Best Of The Represses (Sort of) October 2017

One of the drawbacks of focussing on vinyl reissues is that it quickly becomes difficult to see the wood for the trees. Over the last couple of years we’ve been blessed with a lot of represses. Some of them have been interesting, most have been OK, and a very small number have been superb examples of labels going for broke in providing us with occasional items of genuine splendour. This year Clone’s reprint of its Le Car retrospective, Auto Reverse, Warp’s sterling repress of Lifestyles Of The Laptop Cafe , and Boidae’s remastered collection of work by The Mover stand out as releases that have hit all the right marks. These records represent not only simple re-releases of old material recently commanding high prices on various on-line vinyl bazaars, but also as examples of how good it is when you see some love and slightly left-of-centre thinking put into it.

It’s not always like that, though. Too often represses are hawked out to labels who, regardless of their actual intentions, seem to delight in poor presses, sound quality, or even a lack of any of the original art. This last one might not seem important – we are talking about an aural medium after all – but for many people buying new copies of these old records the artwork remains an important hook, something that elevates the record to new territory.

Electronica remains a strangely fecund environment for represses; the nature of the genre, it’s reliance on limited original presses of 12″s, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them nature of so many of the acts and labels, and the fact that, particularly in the earlier years, it was a genre which took the ethos of true label independence to a level perhaps unseen since the thirties, meant that for most of us a lot of the music we heard out and about, and perhaps only fleetingly, is largely lost, except perhaps to a small, select group. Compare this with rock music where it seems even the most forgettable third album by whatever 90s outfit you care to name is kept in circulation forever because the labels are large, wealthy and – most importantly here – stable enough to do this and it’s no wonder that electronica is thriving on represses. Whether the hunger stems from rekindled memories or a desire for musical education, the need so many of us have to reconnect has led to heavy archaeology in the garden of lost musical treasures.

But while a remastered vinyl reissue probably represents the best everything, we tend to forget it isn’t the only way to get your hands on old music. Discogs, eBay, and other markets has given us unparalleled access to the originals. Whatever your views and experiences, you can’t argue against what the opportunity provides, even if your choice 50 quid slab of early nineties Dance Mania arriving packed in what appears to be crisp packets does take a bit of the excitement off.

A lot of labels have realised that there is a thriving market in sticking out old material in digital form. For those of us less bothered by the need to hold the holy artefacts in out hands this has turned out to be a godsend. You can pick up superb music from a galaxy of great labels relatively cheaply, passing on cash to the label rather than to some insane Discogs weird-boy. The downsides are in the quality control. For every label who works hard to create a decent transfer, there is another content to stick a scabby vinyl rip up and charge for it.

I’m slowly coming around to the idea that buying from Bandcamp might eventually be the best of the lot. Aside from feeling virtuous that the larger portion of you money is going to the labels and, increasingly, the producers themselves, it seems to be on its way to becoming an archive of the lost and unusual. There is so much good stuff there if you look for it. Unfortunately, this is Bandcamp’s Achilles heel: its search function remains, to put it bluntly, shite. Whether it stems from a slightly hipster-ish desire to dump you in a realm of music with the intention of having you blindly stumble into things, or whether it’s simply because a decent, modern, search function is beyond them, I don’t know. What I do know is it can be needlessly hard to get anywhere unless you know exactly what you’re looking for.

It’ll get better as more people use it, I expect. With the likes of Underground Resistance currently working themselves up to getting material on the site, and a host of producers coming around to its tangible benefits, this side of Bandcamp will grow exponentially. Whether it’ll ever replace the thrill of buying a long desired 12″, I can’t say. Probably not – there’s a thrill there that digital files can’t really replace. What is certain though is that it’s about time we started widening our horizons to the possibilities because a reliance on physical represses by the largest labels will ultimately limit us to an increasingly small pool of music, and may well see some real treasures lost forever. Next time you’re thinking of splashing out on the 150th repress of Acid Trax with one slightly different mix on it from the last one you bought, why not just buy it digitally and use the savings to buy some wicked tunes from the past that you might not necessarily have gone for from Discogs? Even better, remember that today’s new music is tomorrow’s old, and support some up and coming label or producer who are doing good stuff right now. Why wait 20 years before recognizing the talent in front of you?

Oh yeah, I’m supposed to be writing wee reviews on this, aren’t I? well, I’ve pretty much spunked my word count today so we’ll just have the one.

