Best Of The Represses. April 2018: The Vision – Spectral Nomad (Metroplex)

Only the one this month. Just because.

Vision – Spectral Nomad (Metroplex)

After what seems like an eternity lingering on the edge of a re-release, Metroplex have finally managed to get this absolute corker back in to circulation. Originally released in 1996, Spectral Nomad came in the middle of what might still be Robert Hood’s greatest period. Aside from the way in which he continued to tighten and amplify the sophisticated, utterly stripped down grooves of the minimalist techno he had begun with Internal Empire two years before, he was also taking his first steps into a wider, less constrained world with his looser, thicker, Floorplan material as well as creating the deeper, Basic Channel infused sounds of Monobox. All three bore a striking family resemblance – a focus on sharpening the funk, and removing everything except the bones, the muscle, and the sinew – which was already apparent as something inherently Hoodian above whatever else the individual projects might bring with them. Where his old partner in crime, Jeff Mills, shared much of Hood’s basic ethos he used it as the foundation of a larger, more sweeping sound. Even the tightest of Jeff Mills’ tunes seem to reach outwards and upwards until they envelop the listener and the dancer. With Hood there is no such release; Everything is either movement or energy and every other element is jettisoned. The music turns in on itself.

The Vision was an older project, and one which actually had far less sonically in common with what he would later begin to create. A pair of early EPs – Gyroscopic on Underground Resistance, and Toxin on Hardwax – are brilliant, but they lean closer to the harder European rave tinged sound that Underground Resistance were making (which is hardly a surprise given Hood’s history and former place in the collective). They sound raw as hell. Heavy too; laden with acidic, porpoising riffs, light bending bass, and collapsing beats they represent techno from a period where the fury of the music is wound up with a soulfulness that came directly from house, lending an emotional edge which cuts right through the fuzz and the snarls.

Spectral Nomad was the third of The Vision records, and the last. Brought back by Hood after a four-year lay-off it didn’t seem interested in revisiting anything except the name. Certainly there was a dirtier vibe than was usually found in Hood’s other work of the period, but the music was denser, less concerned by a need for an immediate, visceral, thrill. More importantly, it also feels less willing to trade space to outside influences for Hood’s own ideas. Spectral Nomad is a very pure record in that sense, and only occasionally does it nod its head to others: Spectral Nomad itself is one of the few moments on the record to cast back to Hood’s older tastes. Its exploratory, jazzy, atmosphere echoes a lot of Juan Atkin’s work, and although it is expertly marshalled by Hood into a swaggering bop, its heart lies in an older – and perhaps more playful – Detroit.

The core of the record though is dominated by Hood’s focus on the grooves. Explain The Style unfolds in classic style with the endless flank of a slowly growing, precision crafted riff sliding by and the mammoth heft of a single kick drum leading the way. It could easily fit into Internal Empire or Minimal Nation. But it builds imperceptibly until it brings wobbling non-melodies borrowed from Mills to the fore, and releases the tension with the tiniest crackles of percussion. Detroit: One Circle flares into being like the first tune’s malicious, spectral, twin; travelling exactly the same ground, it cuts out Explains… willingness to meander and instead deepens and darkens the journey, scratching out a new path with snapping percussion and a looser but more urgent groove. It may not be absolutely one of the greatest techno tunes to emerge from Detroit but it isn’t far off, and its influence has probably touched more people than you’d imagine. You can sense its presence behind the early work of a number of Motor City producers, chief amongst them DJ Bone, whose own taste for rolling, expansive, yet stop-on-a-dime tight tunes shows a genuine understanding of what Hood was trying to achieve here.

Modern & Ancient feels like the sole misstep on Spectral Nomad for the first few times you hear it. It doesn’t really have much in common with anything else on the record – nor, in fact, with much else Hood was creating at the time – and seems isolated when you try to put it into context with the rest. But the tune itself make busy with its stark positioning and strange sense of adventure, climbing high enough, showing enough of itself that you can gradually understand its place here. Probably not enough, though, to stop you noticing what it isn’t over what it is.

