Wednesday, July 23, 2008
THE EMUSIC DOZEN: CLASSIC RAVE
director's cut / extended mix, eMusic, 2007
by Simon Reynolds
Rave was the last blast of full-on futurism in the mainstream of pop culture. Okay, there’s certainly been some mind-and-body bending rhythmic science going on in rap and R&B and (in Britain) the whole 2step/UK garage/grime explosion. But a lot of the futuristic electronic tones in hip hop have actually been echoes or steals from rave (OutKast are big fans of drum’n’bass, Timbaland digs the Prodigy, Lil Jon heard house music in Atlanta strip clubs and stole the riffs for Usher’s “Yeah”). And rap/R&B/2step/grime have a lot more truck with conventional pop structures and the whole star system of videogenic charisma, personality and sex appeal. Whereas rave, at its purest, was about “faceless techno bollocks”. The producers typically hid between machinic/robotic/numeric aliases (Nexus 21, 808 State), vocals were either absent or they were sampled soundbites that simply didn’t have the focal prominence that the singer has in pop. The whole culture was organized around a credo of anonymous collectivity, a radical egalitarianism where there were no stars. Okay, admittedly that changed quite a bit as rave became an industry, with DJs getting treated as celebrities. But early on the audience didn’t turn their faces to the DJ booth (which was tucked away in some dark corner rather than on a podium), they looked at each other, buzzing on the spectacle of mass delirium, the synchronized collective rush of thousands of people “coming up” at the same time.
Ecstasy opened a lot of minds to listening to abstract instrumental music that had no truck with verse-chorus-verse structure or conventional hooks. As Graham Massey of 808 State (whose album 90 is one of the dozen rave picks below) put it in 1989: "Mainstream clubs are just so out there and futuristic. You get beer boys and Sharons and Tracies dancing to the weirdest crap going. Yer average Joe Bloggs is dancing to stuff that's basically avant-garde.”
This makes the music sound slightly forbidding. Rave music could be dark and sinister, and at its more extreme end, the pounding beats, rapid-fire tempos, and searing synth-noise could make for a punishing experience. But the best of it was fierce fun, a rampage of celebration and euphoria. A lot of it was actually explosively poptastic, scattering hooks and melody-shrapnel every-which-way. Rave was pop too in the sense that it charged its way out of the underground and into the UK charts, a tidal wave that crested in the second half of 1991 and first half of 1992, when hardcore ruled the nation, and then enjoyed various resurgences, like the big beat explosion of Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim or the trance wave of the late 90s. This selection concentrates on the early part of that decade, but also includes a honored precursor and a fond homage.
The Todd Terry Trilogy: Past, Present & Future
Loudhouse Records / INgrooves
Although it was Chicago acid house that ignited the firestorm of rave culture in the UK, British rave music would ultimately be influenced more by the sounds coming out New York during the late Eighties. The Northern “bleep” style associated with Unique 3 and Warp acts like Sweet Exorcist and LFO owed a massive amount to the New York post-electro label Cutting and its acts like Nitro Deluxe, whose “Let’s Get Brutal” pioneered a style of bass-heavy and skeletally minimalist house music. And the breakbeat-driven hardcore rave style was hugely influenced by Todd Terry’s mental merger of house and hip hop. Remote in sound and spirit from the house styles we usually associate with New York (i.e. the soulful, lushly produced garage of labels like Strictly Rhythm and Nu Groove), Terry’s music was brash and street-raw, a fast-money music of uncleared samples, phat bass, and kickin’ beats. Just as Terry’s hybrid sound was vital impurist, so his insanely prolific output (the “various artists” on this overview are all him operating under different aliases) was fueled by an impure mixture of mercenary and artistic impulses. The muddy motivations proved to be fertile soil though, because even when recycling his own most successful riffs, he invariably reworked them and made them even deranged. Terry’s production of the Jungle Brothers’ “I’ll House You” basically super-imposed the group’s hip-housy rapping over his own Royal House track “Can You Feel It”, which had been a monster UK hit in the acid house-crazed summer of 1988. But he’d already versioned that track once before as the incredible “Party People”, a sort of drastic dub of “Can You Feel It” that turned reverbed after-traces of piano and vocal hubbub into a juddering pulse-riff. The effect is at once slammin’ and ethereal, like the air itself is wracked and palsied with disco fever. On this track and other early Terry tunes, the production has a curious cavernous, clanking quality, making you feel like you’re in a bunker-like space full of sound-reflections and muffled noise. Whether deliberate or a by-product of lo-fi studio conditions, the effect of playing them in a club must have been to double the “in the club” feel.
