The Long Player – Jeff Mills: Live At The Liquid Room

Now that we have access to almost every bit of music ever made, in countless different forms, it can be difficult to remember how important ideas like mix CDs once were. Although they are still released today, they have the feel of boutique object d’art; often beautiful, frequently interesting, but seldom vital. And as that vitality has diminished so has the role they once played within electronic music.

In their hey-day, in the handful of years which fell either side of the millennium, they were often the best and most permanent link many of us had to a larger, brighter world. Not all of us grew up, or studied, in a place where the indistinct spectres of Detroit or Berlin played. Nor did we often have a record store where we could spend hours soaking up vibes and knowledge. It’s difficult to glean an understanding of electronic music from hanging about in a provincial Our Price. And besides, the manager would probably call the police if you’d still been there three hours later.

Mix CDs were a form of education. They allowed you to see how everything moved together. They introduced you to new music and new artists, and strengthened your ties to those with which were already familiar. And for those of us pounding away at learning the basics on a pair of nasty belt-drive decks they were both inspiration and aspiration, allowing you a glimpse into a world where the music and the mixing was far beyond the leaden, wonky, hellnoise which farted out from your bargain brand speakers to torment the neighbours deep into the night. They gave you something to aim for, and the knowledge that, with a little bit of skill and a lot – a LOT – of practice, you might eventually be capable of something that might not be in the same ballpark, but might just be from the same game.

Most of that was an illusion, of course, because even back then your average mix CD shared something in common with the beautiful works of DJ art we still get nowadays: Most of them were about as close to being indicative of a particular DJ’s true talents as that old provincial Our Price was to Berlin’s Hard Wax. They were not the outpourings of white hot sets taken straight off the dance floor and shoved onto a disk. They were groomed and refined, hard edges polished away to perfection, trains wrecks carefully placed back on the rails, scratches and pops euthanized before they could pollute innocent ears.

In some ways, modern podcasts, no matter how deeply thought-out and sync-buttoned, retain an immediacy that most mix CDs would be pushed to emulate. But that really wasn’t the point. They quickly became a place where DJs could present an idealised form of themselves, playing the way you imagined that they imagined themselves playing. They would drip with magic, with post-recording effects, and trickery, and the music would be pulled in new and unexpected directions. My favourites from the era, Kevin Saunderson’s X-Mix entry, and Derrick May’s Mix Up volume, are peerless. But they’re not what you’d hear if they played in the tiny subterranean sweat-box that filled your techno daydreams. Jeff Mill’s Live At the Liquid Room, though: that was different.

The set was recorded in the autumn of 1995 in Tokyo’s Liquid Room venue, a place which still elicits a sense of the exotic and the mythical. This, as much as anything, probably plays up the CD’s mystique. You could be listening to a burst of radio frequency from Voyager, relayed over two dozen light hours, such was the remoteness of it. I’m sure there were more than a few people who looked up from the sleeve and felt a tingle of silly, naive, wonder that techno had landed in Japan, off all places, on the other side of the planet. And that sense of suddenly being connected with a far larger musical world lingered long after the music had faded.

As for what Mills played on, I don’t know for sure. I assume it was his usual three decks and 909 drum machine. Mills has always been a fiend for bringing his own beats along to the show, and it’s difficult to imagine his insane jumps in musical logic, his unique sense of timing, finding a true outlet on anything less than a triple turntable set up.

What there wasn’t was studio trickery. All of the magic belongs to him. As anyone who has ever spent time with his mixes for Detroit radio, performed under his guise of The Wizard, knows, Mills’ sonic shadow is sharpened by a thousand influences and styles which share little more than a tangential link with the sounds he is now inexorably linked to. The quick cuts, the spins and crossfades all have their roots elsewhere. Hip hop, disco, electro. It’s all there, feeding into the accretion disc of chaos that surrounds the absolute control at the mix’s heart, and accenting the way the groove and rhythm pulse and morph as it unfolds. There are drops in tempo, wild changes in direction, and sudden introductions and exits, all of which heighten the music’s proximity to collapsing in on itself. Not that it ever does. That’s part of the beauty.

The mixing has been occasionally commented on over the years. There was no post-production band-aids applied, and the mix is presented as-is. Mills’ mixing is often rugged and fast, by some accounts often eschewing the safety net of headphones in his speed and understanding of the music. Whenever memories of the record’s little dinks of imperfection are brought up, they merely serve to remind how brilliantly Mill’s organic yet utterly technical style pays off.

