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.


Anonymous said...

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! You are my hero. I have been trying to get a track id on this since, oh, i dunno, 1996?

For the record (no pun intended), Charles "DJ Feelgood" Fields from Baltimore put this on his side of the Fever Time to Get Ill Vol. 4 promo mixtape.

paul grievous angel meme said...

Yeah, it's good, but it ain't all that! Lots of better house tracks I reckon.

divot said...

cz thanks - just wish i'd wrote it :)

Meme - quiet at the back, "it ain't all that" does not a cohesive rebuttal make. Yes it is all that!

cz said...

@general shmievous - weak. if you're going to diss a track after such a detailed review you've got to make your case equally as well. name a drums only house track that does the kinds of things that "sensational beats" does, or at least tell us specifically why it isn't that great.

p.s. dubstep still sucks

Anonymous said...

Geez what a wasted wad blow talking about this tune as their best ever. You obviously know very little about their entire body of work to pick this tune.

divot said...

Hey 'anonymous'!

You know nothing about my record collection, so probably best if you don't go jumping to conclusions.

I've given extensive reasons *why* this tune is best, so if you disagree, do try to come up with something a bit more of a convincing argument than a random personal attack. I'd love to hear what your favourite MAW track is.

Oh and for clarity, I wasn't saying it's the best MAW track ever. I'm saying it's the best house track ever, period. :)

Anonymous said...

@anonymous - at least put your name to it if you're gonna go in all personal.

Thanks for posting this track. It's no easy feat trying to pick just one ;-)

Speaking of MAW productions, I thought 'The Bounce' housed along very nicely.

If I was to pick one house track that I always go ga-ga over it would have the be Larry Heard AKA Mr Fingers - Can You Feel It. Timeless stuff.

Other good places to look:

Floating Points
Phil Asher & Restless Soul
Motor City Drum Emsemble
Rasmus Faber
Afefe Iku

Or try Kebekelektrik's 'War Dance' from 1978/79 - hypnotic house sounds that are three decades old now ...

lou benny said...

i'm totally with you man on this one. this one is timeless and its so essential that i wouldnt hesitate to call it the most fundamental house track ever!
great blog entry