Posted: June 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Ambient Techno, Breakbeat, Drum 'n' Bass, Techno | No Comments »

Radio edit and video of Underworld’s first new single “Scribble” from their forthcoming new album due out by end of summer. The track was produced in collaboration with drum ‘n’ bass whiz High Contrast. It’s lovely. Check your hearts.

Get more info at Underworldlive.com.

Top 100 albums of the ’90s

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Album Review, Ambient, Ambient Techno, Breakbeat, Dance Rock, Downtempo, Drum 'n' Bass, House, Techno | Tags: | No Comments »

Album Quilt - Top 100 Electronica Albums of the '90s - 2

The ’90s were the creative highpoint of a music revolution: the convergence of computers, electronics and human ingenuity. The fusion of machine rhythms and electric melodies freed musicians to coalesce around a predominantly energetic instrumental form. The new tools also liberated sound itself, soundwaves carving shapes and effects never before imagined.

On a stealth level, electronica was essentially X-ray music for a pre-9/11 teenage wasteland. It evaporated lyrical me-isms and mass materialism. It projected listeners into holographic Promised Lands interconnected by spines of time. Around the skeletal interplay human beings transmitted their deepest hopes and dreams. It was at once intellectual and carnal, escapist and clairvoyant.

Below is a list of my top picks from that splendid decade with tributes to each album. My basic criteria was that each pick reasonably emphasize electronica’s instrumental dynamics, display a full range of invention, express a deep artistic voice, and weather the test of time. A more detailed explanation of my selection process follows after the list. Chime in with your thoughts and criticisms. The next 100 best albums of the ’90s, as well as lists on the ’00s and ’80s are also in the works.

Click on album titles to read descriptions and histories:

1. Underworld - Dubnobasswithmyheadman – 1994
2. Orbital - Orbital 2 (‘Brown Album’) – 1993
3. Future Sound of London - Lifeforms – 1994
4. Leftfield - Rhythm and Stealth – 1999
5. Fila Brazillia - Luck Be A Weirdo Tonight – 1997
6. Aphex Twin - Selected Ambient Works 85-92 – 1993
7. Boards of Canada - Music Has the Right to Children – 1998
8. The Black Dog - Temple of Transparent Balls – 1993
9. Daft Punk - Homework – 1997
10. Ismistik - Remain – 1994
11. Speedy J - G Spot – 1995
12. Leftfield - Leftism – 1995
13. The KLF - Chill Out – 1990
14. The Chemical Brothers - Exit Planet Dust – 1995
15. Young American Primitive - Young American Primitive – 1993
16. Rockers Hi-Fi - Rockers to Rockers – 1995
17. Underworld - Second Toughest in the Infants – 1996
18. Move D - Kunststoff – 1995
19. LFO - Advance – 1996
20. Eat Static - Implant – 1994
21. Ken Ishii - Innerelements – 1994
22. Global Communication - 76:14 – 1994
23. Amorphous Androgynous - Tales of Ephidrina – 1993
24. The Advent - New Beginning – 1997
25. Children of the Bong - Sirius Sounds – 1995
26. A Guy Called Gerald - Black Secret Technology – 1995
27. Radioactive Lamb - The Memoirs of Reverend Cowhead and Sheriff Lamb Boy – 1996
28. Ronnie & Clyde - In Glorious Black and Blue – 1997
29. La Synthesis - Matrix Surfer – 1997
30. Spooky - Gargantuan – 1993
31. Coco Steel & Lovebomb - New World – 1997
32. Photek - Modus Operandi – 1997
33. The Chemical Brothers - Live at the Social – 1996
34. Orbital - Snivilisation – 1994
35. Fila Brazillia - Old Codes New Chaos – 1994
36. Nu-Era - Beyond Gravity – 1994
37. Underground Resistance - Interstellar Fugitives -1998
38. Plastikman - Musik – 1994
39. Fila Brazillia - Power Clown – 1998
40. Orbital - In Sides – 1997
41. Higher Intelligence Agency - Freefloater – 1995
42. Russ Gabriel - Voltage Control – 1995
43. The Orb - Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld – 1991
44. Orlando Voorn - Nightvision – 1996
45. The Chemical Brothers - Dig Your Own Hole – 1997
46. Kirk Degiorgio - Check One – 1998
47. DJ Dan - Loose Caboose – 1996
48. Kruder & Dorfmeister - K&D Sessions – 1999
49. Various Artists - Excursions in Ambience – 1993
50. Spring Heel Jack - 68 Million Shades – 1997
51. Love Inc. - Life’s a Gas – 1996
52. Lionrock - An Instinct for Detection – 1997
53. Torch Song - Toward the Unknown Region – 1995
54. Swayzak - Snowboarding in Argentina – 1998
55. The Black Dog - Bytes – 1993
56. Squarepusher - Hard Normal Daddy – 1997
57. Plug - Drum ‘n’ Bass for Papa – 1997
58. Spacetime Continuum - Emit Ecaps – 1996
59. Maurizio - Maurizio – 1997
60. Plaid - Not for Threes – 1997
61. Future Sound of London - Accelerator – 1992
62. 4Hero - Two Pages – 1998
63. Depth Charge - Nine Deadly Venoms – 1994
64. Dave Clarke - Archive One – 1996
65. CJ Bolland - The 4th Sign – 1992
66. Autechre - Tri Repetae – 1996
67. As One - In With Their Arps, and Moogs, and Jazz, and Things – 1997
68. B12 - Electro-Soma – 1993
69. Mouse On Mars - Iaora Tahiti – 1995
70. Woob - 1194 – 1994
71. As One - The Art of Prophecy – 1997
72. Jedi Knights - New School Science – 1996
73. Reload - A Collection of Short Stories – 1993
74. Nightmares On Wax - Carboot Soul – 1999
75. Icons (Justice & Blame) - Emotions With Intellect… – 1997
76. The Irresistible Force - It’s Tomorrow Already – 1998
77. Single Cell Orchestra - Single Cell Orchestra – 1996
78. Model 500 - Deep Space – 1995
79. Ed Rush & Optical - Wormhole – 1998
80. Groove Armada - Northern Star – 1998
81. Future Sound of London - Dead Cities – 1996
82. Baby Mammoth - One…Two…Freak – 1997
83. Sasha - Northern Exposure 2 – 1998
84. Underworld - Dark & Long – 1994
85. Richie Hawtin - Mixmag Live! – 1995
86. Biosphere - Microgravity – 1991
87. Ian O’Brien - Gigantic Days – 1999
88. Pluto - Pluto Rising – 1995
89. Jonny L - Sawtooth – 1997
90. Kosmik Kommando - Freaquenseize – 1993
91. Strange Cargo - Hinterland – 1995
92. DJ John Kelley - Funky Desert Breaks – 1996
93. Various Artists - Flux Trax – 1995
94. Aphrodite - Aphrodite Recordings – 1997
95. Faze Action - Moving Cities – 1999
96. Various Artists - The Deepest Shade of Techno – 1994
97. Nightmares On Wax - Smokers Delight – 1995
98. Coldcut & DJ Food - Stoned…Chilled…Groove – 1996
99. Various Artists - Atlantic Jaxx Recordings – 1997
100. Thomas Fehlmann - FlowingZeroNineEight – 1998

