Reviews: L-R – The Rambler (Asking For Trouble)

The fourth release on Radioactive Man’s Asking For Trouble label sees the L-R electro supergroup reuniting for the first time since their debut in 2017. Ok, I say ‘supergroup’ even though we all know Sandwell District still hold the copyright on the term, but the first outing for this collaboration between Radioactive Man himself, Simon Lynch of London Modular Alliance, and Johnny Oakley of Monoak was an unexpected treasure, not least for the way in which it eagerly kicked against many of the genres current trends.

The Rambler is a slightly different proposition to the debut, being somewhat less fierce in the way it wields its beats. Nor is there anything as precise as Land, a track which fed its exquisitely frosty frequencies into that record’s overarching vibe.

Instead, The Rambler shifts down a gear, and opens itself up to something earthier. Some of this is to do with the sustained attack of the growling, booming, 303s which congeal around the low-end like a foundation of thick quicksand. This is particularly true of the opening tunes, with both Doctor Dark and Rings holding the velocities at a breathless strut as the bass winds in coils around the beats. Neither track mounts itself towards a full-bore assault; they delve deep into the muck and grime, and return with something more fluid than you would expect given the heft of the music.

And it is a weighty sound indeed, one that plays with the lower registers more than a lot of modern electro where the accent is on a more crystalline mood. Part of me thinks this is because the tunes here are much more focussed on physicality, on the kinetic structure, but that really only covers part of the sound. The way many of the other touches are compressed down into the soft and malleable bedrock suggests a rogue sense of experimentalism at work. Rings, especially, is a good example. Behind the bass the beats are loose, wobbling, deliberately haphazard in the way they always feel just about ready to jump forward or fall apart. They don’t follow electro tradition so much as echo to the vibe of soul, and rhythm and blues; organic beats following the groove rather than suggesting its own path. Rings’ liveliness makes light work of its low-speed.

Dinky’s Tone does something similar, at least in the sense that it seems just as determined to incorporate those humanoid touches to the music. Perhaps even more so. Here it works as winding bass over snarling beat’s and razor-sharp percussion which evokes something closer to light-speed hip-hop, or brutally rolling funk. Once again the heart of the tunes is made of a loose, living, energy that provides the ghost in the machine, an intelligence that is both empathic and vampiric. Where The Lights Are tugs hard on the soul, and focusses on a deep, sensual, and fiery groove that buckles and corkscrews, and leads the tune through a virtual future-disco of machines and drunk AI. It emerges on the far side as a surprisingly deep and playful high-point of the record, and one where the funk is rainbowed by jazzy exploration and and a subtle but disarming vulnerability.

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HVL – Mumdiva (Tabernacle)

I’ve banged on here and there recently about electro’s need to open itself up to more diverse influences, worrying myself that the genre has a tendency towards thinking that a variation on a theme counts as exploration of the possible. There have been some outstanding electro releases over the last couple of years, but you often have to have yourself pressed firmly up to the ear-trumpet of obsession to sometimes be fully aware of the little wobbles and variations that seem to count as invention.

It is true that any genre can sound a little monotone if you’re a newcomer, or simply haven’t been paying invention, but electro can often have a particular dislike in moving too far away from its favourite stomping grounds. This has begun to change a little bit recently, with more producers finding worth in influences beyond the usual reliquaries of Drexciya, or Rother, or what have you. This often translates into a dalliance with IDM or other, more cerebral, forms of The Art, but it has also begun to feed back into itself with a number of more organic records which borrow a bit of other genres funk and grooves to re-educate the breakbeats. DJ Tiffany’s house-flecked Feel U, for example, Or Mor Eilan’s silicon soul infused Persona Non Grata.

HVL’s Mumdiva pushes this further, moving on from directing the methodology of other influences to accent and tone the music, to emphasise instead the shared histories and evolution. It helps, perhaps, that Mumdiva’s electro is allowed to act as a framework, a platform, for these other sounds and ideas to proliferate. It allows a deeper sense of exploration to work without the baggage of trying to keep the overriding vibe tied down to any one base.