Some people have claimed that Live At The Liquid Room represents a sort of Detroit techno exemplar, but I don’t think it does. By the time Mills recorded the set, he was nearly five years removed from his time in Underground Resistance, had lived in New York and Chicago, and been a resident at Berlin’s famous Tresor club. That Detroit provides the foundation is inarguable, but the rest is from a different place altogether. This is techno, not as the child of a particular city, but as a global phenomenon, a transcultural burst of movement which owes as much to Chicago, or Berlin, as it does to its true home.

Even Birmingham is represented, with cuts from Surgeon’s earliest release. Magneze still blisters the skin, and reminds you that the club Surgeon will always be connected to, House Of God, deliberately sought to provide a counterpoint to the waves of high-tech soul emanating from across the Atlantic. That is an attitude which finds a kindred spirit here with Mills, and it can seem as if he is also, deliberately, seeking to step away from Detroit’s familiar sound, to push the idea of groove and funk onto an entirely new plane.

It’s littered with the sort of moments that would define other mixes. The CD is arranged into three segments, but the music erupts fully formed right from the start, with the dark clouds of Mills’ own Utopia rolling across the floor before being parted by the lolloping groove of The Extremist. The early part of the mix is beyond just being fun; it’s a genuine lesson in DJ’ing. The pulverising run which begins with Magneze, and ends, finally, with Ian Pooley’s mix of Wicked Wipe’s Rock Da House, remains forever fixed in the minds of a lot of us as What Techno Is. Not a list of sounds and synths, of cavernous and hollow kick drums and theory, but a riot of energy and emotion, and if your heart and soul don’t kick over a little bit when he drops in The Bells, I doubt you’re human.

In the second segment, the sudden arrival of Derrick May’s Strings Of Life, a euphoric sunrise after the bleak fury of DJ Skull’s The 187 Skillz, resets so much more than just the tempo, and afterwards the music seems to twist with a lighter touch. Well, for a little while at least. And in the background, so deeply buried in the sound it feels like part of the set, are the echoes of the crowd going mental as they encourage Mills’ music and the music, in turn, goads them on. It lends the whole thing an immediacy – and intimacy – which is difficult to emulate, and you sometimes wonder whether or not the set would feel the same if it had been recorded the following night, with a different crowd, a different atmosphere, channelling the madness.

A sequel of sorts eventually arrived, in the form of 2004’s The Exhibitionist CD. It was another astounding display of the DJ’s craft, but it lacked something, particularly in direct comparison to the earlier release. While it remained enthralling in its choice of tunes, it often felt airier, lighter, and missed much of ..Liquid Room’s elemental stomp. It wasn’t of course, a full-bore club set, but a much more thoroughly planned workout.

I drove at least one friend clean mad with Live At the Liquid Room. He still gets a far away look today, and visibly shakes, when I mention the CD to him. I was obsessed by it, playing it every opportunity I got. Often we’d be together in the car, and I would crank it up all the way, not really paying attention to the fact it might have been the eighth or ninth time that week. There were others, a Relief Records mix, a bunch of bootleg tapes of various Detroit and Chicago DJs found between stacks of ubiquitous happy hardcore mixes on rare journeys to record shops in Glasgow or Edinburgh. It was always Live At The Liquid Rooms which won out, though. Always.

Familiarity breeds contempt, and I’m lucky nobody ever tried to make me eat the damn disk. If a telling metric of how much you love a record is how many times you’ve played it, how well you know it, then Live At The Liquid Room is my favourite record of all time. I have no idea how often I’ve heard it. In the car; burned to tapes and played on my Walkman; on Ipods in the gym or in the mountains. It has been an ever present for what feels like a lifetime, and I sometimes feel that if I just had all the records, I could preform the mix perfectly, so familiar am I with every little movement, with every inflexion. It would be like a shadowy, ghostly muscle memory, guiding and fuelling my weak skills.

Many DJs these days talk about ‘the journey’, of educating the crowd, or of transformative experiences. But it doesn’t take you very long in the company of Live At The Liquid Room to realise what a crock of shit they’re making up. This is a real journey, an exhausting and exhilarating ride through the talents of a man playing right on the edge. And where other mix CDs from the period are beginning to sound more and more of their time, that won’t happen to Liquid Room because it never really felt of its time back then, either. This is not an album of tunes, snapshots taken at a particular moment in the history of Our Thing, but a narrative of frequency and emotion, and a testament to the fantastical shapes and colours they create when combined. Jeff Mills knows that such things are universal, and the only time they can exists is right here and now.