Key Electronica-Influenced Albums of the ’90s:
1. Massive Attack – ‘Blue Lines’
2. Bjork – ‘Debut’
3. Radiohead – ‘Kid A’
4. DJ Shadow – ‘Endtroducing…’
5. Massive Attack – ‘Protection’
6. Madonna – ‘Ray of Light’
7. Portishead – ‘Dummy’
8. Primal Scream – ‘Screamadelica’
9. Stereo MC’s – ‘Connected’
10. Morcheeba – ‘Who Can You Trust?’
11. U2 – ‘Achtung Baby’
12. U2 – ‘Zooropa’
13. Seal – ‘Seal’
14. Deee-Lite – ‘World Clique’
15. Everything But the Girl – ‘Amplified Heart’
16. Big Audio Dynamite II – ‘The Globe’
17. David Gray – ‘White Ladder’
18. Jamiroquai – ‘Return of the Space Cowboy’
19. The Stone Roses – ‘The Stone Roses’
20. The Happy Mondays – ‘Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches’

The thought-process behind the selection of the 100:

Many important and influential albums are missing from the list above by design. For example, followers of the Berlin dub-techno school will complain of the omission of Basic Channel and Pole. Due to the relatively rarefied nature of these artists, I have instead focused on the most accessible and representative of these ‘schools.’ In the above case, I have added Maurizio as the genre stand-in. In the case of auteurs like Jeff Mills and Matthew Herbert, their oeuvres are scattered across 12″ singles and later compilations, and will be considered in later write-ups.

Others might also scream bloody murder at my exclusion of Roni Size and Reprazent’s debut classic New Forms or Massive Attack’s Blue Lines. Ditto when it comes to Bjork. My decision in these cases was to focus on albums that generally eschewed the pop arena and hewed closer to the instrumental electronica paradigm. These albums and many other key releases are considered elsewhere on this site.

Compilations and DJ mixes are sparingly included to help fill in key gaps of the story. DJs played a crucial role in electronic dance culture, quilting together the best underground releases and taking newcomers on unforgettable journeys into sound. Many of electronica’s best compositions also came out as vinyl singles and one-offs. In addition to the DJ mixes, a few compilations were selected to help capture those groundbreaking moments.

In part, this list is meant as an antidote to the many distortions of mainstream music culture that have colored assumptions about popular music for the last 30 years. Yes, Radiohead has been brilliant. Yes, the Beastie Boys and Jay Dilla penned fantastic hip hop gems. But the creative wave of these genres crested in the ’60s and ’80s respectively. The ’90s was arguably techno’s decade, despite the critical aversion and deafness of the press at large.

As the freshest and most creative music form of that decade, one could argue that several of the ‘electronica’ albums above were also many of the best albums of the last 20 years, period. I hope those who got the message in the ’90s would agree. I hope naysayers will at least take some stock. And I wish newcomers the same joy of discovery these albums have given me and so many others over the years.

