Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Ambient - the Buzzword of 1993

Ambient - the Buzzword of '93

Melody Maker, Christmas 1993

by Simon Reynolds

Aphex Twin's "Selected Ambient Works 1985-92" wasn't just the most sheerly beautiful album of '93, it was also the most significant. It signaled a Zeitgeist-shift, pointing the way to a whole new future.  First, by being so brilliant, it gave credibility to the then emergent genre of ambient techno (a.k.a intelligent techno, electronic listening music etc). It singlehandedly won over many indie fans who hadn't really listened to much techno, thus encouraging them to seek out more.  Second, it's had a profound effect on the more progressive elements in British indie-rock, the results of which will really BLOSSOM next year.  The fact that bands as diverse as Curve, Jesus Jones, Saint Etienne and Seefeel rushed to submit their songs to Richard James' remix-mutilation showed how keen the smarter indie popsters are to get in on the NEW THING.

     "Selected Ambient" and James' other releases (Polygon Window's "Surfing On Sine Waves", AFX's "Analogue Bubblebath 3" etc) weren't the only proof that techno has matured into an aesthetically (and commercially) viable album-based genre.  There were splendid offerings from Sandoz, Orbital, Bandulu, Reload, Black Dog, Pete Namlook, Mixmaster Morris and more.  But inevitably, the ambient boom has also opened the floodgates for a deluge of mediocre spliff-and-sofa muzak (B12, Sven Vath and droves more Vangelis-with-a-beat types).  Another dubious development was 'ambient dub': sometimes wonderfully spacey (Higher Intelligence Agency, Original Rockers), more often vaporously insipid sub-Orb stuff.  Like trance, ambient techno has reached something of a dead end; hopefully the sharper operators will step sideways into more interesting territory.  Aphex Twin's long-awaited sequel "Selected Ambient Works 2" - a double-CD of sombre minimalism and music concrete sound-paintings -will blow a lot of the competition out of the water.

     As for the indie avant-garde, 'ambient' is useful as a loose umbrella term for any band that deploys the studio-as-instrument and sampling in order to imagine some kind of FUTURE for rock (one that doesn't rely on blues-rock riffs, glam postures or punky-pop choruses).  Perhaps the most techno-affiliated of these bands were Insides and Seefeel (who actually linked up with Aphex on the sublime "pure, impure" EP).  Both bands demote the guitar to just another iridescent thread in their swoony tapestry of sampled and sequenced sound.  Disco Inferno ditched their axes for samplers, while the art/cosmic rock of Bark Psychosis and Papa Sprain is also ambient-tinged.  On two superb 1993 LP's, "Space Age Bachelor Pad Music" and "Transient Random Noise Bursts", Stereolab explored the unlikely links between early 60's muzak and late 60's drone-rock (Velvets, La Monte Young).  The 'Lab also imagined 'impossible' but desirable genres like "Avant-Garde MOR" and "John Cage Bubblegum".  

Other bands took Eno's legacy in a chilling, as opposed to chill-out, direction. This "isolationist music" or "uneasy listening" ranges from Ice and Scorn's post-apocalyptic dub-metal, to Main and Thomas Koner's lustrous, meditational soundscapes.

     The upshot of all this is that British avant-rock and left-field dance are coalescing into a single, seamless vanguard of progressive music.  The zone in which they commingle is the fertile hinterland between the dreampop of MBV, A.R. Kane and 4AD (so many techno artists cite the Cocteaus as an influence!), the Kraftwerk/Detroit/Warp techno lineage, and dub reggae's echo-drenched expanses.  The resultant halcyon, herbalistic sound is the fulfilment of Erik Satie's fantasy of "furniture music": sound that enhances and tints your life like a fragrance.

     "Ambient" is the rallying cry of those in revolt against two different kinds of 'hardcore'. For indie-rockers, it's a revolt against grunge (hardcore punk gone metallic and bluesy); for techno- heads, it's a revolt against 'ardkore's manic frenzy.  After the false start of 1991's ambient house craze, chill-out clubs and events made a comeback this year, thanks to outfits like London's Open Mind. The latter are responsible for the 'Telepathic Fish' parties: "massive bedrooms", strewn with mattresses and bathed in wombing lights, where burned-out ravers recline, spliff up and mellow out. Open Mind's DJ's mix Irresistible Force and Pete Namlook with Main and Dead Can Dance.  Where grunge offers crude catharsis and ardkore ravers find release through going mental at the weekend, the ambient response to our increasingly grim, anxiety-wracked world is to seek refuge in a sacro-sanctuary of sensuously spiritual sound.  Ambient caresses where grunge/ardkore concusses.  (That said, one of the most interesting developments of late '93 was 'ambient ardkore', bands like Metalheads and Foul Play who fuse jungle beats and langorous textures to bizarrely beatific effect.)

   Yes, it's all a bit hippy. Is ambient the final death of punk? Does quiet music = quietist politics (Stereolab would say no).  Given given the choice between Rage Against The Machine and soft-machine-music, though, there's only one response: BLISS ON!

Friday, May 7, 2021

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. 

Sunday, April 11, 2021

the king of grunge (DMX, RIP)

"...As superthugs go, DMX is the most interesting, because he doesn't glamorize the gangsta lifestyle. Produced by Ruff Ryders chief soundboy Swizz Beatz, "One More Road To Cross" has the accursed, burdened heft of Blacks Sabbath and Flag--a perfect fit for DMX's stoic description of a carefully planned liquor store heist that goes bloodily wrong. "The Professional" is a bleak glimpse into the mind of a hired assassin ("Shit ain't go too well/THAT'S MY LIFE/Know I'm going to hell/THAT'S MY LIFE") while the betrayal-and-retribution themed "Here We Go Again" starts with the insuperably fatigued murmur "Same old shit, dog/Just a different day". This vision of thug life as agony, repetition, and endurance is communicated as much through DMX's hoarse rasping timbre (pure Ozzy/Rollins) and his flow (alternating between pay-close-attention-this-is-hard-earned-knowledge-I'm-sharing slow to rapid-fire blurts like he's got too much pain to cram into the rhyme-scheme's stanzas.)"

[from a review of  And Then There Was X alongside records by Jay-Z, The Lox, Juvenile)

WE ARE FAMILY: the Rise of the Rap Clans and the Hip Hop Dynasty

director's cut, New York TimesMarch 12 2000

by Simon Reynolds


When rapper DMX accepted a trophy at the Billboard Music Awards last year, he took the stage flanked by a squad of fellow artists from the Ruff Ryders label. It's hard to imagine anyone in rock doing this---Trent Reznor, say, menacingly surrounded  by the roster of his label Nothing. But in hip hop, such shows of collective strength are growing more common, as  rap labels increasingly style themselves as families. Like the mafia families whose Hollywood mythology has so influenced gangsta rap,  these labels compete to dominate the lucrative hip hop market, and in this symbolic war of clan against clan, loyalty is exalted as the supreme value.