There is something utterly fitting about the fact that one of greatest celebrations of electronic music ever released should be a dance floor mix taken from a club. For all the amazing music released under the banner, it says so much that very, very few studio albums have ever come close to explaining so succinctly, and so vibrantly, what this music means to so many people as Live From The Liquid Room so effortlessly manages to do. And this is its true important: It is a manifesto, and a statement, of what techno can be when we loosen our grip over it, and let it take us over instead in all of its brutal, uncompromising, and life affirming beauty. It is a moment of rare grace and violence, and one that likely will not, can not, ever return. Cherish it.

Best Of The Represses – February 2019: Internal Empire Special

Robert Hood – Internal Empire (Tresor)

It probably goes without saying, but Robert Hood’s music has changed by quite a bit over the last 25 years. There is perhaps no greater evidence of this than the current primacy of his Floorplan project, with its emphasis on warmer, fuller, and more straight-up dancefloor friendly techno. It has also helped introduce him to a new generation of fans for whom the term ‘minimal’ has greater connections with Berlin, Richie Hawtin, and a more recent take on the sound, than anything Hood was doing back at the Dawn Of Time.

Minimal techno in its original form had many masters, but few pushed the sound so far, or became so symbolic of it, as Robert Hood. Not long separated from Underground Resistance, and reacting against what he considered a loss of feeling and meaning in techno, Hood spent the middle years of the 90s creating a sound which took everything back to the genre’s most basic and functional form.

The results are still startling, perhaps even more so today than at the time when innovation crowded the woods with trees. Hood’s vision was a techno in which everything that didn’t help carry the funk was pared away until all that was left were grooves and sinew. It was, and remains, a devastatingly futurist take on the genre, one where everything is predicated upon movement, and Internal Empire is still the album which best encapsulates this ethos. On a personal level, Internal Empire also remains one of my three favourite techno albums of all time, along side Carl Craig’s Land Cruising, and Model 500’s Deep Space. Something within each of them contains not only the DNA of techno in its original, Detroit form, but a blueprint for the future.

Internal Empire sits as the middle child between those other great markers of Hood’s approach, Minimal Nation, and the run of records which began with Protein Valve, and led into the various Moveable Parts sessions. What is apparent, with the aid of hindsight, is the way in which Internal Empire now stands as perhaps the greatest expression of minimalist techno. With Minimal Nation (and, to an extent, with Protein Valve) there are traces of something else in the sound which harks back to Hood’s earlier incarnation as Underground Resistance’s ‘Minister of Information’, with tracks like Acrylic snarling along with a very Mad Mike feel, or the original The Pace, with its vaguely discoid honk acting as a precursor for the Floorplan genotype. By the time the Moveable Parts material arrived, the music had begun to reach a logical end-point, its tones and moods stripped down almost to nothingness, with what was left set to exploring an increasingly experimental realm of endless motion.

Internal Empire, then, was the point at which the idea of minimal techno found the perfect balance between movement and emotion, and its connection to the music which later took on the mantle of ‘minimal’ remains tangential. While there are obvious similarities between this and the sound as interpreted by a younger, Berlin based, generation, the differences keep them from every becoming too cosy. It’s like comparing a leopard seal to the ones bobbing along in the surf off your nearest beach.

Hood’s take is sharpened by his need to lay down not only a sound, but a belief in what it represented. Such philosophies are achingly difficult to transmit from one producer to another, and most, sensibly, don’t even try. It’s possible that this is the reason Internal Empire, and Hood’s minimalism generally, sounds so thrillingly individualistic – it was built by one person for a particular reason, and that has imparted the music with a soulfullness that is difficult (if not, in fact, dishonest) to try to copy. As a result, very little sounds like Robert Hood at full tilt, and it has helped to keep the music distinct and pure even in an age of endless conceptual recycling.

And the music itself? Well, where can you begin? With Minus, perhaps, still astounding in the way a repeated, three note motif can provide such gorgeously, mournful depths. Or Internal Empire, where skeletal fingers of sound reach out to guide a frosty, clattering, stomp. My favourite was always Home, with its washes of languid synth over a tight symphony of beats and snaps, forever carrying the seed of classical Detroit techno into a new era.

In fact, this is the thing which is always the last to be remembered. It wasn’t just the way the music had been stripped down that made it so powerful, but the way the emotional content was suddenly able to fill the space, and rely on tiny little touches, and the simple repetition of a handful of key elements, to convey meaning and ideas. When we talk about minimalism we rarely mention the way in which the music is dense with the intangible, and the way in which those invisible tones colour the sound and provide depth. This is especially true of Internal Empire. It defines the music, it drives it, and provides such a total re-imagining of what techno can be, and what it can do, that twenty-five years on it continues to open our ears to new ideas and toy with our expectations.