1. Underworld – ‘Dubnobasswithmyheadman’

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Album Review, Ambient, Ambient Techno, Breakbeat, Dance Rock, House, Techno | Tags: | No Comments »

Underworld - Dubnobasswithmyheadman

Underworld * Dubnobasswithmyheadman * 1994 * Junior Boys Own / Wax Trax!

“Thunder, thunder, lightning ahead, hummm. Will you kiss me dark and long?”

So whispers Karl Hyde at the beginning of DubnobasswithmyheadmanUnderworld‘s loopily titled audio odyssey and breakout techno album of 1994. Prior to its release no one had heard anything like it, with its blend of sawing analog synths and surreal cut-up poetry, its rush of futuristic rock and breakbeat rhythms. By the time it soaked into DJ sets and the listening press, Underworld were underground superstars.

Formed by Hyde and Rick Smith, old mates from Cardiff Art College in Wales, Underworld had already made a run at musical success in the ’80s. Originally as the band Freur, they penned the new wave hit ‘Doot Doot.’ They even toured with the Eurythmics as an industrial funk outfit. But with each turn they found themselves with no money and diminishing prospects.

In between their commercial ups and downs, Hyde cut out a wayward living as a session guitarist, first at Prince’s Paisley Park studio in Minneapolis. When he moved to New York City to tour with Blondie’s Debbie Harry, he discovered acid house and began to scissor the Village Voice newspaper and rearrange phrases into lyrics. On a parallel track back in England, Smith had teamed up with Darren Emerson, a young DJ who knew the ins and outs of dance music. When Hyde returned, they fused his wordplay and guitar licks with their electronics, using techno as the dominant force for their chimera music.

In 1992, they played a legendary 18-hour set at the Glastonbury Music Festival in the Experimental Sound Field, freewheeling from a tower stage placed in the middle of a blissed-out crowd, quadraphonic speakers blasting them all to a new frontier. Underworld could write songs, but they were first and foremost composers who knew how to jam live with power to the people.  Dubnobasswithmyheadman perfectly crystallized this expansive, blistering dynamic.

First on vinyl, Underworld’s manifesto ignited dance floors across the globe. The outtake single ‘Rez’ added to the buzz, an instant anthem of instrumental youth music and an unforgettable merry-go-round of sound. Everyone who knows it remembers where they were the first time they heard its oscillating strings of zipping fire. And as one of the early techno albums to hit the compact disc format, Dubnobasswithmyheadman flashed onto discmans and car stereos with equal heat. It was a headphone epic as well as a perfect night drive.

With Dubnobasswithmyheadman, the energetic magic of ‘Rez’ was spread across a whole album, yielding inventive compositions of what sounded like the glorious end of pop music. Hyde’s lines like “Whiplash Willy the motor psycho” and “Here comes Christ on crutches” were humorous and dark, floating above synth riffs or crashing through a haze of textures — impressionistic images painted onto the wild sonic shapes conjured by Smith and Emerson.

‘Dark & Long,’ ‘Mmm Skyscraper I Love You,’ ‘Surfboy,’ ‘Spoonman,’ ‘Tongue,’ Cowgirl,’ ‘Dirty Epic,’ ‘River of Bass,’ ‘M.E.’ — each were bold statements in their own right yet essential pieces in a seamless nocturnal symphony. By the time one got to the romantic ‘Dirty Epic’ and stood at the pearly gates of ‘Cowgirl,’ Hyde frantically repeating “I’m invisible, and a razor of love,” you were no longer listening as a bystander. You were wrapped up inside something bigger.

“Everything, everything, everything,” Hyde sings to the futuristic hoedown of ecstatic rhythms before leaving you dazed in a cloud of sparks and pinball melodies. Was it dance rock? Was it techno for the masses? Was it pop music for the next millennium, its post-modern poetry raining down through an electronic ether?

Dubnobasswithmyheadman was all those things, and more. It was the Beatnik jam session of a new generation.

1. Dark & Long
2. Mmm Skyscraper I Love You
3. Surfboy
4. Spoonman
5. Tongue
6. Dirty Epic
7. Cowgirl
8. River of Bass
9. M.E.

2. Orbital – ‘Orbital 2′ (The Brown Album)

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Album Review, Ambient, Ambient Techno, Breakbeat, Techno | Tags: | No Comments »

Orbital - Orbital II

Orbital * Orbital 2 (The ‘Brown Album’) * 1993 * London Records / FFRR

“Even a stopped clock gives the right time twice a day. Even a stopped clock gives the right time twice a day…”

By 1993, ‘acid house’ was taking the world by storm. At the head of that charge were two brothers who had a gift for marrying incendiary rhythms to euphoric melodies. They called themselves Orbital, a name inspired by the M25 ‘orbital’ motorway that fed Greater London’s outdoor rave scene. Their first two hits, ‘Chime’ and ‘Belfast,’ were wordless wonders, perfectly capturing the communal energy of dance parties across Europe.

