Best Of The Represses March 2018

I think the title of this column is occasionally a bit misleading. Not tonight, though.

Timenet – Dishwasher (Frame Of Mind)

Now, this is an example of someone really, really, digging back and returning with something unexpected. The original was released in 1992 as a white label by the members of the short-lived techno outfit Ubik, and that’s about all I know of it. Judging from the fact that the same PR blurb is out there on about 100 record store sites, I’d say that’s about all most seem to know about it which is pretty cool and interesting because it’s not often we get something genuinely obscure popping up as a repress at the moment.

Musically it’s very much of its time with its mix of Acid, techno, and rave, lending it the distinctive UK sound of the early nineties. While Dishwasher feels far more classically Chicago – mainly because it’s an homage of sorts to Mr Finger’s Washing Machine – the other tracks cram in a good dose of messy, day-glo, fun alongside some wobbly grooves. On The Move comes straight out of a dingy club at the wrong end of the high street with its baggy T-shirt stained with sweat and dry ice; ravey stabs and grinning daftness do something similar to the inside of its mind. DX Moods is the pick though, with its low-slung, electro tinged, moodiness eventually bursting into a smiling, fractal, sunrise.

Aux 88 – Technology (Direct Beat)

Although not the highest ranking record in my personal ‘Direct Beat represses I need right now’ list, not least because Technology is one of the tracks on last month’s repress of Bass Magnetic, this is still an important one to get back out seeing as it represents not only the first ever release on Direct Beat but – I might be wrong about this – also the first appearance of Aux 88.

While Technology feels a little rough and ready compared to some of their later, slicker, work It remains a great tune and one which helped to define the entire techno bass sound with its blend of electro, house, and soulful Detroit techno. But where techno bass – as a whole – eventually began to suffer from a little too much in the way of cookie-cutter sounds and off-the-shelf attitude, Technology remains wonderfully alive to the possibilities. Even better is the Rhythm mix which swaps the fluid breaks for a stomping 4/4 beat, head-rushing energy, and connects the Detroit sounds of the early 90s with something altogether more up-front and explosive. This Direct Beat Classics thing is beginning to shape up very nicely.

k Alexi Shelby – All For Lee-Sah (Transmat)

One of a very small band of producers whose work truly crossed the – mostly imaginary – boundaries between Chicago and Detroit, K-Alexi could always be counted on to deliver the sort of utter banger that everyone knew even though they lived in the ‘secret weapon’ category. This repress of his Early Transmat release – the first proper repress we’ve had from the label in a long while – brilliantly sums up that rare duality with three tunes that you’ll have heard plenty of times even though you didn’t know who made them.

My Medusa is probably the most familiar, particularity as its wonky, eternally optimistic, skank has been out on a couple of other relatively recent represses, but the other two tunes bring very different facets of K-Alexi’s sound to the fore. Vertigo is one of the dirtiest, funkiest, acid tracks ever released. It’s a tune so pungent you’ll be catching it at the edge of your senses for weeks. All For Lee-Sah is just a work of near genius. A swirling, compressed, storm of emotion and mood it floods over a stone cold groove which gradually winds itself up into some brilliantly subtle acidic funk. Bring the strobes for this one.

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Best of the Represses – Jan 2018: Aux 88 – Bass Magnetic (Direct Beat Classics)

Aux 88 – Bass Magnetic (Direct Beat Classics)

The announcement back in the Autumn that Aux 88’s Tommy Hamilton and Keith Tucker were launching Direct Beat Classics with the intention of repressing some of the treasures from Direct Beat’s back catalogue was greeted in Pattern Burst Towers with a level of excitement that is normally kept for winning the lottery. Whether the new label was a long-term plan or something that grew quickly from necessity is, like worries of license hell, suddenly unimportant, for the first of these long-awaited reissues is upon us, and it’s a bloody good choice of starting point too.

I’ll admit something up front: I was particularly excited to find out Bass Magnetic was to be the first one out of the gate. I’ve never owned a copy of it. Originally released in 1994, I came to them slightly too late to pick it up, and by the time I realised how much I wanted it, copies were pretty much impossible to find. While I’ve spent plenty of time over the last two or three years convincing myself to pay over-the-odds for it from Discogs, something at the back of my mind suggested I waited. I’m glad I did.

Bass Magnetic, Aux 88’s second release, was a real statement of intent, one that utilised the 8 tracks to begin to codify not only the duo’s own sound, but also that which would quickly become known as techno bass, that blend of old-school electro, Miami bass, and techno, which would become such a defining factor for Detroit’s second wave. There were, of course, others who did techno bass, but Aux 88 were pretty much the definitive act, and their influence hangs over countless producers in the same way as that of their peers, Drexciya, even if it is not quite so apparent just now in a revitalized electro genre where there isn’t always such a focus on the raw groove.

