Saturday, May 1, 2021

The Grid

                                            singles column, summer 1990, melody maker

The Grid
Melody Maker, July 7 1990
by Simon Reynolds

The Grid

The Observer, 30 September 1990

by Simon Reynolds

This summer, The Grid released 'Floatation', a single that perfectly captured the New Age mood that has pervaded club culture in 1990. 'Floatation' combined deep exhalations, submarine sonar blips, waves lapping the shore, with the mellow, moonwalking groove that has dominated dancefloors all year.

Like a session in a flotation tank, the track was designed to soothe your soul, lower your metabolic rate, and leave you feeling "centered".

Despite being a big success in the clubs, it narrowly missed being a chart hit, because it was too long for radio play. "We want to promote the idea of music that's not limited to a three-minute pop format," explained Richard Norris, The Grid's conceptualist and a former music journalist, "music that's not focused particularly on the lyrics, that you can use functionally, as a soundtrack to your life. The Grid has more in common with Pink Floyd or Brian Eno."

Norris sees encouraging signs of a willingness to experiment in the UK dance scene. "This year, it's seemed like there's more people like us involved, introducing all these art-rock elements. Dance music is a lot like dub reggae at the moment, in its use of space and weird effects. We've always been more interested in head music than music that makes your body move. But I think the good thing now is that those two things are being integrated."

Norris is taking that fusion even further with plans for a future album, The Origins Of Dance. It's a collaboration with the guru of psychedelia, Timothy Leary, and Fraser Clarke from the psychedelic magazine Evolution. "Fraser taped Leary reciting a speech at the Cafe Largo, which has been a beatnik enclave in San Francisco from the Fifties," Norris said.

"The speech itself was 20 years old, and is a Leary manifesto about the psychedelic powers of dance. We composed a techno-mantra backing for his recitation. Later, we met up with Leary in Amsterdam [he's still banned from the UK] and he gave it his seal of approval. He described it as 'hi-tech paganism'.

"Leary is a very impressive figure. He's in his seventies, but seems very aware and open-minded. He's totally hip to what's going on in house music, how it relates to the trance-dance idea that goes back to the earliest origins of music. And he liked the fact that acid house was a working-class phenomenon, whereas the counter-culture had been a bit bourgeois."

Norris's partner in The Grid is David Ball, the techno-boffin half of electro-pop duo Soft Cell. Norris and Ball are busy remixing and reworking Soft Cell's early Eighties classics, such as 'Tainted Love' and 'Memorabilia', in order to reintroduce them into the contemporary dance scene.

They are also producing some of ex-Soft Cell singer Mark Almond's new songs, composing music for Japanese TV commercials and soundtracks for Columbia Pictures.

The Grid's debut album, Electric Head, reflects these interests, ranging from ambient music to the "tacky disco" of the current chart-bound single, 'A Beat Called Love'.

"The Grid is a kind of reaction against theory and conceptualism," said Norris. We're neither trying to be ironic, nor make serious statements. We like to do throwaway, superficial, crass pop songs like 'A Beat Called Love', as well as atmospheric pieces like 'Floatation'. In both cases, we're not trying to 'say' anything. It's not the text that's important, it's the sensual textures of the sound."

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

"nights of sacred pleasure... more than any laws allow" - Jim Steinman, adieu


from Retromania, a little section on Meatloaf and Jim Steinman, in the chapter of the 1970s rock'n'roll revival and its long tail


"Innocence" is not the only thing that Seventies musicians sought and found in the 1950s.    As Fifties revivalism continued and diversified in the second half of the Seventies, two other "essences" of rock 'n' roll came to the fore. Some bands, like The Cramps, focused on rockabilly's febrile sexuality and "real gone" frenzy, making a fetish of obscure artists, those who'd never made it out of the Deep South. Others homed in on the histrionic  excess  of  rock 'n' roll's more poptastic and produced side, figures like Phil Spector, Roy Orbison, and Del Shannon.

