Sunday, September 24, 2023

In The Neighborhood - Ernest Hood

Ernest Hood

The Nation, November 5 2019

by Simon Reynolds

South Pasadena, where I live, looks like the archetypal American suburban dream. Craftsman houses from its tree-lined streets featured in Thirtysomething and Back to The Future, to name just a couple of the town’s many screen cameos. And just a little way down our road, there’s a darling little house that’s frequently used in TV commercials. The film crews, craft services, and costuming trucks with their racks of garments were an amusing novelty at first. I particularly enjoyed the Christmas commercial, fake snow covering lawns while the sun shone down on yet another perfect 73-degree LA day. But then it got to be a drag, all those large vehicles parked up and down the road. The telegenic image of our street as an ideal neighborhood was detracting from the reality. 

These mildly aggrieved thoughts flickered through my mind while listening to Ernest Hood’s Neighborhoods, a gorgeously tender sound-portrait of the all-American suburban idyll, originally released in 1975 but now lavishly reissued as a double-disc vinyl set. Woven out of plangent ripples of zither, wistful synthesizer refrains, and children’s voices field-recorded by Hood in the streets of his own Portland neighborhood, the album can’t help reminding you of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Sesame Street, and the halcyon mood, if not, the sound of Vince Guaraldi’s jazzy Peanuts score.

The only album Hood ever released, Neighborhoods is considered by some to have invented ambient music a couple of years before Brian Eno. “Musical cinematography” was Hood’s own description in the original liner-notes. “It’s like watching a movie—you get establishing shots and you’re pulled in,” says his son Tom Hood by phone from South East Portland, where he still lives. “In that sense, it’s not ambient, because with that you’re meant to tune out, but Neighborhoods makes you focus.”  

Each track is evocatively titled—“Saturday Morning Doze”, “The Secret Place”, “Night Games”—and comes with an impressionistic description designed to trigger mental movies, like the reference to “cards flapping in the bike spokes” in the text for “After School.” Sometimes the sense of place is very particular: Hood’s “caption” for “From the Bluff” mentions Portland’s Oaks Amusement Park and the “distant marshes” of the Willamette River. Layer upon layer of nostalgia enfolds the record: it’s partly inspired by Hood’s memories of his own pre-WW2 childhood in Charlotte, North Carolina, but the album also features snippets of his 4-year-old children recorded in 1950s Portland. Playing Neighborhoods today only adds extra layers: the charmingly dated synth is redolent of 1970s PBS, while each listener will affix personal memories date-stamped to the decades of their own childhoods and linked to their hometowns in other states or countries. 

Hood was a professional musician who played guitar in jazz bands until polio  - which he contracted in the late 1940s when still a young man – made the travelling lifestyle unworkable. He carried on doing session work and briefly ran a Portland jazz club, but increasingly his energy was dedicated to the obsessive documentation of everyday soundscapes. Even before reel-to-reel tape machines became readily available, Hood used an earlier technology, the wire-recorder—a machine that captured sound by magnetizing points on a thin steel wire. He captured bird song and frog noises and would give tapes of outdoor sounds to ill people who couldn’t leave their houses. Hood had a particular obsession with the sonic ambience of covered bridges and would make expeditions to record and sketch Oregon’s surviving examples. Tom Hood recalls making a pilgrimage with his father to his ancestral hometown in North Carolina and recording the entire road trip. He is currently combing through his dad’s vast unruly archive, digitizing tape reels with a view to possible further releases. 

Hood’s preservationist impulse seemed to stem in part from an acute susceptibility to nostalgia.  This pained awareness of the passage of time also expressed itself through a hostility to the modern world’s noise pollution. He wrote letters to local newspapers complaining about the assaultive properties of contemporary music. A flavor of this invective can be gleaned from the Neighborhoods liner note, which passingly rails against “commercial music purveyors” and “plastic novelty music played on military weapons.” One of Hood’s pipedreams was a low-power, small-radius radio station that would play 1920s and 1930s music, carefully leaving 30-second gaps between each 78 r.p.m. platter to allow for proper musical digestion. That never transpired, but Hood did help to found the volunteer-run local radio station KBOO FM, to which a portion of the proceeds from the Neighborhoods reissue will go.  


Hood strikes an “it takes a village” note when he writes about how the record will trigger pangs in listeners no matter “which neighborhood you sprouted,” describing the project as the paying of “a debt to some beautiful and loving people…. older folks… who put up with my childhood pesters [and] played such an important role in the formation of comfortable memories.” Hood emphasizes that while the record is not something to play in gregarious situations like a party, “it is a social record in that it reminds us of the fact that most of us made our first social contacts… in our neighborhood streets.” 

Reading Hood’s words while listening to his shimmery cascades of electronic instrumentation, which often have the flashback quality of a cinematic dissolve, I wondered to what extent the close-knit, placed-based nurturance that Hood celebrated still applied. I also wondered if I’d ever experienced anything like it. Britain has its romanticized myths of working-class community: a sentimental folk memory of housewives chatting over garden fences in back of terraced housing, next-door-neighbors popping round to borrow cups of sugar, and so forth. But once you go up the class ladder, self-contained privacy becomes the norm: as their descriptors imply, semi-detached and detached houses indicate a weakening of the social bond. That’s what it was like where I grew up, an English commuter town surrounded by fields and woodland but close to London: people were civil but largely kept to themselves.

