Sound Sculptures Volume 1
ike most well-known Detroit techno producers, Theo Parrish is as much a shrewd marketer as he is a talented musician. Since so much of what comes out of Detroit is shrouded in mystery, one needs to be clued-in to all the limited edition vinyl, homemade CD-Rs, and mail-order labels to try to make some sense of what is going on in the scene. Having talked about this with people from the Detroit area, I get the sense that this protectiveness often stems from a demand that the listener take the music seriously. But there’s a reason why someone like Omar-S, with his handwritten vinyl sleeves, 12 inches that play inside-out, and one-sided white labels has created a stir in techno geek circles the past couple years, and it ain’t just the music.
If you’ve been following minimal and techno the past year or so, you’ll have noticed that house and soul have been turning up more and more as an influence (or as a no-longer-latent fetish). What with Antonelli naming his last single after Bobby Konders, Efdemin’s “Just a Track” based on a Chicago styled preachapella, Ame writing “WILD PITCH I LUV U” on the back of their singles, the growing ubiquity of Schwarz/Ame/Dixon’s “Where We At,” Carl Craig remixes, and Larry Heard’s “The Sun Can’t Compare,” as well as the popularity of openly Detroit/deep house themed labels from Europe (Innervisions, Philpot, Delsin, Styrax), demands for jackin’ are high.
It’s the perfect time then for Theo Parrish to release this new triple LP on his Sound Signature label. With the residual love from Carl Craig’s remix of “Falling Up” still coming in, Sound Sculptures Volume 1 arrives with high expectations and a hefty import price (if you live outside the States). The extra exposure might explain why Sculptures sounds like a more streamlined and accessible version of Parrish’s music, although you can’t really say it’s watered down. As always, the vibe here is as much mechanical as it is soulful. No matter how organically jazzy or funky the music gets, it’ll always be stymied by some hard-boiled drums and extremely tight programming and editing. What’s missing on these nine tracks is Theo’s wild sense of vocal juxtaposition and gratitutious use of live EQing, the stuff that often works miracles in his live sets, but can be frustrating to plow through on his studio albums. I’m guessing I’m not the only one who has problems listening to Natural Aspirations (released by Parrish’s collective group the Rotating Assembly), where the vocals either sit too high or low in the mix, and are set against music which seems completely incongruous.
Listening to Sculptures, on the other hand, is a piece of cake: everything here goes down smoothly. The first three sides are actually pretty concise, almost song-oriented. “Second Chances” opens things up strongly with vocalist Monica Blaire vamping around a four line refrain and some subdued piano/Rhodes lines. “The Rink” is very similar to Theo’s Ugly Edits series, where a couple of very short soul/disco samples are chopped up, put against each other, and then looped for five or six minutes. The final three sides are all extended eleven-minute workouts, including album highlight “Soul Control” (another vocal showcase, this time for Alena Waters) and the rather straightforward acid-tech groove of “Synethic Flemm,” which was engineered by the aforementioned Omar S.
As far as a potential crossover release goes, Sound Sculptures does its job. It’s representative of Theo’s sound, it’s consistent from front to back, and there are some great standout tracks. For long time fans, it may feel a bit redundant, a bit safe. To me, there is still enough of a distinctive “soulful” (for lack of a better word) quality to this music that comes across as tangible, even when motifs are being heavily repeated. I’d almost even equate such a feeling to eating corn on the cob: it’s hard to not walk away from the experience with some flavor stuck in your teeth.