With this thrifty trackmaster (““I’m not a writer of songs, they’re too much trouble”, he once said) you don’t get any of the preciousness associated with, say, the Detroit techno auteurs. Terry wants to rock the party and he wants to get paid in full; his avant-gardism is almost a byproduct of the drive to catch listeners ears with crazy-making effects. Where your average New York producer would coat Dinosaur L’s mutant disco classic and Paradise Garage anthem “Go Bang” in an aspic of veneration, Terry eviscerated its nagging vocal riff for use in his own “Bango”. There are too many classics on this comprehensive anthology to list, but one deserves special mention: Black Riot’s “A Day in the Life”, its nagging techno motif and “fee-eee-eel it” sample-riff essentially making it the first UK hardcore track.
UK rave sucked a bizarrely disparate array of folk into the maw of its madness: Ecstasy-blitzed teens stepping out on the dance scene for the first time, B-boys derailed from their attempt to build a Britrap scene by the phuture shock of acid house, clubland types who’d frequented the soul/funk/jazz oriented scene of the Eighties but then had their minds blown. There were also a surprising large number of relatively elderly postpunk veterans and industrial types, people who’d spent the 1980s in the wilderness thanks to the return of guitar bands in independent music, only to find the kind of avant-funk grooves and electronic textures they’d championed suddenly becoming hugely popular on a mass plebeian level that had previously seemed way beyond the bounds of possibility.
808 State encapsulated UK rave’s motley demographics. Graham Massey, their main music guy, had been in the Manchester industrial outfit Biting Tongues. He hooked up with Martin Price, owner of the city’s premier indie rock/underground dance record store Eastern Bloc. These two older guys were joined by two virtual children, Andrew Barker and Darren Partington, a teenage DJ duo who went by the name the Spinmasters and played hip hop and house on Manchester pirate radio station. In its early days, 808 also included Gerald Simpson, better known as A Guy Called Gerald of “Voodoo Ray” fame, a black Mancunian electro-head and jazz-fusion connoisseur.
This rich mulch of inputs informs Ninety, actually 808’s third album but their first big-time release, coming out on ZTT. 808’s first hit “Pacific State” a/k/a “Pacific 202” was hailed as “New Age house” on account of its soothing sax sample and dawn chorus of sampled bird-trills, which made it perfect "coming down" music for the out-door rave as the sun rises. Still fondly regarded as a “golden age of rave” anthem , “Pacific” is actually the slightest thing here. Far more impressive are "Magical Dream," a dance of golden lights that invites you to "close your eyes and disappear"; the poignant "Ancodia", which turns samples of close harmony soul into an heavenly host hovering over a dense undergrowth of rainforest rhythms; and "Sunrise", its tendrils of flute and lambent horizons of synth making you picture a Polynesian island at dawn. Overall, the 808 State vibe is Weather Report meets Detroit techno.
The group’s 1991 sequel Ex:el is equally excellent, featuring more excursions into jazz-inflected exotica but also harder tracks like “Cubik” and “In Yer Face” attuned to the prevailing Belgian techno style of the day. There’s a couple of collaborations with name vocalists, including Bjork, prefiguring Massey’s later contributions as producer to her classic 1995 album Post.