But rock fans and critics were still scratching their heads with this new sound: The conceit was that techno had no message and no soul. Phil and Paul Hartnoll were the antithesis of that stereotype. They had grown up steeped in punk, hip hop and working class values. Both were concerned about social inequality and the dangers of technology. They were members of Greenpeace and in 1996 recorded ‘The Girl with the Sun in Her Head’ using a solar generator.

Techno was predominately instrumental music. But it still needed words and word of mouth to help convey its essential message of empowerment — that the poetic meaning of its interacting notes and beats was infinite and democratic. Orbital’s exhilarating second album, 1993′s “Brown Album,” made that case better than anyone. It was packed with sheer sonic joy and raw primal energy. Yet it was its odd voice samples about time loops and stopped clocks that firmly placed the listener in a pinpoint relationship with history and the universe.

The starter ‘Planet of the Shapes’ was a sonic war of the worlds. Its blow-torched sheets of metal clashed over booming beats while a serene melody piped as if it were played by the mythic Pan enmeshed in elastic, elysian drones. ‘Lush 3-1′ and ‘Lush 3-2′ wound through melancholy notes with chugging rhythms in an Edenic spring rain. ‘Impact (The Earth is Burning)’ tipped a hat to dinosaur-killing meteorites, muscular bass plunging into a maelstrom of baroque chaos, while ‘Remind’ set things adrift with the Earth’s surface still smoldering, a descending frequency cutting loose to banging drums.

‘Walk Now…’ continued Orbital 2‘s progression, its didgeridoo suggesting an aboriginal Dreamtime, the hunt for prey afoot. ‘Monday’ made a break to industrial clocks, its contemplative melody conjuring the prospect of endless Mondays spent in cubicles — sci-fi jazz with a stiff drink.

But the album’s most astonishing moment came last with ‘Halcyon + On + On.’ It was dedicated by Paul and Phil to their mother, a tribute to her long battle with addiction to the prescribed halcion insomnia drug. It’s one of the most beautiful compositions ever written — its warm waves and uplifting groove moving through sadness and pain to joy and optimism.

In the context of the times, ‘Halcyon’ evoked an age of peace. The word “halcyon” is the ancient Greek name for kingfisher birds once believed to nest on calm seas. Like Future Sound of London‘s ‘Papua New Guinea,’ ‘Halcyon’ was part of an introspective tide in ’90s dance culture, a turning away from hedonism to consider larger questions about life and the mixed promise of new technology.

Orbital still remains a great synthesis in that quest. They were less accessible than bands like Underworld and the Chemical Brothers. Their ’90s output was more purely electronic. But at the center of their music was a deep emotionality, drawing on the Hartnolls’ anger about the environment and social injustice.

But they weren’t bleak bleepers. The way in which Orbital 2 weaved into the soul also gave individual expression to inchoate yearnings for global harmony. At the dawn of the Internet Age, it was electronic music that gave that impulse it’s highest form.

Orbital’s carefully chosen words were collective signposts to that world of extraordinary possibilities. Stepping through, the rest was pure, unadulturated magic.

1. Time Becomes
2. Planet of the Shapes
3. Lush 3-1
4. Lush 3-2
5. Impact (The earth is burning)
6. Remind
7. Walk Now…
8. Monday
9. Halcyon + On + On
10. Input Out

4. Leftfield – ‘Rhythm and Stealth’

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Album Review, Ambient, Ambient Techno, Breakbeat, Techno | Tags: | No Comments »

Leftfield - Rhythm and Stealth

Leftfield * Rhythm and Stealth * 1999 * Hard Hands / Columbia

Rhythm and Stealth is a brooding onslaught of electronic wizardry. From the streetwise raps of Roots Manuva on ‘Dusted,’ to the Afrika Bambaata throwdown of ‘Afrika Shox’ to the spectral beauty of ‘Swords,’ this swan song from one of England’s techno supergroups is the final statement on ’90s electronica.

Unlike 1995′s LeftismLeftfield‘s popular first album, 1999′s Rhythm and Stealth was jagged and austere in its first impressions. At its core was still Neil Barnes and Paul Daley’s unmistakable blend of thundering techno, dub science, hip hop beats, house rhythms and punk attitude. But their approach was now deeper in its studio precision, more beguiling in its sonic tricks, and in the end far more Detroit than Ibiza.

Reference points of place and genre fail to convey the album’s true genius though, ranging from masterful experiments in the percussive warping of space-time to 21st Century songs that beam melodies through echo-prisms like zigzagging lasers. ‘Chant of a Poorman’ and ‘El Cid’ use reverbed drums and sharpshooting notes to excellent effect. Both drift in a sonic bayou, nocturnal dub submersed in shimmering tones and lit up by ricocheting, croaking zaps.

Barnstormer ‘Afrika Shox’ takes a two-note bass pattern and reverses it, sucking it back up like a trap door, looping out to an assembly line of Zulu dreams. ‘Phat Planet’ is a metallic storm of funky change-ups and slapping high-hats that whip the air so hard they light the aural darkness like white torch blasts. When the track climaxes with a searing drum solo, the beat booms back in slightly after the downbeat with wicked inflection, resetting the vector points of polyrhythm.

