Review: Radioactive Man – Luxury Sky Garden (Asking For Trouble)

While Keith Tenniswood’s place in British electronic music history has been assured by his time as one half of legendary duo Two Lone Swordsmen, his work under the Radioactive Man guise has perhaps been every bit as vital. Moving between electro, breakbeat, dub and ever more wide-ranging tastes, the Radioactive Man sound has long offered an important counterpoint to a generation of producers who increasingly work in a specific direction, and trawl through a well-used box of influences. While the appeal of casting the musical net wide has been discovered by certain members of the young team over the last couple of years, Radioactive Man remains one of a very small handful for whom virtually no style is off the table when it comes to colouring his sounds.

Luxury Sky Garden, his first LP since 2012, is ostensibly an electro album, but while it certainly does the genre side of things with rare skill, bringing it with it a number of electro bangers which are up there with the best you’ll hear this year (or any other) there is much more going on than simply delving into scene. It’s a far wider experience than you might at first either expect or appreciate, and this isn’t solely down to influences. The reason, I suspect, is the way it hangs together, both in little and often forgotten details like the running order, and in the way the tunes are constructed. There is, in short, an experience on offer here, one that goes somewhat beyond the usual electronic attitude to the long play format with each track offering an important balance for what comes before and after. In isolation each tune works well – often brilliantly so – but together they inform the whole.

Musically it’s a step apart from what else is going on just now. The electro brings in energy not only from older forms of the genre, but also something of the cheeky, experimental nature which peppered techno in the 90s. The result, far from accenting Luxury Sky Garden with an old school vibe, burnishes everything with a sheen of individualism which illuminates the sounds with a loose, joyful playfulness which is a mile away from a lot of the gritty, clenched jaw seriousness so often on offer elsewhere.

This is especially apparent on the first handful of tracks, which swing between the laid back jazz funk fuelled breaks and riffs of Steve Chop, the rich, meandering grooves of the R&B tinged Deep Space Habitat, and Ism Schism’s gravelly, dirty, wobble. Each of these tracks draws a thicker mood than you would first expect though; little frills of melody, of lovelorn pads, direct emotions here and there, but seldom to quite the places you expect.

By the time the harder edged tunes move in a little of the sunny optimism has departed. Bonnet Bee ramps up a nervous intensity, matched and controlled by a rubbery, mournful bass. Sonic Portal humanizes smart machine abstracts and juxtaposes them with bounding grooves and grimy experimentalism, creating something which feels like old Ninja Tunes material on speed and steroids.

The clever movement between sunny and cloudy isn’t as pronounced as I may make it sound. Rather, the album takes its time to adjust, layering the listener with subtle changes of atmospherics and varying its angles of attack. Jommtones jacks things up close to the end, nodding its head towards not only full-bore Detroit bass but Dopplereffekt’s considered, lab-grown sounds, dropping you onto a speedway orbiting a distant star and pushing you towards a finishing line composed of silicon. Serving Suggestion, right at the end loops back; holding onto the velocity, the clouds part revealing a sunset full of contrasts between the sharp electro and an almost Balearic spirit.

Luxury Sky Garden is not so much full of contrasts as compliments of texture and vibe. It’s not so much interested in exploring electro’s past, nor – for that matter – its future, but in discovering just how far the sounds can go and, in doing so, opening up a world of possibilities. Graceful, playful, and full of grooves. One of the best albums of the year so far.

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.

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.

A Bunch Of Reviews Starring Libertine, DABJ and More!

V/A – Libertine 005 (Libertine Records)

Libertine’s slim catalogue of releases has been a little hit and miss so far, I think, although they certainly have their hearts in the right place. With a little bit more certainty when it comes to knowing exactly what sort of thing they want to be doing they could be a very strong label indeed. Already they have my undying admiration for bringing back the mighty Spesimen for their first outing since God knows when, and if they can move a bit away from some of the relatively nondescript minimal techno we might have something special going on.

