10. Ismistik – ‘Remain’

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

Ismistik - Remain

Ismistik * Remain * 1994 * DJAX

The quiet masterpiece of Norway’s Bjorn Torske and Mette Brundtland, Ismistik’s Remain is a bittersweet, dreamy record. It sounds like it was literally handcrafted, gentle care put into every electronic note and beat. So that decades later, its delicate beauty still glows with a numinous light that renews mind and spirit.

As music critic Tim Barr once declared, Remain was the sound of a group “surfing romantic moods, experimentalism and pure electronic genius.”

At the heart of that sound was a longing from the outer limits of humanity. Ismistik hailed from the small harbor city of Tromso, which sits in the northern reaches of Norway, inside the Arctic circle and in the middle of the aurora borealis zone. It’s a magical but harsh setting. In summertime, the days are long and beautiful with a deep blue ocean glittering under snowcapped mountains. Flowers and animals creak into colorful activity after long slumbers. From May to July, the midnight sun never sets.

But in winter, Tromso is shrouded in cold darkness as the polar night extends from October to March. With the stars bright, this “Detroit of the north” turns into a frontier settlement at Earth’s edge, its boats sputtering off in the distance like spaceships. The mystic show of the northern lights limns the sky with curtains of green, red and purple, electrons dancing in the Earth’s magnetic field.

Remain refracted all of these natural phenomena. It perfectly captured the native yearnings of Tromso’s electronic scene — which included Royksopp‘s Torbjorn Brundtland, Biosphere‘s Geir Jenssen and Mental Overdrive‘s Per Martinsen — as well as the global idealism of the time. The delicate ‘Absence’ falls like a ghost of an avalanche in slow motion. ‘Orange Peel’ and ‘Woodvibe’ chirp with melodies fine as sunshine creeping through a morning mountain cloud. And the understated ‘Bulb’ is hands down one of the most beautiful electronica compositions ever written, surfing on heartache and determined optimism.

Released in a golden year for electronica, 1994, Remain‘s remote milieu in the Arctic climes of northern Scandinavia muted its international impact. Subsequent releases by Torske under his own name took on a sunnier flavor, the northern lights of his hometown increasingly faint in his grooving chords. Which makes the singular brilliance of his debut album with Brundtland all the more wistful.

Made at a time when electronic music was reaching every remote outpost of humanity, Remain‘s simultaneous appeal and obscurity remains a poetic testament to the power of Ismistik’s romantic wonder. It’s the little album that could. And it still gives those who know it, big, awesome chills.

1. Absence
2. Woodvibe
3. Orange Peel
4. Running Water
5. Cassis
6. Daybreak
7. Bulb
8. Tortoise Thoughts
9. Phidou
10. Flowcharts Remade
11. Cycling

11. Speedy J – ‘G Spot’

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

Speedy J - G Spot

Speedy J * G Spot * 1995 * Warp

Jochem Paap’s sleek G Spot hums with a motor built to last through the next millennium. Composed during several months of recovery from life-threatening glandular fever, it’s a deeply thoughtful album pumping with industrial-strength muscle. And while Speedy J‘s Public Energy No. 1 got more recognition because of its glitchy innovations, in retrospect G Spot is his most stirring work. ‘Ping Pong,’ ‘The Oil Zone’ and ‘G Spot’ are the finest entrancers techno has ever had to offer.

Paap grew up in the busy port city of Rotterdam, Holland. As a precocious hip hop DJ with legendary skills, he earned the name Speedy J early on in his career. In the ’90s he discovered techno and never looked back, signing onto Richie Hawtin’s Plus 8 label and England’s Warp Records. His first album, Ginger, displayed a knack for spacious grooves screwed tightly to dramatic switches in compressed tone and design.

“I work from graphic ideas,” Paap told MONDO Magazine in 1997, sounding like a Dutch painting master. “I don’t work from music. I don’t get melodies or tunes in my head. If I hear a sound, I don’t remember it from the way it sounds, but by the way it looks.”

