Thursday, March 26, 2009

Kenlou - "Sensational Beats" (Masters at Work)

Is there a “greatest house track ever”? Could there be?

I don’t know. I don’t know if you can pick one above all others – but if I were forced to try and do so, I’d probably have to go with “Sensational Beats”, by peerless NYC production duo Masters At Work. It’s a stripped out drum-only flipside to the far more commercial “What a Sensation”, with all the instrumentation removed. This track blew me away when I first heard it (I still remember the irresistible feeling of that groove powering its way through the Arches), and blew me away every time I heard it afterwards. It blew me away when I finally got a copy, and nearly 15 years later, it still blows my mind.

Fundamentally, house and techno music are all about the beat, and ultimately, the kick drum. Everything else in the track is there as window dressing. The beat as a whole is the groove, and when you are dancing, the groove is everything. The most compulsive part of the beat is indisputably the kick drum – it is the magnetic element that makes the entire experience work.

For some, the “mindless” release that dance music offers can only be properly experienced with chemical assistance. For others, a beer, a big PA, and a bit of dark is enough to let their guard down. Some can manage to let go in the bright midday sun. Whatever, what is happening when things are at their best, is that the conscious and analytical part of the brain is slowly, wilfully being decommissioned. When that starts to happen (and I’m convinced that repetition plays a vast role here, and it doesn’t have to be music – another time, another post), something deeper in your brain takes over. You transition from analysis and evaluation, to direct experience.

But what has this got to do with Masters at Work? The point is, that in dance music, the groove, the beat, is the element that communicates with that deeper, subconscious part of your brain. The other elements – the basslines, keyboard parts, strings, vocals and so on – all of that is window dressing – these melodic elements give your awake, analytical brain something to distract it, while it can slowly be switched off. While your analytical self is distracted, your unconscious and the kick drum do the heavy lifting.

House and techno span a huge range of acoustic “busyness” – from downright minimal, to outright walls-of-noise. For some people, they can directly connect with the tough and tracky side of house – the bare percussive tracks, the locked grooves, the endless repetition and the trancelike effect that it has. Other people are less comfortable – the dropping of the analytical alertness that is a presumed necessity of our daily life is not second nature, and the contact with the deeper part of your brain has to be dressed up as something else. Musically, the dressing can be basslines, vocals, melodies, and other elements to disguise and decorate the unconscious prerogative of the groove.

I pick “Sensational Beats” as my greatest house track ever, because it has less of this window dressing than almost any other house track, but at the same time delivers more musical quality than most tracks that have far more going on.

It’s a full nine minutes long, and has a kick drum, a handclap, an open hihat, a bongo and a couple other tuned drums, and a few sound effects here and there. That is it.

The kick, clap and hihat provide a completely plain four-on-the-floor beat – nothing could be simpler. On top of this, a single drum sound is the entire track.

This single drum provides all the phrasing - all the ups, all the downs – everything. Neither is it a drum filler track - there is real phrase here. Immerse yourself in it as it progresses, and imagine the drummer taking a pause and a breath at the end of one of the sections, before launching in to a new one. You can hear it, and you can feel it. The entire story of the track, which is significant, is told by that one single sound.

It's stunningly produced. It makes cohesive sense as a track in it's own right – something almost unheard of in drum-only tracks (which are usually regarded as filler or DJ mixing tools).

It sounds interesting in the cold light of day.

In the dark on a big system, it sounds positively primal.

It jacks like crazy.

I can’t think of anything that even comes close.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Basic Channel - phylypstrakII

There have always been innovative record labels, and there have always been innovative artists. In electronic music, the innovators tend to have been vastly outnumbered by the imitators, and only rarely does an artist or a label emerge that really breaks huge new ground.

In the early 90s, a shadowy record label emerged from the post-reunification debris of Berlin, and turned the underground dance sound upside down. Sounding like nothing that had come before, Basic Channel (the brainchild of Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald) released 9 nearly perfect 12” singles, fusing techno, dub and reggae into noise-strewn endlessly repeating tracky grooves, shot through with tiny mutations and variations. In the interests of getting exactly the sound they wanted down on vinyl, they also mastered their own records, setting up the Dubplates and Mastering mastering studio to achieve the perfect final sound on vinyl.

The main Basic Channel label stopped after the first nine releases, and sired spin-off labels and projects such as the less noisy and more clubfooted M releases, the vocal and housey Main Street, Chain Reaction (which kind of started from where Basic Channel itself had terminated), and a range of less techno and more dub fired labels such as Rhythm and Sound, Burial Mix, as well as Dubplates and Mastering, and the legendary Hardwax record shop in Berlin.

My introduction to Basic Channel came in the form of the final (9th) release, “phylypstrakII”. Probably the most accessible entry point, one side is a heaving and grinding thudding track swathed in huge washes of noise and grit, which I couldn’t get my head around at all. The other side is so crisp and minimal it took my breath away at first – it was so different and alien.

