January 19, 2007

YMO - Solid State Survivor

YMO (aka Yellow Magic Orchestra) have always been blocked into history as the Duplo to Kraftwerk’s Technics—the Technicolor “toy” version of the Kling Klang’s more “adult,” high-minded man-machine constructions. A glancing listen to Solid State Survivor might do little to remedy that impression, with the first two tracks sounding for all the world like the theme tune for a second-rate 70s anime. But listen closer, listen again—the whimsical surface belies undeniable pop smarts and a keen ear for song craft that beavers away at your humorless notion and leaves you realizing that, far from being some second-rate kitsch mensch-maschine thieves, you’re actually hearing the “coming out” of one of the most innovative, playful groups in techno’s history.

Yes, techno, that’s right. Although it might be a mistake to say that any individual invented techno (I’d give the title to the quiet hands of Roland Corp. or Leo Theremin), but if you do subscribe to a musician inventor theory, you’d have to say that YMO may well deserve the title—1983 might have been the year of Kraftwerk’s unreleased Techno Pop album and YMO’s Technodelic, but the word finds an earlier home as “Technopolis,” the fourth track on Solid State Survivor, a track that is itself already fully fledged techno, albeit in pop form.

Not only does Solid State Survivor constitute a landmark in the emergence of techno, but the album itself is a joyously, sweetly disrespectful romp through its various frames of reference. In a recent interview, Uwe Schmidt, whose most recent Seńor Coconut album Yellow Fever re-worked the trio’s classic materials into his vision of electro latino, explained that for him, YMO were far more important than Kraftwerk, simply because of their willingness to leap whole genres in a single bound and gather the ecstatic treasure in trash with as much reverence as you’d give to Bach. Solid State is bursting with enthusiastic genre-bending and stylistic pastiches that borrow as heavily from advertising jingles as enka.

“Technopolis” sounds like the promotional music from “Expo 1980” or any number of incidental tunes still doing the rounds on NHK. “Absolute Ego Dancer” is a fully-fledged bubblegum techno rocket and the high point of the sugar rush. But it’s the moodier numbers such as the pop ambient “Castalia” (emphatically Sakamoto’s song, judging by the mood) and the mixed weather of “Behind the Mask” (later covered by Eric Clapton) as well as a hilarious, bent cover of the Beatles “Day Tripper” which really amaze. In the space of less than 35 minutes and only eight tracks, YMO nailed out a hyperactive manifesto whose garish reverberations can be heard across the poptronic spectrum, from Devo, through Daft Punk, Mouse on Mars, and right up to the more boisterous moments of microhouse.

[Peter Chambers]

December 15, 2006

The Orb - Blue Room


With longer singles coming back into vogue again, a glance back at the longest chart single in UK history seemed in order. Cleverly timed at exactly 39:58 to get under the 40 minute limitation on UK singles chart entries at the time—it reached number 8 in the summer of 1992—Dr. Alex Patterson and Co.’s “Blue Room” stands as a monolithic signpost for the ambient house movement and remains surprisingly listenable today. It may seem odd to refer to a 40-minute track as anyone’s finest “moment,” but if the moon boot fits…

In direct comparison to the Villalobos’ track, which concentrates on working a single basic idea into an infinite amount of mutations and permutations, “Blue Room” is a relative explosion of musical textures and spaces. If “Fizheuer” is a journey to the inner spaces of one’s mind via beat transmogrification, “Blue Room” is a trip to the dark side of the moon and back, complete with all the sci-fi noises and relevant vocal samples and sound effects you might expect. The track isn’t tight in the least—it’s a free-flowing mélange of sounds (Steve Hillage’s spaced-out guitar licks and bubbling percussive sounds chief among them) and textures, but it’s tethered down by the rock-solid anchors of Jah Wobble’s throbbing bass groove and the gently popping backbeat. The rhythm tracks start around the 6-minute mark, giving the track enough time to establish a mood but not to reach boredom threshold, and Patterson mixes things up from there. With such a wide palette of sounds to mix up and years of experience in this modified ambient-dub style (check back to the KLF’s masterful Chill Out album to hear Patterson cutting his teeth on a similarly long-form piece), “Blue Room” never gets old, never sits still, never blows its cool. It honestly doesn’t sound a second too long. And that bassline… oh, that bassline. It makes you see trails. The sonic detritus is interesting enough to maintain the ear’s interest; the groove is strong enough to keep heads nodding and toes tapping. “Ambient house” may have been coined a few years prior, but one could argue that this single track should play on the term’s Wikipedia page, perhaps over a shifting kaleidoscope of colors and astronomical images.

