Various Artists, 200 (Planet Mu)
Various Artists, 10 Tons Heavy (Planet Mu)
The Wire, January 2008
by Simon Reynolds
Planet Mu is pretty much the last man standing when it comes to IDM’s big league labels. Warp still puts some cool records but has clouded its identity with indie guitar bands and hip hoppy stuff; Rephlex’s output, although still focused on quirktronica and “braindance”, has become sporadic and spotty. Meanwhile, Mu churns the stuff out. Initially an imprint via Virgin for Mike Paradinas’s µ-ziq releases but soon cutting loose as an independent with an increasingly large and varied roster, Planet Mu combines quantity and quality control in a way that’s unusual for a label well into its second decade of existence. 200, a double-CD compilation commemorating Mu’s you-guessed-it 200th release is a testament to Paradinas’s stamina as much as taste.
The curious thing about Mu, as a label founded by one of IDM’s original Big Five (the others being Richard D. James, Luke Vibert, and the Autechre duo), is how it’s become the custodian of rave’s legacy. Curious, because Intelligent Dance Music, as originally formulated circa 1993 with Warp’s “electronic listening music” initiative, opposed itself to rave. When cheesy-and-mental hardcore mutated into the undeniable rhythmic sophistication of jungle, IDM-ers changed their tune sharpish. Some, Paradinas included, even had a bash at it, resulting in the willfully wacky convolutions of drill’n’bass. Meanwhile, in his A&R rather than producer role, Paradinas was gradually turning Planet Mu into the home and guardian for two major strands of post-rave music: breakcore and dubstep.
Breakcore comes out of drill’n’bass. Where the latter often had an offputting let’s-mock-the-junglists parody aspect (e.g. Squarepusher’s “Full Rinse feat. MC Twin Tub”), breakcore’s attitude to its rave sources is affectionately reverent. Mu acts Venetian Snares and Shitmat hone in on and amplify hardcore’s playful mayhem. Paradinas also pulled some original junglists and hardcore heroes out of semi-retirement, like Bizzy B, present here with the Amen-smashing, Darth Vader-sampling “Merda Style”, and Hellfish, whose remix of Shitmat’s “Shut Up” is a beautifully produced, intricately detailed stampede of skullcrusher gabber. Venetian Snares’s own contribution, “Devil’s Totem”, takes the idea of “exquisite brutality” even further to produce a groove that keeps disintegrating and reintegrating, a doily of splintered spidery breakbeats and synth-tones that creepy-crawl through your ear canal deep into your brain.
Dubstep being something of a rave preservation society in its own right, it makes sense Paradinas has made moves on it. Mu has released albums and 12 inches by many of the scene’s best producers (Distance, Boxcutter, Vex’d, MRK1) and dubstep represents roughly a quarter of the contents of 200. Where breakcore picks up on rave’s daftness, dubstep fixates on its darkness. Sometimes to a shlocky degree: Pinch’s “Punisher (Loefah SE25 Remix)”, for instance, recycles the classic “when it come, it come like a bloodclot heart-attack” sample used on Ed Rush’s darkcore classic “Bludclot Artattack”. In its original context (1993’s ravefloors shadowed by drug-induced paranoia) this baleful patois lick was genuinely unsettling. But in 2007, for some reason, you can’t help thinking, “come off it chaps: ‘menace’, my arse!’. The beat itself is standard-issue half-step, a dank dungeon of rhythm laced with strangulated streaks of sound that seem to circle the stereo-field. Benga’s “Broken Dubstep” is more compelling with its light-and-dark juxtaposition of jazzy Rhodes licks with the genre’s usual palette of jellyfish-sting tonalities, while Boxcutter’s “Good You Dub” drapes his digi-skank with a canopy of shimmery, tingling wistfulness redolent of vintage-era IDM.
Devoted entirely to dubstep, 10 Tons Heavy displays the genre’s virtues and liabilities in equal measure. On the upside, rhythmic invention and atmosphere. Pinch’s “Qawwali” makes magic out of the sparest of elements: a ripple of congas, flickering musette that gives the track the faintest scent of tango, sprinkles of what sounds like processed dulcimer sounds, and… space. Other unorthodox tracks include Parson & Skint’s “Big Killaz,” a pestle-and-mortar groove whose grind fills the air with reverb-motes, and Milanese’s “Barry Dub,” a thick horizontal smear of sound out of which percussion blows and sampled voices struggle to cut loose like human figures cast into a trench chest-deep in treacle.
Dubstep’s downside? That would be the remorseless fixation on turgid tempos and sombre moods, an ominousness as unrelieved as it’s corny. Living in the city ain’t that bleak, boys! And I just get this funny feeling that the genre’s sallow-faced tech-headz derive most of their “street knowledge” from movies or from other genres of music (if only because they’re indoors all the time twiddling their gear). That’s why there’s no existential weight to the gangsta and soundbwoy samples that riddle so many of these tracks. The rhythmic combination of sloth and stilted, in tandem with the textural palette’s blend of grating and clinical, makes the long-haul dubstep experience wearing, especially on 10 Tons’s bonus Hatcha mix-CD, which features thirty tracks.
More than a few times, listening to both these compilations, I half-wished that breakcore and dubstep could somehow merge to recreate the unlikely blend of nutty exuberance and sinister futurism that characterized hardcore/jungle in its prime. On 200 Neil Landstrumm almost does that with “Bleep Biopsy”. Spacemen 3 to Burial’s Jesus and Mary Chain, this rave epigone connects dubstep to the early Nineties Yorkshire techno of Unique 3 and Sweet Exorcist. But the result, as with his excellent Restaurant of the Assassins album for Mu, ultimately leans towards more to the deep ‘n’ dark.
What surprised me with 200 was that many of the most absorbing tracks were actually traditional IDM: The Gasman’s Aphex-ripply “Equino”, Jo Apps’s haunting “Kausikan”, Mu C.E.O’s own track “Lexicon”. Either that or they were genre-nonaligned weirdtronica. Like Julian Fane’s “The Moon Is Gone”: gaseously ecstastic pop, as if Coldplay tried to surpass Kid A and succeeded. Like The Doubtful Guest’s “Narnita”: musique concrete essentially, at least until the beat kicks in. And like Ambulance’s “The Tams,” this comp’s stand-out: a suppressed-sounding landscape of buried-alive breakbeats and decaying chimes, evocative of a science fiction story where Time’s clock is winding down, or Boards of Canada after swallowing a whole bottle of sedatives.
Stretching from ambient entropy to full-tilt frenzy, from screwface gloom to zany frivolity, 200 showcases a label of rare scope and diversity. To borrow a song title from dubstepper/200 contributor Darqwan: M/a..ximum Reespek.