Spectral Nomad is not the definitive Detroit techno record, as some would have you believe, and it perhaps lacks a little of the magic that the very best of Rob Hood’s creations all have, but it is a definite piece of the puzzle and anyone seeking to understand how we got from their to here should try to get to know it. This was Hood in the middle of a transition, translating not only between his own eras, but those of Detroit. It is techno of a different sort; not minimalist but trimmed by the same knife, and possessed by a mesmeric charm that keeps everything guided on the sonic beliefs which shaped so much of his music. It seems cheap somehow to say it, as if it detracts from the power of the music, but Spectral Nomad is an important document; it’s not the whole story, but offers instead a major perspective on one of electronic music’s most seminal genres. It’s that important. That it happens to bang so very hard is just the icing on the cake.

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Friday Night Tune: E-Dancer – Velocity Funk

The last year or so has been an interesting time for techno and house. Interesting and a little strange. For a while it seemed as if we were getting increasingly locked into a deeper mood, one where the beats were congealing at a fairly pedestrian speed, and the only available texture was ‘fluffy’. I’m still not sure whether the current taste for safe, fairly undemanding house and techno, and the ongoing renaissance of disco, is simply indicative of the sort of nostalgia you get when you live in interesting times or whether it points to something deeper in electronica’s subconscious, but I’m really beginning to hope we snap out of it soon.

And, in fact, the evidence is that we are. There has been a slow increase in the amount of dirty, gutteral techno recently; music that mainlines a lot of old second wave Chicago energy along with techno’s stomp, often showering the whole lot in acid. While its easy to point at much of this stuff and accuse it of digging through the past just as much as any chunky disco infused house tune currently doing the rounds, it at least suggests that someone out there is getting itchy feet.

The resurgent interest in hardcore is an even more interesting one. Although there have been a number of records recently that exhume a lot of the old school ravey flavour, the majority of them have taken the basic sound and refitted it. Often this mean slowing it down by quite a bit. Usually when this sort of thing happens the music loses a lot of its impact, but with hardcore it tends to accent the heaviness, slowly morphing the music from homage into something new. It’s the kind of useful pillaging of influence I can get behind, and far more interesting than simply xeroxing the past.

But what I’m really hoping for is to see more producers willing to delve into different areas of sound and mood. At the moment there seems to be a surfeit of artists who only mine particular strands of electronica. I’ve touched on this before, wondering whether the way things now means that many people are unwilling to mix it up too much, that because fan bases seem to harden around a particular style the various acts don’t want to move too far away. In effect, electronica’s is growing compartmentalized.

Many of my own favourite producers were those whose work covered a lot of ground, who were always ready to jump between vibes as and when the mood took them. If you look at the work of an artist like Eddie Fowlkes, for instance, you can see a musical mind capable of moving between a deep, luxuriously rich sound where the gap between techno and house is almost imperceptible, and the scintillating, room-melting lunacy of a track like 420 Low, one of the harder tunes to emerge from Detroit. Underground Resistance’s Mike Banks is a similar figure. Responsible for atomic belters such as Punisher or The Seawolf, he also pushed the concept of hi-tech soul, that fundamentally Detroit movement encapsulated in the jazzy, soulful grooves of Jupiter Jazz or Journey Of The Dragons.

The point here isn’t that these producers were going where the market, and the fans dictated, but rather they were allowing full reign to their sense of expression, letting the full sweep of their creative skills the chance to bear fruit.

Perhaps more than any other Detroit producer Kevin Saunderson was a master of this. Known originally on this side of the Atlantic as Inner City – a project which although overtly commercial still combined the poppiness with the nous of a resolutely underground producer – and equally renowned in the darker, sweatier, corners of the globe for music released as Tronic, Reece, and a gang of other names, it was his work as E-Dancer which got me.

I’ve written about the other side of the record tonight’s tune comes from before, the cosmic brilliance of World Of Deep, and I still don’t know which side of this 12″ is my favourite. What I always loved about it though is the way it captures two very different sides of Saunderson’s music. World Of Deep is a glimpse of heaven; every bit as soulful as anything Mike Banks or Fowlkes did, it remains in many ways the epitome of Detroit’s fusion of body and soul. Velocity Funk though? Velocity Funk lays waste.

Aside from the fact it’s one of those tunes which Glasgow seemed to take as its own, it retains the power to shock. it isn’t just that, though, nor is it simply about the explosive rave energy it folds into its techno. There is, for all it’s heaviness, and speed, a lightness of touch and humour which propels it just as much as the slamming beats, paired so ably with the screaming vocal sample which slices the skin open and buries itself inside your head.

