Leisure Lounge, London
Melody Maker, June 25th 1994
by Simon Reynolds
director's cut, Observer Music Monthly, September 2003
by Simon Reynolds
It’s a tough time for dance music believers. Mainstream house culture has imploded, with superclubs closing, dance magazines folding, and average sales for 12 inch singles on a steady downward arc. The more cerebral end of home-listening electronica suffers from stylistic fragmentation, overproduction (there’s just too many "pretty good" records being made), and the absence of a truly startling new sound (even a Next Medium-Sized Thing would be a blessing at this point). Trendy young hipsters think dance culture’s passe and really rather naff: these days they’re into bands with riffs, hooky choruses, foxy singers, and good hair, from neo-garage groups like The White Stripes to post-punk revivalists like The Rapture.
Little wonder, then, that the leading lights of leftfield electronica have been looking back to the early Nineties, when their scene was at the peak of its creativity, cultural preeminence, and popularity. There’s been a spate of retro-rave flavoured releases from the aging Anglo vanguard--a reinvocation (conscious or unconscious, it’s hard to say) of the era when this music was simultaneously the cutting edge and in the pop charts.
LFO’s Mark Bell is a case in point. Today he’s better known for his production work with Bjork and Depeche Mode, but back in 1990, he was one half of a duo who reached #12 in the UK singles charts with their self-titled debut "LFO". This Leeds group pioneered a style called "bleep", the first truly British mutation of the house and techno streaming over from Chicago and Detroit. In 1991 they released Frequencies, the first really great techno album released anywhere (unless you count ancestors Kraftwerk, alongside whose godlike genius LFO’s best work ranks, if you ask me). Just about the only bad thing about Sheath, LFO’s third album and first release for seven years, is its title, which I fear is being used in its antedeluvian meaning of "condom" (only "rubber johnny" could have been worse). Really, this record should be called Frequencies: the Return.
Deliberately lo-fi opener "Blown" instantly transports you back to the era of landmark records like Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 1985-91. All muddy heart-tremor bass, creaky hissing beats and tinkling, tingling rivulets of synth, it has the enchanted, misty-eyed quality of those childhood mornings when you wake to look through frost-embroidered bedroom windows. "Mokeylips" teems with fluorescent pulses and those classic LFO textures that seem to stick to your skin like Velcro. As bracing as snorting a line of Ajax, "Mum-Man" is industrial-strength hardcore of the kind that mashed-up the more mental ravefloors in ’92. With its robot-voice dancemaster commands and videogame zaps, "Freak" harks back further still to LFO’s Eighties "roots" as teenage electro fans bodypopping and spinning on their heads in deserted shopping centres. "Moistly" shimmers and surges with that odd mixture of nervousness and serenity that infused the classic Detroit techno of Derrick May and Carl Craig. And the beat-less tone-poem "Premacy" pierces your heart with its plangent poignancy.
Electronic music may be suffering from the cruel cycles of cool at the moment, but Sheath (ugh, I really don’t like that title) shows that music of quality and distinction is still coming from that quarter. Yet more proof (if any were still needed) that all-instrumental machine-music can be as emotionally evocative, as sensuously exquisite, as heart-tenderising and soul-nourishing as any rock group you care to mention. (Like for instance Radiohead, whose Thom Yorke, as it happens, was a huge fan of the Northern "bleep" tracks released by Warp in the early Nineties). One can only hope this album finds the audience it deserves.