And closer ‘Rino’s Prayer’ rises to a simmering Mideastern wail, a little goodwill before the epochal upsets of the coming years between East and West. Sine waves build to a mountain peak, cymbal crashes bringing down the sky as Leftfield gently float us down to a gentle throb, pondering their last prescient prayer for peace.

Leftism still gets the most kudos from critics and fans alike. It captured the heady days from 1993 to 1996 and was a chart success. But its sequel is Leftfield’s true masterpiece, a flawless, challenging work of art built to outsmart the march of time. Listen closely and you’ll be hooked, never quite able to crack its bewitching code.

1. Dusted
2. Phat Planet
3. Chant of a Poor Man
4. Double Flash
5. El Cid
6. Afrika Shox
7. Dub Gussett
8. Swords
9. 6/8 War
10. Rino’s Prayer

12. Leftfield – ‘Leftism’

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Album Review, Ambient, Ambient Techno, Breakbeat, House, Techno | Tags: | No Comments »

Leftfield - 'Leftism'

Leftfield * Leftism * 1995 * Sony/Columbia/Hard Hands

Leftfield‘s Leftism is THE rave album of the ’90s, voted by many as the best dance album of all time. In crude terms, it’s about speakers — loud and clear. That’s not a cliche for its own sake. Neil Barnes and Paul Daley’s debut longplayer is an enduring manifesto about the unique power of electronic music pumped through big, high-performance audio systems: Electronica is best played loud and best at sounding clear.

“Hit in the chest and the gut,” Daley once told Mixmag of their bass ethos. “When me and Neil were at warehouse parties all the systems were like that, so we took that as a marker. We come from a world where bass was the most powerful thing and everything followed on from it.”

At Leftfield’s very first live show in Amsterdam, the Dutch police almost arrested their soundman for pumping the volume to near illegal levels. At the Brixton Academy theatre in London, their sound system caused dust and plaster to fall from the ceiling, effectively banning them from the venue. Wearing that infamy proudly, Leftism‘s cover art framed a speaker in shark’s jaws. Photos inside the sleeve show Daley and Barnes sitting before a giant stack of bass bins and tweeters, audiophiles bringing major firepower to the 20th Century powwow.

But Leftfield weren’t just bass savants. They perceived lower tones as the equal player in music’s overall dynamism. “If there’s too much bass, the groove becomes too wide and the needle pops out,” Barnes once explained in a tutorial about bass and vinyl records. “You have a trade-off of either compressing something and making it really loud or having the sound you want. But if you turn it up, your bass gets louder and washier and the grooves basically start to collide. Technically there’s no way round it.”

Barnes, an old mate of the Sex Pistol’s John Lydon and an ex-teacher, first teamed up with Daley, a friend who drummed for the Brand New Heavies, on a remix of ‘Not Forgotten.’ Barnes originally penned the progressive house anthem alone, its evocative call-and-response melodies reminiscent of crying geese in the morning and its “What’s wrong with these people?” voice sample taken from the movie Mississippi Burning. But the duo’s ‘Hard Hands’ remix of the single redrew the template of UK dance music overnight, it’s rumbling bass and reggae breakbeats echoing down through the underground.

By the time Leftism was hitting DJ decks, Barnes and Daley were at the vanguard of UK’s mid-’90s techno surge. The classic album track ‘Song of Life’ is Leftism in miniature. It hacks through the electronic night-scape, languishing to dubbed-out beats and haunting vocals before launching through a quickening pulse of dance floor ecstasy. ‘Inspection (Check One)’ still reigns as the hardest, baddest reggae electronica track of all time, ploughing the cranium at 33 RPMs or slamming the hills at a switched-up 44 RPMs on the turntables.

One of the first techno supergroups to successfully marry guest vocalists with electronica, Leftfield’s Leftism features Earl Sixteen on the uplifting ‘Release the Pressure’ and Curve’s Toni Halliday on ‘Original’ — with a remix single featuring another 33/44 RPM breakbeat scorcher with ‘Original Jam.’ Neil Cole as “Djum Djum” wigs out with African jibberish and twanging berimbau riffs on the driving ‘Afro-Left’ — another remix single featuring the mighty ‘Afro-Ride,’ ‘Afro-Sol’ and ‘Afro-Central.’

Leftfield’s most successful track ‘Open Up,’ featuring the “Burn, Hollywood, burn!” wailings of Lydon, would reach #13  on the charts, helping push the album to #3 in England. “It was gutsy, spunky and energetic; everything that punk had been and which the rock press largely accused dance music of lacking,” wrote critic Peter Buckley. “It was the biggest two-fingered salute dance music had yet administered.”

But the punk attitude also masked a softer, more sensitive side of Leftfield. The ambient groove of ‘Melt’ calls to mind the saxophonic romanticism of Vangelis while dipping the listener in an ocean brimming high as the clouds. And closer ’21st Century Poem,’ featuring the rhyming lyricism of poet Lemn Sissay, wears its rave heart on its sleeves, a call to conscience for every would-be global idealist awakened on the ’90s dance floor.