And at heart, beyond everything else it does, Bass Magnetic is a collection of grooves. Whether it’s the hot, heavy, shuffle of Fly By Night, or the stalking tightness of Let’s Dance, every element is turned towards creating movement. Perhaps because of that necessity, the tunes themselves are stark and paired down – certainly in contrast to the swelling sound scapes that are to be found in a lot of modern electro – but there are still traces of something else, most noticeably of Detroit’s own relatively recent past. Model 500’s role in the evolution of the sound is apparent in many places, particularly on Time Space and Technology where it floods the tough jams with the glimmer of cosmic lighting.

This mix of past and future – in itself an important hallmark of all Detroit techno – runs like a river through Bass Magnetic but it never holds the music back from forming its own meaning, or stops it from pushing onwards to become an important stop, in its own right, in the city’s musical journey. It isn’t always a perfect record. Occasionally there is a sense of finding its feet, as if still forming the sound; here and there the beats echo into repetition as the soul and the groove don’t quite come together. Elsewhere, now and again, the ideas on offer drift into something a little one-dimensional, as if waiting for a missing element to be introduced.

There are people who think that, in terms of definitive statements, it’s 1996’s Is It Man Or Machine? which really nailed things down. And there is a lot of merit in that, but it was also, in some ways, the start of a period when the Aux 88 sound began to be refined to the point where further invention was rare. On Bass Magnetic there is a looser vibe, the beats less crisply executed. There is the sense of a band following different paths just to see where they go. Bass Magnetic, the tune itself, is certainly a premonition of later material, but its evocation of classic electro was straighter, less directly fuelled by Miami and Detroit. The quite frankly marvellous Sonic Boom, a stand out track in an already ridiculously good album, displays a sense of deep, joyous, funk-abandon that Aux 88 didn’t really approach again. It feels the odd one out, not because of its quality, but the way in which it feels closer to the energies of acid or even rave than technobass. It is a pure hit of good time accelerant, wobbly and all-embracing.

To anyone reared only on the electro of the last couple of seasons Bass Magnetic will probably be a slight shock with its direct and relatively austere execution. Even those of us who remember it from before might have our ears reopened, and be reminded that it’s this very directness that made Aux 88 such an amazing prospect. It’s electro with no quarters given, existing purely as a device for causing panic and delight on a packed dance floor, and quietly (actually, no, not quietly at all) reinventing the genre, setting it on a course with the future by taking the best bits of what had come before and adding in something new. Very few records are really deserving of being called a classic, but that it what Bass Magnetic is. An absolute treasure which sets the bar high for the rest of 2018.

Friday Night Tune: Ttrax – Weekend

Bloody hell, that was a long week. Snow, freezing weather, a sore back and an increasingly unpleasant working environment all added up to big, fat bulb of bastardry. I’m not the only one; I expect the one thing most of us have in common, regardless of who we are, what we are and where we are, is for the weekend to roll into view once again.

Weekends don’t carry the same promise that they used to for me. They’re not lessened in any way, but they have a different use, a different meaning now. I don’t spend my Friday or Saturday nights in clubs anymore – you hit a certain age, I think, and the attraction to darkness, dry ice, and weirdly sticky carpets drops off. I still go out – sometimes – I just have to choose my battles with more care than I once did. In actual fact this isn’t a major hardship. Yeah, I miss stuff I expect I would have loved, but I enjoy the occasions I do make a lot more, especially if the team are out in force (itself a rarity these days.)

I also think differently about how other people go about their weekends. Partly this change in thinking is down to being less up my own arse about how people who aren’t me choose to spend their own time. I hopefully understand what folks want from the Friday night in a way I never appreciated until I worked every hour of the week. Where I would have once lamented people choosing to throw money at some big name DJ playing in a colossal venue, I get that need now. I’ve heard people being slagged off for wanting to go and see big timers like Carl Cox, and being criticized because they don’t want to spend the few hours of freedom listening to the unlistenable, by attending some show of grinding noise that believes its own sense of self-importance elevates it above everyone else’s tastes.

The fact is that for most people Friday night isn’t about educating themselves musically. It’s about getting messy and having a laugh. It’s about having a few drinks, a dance and – hopefully -copping off with someone. It’s a method of dealing with the torrent of shit they put themselves through every week, and when they go out to a club, they don’t necessarily want to focus on musical sophistication, they want a sure thing, a safe pair of hands who will soundtrack a few hours of escapism. I suspect this is what those of us who are obsessive about the music tend forget all too easily, even when it’s probably what we ourselves need to do more often.

