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.

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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.

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.

A Couple Of Record Reviews Via The Scenic Route

No matter how comfortable, a prison is still a prison. There is a window which looks out upon a scruffy tree and a concrete wall, and the room, small but not tiny, contains everything I might want for my work; note pads and an ancient computer, piles of records and books. The door leads to an airless corridor of peeling paint and scuffed linoleum. At one end is the bathroom with a small, high window through which you can sometimes hear snippets of distant conversation. At the other is the one door which leads to the outside world. It is never locked, and I can leave any time I want. Except, where would I go? and what would I do? Somehow that makes my sentence worse.

I sit at the desk and patter out loose words which describe the way I imagine the people who make the music want me to feel. I suspect I’m rarely right but I don’t really care because once the music’s in the wild, the only interpretation which matters is the one each listener brings to it. You can love your children, but once they leave the nest they are the only ones who can define themselves.

Once a week the doorbell will ring and I’ll swear, drag myself to my feet and shuffle down the corridor to let in The Archivist. He will lope past me; black jeans and a blacker mood, a stab of the eyes letting me know to leave him well alone. I am the scribe, and he is the archivist and so our work goes on.

He’s only ever happy when drifting through the shelves and the piles on the hunt for records. He seldom looks it though, and in this I think we are the same. I am only ever happy when I am writing but I will do my damnedest to avoid doing any. I will pull books apart to find out what makes them tick; I’ll construct cunning excuses with the same level of effort it would’ve taken to have written a novel; I’ll dilly and I’ll dally; I’ll hide, I’ll fuck about. The only thing I won’t do is work. Not until I’ve run out of every other available option.

There is a telephone in the room with The Archivist and I. They had it installed years ago and it’s an ugly thing of thick, moulded plastic the colour of over-ripe avocado, and with a handset so large and heavy it strains your hand to hold it for more than a minute. They got it from the reception desk of an A+E ward which was being closed down, and They smirked at the irony that something so essential could end up serving something so ephemeral. I hate phones at the best of times, but this one, this hideous thing, I despise. And of course, it senses when I have finally started to write because it begins to ring, it’s anxious, fussy trill filling the room. I try to ignore it, knowing I won’t be able to, and out of the corner of my eye I can cam see The Archivist glaring at me; He’s holding a battle-worn Jeff Mills EP and he hisses “Aren’t you going to answer it?” I shrug, knowing full well all that will do is piss him off.

I pick up the receiver before The Archivist blows his top, and say hello. There is nothing on the other end but silence and static at first, and I wonder briefly whether they are screwing with me. Eventually, just as I’m about to hang up, a voice, tiny, tinny and far away, says “have you heard it yet? Did you listen to it?”

I say nothing, letting he voice continue. It develops a slightly maniacal edge, pleading, and then demanding, I listen to the record it’s talking about, an anonymous 12″ by an unknown producer on a label called Keep Your Mouth Shut.

“I think it’s the Aphex Twin,” It says. “I think it’s him. There is an Aphex Twin sample on it. It would be delightfully ironic, wouldn’t it?” I Look over at The Archivist. I had put the phone onto speaker and now The Archivist is standing there, shaking his head at me.

“Sure, “I say. “Ironic.” And it would be, wouldn’t it? The Aphex Twin, once famous for his obtuse remixes which left not a trace of the original producer, identified as an unmarked, unknown artist, purely from a sample culled from his best known work. Ironic. Yeah. But I don’t know whether it’s true. I doubt it. It’s probably someone vaguely known to those of us who haunt the edges of The Music. Either that or a huge star harvesting easy kudos and their ticket back to the underground. Maybe. The rest of the record doesn’t really sound anything like him. The first track, for instance, is really just an average, middle of the road bumper that doesn’t go anywhere. Inoffensive, but lacking anything identifiable or unique. It could, literally, be anyone. It’s an American label too, not that it means anything in this day and age, but the clues are often found in the most unlikely of places.

The rest of the tunes are pretty good. No, scratch that. They’re excellent.

“I hope it’s not the Aphex Twin,” I tell the voice on the telephone. “I’d be much happier if it turns out to be a genuinely unknown artist. That second track with the AFX sample is a killer, but the B side – wow!”
“A strong release would you say?” the Voice enquires.
“As strong as it gets.”

In this I’m right. While the first track is OK, and the second, with its sample taken from AFX’s remix of an ancient St. Etienne song, is a deep well of lively nostalgia reworked into a hard and energized groove, it’s the other two tracks which really kick it into the next level. Track 3 with its heavy, slow breakbeats, wonderfully languid melody (another AFX sample?), and shadowy touches rises above the day-to-day and brings depth and imagination to a style that often locks itself down in a single direction. Track 4, a radioactive dose of cosmic craziness, neurotic and acid burned fluidity, is one of my favourite tracks of the year so far. I’d find a place for this gorgeous hit of wistful darkness in every set I’d play if I could ever get out of here.