 The two biggest forces in contemporary rap, the Yonkers-based Ruff Ryders and the New Orleans label Cash Money, both ferociously project a sense of clan identity, through logo-based regalia and unity-themed songs and album titles such as "I'm A Ruff Ryder", "Ruff Ryder's Anthem", Eve's Ruff Ryders's First Lady, and  "Cash Money Is an Army". Cash Money also has a supergroup, Hot Boys, composed of the label's biggest solo stars---Juvenile, B.G., and Lil Wayne.  As it happens, both labels are literally family businesses: Ruff Ryders was started by the brothers-and-sister team of Darrin, Joaquin and Chivon Dean, while Cash Money was founded by brothers Ron and Brian Williams. As if in recognition of their similar ethos, the two labels have joined forces for a massive rap tour currently crossing the USA.

 Although crews, cliques and posses have always been part of hip hop lore, rap's dominant lyrical mode has hitherto been first person singular.  But in the last year or so, ego has been eclipsed by what you might call "wego," the collective triumphalism of Ruff Ryders's "We In Here" or Hot Boys's "We On Fire". In the wake of Cash Money and Ruff Ryders's success, other labels are presenting themselves as families or Cosa Nostra-style syndicates. "You Are About To Witness A Dynasty Like No Other" proclaims the sticker on Jay-Z's new album, referring to his Roc-A-Fella label's proteges Beanie Siegel, Memphis Bleek, and Amil, while Murder Inc. has combined its roster into the Hot Boys-style supergroup The Murderers.

The idea of the rap group as a blood-brotherhood was pioneered in the mid-Nineties by the Wu-Tang Clan, the ten-strong band of MCs centered around producer the RZA. While the lyrics and cover art self-mythologized the group as warrior priests wielding arcane knowledge and encrypted language as weapons against power, the Wu-Tang Clan simultaneously operated as a shrewd entertainment corporation, signing its members to solo deals with different record companies and diversifying into all manner of Wu-branded merchandizing offshoots: clothing, a comic book, a website, the video-game Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style.  So iconic was the Clan's logo at the group's 1997 height of prestige and popularity that rap paper The Source could feel secure about using it as their cover image, rather than a recognizable celebrity face.

Wu-Tang's branding strategy was taken further still by Master P.'s label  No Limit, whose assembly-line turnover of releases all have  instantly recognisable cover art (garishly hyper-real "ghetto fabulous" tableaux created by design team Pen & Pixel) to match the identikit  New Orleans gangsta sound of the records.  Ironically, the Pen & Pixel look has been appropriated by countless second-division hardcore rap labels, hoping to get accidental sales from fans picking up unheard what they assume is a debut from the latest recruit to the "No Limit army". Master P. also goes in for diversification in a big way, building a business empire reputedly worth $361 million through No Limits toys, clothing, and a series of inexpensively made straight-to-video movies.

Influenced by Master P.'s acumen, Cash Money and Ruff Ryders have their own movies in production. And both labels have imitated No Limit's strategy of market saturation and hitting while you're hot. DMX has released three albums in barely more than eighteen months, and the first two months of 2000 has seen a flurry of Ruff Ryders debuts from The Lox and Drag-On, with a new Swizz Beatz compilation and Lox-man Jadakiss's own solo album soon to follow.

 Ruff Ryders and Cash Money have built their empires using techniques that are now a predictable procedures in the rap business. Reinforcing the all-for-one, one-for-all clan image, rappers from the same roster guest on each other's tracks; new artists are introduced to the public through cameo appearances in the single/video by the label's established stars. Cash Money have taken this twin strategy of cross-promotion and artist-development to the furthest extreme. Other rap artists will feature R&B singers or big-name rappers from other labels on their tracks in order to add more-stars-for-your-money sales appeal. But Cash Money's tracks never feature outsiders---the "guests" are always only other Cash Money artists.

 Still, it would be incorrect to suggest that hip hop's family values are just an ideological gloss for business realpolitik. The family is basically a microcosm of socialism, based around the same ideals like sharing, altruism, and self-sacrifice for the greater good.   Effectively, the rap clan works an  enclave of collectivism within capitalism's rapacious cut-throat competition, and as such it offers solace  and security in what would otherwise be a desolate moral and emotional void. Ruff Ryders's catchphrase  "Ryde or die" divides the world into a starkly opposed them and us: people you'd kill versus people you'd kill for/die for/ride into battle alongside. Taken from a "blacksploitation"-era cowboy movie, the name Ruff Ryders recalls the going-out-in-a-blaze-of-glory romanticism of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch.

Lyrically, DMX avoids two of gangsta rap's staples---flaunting wealth and abusing women-- to focus almost exclusively on loyalty, betrayal, and retribution. His yearning for a surrogate family is expressed through an obsession with dogs strikingly different from the incorrigibly lecherous canine persona adopted by George Clinton circa "Atomic Dog". DMX's use of the term "dog" to refer to himself and his clique stems from admiration for the way wild dogs run in packs and domesticated dogs give their owner's unconditional love. In song after song, DMX insists "I will die for my dogs". He imagines this canine fraternity becoming a kind of pedigreed dynasty: "My dogs, the beginning of this bloodline of mine".

DMX's doom-and-gloomy imagery--album titles like It's Dark and Hell Is Hot, songs like "The Omen"-- has as much in common with angst-wracked industrial and heavy metal artists such as Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and Korn as with other rappers. A crucial aspect of his Gothic imagery is what the philosopher Michel Foucault called "the Medieval symbolics of blood", as seen in the title of DMX's second album Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. Thicker than water but easily spilled,  "blood"  is a highly charged word in DMX's  vocabulary. Its  ambivalence condenses gangsta rap's violently polarized emotions, the way it's forever oscillating between love and hate, loyalty and skullduggery, unity and dog-eat-dog struggle.