G Spot took those instincts to the next level while remaining firmly on the dance floor. Trance classic ‘Ping Pong’ slings to an inventive interplay between wide-as-sky bass and what sounds like a plastic ball bouncing back and forth through an air tube. ‘The Oil Zone’ slinks with craning industrial beats and rising gaseous synths that call to mind the image of a self-replicating robot factory on Mars. And the titanic ‘G Spot’ blazes like a G-force dogfight high in the sky, its electric storm of sparkling explosions rippling through the atmosphere.

G Spot‘s sexual connotations fit the album in one very important sense. It’s a sci-fi trip that consistently widens the eyes and sends shivers up and down the spine. But just as much as it taps into the senses, it works out the brain. It’s a devastating mix, and all the more powerful because years later, it still gleams as the state-of-the-art.

1. The Fun Equations
2. Ping Pong
3. Fill 25
4. Lanzarote
5. Extruma
6. The Oil Zone
7. Treatments
8. Fill 17
9. G Spot
10. Grogno

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

13. The KLF – ‘Chill Out’

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

KLF - 'Chill Out'

The KLF * Chill Out * 1990 * KLF Communications / Wax Trax!

The KLF (or Kopyright Liberation Front) were the ultimate rebel act. Post-punk pranksters, Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond gleefully tweaked all corporate expectations of their insanely popular sound. They took the anarchic punk ethic far beyond its rock origins, embracing dance rhythms and prog rock, ripping off samples in broad daylight and often getting away with it.

Their exploits are legendary. Performing at England’s Helter Skelter rave in outdoor Oxfordshire in 1989, they demanded their pay upfront and then showered the crowd with one-pound notes, each scribbled with ‘Children we love you.’ Voted the Best British Group by BPI‘s annual BRIT Awards in 1992, they fired blanks at the audience of a London awards ceremony and delivered a sheep carcass and eight gallons of blood to the hotel lobby of the after-party. And in 1994, they reportedly made the largest cash withdrawal in UK history, nailing 1,000,000 pounds to a board. They then burned their ‘Nailed to the Wall‘ art piece and its massive cash sum on the island of Jura, in the presence of a journalist and cameraman.

But their controversial pranks were earned. The KLF are best known for their ‘Stadium House Trilogy,’ three ridiculously fun dance anthems that smashed the pop charts in 1990 and 1991: ‘What Time Is Love?, ’3 A.M. Eternal’ and ‘Last Train to Trancentral.’ But the album these singles are featured on, The White Room, is not their masterpiece.

Before their breakout success, Cauty and Drummond recorded the classic Chill Out, THE ambient manifesto of the ’90s. It was the blueprint for all chill out albums that followed, especially The Orb‘s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, which Cauty would help kick-start.

Based on travelogue recordings from a road trip along North America’s Gulf Coast — including birds, trains and radio news of a deadly drag race — Chill Out channeled everything from Elvis Presley and country music to Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac. Recorded live, it eases the listener into a swamp of fussy and serene sounds, all adhering to a hidden logic frequented by flashes of intense revelation.

Pink Floyd’s ‘Echoes’ and 808 State‘s ‘Pacific State’ mingle on ‘The Lights of Baton Rouge Pass By’ while the steel guitar strums of ‘Madrugada Eterna’ map a lonesome inner bliss amid freight trains. And ‘Wichita Lineman Was a Song I Once Heard’ builds to the joyful symphonic refrains of their later hit ‘Last Train to Trancentral,’ sounding like acid house casked in the Deep South.

But what makes Chill Out such a timeless album is Cauty and Drummond’s flawless instincts for mayhem and peace. They mellow you out and wake you up at the same time. And their wicked sense of humor and wide-eyed experimentation buoy a world-weary melancholy that suffuses the whole affair.

In 1992, The KLF voluntarily bowed out of the pop limelight. Despite subsequent projects and one-offs, they mostly stayed silent on the music front. But their subversive acts continued. In 1996, for example, Cauty faced a lawsuit from a farmer who claimed Cauty’s outdoor sound experiments were so loud they traumatized his cows. Cauty was apparently testing a custom-built “audio weapon system.”