It also helps to keep things burning with a particular energy that many of Mumdiva’s strengths are derived from a distinct era rather than genre, and much of the record recalls the wide open creative environment of early techno where cross-pollination was the norm. Opening cut, Tea and Sympathy, comes closest to sonically invoking the Gods of Classic Electro, even cleansing the tune with a mid-point wash of languid, Drexciyan synth. But the feel is dominated by the sprightly spirit of pioneering UK techno, warming colder tendencies and allowing room for a looser sort of groove to grow in the space. A similar vibe lies at the heart of Dirty Hardwood (Vox), where the harder ranging breaks offset the more skeletal form of the track, and distant throbbing 303s whip up a fine, billowy, funk.

It’s probably the other two tracks which best carry off this dominant mood, though. Tamar 1160 (Mix 1) dumps the electro aesthetics entirely, painting a bitter-sweet swirl of colour, before letting it clear away and allowing light to fall on the forthright and clattering 4/4 beats underneath, releasing a delicately weaving riff to prowl through memories of that point where techno, trance, and house were no more than different limbs of the same organism.

Inhabitable Earth Analogue crowns the record, a gorgeous, burst of frequencies, erupting in slow-motion, and with all the hazy, lazy urgency of a tune which knows exactly where its going and how it means to get there. The surprising heaviness of the collapsing beats drawing nothing away from the twist of electronics which cajole the track into stately movement.

DJ Di’jital – Electrohop (Trust)

For those of you unfamiliar with the work of Lamont Norwood AKA DJ Di’jital – and I know there will be a few – here’s a brief recap. One time DJ for Aux 88, Di’jital has been a true stalwart of Detroit electro for more than twenty years. His original slew of records (released on Aux 88’s Direct Beat label) were thick with that particular tang of Kraftwerk, soul, and techno that we now tend to roll together under the term ‘techno-bass’. While this was certainly a close enough description of Di’jital’s music in a broader sense, it doesn’t really convey much of the scratchy, instectoid funk, or the corrosive acidic energy he brought to the party. It’s a sound he’s developed from his Direct Bass days onwards, whether it’s been on Twilight 76, his own Di’jital Access label or elsewhere, and it’s one he’s continued to perfect over a prolific career.

His début release on Austria’s Trust is very much an extension of this sound. In some senses this is the antithesis of modern electro, not only of the wide-screen, deeper and more symphonic breed we have become accustomed to over the last few years, but also to a great deal of the tunes which borrow liberally from the energy and movement of techno-bass itself.

What I mean by this is that Electrohop is not the fulsome, and genre flexing sound we’ve become used to in electro. These are stark beats, combative and taut. They are stripped down beyond the point where concepts like ‘functional’ have any real currency and, indeed, some of them lie squarely in the territory we once called tools. On occasion that exact tightness, the compression of tones and grooves, can take the breath painfully away, and leave you reeling with claustrophobia.

That never lasts. There is always something sliding into place; a slight change of direction, a ripple of acid bass. always accenting the drive of the beats, and shaping their throw. On the fleeting 808 Kits it is the radioactive pulsar burst of bass locking everything within its gravity. On Gamma Radiation it is the spidery creep above the searchlight flash of bass and the regiment of kicks and hihats. On the more rounded-out numbers, such as Entity (The Get Down) flashfloods of melodic bass, and stabs of synths loosen up the rhythms, adding a larger, lighter groove. On Input Main the occasional shiver of discordant, broken, chords, on top of the prowling acid bass catches a mood which makes overt a subtle playfulness at the heart of the record.

It is a harsh record, but that mentioned playfulness, a humour and warmth, smooths many of the sharper edges. But what stands out are the grooves which are whip-like and whip-smart, reminding us that this is first and foremost a dance music, regardless of where the experimentalism takes us. While Electrohop can sound alien in comparison to so much contemporary electro, that’s part of its charm. These tunes might be too much for ears tucked away at home, but drop them in the deep-night fury of your favourite subterranean sweat box and you will watch the room explode.

Best Of The Represses Jan 2019.

What the actual drokk! 2019 is a made up year, isn’t it? IT’S ONLY SUPPOSED TO EXIST IN SCIENCE FICTION! Personally, I think this is at the heart of the human race’s current weirdness – we peaked in 1991 and now we just don’t know what to do with ourselves, and as we’re human (so I’m told) we’ve attempted to blast our way back to that temporal safety blanket by being fixated by walls, being fascinated by Bros, and listening to all our music on vinyl which is actually a bloody terrible way to listen to anything – although I guess it’s still better than having some dingbat like Kanye teleport the sounds right into our brains, and charge us every time they makes us blink.