Gangsta rappers have found a reflection of these hot-blooded passions in Hollywood's Mafia films, whose families disregard the broader society's morality and instead cleave to a privatized morality: a neo-Medieval ethics of loyalty and revenge that operates only in the domain of  kith and kin, plus bondsmen unrelated by blood but who have sworn fealty to the clan. With its code of honor among villains and its family structure, the idea of the Mafia  resonates with hardcore  rap partly because of the way it maps onto the street realities of gangs and turf wars.  But it's also because the idea of family offers a kind of unity that seems more tangible and grounded than allegiance either to the abstract, remote and problematic entity known as the United States of America, or any of the various forms of African-American nationalism. In rap, patriotism contracts to the compact and plausible dimensions of a clique, and usually one tied to a place---a project (like Cash Money's Magnolia neighbourhood in New Orleans), a borough, or at its most expansive, a city. As well being expressed territorially, loyalty is increasingly registered in quasi-genetic imagery--the family, the clan, the dynasty. [DMX would start a label called Bloodline Records]

The cinematic representation of Mafia history in films like The Godfather and Goodfellas often involves an ultimately fatal tension between family loyalty and business logic, as Medieval values imported from Sicily collide with American capitalism.  Clan elders are disrespected, bad blood sets brother against brother, rival families feud and go to war,  because conflicts arise over the new market opportunities represented by  drugs. In rap too there's a tension between the rhetoric of "til death do us part" fealty and the provisional, contractual reality of business relationships. Although The Lox were originally members of the Ruff Ryders milieu, the trio eagerly became henchmen of Puff Daddy, who signed the group to his Bad Boy label, altered their name (originally the Warlocks), persuaded them to tone down their hardcore street style, and coached them in writing radio-friendly songs. But when their debut album for Bad Boy failed to make them rich, the Lox defected, re-plighting their troth to Ruff Ryders, and releasing the  ghettocentric We Are The Streets this January. Other examples of rappers shifting allegiances between different labels/cliques include ex-Death Row artist Snoop Dogg signing on as a No Limit soldier and Eve originally being a protege of Dr. Dre's Aftermath label before affiliating to Ruff Ryders. All this suggests that rap operates less like feuding clans and more like another lucrative entertainment industry based around symbolic warfare, sports--where top players are hired guns and transfer their loyalties at the drop of a check.

Still, for some at least, the thick-like-blood rhetoric is for real. DMX, in particular, regards loyalty as a transcendent value. In a hyper-capitalistic world where market forces tear asunder all forms of solidarity and everybody has their price , he claims: "They do it for the dough/Me I do it for the love". In a skit on his third chart-topping album ... And Then There Was X, an unidentified hanger-on declares he'll do anything to get the money he desperately needs. DMX issues a stern reprimand: "Dog, you got to think about loyalty first, know wha' I'm saying? You got loyalty, money will come.  You got a lot to learn."

Sunday, April 4, 2021



Head On 


Spin, January 2000

by Simon Reynolds

Head On is a twisted, tripped-out  brother to Les Rhythmes Digitales Eighties-

influenced Darkdancer. But  where Jacques LeCont's fond exhumations of Shannon and

Nik Kershaw are typical French retro-kitsch, Super_Collider  treat Eighties electro-funk as

a prematurely curtailed modernism. This English duo (producer Cristian

Vogel and singer Jamie Lidell) pick up where Zapp's "More Bounce To The Ounce",

George Clinton's "Atomic Dog," and Janet Jackson/Jam & Lewis's "Nasty" left off.  This 

era of  dance music just before sampling totally took over fascinates because of its crush

collision between trad musicianship and futurism:  you can hear the players struggling to

extract funk from unwieldly and unyielding drum machines, sequencers and synths.  Hence the apparent paradox whereby  the best Eighties dancepop still sounds amazingly modern  while much contemporary dance music sounds retro--because today's producers get their funk by

proxy, through sampling Seventies sources like vintage disco loops or jazz-funk licks.

Head On  gets me flashing on the boogie wonderland of the post-disco, pre-house

interregnum--the bulbous synth-bass and juicy-fruit keyboard licks of Gap Band, Steve

Arrington, Man Parrish, D-Train, SOS Band. But as you'd expect from someone who

records solo for avant-techno labels Mille Plateaux and Tresor, Vogel's version of

bodymusic is decidedly mangled and alienated-sounding, while Lidell croons a kind of 

cyborg hypersoul--grotesquely mannered,  FX-warped, yet queerly compelling. 

Head On's highlight  "Darn (Cold Way O' Lovin')"  has a groove that bucks and writhes like a rutting

hippotamus. "Take Me Home"  is robo-Cameo, featuring a digitized equivalent of slap-bass

and Lidell's most blackface  warbling (imagine a bionic Steve Winwood). And "Alchemical

Confession" is the kind of black rock I always hoped Tackhead or Material would deliver,

all acrid guitar squalls and Lidell flailing like Jamiroquai in a meatgrinder (now that's

something I'd pay to see).  

A few years ago, Vogel  released  an EP called "We Equate Machines With

Funkiness". Funk has always existed in the biomechanical zone between

James Brown aspiring to be a sex-machine and Kraftwerk finding the libidinous pulse

within the strict-time rhythms of automobiles and trains. When a band's playing has too much

fluency and human feel, you don't get the  tensile friction that defines da  funk (which is why an excess of

jazz influence sounds the death-knell for any dance genre's ass-grind appeal).  Super_Collider,

though, have a perfect grasp on funk's uncanny merger of supple and stiff, loose and tight. 

Sunday, March 28, 2021

RIP Malcolm Cecil (Synthedelia)

Synthedelia: Psychotronic Music of the American Sixties

director's cut, RBMA Daily, May 2, 2018

by Simon Reynolds

“Rock’n’roll is electronic music - because if you pull the plug, it stops.”

So says Louis "Cork" Marcheschi of Fifty Foot Hose, whose one-and-only album Cauldron – a pioneering collision of abstract electronics and psychedelic rock originally released in 1967 – was reissued for the first time on vinyl towards the end of last year.

Cork’s remark is a reissue too, in a way. He originally made that assertion early in ’67 when he and guitarist David Blossom were drunkenly hatching the idea for Fifty Foot Hose: a rock group that “really incorporated the concepts of electronic music not as sound effects but as a substantive part of the music”.

Fifty Foot Hose weren’t the only Sixties rockers who had this light bulb moment. Although none of these bands fraternized and were largely unaware of each other’s existence, you could group Fifty Foot Hose among a confederacy of acid-era bands who embraced synthesizers and musique concrète’s tape-manipulation techniques.  Silver Apples and United States of America have been cult groups for a long while, but there’s also lesser-known exponents such as the Canadian trio Syrinx (and its avant-garde precursor Intersystems), Lothar and the Hand People, Beaver & Krause, and Tonto’s Expanding Head Band.

Since retroactively invented genres are all the rage these days (nobody at the time talked about minimal synth, or freakbeat, or junkshop glam, or ...) it’s tempting to attempt a coinage. Synthedelia, anybody?

