Wednesday, August 30, 2023

HEROIN HOUSE aka DUB TECHNO aka Chain Reaction








 Decay Product



 (all Chain Reaction)

Spin, 1998

by Simon Reynolds  

Think "house," and in your mind's ear you'll probably hear a thudding, metronomic kick-drum and a shrieking soul-diva. Nearly fifteen years on from its Chicago genesis, house has evolved way beyond this original, winning formula, and diversified into at least a dozen subgenres. From the disco cut-up style popularised by Daft Punk to the unhinged abstraction of nu skool Chicago label Relief, the most exciting contemporary house is designed for  "track-heads"--purist connoisseurs who prefer minimal tracks to anthemic songs. 

I don't like purists either, but if the truth be known, when pop music's final reckoning is done, house is not going to be remembered for adding to the sum of  "great songs," nor for its pantheon of distinctive vocalists. Its real contribution and innovation resides elsewhere.

In this spirit, the Berlin label Chain Reaction have distilled house down to its essence: no songs, no vocals, barely any melodies, sometimes not even a beat. What, you might wonder, is left after such ruthless pruning? Texture and pulse-rhythm. Or more precisely, texture-rhythm as an indivisible plasma-like substance that is molded and extruded through dub-space. 

Take Chain Reaction's aesthetic pinnacle to date, "Resilient 1.2": a slow-motion tsunamai of  ego-melting, body-boundary-haemorrhaging bliss. Some people call the Chain Reaction sound "heroin house" *; "Resilient 1.2" actually reminds me of Velvet Underground's "Heroin". A soundtrack in waiting for the first zero-gravity nightclub, it was my favourite track of 1997; you can find it on the Chain Reaction CD Decay Product, a compilation of tracks by the production team Various Artists.

Based out of Berlin's Hard Wax record store, Chain Reaction is the sister label of Basic Channel, whose nine 12-inch releases were the toast of techno-house cognoscenti  throughout the mid-Nineties (but don't let that put you off!). Devoted to vinyl, the mysterious figures behind the twin labels established their own pressing plant. This makes Chain Reaction's series of single-artist CD compilations--encased in striking metal cans that resemble DJs's record boxes--a sort of ideological lapse, a concession to the market realities of the digital era.

Prise open the cannisters, and on tracks like Maurizio's "M6", Vainqueur's "Reduce 2" and Porter Ricks' "Port Gentil" you'll encounter electronic music as warmly cocooning and spongy as the lining of the womb.What initially sounds monotonous reveals itself as an endlessly inflected, fractal mosaic of  glow-pulses and flicker-riffs. Using studio-processes like EQ, filtering, phasing and panning to tweak the frequencies and stereo-imaging of their sonic motifs, CR artists weave tantalising tapestries whose strands shift in and out of the aural spotlight. The effect is synaesthetic, like fingertips tremulously caressing your neck.

Although CR artists would probably distance themselves from rave's drug culture, their music sounds like Ecstasy sensations encoded in sound, abstracted into a velcro-sticky audio-fabric that tugs at your skin-surface and gets your goosebumps rippling in formation. Melody is minimal--limited to rudimentary vamps and ostinatos--because it's just a device for displaying sound-in-itself. Simple motifs twist the timbre-fabric in order to best show off its properties, making you thrill to the scintillating play of  creases and folds, crinkles and kinks.

            CR music isn't all opiated oblivion: Monolake's "Lantau" and "Macau" are like Cantonese reggae, while Porter Ricks material often has an abrasive industrial tinge,  reflecting the fact that one half of the duo is acclaimed ambient experimentalist Thomas Koner. But my favorite CR output is the stuff that offers a sublime surrogate for MDMA experience, a bliss-space you can access at any time then leave, without cost or comedown. 

That said, this music's appeal  extends way beyond ravers--anyone who's ever swooned to neo-psychelicists like Spacemen 3 and My Bloody Valentine, or  been mesmerised by minimalists like Steve Reich, will find almost unbearable pleasures here.

            As well as Chain Reaction's own CD and vinyl 12 inch output (available at domestic prices), addicts will want to search out the artists's releases on other labels:  Porter Ricks' self-titled album on Mille Plateaux, Various Artists's glistening pulsescape "No.8" on Fatcat. Porter Ricks also created a fine remix album, The Koner Experiment, based on  music by Experimental Audio Research--a collective that includes ex-Spacemen 3 leader Sonic Boom and MBV's Kevin Shields. That fact alone that should seduce any hesitant psych-guitar fiends into taking the plunge.