Their 6th release goes down the now time-honoured route of getting a bunch of electro artists together for a sampler, and it’s certainly a boost away from the label’s more techno focussed material, even if it does swing wildly from one extreme to the other. Mind you, samplers like this wouldn’t be quite the same if they all sang from the same hymn sheet. Where Gosub keeps it focused with the light hearted, moonlit electro of Black Sequence II, Corp and Octogen bring in the Detroit feels with both Cosmic Velocity and Scionide revelling in strong, early, Model 500 influences. Both are great tunes, with Octogen’s Scionide in particular really invoking Juan Atkins’ machine soul. Space Travel’s From The Sea locks everything into a compressed 4/4 trip of dense, bleepy, and regimented mayhem to close things off. A nice sampler from a label who seem to know what it’s about even if it hasn’t entirely come together yet.

Nothus and Deliwke – RedWalls (XCPT)

Perhaps it has something to do with both the recognition that the UK’s strand of wide-influenced music is getting just now, and the current vogue for – again largely UK based – hardcore, but there is a definite trend emerging in-house and techno that brings a little of that gleefull, breakbeat based mayhem to the floor, even if a lot of the tunes don’t quite get what made that stuff so good originally. XCPT label heads Nothus and Deliwke haven’t entirely gone whole hog for some full on bass madness here, but have attempted to coax something of the attitude into the music.

Does it work? Yes, to an extent, although neither of the two original tracks here – Redwalls and Requiem – really allow themselves to fly off towards some manky, early nineties warehouse, both are capable bangers, suggesting more than a passing kinship with what’s been coming out of Bristol over the last few years. Redwalls itself feels a little harsh, and leans more towards what you could describe as a Semantica style translation of the vibe. The shuffling breaks are hard, and most of what should be the soul of this style, the crazy perc, is stiffly sampled instead of destructively wild. Even so, it’s a nice tune – and deeper than it probably has any right to be. It unfolds nicely, getting in there with some blissfull, bleeped out melodies and squirts of 303. Requiem is even better, jacking into a strongly IDM-ish mood and allowing itself a little more leeway with getting its head down.

It’s left to Mgun and DJ Plant Texture to bring some much needed craziness to the proceedings. Mgun’s take on Redwalls smashes the original apart and uses the pieces to build a trippy, oddly haunting rocker which glimmers with a strong Detroit light. Plant Texture just goes proper mental on his take, rendering Requiem into a snarling, multi-limbed hardcore monster which terrifies and consoles in equal measure.

M.A.P Vs DJ Haus – X-Mod EP (Dixon Avenue Basement Jams)

Dixon Avenue are now one of a vanishingly small band of labels who are still willing to bring a form of house to the floor that has little truck with the deeper varieties currently clogging up the nations ears. And while there is still space in their release schedules for family members like Jared Wilson, the last year or so has seen them expanding outwards towards an even messier, warped and rave fuelled take on the genre.

It’s entirely fitting that they should have brought Unknown To The Unknown head DJ Haus onboard. Haus’ own projects have long had more than a passing similarity with DABJ’s, and this EP, alongside Mak and Pasteman, seals those shared interests nicely. X-Mod is an EP rich with sonic mayhen, drawing heavily on a rough bumping take on Dance Mania and ghetto-house’s weaponized stomp. Both Drive MF and Bang It – the second one in particular – Bring a bruising, jacking energy to the tunes, reminiscent of DJ Funk but with a surly, day-glo charm replacing Funk’s fecund lyricism. Both are straight to the feet and straight to the point, with Drive MF especially bright with its high-speed, shuffling grooves.

Even better is X-Mod itself. Even though it draws from the same well as the other two, it injects the music with a slobberingly dirty blast of late night rave which tightens the tune and dims the light until you just don’t feel safe. We’ve waited a long time for house to start bruising ankles again. Long may it continue.

Best Of The Represses – April 2017

Bring me your represses, your…actually, that’s all. Just bring me your represses. And don’t be bringing me rubbish ones neither. We only want the good stuff here.