So what defines this quasi-genre? First, all the groups are from North America.  Second, the shared approach to electronics was abstract and sound-painterly, rather than the later prog-rock tendency to use synths as glorified organs  unfurling frilly arpeggios; indeed, in several cases, the group’s made their own unique electronic noise-making devices, rather than use the early modular synths like the Moog and the Buchla.  Third, most of these outfits had a direct connection to the Sixties avant-garde, with one foot planted in psychedelic rock and the other either in the realm of academic composition or in the Fluxus-style underground of multi-media happenings.

Fourth and finally, nearly all of these groups released just one or two albums before dispersing. Unlike in Europe, where synths were incorporated into progressive music and long careers in electronic trance-rock were spawned, the innovations of Fifty Foot Hose, Silver Apples and the rest simply didn’t take in the American musical soil. None of the synthedelic groups became a U.S. counterpart to Tangerine Dream or Kraftwerk. That means that their records survive as curios time-stamped with period charm, but also as heralds of a future that never came. 


For Cork from Fifty Foot Hose, his electronic odyssey began aged seventeen when his girlfriend played him Edgard Varèse’s “Poème électronique” on the family’s high-end hi-fi. “We were lying there on the carpet in front of a very large cabinet speaker stereo system,” Cork recalls of this initiation, which took place in his Bay Area suburban hometown of Burlingame in 1962.  “I had Jeannie run through the piece two or three times because I could feel it more than hear it.  I could actually see the sounds - I’ve always thought of “Poème électronique” as an audio sculpture.”

Even more mind-blowing was the 16mm movie that Jeannie’s father – an engineer infatuated with the latest gadgets – had made of the family’s visit to the Philips Pavilion, a jaggedly futuristic construction at the 1958 World Fair in Brussels. Sponsored by the electronics giant Philips, this collaboration between Varèse, fledgling composer Xenakis, modernist architect Le Corbusier, and film maker Philippe Agostini was a temporary temple to the 20th Century gods of science and technology. The Pavilion was designed as an immersive audio-visual experience: “Poème électronique" and Xenakis's "Concrete PH" were fed through 325 small speakers distributed throughout the building, while a series of sombre photographic stills chronicled Mankind’s journey from prehistoric tribes to the nuclear mushroom cloud. “The whole thing turned me on to what art could be,” says Cork now. This audio-visual double whammy propelled him not just towards his electronic rock experiments with Fifty Foot Hose but into a passion for kinetic art, as pioneered by Jean Tinguely, Vassilakis Takis,  Len Lye, and others.   Ultimately this would overtake his musical interests completely, resulting in a successful career as a kinetic sculptor.

 The rock half of the Fifty Foot Hose equation came from another profoundly formative experience, when as a young boy he witnessed the fervour of an all-black Baptist Church. “That church, it felt like it was ready to explode –  they had a drummer, a Hammond B3 organ, tambourines and a choir, and they were just rocking out.  The hairs stood up on the back of my neck.” This rhythm-and-blues baptism sent him in search of records that had the same “mesmerizing effect” and then made him want to make the electrifying music himself.

By the mid-Sixties Cork was the bassist in a band earning a good living playing five nights a week at Bay Area clubs and that then graduated to the big time at Las Vegas nightspots such as El Rancho and the Pussycat A Go Go. But it was during a stint in Stephanie and Her Boyfriends (a vanity project built around the daughter of a prominent figure in the musician’s union) that Cork met guitarist David Blossom.  After a gig, over several beers, they conceived the idea of a band that fused rock and the ideas of the post-WW2 musical vanguard. “I was telling David about George Antheil, Varèse, John Cage.”

The core of Fifty Foot Hose was Cork, Blossom, and the latter’s wife Nancy, a singer whose background – folk and the great American songbook of show tunes - supplied a piercingly pure vocal presence akin to Grace Slick’s in Jefferson Airplane.  Much of Cauldron does sound like the San Francisco acid rock sound as purveyed by the Airplane, Country Joe & the Fish, and others. But there’s an extra mind-bending hallucinatory element in the mix: swoops and smears of abstract electronic sound. Unlike with most early deployments of synthesizers in rock, Cork’s squeaks and bubblings weren’t decorative overlays, they churned right in the thick of the jam.   “Because I’d been playing with musicians for years, it was very easy to just drop into the music – to hear what’s being played and participate with it, not just sprinkle chocolate jimmies on the top.”

Although various established rock bands were getting access to the early modular synthesisers, Fifty Foot Hose built their own sound-generating contraptions. Cork says that wasn’t because they were young unknowns with few resources and no connections, but a conscious choice: “We had the opportunity to use the Moog or the Buchla, but David and I just decided not to – we didn’t want to use somebody else’s instrument.” Instead they built a nameless assemblage that “looked like a coffin – a-six foot-long plywood box with three audio generators screwed into it. Built into the surface was a thing we called the Squeaky Box, because it sounded like you were torturing mice. And there were several sirens, whose wires we’d moved around until they ended up being like ring modulators - dirty ring modulators. We would run one thing into the next into the next into the next, and then put the signal through this beautiful Swiss-engineered tape-loop reverb unit called the Echolette and out into the audience.”

Fifty Foot Hose’s noise-making arsenal also included a Theremin and “a cardboard tube that was twelve feet long that we mic’ed and used to beat with drum sticks.”   Blossom’s Gretsch Viking guitar was also sonically augmented, using components bought at Radio Shack and eased under the guitar’s pick guard. “There was a grounding screw that, when David hit it, would pick up incoming airplanes at San Francisco International Airport! Sometimes in the middle of a song he’d put his finger on the screw and you’d hear pilots talking back and forth or the people at the Control laughing.”

Live, an array of visual gimmicks intensified the disorientation for audiences.  Cork used an electric grinder to shoot sparks into the audience. He’d fill an upside-down, heavy-duty speaker with ball bearings that would trampoline off the vibrating diaphragm, vault five inches into the air, and seem to “freeze” when caught in the flicker of a strobe light. A regular stage stunt involved a photographer’s dark-room clock that would be triggered for one minute, during which the band would instantly stop playing and engage in random surrealistic acts before  restarting the song in perfect time when the minute was up. “Christ, that would confuse people!”

During the acid-rock gold rush of 1967, major labels swooped into San Francisco and signed everything that moved.  Limelight, a jazz label in the process of transforming itself into a budget-priced home for the electronic avant-garde, scooped up Fifty Foot Hose.  Recorded at the Bay Area’s first eight-track studio, Cauldron combines acid-folk song-craft (Blossom’s glassy guitar and Nancy’s Slick-a-like vocals) with anything-goes experimentation. “We drilled a hole slightly off center on the tape machine, so when it recorded it wobbled. We’d slow things down with our thumbs. It was very physical and tactile.  But we’d also slip in some random radio distortion, using a FM receiver plugged into the mixing desk.”