Who's that Beat ? / Vital:PIAS Digital
For a couple of years in the early 90s, Belgium ruled rave culture, spewing out a series of innovatively abrasive tunes that rocked ravefloors across the world while also upsetting droves of Chicago house/Detroit techno purists, who saw the style as eradicating techno’s links to black music altogether. And its true, the Belgian sound, as pioneered by labels like Hithouse, Who’s That Beat, R&S and 80 Aum, did turn away from the Afro-American wellspring and drink deep on strictly Euro sources. Its secret ingredients were a strong dose of Electronic Body Music, that stiff-jointed but dancefloor oriented offshoot of industrial trailblazed by Belgium’s own Front 242, and a pungent tang of classical music, especially the more sturm und drang-y Carl Orff/Wagner end of it.
Out of all the Belgian hardcore hitmakers, t.99 were the biggest crossover success, reaching #14 in the UK charts in May 1991 with “Anasthasia” and also scoring with the near-identical “Noctune”. The principal hook in “Anasthasia” is a hard-angled stab pattern playing what sounds like a choral sample (possibly the famous “O Fortuna” sequence of Orff’s Carmina Burana). The intro to the track, a female voice saying “music, maestro, please” is at once a nod to the quasi-classical vibe of the tune and an advance rejoinder to the horrified hordes of house purists who would decry this slice of brutalist bombast as “just not music”. Actually the parts of “Anasthasia” that don’t feature the portentous fanfare-blare of the riff are quite pleasant: a chugging Euro-haus groove topped with wafting synths, almost like “Pacific State” without that cheesy saxophone. But the harsh ‘n’ doomy hook-stab does always return at regular intervals, sounding a bit like a flock of crows cackling in scorn. The four mixes are fairly indistinguishable (this was a time when remixes were precisely that, remixes, as opposed to virtually brand-new tracks), the “Out of History” version perhaps having the edge by a whisker. That’s an intriguing sub-title, actually: were t.99’s Patrick de Meyer and Olivier Abbeloos hinting that rave was a gigantic exodus of disaffected and politically disengaged youth leaving reality behind for a utopia of druggy noise? Or was the idea more apocalyptic, as in “we’re running out of time”? Or a bit of both, as suggested by the title of the debut t.99 album Children of Chaos? Sadly, following its 1992 release, the duo themselves headed straight for the dustbin of (dance) history.
The Prodigy’s career could be Exhibit A in the case claiming that rave, far from being anti-rock (like its precursor sounds techno and house) was in fact a futurised reinvention of rock. From ‘ardkore classics like “Everybody in the Place” and “Out of Space” to the digi-punk and Oi!-tronica of “Firestarter” and “Breathe”, the core essence of Prodigy is a teen rampage spirit of bring-the-noise mayhem. Producer Liam Howlett is a riff-master on a par with AC/DC’s Angus Young, while his grasp of tension-and-release, build-and-breakdown dynamics is as consummate as genius pulp hitmakers Chinn & Chapman (the team who wrote and produced most of the classic glam smashes for The Sweet). Yet his pre-rave past as a Public Enemy-loving British B-boy ensured a level of bass-knowledge and breakbeat-science that made the Prodigy sound utterly contemporary.
Only the group’s second single (the first, “What Evil Lurks” b/w Android”, has never been reissued for some reason) “Charly” was a Top 3 hit in the UK in August 1991. It singlehandedly spawned the hardcore subgenre of toytown rave, tunes that sampled children’s TV shows (especially where some kind of Ecstasy-pun or druggy double-entendre could be made out of the show’s name or a fragment of dialogue). In ‘Charly’”, the sample is a little boy from a Public Information Film advising children how to avoid getting lost or abducted. “Charley says, always tell your mummy before you go off somewhere,” the kid says, translating the words of a cartoon cat, Charly, whose miauow is transformed by Howlett into the tune’s killer riff. The joke here is the idea of UK teenagers sneaking off to raves where they get up to things that would make their mums blanch. The original version of “Charly” sounds slightly restrained, so the one to go for is the “Alley Cat” mix, its swirly Belgian-style techno-riff expertly simulating the timbre of the cat’s miaouw but turning it into a spine-tingling MDMA-activating noise. In between the two ‘Charlys” you’ll find two other terrific tunes, “Pandemonium”and “Your Love”
You are also recommended--nay, urged--nay, instructed--to check out The Prodigy’s debut album Experience, especially in the Expanded reissue version with its bonus disc of back-in-the-day remixes, B-sides and rarities.
