Sunday, July 29, 2007

riffs on riffs for The Wire's Greatest Riffs feature
The Wire, 2004

by Simon Reynolds

KING SUNNY ADE -- “Eje Nlo Gba Ara Mi”, “365 Is My Number/The Message” (from Juju Music, Mango, 1982), “Synchro System” (Synchro System, Mango, 1983)
The riff so good they used it thrice. Actually, that’s an underestimate. This twangy, twinkly rhythm guitar figure, mostly likely played by Ade himself, is all over The Best of The Classic Years compilation of 1967-74 material (notably “Sunny Ti De” and “Ibanujde Mon Iwon”), and I’m told it recurs throughout the man’s vast discography. Whether it’s creative thrift or a Zen-like exploration of the infinite inflectional possibilities within a few chords, who knows? In any given track, this crisp crinkle of scintillating Afro-funk serves a double function, operating as both audio-logo (this is KING SUNNY ADE you’re listening to) and intensifier, its flecked flicker tightening the surface of the music until it’s as taut as a drum skin.

NASTY HABITS--“Shadow Boxing” (31 Records, 1996)
Nasty Habits is the alter-ego of deejay/producer Doc Scott, one of jungle’s under-sung pioneers, and “Shadow Boxing” contains the most gloriously doom-laden and ponderous synth-riff in that genre’s history. Scott’s from Coventry, so it’s tempting to think he must have accessed the heaviness of this sluggish, scowling riff from the harsh West Midlands environment in the same way Sabbath did with “Iron Man,” “War Pigs,” and the rest. More likely, though, is that in the early Nineties Scott had his head rearranged at Coventry’s Eclipse raves and ever since then he’s been chasing down his own ultimate version of the miasmic “Mentasm” noise-riff, as heard on Joey Beltram’s early R&S tracks and Belgian hardcore anthems beyond counting. Beautiful and ominous like a cloud of poison gas looming on the horizon, “Shadow Boxing” is the culmination of a life’s work. Something drum’n’bass as genre most likely will never surpass.

RESILIENT--"1.2" (Chain Reaction, 1996)
There’s probably any number of fabulous riffs strewn across the discographies of the Basic Channel/Chain Reaction label-cluster (Maurizio’s “M6” and Monolake’s “Index” spring immediately to mind). But “1.2” by the enigmatic Resilient takes the BC/CR approach of miniaturising the riff to the limit. Riffs exist at the intersection of melody and rhythm, the mnemonic and the physical, and the Chain Reaction aesthetic in part involved seeing just how reduced (in terms of notes) you could make a pulse before it became purely percussive, just another beat. I’m not even sure there’s notes as such in “1.2”, it’s more like this spasming ripple of texture. It’s as if Resilient has conducted an archaeology of house music in order to uncover the primordial geocosmic vamp at the genre’s core. The first half of “1.2” consists of a tectonic shudder, a tidal current, that’s so contourless it’s at the very threshold of memorability. Then roughly six minutes in (you do tend to lose track of time) it abruptly shifts gear to a more rapid flicker of amorphous radiance. At which point, the sensation of spongy amniotic suspension quickens to a flooding bliss, overwhelming enough to get your eyes rolling back in your head. You start to see why some wag* dubbed this genre “heroin house”.

KRAFTWERK--“Ruckzuck” (Kraftwerk 1, Philips, 1971)
Given all the other choices available in the Kraftwerk oeuvre--the regular-as-carburetor pulse of “Autobahn”, the poignant heart-flutter vamps of “Neon Lights” and “Computer Love”, the eerie synth-shivers midway through "Home Computer"--it probably seems slightly perverse to pick the very first song on the very first album. Especially as the killer riff is played on a flute, not a synth. But the whole essence of Kraftwerk’s sound/feeling/Geist--serene urgency, Zen as the art of motorik maintenance--is distilled into Florian Schneider’s rasping flute lick. Or flute licks--at various points, it’s double-tracked so that Schneider is jamming with himself, the staccato patterns dovetailing to funky perfection. Flutes are usually a ghastly idea outside classical music, but here the instrument rocks--indeed, it’s hard to think of another instance of a woodwind being used to such percussive and propulsive effect. “Ruckzuck” is the missing link between Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and Area Code 615’s “Stone Fox Chase”--i.e. that harmonica-driven theme tune for The Old Grey Whistle Test.

* "some wag"--Not sure but I think it was actually Kevin Martin who coined the term "heroin house". Nuff respeck.

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