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.

Tracks:
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



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