Companion: Every Man and Woman Is A Star Versions
A lost classic of early UK techno, Every Man and Woman Is A Star is less a rave record than kind of audio essay about rave culture, drafted by two guys whose first-hand involvement in the scene was minimal and whose background lay in the more ethereally ambient end of industrial (prior to Ultramarine, Ian Cooper and Paul Hammond were in A Primary Industry). “Stella”, for instance, makes all the right noises (acid house-style wibbling Roland 303 basslines) but overlays them with commentary on the spiritual impulses behind dance culture (actually TV documentary samples of a New Age woman talking about how she healed herself emotionally through dance) that would be too distractingly analytical in an actual rave situation. Other tracks are almost acts of revisionist music criticism, situating the outdoor raves as the latest efflorescence from an English continuum of post-psychedelic pastoralism. Soft Machine alumni Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt are sampled on, respectively, Weird Gear” and “Lights in my Brain”,. It’s a clever move, pointing out the similarities between Ayers’ hippy-dippy belief that "everyone is high,
until there’s something makes them low" and the loose-minded positivity of early 90s UK rave, but neither of these track seem like serious bids for dancefloor action. No matter, the Ultramarine style of folkadelic techno is utterly gorgeous, weaving jazzy flutes, glistening acoustic guitars, soft-rock vocals and samples of birdsong and water-ripples amidst the snaking 303 basslines and chugging sequenced grooves.
This companion record to the album proper comprises a bunch of excellent and
refreshingly non-drastic remixes that retain pretty much everything that’s good about the originals. It’s useful for this survey of rave, too, in the sense that two of the three guest remixers are from an important phase in UK rave history, the style known as bleep. Or, as I prefer, bleep’n’bass, acknowledging as it does the floorquaking low-end frequencies that defined this sound, a vibration exactly midway between the 808-boom of electro and dub reggae’s tectonic rumble. Bleep’n’bass made Warp Records famous originally, and it is from their roster that two of the remixers here come. Sweet Exorcist amplify the skank rhythm of “Geezer” into a heavy, stripped-bare dubsway, while Coco Steel & Lovebomb take “Panther” and wrap its rasping flute-riff and owl hoots around a more dynamic techno groove as lithe and predatory as the title. Along with Ultramarine’s own remixes of Every Man tracks, this album contains some rarities, the best of which is “Saratoga”, a divinely sashaying slice of jazz-funk-tinged house whose summery insouciance is elevated with a touch of the cosmic sublime.
Moby is surely the single most successful crossover artist to emerge from rave, eclipsing even the Prodigy in sales and subliminal penetration (all those Play tracks in adverts and movies). Few would have predicted this outcome circa
1991's "Go", a likeable but hardly earth-shattering techno novelty. In truth, there’s not a lot to this tune: an efficient hypno-chug of a beat, the ghostly synth-refrain from Angelo Badalamenti’s score for Twin Peaks, a soul-diva’s moaned “yea-yeah-eah” and the shouted injunction “Go!”. But in its slight way, “Go” is perfect, and you could certainly plug the tune, with its ominous David Lynch allusions, into the continuum of “darkrave” and sinistronica, from acid house tracks about losing your mind, through Detroit techno pioneer Suburban Knight’s “Art of Stalking” and The Mover’s proto-gabba anthem “Nightflight (Nonstop To Kaos”) to the Gothick breakbeat of 4 Hero’s “Journey from the Light.” The ‘Rainforest Mix’ ought to be 808 State wafty or ethnotechno in flavour, but is actually full of jolting Belgian noise-blasts and histrionic diva shrieks; “Subliminal” lives up to its title with low-key gossamer-textured atmospherics; “Woodtick” is a mildly mesmerising slice of proto-trance; and “Soundtrack” starts well with a tip-toe feel of stealth and trepidation but soon drifts off into enervating amorphousness, the beat sinking low in the mix and the other instrumentation seeming vague and palimpsest-like. Strangely, the six minutes long “Original Mix” appears to have virtually no connection to its own pop edit, the groove over-run by baroque curlicues of acid-bass. So it’s the succinct and definitive “Radio Edit” that’s the one to, er, go for.