* Heroin House copyright Kevin Martin

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Robert Wyatt & Friends - Theatre Royal Drury Lane 8th September 1974

Robert Wyatt & Friends

Theatre Royal Drury Lane 8th September 1974
Observer Music Monthly, November 20th 2005

by Simon Reynolds

Long bootlegged, this glorious live album documents an intriguing moment in UK rock history, when the rock mainstream and the outer-limits vanguard were in bed together.  Three decades on, it’s hard to imagine a contemporary equivalent to the supergroup that Wyatt convened in September 1974: multiplatinum-selling musos Mike Oldfield and Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason rubbed shoulders with out-jazz players Julie Tippetts  and Mongezi Feza, and with avant-proggers such as Henry Cow’s Fred Frith, Hatfield and the North’s Dave Stewart, and Soft Machine alumnus Hugh Hopper. There’s also a cameo appearance from Ivor Cutler,  John Peel’s favorite comic eccentric. Peelie himself features as the show’s compere, informing the long-haired, afghan-wearing audience that the musicians will be uncharacteristically sober tonight, because the door to the Theatre Royal bar has been locked for fire-and-safety reasons.  

The wondrously woozy music played that evening must have been intoxication enough, surely, for performer and listener alike. After the Dada-esque sound-daubings of “Dedicated To You But You Weren’t Listening”, the bulk of the set consists of a run-through of Rock Bottom, the Wyatt album released earlier that summer, a crushingly poignant masterpiece shadowed by the singer’s paralysis following his fourth-floor tumble during a wild party. “Sea Song”,  as mysterious and beautiful an oceanic love ballad as Tim Buckley’s “Song To the Siren,” opens up into a fabulous extended improvisation, a malevolent meander of fuzz-bass and glittering keyboards that’s something like an Anglicized Bitches Brew. Wyatt’s falsetto spirals up into ecstastic scat arabesques, as though his spirit is trying to escape his shattered body.  “Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road” --its title a whimsy-cloaked allusion to the accident--is equally stunning. Feza’s trumpet again channels Miles, while Wyatt’s delirium of anguish is only slightly softened by the English bathos of lines like “oh dearie me, what in heaven’s name..”  The singer actually miauows at the start of “Alifib,” a gorgeous quilt of shimmering keys and glistening guitar (courtesy of Oldfield, then regularly voted the top instrumentalist in the UK by music paper readers). The feline thread is picked up with “Instant Pussy,” originally recorded by Wyatt’s short-lived band Matching Mole and featuring yet more gorgeous abstract vocalese from the wheelchair-bound bound singer. “Calyx”, a different sort of love song, features killer lines like “close inspection reveals you’re in perfect nick”, and the set ends with a rampant, edge-of-chaos take on  “I’m A Believer,” the Monkees cover that took Wyatt into the UK hit parade. 

Alarming but true: the best record released in 2005 is a time capsule from 31 years ago.

bonus Wyatt worship 

Robert Wyatt
Going Back A Bit - A Little History of Robert Wyatt 
Melody Maker, 1994 

At last, a long-overdue anthology of stuff and nonsense by one of the great eccentrics of English art-rock, Robert Wyatt. A miscellany of bits and bobs from solo albums and the shortlived outfit Matching Mole, its main selling-point, O punter, is that it makes available again, CD-sharp, 5/6 of his all-time 1974 classic Rock Bottom. But infuriatingly, not only is the album's original sequence jumbled up, for no apparent reason, but one track is shunted onto the second disc, so that you can't even reprogram it into the correct sequence. And one of the best is left off altogether.

With most albums this wouldn't matter a jot, but Rock Bottom is structured around a compelling emotional/musical narrative – it's a complex allegory of Wyatt's disablement (he tumbled out of a window during a wild party), his subsequent emotional regression, and his slow recovery. Even in the wrong order, Rock Bottom dazzles: it's a masterpiece of oceanic rock to rival Buckley's Starsailor, A.R. Kane's 69, maybe even Davis' In A Silent Way. On 'Last Straw', aqueous keyboards, refractory guitars and imagery like "seaweed tangled in a home from home" conjure up a poignant vision of the amniotic heaven of the briny deep. 'Sea Song' begins as an eerie serenade to a mermaid, then Wyatt spirals off into soul-harrowing scat-falsetto aquabatics.