Cauldron’s high point is the title track, a full-blown musique concrète soundscape, daubed with psychedelic word-salad from Nancy Blossom and “guest weeping” courtesy of some students from St Mary’s College, who happened to be visiting the studio with a view to renting it for their choir. “We just grabbed them and said ‘Would you girls mind crying and wailing like you’re witches behind a big cauldron like in Shakespeare?.’ Meanwhile I was bonging away on this big chrome ash tray.”   

Cauldron came out to bemused reviews. San Francisco pundit Ralph J. Gleason, for instance,  couldn’t decide whether Fifty Foot Hose were “immature or premature”:  years ahead of their time, or simply undeveloped. The lukewarm reception for the debut was one factor contributing to the group’s remarkably brief life-span: barely a year between conception and collapse. When the opportunity came for the Blossoms to join the cast of Hair, they jumped at it.  Cork, for his part, decided to finish graduate school, moved to Minneapolis to take up a teaching job, and threw his energy into a burgeoning career as a kinetic sculptor.


As Fifty Foot Hose petered out abruptly, the Toronto-based Intersystems were gearing up to release their third album in a little over a year: the satirically titled Free Psychedelic Poster Inside. Despite the substantial discography, Intersystems were not exactly a rock band. They were more like an experimental arts laboratory, in the business of building multi-media environments whose components included sound, poetry, kinetic sculpture and architecture. John Mills-Cockell, the Intersystems member largely responsible for the electro-sonic component of these “experiences”, would however go on to form Synrinx:  a trio whose two albums command an unique place in the synthedelic canon.  

Like Cork, Mills-Cockell underwent a Damascene moment with electronic music at a tender age. When he was fifteen, he spent some months in London, working in the music department of Harrods by day and immersing himself in the cultural riches offered by the city by night. It was during a concert at the Royal Albert Hall - part of the annual Proms series dedicated to classical music - that he first heard the new music being made using electronics and tape-editing. Not Karlheinze Stockhausen’s “Studie No. 1”, as advertised in the program, but a brief example of musique concrète substituted at the last minute because the Stockhausen recording hadn’t arrived from Germany.   Hugh LeCaine’s 1955 piece “Dripsody” – a gorgeous one-and-half-minute miniature sourced entirely in the sound of a single drop of water – blew Mills-Cockell’s mind. “When I heard it, I just went – ‘That’s what I want to do!” He was also struck by the fact that LeCaine was a Canadian composer. Ironically, Mills-Cockell had to travel across the Atlantic to discover the native avant-garde of his homeland.

Within a few years Mills-Cockell arrived at the University of Toronto to study under Myron Schaefer, the head of the electronic music department.  He also became involved in the development of an electronic composition syllabus at another Toronto music institution, the Royal Conservatory. Uniquely, this course was open to people who weren’t at the university. Among the members of the general public who joined the first class were three young men who would become collaborators with Mills-Cockell: Michael Hayden and Blake Parker, soon to be his accomplices in Intersystems, and Alan Wells, the future drummer in Syrinx.

 “Michael Hayden had been looking for someone to put poetry to these kinetic sculptures he’d been making, and he found Blake Parker. But the two of them wanted to go further in terms of techniques for recording the voice and incorporating electronics. So that’s why they signed up for this class at the Royal Conservatory.”  Hayden was then asked to contribute a presentation to a February 9, 1967 event at the University of Toronto called Perception 67. “Mike wanted to build – inside a large hall - a series of rooms that each had a different sensory quality to them.” He asked Mills-Cockell to record soundtracks, incorporating Parker’s spoken-word element, for each room. Dik Zander, the fourth member of what would become Intersystems, was recruited to help Hayden construct the rooms.

Mind Excursion, as the installation was titled, was like a psychedelia-era update of the Philips Pavilion, with a modish 1967-style emphasis on senses-activation and “total experience”. “The amount of press it generated was mind-blowing. Journalists loved it – it had a hook for them. At that point, the whole of idea of psychedelia was very hot.”  After this success, the four men formally took on the Intersystems name and created a series of happenings and environments. The culmination came eighteen months later in Montreal with the ambitious Mind Excursion Center. “It was a series of ten rooms, each of which had a lighting scheme and various fabrics and materials that created a tactile environment. One would be all carpet, another would be totally pitch black except for explosions of light. There was a water room, a chocolate room, and a room that was all mirrorized. Each room had a different soundtrack. And then Blake  recited this amazing futuristic soap opera poem – about the romance between two kids called Gordy and  René –  that tracked the action and the nature of each room.” 

During those eighteen months, Intersystems recorded three albums in rapid succession. For the 1967 debut, Number One Intersystems,we didn't have a synthesizer, so we built our own electronic instruments,” says Mills-Cockell.  Like Fifty Foot Hose, Intersystems constructed a large box shaped instrument, which they dubbed the Coffin. “It was this five-foot-long board with strings strung along that you could pluck and hit. There was a box lined with purple satin fabric and the board sat on that. Underneath the purple fabric were concealed switches that allowed us to switch the sound between different pickups along the board and out to different speakers in the hall where we were playing.”

By the second album, Peachy (also released in 1967) Mills-Cockell had got his hands on a Moog.  This would become his primary instrument going forward. Between the disintegration of Intersystems and the formation of Syrinx, he brought his intricately shaded style of Moog-play to two Canadian post-psychedelic rock groups, Hydro Electric Streetcar and Kensington Market. During the recording of the latter’s second album Aardvark, producer Felix Pappalardi (renowned for his work for Cream) spotted Mills-Cockell’s subtle way with a synth and offered to fund a solo album. When saxophonist Douglas Prindle and percussionist Alan Wells joined Mills-Cockell, the project turned into the 1970 self-titled debut album by Syrinx.

The name sounds like a mythological creature - a chimeric blend of the Greek oracles known as Sibyls and the Egyptian Sphinx, maybe. It does in fact come from Ancient fable: Syrinx is a nymph who ends up being turned into the pipes played by Pan (a legend that in turn inspired a composition by Debussy).  Other musically evocative meanings and applications include being the term for a songbird’s larynx and appearing as the name of an instrument in Samuel Delaney’s 1968 science-fiction novel Nova.  