On A Ragga Tip ‘97
XL were on a roll in ’92 and it wasn’t just about the Prodigy. The plucky-and-canny dance independent also scored underground-to-overground rave hits with Liquid (see below) and SL2. “On A Ragga Tip” is a timeless classic from a period when ragga-rave meant buoyant fast-stepping euphoria as opposed to gruff rude-bwoy menace. Following their hardcore underground fave “Way In My Brain”, which had sampled Wayne Smiths’ “Under Me Sleng Teng”, SL2 lift the sing-songy scat-like vocal of Jah Screechy from his “Walk and Skank”. The vibe is nutty dread, a madcap friskiness that is less dancehall riddim as we think of it today than a hyper-speed skank. Jamaican-style after-beat piano comping alternates with Italo-ravy keyboard vamps, while the breakbeats rattle and twist at twice the speed of the reggae bassline. The best bit is when the beat halts, the octave-ascending piano riff revs frantically like the feet of an animated cartoon critter trying to escape but held in place, then the whole track surges forward again with an almighty whooshing noise. Equal second-best are the spine-tingling intro (fluttering cascades of flecked rhythm guitar and dub-wise shimmers) and the bridge section of bubbling bass and echo-chambered rim-shots gearing you up to go mental as the track takes off again.
The S and L in SL2 were the partnership of Slipmatt and Lime (the 2 were the dancers, for when the group did PAs at raves). Slipmatt, a big hardcore-era DJ, went on to grander fame still in the mid-Nineties as the happy hardcore scene took off. The latter was a reaction against the moody gangsta-rave vibe of jungle, an attempt to wind back the clock to 1991/92, except that the music kept getting faster and faster, and happy hardcore’s very attempt to banish the darkness and the ruffness meant that all the genre was left with was a near-psychotic chirpiness and an overpowering tang of cheese. The remixes on this EP are mostly misconceived attempts to update “Ragga Tip” for various 1997 dancefloors. So happy hardcore dons Force & Styles and Slipmatt whisk the track’s tempo up until it’s even more frenetic and flustered-sounding. You’re better off sticking with the untouchable original tucked away at the EP’s end.
The Future Sound of London
Papua New Guinea Translations
In between their early incarnation as UK acid house pioneers Humanoid and their interminable career as a “progressive” electronica outfit, the Future Sound of London made an immortal rave classic called “Papua New Guinea.” The track’s vibe initially is 4AD-meets-breakbeat-hardcore (I’m sure the “Papua New Guinea” is a sort of oblique nod to Cocteau Twins’ “Aikea-Guinea,” although it’s possible they just saw a TV documentary on the tribal peoples of those troubled paradise isles). Instead of Cocteaus singer Liz Fraser, though, FSOL sample a transcendent peal from Lisa Gerrard, the ethereal front-woman of 4AD’s #2 Goth-lite outfit Dead Can Dance. With its faintly Medieval aura of devotion and sacred ecstasy, the Gerrard vocal situates “Papua” in a mini-tradition of mystic-lady rave: Orbital’s “Halcyon”, Opus III’s “Fine Day,” Utah Saints’ Kate Bush-sampling “Something Good,” and The Beloved’s “The Sun Rising,” which uses an honest-to-goodness Medieval madrigal composed by Abbess Hildegard of Bingen. Oh and not forgetting another 4AD-goes-rave hit, Messiah’s “Temple of Dreams”, featuring Liz Fraser’s voice from This Mortal Coil’s “Song to the Siren”.