“You don’t think…..” The Voice tails off, as if teasing.”you don’t think there is something to it that’s a little bit, well, old-fashioned? A little too set in the early nineties?”
“That’s why he likes it!” Hoots the archivist. “He can’t see that he automatically favours new music that reminds him of when he used to have some sort of a life!”

I give him the V’s and take the record off the deck, placing it on top of a pile of books and papers out of The Archivist’s reach just to annoy him.
“I can’t find a sample of it online to link to,” I moan. “I don’t like it when I can’t find a sample to link to.”
The Voice giggles. “Never mind. I’m sure they’ll get the gist from your amazing descriptive powers.”

The doorbell rings again, and The Archivist shuffles off to see who it is. He returns a moment later with a box of records he lovingly, carefully slices open with a craft knife. He doesn’t let me do it any more, having seen the way I tear at the card and the glue.

He holds up one of the fresh records. “You should review this. I think it’s going to be very popular.”
“Who is it by? what label is it on?” He reads the names.
“Oho! It’s them! I wondered why they’d been Liking so many of my posts on social media! Kiss arses! Brown Nosers! Trying to smooth me up after they ignored me for months!”

The tiny voice on the telephone speaker chimes in. “Calm yourself you dingbat, you dilettante. You’re paranoid. The pressure is getting to you. I’m sure they’re not kissing your arse. I’m sure they’re just admiring your writing.” The Archivist and The Voice break up into hysterics. I slam the receiver down and glare at The Archivist who stares back. We square up over a pile of filthy Dance Mania records. The phone rings again and I pick it up, dumping the handset on the desk as I press the loudspeaker button. I reach over and grab another one of the new records from The Archivist. A different one. “What about this one? It’s on Happy Skull, isn’t it?”

“Charnel House by Bass Clef,” he mutters. “You like Bass Clef.”
“Some of his stuff, Yeah. Didn’t go for that last one on Trilogy Tapes though, did I?”
“Neither did I.” Says the voice on the telephone.
“Who asked you?” I snap. “We don’t even know who you are. Maybe you’re from that arsekissing record label, maybe you’re that guy on social media who told me to go read a book! Maybe you’re the bastarding Aphex Twin. Maybe this is all just one of your marketing ploys!”
“Chill out, you oddly cynical illiterate.” The voice chided. “How do you get through a day without falling apart?”
“He doesn’t” snickers The Archivist. He takes the record off me and slides the vinyl out of the sleeve. “Shall we give it a listen?”

I drop into my knackered chair, sulking, as the archivist puts the record on the 1200 and places the needle.

“What’s this one called?”
Charnel House” The archivist sits down on his stool by the window and lights a rollie, taking heavy draws and staring into space as his head bobs along with the tune’s fat, wonky, rhythms. I’m not so sold on it, not at first anyway. It seems like a beat and a bass quacking out a rudimentary melody. But when it ends I signal for The Archivist to roll it again. He does and he quickly locks down in time with the groove. It’s growing on me too. Something about its simplicity, the way it blends a certain tongue-in-cheek Super Nintendo vibe with a particular rawness begins to do a job on my brain. Before long we’re all quacking along with it.

“Nice,” I say, and cadge a rollie from The Archivist.
“I liked it too,” The Voice interjects.
“Nobody asked you!” The Archivist snaps. I grin and give him the thumbs up as he turns the record over.

This one, Acid Hearse, feels less knowingly daft but more exploratory, as if it spends the first couple of minutes trying to stake out its territory before it gets going. When it does, though, it fuels itself with a pleasingly early ravey mood that weaves in and out over the top of the breaks. There’s a little flurry of dub techno-ey reverb somewhere in the background. I mention that this is the best way to do dub techno. The Voice on the phone sounds a bit piqued. The Archivist gives me a look.

“This isn’t dub techno.”
“I know that. I never said it was. I said that there’s something a wee bit dubby now and again.”
He shrugs. “That’s your opinion. I like it.”
“I like it too. It’s got a bit of cheekiness to it without losing sight of something a bit more meaty. It sounds fresh.”
“Fresh.” Something in the way The Archivist intones the word gets my hackles up but I stay quiet. So does The Voice, strangely.

“Shall we do another one?” Asks the Archivist.
“Nah. I’m tired now and it’s getting dark. I’m hungry. Let’s order a curry.”
“I’d rather have pizza.”
“What about me?” The Voice whines from across its infinite distance.
“Nobody care about you” We both shout at the same time. I hang up the phone. The Voice doesn’t call back.