Many artists may have allowed themselves to cross the divide of moods and styles but few have done it on a single two-track 12″. Even fewer have pulled it off. Insane. And sublime.

Friday Night Tune: DJ Valium – Whiskas

I hate losing records. For various dull reasons I’m a bit obsessive and freaky about the things I have an interest in, and where for most people the discovery that a record appears to have disappeared may lead to a shrug or half-hearted search, for me it usually means tearing the entire flat apart looking for it. It’s not just records that bring out this behaviour in me; I once almost irrevocably damaged the relationship with my partner over a lost hoover attachment. Don’t ask. It still rankles.

But records do have a tendency to wander. From the wrong records going into the wrong DJs bag in the busy, dark, confines of a club’s DJ booth to light fingered bastards taking advantage in the messy chaos of an after-party. That’s where I think my copy of DJ Valium’s Valium EP went missing. Likely I wasn’t even playing; I probably dumped my bag in the hallway whilst I renewed my acquaintance with Mr Buckfast.

Still, these days it isn’t as near to being the end of the world as it used to be. Discogs, obviously, is the medicine that fixes all ailments and it only took me about five minutes to track down a new, still sealed copy. In its own little way it was a profound relief; this is one of those records that, for some of us, has moved beyond simply being a classic – it has become part of our heritage.

And if that sounds an extreme way of thinking about it, you have to try to see it from our perspective. Glasgow is an odd city when it comes to its love of electronica, and one can never be entirely certain that what cuts the mustard elsewhere it going to manage it here. It’s not that we’re better, that our taste in music is more exquisitely fine tuned (although, obviously, it is). It is, in fact, a distillation of different factors which range from the traditionally short length of the average club nights to the city’s industrial harshness reflected in its night-time decadence, to the impact that the town’s one time large number of dance music shops had on its relatively small population.

The Valium EP nicely draws together a period of time in the mid nineties when people were really begin to step out a wee bit from their safe zones towards stuff that was maybe a little bit more unhinged. It was Valium’s first release on Gary Martin’s insane Teknotika label; an imprint that hailed from Detroit but never, ever sounded like it. Teknotika was always looser, gathering together trace elements of disco, house, weird-edged experimentalism, kitsch, and something I can still only really describe as ‘cosmic tribal’. The music tended to be fast, dense and life affirmingly off-the-wall. It was perfect for Glaswegians.

The tunes of this EP were probably the first contact many of us really had with the label, with perhaps the exception of the phenomenal anthem Universal Love, and it was long one of those records you loved even if you had no idea who it was by, or what the tracks were called. I’ve always thought that a true test of quality. Knowing the artist colours your view, even if you don’t think it does, and confirmation bias can have a negative effect whether we mean it to or not.

In a slight break with tradition I haven’t chosen my favourite cut from the release. That honour goes to the thunderous, seething Running In October, a tune with a bassline which still makes me shudder. The tune I’ve gone for, Whiskas, is here because of, well, consensus I guess. It was the tune that delivered every time it was played, bonding together people on the dancefloor, and in grubby flats afterwards. It still sounds like very little I’ve ever heard; a brew of humour and beats, recalling something disco without sounding anything like it. It was, and remains, a true Glasgow – and even more importantly, Paisley – anthem. Gaun yersel, big Man.

Labels that Changed My World – Plus 8

plus 8 logo

While Richie Hawtin may continue to draw the ire of black clad techno bores everywhere long after the jokes about floppy fringes, sake, and lilac scarves began to get old, you’d have to be a special sort of nut to believe that the vaguely cartoonish figure he has grown into over the last ten years or so revokes his importance to electronica. Sure, his current productions may not be at the same level of his older material, but the fact remains that he and school friend John Acquaviva were responsible for a marked change in techno and how we perceived it. And a lot of that is down to the label the two of them formed way back at the start of the nineties.

Although Plus 8 were formed a hair’s breadth away from Detroit, just across the border in Windsor, Ontario, and have always been counted in amongst the other labels of the Detroit Second Wave such as Underground Resistance, 430 West or Planet E, they never really seemed to share much common ground other than physical proximity. Paradoxically, this was at its truest in the early days when Hawtin and Acquaviva’s ties to the Detroit Scene were at their strongest. At that time the label’s output was largely their own material, under the Cybersonik guise (a collaboration between the two label heads) or Hawtin’s FUSE project.