The Other People Place – Saturday Night At The Laptop Cafe (Clone Aqualung)

With all the predictability of night following day, Clone follow Warp’s recent repress of the legendary Lifestyles Of The Laptop Cafe with a re-release of this companion 12″ from 2002. To be honest, I suspect part of its fame has come from a combination of James Stinson’s untimely passing, and its relative unavailability over the years. Sorrow & A Cup Of Joe is a pleasant, downbeat slice of electro tinged deep house that many people have hailed as a classic. While I’m not sure it’s quite as good as its reputation suggests it’s impossible to fault it too much, particularly since it pulls of a rare trick in sounding even more contemporary than many of the tunes being released right now. Beyond that, any electronic tune which manages to sound so utterly downbeat yet hopeful deserves a couple of minutes of your time, and everything I said a month ago about the album is just as relevant to this release.

Mystica Tribe’s Telepathic Seduction on the flip is the more vital of the pair, with Stingray bringing some seriously low slung swing and dappled evening sunlight to a tune which wobbles nicely through some almost R&B-ish movement until it falls asleep under the stars. It’s really pretty nice, and worth a look if deep house in disguise isn’t really your thing (I raise my hand here). If you’re a sad-case completest ( I raise my other hand here), a tightly bearded hipster, or simply curious about what all the fuss is about consider this the opportunity to fill your boots.

Gemini – Le Fusion (Another Day)

Spencer Kincy’s Gemini project was one of the truly great sources of house music to emerge from Chicago in the mid nineties as the city’s second wave began to get into its groove. Originally released on Cajmere’s Cajual Records, Le Fusion was one of the corner stones of Gemini’s enduring fame and even today it still carries with it a sense of being both well out on a tangent as well as being ahead of its time. Soundwise it rolls between bumptious, tweaked, Relief styles jackers, and trippy, oddball, thickly rhythmic workouts which are far more experimental examples of house than you tend to find in today’s rigorously codified climate. The opening track is perhaps one of the finest distillations of this grooving madness ever committed to vinyl, with its woozy fairground organ and malicious, descending double bass brewing up the warped and nervous energy as our host holds court in French. While it sound absolutely demented – and it actually is demented – that never detracts from the fact it’s a stone cold killer. And for those of us who like shit to be done right, this release has apparently been licensed from the reclusive Kincy himself meaning that – unlike with a lot of releases bearing his name – he’ll see royalties for it.

Cybonix – Make This Party Live (Frustrated Funk)

Frustrated Funk brilliant series of classic electro represses is really getting into gear now, and if you have any money left following their recent re-releases of E.R.P, Plant 43, Ovatow, Duplex and others you’d best throw your last pennies at this slice of genuine old school Detroit electro.

In comparison with the other names I just listed, this is a thicker sound, but although it shares a lot of common ground with its home city’s sweaty techno-bass there is something even more swaggering at its heart. I’ve never been exactly sure what that is. Perhaps it has something to do with the way it sounds as if the techno influences came second to old school electro and hip hop, or the way Cybonix throw down a more humanized emotional element which gives the music a messier, less precise and far more chaotic sense of fun than is found in other, more Kraftwerkian strands of the genre. It doesn’t matter. All you really need to know is that Make This Party Live is a bonafide classic and it’s good to have it back.

Strengthening the original three tracks of the original release further is Let’s Bang from the band’s debut Cybonix In Effect. It’s a very nice little bonus, adding both a little history and context to the rest of the material. Every tune is a banger, but the standout is the rude grooving, Shake Your Body with its pumping bass and moody piano riffs. A very nice and welcome addition to a growing roster of old electro making its presence felt once again.

Various – V-Max Records (Warehouse Finds)

Finally a special shout out here to Glasgow’s Rubadub who apparently stumbled across a bunch of 12-inchers in their warehouse from the brilliant V-Max label and got them back into circulation. I’m not sure which ones they found, but I got my hands on a bunch of Heath Brunner material under both his Silicon and H&S guises.

This is some world-class electro, but numbers are pretty limited I would imagine, so if you want some, better start hunting before it’s too late. My pick of the bunch is Silicon’s Static EP – You’re unlikely to hear anything as good as this masterclass in stark, warp speed electro for a long while. What Brunner does it astounding – so few elements so much groove. There is almost nothing there but magic. Get on it now or cry like a wean for ever onwards.