'Alifib' is Wyatt at his lowest ebb, gasping out tiny breaths of anguish amidst a lachrymal sound-web of harmonium, while 'Alifie' sees him reduced to baby-talk drivel as his dependence on his wife Alfie deepens. "I can't forsake you or forsqueak you, Alifie, my larder", dribbles Wyatt; eventually she puts her foot down – 'I'm NOT your larder'. This is the turning point, the first step on the road to recovery, and the (original) album ends with the wonderful eco-terrorist ditty 'Little Red Riding Hood', with Ivor Cutler ranting about how he lies down in the road to stop the cars: "yeah me and the hedgehog busting tyres all day long".

Wyatt emerged, via the Soft Machine, from the late '60s/early '70s Canterbury scene, along with Caravan, Gong, Kevin Ayers, Egg etc. As well as an interest in bending rock form in all manner of jazzy-folky-weirdy ways, what these groups shared was a very English whimsy – at once their charm and their liability. And so on the 13 minute 'Moon In June', Wyatt extemporises about the joys of doing a session for the Beeb, while 'Soup Song' is sung from the point of view of one of its reluctant ingredients, a slice of bacon. Even Wyatt's lovesongs are skewered by irony. In the wonderfully sentimental 'O Caroline', Wyatt warns his sweetheart "if you call this sentimental crap you'll make me mad", while 'Calyx' is full of oddly phrased praise: "close inspection reveals you're in perfect nick".

Wyatt's wonderful voice is why he gets away with it whereas, say, Kevin Ayers mostly grates*: he always sounds simultaneously wry and earnest, ironic and heart-felt. Damp, lugubrious, resolutely colloquial, totally unrock'n'roll (like a cross between Peter Skellern and Roland Kirk), Wyatt's voice could be the closest thing to an authentic "English soul" this nation's produced.

* an opinion I have not so much modified subsequently, as completely inverted

Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt interviewed, separately, but entwined as a piece, alas unpublished owing to an interdepartmental communication problem at the Grauniad 

Me and Mr. Wyatt, in the green room (green tent?) at  the Hay Literary Festival, 2007, prior to me interviewing  him  live onstage. Pix by Richard King. 

I had no idea I was such a gesticulator until I saw this photo.

Friday, August 18, 2023

In defence of pretentiousness

From the second issue of Margin, published spring 1982

the first publically printed thing by me that is not a total embarrassment  - indeed it's not bad at all for a 19-year-old, to come up quite independently with an Eno-style transvaluation of the term "pretentious" 

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Jungle ! (January 22, 1994)


Not the first thing I did on jungle in Melody Maker - there was this Singles Club column from three months earlier focusing on releases from Moving Shadow and Reinforced.

And much earlier in April '93, I did a Letter from SW2 column about "Junglist" music 
But this 

was the first proper feature, as in piece that includes interview material with an actual living-breathing junglist (Goldie, my go-to motormouth for much of ,the earlier championing). 

But although this was the first proper feature to appear, it was actually the second to be written - for in the last months of '93 I had written for the then-new US rap 'n' B mag Vibe a much larger piece on jungle - including more quotes from Goldie - and making the hip hop connection central to my pitch to the readership as to why they oughta take heed. Owing to longer lead times with a monthly mag, this appeared in spring '94.  

Now I think of it there was actually there was another smaller piece on Goldie in among this flurry - from October 1993. Using that same odd, disconcerting photograph - his press shot of the time.


Getting a lot of use out of that first interview with the G-Man! He could cram a lot of words into a 45 minute phone chat. I particularly enjoyed Goldie's swipe at Sven Vath - at that time, the superiority of jungle over trance was self-evident to me, if no one else. Indeed around this time I did yet another piece, this time for The Wire, that was based around this trance v. jungle counter-view.  

But back to the January '94 piece. It was part of a big Melody Maker issue dedicated to the electronic dance music explosion - Underworld on the cover, page upon page upon page of coverage of the kind of artists that would be the staple of Muzik magazine (essentially a club culture offshoot of MM). The singles page was put in the hands of Orbital. Even the technical-muso pages were given over to electronica (The Drum Club talking about their gear - pass the smelling salts). 

The whole of that issue is below for your delectation. Seldom has such a confraternity of pale, male, bald-bonced individuals been gathered within a single publication! 

Jungle was included on the periphery of this feature package, held at arm's length as it were - the (literal) black sheep of the family. 

Scanning the contents today, what strikes me about all these names - then automatically given more credence than your 4 Heroes and LTJ Bukems -  is how few have them have endured.