Which goes to show once again, while Chill Out aims to soothe, the chaps behind it were anything but chill in the head. Feverish and earnest, The KLF never compromised. And they never failed to astound.

1. Brownsville Turnaround on the Tex-Mex Border
2. Pulling Out of Ricardo and the Dusk Is Falling Fast
3. Six Hours to Louisiana, Black Coffee Going Cold
4. Dream Time in Lake Jackson
5. Madrugada Eterna
6. Justified and Ancient Seems a Long Time Ago
7. Elvis on the Radio, Steel Guitar in My Soul
8. 3AM Somewhere Out of Beaumont
9. Wichita Lineman Was a Song I Once Heard
10. Trancentral Lost in My Mind
11. The Lights of Baton Rouge Pass By
12. A Melody from a Past Life Keeps Pulling Me Back
13. Rock Radio Into the Nineties and Beyond
14. Alone Again with the Dawn Coming Up

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

18. Move D – ‘Kunststoff’

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

Move D - 'Kunststoff'

Move D * Kunststoff * 1995 * Source Records

Germany is one of the original seedbeds of popular electronic music, having hatched Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and Giorgio Moroder in the ’70s. By the ’90s, cities like Frankfurt were pioneering trance music, where Sven Vath headlined the infamous Dorian Gray nightclub and once reputedly played a nonstop 24-hour DJ set. In Berlin, Moritz Von Oswald and Mark Ernestus virtually invented “dub techno” as Basic Channel, a trippy fusion of subsonic bass, echoing percussion and hypnotic minimalism.

But of all these breakout artists and scenes, David Moufang as Move D, a classically trained musician and jazz guitarist from Heidelberg, would write Germany’s consummate techno album of the ’90s. His mellifluous style was soothing but astonishing in its melodic insights and rhythmic turns. He drew heavily from jazz and house music, mixing his ambient techno into an aural absinthe. With a sixth sense for synthesizers’ ability to stretch one’s sense of space and time, Moufang casually opened the mind to the intimate places between notes and beats. Kunststoff, which means “plastic” in German, shaped those places into previously unimagined thoughts and feelings.

Case in point, the sensual ‘In/Out’ heaves and sighs into a heightened delirium, its deep-rocking beats collapsing the distance between two somas, the Greek “soma” for body and the Sanskritsoma” of Vedic legend, the intoxicating drink of immortality. Higher and higher it goes until in-and-out and up-and-down flip into something beyond words.

Starter ‘Eastman’ sounds like Derrick May‘s Detroit techno classic ‘It Is What It Is’ wafting over the Atlantic to the warm Riviera. It’s a slow-mo smear of sunset modulations. ‘Sandmann’ struts to a bouncy machine-room groove while ‘Hood’ crawls inside rubber-band tones. The gentle, dreamy melodies of ‘’77 Sunset Trip’ linger in America’s industrial zone discos  — the soul moving under a hot New York summer night or the deep house musings of Chicago’s Mr. Fingers. Chilling out, Moufang coasts into the lucid dreaming of ‘Beyond the Machine’ and the Mideastern drift of ‘Xing the Jordan.’

But it’s ‘Amazing Discoveries’ that still marks Moufang as one of the great audio visionaries of his time. Like a double helix it coils its synth lines up into a magic cloud of sonic reflections. It’s like looking up at the sun from the bottom of the sea and awakening from slumber to daydream splendor.

At times quiet and quick, Kunststoff is no casual album though it’s easy-as-she-goes vibe runs deep. But unlike Moufang’s cosmic musings as Deep Space Network with Jonas Grossmann, Move D side-winds to a sexier, earthier beat.

Skipping and slinking, it’s “intelligent” dance music for connoisseurs who realize Afro-Germanic is as intellectual as it gets.