Unlike Messiah, though, FSOL really do something with the sample rather than just ride on its blisstastic beauty. They frame Gerrard with rapturous ripples of synth and breathy wisps of flute, while seagull noises and sonar blips create a subaquatic “ambient dub” vibe. Indeed, the bassline is totally roots reggae in feel and anticipates jungle by running exactly half the speed of the looped breakbeat. The split-level tempos create a gorgeous feeling of propulsion and suspension, urgency and serenity.
The original five minute long version is the immaculate conception, but the seven additional versions of “Papua”, all executed by FSOL, offer compellingly radical treatments. Some, like the acid rock guitar spattered “Wooden Ships” barely relate to the blueprint, sounding more like a circa 1970 monsterjam convened by Spirit, Tyrannosaurus Rex and Santana, while “Requiem” is a beat-less ballad, ornate and vaguely Eastern (think Tori Amos in a kaftan). Although none of them can touch even the hem of the definitive version, at least the titles are (inadvertently?) amusing: “The Great Marmalade Mama in the Sky”, “Things Change like the Patterns and Shades That Fall.” Sadly, FSOL’s Brian Dougans and Gary Cobain soon spurned the rave culture, dismissing its output as cheesy trash compared to their own studio-addled experiments (and in a way, the sheer gigantism of the Translations remix project prefigures their downfall, with the progtronica hubris of Lifeforms and the rest). Still, “Papua New Guinea” indicates they must have briefly participated in the peaceadelic euphoria of the early ‘90s. Tapping into that vibe enabled them to create the single solitary piece of music that secures their place in the pantheon of rave.
By the time the big rave acts got around to making albums, the rapid-turnover scene had usually moved on, leaving the group plying an already dated sound and the debut CDs moldering unsold in record store. This cruel fate befell hardcore hit-makers like Altern-8, Bizarre Inc, Eon, N-Joi, Messiah, Unique 3, Shades of Rhythm and many more who were unable to make the transition from the fickle singles-oriented rave underground to the b(r)and-loyalty based long-term career-ism of mainstream pop. Few were as surreally tardy about it as Liquid, a/k/a Eamon Downes, whose much-loved rave classic “Sweet Harmony” hit big in 1992, but whose long-form debut came out in 1995. Culture is a pleasant listen, but it illustrates the lose/lose dilemma that faced many rave outfits looking to develop and endure: stay true to their original but now passé style or keep up with dancefloor trends and look like a bandwagon-jumper? There is too much accommodation on Culture to the reigning trance and progressive house sounds of 1993/94, a drifting-with-the-times that washes up on the cheesy beaches of Ibiza with the flamenco-fluttery Balearic track “One Love Family.” Although there’s plenty of vampy Italo pianos in the classic 1991 rave style, they feature in slowed-down form, so that instead of electrifying euphoria they transmit a vibe of mellow serenity. These torpid tempos suggest that Downes’ gameplan was to adapt rave into home-oriented chill-out muzak, preserving the style’s signature elements (plinky pianos, ecstatic divas) but stripping out all the mania. “Liquid Is Liquid (Falling into Dub)” shows he’s been listening to progressive house mavens like Leftfield and Spooky, while
“Drug Culture (vision dawn)” (great title!) sounds like an attempt to write Liquid’s very own “Papua New Guinea.” In the end, the CD’s best moment is “Sweet Harmony.” The heart-tugging piano chords and ecstatic twist of diva soul (both sampled from CeCe Rogers’ “Someday”) matched with a ruff breakbeat, a rolling bass-line and bursts of a trippy techno riff, made for hardcore heaven in 1992, and Downes at least had the sense not to tamper with its immaculate perfection by remixing it in line with circa-1995 dancefloor specifications.
The Guardian of Ruff--Whitehouse Records
MegabopGlobal-Aura / The Orchard
It’s well-known and abundantly documented that drug use has its dark side.