In some ways, Leftfield was a victim of Leftism‘s success. It would take them years to produce their second and last album, the underrated and tougher Rhythm and Stealth. Daley once complained to Lotus magazine that he couldn’t escape the first album, as it was played in cafes and retail stores throughout Europe.

The perfectionism that drove Leftfield and led to the demise of their output, left an indelible mark on global youth culture. Still rated as one of the top albums of all time by publications like Q Magazine, Leftism is a towering mountain in the electronica landscape. Not all of it has aged well. And many music fans have never ventured near it.

But its fealty to the cult of bass remains a clear signal to anyone who has wavered or missed loud speakers channeling hidden dimensions in sound.

For that reason alone, Leftfield is never forgotten. And neither is their world.

1. Release the Pressure
2. Afro-Left
3. Melt
4. Song of Life
5. Original
6. Black Flute
7. Space Shanty
8. Inspection (Check One)
9. Storm 3000
10. Open Up
11. 21st Century Poem

14. The Chemical Brothers – ‘Exit Planet Dust’

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Album Review, Breakbeat, Dance Rock, House, Techno | Tags: | No Comments »

The Chemical Brothers - 'Exit Planet Dust'

The Chemical Brothers * Exit Planet Dust * 1995 * Astralwerks

Exit Planet Dust was the beginning of an unlikely journey. The Chemical Brothers‘ earliest fans originally mistook the English duo, who looked more like they were from Milwaukee than hip London, for the Los Angeles-based producers The Dust Brothers. Ed Simmons and Tom Rowlands had originally used “The Dust Brothers” moniker as a tribute to their LA-based heroes, who had produced the seminal Beastie Boys album, Paul’s Boutique. They switched their name when the real deal threatened to sue.

But Simmons and Rowlands had a much bigger mark to make. Their early singles exploded on dance floors across the globe. ‘Song to the Siren’ was their first breakthrough, a pound cake of Run DMC-inspired beats and heady acid tweaks. But it was ‘Chemical Beats’ that really tore the roof off. It was a reach-for-the sky blast of scratching acid squiggles, pinpoint cow bells and stadium crowd dynamics, tossing everyone over the moon. What was evident from the start was their knack for concocting rocking beats with technological precision. The meticulous placement of a softer bass pulse as a backbeat on ‘Chemical Beats’ is a prime example — the resulting call-and-response between the main bass drop and the subtler note creates a deeper sense of space and intimacy. It’s a dimensional nudge that tucks you right into the pocket of the groove.

Tapping into this raw energy, Exit Planet Dust put everyone in the driver’s seat. Its starter ‘Leave Home’ zooms, slides and howls, hooking listeners with its motor funk. ‘In Dust We Trust’ continues the rock guitar grinds, chunky beats adding meat to the psychedelic romp. ‘Song to the Siren’ and ‘Chemical Beats’ make devastating cameos while ‘Three Little Birdies Down Beats’ wields an ax of acid glory. But the Chemicals also had a sweet side. The instrumental ‘Chico’s Groove’ and ‘One Too Many Mornings’ use haunting chords and uplifting rhythms to cast spells of catharsis. The defiant ‘Life Is Sweet’ features vocals by Tim Burgess of The Charlatans, the first of many rock collaborations that would include the likes of Noel GallagherWayne Coyne and Richard Ashcroft. And ‘Alive Alone’ reveals a softer songwriting bent, featuring vocalist Beth Orton, who would appear again on subsequent albums.

The British music press derisively labeled the Chemical’s breakbeat techno as ‘Big Beat,’ easily the stupidest name possible for their groundbreaking sound. But in America, few ravers cared about the politics of the London music scene, and immediately heard kindred spirits in the Chemicals. A Pacific wave was already moving in California, where producers like UberzoneBassbin Twins and The Crystal Method were filling in the blanks.

Given the Chemicals’ impressive career, that enthusiasm was right on the money. There would be plenty of fireworks down the road. But Dust was that first rush of hitting the accelerator, a turbo-charged beginning to a long and strange trip of sonic alchemy.

1. Leave Home
2. In Dust We Trust
3. Song to the Siren
4. Three Little Birdies Down Beats
5. Fuck Up Beats
6. Chemical Beats
7. Chico’s Groove
8. One Two Many Mornings
9. Life Is Sweet
10. Playground to a Wedgeless Firm
11. Alive Alone

15. Young American Primitive – ‘Young American Primitive’

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Album Review, Ambient, Ambient Techno, Breakbeat, Techno | Tags: | No Comments »

Young American Primitive - 'Young American Primitive'

Young American Primitive * Young American Primitive * 1993 * Zoe Magik

While Europe’s mainstream embraced acid house full-heartedly, America’s innovators had to survive underground. Besides the origin cities of Detroit, Chicago and New York, West Coast cities emerged in the mid-’90s as incubators of a newer sound, tapping into Los Angeles’ urban funk and San Francisco’s psychedelic legacies. Along with artists like DubtribeFreaky Chakra and Skylab 2000, Young American Primitive helped lead a second wave of rave music.