I’m not sure who Ttrax is. I think it’s mostly Tommy ‘Tom Tom’ Hamilton from Aux 88 but I can’t be positive. I’ve looked high and low but this is the only Ttrax tune I’ve ever been able to find, which is a real shame because it’s a gem. It comes from the very overlooked Technobass: The Mission compilation which was released on Direct Beat back in 1998. It’s a great compendium of that particular form of electro which blasted out of Detroit in the mid 90s and featured tunes from Electric Soul, Alien FM, and Aux 88 themselves amongst others. But as great as all the other trax are, Weekend is the real standout. It doesn’t sound like anything else to have ever come under the technobass umbrella. Instead it rides out as a superheated blast of mutant funk, melting your bad mood away with its sultry groove and an absolutely on point vocal from Courtney that just utterly perfectly sums up that feeling we all have whether we admit to it or not. In its own way, this is electro-house the way the idea of electro-house should be: hard yet graceful, and totally alive. It’s a shame that this was the only Ttrax track. I’d love to hear more jams like this.

It’s Friday night. It’s the weekend. Where’s the party at?

Friday Night Tune: Aux 88 – I Need To Freak

In the mid nineties Detroit techno suddenly seemed to explode, coming apart at the seams only to be rebuilt into a host of very different styles than those the first wave had shepherded through the scene’s kindergarten days. There were, of course, elements that lingered over from the early years; the strings and a forward-looking, sc-fi tinged vibe were still there, as was the deeply soulful edge that continued to differentiate Detroit techno from the host of new pretenders who were on the rise on the other side of the ocean.

But what the second wave brought with them was a hardness that had not always been apparent before. Underground Resistance, having quickly risen to a place of prominence on the world stage, infused high-tech soul with a fire that was not easily put out. UR alumni, chief amongst them Robert Hood and Jeff Mills, led this new assault – Hood with his tight minimalist approach and Mills with a form of techno that would fuse funk to a furious aural assault – and would alter techno forever and irrevocably.

What tends to get forgotten about now, however, was the reintroduction of electro into a scene that become more and more focussed on slamming 4/4 beats. It had always been there. From the very beginnings of Detroit techno – and even before – there was a silver thread that tied techno to Kraftwerk’s measured robotic movement and beyond via Juan Atkins’ work as Cybotron and Model 500. In truth it was Atkins who had greater influence than the Germans. His pioneering application of the purest grooves to Kraftwerk’s tight machine blueprints became one of the defining moments in music history and it’s doubtful that techno would have sounded anything like it did had it not been for him.

Two acts in particular came to define this renaissance. Drexciya became one of the genres’ great exponents, fusing their take with an Afro-futurist manifesto that gave the music its own world to soundtrack. They were esoteric as much as they were earthy, and although you could always tell their influences if you looked into the shadows long enough, they quickly transcended, ceasing to be techno, or even electro, but instead fully and completely Drexciyan.

Aux 88, however, were a different proposition. They came to embody the ethos of Detroit electro-funk (or techno-bass), a form of electro that had a massive and different kind of effect on contemporary producers than Drexciya did. The output of several Detroit labels from the era bear witness to this influence: Underground Resistance, Metroplex and Direct Beat, an offshoot of 430 West which Aux 88 called home and released most of their best work on, were all full of artists who were cooking up this fierce blend of electro, street tough techno and acid. It was so potent a sound that for several years towards the end of the decade, it seemed that every record to out of Detroit was electro bass in mind, body and soul.

Aux 88 did not have quite as major an influence on the rest of the world as Drexciya, and several of their records sailed a bit too close to the Kraftwerkian sound for some tastes, especially in Europe, perhaps, where people did not always want their Detroit imports to sound like the very thing they had sent out into the world. But these are minor gripes, because when Aux 88 got going, God, they really went for it.

I Need To Freak, a track taken from their d├ębut album Is It Man Or Machine, was a bloody banger of a tune and the perfect example of techno-bass in full flow. The Kraftwerk touches are still there, as are little nods to Model 500, but they are consumed by the fire that is lit by the swagger of those destructive, sweeping beats and the snares which are so sharp they cut preconceptions to the bone. What makes the track, though, is the mammoth acidic bass that coils around everything and brings together a sense of mischief and funk that is barely contained. It’s a corker, and it’s a track that still smashes its way through the night after twenty years. My copy is all worn out. Can I get a repress? Please?