Far and away the most successful version of the latter was Meatloaf.  He was stupendously successful: the multiplatinum Bat Out of Hell was one of 1978's biggest records, especially in the U.K. where it had the same kind of over-the-top appeal as Queen.  Meatloaf had first come to public attention in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (the 1975 movie version of Richard O'Brien's cult musical) in which he played a rock'n'roller called Eddie whose brain has partially been removed.  While working on the movie in 1974, Meatloaf also began his Bat Out of Hell collaboration with songwriter and "walking rock encyclopedia" Jim Steinman.

Steinman's approach to rock'n'roll resurrection was completely opposed to the reductionism of Creedence,  Lennon, and Glitter-Leander.   Phil Spector's "wall of sound" and densely layered "teenage symphonies" were the model.  Something of a rock'n'roll philosopher as well as a songwriter-arranger, Steinman talked eloquently about how the music's core was violence and hysteria.  Meatloaf, the Pavarotti of rock, had the only voice majestic enough to do his songs justice, he said.  Swollen both in width and length (several Bat Out of Hell numbers reached nine or ten minutes), Steinman's music grew as corpulent as Meatloaf's physique.   But the result wasn't so much rock opera as rock'n'roll opera: beneath the gassy bloat, the roots of the sound were clearly Chuck Berry and The Ronettes, while the songs deal with Fifties-type scenarios such as a Harley Davidson death-ride or making out in a Chevy and struggling to get the girl to go all the way. 

Steinman's manager David Sonenberg described him as having " the intellect of an Orson Welles… yet he's kind of frozen in the emotional body of a 17-year-old." That nails Bat Out of Hell precisely:  corny yet grotesque, arrested but overblown, as if rock's artistic and emotional development had stopped circa 1957 but its sonic form kept growing.  Bat Out Of Hell actually came out of an earlier Steinman project called Neverland that was primarily based around Peter Pan.  The songwriter hailed J. M. Barrie's story as "the ultimate rock-and-roll myth--lost boys who don't grow up."  Rock'n'roll,  Steinman argued , "has to do with being a teenager, the energy of adolescence. When it starts to get too adult, I think it begins to lose a little of the power." He complained that in the early Seventies, music "got real bland, tranquilizing". It lost touch with the epic quality of songs like Del Shannon's "Runaway", "that cross-roads, where romance became violent and violence became romantic. "  Singer-songwriters like "Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Jackson Browne" were "the exact opposite of my world", he continued, because they  wrote  about  grown-up stuff like " meaningful relationships".  


Steinman also makes a cameo in this piece:


GQ Style, winter 2009 

 by Simon Reynolds 

Just a few months before Michael Jackson died, I felt the urge to write about him for the first time ever. I was in a café and "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough" came on and even though I must have heard it hundreds of times since first seeing the video on Top of the Pops in 1979, for some reason the song hit me like a lightning bolt. For all its falsetto-funk silkiness , the sheer aggression of the sound--the coiled rhythmic tension, the stiletto penetration of Jackson's voice--seemed to attack with the force of The Stooges or Sex Pistols . 

But what I really came away with was a vague idea, just a phrase really: "total music", the idea of a category of pop set apart from the merely excellent. Listening, rapt, I imagined the electricity of the Off the Wall sessions: Quincy Jones assembling the highest-calibre session players available, no expense spared, and pursuing perfection with an almost militaristic focusing of energy. The achievement: flawlessness so absolute that it didn't so much transcend commercialism as blast right through it, such that domination of the radio and the discotheques was merely a by-product, a secondary benefit, of the quest. "Total music" occurs through the synergy of talent, limitless funding, a really good idea… and something else: a superhuman drive, the "right stuff" that Tom Wolfe wrote about in connection with NASA's moon missions.

I imagine this intangible elan infused the making of Abba's music, or the classic recordings of the Beatles, Phil Spector, Brian Wilson. There's loads of music that I love and that probably means more to me than "total pop", records made by artists both more unassuming yet in some ways more narcissistically self-absorbed and idiosyncratic. But there's no denying the special charge that imbues music when it's made by people who know they're making history, who can be confident they're taking it out onto the largest stage available.