The sound Mills-Cockell developed with Prindle and Wells is unlike anything else from the first decade of rock interactions with electronics: a sort of avant-garde chamber-pop whose  musky and piquant sourness of tone is steeped in non-Western influences. “Doug and Alan and I all loved listening to music from different parts of the world. Doug learned tabla and sitar, Alan was studying voodoo drumming. It was  part of our daily practice as musicians, so rather than trying to be exotic, it just came out of our pores.”  He explains how “Ibistix” – one of Syrinx’s best pieces, from 1971’s Long Lost Relatives – was written in a scale whose second note is flat, giving the track its “very Middle Eastern quality”.

The missing link between Tim Buckley’s jazzily diffuse ballads circa Lorca and the exquisite Eighties electro-calligraphy of Japan, the Syrinx sound so thoroughly bypasses the emerging cliches of synth-powered rock, you often forget that the Moog is the trio’s primary  instrument.   Prindle’s saxophone,  processed using an octave-doubler that created an effect like phasing,  also contributes to the non-rock feeling, as does the languid pitter of Wells’s percussion. 

Lacking a vocal focus, Syrinx were never going to be a chart-topping proposition, and nor would their low-key sound wow rock audiences at concert halls and arenas.  Nonetheless, both albums sold decently in Canada, boosted by the popularity of Long Lost Relatives’s “Tillicum,” which became a modest hit in the Canadian singles chart after featuring as the intro theme for Here Come The Seventies, a science documentary TV program.  Syrinx’s infiltration of the Canadian mainstream peaked with the live national broadcast of an orchestral adaption of “Stringspace”, a song-suite on Long Lost Relatives, done in collaboration with the Toronto Repertory Orchestra.

But after that triumph, the band were pulled in different directions. Mills-Cockell pursued a solo career with a series of Seventies albums that are lined up for reissue as the third instalment of “the JMC Retrospective”. That’s a nickname for the program of archival releases that started with a lavish Intersystems box-set (released in 2015 on the Alga Marghen label) and continued with RVNG Intl’s Syrinx anthology Tumblers from the Vault.

Although they never got beyond cult-level in their own time, Syrinx were admired by fellow musicians and people in the Canadian art world. There was a steady stream of invitations to work with dance troupes and score short films (including one starring the young David Cronenberg). Proof of their “musician’s musicians” status came following a catastrophe that befell the group during the recording of their second album. A studio fire destroyed not only the tapes of the work-in-progress but all the group’s equipment. The Toronto scene rallied around Syrinx, organising a benefit concert that raised thousands of dollar – enough to buy every member of the group new and superior instruments. Mills-Cockell replaced his melted and blackened Moog with an ARP 3500, “the newest kid on the block in terms of modular synths”.  Instead of being utterly crushed by the calamity, Syrinx were buoyed up and refreshed, and restarted the recording of what would be their definitive – yet sadly final – record, Long Lost Relatives.



The best known of the synthedelic groups, United States of America are a temporal paradox: ahead of their time and behind of their time, at the same time. The group’s founder Joseph Byrd was an avant-garde experimentalist but also a scholar of music history with a facility for the precision replication of centuries-old styles.

Starting at Stanford in Northern California, then in New York, and finally in Los Angeles, Byrd rubbed shoulders with figures like Terry Riley,  David Tudor and Yoko Ono, and engaged in most of the era’s avant-garde trends, from composing and performing John Cage-style conceptual scores to creating electronic sound-poems. But simultaneously Byrd was earning a crust cranking out arrangements for a Time-Life series of Civil War albums, while also studying early music and researching Asian classical music. “I'm probably the only experimental composer of my generation who can write a crab canon, a six-part madrigal, or a concerto grosso,” Byrd once quipped.  The result of all this eclectic learning was United States of America’s strange and wondrous mixture of innovation (striving to do things in challenging and confrontational ways) and renovation (pastiche, quotation, allusion).  Alien and ancient meshed in the most surprising and thrilling ways.  

According to Byrd, the United States of America were the first band whose live concerts involved “not just electronic sound, but whole tape collages” fed into the mixer via an 8‑track stereo system, as well as visual effects and performance art elements: a neon Stars-and-Stripes, a life-size nun, fog machines, costume changes (including the band sometimes dressing up as priests). The aim was to “create a radical experience”, hijacking the rock format as a medium for transmitting confrontational sonic, lyrical, and theatrical ideas to a mass audience. Byrd wasn’t just a sonic revolutionary, he was a political radical too:  a member of the Communist Party, whose ideological rigor and discipline he preferred to the more ludic and spontaneist forms of left politics emerging out of the counterculture. The group’s name itself was a gauntlet thrown down to conformist patriots, akin to Hendrix’s incandescent revision of “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock a few years later. Songs like “Love Song for the Dead Ché” went far beyond the faddish guerrilla chic of hairy, pot-smoking students sticking Guevara posters on the walls of their crash pads.

Yet Byrd’s sincere love of Americana kept creeping into the group’s music. United States of America’s self-titled debut (and – tragically – their solitary album) actually starts with a medley of rousing late 19th Century and early 20th Century big-band music in the patriotic John Philip Sousa style, including a calliope rendition of “National Emblem” and the post-Civil War ditty “Marching Through Georgia.”  

Like Fifty Foot Hose and Intersystems, United States of America developed their own unique and idiosyncratic electronic treatments. They applied pick-ups, distortion effects and Slinkies to the drums; put filters on singer Dorothy Moskowitz’s voice; and electronically adapted a harpsichord and a violin (heard to gorgeously wavering effect on “Cloud Song”). They also used a ring modulator built by a young Tom Oberheim, an engineer who would become a major figure in the invention and marketing of electronic music technology in the Seventies. Another engineer, Richard Durett, custom-built them a monophonic synthesizer.

United States of America’s arsenal of sound-warping techniques are heard at their utmost on the album’s killer track “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” which sounds like nothing before but plenty since (it would be only a slight exaggeration to say that Broadcast based an entire career on this one song). Shrieking synths harass the ear like harpies and Dorothy Moskowitz’s vibrato-less voice runs through the listener like a lance. As striking as the sonics, the lyrics conjure a vision of witchy feminism at once seductive and forbidding:  “Poisonous gardens, lethal and sweet/ Venomous blossoms, choleric fruit deadly to eat/ Violet nightshades, innocent bloom /Omnivorous orchids,  cautiously wait, hungrily loom/ You will find them/ In her eyes, in her eyes, in her eyes”.  Titled with acrid irony, “The Garden of Earthly Delights” presents a daemonic view of Nature and Sex as a Venus Flytrap for the unwary male: imagine The Doors’s “Hello, I Love You” with lyrics torn from the pages of Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae.