Why was it such a surprise, then, when hardcore rave, a genre of music brazenly fuelled by and celebratory of MDMA, plunged into the twilight-zone in the last months of 1992? “Darkside” was the name that scenesters started using to describe the new style of tracks that emerged during that grim winter. UK rave had started to get messy and moody, thanks partly to bad medicine (Ecstasy cut with the more intensely hallucinogenic MDA) and polydrug excess (ravers taking speed, marijuana, LSD, etc on top of the E), but also on account of a spate of muggings and violence at parties. While many fled the scene for the more controlled pleasures of the house clubs, the hardest of the hardcore plunged deeper into the beckoning abyss, creating a bad-trippy mutant of breakbeat hardcore that would actually aggravate the bad vibes on the dancefloor and thicken the malaise inside your head. “Darkside” sounds insane because it’s meant to soundtrack temporary mind-states on the border of mental illness: paranoia, catatonia, panic attack. Although figures like 4 Hero, Goldie and Doc Scott (all affiliated to the Reinforced label) pioneered the new sinister sound of ectoplasmic samples, death-ray riffs, and deliriously fractured breakbeats, Bay-B-Kane was a major supplier of dark-vibed tunes. This album contains his big 1993 dancefloor anthems, “Rhythm” and “Hello Darkness”. The former places its incongruously serene sing-songy sample--“rhy-thm, rhythm, rhy-thm, rhy-thm” (the last iteration vaulting several octaves on the sampling keyboard to a sprite-like shriek) amid wobbly bass-plasma and ungodly stabs of synth-noise. “Hello Darkness” cracks you up initially with its sample from “The Sound of Silence”, but the sped-up and slimy-sounding Simon & Garfunkel vocals become genuinely creepy, while the deathfunk groove and legion of eerie, forensically-untraceable noises create a mood of clammy apprehension. Other goodies include the hyper-syncopated rush of “Hyd & Seek” (over which bobs a tiny sample from Janet Kay’s gorgeous lover’s rock tune “Silly Games”) and “Ravin’ in the Twilight,” as febrile as a pill-popping raver whose metabolism is dangerously over-heated.
Better Living Through Chemistry
Norman Cook had already enjoyed two hugely successful pop careers before he became Fatboy Slim, first as the bassist of indiepop hitmakers the Housemartins, and second as the man behind the sample-collage oriented Beats International, who scored a UK #1smash with “Dub Be Good To Me”. (He’d also had a less successful stint in the dance-rock outfit Freakpower and made house tracks as Pizzaman and Mighty Dub Katz.) Although Cook’s affiliation is much more with the whole indie-dance tradition (the line that runs from Madchester through Primal Scream to the Chemical Brothers and Heavenly Social) than to the rave underground, there are moments on Better Living Through Chemistry that sound bizarrely close to hardcore. On“Song For Lindy,” a piano vamp, phased for spine-tingling Ecstatic effect, comes spiraling out of the speakers, and the sensation of back-to-92 is uncanny: this is exactly the kind of Italo-house keyboard lick that outfits like Sonz of a Loop Da Loop Era used on tracks like “Far Out”. But then Cook himself is a son of that era too: he was a DJ before he joined the Housemartins, a hip hop fanatic with a deep feel for the aesthetic of looped breakbeats and cheeky samples. If Big Beat, the style Cook pioneered in tandem with the Chemical Brothers, is hip hop’s breaks’n’ bass’n’samples colliding with house music’s vamps and acid-riffs, well that’s what hardcore rave was made from too, its just that the latter ran at a good 20 beats-per-minute faster.