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.

A festive Clearing the Decks. Ho ho ho. Featuring Perko, Ben Pest, 214, and Carcass Identity

Jesus Christ once said, “get up you whinging slob and stop feeling sorry for yourself. Pull yourself together and write about some records”. So that’s what I’ve done. It might not have been Jesus, come to think of it, it might have been Christopher Reeves. I’m not sure. One of those guys, anyway. So here are some really quickly written and probably not all that informative reviews you can slip into your loved ones line-of-sight this festive period in the hope that Santa might bring you some tunes. Santa or Jesus. I’m not sure. One of those guys, anyway.

Basically, I’ve not been myself for the last few months. I’ve been a bit unwell. The result is that there is a build up of music around here, like sonic plaque on your techno-teeth. So, like a mad toothbrush, here’s the first of a bunch. I’m embarrassed that it feels like I’ve been sitting on this Ben Pest EP (that’s BN PST – although I still don’t understand electronica’s hatred for lovely vowels) for what feels like a billion years (because reasons) and it’s a shame because it’s a very likeable and daft example of everything I like in current British electronic music. Basically, this means that it reminds me a bit of Unspecified Enemies in the way it refuses to stay still. Mind you, it’s not quite as scabrous as UE but very few are. Instead it hovers around a bunch of genres. Electro, house, and techno, all get thrown into a blender and come out the other side in a big shiny bouncy, smiling, acidic electro form. Extra points for taking great delight for smashing between breaks and 4/4 in the same tune. Not enough people do that, probably because they’re miserable. Kudos to Ben whose records always sound like they’re having a ball. Top of the lot is probably Carbs Live VIP, which sounds like your pet ferret going to town on your hidden stash of naughty pills before heading off into the night. Bright, cheeky and wriggly.

Next up is one which is getting a lot of praise just now, and that’s Perko’s NV Auto on Numbers, which I’ve seen described by various bods as ‘next generation club music’ – a phrase I’m always suspicious of (unless I’m the one saying it) because it so frequently seems to refer to stuff that sounds designed to be discussed rather than actually danced to in any club I’ve ever been too. Weirdly, NV Auto doesn’t really hit me as being next generation anything, and instead comes across as a collection of fluid, quietly funky, grooves which draw together various strands of DNA from the last 20 years or so of dance music in a similar way to some of the Bristol crowd. There are touches of garage, of Intelligent d&B, and what it really comes across as is a decent example of contemporary British electronica, one that evokes the high times of several byegone club eras while remaining true to its own sense of modernity. It mounts shimmering threads over bare-bones beats and thrumming, heavy bass, and mixes up the more lively moments with glistening ambient interludes. Perhaps surprisingly (perhaps not) it’s a big sound, and one sure to find a place in certain record bags.

I’ve got to be honest now, I’m not sure that calling a techno act Carcass Identity bodes well for domination of the all-important friday night debauchery and decadence crowd, but as the rest of the world has officially gone pure 100% mental I guess we can forgive and move on. They’re here with a self titled EP on Italian label Random Numbers which pushes as far away as it can from what most of us consider dance music. This is slow, treacle thick, grimy, and seemingly happiest when it’s pressing unexpectedly hard on various synapses. While the name might well give you the fear that it’s going to drag you into terrible death metal territory, it in fact works some surprisingly subtle and nagging grooves into its quicksand-like form. Here and there the rhythms evoke something not entirely a million miles away from the period of Tom Wait’ career when he started folding cabaret and Kurt Weill into his trademark gutter-blues – particularly on the opener Reflection Ocean – and in fact the music’s arc lends it a weird electronic gothic-folk vibe that is probably fairly unique at the moment, with the possible exception of the sort of strange broken-funk techno the excellent Maghreban has been doing for a while. Dark, heavy, but certainly not without a sort of achingly playful energy that has you imagining a wooden puppet of the devil from one of those strange and wonderful Czech animations you used to get on TV in the early 80’s is about to pop up. I admit I wasn’t sure at first, but I can well get on board with this. It’s like the soundtrack to one of those fucked up central European folk tales people don’t tell to their kids anymore because they don’t want to scar them for life. Brilliantly out there.

Well, where do go after reviewing the sort of record which has you thinking you’re about to trade your soul to Old Nick for a magic violin? Why not listen to one of the most consistent electro producers of the last few years? Shall we? Lets!

