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.

Review: Jerome Hill – Toybox Part 1 (Don’t)

Jerome Hill – Toybox Part 1 (Don’t)

Glasgow’s spring time weather is notoriously fickle, and the last few weeks have been no different as it veers between blue skies and torrential rain. This was unexpected though.

I sat down a few days ago to listen to Toy Box Part 1 and take notes. As I did it was still dry, and motes of dust fluttered in the beams of sunlight. It didn’t last. Almost as soon as the needle touched the first grooves of the record, things began to change. Suddenly, as Egg Roll’s moody beats lashed the office, the light beyond my window began to fade. No, that’s not right; it didn’t fade, it was like the light was being sucked out of the day as a cloud as black as a Tory front bencher’s soul billowed and loomed above the flats on the other side of the lane, blotting out the sky and throwing everything into terrifyingly sharp relief.

The temperature plummeted but the humidity grew oppressive, matching the tune’s wicked jack; as perfectly in sync as any laptop DJ hero. Egg Roll ended and Skez Princess’s razor-sharp breaks crackled through the room, scattering outward and hacking at the growing storm. Down came the rain. Jesus, down came the rain; thick, almost metallic sheets built from drops as fat and heavy as rivets, smacking into the tired, hot, earth and reaching back up as Skez Princess’s beats and dark matter bass filled what little room was left within the claustrophobic atmosphere.

It didn’t let up with the B-side. I know slowed the raucous energy but replaced it with a seedy intent which curled around the sound of the raindrops exploding against the roof and the glass of the window, the music and the elements conjoining, building a snarling symphony which hummed and shimmered in the thick, dead air. Mono Skank, I prayed, might slacken the damaging thirst of whatever malicious and forgotten demon had been let loose on heaven’s decks but it wasn’t to be. The tune’s proto-industrial bass line thrummed and buckled this way and that, prowling at the edge of my increasingly questionable reality. For a moment, as the beats peeled back, as the music quieted itself in preparation for the final stomp I thought I glimpsed mean old faces in the rain, laughing and gurning. And then the grooves were alive again, pumping in competition with the busy sky.

Mono Skank ended and, almost as soon as the last burst of bass had scraped itself into silence, the elemental percussion of the rain stopped. Stopped dead, as if the clouds no longer had any interest in flooding the world. I sat there for a moment, shaky and uncertain, before hoisting myself from the chair and walking over to the window. Above the smeared glass there were already patches of blue widening in the bruised evening sky. The light was returning, soft and forgiving, brightening the colours of the springtime with warmth. And I thought “if this is what it does to the weather, just imagine what it would do to you in the depths of a Friday night”. Primordial hardcore fuelled burners, fully recommended by the rain-gods themselves.

Review: Hodge and Peder – All My Love (Peder Mannerfelt Productions)

I’ve written this damn thing about 30 times now, and each and every attempt falls apart on the second paragraph. I started arse-over-tit by beginning with some conclusions that could only be borne out with some primo-grade reality bending, and now I’ve decided that honesty is the best policy. I know: you don’t get this sort of thing in the Wire, do you? It’s amateur hour around here.

So, at the risk of seeming a little off, here’s what you need to know: Hodge and Peder’s first collaboration pretty much came out of nowhere and did a number on my brain. I had meant to draw cunning and sophisticated allusions to hardcore and rave culture, to avoiding homage and smash ‘n’ grab nostalgia runs back to the early 90’s but the fact is that all of this sort of thing just slides off the music as if it’s wearing teflon armour. Yes, the tunes are coloured with a certain hue of day-glo insanity but All My Love isn’t really a nod to the current (and admittedly welcome) trend for snarling, compressed, rave bombs from yesteryear. There is a lot more going on here than that.

If I was trying hard to stick to that theme, I suppose I could describe All My Love as less of a reworking of classic genre influences, and more of a re-imagining. While certain tones and ways of movement will be familiar to anyone who has a passing interest in these genres, the way the music rises up is very modern and absolutely without any interest in revisiting the past as you might know it. There are moments it bolts away from all your preconceptions entirely, veering close to a sort of mayhem that KLF once described as ‘stadium house’. At other times it evokes the heavy swirl of the sort of dirty, acrid, techno which seems to be very much in decline these days, a form of techno which simply does not give a toss what you think about it, a form of techno which exists for the sole purpose of making you dance and shout and sweat.