Better Living came out in 1996, just a little too early for the Big Beat explosion that took off the following year. After a couple of years of Teutonic trance and handbag house, people were ready for a dance style that was a little bit ruffer: more B-boy gritty on the rhythm front, but also enlivened with some rock’n’roll spirit, a messy exuberance and irreverence. Hence “Punk To Funk”, a stand-out tune on Chemistry: chunky breaks and obese bass wobbling like love handles at a Weight-Watchers disco, then a wondrously cheesy horn sample that huffs-and-puffs its way out of the mix. Even rockier in vibe is “Going out of My Head”, which pivots around a Who guitar riff. The track showcases Cook’s genius for driving crowds wild with whooshing builds and delirious vocal samples (in this case, a phased and stereo-panned soul voice confessing “I’m going out of my mind”). The album’s other stone killer is ‘Everybody Needs a 303”, which features at least four overlapping basslines (one is an old fashioned slap-bass run possibly played by Norman himself, the second is a low Roland 808 rumble of detuned bass-drum, and the other two are Roland 303 acid-burbles as referenced in the title). Big Beat’s appeal at the time was that it reinstated the role of “stupid noises” and gimmicky effects in dance music at a time when post-rave auteurs from techno to drum’n’bass were heading heroically up their own arses. But in their own stupid-fresh, instant-impact way, Cook’s productions are among the most intelligent of the Nineties.
Hardcore Owes Us Money
The Redeemer is a collaboration between DJ Scud (doyen of the post-rave sub-underground known as splatterbreaks) and Panacea (Germany’s don of darker-than-thou drum’n’bass). Where Better Living Through Chemistry came out too soon after the ’92 golden age to actually be a nostalgic harking-back, Hardcore Owes Us Money is a pure retro-rave: two true believers wistfully seeking to conjure the bygone rushes and vintage ruffage of breakbeat hardcore 1991-94. The title itself is a homage to Reggae Owes Me Money by the Ragga Twins, one of the acts on the pioneering hardcore label Shut Up and Dance. But thankfully, this isn’t a straightforward, period-detail-precise recreation of old skool rave , but more like a recombinant intensification. Scud and Panacea ransack effects from across the early ‘90s rave continuum, jumbling the sequence of styles and years, so that Belgian noise-riffs crash into eruptions of Jamaican dancehall patois. “Redemption” starts with ecstastic washes of sighing ‘n’ shivering synths, before a mad beat kicks in, a couple of different sampled rudeboys jump into the fray, and a veritable Panzer division of a techno-riff blitzkriegs its way across the track. “Well ‘Ard” features sickly-droopy darkside synth-riffs and some much-sampled ragga cries of “we gonna lick reality” (a raver’s call to arms? “if the the real-world sucks, we’ll beat it by making a mass exodus into oblivion”?), then drops into a pummeling groove across which a zig-zagging riff slashes like Freddie Kreuger brandishing a glow-stick instead of a blade. The album’s peak is reached with
“Squeeze with Eaze” (in which the alien pinging tones of a zither collide with dub-war sirens, a weird reverbed bassline, and the ghost of “Anasthasia”) and “Sound Killah”. The latter leaps out of historical sequence for a moment, ripping the looped diva-as-police-siren from Double 99’s 1997 speed garage monsterhit “Ripgroove”, but plunging the sample back through time to rub shoulders with ‘91’s swarming black clouds of synth-drones. The album is dangerously exhilarating up until this mid-way point and then it’s as though the duo snap out of their nostalgic reverie and revert to making standard-issue modern drum’n’bass, all ugly distorted basslines and maniacally fixated, funk-devoid beats. Indeed, even on the splendid first half of Hardcore, the sole defect and anachronistic element is that the beats aren’t the topsy-turvy breakbeats of classic-era hardcore but more like contemporary drum’n’bass, i.e. jackknifing-at-the-waist snares sprinting at 180 beats per minute. “Rollers”, they call this linear style, but you might as well call them treadmillers, since their vibe resembles an endless chase scene or videogame loop. You could argue that this aspect keeps Hardcore Owes Us from being a pure wallow in nostalgia. But personally, being a raver-dad, I’d have sooner had the full-blown time travel effect thank you very much.
truncated version of this piece at eMusic where you can also download the albums or tracks in question