2018 was a pretty decent year for the represses, I think, although I suspect that whether you agree with that statement largely depends on what your electronica postcode is. Obviously from an electro point of view it was a smashing 12 months where it felt at times that the represses were edging it over the brand new releases in both quantity and quality. Down at the other end, I sometimes wonder why we’ve really not had a huge avalanche of quality jungle and d&b returning to us from the distant past – or hardcore for that matter, given the wee waft of love for all things ravey and breakbeaty we’ve seen in some quarters. Mind you, the slightly underwhelming rave revival seems to have shrunk away as quickly as it came, leaving little behind but a vague impression of something started without a clear plan for what to do next. If you’re British, that’ll be a little bit familiar just now….

Elektroids – Elektroworld (Clone Classic Cuts)

I’m sure Elektroworld by Elektroids will be just as familiar. Well, it has to be, hasn’t it? It was pretty much the definition of ubiquitous at one point – certainly up here, anyway – and I imagine at least half the tracks on it remain just as familiar now as they were in the late nineties. While a portion of the record’s enduring fame probably owes something to the ongoing question of who exactly wrote it (the blurb on the record claimed it was ‘four young brothers’. Everyone else says it was Drexciya), it remains a smart collection of Kraftwerk inspired electro which mixed in a massive dose of Detroit soul and funk, and had a big a role in helping electro’s transformation from interesting diversion into the all-conquering genre it sometimes is these days.

What else it there to say? The chances are that if it’s your sort of stuff you probably have it in some form – the previous reissue, perhaps, or the long available digital files. Still, simple availability doesn’t usually detract too much from a good repress, and this one is certainly that, with the memorable original cover, and a light tarting-up of the mastering helping ease out the few doubts and creaks. Everyone will witter on about Japanese Telecom, or Future Tone as the album’s stand out track, but although they’re excellent tunes the best thing on it by far is the utterly funky Midnight Drive – still a moment of captivating, hazy, brilliance nearly a quarter of a century on.


Ectomorph – subsonic vibrations (Interdimensional Transmissions)

Unlike Elektroids, Ectomorph have probably never quite got the attention they deserved – particularly for the run of releases early on in their career where they displayed a fine understanding of a form of electro which seemed to borrow liberally not only from Detroit but also from Rotherian noir without ever becoming beholden to either. The end product was something distinct from either discipline – starker than Drexciya, sparser than anything to come out under the UR or 430 West banners but also fiercer and more embracing than their northern European peers.

Although the Stark EP remains my favourite of Ectomorph’s early run (and I’d love a repress of that one, particularly for the fantastic Time Fold), Subsonic Vibrations is a pretty remarkable début by any standard. Right from the very start, the little kinks that separated them out from everyone else are evident. The title track with its wonky, drifting, bass; Last Days Of Skylab’s bubbling acid mayhem; Parallax View’s shuffling, compressed, energy. All led off by Skin’s charging, righteous, grooves. Like the Elektroids album, this is a magnificent snapshot of the point electro began its metamorphosis. And for anyone one unfamiliar with Ectomorph (and there seem to be more than I thought), what better place to start than right at the beginning?

No Smoke – International Smoke Signal (Warriors Dance)

Ok. Aside from a vague recollection of someone mentioning this to me at some point, and a suspicion I’ve heard a couple of the tunes before, this repress of a 1990 release is pretty much an unknown to me. It probably shouldn’t be but there it is. My God, though, It’s brilliant. And I’m slightly embarrassed not to have really known about it before, especially seeing as one of the members is Tony Thorpe whose work as Moody Boyz took British electronic music off on so many insane journeys.

There’s too much here to really get my head around. Vocals from The Mali Singers scent tracks like Don’t Touch Me or the sprightly funk of International Smoke Signal, with smokey atmospherics which stretch the house in deep and wonderful directions. Just listen to the ace Anti Galactic Devotion, replete with a cheeky Star Wars sample, and the sort of beats which ride as if they know UR and the future lie just up the road. There is so much excellence on offer. Best of all is Ai Shi Temasu (Japanese Love) – deep and throbbing, it cuts house down to its constituent parts and focusses on the music’s raw, physical presence. It’s just superb.

See, this is the reason represses can and should be more than a simple exercise in commodifying nostalgia. Every so often something like this appears, something you’re not familiar with, and just floors you, making you wonder why you haven’t loved it since the day it first came out. An absolutely essential blast of UK house, acid, and breakbeat from the days they were all part of the same creation. Go and buy it right now. We need more of this.

