On First Listen
Basic Channel

on First Listen is a regular column that forces our regular writers to listen to bands that they’ve never heard—but by all rights should have—and charts the reaction.

I can only assume most of the population cares little about which label their music is released on—not counting geeks and fanatics, few could tell the difference between Interpol and Kelly Clarkson’s sound and record distribution. However, given dance music’s absurd flow of 12” releases, knowing labels makes the monthly search through the piles of releases that much easier. When I first encountered the hyper-enthusiastic descriptions of the Basic Channel label—one person even described them as “bass saviors”—I was intrigued, but it brought flashbacks of my high school years when my friends would try to attach hyperbolic labels to the Crystal Method. Despite the relative scarcity of print publicity, the group’s dub-techno sound has frequently been noted for its innovative push into droning echo chamber textures—a fact not overlooked by many who currently making tabs on techno history. Run in Berlin by Moritz Von Oswald and Mark Ernestus, each release was written and remixed by the duo.

Let me step back a moment, though, and say that listening through the group’s first nine 12”s is not the first time I’ve heard Basic Channel. I tried downloading the group’s compilation CD about a year ago and I quickly dismissed the recording for the mastering. In the span of about a day or two, I decided that the group’s murky basslines were mixed so low that, when placed against the dB-throbbing mixes of pop/rock and most dance music, the album sounded pale. Basic Channel’s simple motto of “Buy Vinyl” was lost on me before I could begin actually listening.

But after I found a quote from The Wire about the group, describing them as dissolving the distinction between recorded and real-time scratches and distortions, I decided to approach the group’s records differently. When I came back to their works, I decided to listen to every song louder than I’d ever tried in the past—even if that meant blushing during the introductory minute of Cyrus’ “Enforcement” when I realized that I’d mentally described the group as “pale.” And then the bass drum kicked in.

While fellow Stylus writer Dom Passantino described the power of innovation being borne in the faith rather than the prophets of a new sound, the first Basic Channel release made me sit, jump, and bob around in awe instead of “appreciating” it. Along with the record’s two versions of “Enforcement,” its second b-side, “Recall” perfectly decompresses the claustrophobic beginning into a tense come-down—a paradox found in bare industrial-strength arpeggios placed after “Enforcement”’s atmospherics.

The best traits of “Enforcement,” with its dubbed interlocking and full-speed-ahead attack, are revived on BC’s second release, Phylyps’ “Trak.” Although Cyrus and Phylyps might be two different monikers, the three songs on “Trak” solidify the distinct style first found on “Enforcement” to the point of becoming redundant. “Phylyps Base” suffers the worst, and borders on sounding like a retread, albeit a satisfying one. While Moritz Von Oswald & Mark Ernestus’ recent work as Rhythm & Sound has seen the group very explicitly becoming a riddim-machine, “Phylyps Base” is the group etching out their dub to a point that sounds harmless compared to the other Phylyps tracks. For Basic Channel’s third release, Vainqueur’s Lyot, the label releases contains another remix of “Trak,” but the song’s almost complete disappearance of atmospherics thankfully lets each propulsive element pop with an unexpected power.

The “Lyot” release also displays the label’s first push into music not specifically geared for club or dancehall use. “Lyot Remix” jumps into a sea of narcoticized abandon, buoyed by pops of the record and faint waves of an underlying melody. This shift is also found on the Cyrus’ “Inversion” and “Presence” release. The group’s focus on dub makes Basic Channel’s ambient work expected, but the execution is surprising. While not the frantic or overwhelming like the group’s dance-oriented work, these songs nonetheless share the captivating interlocking patterns of earlier club tracks. “Inversion” burns harder, and in the process sounds like a menacing off-screen horror-monster, whereas “Presence” instead is dulled in comparison.

The group’s releases under the Quadrant moniker sound the most hollowed out by time. While the dubbed-house of both Q 1.1 and Dub could be the Basic Channel’s biggest calling with its rippling deep sound, the weight of imitation undercuts each of the tracks. The underwhelming result is best described with Kodwo Eshun’s future-shock absorbers. Eshun uses this term to describe the press’ reaction to music (to pad the foreignness of the work), but this could also describe fellow musician’s adoption of innovative techniques and sound. Over time, these songs have been, in one form or another, endlessly regurgitated. Listening to these two releases, I found myself drawn toward Basic Channel’s rhythmic intensities, with the melodies only hampering the effect.

The last three releases ended up being the most satisfying. Rather than sounding like it’s exploring an identity, the group sounds both developed and claiming musical territory that, to this day, sounds foreign. With both “Octagon” and “II,” Basic Channel takes not only the primary tools of dub (delay and reverb), but also its playful rhythms. “II” works this especially, giving the track both a feeling of being simultaneously laidback and urgent, as well as timeless. “Radiance I-II-III” could be my favorite record from the nine. With its idiosyncratic collage of songs, it makes the best case for its ambient work. “I”’s tugged along and bass-driven loop is accompanied by surreal chirps. Although “I” is striking different from both “II” and “III,” the theme of radiance is maintained despite the disparity of tone and texture. The record sounds entirely fresh despite given a decade to deteriorate.

Basic Channel’s first nine releases total about four hours of music—a problem for the group when compiling their work on CD. However, the epic-ness imbedded into each 12” makes the entire catalog feel necessary. Similarly, the basslines I thought were murky on first listen gave me many moments to be converted to the religion of Basic Channel. On my listen, as I followed the group developing the boundaries of their sound, I found myself captivated by the group’s ability to both limit and expand. I only wish I could’ve heard it sooner.

Records Listened To
BC-01 Cyrus “Enforcement”
BC-02 Phylyps “Trak”
BC-03 Vainqueur “Lyot (Reshape)”
BC-04 Quadrant “Q 1.1”
BC-05 Cyrus “Inversion”
BC-06 Quadrant “Dub”
BC-07 Basic Channel “Octagon / Octaedre”
BC-08 Radiance “I / II / III”
BC-09 Phylyps “Trak II”

By: Nate De Young
Published on: 2005-06-02
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