 In the Sixties there was a long moment where the best pop (in terms of constantly pushing forward and sheer musical quality) was also the best-selling: Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, Byrds, Dylan, Beach Boys, Doors. (There's really only a few exceptions: Love, Velvet Underground). Aesthetic ambition and commercial ambition were indivisible. This folk-memory of this ideal persisted long after it ceased to apply, inspiring everyone from Bowie and Roxy to the major punk bands to the likes of U2, Bjork, Radiohead. 

But over the last couple of decades the two kinds of ambition have come to seem more and more tenuously connected, to the point where a phenomenon like the Beatles seems almost implausible, a fluke. 

 My dad had this maxim, something like: aim for the top, because if you fall short, you'll at least reach higher than if you'd aimed for the middle and fallen short of that. It's not completely true: o'er vaulting ambition can result in "EPIC FAIL", whereas a shrewd strategy of modest aspiration might lead to steady sustained successes. Still, remembering this motto led me to this thought: if you want to do great work in music or any art form, just as important as talent or imagination is the desire to be great. You might have the most refined melodic gift, the subtlest musical mind, but if you don't have that will-to-power, the balls and the gall… 

Certain bands only make sense at the top of the pop world: Springsteen and U2 were made to work in widescreen, to issue the most sweeping, speaking-for-Everyman statements. "Overbearing", "bombastic": the insults are merely the measure of their achievement, and nobody can take away those moments when they mattered (Born To Run, then again Born in the U.S.A., for Bruce; the majestic sequence from "Pride" to "Streets Have No Name", for Bono and Co). 

 Of course, there are artists who have the temperament of the world-historical genius but who don't actually have anything worth saying. Jim Steinman, the fevered brain behind Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell, Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart", and Celine Dion's "It's All Coming Back To Me Now", exemplifies this syndrome. Steinman is far from deficient in the will-to-greatness: he's got an unbridled flair for the grandiose, plus the requisite perfectionist streak (he's been known to spend huge amounts of his own private money on projects when the original budget's run out). Unfortunately his ambition is not accompanied by the filter of taste, to put it mildly. 

 Talking of finances, the rise over the last decade or two of home studios and digital audio workstations, has meant that it's possible for artists to make massive-sounding and expensive-seeming albums for a fraction of what it once cost. It's much cheaper and easier to create the illusion of luxuriant orchestration or to pull off ear-boggling sonic trickery of the kind that would have taken days of intricate labour by George Martin and Abbey Road's white-coated technicians. Artistic ambition, in the old days, had to go hand in hand with commercial ambition, just to pay off the bills. Nowadays the two kinds of aspiration have become severed. The Colossal Sounding, Colossally Ambitious Album is today a sort of specialist subgenre of rock, purveyed by groups like Flaming Lips. 

And not just rock: take Erykah Badu, who renovates the tradition of politically engaged, autobiographically personal "progressive soul" masterpieces by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, and Marvin Gaye. Her vastly ambitious New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) sold pretty well but it could never hope to achieve the mass cultural impact of Songs In the Key of Life or What's Goin' On. These are different times and Badu, like her buddies The Roots and Common, is catering for a niche market of historically-informed cognoscenti who still listen out for that kind of takes-the-measure-of-the-zeitgeist Epic.

 Although a singer, Badu regards herself part of hip hop. Surprisingly, given its sketchy record with the Album, rap has been one of the main places this decade where commercial ambition and artistic ambition have remained tightly entwined, with performers like Outkast, Jay-Z and Kanye West putting out sonically adventurous, alternately self-glorifying and socially-conscious albums that sold in huge numbers. It stands to reason that rap is richly endowed with "the will to be great" because the genre is all about self-aggrandisement. What LL Cool J called "talking on myself" still defines the art's core: MCs exalt their own ability to dominate and defeat the competition, finding the most vivid, witty, unique and creatively brutal ways of describing their prowess. 