Bird Chant on the flip hits all those switches almost from the start, stumbling on its beats like it’s been shot up with vodka and gravel and hasn’t washed in a month. It pulls hard on the feet, channelling itself by means of a riff so huge and heavy it has its own gravity well. And while the riff dominates proceedings, little, equally fierce textures spiral around it, congealing and feeding the brutal movement. Inside the Rain is a necessary palette cleanser, a mind-wash of fractals and pinches of disorienting dreams which seethes and surges downward, drawing the light away until the shadows billow.

But All My Love itself is the king in this broken place. It’s immense – a summation of darskide vibe. The hardcore leanings are at their most obvious here, but Hodge and Peder compress them, and keep compressing them until the breaks take on an almost tribal shape before being blasted further by hoover bass. The vocal ties it together, bonding the explosive martial kicks with a demented, majestic, anxiety. Unbelievably, wonderfully, nasty and one of the stand out moments of the year so far. Hardcore for the 21st century. And the 31st. Yas.

Little Reviews: Affinity #2 (Affin Records) and M_Step’s Cold Dust (Trust)

V/A – Affinity #2 (Affin Records)

Joachim Spieth’s label Affin is now a decade into its existence, and continuing to provide a profoundly contemporary and continental vision of techno that specialises in the sort of deep, aquatic sound which has been in ascension for a while now. The three tracks, taken from Spieth himself, label regular Reggy Van Oers and Glaswegian artist Deepbass, draw on this take on techno.

While each of them bring their own ideas to the table, there is a unity of form here, a foundation which is built not so much from grooves but from hypnotic movement created from the weave of sonic textures and the interplay of the thick moods on offer. Van Oers’ offering, the misty Place Of Offering is shadowy and faint, a kaleidoscope of pads and fluttering emotions which are almost transluscent. The beats, concrete and pronounced, marshal effectively but never inject the tune with life. Instead, it is the complexity, and almost rhythmic nature of the synths, which carry things forward. Speith’s entry, Shadows, is in some senses a similar proposition. The difference here is that the synths create a drifting, cloudy, and melodic world of darkened hues and glistening tones where the simple roll of the kicks underpins the surging elemental nature of the tune’s ghostly wash.

Deepbass’s Affinity is a more straight up affair in some ways. Both heavier and lithe, less concerned with the finely worked details, it drags straight away into a tight, rolling and deeply hypnotic builder which nods its head to the deep, wonky, techno of the past while warming up the snapping beats with a spring of weathered funk, gradually letting the few, well worked sounds take more and more limelight until it climbs into the night.

M_Step – Cold Dust (Trust)

M_Step’s début on DJ Glow’s Trust label seems to have been on its way for a while now, but the long wait hasn’t been in vain. Here in 2017, with electro seemingly beginning to drip out of every space, Cold Step’s arrival has been made even more welcome by the way in which is has circumvented by a noticeable margin a lot of what’s been going down in the scene, instead delivering up some electro which comes at us from a definite tangent.

While a lot of the current sounds in the genre seemed to have recently been involved in a competition to see just how deep they can go, Cold Dust instead furnishes us with some slower, moodier grooves that buck the trend. Any pretensions of deepness are speedily replaced with a keen ear for not only crisp, low slung beats, but a sort of angelic energy which takes its lead from early Detroit’s more soulful moments.

Opener Xylograph carries a bumping vibe from the off, carving out little rivulets of funk from lazy-stepping breaks and tightening everything up with some loose, rollicking bass and glissading pads which lend the tune a sleepy-eyed swagger. Cold Dust itself replaces the breaks with a cantering 4/4, catching a sodium-light glimmer full of little touches and flickering chord progressions which builds it into something shining with burnished melody and quiet, nervous drama.

The stand out though is Annabelle. It combines Cold Dust’s midnight moodiness with brusque, brisk, breaks and slivers of high, heavenly strings along side a growling acid bass which recalls something of Boris Divider’s more serene moments. Towards the end, when little drifting petals of Rhythim is Rhythim-esque melody alight, the tune breaks through to become genuine high-tech soul. Superb. And a not so gentle reminder that all the careful sound design in the world won’t bring the deepness if you forget the emotion. A great début on a great label.