Being – July 1995

Dave Paton is probably better known these days for his work as Wee DJs, but 20 years back he was known as Being and was responsible for some quite crazy music. It’s difficult to know with Being’s stuff quite where the ambient ends and something harsher, less ethereal begins, but it’s this tightening in the throat and gut which makes July 1995 such as great compendium. In many ways it’s of its time: rougher, heavier rather than deeper, but lost in a universe of its own creation. It has the feel of a truck load of slightly broken machines singing songs, and whispering threats, to each other, but it’s never less than utterly captivating.

From Shify’s fluid, jazz touched, and increasingly snarling ride into the vacuum, to Berl’s compressed, zero-point wobble July 1995 mixes up its influences. You can feel Detroit’s silver spirit floating high over the music, and little quick silver flows of dub, true old-school ambient, and something even more esoteric cut their courses through the precise and haunted emptiness of the tunes. This is electronica like you don’t really get any more. It’s utterly disinterested in the ways of the world, entirely content creating fresh and lonely horizons to explore.

My favourite here is Cat, a deep and pulsing exemplar of a particular, (and increasingly forgotten) strand of UK electronic music which, rather than recoil from the dancefloor, understood that those same touches that made you want to move your body could also make you want to move your mind. Absolutely sublime.

I met Dave once. It was in Drummonds in Aberdeen in 94 or 95. He was a friend of a friend. Played a blinder of a set. Asked me to swap seats to he could keep an eye on his gear. True story. What lives we lead.

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Friday Night Tune: Goldie – Inner City Life

Generally with electronic music, it’s easy to follow the threads of DNA right back to the slurry of the original gene pool. Even today, all these long, cold, years on, we can trace them from their beginnings, slender filaments of light illuminating the creation of the genres. We can see the paths from soul and disco, from jazz and rhythm and blues, from primitive experiments on archaic synthesizers and drum machines which sounded like a child beating a tin can against the future. And we can see the eras webbed together, common highways always running forwards from their yesterdays and into the big bang of house and techno and everything else, and onwards. What ever other data might be hidden away in the invisible flow, there will always be the knowledge of the ways in which A became B.

There are gradual changes; tiny, cellular alterations which provide the foundations for the next step. It took time for Detroit techno, for example, to morph from its earliest forms, to exchange its experiments with house for a wider approach, and to slowly tighten the sounds, adding weight and philosophies, until the musical style the mid 90s bore few surface similarities with what Juan Atkins and others had being doing more than a decade earlier. House, too, took time to evolve. From disco to acid, to the interplay with harder European forms which sharpened the music. A slow change, played out over a decade and a half, led outward to a larger world. What is worth pointing out though is that the beginnings of house, like techno, are recognizable to the outsider, to the stranger whose interest in the music may be no deeper than the aural wallpaper of a club on a Saturday night. They know the rules to this stuff, they understand – largely – where it came from, even if they don’t realise it or care. The DNA forms deep, scarlet, channels through the chromium surface, as visible as the sun on a bright day.

With Drum & Bass, however, it’s not always so easy follow the paths. It’s not because D&B appeared suddenly from a vacuum, an emergent organism born out nothing more than an act of sheer will. The roots are there, the DNA is there. D&B grew just as organically as the rest, shoots of growth rising out from hardcore’s fertile garden of Eden, and bringing with it rave, and breakbeat, dub and sound system culture. Like all the others, it is a child of many parents.

Yet what astonishes even now is the speed it grew; virtually fully realised in the womb it arrived as something almost complete. When placed in its original time, amongst the other electronic brats, it seemed almost alien. It felt like a profound break with the past. The other genres, as futuristic as they are, are continuations, variations on a theme. D&B, though, was a year zero, its history curtailed, its growth accelerated. And the xenomorphic nature of the sound, the flexing, razor-edged, tendrils of its breaks, the curling, twisting bass, the interface of raw fury with delicate beauty, separated it from the others who were still finding their way. It was that rarest of things: something genuinely new.

There will be many people who don’t like Inner City Life, that it doesn’t embody the right stance, the right ethos, to represent a genre. Maybe they’re right. After more than twenty years I’m still a tourist when it comes to Jungle, skirting the land and looking for a way in. I’m a lightweight who remains happy to hear what there is to hear. What I know about it all you could write on a stamp. Even so, I think of this tune as something defining, something that encapsulates all of what I’ve just written. It’s easy to be cynical now, so long after the start, but when you get back to it, what remains shocking about Inner City Life is how beyond almost everything else it seemed to be. I don’t just mean house and techno, yet to break away from the worlds they lived in, but against the backdrop of the larger musical world, the charts, the rock, the pop. The language we developed, all the concepts of underground or overground, were essentially meaningless because this was music which existed in a time and place entirely of its choosing, with little regard for what came before or what would come after.