 Rap expresses and exposes the ugly side of pop's ambition: its profoundly inegalitarian streak, a drive towards status, glory, preeminence. The aspiration to greatness often comes with a certain monstrousness of personality. Look at Morrissey. Pop stardom was always, he frankly admitted, a form of revenge exacted on the world for his outcast adolescence. But when society's "mis-shapes" (to use Jarvis Cocker's term) become stars, the result can be unsightly. The retaliatory narcissism of early Smiths lyrics ("the sun shines out of our behinds", "England owes me a living") is one thing when the singer is a skinny wisp only a few years out of obscurity. But from a fifty year old pop institution with the build of a bouncer, striding across arena stages and tossing the microphone cord with lordly disdain, it starts to look like any old showbiz prima donna. 

 Rap has its own Morrissey in Kanye West. I never used to understand hip hop fans complaining about his monster ego (this is rap, what did you expect guys?). But after the bloated self-pity of much of 808s & Heartbreak and his disruption of the MTV Video Awards, I'm starting to see their point. 

 The supreme case of the will-to-be-great turning rancid is Michael Jackson, of course. Around the point he started calling himself (and insisting on being called) the King of Pop, Jackson 's output shifted from "total pop" to "totalitarian kitsch": the nine gigantic statues of MJ as a Dictator built at his requirement by Sony and installed in European cities to promote 1995's HIStory: Past, Present & Future, Book 1, the fascistic promo film for that record with Jackson in full Khadaffi-style regalia amid hundreds of soldiers. Think too of the Versailles-like indulgence and corruption of Neverland, and that peculiar quasi-dynastic marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, daughter of the King. When pop stars try to externalize the grandeur inside their music, to make reality match up to its utopian absoluteness, the results can be grotesque, a tragic-comical catastrophe of nouveau-riche kitsch. 

Thursday, April 15, 2021

ACEN - Trip to the Moon 2092


Trip To The Moon 2092


The Wire, February 2021

by Simon Reynolds

There are many examples of box sets that collate all of an artist’s singles, complete with the original picture sleeves. But I’ve never before encountered a box dedicated to a single single. If ever there was a tune that could withstand this degree of inflation, though, it’s “Trip II the Moon”. Not only is this breakbeat hardcore classic widely considered the greatest anthem of the rave era,  there was already a certain grandiosity to the way Acen and his original label Production House rolled out the track across the summer of 1992.

The record came out in three successive versions, the second and third not so much remixed as re-produced: “Trip II the Moon, Part 1”, “Trip II The Moon, Part 2 (The Darkside),”  “Trip II The Moon (Kaleidoscopiklimax).”  Giving remixes, when done by the original artist, titles that involved words like “Part” or “Volume” would become a hallmark of the jungle scene. Most likely this trend took inspiration from Hollywood pulp franchises with their sequels, itself an echo of the sprawling sagas of Tolkienesque fantasy and Frank Herbert-style s.f.  But in ‘92, a track that came out three times over several months was virtually unheard of.  A sales-driving strategy designed to extend a tune’s currency and possibly rocket it into the pop charts, it also reflected artistic ambition: a growing confidence from some operators within a scene then sniffed at by techno-cognoscenti that they were not in the business of trashy, ephemeral floor-fodder but crafting popular art that would pass the test of time.

And here we are in 2021, almost three decades later, the original “Trip”tych  A-sides plus excellent B-sides arrayed across six slabs of vinyl, where they jostle alongside new interpretations by Acen and nine guest remixers. The box title’s reference to “2092” gestures at a posterity even further down the temporal line. “2092”  suggests both aesthetic durability and the implication that this music comes from the future. A sensation that felt absolutely real back in the early ‘90s and still somehow clings to these tempestuous tracks even now. 

The sheer solidity of the attractive if pricy box is a demonstration of maximal respect. “Maximal”, as it happens, is the right word for Acen’s sound and peers like Hyper-On Experience.  Before hardcore, and indeed after it during the later Nineties, techno and house generally cleaved to a minimalist aesthetic, sometimes taking a single riff or vamp and inflecting it subtly over five, six, seven minutes. UK rave producers, conversely, “get busy”, action-packing their tracks on both on the linear axis and the vertical.  Tracks unfold through time as multi-segmented epics hurtling through bridges and breakdowns, intros and outros. But each passing moment is layered with simultaneous sound-events, resulting in a stereo-field infested with audio-critters bouncing around like in some crazily detailed animation.