Greg Scanavino, the man behind Young American Primitive, eventually signed with Geffen Records, where his music career stalled. But his first album remains a lost treasure. What’s still remarkable about it is its distinct blend of Alfred Hitchcock and Outer Limits TV voice samples, heady melancholia and tranced-out tribalism.

Young American Primitive also had a real talent for crafting gravity-defying grooves. ‘Trance-Formation’ and ‘Young American Primitive’ both soar to tribal breaks and weightless bass lines. The more earthbound ‘Ritual’ and ‘Sunrise’ still revel in the sky, beautifully building as with arms greeting the dawn, rhythms percolating ever upwards.

Outer space and science fiction are key obsessions on Young American Primitive. ‘Over and Out’ is a classic drift of arpeggiating lines that seem to ooze out of black holes. At the track’s climax, Scanavino samples Dennis Hopper’s famous ‘If’ monologue from Apocalypse Now to wonderful effect. The ambient ‘Daydream’ conjures Blade Runner and was once a John Digweed favorite. It’s an L.S.D. lullaby.

But the album’s biggest triumph arrives with ‘These Waves,’ a dazzling burst of expanding sonic light and pretty string theories. Its xylophone rhythm lifts its otherworldly beauty as a will-o’-the-wisp melody hooks you into its many splendors. “These waves are all around us. A thousand falling sparks all over me.” It sounds exactly like what it says.

Sadly, Scanavino’s next album never escaped the Geffen vaults. And Young American Primitive was never reissued due to legal tangles over the album’s many TV and movie samples. Young American Primitive’s fate was a lesson for all would-be electronica stars: The freedom at the heart of electronic dance culture would be consistently challenged in the years to come.

But that optimistic, tripped-out spirit still lives on in every note and beat of Young American Primitive. Even the corny rave vamps of ‘Monolith’ signify a more innocent time. No chemicals needed. Just an open mind.

1. Intro
2. Trance-Formation
3. Flux
4. Young American Primitive
5. Ritual
6. Sunrise
7. Daydream
8. Over and Out
9. These Waves
10. Monolith Part One
11. Monolith Part Two

16. Rockers Hi-Fi – ‘Rockers to Rockers’

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Album Review, Breakbeat, Downtempo, House | Tags: | No Comments »

Rockers Hi-Fi - 'Rockers to Rockers' 2

Rockers Hi-Fi * Rockers to Rockers * 1995 * Different Drummer / Island Records

Glyn Bush and Dick Whittingham hailed from Birmingham, England. Along with MC Farda P., they took a similar tack as Leftfield, fusing hip hop, house and dub reggae into a soulful blend of dance music. Rockers Hi-Fi, who were originally Original Rockers — rockers of the reggae variety, not rock ‘n’ roll — also took a big page from Afro-Caribbean music, striking a more hazy, kick-back vibe than their edgier peers.

Rockers to Rockers was their call to arms for a reclined generation. It was about grooving in a sunny sandbox and chilling in an island shack more than city fashions, fast cars or nightclubs. But the gents behind this Birmingham blunt-itude were no slackers either. Behind their garage sensibilities were solid rhythm rides, inventive drum patterns, bees and beats that put wings on words and sweet melodies lasting far out into the fading echoes.

Adding to Rockers Hi-Fi’s street cred was their own label, Different Drummer, which would later sponsor serious talents like Noiseshaper and Appaloosa. None of this would save their brilliant first album from a promotional letdown at Island Records. But it attests to their unique genius and underground initiative all the same.

Theirs is a story of survivability after all, inspired by the West Indian music scene of cold Birmingham. The blues credo of finding dignity and comfort amid long suffering is another key touchstone on Rockers to Rockers, where laidback raps on ‘What a Life!’ and soul singing on ‘D.T.I. (Don’t Stop the Music)’ urge the listener to look on the positive side and keep the community-building joy of music close to heart.

The album embarks with a bold heaping of Johnny Osbourne and The Scientist on ‘Push Push.’ Like a hurricane, it whips the listener inside winding columns of sub-bass and stabbing steel piano. It’s at once a bellicose and soothing introduction, its buzz-saw synth pulling you faster and faster into a calypso freak-out. ‘Rockers to Rockers’ follows with a quaking bass line and punching drums, its call-and-response answered by an elastic frequency bending like an ocean waterline while ‘More and More’ samples a black preacher from the Deep South, tying the music to another folkways blueprint, giving the electronic fervor an anchored gospel.

‘Round Reversion’ jumps Rockers into a higher gear, choo-choo-ing and chugging with a slick house beat and drum rattles, speeding through splashes and tunnels of roomy reverb. Closer ‘Seven Shades of Dub’ comes on from a distance with a deceptive chill, entrancing with its stepping keys and skanking syncopation before dropping out the floor with rumbling bass that begs for fancy footwork.

But the real golden dragon here is ‘Stoned (Manali Cream Mix),’ a dance floor classic that bombards the brain with gentle diving pings, its interlocking lines of delirious marimba and bass notes spinning the listener inside a reggae yellow submarine. Just as steam builds to a breaking point, a rocking beat knocks the knees while high-hats spit overhead to fever the mind, propelling the feet to glorious new heights as bells and whistles shadowbox the air. It’s light and heavy, keen and serene, moving the body and the spirit in all the right ways.