Cybersonik remains perhaps the hardest material either artist ever produced – full bore, heavy techno which still seems to have its head not in the silicon coated clouds of Detroit’s high-tech soul, but in the depths of a more European take on the genre; harsher, faster, and more regimented, it paid homage to the sounds drifting out of the Netherlands and Germany, a sound which took the basic framework and injected a far more stomping attitude. FUSE, in comparison, felt closer to their spiritual and almost-physical home, while retaining something of the Sturm Und Drang which Cybersonik evoked. Both projects though, lived up to the ethos embodied in the label’s name: the maximum upward pitch available on a Technics deck.

One of the most important members of the early Plus 8 family was Detroit native Kenny Larkin, a producer of massive talent who would go on to create some of the most memorable techno of the era. His early work on the label, the bouncing half house, half techno of We Shall Overcome in particular, sounds like the missing link between Chicago and Detroit, and it it’s own way pre-empted the second wave of Chicago house which was embodied by labels such as Relief. It’s a more playful take on Detroit techno, less inclined to the philosophical seriousness which often seemed to lie at the heart of the genre in its early days. Likewise, Jochem Paap, better known as Speedy J, lent Plus 8 their first real European connection with the Dutch artist signing on early with a series of 12″ which are still some of his best work. Although each of these artists is very different in sound, there is a common sense of purpose. In fact, this signature vibe was an important element of the early Plus 8 canon. Yes, the records were often hard, but they always kept the groove close, and helped redefine what techno meant as well as what it could be.

This facet became more important to the label as time went on. In 1992, chagrined by an episode in Rotterdam where Hawtin witnessed one of his Cybersonik tracks being played at plus 8 and used as the backing track for an anti-Semitic chant, the label began a deliberate move away from the harder tunage they had originally embraced. In some ways this was the true beginning of Plus 8, and over the next few years as the acts on the roster, as well as the styles of music the released, diversified, the label really began to find its place in the world.

Although Larkin gradually moved on from Plus 8, his place was filled by a host of new artist, each of them bringing something very different to the table. Sysex with their wonky techno, Fred Gianelli’s Kooky Scientist outfit with its warped proto tech-house (so different from what that genre would later become) or the deepening, darkening mood of Hawtin’s own Plastikman all pointed to a label which was just as obsessed in the future of electronic music than it was with the present. No mean feat in electronica where the music rarely looks beyond the immediacy of the dancefloor. Perhaps the most exciting of the lot was Vapourspace, a project which walked the line between the dancefloor and something far more experimental. The phrase ‘ambient techno’ is one which has been abused constantly over the last 25 years, yet here was a producer who simply understood it. Tunes like Vista Humana or Gravitational Arc of 10 brought together the different strands and wove them into a shimmering tapestry of sound which has rarely been bettered.

The label went semi-dormant in 1997 as Hawtin and Acquaviva found themselves drifting away into other commitments. Although it is still going, it mostly once again exists to provide an outlet for Hawtin’s own material, and new music by other producers has become less common, which is maybe not so bad a thing as the handful of newer releases since the 90s has rarely been at the same level. But then, that’s hardly surprising. When you stop and think of the records which came from the banner (either Plus 8 itself or its sub-labels like Probe) Plus 8 were at the forefront for a long, long time of what we think of as techno; The Wipe by Teste, an endless, pulsing, hypnotic force which sucks the light out of the sky, is still one of the most famous and loved tunes ever released. Add to that Speedy J’s Something For Your Mind, the crazed 909 mayhem of Plastikman’s Spastik, or LFO versus FUSE’s sublime and eternally funky Loop and you have a label which not only reflected the techo zeitgeist, but was largely responsible for it.

Just like they were the Detroit label who weren’t really Detroit, Plus 8 were the techno label who weren’t always really techno. They were too interested in the movement of the genres to be ever tied to one thing. They brought to techno a bit of hardcore’s stomp and house music’s colour, they challenged what we thought techno was. They made hard music accessible and gave lighter music the same importance as its more serious siblings. And although the DNA of what would eventually become tech-house or minimal was in its blood early on, Plus 8 often showed how lively and interesting these hybrid styles could be – long before they became the beige Beatport fodder they are now.