A kick, an open hat, a dull snare on the backbeat, and a minor third chord playing the 2nd and 4th beat – it could hardly have fewer sounds in it. At first I couldn’t understand how anyone could make music so minimal, it was like nothing was going on. But the more you listen, the more it opens up, and the more you get from it.

The kick isn’t just a kick – there’s a sort of strangled bassline buried with the kick drum, articulating the whole beat. A favoured Basic Channel technique, it makes the entire drumbeat swing and sway. Then there are the effects, the EQing, the incredible metallicism of the noises, the irregular percussive clanking, like alien mine machinery. The tiny dashes of delay, of reverb, the way it’s always mutating and changing around, the once-off things that happen through the record.

While many came to imitate the loopy dub techno sound pioneered by Basic Channel, very few have even come remotely close to matching the visionary quality of the early 90s output of Ernestus and von Oswald. As their other labels continued to produce innovative and interesting music, the original Basic Channel was discreetly closed before there was any compromise.

It’s as close to a perfect legacy as I can think of - two years, nine releases, and dance music changed forever.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Torridon in winter

I've always had something about the Highlands of Scotland, and it's getting stronger as I get older. Particularly the West Highlands - there is no place on earth like them. Nothing beats travelling across the bleak majesty of Rannoch Moor, the heart-stopping scenery of Glencoe, and the wild silent spaces of Ardnamurchan.

Torridon is another place I'm fascinated by, although I haven't made it there yet. Mostly, it's the mighty Liathach that for some reason draws me there, but there's something about the whole area that just seems and sounds magical.

Here's a great video of a day driving through Torridon in the winter. It's so reminiscent of Scotland it's difficult to explain.

Even the start, driving behind the gritter in the snow (something I haven't had to consider any of the years I've been in Ireland), the slush on the road. There's something magical in this video, the mixing of the amazing scenery with the almighty tune (Highland Cathedral, which only lasts the first three minutes here, but almost always nearly reduces me to tears when it's done right).

The stillness of the loch, the trees, mountains and river at 1:01, the scene at 1:40 with the huge mountains standing silent as the car passes like a bug, then when they pull in to the glen, with that snowbound road twisting all the way down to Loch Maree...

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Waldorf Q

So, I'm remixing a track at the weekend. I've been working on it for a couple weeks, in moments snatched between work, sleeping, DIY, and the rest. It's nearly at final mix stage - I've managed to maintain my desire to keep going, get it finished, it's sounding good, I'm excited.

So, I take my Waldorf Q Keyboard (which I love), and having come up with one last killer sound to put in the track, I try to save it.

It's obviously having a problem with this request, because it tries "reorganising memory" for a good few seconds. Then it comes back with this little beauty of an error report...

It was at least funny - my first reaction was involuntary laughter. But I mean, seriously - sort out your error messages. Not just "Flash full" (which would have told me everything I needed to know). Or perhaps "Memory full", for the non-geek users. Or even "Flash really full", or if they wanted to get militant about it, mabye "Flash badly full".

But "hopeless"? Lots of things I need from the machines in my studio - but emotional pessimism like this, is not one of them!

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Mr Fingers - "Can you feel it"

Larry Heard was always cutting tracks on the deeper side of the house spectrum, but I don't think he ever bettered "Can you feel it", a track which still sounds as relevant today as it did when it came out. Emanating from deep in the Chicago house scene, this tune erupted as a genre-defining anthem when house music exploded across Britain in the late 80s.

It's an unusual track even for Chicago, as it straddles the line between deep and more soulful 'musical' house (of the type that Heard would go on to make later, and would be seen in later years on windy city labels such as Guidance), and the more mechanistic "jack tracks" that would inform later, tougher Chicago offerings like the discordant jacking 90s output of Relief records and slightly more song-based (but still twisted) sister label Cajual.

As for "Can you feel it"? Chattering hi-hats, hissing ride cymbals, a bass drum with the depth and impact which can often only come from the evergreen 909, and a gorgeous bassline in fifths and octaves which provides the anchor around which the most amazing deep filtered synth chords circle, moodily and endlessly.

It's oceans deep, and captures one of my favourite artistic and musical moods in managing to wobble on the tightrope between melancholy and optimism. And while I'm not too crazy about anyone sermonising over dance music, there is the occasional track on which it works (although making this point, I can now think of at least 3 other tracks immediately on which the effect is also amazing).

Seminal, with awesome depth and soul, thick with atmosphere, and a message that captures the ability of music and (particularly) the ability of communal dancing to rhythm-heavy and repetitive music to break the barriers in your head, and join the barriers between people.

You may be black, you may be white, you may be Jew or gentile - it don't make a difference in our house.

And this is fresh...