Oddly, never made the connection between the electro roots of Mark 'n' Gaz (who met as members of rival teams in a breakdance contest) and the fact that Tommy Boy put out Frequencies in the USA.
Tommy Boy also put out 808 State's Ninety, in a remixed form.
Observer Music Monthly, 2003
It’s a tough time for dance music believers. Mainstream house culture has imploded, with superclubs closing, dance magazines folding, and average sales for 12 inch singles on a steady downward arc. The more cerebral end of home-listening electronica suffers from stylistic fragmentation, overproduction (there’s just too many "pretty good" records being made), and the absence of a truly startling new sound (even a Next Medium-Sized Thing would be a blessing at this point). Trendy young hipsters think dance culture’s passe and really rather naff: these days they’re into bands with riffs, hooky choruses, foxy singers, and good hair, from neo-garage groups like The White Stripes to post-punk revivalists like The Rapture.
Little wonder, then, that the leading lights of leftfield electronica have been looking back to the early Nineties, when their scene was at the peak of its creativity, cultural preeminence, and popularity. There’s been a spate of retro-rave flavoured releases from the aging Anglo vanguard--a reinvocation (conscious or unconscious, it’s hard to say) of the era when this music was simultaneously the cutting edge and in the pop charts.
LFO’s Mark Bell is a case in point. Today he’s better known for his production work with Bjork and Depeche Mode, but back in 1990, he was one half of a duo who reached #12 in the UK singles charts with their self-titled debut "LFO". This Leeds group pioneered a style called "bleep", the first truly British mutation of the house and techno streaming over from Chicago and Detroit. In 1991 they released Frequencies, the first really great techno album released anywhere *(unless you count ancestors Kraftwerk, alongside whose godlike genius LFO’s best work ranks, if you ask me). Just about the only bad thing about Sheath, LFO’s third album and first release for seven years, is its title, which I fear is being used in its antideluvian meaning of "condom" (only "rubber johnny" could have been worse). Really, this record should be called Frequencies: the Return.
Deliberately lo-fi opener "Blown" instantly transports you back to the era of landmark records like Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 1985-91. All muddy heart-tremor bass, creaky hissing beats and tinkling, tingling rivulets of synth, it has the enchanted, misty-eyed quality of those childhood mornings when you wake to look through frost-embroidered bedroom windows. "Mokeylips" teems with fluorescent pulses and those classic LFO textures that seem to stick to your skin like Velcro. As bracing as snorting a line of Ajax, "Mum-Man" is industrial-strength hardcore of the kind that mashed-up the more mental ravefloors in ’92. With its robot-voice dancemaster commands and videogame zaps, "Freak" harks back further still to LFO’s Eighties roots as teenage electro fans body-popping and spinning on their heads in deserted shopping centres. "Moistly" shimmers and surges with that odd mixture of nervousness and serenity that infused the classic Detroit techno of Derrick May and Carl Craig. And the beat-less tone-poem "Premacy" pierces your heart with its plangent poignancy.
Electronic music may be suffering from the cruel cycles of cool at the moment, but Sheath (ugh, I really don’t like that title) shows that music of quality and distinction is still coming from that quarter. Yet more proof (if any were still needed) that all-instrumental machine-music can be as emotionally evocative, as sensuously exquisite, as heart-tenderising and soul-nourishing as any rock group you care to mention. (Like for instance Radiohead, whose Thom Yorke, as it happens, was a huge fan of the Northern "bleep" tracks released by Warp in the early Nineties). One can only hope this album finds the audience it deserves.
* the first really great techno album
Is this unfair to 808 State, who did Ninety a year earlier? Maybe, but not really, as I don't really think of that album as techno - it's more like a dreamy, ambient-tinged house record. Great album, and one that has lasted for me whereas Ex:Cel (which is slightly more techno, even has some hardcore-aspiring tunes on it, and came out in '91) hasn't endured.
Unfair to anyone else? Not sure what month it came out in '91, but Ultramarine might have pipped LFO to the post - but then again, Every Man and Woman Is A Star isn't really techno, is it? It's more acid meets chillout meets pastoral fusion.
Also that year was Orbital's debut - but Frequencies wipes the floor with that.
LFO labelmates Nightmares on Wax also debuted at album length in 1991 but Word of Science is already trying to expand beyond bleep and touching on the downtempo smoker's muzik of their later discography.
Unique 3's Jus' Unique came out in 1990. There's great stuff on it: deep-bleep like "Phase 3" and "Digicality", tuff little unit of a toon "Code 0274", plus the classic singles up to that point. Overall, though, it's not quite on a par with Frequencies - bit too much of an eclectic sprawl, with some Rebel MC-ish rap tracks that are fun but a bit dated.
DHS did The Difference Between Noise and Music in '91 - I'll have to give that a relisten. Possibly a real contender against LFO. (I did give it a relisten and it's pretty interesting stuff but not as consummate as Frequencies)
Oh, blimey, how could I forget - there's A Guy Called Gerald's Automanikk, from 1990. I don't recall it quite being on a par with Frequencies, or even with Ninety (the apposite comparison). The great, all-time Gerald album is Black Secret Technology, with '92 's 28 Gun Bad Boy also a strong statement.
A couple of contenders - 4 Hero's In Rough Territory (but it's before they've really found their path, and I don't remember it being a great album - a bit rough, in fact, and not ruff-rough). And then Nexus 21's The Rhythm of Life (from as early as '89), which I think is pre-bleep and when they are still very much Detroit-emulative and specifically Kevin Saunderson fanboys.
Where else could we look for pipping-Frequencies-to-the-post possibles? Detroit? I don't think any of the major artists had done an album-album by that point. Germany?