Monday, July 13, 2009

Equinox, London
Melody Maker, spring 1994

by Simon Reynolds

The host: Moving Shadow, the UK's leading "intelligent
hardcore" label. The line-up: jungle's top DJs, including
the ubiquitous Randall, Grooverider, Ray Keith, Brockie and
LTJ Bukem, plus PA's from Moving Shadow's three most popular artists,
Foul Play, Omni Trio and Deep Blue. The venue: Equinox, a
slightly cheesy disco on Leicester Square usually full of tourists, whose
balconies and upholstered alcoves provide welcome rest and
respite for the combat-fatigued and shellshocked.

For hardcore is warzone music; its jagged breakbeats are
treacherous, a simulation of the minefield that is modern
life. Hardcore strafes the listener's body with percussion,
so that dancing is like striding into a stream of machine-gun
snares and ricocheting paradiddles, while bass-bombs send
shockwaves through your intestines. But, with Moving Shadow's
brand of hardcore, the danger-beats are incongruously swathed
with soothing, silken tenderness: strings, harps, jazz-fusion
chords, soul-diva sighs and gasps, plus the kind of woogly
textures you'd usually hear from The Irresistible Force.

This "ambient hardcore" sound was traiblazed on tracks
like "Music" by LTJ Bukem (who plays a brilliant set, finding
an extra five notches of volume to really detonate the night)
and "Open Your Mind" by FOUL PLAY. Sadly, FP don't include this sublime song in their PA, but they do debut their fab
new single ["Being With You"], all phuture-jazz synth-clusters and diva
beseechings, while lazers scythe and slash the crowd. Foul
Play also 'play' their remix of Hyper-On-Experience's "Lords
Of the Null Lines", demonstrating how fluid the notion of
'authorship' is in this scene, where an anthem's life is
prolonged by endless, drastically altered versions.

After Bukem's set, Andy C keeps the music rollin'.
Junglists and junglettes do a palsied version of 'steppers',
originally a roots reggae dance that involves skipping on the
spot like a manic jig'n'reel. But with jungle, it's like
they're Morris-dancing on bullets. The crowd tonight mixes
chic, style-conscious sophisticates (usually black or Asian)
and dressed-down white kids who mostly look like they're well
under the 18 age limit emblazoned on the flyer. There's all
sorts here tonight, friendly luv'd up types who probably
secretly mourn the days of "happy 'ardcore", and the moody,
self-contained junglists into dark tunes, who despise the
rave ethos with its Vicks, white gloves and gushing euphoria.

OMNI TRIO hit the stage, or rather a proxy does, since the true creator behind this country's sublimest dance-pop is
a 38 year old Can fan who prefers to remain an enigma. The
stand-in pretends to knob-twiddle as Omni's classic "Renegade
Snares" tears up the floor, with its soul-shocking cannonades
of polyrhythm, hypergasmic chorus "c'mon, take me UP!" and
sentimental verging on twee piano motif. Then the MC
announces "the one 'n' only, the livin' legend", DEEP BLUE.
The latter is a unassuming bloke whose "The Helicopter Tune"
is still massive after 6 months floor-life. Recently reissued
with 4 remixes, it sold 22 thousand and became the first
hardcore track to go Top 70 in years. Based around a
geometric Latin beat cranked up like some crazed clockwork
mechanism, "Helicopter" gets the crowd seething like a

A few hours later, we stumble bleary and squinting into
a viciously crisp dawn, battered and bruised but still
glowing with the beauty-terrorism of "Voodoo Magic."

by Simon Reynolds

(originally appeared at the Blissout website, Faves and Unfaves of 2000, now located here)

Another Pop Mystery I've been contemplating recently relates to the life cycles of genres, their arc and fall. You can be basking in the blooming fullness of a genre's annus mirabilus, and somehow it never occurs that this is obviously the golden age, the peak, the best it's ever gonna get, and that the only way forward now is downhill. When you're in the thick of it, you think it can just carry on forever at this perpetual crest... Records that at the time seem like portents or glimpses of so-much-more-to-come turn out, years later, to have been swan-songs, the last of the summer wine. Who'd have thought, for instance, that Adam F's 'Metropolis' and Nasty Habit's 'Shadowboxing" were destined to be the historical pinnacle of techstep (and therefore drum'n'bass), that they were form-defining and form-exhausting ultra-tunes?