214’s Exit 32 on Berlin based Klakson is another record I’ve been sitting on for a while and enjoying like a fine whisky, taking a sip here and there and trying to savour. There has been some damn fine electro this year, and Exit 32 is pretty much up there with the best. What I love about it is that 214 has made it into that team where his music is very much his own – not an easy thing in electro given how heavy the dogmatism of Important Influences (you know which ones I’m talking about) lie on the genre. That being said, Exit 32 seems to aim itself with a harder silicon groove than we’ve heard from 214 a while. It’s less loose and fluid than normal, instead building up a whirlwind of tight, breathless, scores which flare out into the sunset with jacking, acidic bass and infinitely deep Ibizan strings. While Pattern Rotate and Soap Dish evoke a less constrained and earlier age of electro, and Synthesizer Made Of Paper holds you between wings of glass, it’s Snow Banks deep, inquisitive machine soul that best sums up the record with its quirky, restless, desire to move you. Sophisticated, exploratory and endlessly funky. What more could you want?

Friday Night Tune: Vatican Shadows – Church Of All Images (Regis Version)

It’s a strange truth that dark times don’t tend to produce dark music. As a species we tend to reach upward when events try to pull us down, as if something locked deep within our genetics is always attempting to turn our face towards the sun instead of the shadow. Jazz grew strong despite the horrors of the early 20th century; a music alive with the euphoria of rhythm and movement and sound. The chaos and corruption of Vietnam led to the music of the counter-culture – a reactionary music, certainly, but one which dreamt of a better world.

Even punk, growing out of the exhaustion of a bruised and broken era, was ultimately positive; The nihilism worn like Sta Press gear bought from a shop on the Kings Road. It was life affirming music, played with pigeon chests pushed out, and three chords ringing in delight. And, of course, house music and techno and acid: birthed in the sudden collapses of the 80s, a glimmer of light below the ghoulish spectres of Reagan and Thatcher and mass unemployment – a fight back which began inside the mind, eschewing lyrical calls-to-arms in favour of wild frequency and beats rolling out wherever the outside world ceased to matter.

Dominic Fernow’s Vatican Shadows project, however, has always taken a different approach, one that seems to soundtrack the whirr and crackle of state and media apparatus. There is little emotion; It’s a dispassionate report from the edge of modern human experience. And somehow that makes describing it as dark music somewhat trite. It’s far more chilling than that.

See, the thing is, our world is dissolving. We can beat around the bush as much as we want on this one, but the fact is the jig is up. We have been screwed by our own hubris.

In some ways, there is a similar narrative here to what Pressure of Speech were doing more than 20 years back – an examination of a world that was only then beginning to come into true existence. Pressure Of Speech was about grainy, tiny, images culled from the CCTV’s which glared voyeuristically into the dead spots of British towns and cities – the empty lanes and desolate car parks. Observation, we were told, for our own good, for our own safety even though we knew, we knew, there wasn’t a chance in hell these cameras were for any other reason than making you behave.

With Church Of All Images even that new world is changed, remade from archive footage, from sneering, baiting, ledes. And from smoke and bone and blood. September the 11th saw to that, Even thought the first cracks appeared long before that day. Those acts, finally, irrevocably, took us down a different road.

This isn’t blurry video of a figure breaking into parked cars at the edge of a council estate any more. Nor even a CNN camera whiting out at the detonation of a nocturnal cruise missile strike. Instead the world has become cell phone footage of stumbling, screaming figures emerging from a shroud of masonry dust as buildings and worlds collapse, and the soulless visual feedback of a Predator drone as it harvests life. It is dangerous men in gucci body armour hunting on the downward crest of the 24 hour news cycle. This is the background hum of rallies full of the angry and the incurious bellowing ‘lock her up’ as a poisonous toad-king chuckles out his bigotry, of ancient belief wrapped up in the flags of Facebook and YouTube and Twitter. And, at its heart, as it always has been, it’s the breathless death-rattle of old, rich, powerful men sending everyone else to die for causes they can’t even bring themselves to believe in.

This is the heart of Church Of All Images. More than the madness, more than the dissonance, more than the seething, manufactured hate. It is the cynicism, and the distraction from reality, rather than reality itself, which leads us into this ultimately empty world. It is the narcissism of fundamentalism whether its old men and stone age religion, or young men stained by the corporations who’re destroying the world to rebuild it in their own image. I don’t think anyone comes closer to sound tracking this nihilism than Vatican Shadow, and I think that Regis’ version of Church Of All Images, Its relentless, breathless terror, its splintered beats, and its strange, terrible, beauty, which does it best of all.