“Garden of Earthly Delights” is immediately followed on the album by another feminist statement, albeit more indirect and satirical: “I Won’t Leave My Wooden Wife For You, Sugar,”  the apologia of a respectable husband who walks on the wild side with his mistress, then returns to the Stepford-like safeness of suburban matrimony. The melody and title reference a 1905 musical hall ditty, “I Wouldn’t Leave My Little Wooden Hut For You”. Elsewhere on the album there’s mock-Gregorian plainchant (in “Where Is Yesterday”), while parts of the finale “The American Way of Love” resemble Charles Ives meets The Crazy World of Arthur Brown.  Even as he critiqued the Summer of Love as a bourgeois-bohemian cop out in “Way of Love”, or lamented the lost dream of a Communist Latin America with “Love Song for the Dead Ché”, Byrd couldn’t resist weaving in scraps of Americana.

When United States of America broke up, Byrd’s split impulses – futurism versus tradition – continued through his next project Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies and its one album The American Metaphysical Circus, and culminated with the Bicentennial-themed 1976 LP Yankee Transcendoodle: Electronic Fantasies for Patriotic Synthesizer.  Released on John Fahey’s folk label Takoma, the album earned praise from Greil Marcus, not generally known for his fondness for electronic music.  Reviewing the record for Rolling Stone, Marcus noted the unlikely nature of the project (coming as it did from “the one-time leader of the ill-fated ‘avant-garde’ rock group The United States of America”). But he applauded its renditions of patriotic airs as “bright, lively, spunky, and full of charm; the music one hears all one’s life without ever really listening to it” and joked that “it would be un-American to pass” up the chance to listen to the album. Marcus even compared Byrd’s “playful and archival” approach to Garth Hudson, the keyboard player in The Band – high praise indeed from the author of Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock’n’Roll Music.


During the last two years of the Sixties, The Band and their mentor Bob Dylan were the principal instigators of a backlash against psychedelia and a return to the American roots of rock in blues, country and folk.  Released only four days before the end of 1967, Dylan’s  John Wesley Harding had been recorded in just two days, its spare, rough-hewn sound an implicit rebuke to the studio artifice and trippy effects of the psychedelic summer. The Band’s 1968 debut Music From Big  Pink was even more influential,  offering a “naturalistic” path forward for rock that eschewed  over-production in favor of a weathered and somehow wood-like sound, that seemed honest and  mature. Dylan disciples the Byrds dropped the blissed-out psych of Younger Than Yesterday and The Notorious Byrd Brothers like a hot potato and embraced full-on country-rock with Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Meanwhile the Doors recovered their bluesy mojo and Creedence Clearwater Revival dominated AM radio with lean, driving singles that renovated Fifties rock’n’roll.  The content of the music shifted too, with what could be called Rock’s Historical Turn: instead of lyrics about dancing, drugs, or fighting in the street, you had the Band writing story-songs about the Civil War or the plight of farmers at the turn of the century, while Randy Newman turned his mordant satirical eye on the slave trade.

Could American rock history have gone another way, avoiding this re-rooting of the music in the backwoods soil of the South? Perhaps if a major U.S. band had steered hard in an opposite direction. Intriguingly, a number of established psychedelic era bands
did toy with electronics and musique concrète.  Released in September 1967, The Doors’s single “Strange Days” features a ghostly flutter of Moog synth. Strange Days the album includes “Horse Latitudes ”:  Jim Morrison declaiming poetry against a musique concrète noisescape, creating something akin to Luigi Nono’s clamorous tape-and-vocal  experiments like “La Fabricca Illuminata” from earlier in the decade.  

Meanwhile, those other L.A. acid-rockers The Byrds were also briefly infatuated with Bob Moog’s machine. Released in January 1968, The Notorious Byrd Brothers includes synth-infused pieces like “Space Odyssey”. The sessions also generated the consummate period piece “Moog Raga”, a droning instrumental left off the original album but rescued for a later expanded reissue. Just seven months later, though, the Byrds swapped synth for pedal steel on Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which was released August of ’68.

Up in San Francisco, Jefferson Airplane made a stab at
musique concrète with After Bathing At Baxter’s  freak-out track “A Small Package of Value Will Come To You" and a short sortie into electronic terrain on Crown of Creation’s “Chushingura”.

 The Grateful Dead mounted a more intensive foray into the studio-as-instrument zone on 1968’s Anthem of the Sun, an album informed by the avant-classical training of bassist Phil Lesh and pianist Tom Constanten, both of whom had studied under Luciano Berio at Mills College in Oakland. “We were making a collage,” Jerry Garcia later recalled. “It had to do with an approach that’s more like electronic music or concrète music, where you are actually assembling bits and pieces towards an enhanced non-realistic representation.”

 But after recording another expensively studio-addled  album with 1969’s Aoxomoxoa, the Dead joined the general retreat to the raw and the rootsy, with Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.   

The effect on American rock was like a sudden switch back from Technicolor to black-and-white (or even brown-and-white). Given the plain palette of so much 1969-70 rock - jammed-out bluesy boogie in the Canned Heat and Allman Brothers mode, nasal pseudo-country harmony singing a la CSN&Y and their afterbirth - it is tempting to imagine an entirely alternative history for rock. A parallel world where Fifty Foot Hose’s Cauldron, United States of America’s self-titled album, and synthedelic oddities from Syrinx, Silver Apples, Beaver & Krause, and Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, were just the run-up to a giant leap into the electronic future.  But in this world, they remain tentative steps towards a path not taken.




Silver Apples

This New York duo comprised percussionist/vocalist Danny Taylor and a fellow who went by just his first name Simeon and who identified so strongly with his self-made electronic instrument he named it The Simeon. Resembling a computer console from a science fiction B-movie flipped onto its back, the Simeon featured 86 manual controls that modulated nine audio-oscillators. Not content with wielding this formidable contraption, Simeon also warbled and occasionally strummed the banjo.  Indeed an unlikely (if also Joseph Byrd-redolent) element of American traditional music occasionally surfaces in the midst of the Silver Apples futuristic delirium, with  the bluegrass-flavored "Ruby" and "Confusion." “Oscillations”, their first single and opening track on their self-titled 1968 debut album, is the group’s defining song, with Simeon and Taylor yowling about "oscillations, oscillations, electronic evocations... spinning magnetic fluctuations" in a high-pitched, highly-strung quaver. Contact followed in 1969, featuring the wonderfully baleful and accusatory “A Pox On You.” Then Silver Apples split. But in response to cult interest stimulated by an unofficial reissue of their two albums, Simeon reactivated the group in 1996 and they subsequently recorded three all-new albums, most recently 2016’s Clinging To A Dream.