The shockwaves contract, change becomes ever more gradual, and it might be that Drum and Bass will eventually be remembered as the last true explosion of invention within electronica. Techno was always supposed to be the embodiment of a science-fiction mindset as music, yet here was a sound that really was all that, and more. it didn’t wear it on its sleeve; it simply was. An echo from a far future. And whatever else might happen, within its rolling thunder it made it possible to remember that regardless of how important the past, we always need tomorrow too.

Paul Blackford – Fireflies (Tokyo Electro Beat Recordings)

Paul Blackford – Fireflies (Tokyo Electo Beat Recordings)

Although he is perhaps better known for his straight-up electro work, Paul Blackford has long been one of a small pool of artists who seems equally happy exploring other sounds. In the wider world of contemporary electronica this usually means the artists move between house and techno – two genres where these days the differences in style are often unremarkable enough that eyelids are barely batted when a producers swaps one for the other; Let’s face it, the symbiotic relationship between the two rarely affords a specialist in one a true opportunity to spread their artistic wings.

Fireflies is a useful reminder, perhaps, that the world of electronic music remains a larger one than we typically tend to be aware of. Partly the blame for that is down to the way in which the music is packaged to us these days. Packaged and consumed; the increasing compartmentalization, the way in which we are often steered down particular routes based on the prison of our buying habits and basic tastes tend to lock us quickly into specific sonic interests. It is not only producers who find themselves failing to branch out. We, the listener, are just as culpable. And it can be hard to escape even the most obvious traps. We like what we know. It speedily defines us, and sometimes even the most educated of palates can be the ones with rarefied and limited tastes.

What we have here is perhaps a little difficult to quantify for anyone coming at it from the modern world’s searing electronic strains, and unused to such a departure. Downtempo, sleepy, and warm may go some way to covering Fireflies but they don’t come close to capturing the essential spirit. It is, in some ways, reminiscent of an earlier time, an era when electronic music lacked a lot of the self-awareness it now wears like armour. Perhaps self-absorption is a better way to put that.

There is a gentle and adventuring energy at the heart of Fireflies, and a certain amount of purity, which provides direction for the bitter-sweet melodies which fuel and heat the music. Latitude unfolds and engulfs with the delicacy of IDM at it’s most meaningful, that crossroads it occasionally reached between its attempts to distance itself from the sweat and thunder of the club and its desire to be thought of as ‘proper’ music where it reached towards a fleeting sense of grandeur. It’s a pretty tune, wide-eyed and alive to the interplay between rhythm and melody. Moonlight evokes a similar vibe, but stretches it outwards, gilding the tune with quivering, soulful, light. Fireflies itself is more introspective, shading itself with deepening mood.

Syndicate is perhaps the best of the collection. On the surface it doesn’t deviate too far from the rest of the tunes, but it instates a noticeably darker hue; moodier and perhaps even heavier, it fluctuates between the simple beauty of the rest of the release and something more solid. There is a genuine wistfulness at its heart which lends it a maturity and slight cynicism which elevates the little touches and half-melodies, and gives the track a sense of movement perhaps lacking elsewhere.

Mostly, though, Fireflies is built on variations of a theme. While the music is gorgeously realised, the emotional depth of Syndicate amplifies it’s contrasts with the slighter moments and the beats, well formed though they are, sometimes lack a little bit of bite which might have tightened up the moods and pushed the music onwards towards a more colourful horizon.

Even so, it feels like a departure from contemporary electronica’s increasingly work-a-day styling. And while it occasionally feels a little uncertain of moving beyond beautiful and slightly hazy sketches to something more emotionally sure of itself, it remains a release of rare subtlety and warmth.

Posthuman Ft Josh Caffe – Preach (Dixon Avenue Basement Jams)

Posthuman Ft Josh Caffe – Preach (Dixon Avenue Basement Jams)

After a few releases where DABJ seemed to be moving on into new pastures the label reverts to something close to the sound they first started out championing. Posthuman’s first release for the Glasgow label has already drawn comparisons to Paranoid London’s deep and haunted acidic skank, and there are certainly elements common to both which bring out the best of the little silver box’s history without delving too far into the mire of homage.

Where Preach departs from its peer’s music is in its mix of the dirty and the sensual. The 303s are more restrained, playing a central role in forming the prowling grooves without ever dominating the otherwise stripped down and lean tunes, and the extra leg room is spent in allowing the fine, rubbery, rhythms and perc a moment in the sun.