Listening again to all three “Trips” is a reminder of just how unique and curious an animal was hardcore. There’s hardly a trace of Detroit or Chicago audible here. Most UK producers, including West Londoner Acen Razvi, were former B-boys, electro fans who spent their teen years breakdancing and spraying graffiti. Acid house (and attendant chemicals) flipped their heads, but soon they reverted to type.  But while breaks and samples are the foundation, hardcore’s hyperactivity is a world away from ‘90s rap like Wu Tang Clan. No British rave producer would drag out a single break-loop across six sombre minutes of stoned monotony like RZA. There are hardcore tracks from this era that that contain a rap album’s worth of ideas crammed into them.

One thing hardcore did share with East Coast hip hop is soundtrackism. The centrepiece sample in “Part 1” is an impossibly stirring swathe of orchestration from “Capsules in Space” off John Barry’s You Only Live Twice score; “Part 2” likewise lifts a serene ripple of strings from the same Bond movie’s “Mountains and Sunrises”. Actually, that’s not quite accurate: the copyright holders blocked sample clearance, obliging Production House to hire a mini-orchestra to replay Barry’s themes, which Acen then sampled at a low-resolution setting to recreate the particular grainy quality he’d earlier got by sampling direct from vinyl. The fetish for movie-scores manifests also on the brilliant B-side “The Life and Crimes of A Ruffneck,” which heists the heart-spasming staccato melody of Morricone’s “Chi Mai.” 

Other raw ingredients come mostly from rap, R&B, and ragga: Rakim’s sped-up squeak “I get hype when I hear a drum roll,” Chuck D’s threat/promise “here come the drums,” Topcat boasting he’s “phenomenon one”.  The electrifying diva shriek “I can’t believe these feelings” that supplies the main vocal hook on “Trip” hails from obscure Britsoul outfit Tongue N Cheek, while Prince protégé Jill Jones supplies erotic gasps for another terrific B-side, “Obsessed”.  As for that eerily familiar goblin voice  murmuring “in my brain” – that’s a witty bit of self-citation, pulling from Acen’s previous single “Close Your Eyes”, which sampled Jim Morrison off The Doors’s “Go Insane.”

Nowadays, it’s easy to identify the constituent parts of beloved tunes thanks to websites like and the collective nerd knowledge of old skool message boards. But back in the day, the music barraged your brain as a kinetic collage jumbling the instantly recognizable, the faintly familiar, and the wholly unknown. (Whether you spotted stuff depended also on your listener competency – age, musical background, level of intoxication). Hardcore was technically postmodern, in its procedures. But as a sonic outcome, and in terms of motivating spirit, it hit with the juddering force of full-bore modernism. The conceit felt true: this was music from the future, built from mutilated and mutated shards of past.  That’s one reason why the idea of the space race –  Man’s greatest adventure, a surge into the unknown – resonated with rave and supplied Acen not just with the “Moon” title but the name of his next single, “Window in the Sky”. Drugs played a part too (understatement of the century). Rave was modernist but it was also psychedelic.

If the main meat here is Acen’s extended spurt of original genius, the remixes are mostly splendid. Kniteforce boss Chris Howlett a.k.a. Luna-C and old school legend NRG manage to stay true to yet also intensify the original “Trip” blend of cinematic and epileptic. Retro-jungle youngblood Pete Cannon offers a pell-mell scratchadelic take on “Ruffneck”.  The only misfire comes from doyen of scientific drum & bass Dbridge.   If only he could have reinhabited the mindset of his own teenage hardcore identity The Sewer Monsters! Instead,  “Obsessed” gets flattened into a dank neurofunk furrow a la Jonny L’s “Piper”. It sounds obsessive, for sure, but the emphasis on sound-design and moody monotony has nothing to do with the larcenous free-for-all and cartoon delirium of the early ‘90s.

Q + A with Acen at The Wire website.