Favourite Tune of 2018: Linkwood – Fresh Gildans (Firecracker)

2018 was for me a bit of a shitter, to put in bluntly, and I think my relationship with music – particularly electronic music – took a bit of a battering. If I’m honest it was mostly the circus which seems to now permanently orbit electronic music which really did it for me. Frauds, arseholes, and grifters are par for the course in all the arts, but something particular in electronica’s wide-ranging seems to have drawn them in. The gap between what I’m looking for, and what there seems to be, is growing. There were times I just couldn’t have cared less. And it’s led to an interesting re-education in the basics of what it is I want from electronic music, and the realisation at the heart of it all is that I’m not looking for authenticity, but honesty. And I’m happy to take it wherever it appears regardless of whether it’s the underground or somewhere more accessible.

This fed back in on itself, and when more personal issues raised themselves my fallback wasn’t into electronic music, but into soul, and punk, and all sorts of bit n pieces that were as far from techno or electro as you could get. Comfort music, I think. I probably listened to more soul last year than I have in a couple of decades. The unintended up-side to that is that it gradually came to colour almost everything else I listened to, and remind me of what it was I really loved about a lot of electronic music in the first place. I’m sure I have said it before, but you can parade all your disco icons, or Krautrock gods around as much as you want, but the real heat in-house, and in techno, comes from soul before anything else. Without soul music this is all just expensive sound boxes bleeping at each other.

One of the niggles I’d had with electro all through 2018 – that after the sugar high its mini-renaissance delivered in 2016 and 2017, and after it had once again settled down into relative isolation there would be a slow drift back into entropy; all the newly won energy and ideas boiling away into the cold-state of same-old same-old, with what was left further calcifying into the chilly fractals of IDM-ish academica – was probably related to this. There seemed a dearth of electro which offered something beyond either frigid introspection or gleeful abandon. It’s a wonderful genre, but it does have a certain taste for starkness at times, and a predilection for particular routes and directions which sometimes makes it look like a dog who can’t turn right.

There were a few tunes here and there which pushed out from these common boundaries. Mor Elian’s Xerik Zula started off with threats of large-scale stomping but became an endless fluctuation of mood and shade; glimmering light forever hanging on the edge of sharp transients. Posthuman’s Steal The Show, right at the end of the year, tied a prowling breabeat into a shuffle of bright rave stabs and set them to work in a cathedral of strobes. La4A’s Creased was almost the best thing I’d heard this year. A tune which remembered that one of the things about early IDM which made it so good was the optimism, the sense of wonder and escape, of machine minds looking out across the sun-dappled uplands towards a future-music. It was graceful, blissful, and majestic. These, and a handful like them, were tunes which dug a little beyond the obvious of the genre. Track 2 on the anonymous Keep Your Mouth Shut EP brought a sample from an Aphex Twin remix of Saint Etienne and created a daft, ambling, and deadly track that sounded like the best anthem baggy never had. It was as brilliant as it was stupid.

Fresh Gildans, though, was the one I listened to probably more than any other, and I think the reasons for that are probably quite simple. Something in its weight didn’t feel like anything else this year, and yet it felt entirely comfortable; It rode straight in there under the intellect, hitting up a connection on the emotional level. In some ways it reminded me of Theo Parrish’s 71st and Exchange Used To Be on Trilogy Tapes from a few years back. Not because of a similarity of music, but in the way the music flares out, working in the guts and the feet, but lingering a beat behind in the subconscious, rendering the whole thing instinctual.

And Fresh Gildans just strutted. So bright, so alive. So utterly captivating in the groove it required nothing more than to be allowed to do its job. The beats (particularly at the start) are pure Mad Mike. Taut, rolling. Perfectly marshalled. The rain of Detroit-esque strings, the throb of the bass. It felt liked submerging yourself in cold water on a hot day. It was a master class in the idea that music does not always have to challenge you on an obvious level to get a reaction, and that the best tunes sometimes work by simply showing you what they right from the start. There weren’t many tunes this year which made me want to laugh and cry at the same time, but this one did. There was honesty and soul here for sure. It was heavy with them, using them the fuel a vibe of warmth and life, and remind us of the simple joy of movement. 2018 didn’t deliver many treasures, but it delivered this. And that’s far, far, more than I had any right to expect.