It’s hardly fair to damn the label because it’s not as good as it used to be. If we go down that path and strike labels from the Big Book of Holy Techno because they aren’t doing the same thing they used to, it’s going to make for some slim reading. We might not like where they end up, but that doesn’t mean we should stop paying attention to the road they took, especially in the case of a label like Plus 8 who helped build the sodding road in the first place. They didn’t just change my world, they changed everyone’s – and anyone who doesn’t think so needs to go through their record collection carefully and see how wrong they are.

Friday Night Tune: M500 and 3MB – Jazz Is The Teacher (Magic Juan Edit)

For all the clubs packed out every weekend, for all the debauchery and chaos, for all the streamlined marketing and PR of the big players, electronic music still remains, at heart, nerd’s music. It’s 30 odd years now since house music first started making an impact on the main stage. With 30 years under its belt rock music went from an oddity to an irritation to a global phenomenon. But leaving aside the empty commercial trap of EDM, electronic music still lingers in the darker corners, rarely rivalling other genres for dominance. For many people house is the sound of a Friday night, with little impact beyond that. With other styles, techno or electro or dubstep, it seems to have evolved beyond that and into something like a lifestyle choice, and one even less likely to be picked up by the casual listener.

As with other scenes (punk, in particular, or the old Northern Soul movement) fans of electronica probably revel to a big degree in the relative obscurity of their taste in music. I know I do. That’s says something about me that I’m not overly proud of admitting – when you reflect on it, claiming one of the reasons you like something is because no one else does seems a bit, well, childish – but it doesn’t stop it being true.

Of course, there are bonds to be made with others who enjoy the same stuff; there is the undeniable thrill of being a member of a gang, and being indoctrinated into the secrets of the cosmos that the greater mass of humanity will never know. This isn’t purely a musical thing of course. Similar attitudes have existed as long as human being have gazed at the dawn and proclaimed ‘yeah, that sun god isn’t obscure enough for me to follow.’

Still, it got me thinking. I’ve been working on a wee project recently, and a thought popped into my head that I couldn’t quite shake. With all other genres that I can think of, be they jazz, rock, country or what have you, there have always been a small number of tunes that every one knows and loves. We tend to call these classics, we think of them as paragons of whatever musical virtues their specific genres hold dear. When you think of rock music, for instance, what tunes do you hear? Is it Smoke On The Water? What about Brown Suger, or Smells Like Teen Spirit? I’m talking about tunes that everyone is likely to know, not A Kid Who Tells On Another Kid Is A Dead Kid by Nation Of Ulysses (which is a great song but rather limited in terms of world-wide fame.)

Does electronic music have tunes that we think of as standards? If we were to create an album with the ten greatest techno tracks of all time on it, what would be there? For a while I thought it would be an impossible thing to do. To paraphrase William Gibson, electronica is musical Darwinism with the researcher’s thumb stuck on fast forward. The creation and splintering of new styles, sub genres and sometimes even single, ill-conceived ideas, is usually at light speed. Given this, can there possibly be any tunes which linger in the mind months, years, or decades after they’ve had their time in the sun? And if there are, the question becomes simpler: Why? The answer to the first part is yes, there are indeed tunes which still retain their power and fame. The second part, while simpler to ask, is harder to explain.

My first choice for this imaginary album of techno standards is Jazz Is The Teacher, a tune first released in 1992 by 3MB, an outfit consisting of Thomas Fehlmann and Moritz von Oswald, and their old sparring partner ‘Magic’ Juan Atkins. It was a big tune in its day, permanently in the boxes of some of the worlds biggest DJs. The reason it’s here though is even simpler. One of the hallmarks of a genuine and true classic is that it is often a tune you know even if you have no idea who it’s by or what it’s called. While the world continues to turn, and new scenes spring into life, there cannot be many people with even a passing interest in techno who haven’t had a chill sent up their spine by the unfolding drama of that intro, or know to a microsecond when the first beat will kick in. I’m sure there are many thousands more people who have lost their shit to Jazz Is The Teacher than have ever known its name, or the names of those who wrote it.

Personally, I think Jazz Is The Teacher deserves its place at the top table for more than just that. It remains the perfect balance between playfulness, soul, and drive – three traits which have long defined Detroit techno for me. It’s too wonky to be thought of as genuine high-tech soul and too soulful to ever be a true techno banger.Instead it wraps all those facets up tight in its DNA and delivers something magical, memorable and truly timeless.