These thoughts emerged during a spate of compulsive re-listening to what they used to call (alright, what I used to call) "ambient jungle", which inspired musings on the lines of why couldn't this music just stay forever at this sustained peak of awesomeness? Why do musics have to deteriorate or die? Tracks like Dillinja's "Deep Love" and "Sovereign Melody," Bukem's "Atlantis", EZ Roller's 'Believe" and "Rolled Into One" (Moving Shadow's last masterpiece?), the Steve Gurley's remix (more like re-production) of Princess's Eighties Britsoul classic of yearning "Say I'm Your Number One," still sound so fantastic--why couldn't they have carried on like this until the end of time, or at least lasted out the decade. A peculiar twist of hind-hearing is that even tracks I didn't rate particularly at the time sound fabulous now, like PFM's "One and Only"--the way the bass moves and drops, the ripple-trails and
glistening vapors of ambience, the explosive entrance of the diva vocal. Then there's Peshay, a producer I've never rated--his track on the first Logical Progression, "Vocal", is amazing, and I never even noticed it at the time; that kind of Speed-oriented mellow jazzual track was the enemy, back then. Now, long after the battle's subsided, whatever was at stake a faint memory, I can hear it as a tour de force of exquisitely mashed-up beats and diva deployment, using a vocal sample (Anita Baker? Barbara Tucker? it's the vocal lick that goes "I'm singing to you") that's got more in common with a beautifully designed commodity, a sports car or leather sofa, than say Aretha Franklin; it's all burnished technique and poise, not raw soul. After 2step I can appreciate what is basically a kind of capitalist utopianism behind such fetishising of elegance and surface slickness.

Another example: in my disappointment that Omni Trio had abandoned the euphoria fireworks of the "Renegade Snares" formula, I missed how good bits of Haunted Science are--"Who Are You?" and especially "The Elemental", an early neurofunk-style two-stepper beat with keyboard lines as delicate as dew settling and bass-drops like tender thunder--how cleverly Rob Haigh had developed a new, calmer but still compelling style of drum'n'bass for the home environment.

The truth is that there always was an integral side to drum'n'bass that wasn't about rudeness (nasty B-lines, mash-up breakbeats) but about supreme dainty-ness and neat-freak finesse. It's a different kind of rush--the tingle you can get from the groomed delicacy of a hi-hat pattern, the nimble, glancing panache of a synth-chord flourish. Jacob's Optical Stairway, the oft-maligned alter-ego album by 4 Hero, is some kind of pinnacle in this respect: the detail in the music induces its own kind of high, the aural equivalent of putting on your first pair of glasses and suddenly everything's ultra-sharp.

The chill-ness of "ambient jungle" and the jazzy stuff that followed is also more appealing, partly because of the feeling that I've listened to enough extreme music for a lifetime so why not go with sheer beauty and pleasantness for a bit, and partly because there's nothing like parenthood to make you appreciate the aesthetic of stress-reduction. (Actually, a few years ago I had something of an epiphany: a plane trip, creating the typical intense stress situation right up til you go with all the getting work done before departure and packing in a rush. Coiled as tight as bedsprings, we got in the cab to JFK; the driver had the radio tuned to one of those lite-jazz stations, the kind that plays what Jackson Griffiths dubbed "biz jazz", the post-ECM, post-fusion travesty of jazz favored by many corporate executives (and Yellowjackets fan Goldie). Any other day my response would have been nausea, but the music hit like a IV drip pumping liquid valium straight into the spine. Instant tranquilizing bliss. That day, I could dig it.).

Of course, people still make this kind of drum'n'bass (or carry on doing something pretty similar in spirit e.g. broken beats/West London Sound) and it's not as good as the 94/95 stuff. LTJ Bukem's long-awaited debut album came out this year--encased in a striking period-looking jazz-fusion style cover, and with a montage of snapshots of his jazzbo heroes on the inside--but it got almost no attention. Bit sad, for a guy who once commanded dance magazine cover stories.

But going back to the golden period that late 93/94/95 phase when darkside started to flirt with musicality, blossomed into artcore/ambient-jungle, and then went too far into the fuzak-zone.... quite a few tracks from that era fit the syndrome of "lost future" music, or genres-that-never-were (but could/should have been). Sometimes A-sides, more often B-side tunes or track four on an EP
jobs, these tunes--Blame's "Anthemia", Trace's "Jazz Primitives", Myerson's "Find Yourself" (with its painted bird of a Flora Purim sample flitting through a labyrinth of future-jazz foliage), lots more--feel like they could have been blueprints for entire worlds of sound , but of course they weren't. The DJs
weeded them out; the massive rejected them. Still, I'm fascinated by these tracks that represent a path not taken.