The leading pair of tracks, Preach and Temptation, square themselves up in classic territory; a core of stone-cold funkiness moves them more into house territory than pure acid, partly through the way they make wonderful use of Josh Caffe’s sleepy vocals, allowing his voice to bloom and blossom across the empty expanse above the marshalling 303s growling and precise assault. Preach is the more compressed of the two, a tight yet flighty number which ties its acid down into something with an almost tribal ruffle to it, and shifts its arse with an energy sadly rare in a lot of modern house. It’s a mad wee groover, working over feet and ears almost equally. Temptation loosens up a bit, but spirals upwards and outwards with Caffe’s vox accenting the proceedings and directing your attention like a ringmaster in a particularly funky circus before the introduction of some scarlet, shimmering synths opens an unnoticed gateway and the whole thing just spills out, expanding into every nook and cranny previously untouched.

Last tune, Exit Drums (Extended Mix) shimmeys in a touch of experimentation, which pulls apart the foundations of the previous tunes with a 303 which curls and flickers around the wonky, scattered throw of the beats. It remains acid house, but only just, and breaks open the music to allow a sense of playful misadventure not always evident in such a rigorously curated genre. The other two tracks with – probably rightfully – will draw most of the interest and the plaudits, but it’s Exit Drums that will likely reward both many, many listens, and DJs willing to kick beyond the typical will find its cheeky pop a smart move out to a brilliantly alien tangent. A potent record which reworks many classic elements into something deeply modern. It turns in some of not only the fiercest, darkest, acid grooves of the moment, but adds to it a flare of clever sensuality which provides a sharp edge not often found in contemporary acid.

Mesak – Kirot (Vortex Traks)

Mesak has been kicking around for a long while now, but I have to go ahead and admit that our paths haven’t crossed too often. I’m not sure why; checking out his back catalogue over on the Font Of All Knowledge (Discogs) shows a producer with an ear for the slightly off-on-a-tangent electro I tend to lap up. The occasional interface – a single track on the first Vortex Traks release, and the excellent Deep In My Mind split with Mono Junk on DUM – managed to show me differing shades of his work while holding on to something interesting and a little alien.

Kirot extends that feel, and does so by avoiding several of the major sonic themes so popular within the scene just now. The abyssal depths, IDM tinting and blood and thunder banging might well be noticeable by their absence, but they are replaced by something both older and more fluid.

That might not be your first reaction on hearing Kirot, and certainly the riot of colour with splashes out during the loose, scattered opener Spirit Ahoy is suggestive of a more deconstructed take on the genre, one that builds itself out of shards of Nintendo-esque sound and slow changes of tone where the tune travels from something upfront to a cooler, more muted approach. Such moves imbue the tune with depth rather than deepness, especially coupled with the flares of Two Lone Swordsmen style melodies and synths.

In fact, it’s in this that Kirot shows itself most clearly; a sort of remembrance of an era when electronic music was unabashedly, well, electronic, and was pushed to see how far it could go in splicing the artificial with the organic. Occasional this vibes gets a bit ahead of itself. Kiero, as an example, takes too long to establish some sense of itself amongst the vaguely random noises even if it does pull it out the bag somewhat towards the end as it begins to straighten itself out and make use of the multitude of wonkiness that almost buries it.

But this is a rare enough overstepping and shouldn’t detract from the generally pretty nice vibe the record sets out towards. Max Toisto, at the end, comes closest to setting its stall out as a burst of fairly conventional, contemporary, electro, but it avoids such a fate by means of its scruffy playfulness. Yes, you’ve certainly heard similar, but the way in which it evokes the flavour of dirty, crumbling, techno (and even the faintest tang of early Plastikman) locks down its energy to a different sphere entirely.

The standout here, though, is probably Vietti, a woozy, half-speed exploration of space and tone which starts out small and compressed, barely shining any light into the shadows in the corners, but slowly winds itself up into a ruffled and studied piece of porpoising weirdo-funk which shimmers with odd grandeur before diving out of sight.

I have a slight worry that Kirot stands a little too outside the gang to be picked up by the people who would benefit the most from hearing it, those who might find a little epiphany of sorts in Kirot’s wonderful asymmetry and joyful, playful, reworking of the genre’s basics. There is nothing here to scare off the legion of new electro fans; it’s not deliberately harsh (actually not harsh at all) or wilfully obtuse. What it is, though, is certain of its vision, displaying enough steel in its individualist streak that it won’t back down it its mission to expand upon electro’s themes.