Rockers to Rockers would be Rockers Hi-Fi’s finest hour before they languished in major label hell. Subsequent albums failed to muster the same creative spark. The push for radio-friendly singles undermined their kinetic knack. Instead Rockers Hi-Fi would continue their impact behind DJ decks, as remixers (e.g. Music Is Immortal) and with their independent label.

As Whittingham and Bush quoted in the liner notes, where Different Drummer got its name, Henry David Thoreau wrote:

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

Indeed, for electronica lovers who ever falter or stumble, Rockers to Rockers is always there to remind us: Keep on stepping, keep on rocking.

1. Push Push
2. Rockers to Rockers (come again)
3. What A Life!
4. More and More (the hidden persuader)
5. D.T.I. (don’t stop the music)
6. Round Reversion
7. Dick from Outaspace
8. Look for a Spark
9. Stoned (Manali Cream Mix)
10. Seven Shades of Dub

17. Underworld – ‘Second Toughest in the Infants’

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Album Review, Ambient, Ambient Techno, Breakbeat, Techno | Tags: | No Comments »

Underworld - 'Second Toughest in the Infants'

Underworld * Second Toughest in the Infants * 1996 * Junior Boys’ Own

After the underground smash of their first album, Underworld hit the studio hard, churning out gobs of innovative music. First they followed up with a host of E.P.’s that wildly remixed earlier singles into some of the most forward-looking techno on the globe. Dark & Long and Dirty Epic/Cowgirl revealed a band riding a relentless high, epic tracks like ‘Thing in a Book’ and ‘Dark Train’ trailblazing a new musical vernacular far out into the imagination.

A more unsettled blueprint emerged with their interim single, Born Slippy. The title track deconstructed a click-clack breakbeat to devastating effect, its searing synth lines climbing the psychic stratosphere with counterpuntal abandon. But it was the less muscular b-side ‘Born Slippy.Nuxx’ that would bring them their greatest fame. Used as the final uplifting soundtrack to the movie hit Trainspotting, ‘Nuxx’ was actually a piss-take of sorts, its rough rhythms a warehouse swelter of chains and metal riffs, contrasting with its catchy, pretty opening chords.

Second Toughest in the Infants capped off this feverish activity with a coolly controlled, slow-burn album of broad artistic ambitions. One might call it a matured sound. But it can more accurately be described as Underworld comfortably settling into their role as techno supergroup and genre grownups.

The offbeat album title derived from studio maestro Rick Smith’s nephew, who was six years old at the time, commenting on his progress in school. The “second toughest” sentiment nicely paralleled Underworld’s own path. Cruising in, their second longplayer engages right off with the flanged breakbeats of ‘Juanita : Kiteless : To Dream of Love,’ weaving and winding into a croaking groove, spinning out to mesmerizing piano and rapidly firing waterfall high-hats. ‘Banstyle / Sappy’s Curry’ ricochets to soft drum ‘n’ bass rhythms in a jacuzzi of warm, hushed melodies, frontman Karl Hyde singing “Here come the Marines. As if that hurts.”

The two bruisers on offer chart two routes into dance floor energy. Like ‘Born Slippy,’ ‘Rowla’ and ‘Pearl’s Girl’ got their names from a book of greyhound racing dogs. Like their namesakes, each one picks up its pace slowly, muscles, bones and sinews of percussion building to an unstoppable rhythm. ‘Rowla’ growls with rough synth riffs, scratching with blades of static. Hyde gets busy on the hulking ‘Pearl’s Girl,’ slinging his abstract Englishman raps over pulverizing beats and surging walls of sound.

Balancing out the sound and fury, ‘Confusion the Waitress,’ ‘Air Towel’ and ‘Stagger’ explore mellow techno shot through smokey diners, coffee cups and flying saucers. Weird and sleek at once, they round out Underworld’s convincing bid for blues of the future. In case anyone missed the tab, ‘Blueski’ hits it home with a sweet tangle of steel guitar strings ringing from Hyde’s fingers.

Second Toughest in the Infants sealed Underworld’s reputation as the artist’s artist as well as reliable fan-pleaser. It encapsulated their functional and experimental approach to music: If it moves, it grooves; if it kinks, it thinks. It also offered a cockpit view inside their wanderer ethos, their fragmented poetry, their hope and loathing.

The following Pearl’s Girl E.P. would bookend this heroic phase of Underworld’s career. Dreamy tracks like ‘Oich Oich’ and ‘Mosaic’ put them on the quiet edge while ‘Cherry Pie’ was an aching beauty of cosmic proportions, one of techno’s all-time best.

Second Toughest in the Infants, and its brethren, showcased electronica’s greatest band at the height of its powers. It was a heady time. Looking back now, it’s still timeless, still an infinite infant.

1. Juanita : Kiteless : To Dream of Love
2. Banstyle / Sappy’s Curry
3. Confusion the Waitress
4. Rowla
5. Pearl’s Girl
6. Air Towel
7. Blueski
8. Stagger