1. Eastman
2. Soap Bubbles
3. Sandmann
4. In/Out (initial mix)
5. Hood
6. Tribute to Mr. Fingers
7. 77 Sunset Strip
8. Beyond the Machine
9. Nimm 2
10. Amazing Discoveries
11. Trist
12. Xing the Jordan / Seven

19. LFO – ‘Advance’

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

LFO - 'Advance'

LFO * Advance * Warp Records * 1996

A refined sequel to their massively influential first album, Mark Bell and Gez Varley’s last work together, while less groundbreaking than the previous Frequencies, is a timeless tour de force. From the first robotic phrases of ‘Advance,’ the title opener to LFO‘s second album, an electronic bravura is on the march. Lobbing fireballs across the wire, its flawless productions overwhelm the mind, hewing closely to the underground attitude of ’90s rave culture and mapping a tough, uncompromising tableau of sonic warfare.

The track ‘Loch Ness’ still remains one of the most evocative space symphonies techno has ever wrought, a clash of sparkling sine-waves and thundering drums, it sends the listener floating off through a magnetic storm in some distant galaxy. The tossing and turning of ambient beauty ‘Goodnight Vienna’ calls to mind the stark lines and geometry of Wendy Carlos, who composed the score to the movie Tron, without ever aping her style. Pugnacious ‘Tied Up’ shocks the nerves with dreamy shapes of electricity, rolling over molten pits of steel while boxing your lights out with low frequency jabs.

When did this stubborn battle between the hard and soft begin? Bell and Varley were once rival breakdancers in the mid-’80s, before teaming up on England’s immortal bleep techno anthem, ‘LFO.’ “Bleep” referred to the use of synthesizer sine-waves, from high frequency notes to low frequency oscillations (the inspiration for the LFO name). Virtually launching Warp Records and rattling warehouses across the Western world, ‘LFO’ and the subsequent Frequencies of 1991 reshaped the electronic landscape, paving the way for the likes of Orbital and Aphex Twin.

Many critics still peg this breakout period in LFO’s career as their finest hour. Certainly it was their most impactful. But a close re-examination of Advance, which took Bell and Varley five years to craft, reveals that the old rivals scaled a pinnacle that was many leaps ahead of their time. As with Leftfield, LFO were perfectionists who cut deep paths into undiscovered regions of the musical universe. Their second albums were simply beyond the initial grasp of most critics and fans.

Take four invincible tracks from Advance: ‘Them,’ ‘Ultra Schall,’ ‘Shove Piggy Shove’ and ‘Psychodelik.’ The first prowls to tapping drum sticks flanged-out into oblivion while a sweep of chimes and slow-mo splashes slide the mind into its space-time groove. ‘Ultra Schall’ is much less linear. Its various elements slowly coalesce around a mournful melody, panting percussion and a call-and-response between terse bass murmurs and bright scrawls of light. It’s supreme electronica and one of the most overlooked techno gems of the ’90s. The pretty ‘Shove Piggy Shove,’ with its skyward counterpoint and little guitar flicks, is an easier pleaser that belies a restrained, almost jazz approach to bass and percussion. And ‘Psychodelik’ is one of the most infectious techno rides of all time, a rainbow synth-line weaving up and over and around the head, its slow howls and scintillating melodies crashing in a cosmic delirium of the senses.

The album bids adieu with two competing sides of the LFO psyche. ‘Forever’ drifts to a fever of shimmering keys and angelic clangs while ‘Kombat Drinking’ marches to a martial beat, its warping drums and assured cadences saluting the masses as its gentle waves of harmony wave goodbye to another innocent era of utopian dreaming.

Nearly a decade later, Bell would return alone as LFO with the respectable Sheath. A few killer tracks recalled the earlier glory. But nothing matched Bell and Varley’s last stand together. Advance is, well, advanced, even more than a decade after its release. In fact, it’s still not clear anyone has quite caught up.

1. Advance
2. Shut Down
3. Loch Ness
4. Goodnight Vienna
5. Tied Up
6. Them
7. Ultra Schall
8. Shove Piggy Shove
9. Psychodelik
10. Jason Vorhees
11. Forever
12. Kombat Drinking