.

Glenn Underground – Atmosfear (Peacefrog Record)

Peacefrog’s much discussed repress schedule is finally getting some steam up. We recently had a bunch of Theo Parrish and a Moodyman re-releases, but the label’s back catalogue contains so many bona-fide classics we can’t help but lick our lips in excitement over what might be coming back out further down the line. Most people will be ferverently praying for a nice fat vinyl reissue of DBX’s Losing Control but there are so many more possibilities you could go mad from thinking about it.

Glenn Underground’s Atmosfear should hold most of us over for the time being. Heck, it should do more than that because this really is a pretty special album. This isn’t ‘deep house’ – it’s just house done the way it used to be done: soulful, fluid, iridescent, and chilled. While listening back to it for the first time in a long, long time, you might notice it runs to chunkyness here and there in a way you don’t remember, but it still brings enough charm and panache to win over all but the most diehard of macho, black jeans wearing, technopods.

Tunes like the sunset tinged Israelee Night Falls aren’t simply classics, but are ingrained now in house music’s conciousness. Elsewhere, the jacking Colouration, and Soundstruck, weave funk around the most louche and laidback beats imaginable. Bonus shout out to the slightly tongue in cheek title of May Datroit and its wee homage to a city not too far away.

Labels That Changed My Life: Relief Records

Of all the labels which formed the cornerstone of my love of electronic music, Relief records is one of the most cherished, and the most infuriating. Cherished because without it not only would my understanding of house music be substantially worse off, but also the chances are that I would have more than likely never have immersed myself quite as fully in the genre as I did. Infuriating because, well, of all the labels which were special to me, Relief most often seemed to fail to deliver on their promise.

Beginning life as an offshoot of Cajmere’s seminal Cajual Records, Relief quickly developed a life and a character all of its own. My own early brushes with them probably came not from house, but from mix tapes by DJs such as Derrick May, Detroit techno people who had long been throwing every style into the mix. Back then I was not quite as sure about house music as other genres. Detroit techno, electro, and the harder variants which certain Chicago producers were beginning to release on European labels offered me something I was looking for. House music didn’t, not really. Not at first.

But there was something in Relief’s sound which set it apart from everything else. The first tune I heard, – and I imagine it was the same for many of us – Green Velvet’s Preacher Man, was quite possibly one of the finest tracks ever created. It wasn’t just that remarkable sample, the ranting, half-crazed sermon by Aretha Franklin’s father C.L that made the tune so great (although, yep, it certainly added to it). The tune itself, a stomping, wonky, building chunk of madness, of searing noise and bar structures not quite getting it together, felt utterly alien to almost anything else which was going around back then. Not only that, but it seemed as if it had transcended Chicago usual style. This wasn’t really house, it was Chicago techno, a sweltering, loose and heavy assault on the senses which had virtually nothing in common with the likes of Marshal Jefferson or Jackmaster Funk.

From the start there was a mix between the more traditional sounds and the harder edged. But even the records which leaned closer to what had come before felt subtly different, blending house tropes with a stripped down functionality where elements such as the basslines or the samples gained a prominence which moved them away from what I guess you could describe as a song structure towards something closer to techno’s machine music movement. Where Cajmere’s Green Velvet continued to kick out dark, almost twisted takes on his own earlier It’s Time For the Percolator sound, others on the roster where beginning to explore further, bringing it all together with an ear for the most contemporary dance floor funk.

And what a roster that was. Paul Johnson, Boo Williams, Tim Harper, DJ Sneak, Gemini and many others – virtually the cream of Chicago’s second wave, and each of them releasing at least one record which has stood the test of time to become regarded as bona-fide classics. With Williams and Johnson in particular creating a house sound which stripped back the genre’s more humanizing elements and replacing it with soulful machines, layering the tunes with beats culled from the deepest and heaviest of the Chicago underground, and with the likes of Harper creating an epic, spiralling take on the same thing, it felt as if house music was launching itself into the future.

This was music which worked best blaring from a stack of speakers across a packed dancefloor in the late hours. While dance music is exactly that, it’s rare to find much of it which is simply not the same beast when removed from its natural habitat. But this was at the heart of what made Relief so special: It was music first and foremost for dancers. You want entertained at home on a Sunday afternoon? I’m sure there’s some worthy IDM instead. Relief is for the club.

While there was a similar, almost kindred, energy, with what Djax was getting out of it’s Chicago contributors half a world away, where the two differed was just how far they shied away from house. Djax’s take on house was fuelled by a much harder European market, Relief’s take, while belting, took greater pleasure in the grooves, in the funk, and in a delicious twisting of what was expected. It was a similar sonic decadence to what Chicago had been doing for a long time, but it was more direct, dressed to sweat, but with a kink in the programming which kept it ahead of the game.

Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to keep them ahead for long. Chicago labels always seemed to have a habit of indulging in release schedules that would terrify even the most hardy and insane of completests, and Relief was no different. The truly great period for the label lay across 95 and 96; a vanishingly small window for such a hugely influential label to have made its mark. While there were great records from the label before this time, and a handful after, these two years were the real home of the label’s classics. The problem was, and the thing that even I eventually grew weary of, was that for every record which sailed close to genius, there seemed a bunch which didn’t even try. There may have been a lot of great records, but the rest pointed to a label which seemed increasingly content with throwing everything against a wall and seeing what stuck.

The special magic which Johnson, Williams, Gemini and others had brought to the label dissipated under the weight of records which simply offered little more than one note disco samples, or straight-to-video rehashes of the percolator style which aped Cajmere’s original sound but without any of the humour or funk. By ’97 there were still occasional blast of special music coming out from artists like Mystic Bill, but they were bittersweet, emphasising the ways in which a label had lost its way, and buried under rafts of older material released as CD compilations for various markets. It all but vanished for a couple of years, and on its return at the start of the millennium it seemed more interested in releasing endlessly repackaged Green Velvet material.

It has relaunched again in the last couple of years, almost entirely in a digital format, and maybe it will get back to where it was before. Maybe. Things have changed, and house is yet again a different beast from what it once was. Perhaps the simple fact was that Relief was a product of a particular period of time, one where everything was up for grabs and new ways of doing things were coming along at an insane rate.

The remarkable drop off the label suffered from shouldn’t be forgotten, but neither should it be its memorial for the fact is that even though it shone for such a short period of time, some labels – hell, even some entire genres – couldn’t claim such a run of truly, stunningly, brilliant records as Relief managed across a handful of months in the mid nineties. They were a label that touched genius and changed the way house sounded forever, no matter how flawed they were towards the end. Big Old C.L Franklin had Relief’s number right from the start: ‘You got to watch out when folks are playing house.” That should be their memorial. Amen to that.

Review: Willie Burns and DJ Overdose – Sonny and Ricardo Give Good Advice (Unknown To The Unknown)

Willie Burns and DJ Overdose – Sonny and Ricardo Give Good Advice (Unknown To The Unknown)

A decade ago, even five years back, a record like this would probably have had the sneery and overly serious sections of the peanut gallery getting all preachy and whining about ‘ramifications’ and ‘responsibility’ and all sorts of shit which seems really important to the sort of slick and professional meedya sorts who want to make Our Thing Their Thing. Now, given the flood of high weirdness which is engulfing the world, and the way in which an ultra-orthdodox conservatism seems to have got it together with the genuinely, weaponized, bat-shit crazy, any tune that can lift a vocal snippet from (I’m assuming) Miami Vice and lash it to a proper old-school jack track like this ends the day sounding like a victory anthem.

Anyways, that’s kind of setting a high bar I guess, but the beauty of this is that the music comes up to snuff. The B-side, firstly, is packed with about a million locked grooves – something which seldom makes good on the promise but works pretty darn brilliantly here. Veering between squirts of acid and rumbling toms they’re light years away from the smear of hi-hat samples so beloved of the ‘I don’t DJ – I remix on the fly’ gang in their Hitler Youth haircuts. Almost worth the price of admission on their own so numerous and excellent are they.

The main attractions though are the two slammers on the A-side, dirty ripped-up throwbacks to the dingiest of club nights. Sonically they evoke the messy chaos of the sort of house music which remained resolutely under-the-radar during the genre’s original hey-day, taking the basic formula and swirling in a dose of gleeful nihilism to the mix, creating something which was the flip-side to the Second Summer of Love’s bright and shining accession. The first one up rolls straight in with that fecund ‘Take Drugs’ sample leading the way before unleashing the demonic toms which rule over everything. The unfolding darkness is held off with a belt of acidic bass and its chirpier top-ended buddy, lending the tune not only a demented smile, but a mean dose of slanted funk.

The following beat mix is exactly what you both expect and need. Shorn of the original’s acid accoutrements, it gets back to basics – or, to be precise, back to even more basic basics. It simply sinks it rhythmic fangs into your feet and shakes you around, letting the toms and rimshots take turns in banging your brains to mush.

It’s in this absolute disregard for anything beyond the simple, scuzzy nature of the tunes that the music finds it’s soul. The soundtrack to a crusty infested squat somewhere on the edge of the early nineties it may well be, but that’s just layers on the vibe. Tunes trying to hark back to a more honest, less slick time may well be ten a penny nowadays, but very few wear their hearts on their sleeves like this. Huge, filthy tunes that stick two fingers up to an increasingly homogenized scene. The antithesis. And the antidote. Turn it up on election day and make a point.