“Fizheuer” and “Blue Room” take very different paths to get where they are going, and outside of the length, there is very little in common between the two recordings on the surface—in fact, the comparison is a study of contrasts. While the Orb leave more space in their track, they also use far more sounds. While Villalobos uses only two basic pieces to construct his track (horns and drums), he is just as much of a manipulator and his track actually sounds far more dense. While criticisms may abound about both (generally from those with short attention spans), you’d certainly never hear “Blue Room” referred to as an overgrown DJ tool. Still, examining how two very different producers tackle epic-length electronic tracks can be a fun and enlightening exercise, assuming you have an afternoon to kill. Get comfy.

[Todd Hutlock]

December 1, 2006

Lizzy Mercier Descloux - Zulu Rock

Call it synergy: Lizzy Mercier Descloux’s self-titled third album (repackaged here as Zulu Rock) paired the urgent optimism of the French singer with the sweet, sunny sounds of local South African musicians. Predating Paul Simon’s worldbeat excursions on Graceland, Zulu Rock expanded on the funky Afro/Caribbean flirtations of Mambo Nassau, adding in bits of reggae, French pop, and African highlife, while removing the last traces of the atonal post-punk bite Descloux showed early in her career. Throughout the liner notes of all her reissues on the Ze label, Descloux is described as someone that empathically embraced the culture she was in, whether it be Paris, Manhattan, Nassau, Johannesburg, or Rio de Janeiro. But don’t call it dilletantism, call it an infatuation with music and life. And that’s something inspiring.

CBS Records / Ze Records
1984 / 2006

[Michael F. Gill]

November 17, 2006

Tantra - The Double LP

A release scooping up most, but not all, of the Italo group Tantra’s output, The Double LP revolves around two side-length epics—the A-side “Hills of Katmandu,” and the D-side “Wishbone.” I first heard the former (in truncated form) on the Idjut Boys classic Saturday Night Live, Vol. 2 mix, and if it blew me away then, it’s even more potent in its full 16-minute-plus glory. Exotica and “orientalist” touches were always a feature of Italo, and “Hills of Katmandu” deftly weaves such fare into a monster of rumbling percussion, weaving analogs, and swaying female vocals. The sweet little nugget of disco fantasia that interrupts at the 6:30 mark is both unexpected and cheesily delightful. “Wishbone,” on the other hand, is funkier and more mesmerizing—the odd female vocals are paired with echoed tribal percussion to a mystical and almost eerie effect, with a sitar-like lead making the odd appearance. It’s the mirror of “Katmandu,” but an unsettlingly purist one—making absolutely no concessions towards any but the most tripped-out of dancefloors. If I could find the crowd that would happily vibe along with me to all of its 15 glorious minutes I would never bloody leave.

Normally this would constitute a full and rewarding album, but in between these two leviathans is sandwiched another two full sides of goodness that interweaves primal and futurist elements. The B-side unveils two strong Eurodisco stompers: “Get Ready to Go,” which could’ve soundtracked any number of early 80’s prime-time buddy-cop TV shows, and “Top Shot,” a track that pushes all the gay disco buttons it can find and then digs around for some more. The C-side, on the other hand, starts with “Su-ku-leu,” a traditional African-flavored number that still kicks out on its disco heels, combining the chants and ethnic percussives with synth pops and sweeps, which blends right into “Mother Africa,” a T-Connection-esque stomper with a delicious percussion break that sets the stage for the most stereotypically “disco” of their tracks, “Hallelujah.” Side closer “Get Happy” points an arrow towards boogie, and could be a Chic b-side, with its warm syn-strings and chimes. It’s the very spirit of disco’s unabashed joyfulness, and a fine place to rest.

The Double LP is that great disco rarity—not just a classic album, but a classic double, and as such it demands a proper remix and CD release. Until then… keep those needles fresh!

Importe/12 / MP-310
[Mallory O’Donnell]

September 1, 2006


I first heard LFO’s self-titled debut single in September 1990, in the DJ booth at my first-ever club gig. One of the managers of the club—Leah Hunter, a big hip-hop fan who had a soft spot for some deep house records—brought a white label copy into the booth before my set started and told me to give it a listen. I dug what I heard, already having a bit of Detroit techno in my crate and figuring it would mix well with Model 500 and the like. I also wanted to get off on the right foot, and so I told her I would be happy to drop it into my set.