Lothar and the Hand People

Lothar was the theremin, of course. But the main visual attraction of the band’s live show was an intermittent presence on their 1968 debut Presenting... Lothar and the Hand People, which mostly showcases a winsome psych-pop group somewhere between The Beacon Street Union and The Left Banke.  Tantalizing wibbles of theremin and Moog fill the gaps between songs like “Kids Are Little People” and “Ha (Ho)” but do not disrupt the twee proceedings themselves (more’s the pity).

Still, “Milkweed Love” is a full-blown electropop ballad, a rolling, sea-sick drone of detuned synth; the demented audio-collage “It Comes On Anyhow” would be sampled twenty years later by The Chemical Brothers for their psychedelic Big Beat juggernaut “It Doesn’t Matter”;  the twinkling electro-tones of “Paul In Love” look ahead to Nineties IDM.  The group’s second album Space Hymn is a more full-blown foray into electronic rock. Songs like “Today Is Only Yesterday’s Tomorrow” and “Wedding Night for Those Who Love” are spattered with detuned droops and tonal smears. The high point is the title track, an ambient expanse that begins like a parody of a meditation or self-hypnosis record (“imagine there is nothing but you and the sound”) then shifts into a vision of the earth as a gigantic space vessel.

Tonto's Expanding Head Band

There were two humans in Tonto’s Expanding Head Band: Malcolm Cecil, a British music industry veteran with a background in jazz and blues, and Robert Margouleff, maker of soundtracks for underground movies and producer of the first Lothar and the Hand People album. But just like with Lothar, the band was named after its lead instrument, T.O.N.T.O. An acronym for "The Original New Timbral Orchestra," it was not so much an all-new invention as an assemblage of existing ones. Moog and Arp synths, modules, sequencers, keyboard controllers and other gadgets were coordinated into a monstrous mega-synth so large that both Cecil and Margouleff could play it at the same time.

T.O.N.T.O was designed to be “the first real-time performing electronic music instrument” and parts of Zero Time, the 1971 debut album, were indeed laid down live in the studio, as opposed to programmed and assembled at the mixing desk. But the best pieces on the album are those that depart the most from the light touch and nimble grooviness of conventional musicality. “Jetsex”, for instance, is a whooshing and clanking mechanism that anticipates the sinister “Doppler Effect” section of Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn”. Listening to the album’s other high point, the shimmering vocoder-psalm “Riversong,” it’s hard to understand why Tonto have received so little credit as electronic pioneers. Perhaps if they’d pursued a recording career more single-mindedly (there’s just Zero Time and 1974’s not-as-strong follow-up It’s About Time) rather than being subsumed into Stevie Wonder’s operation as his synth technicians, Cecil & Margouleff might be rated as highly as Hutter & Schneider.   

Beaver & Krause

Paul Beaver and Bernard Krause were the go-to guys in the Sixties when it came to the Moog synth.  Sometimes individually and sometimes in tandem, they contributed synth-playing to records or coached rock stars through their fumbling attempts to grapple with the new instrument. The clientele included George Harrison, the Byrds, the Doors, Simon & Garfunkel, and even the Monkees. In 1968, Beaver & Krause were hired by Nonesuch Records to create a kind of demonstration disc for the new technology, resulting in the double album The Nonesuch Guide To Electronic Music, which came with a 16-page “syllabus” booklet explaining the technical nitty-gritty of sound-synthesis.  Beaver & Krause then signed to Limelight and released 1969’s Ragnarök, on which forbiddingly alien soundscapes like “Circle X” and “33rd Stanza of a Hymn To Sancho Panza” alternated with wimpy acoustic-guitar ballads like “The Fisherman” and bouncy electro-ditties like “Moogie Blues Funk”.  On In A Wild Sanctuary (1970) and Gondharva (1971) environmental sounds joined their identity confusion of electronics and acoustics, songcraft and ambience. Results were variable but on the plus side include chilly gems of early electronica like “Spaced”, “Nine Moons in Alaska,” and “So Long as the Water Flows”.   After Beaver’s death in 1975, Krause sporadically released solo albums (including a New Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music in 1981) but dedicated most of his energy to his work as a bioacoustician and documenter of natural soundscapes.  Tragically his archives and recording equipment went up in smoke during last fall’s California wildfires.

Nik Pascal Raicevic

Not much is known about Nik Raicevic, who recorded under various permutations of his own name, such as Nik Pascal, as well aliases like Art In Space and 107-34-8933. First through his own Hollywood-based label Narco Records, and then via the major label imprint Buddah, in the early ’70s Raicevic released a series of abstract, rippling Moog mindscapes with titles like The Sixth Ear and Zero Gravity that anticipate the extended odysseys of Klaus Schulze and Conrad Schnitzler. His music’s relationship to the drug culture could hardly have been more blatant. Head, for instance, featured tracks with titles like “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide” and the 17-minute “Cannabis Sativa,” and came with a stoned-to-say-the-least bit of text: “The sound of numbers for soaking in soft dreams. Sweet moments and private notes making a rhyme into a habit. An album that creates the ultimate environment for the smoke generation. Taste it.” If the framing is a little dated, the music itself achieves a zonked timelessness. Highly – pun intended – recommended.


Other possible candidates and edge cases:

Ned Lagin, Seastones 

Lagin was an associate of The Grateful Dead, some of whose members had a background in academic composition. Members of the Dead like Jerry Garcia, Mickey Hart,  and Phil Lesh are involved, along with other California acid rock types like Grace Slick and Spencer Dryden (from Jefferson Airplane), David Crosby from CSN&Y, David Freiberg (Quicksilver Messenger Service) – but more as source material for Lagin to rework than as full-blown collaborators. Seastones  was originally released on the Grateful Dead’s label Round Records, and then reissued some years ago in its original, full, much longer form as a double CD.  The CD was designed to be played in shuffle mode, because each track in the composition was designed to be self-contained, what Lagin called a “moment form” – like a pebble on a beach. Lagin started the composition while at MIT which probably accounts for the inspiration he drew from geology, paleontology, organic and biochemical synthesis, physics, quantum mechanics, language and linguistic structure, as well as from abstract visual art. 

The original 1975 release tantalizing points to a path not taken by the American psychedelic bands – Grateful Dead, Byrds, Jefferson Airplane and others all dabbled with musique concrete and Moog synths and so forth in the late Sixties, but quickly reverted to a more American rootsy (blues, country etc) influenced sound, in the case of the Dead becoming the godfather of jam bands. This release shows a kind of counterfactual Grateful Dead that would have been more like Kraftwerk or Terry Riley.   

The Spoils of War

HP Lovecraft 

(largely for "At the Mountains of Madness")

Laser Pace

Not really anything to do with rock but....

Mother Mallard / David Borden