Peak time hit a few hours later and I took a chance on “LFO,” thinking as I cued the record that the Speak and Spell vocals would likely hook the crowd if the beat didn’t, and the low-end rumbles would sound amazing through the club’s giant system. Sure enough, the snapping snare and swerving, bleeping riff went down a treat, as did the ridiculous bass groove, sounding absolutely mammoth as I tweaked my EQ to accentuate the richness. But then a funny thing happened a little less than a minute in, at the point in the song where the bass riff drops another (I’m guessing here) three octaves or so and solos on its own for a few seconds. DOOM DOOM DOOMDOOM. DOODOODOODOOOM.

The speakers went silent.

The crowd thought I did it and I thought the needles skipped, but when the riff appeared again a few minutes later, I figured out what happened—the bass overloaded the club’s system and it just cut out altogether. They never even heard it. Being as how no one in the room except Leah and I knew what happened, it didn’t really cause much of a ruckus. After I calmed down a bit and realized that I wasn’t going to be on the hook for blowing out the club’s speakers, I relaxed and the rest of the set was smooth as glass.

“LFO” opened my eyes that night—it taught me a lesson about sound and the power and the fury of it all, about the things you could do with mixing and EQ and production that I literally had never considered. It was a revolution in my head, and based on the way Warp took off after “LFO” became a hit, I’d say I wasn’t the only one who felt it.

A few months later, when I purchased the Tommy Boy domestic release of the single, it came with a warning on the back: “Tommy Boy Music, Inc., its affiliates and licensees disclaim any and all liability for speaker damage resulting from the playback of this sound recording.” Amen.

Warp / WAP 5
[Todd Hutlock]

July 14, 2006

Lemon8 - Model8


It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to find this acid techno classic from the golden age of the genre reissued by none other than Richie Hawtin himself, as the track was a regular feature of his own DJ sets back in the day and was even included on the X-Mix-3 mix CD that he released with Plus 8 partner John Acquaviva back in 1994. Hawtin’s one-man revival campaign (see the last few reissues on Plus 8 for evidence, including Baby Ford + Eon, Link, and even Teste, originally released on his own Probe imprint) may be the result of a feeling of nostalgia or a longing for the “good old days” but it is sure making for some damn fine records to be rescued from obscurity.

“Model8” was an early single from the aptly named Dutch producer and DJ Harry Lemon and you can hear the early Plus 8 sound all over its grooves. The classic drum pattern, bouncing bass riff, and especially the smashed-to-hell hi-hats might sound a bit dated now, but an enterprising DJ could likely still work it into a set. The original mix builds in layers to a big breakdown about halfway through before really letting fly with the acid/percussion madness. All well and good, but it’s the remix on the flip that is the real killer. It sounds infinitely more modern, with its stripped-down percussion attacks and positively HYOOOOOGE build-ups and breakdowns clearly prefiguring where Hawtin was going with F.U.S.E. and later with Plastikman. A massive, floor-filler of a record that isn’t quite ready to be retired yet.

Basic Energy / ENERGY 103-5
Plus 8 / PLUS8089
1993 / 2006
[Todd Hutlock]

June 30, 2006

Bandulu - Phaze In-Version


Something hit the techno community like a shot in 1993: the influence of dub. While the mixing techniques (drop-outs, phasing, echoes, etc.) had been commonplace on house and techno mixes in the previous decade or so, at the time, no one was really attempting to fuse the style of King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry to electronics. But in early ‘93, with the release of the first records on the mighty Basic Channel label, the long, echoing, repeating, phasing patterns on top of hard techno beats took the world by (quiet) storm.

Generally forgotten in all of this, however, is this masterful single by British group Bandulu released through indie powerhouse Creation Records dance offshoot, Infonet. Messers. Bissmire, O’Connell, and Thompson start with heavily phased and repeated keyboard wash and turn it over and over and over again for what seems an eternity (it’s closer to five minutes) before the stomping, Mills-esque drum loop comes in to move things from outer space to the dancefloor. The beat drops out again after a few more minutes, only to return, Phoenix-like, after another dark, swirling waterfall of sound. Epic. Big on vibes, atmosphere, and sticky green smoke, “Phaze In-Version” is the missing bridge between the London, Detroit, and Berlin scenes of the early 1990s. If you’re a fan of any of the above, start digging in the crates for this slept-on gem.

Infonet / INF 012T
[Todd Hutlock]

May 5, 2006

Kano - Don’t Try to Stop Me


Kano’s second album, New York Cake was a bit of a sop to the mainstream disco world. Having created one of the essential Italodisco longplayers with their eponymous debut, Kano toned down the spacey, instrumental portions of their sound and went for a more R&B feel—this resulted in some awkward moments and a few successes, but “Don’t Try to Stop Me” is not amongst them. Combining the alien black leather funk of the first record with all the sprightly downtownisms of New York Cake, it’s truly a lost classic. The vocoder-lace vocal reciting the title like a raison d’etre spars with an earnest “I must go, so let me go.” and a memorable heroic synth lead, and my friends we cannot be stopped from knocking down the walls and proceeding directly to Euroheaven. Another great moment in the long-running canon of genre-defining dance music from the Continent.

Mirage / 311
[Mallory O’Donnell]

April 24, 2006

Stacy Kidd - I Wanted You


First heard on the Idjut Boys killer “Saturday Night Live, Vol. 2,” and about half of the reason I bought the unmixed vinyl, this has since become one of my favorite house tracks of all time. Let’s just say when I become a world-famous jetsetter DJ and Azuli asks me to make a Choice compilation, this will be on it alongside Eddie Kendricks’ “Girl, You Need a Change of Mind” and Prince’s “Erotic City.” Matthew Yates’ vocals consist of nothing besides “I wanted you, and you wanted me” and a thrilling, tingling bit of vocalese, but over a beat this sweet, that’s all you need. The combination of melancholy, longing, sensuality, and 4 AM hedonism is impossible to resist—a jazz-based, deeply progressive track reveling in tribal drums, near-acapella vox and some sweet George Benson-style guitar. As good as house music gets: all magic and no cliche.

Yellorange / 1019
[Mallory O’Donnell]

March 10, 2006

Monoton - Monotonprodukt07

If an inclusion into The Wire’s list of “100 records that set the world on fire (when no one was listening)” means an automatic spot in permanent obscurity, it does also give Monotonprodukt07 a free pass to avant-garde legitimatization in the same broad-stroke. Such obscurity also breeds a reputation for Konrad Becker’s masterpiece into a cultish following. A following that I fell entrapped by when critic Matthew Ingram not only called the record “the square root of Basic Channel, Kompakt and Oval” but also “a very strong candidate for the most important record of the last 30 years”—seemingly hyperbolic statements that both piqued interest and skepticism. But even after my initial pair of spins, I knew I couldn’t refuse.

With Monoton’s constant pulses of arpeggiating analog synths stringing together much of Monotonprodukt07, the album has an uncanny sense of sterility and rigidity that is not only furthered by Becker’s interests in mathematics and sound, but also as a metaphor running through the song titles (ie. “Soundsequence” & “Root of 1=1”). But there’s a tactile expanse that belies a merely frigid barren; echoes, drones, and fat dubbed oceanic waves of analog sound complicate the strictly dystopic tone of the tracks. Becker’s intention of an “integrated sound massage” certainly comes across with the sensuous drones of “New” and acid-tinged pounding of “Where Am I?” Littering the sheen of the underpinned rhythms with trance-inducing murmurs, Becker’s vocals float in and out from ether, sounding less like mere disembodied voices than full-on séances. Rather than just an ominous tone throughout, there’s a variety of trance-states that each track achieves, from the motorik-lite of “Root of 1=1” to Becker’s curiously nonchalant chant of “a fish in water thirsty” in “Wasser.”

While easier to trace paths back to Monotonprodukt’s influence on minimal techno, with the austere chic of Richie Hawtin and the label Sahko as the first of many strains to spring to mind, it becomes profoundly more difficult to explain why this didn’t “set the world on fire” itself in its time. Perhaps the album’s trance-like meditations transferred directly to its reception, with it spurning an interest that is more a fixation than an explosion. But Monotonprodukt07 is a fixation that haunts, not aging a day since it was first released—instead caressing and completely disregarding the effects of time itself. The re-release of the album sound especially impacting with a nice digital re-mastering for CD in 2003, retitled Monoproduckt07 20y++.

Monoton / Monotonprodukt 07
[Nate DeYoung]

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