Ascend some more rungs and you reach the super-rich, who lead completely de-territorialized lives, thanks to their multiple homes and cunning ways to avoid paying tax in the places through which they pass. Privilege is measured by the extent to which you can avoid public space and public transport (private planes and private elevators). You can live as though the humans immediately surrounding you do not exist. Hence the vogue in the posher parts of London for the ultra-wealthy to expand their properties underground, excavating subterranean floors for swimming pools and gyms, blithely disregarding the noisy and dirty disruption caused to everyone else in the street by the building work. The ultimate assault on the idea of “neighborhood” is owning a property without living there, ghosting out an abode as a vessel for investment while pricing out regular folks from the area. If rootless transience—a nomadic lifestyle that mimics the free movements of international capital—is privilege, then conversely it’s those at the bottom who are most territorialized, literally kept in their place. 

Class is a factor, but so is age. Young people who move to cities are partly attracted by the freedom of dislocation, the chance to escape the bonds and binds of belonging to a community. As a twentysomething living in London in the 1980s and 1990s, I recall being barely on nodding terms with neighbors in the various apartment blocks or subdivided houses in which I lived. 


The neighborhood as an extension to family that the uncannily named Hood celebrated seems to exist largely for children. That’s when I remember it as a social fact in my own life: you played with whoever was near to hand. And it was only when I had children myself that I really started to feel like I lived in a neighborhood. That was in the East Village of New York, a city that otherwise would seem to represent the ultimate in disconnection. Yet both within our 12-story apartment-block coop and in the surrounding streets, there was a pleasant sense of community. Children were the glue, or rather the dissolving agent, in terms of interpersonal boundaries. You talked to people with whom you might not have much in common simply because your kids played together. Halloween provided the treat of peering inside the apartments of people on other floors. Compared with the East Village’s jostling intimacy, suburban LA is diffuse, although PTAs, Little League, and “home churches” counteract the centrifugal tendencies of a spread-out, non-pedestrian city. 

Although the freedom for kids to wander around their neighborhoods that some of us enjoyed in the 1960s and 1970s has largely been curtailed by anxious parents, small children still have that here-and-now, face-to-face orientation. But as soon as they get phones, bonding systems emerge that are steadily less related to geographic proximity. They start to resemble adults, with friendship systems organized around taste or interests. My own “true” neighborhoods for some time now have been unmoored from real space and real time: internet-based forms of conviviality and parochialism oriented around musical or intellectual concerns, gathered around blog clusters or message boards. A while back I started jokily addressing readers of my own blog as “parishioners.” And it would have been through a music-sharing blog or an online collective audio-archive that I first heard Neighborhoods some years ago. 

Originally released on his own Thistlefield imprint in an edition of a few hundred, offered for mail-order sale at $5.95 but mostly given away to friends, Neighborhoods gradually found its true audience as it circulated in used record shops, then reached the internet. Hood died in 1991, long before he could see the rediscovery of his one-and-only album. I don’t know if he would recognize file-sharing as a form of neighborliness. But he would surely have felt delight and vindication at its long and winding ascent to cult legend. 

Monday, September 18, 2023

El Ef Oh!


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.

And some bits from my 2008 FACT celebration of Bleep



(Warp, 1990)

Kraftwerk reincarnated as a pair of teenage ex-breakdancers from Leeds, LFO's Mark Bell and Gez Varley took bleep into the Top 20 with this immortal classic. Portentous and momentous like "Trans-Europe Express", the opening synth-chords make you feel like you're being ushered you into the presence of greatness. Then that dark probe of a bassline bores its way into the depths of your brain, via your anus. LFO would go on to record the immaculately inventive Frequencies, one of electronic dance music's All Time Top 5 Albums.


What Is House EP

(Warp, 1992)

Where better to end than with LFO voicing the question originally raised by bleep itself--just how far can house music be stretched and still be house? With its gnarly synth and electronically-distorted spoken-not-sung vocal, the title track sounds like the Fall if Mark E. Smith was reborn as a 20 year old South Yorks pillhead. The concise lyric pays homage to "the pioneers of the hypnotic groove"--from Phuture, Fingers Inc and Adonis to Eno, Tangerine Dream, YMO, Kraftwerk and Depeche--but like all tributes implies: we're more-than-worthy inheritors.

* 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? 

Even more consistent and long-running LFO / Warp / bleep + bass celebration (for the benefit of  certain folks who should know better, and in fact, I wager, actually do know better)

Warp Influences / Classics / Remixes


Warp 10+1 Influences

Warp 10+2 Classics

Warp 10+3 Remixes


Spin, 1999

by Simon Reynolds

UK rave started out as that strange thing--a subculture based almost entirely around import records. In 1988-89, British DJs had several years backlog of  feverish house classics to spin,  plus fresh imports from  Chicago, Detroit and New York every week. Homegrown tracks, mostly inferior imitations, couldn't compete. All this changed by early 1990 with a UK explosion of  indie dance labels and the emergence of a distinctively British rave sound  that merged house with elements of hip hop and reggae. Based in the Northern English industrial city Sheffield, Warp was the greatest of these dance independents, and one of the few to survive the era. Released to commemorate the label's tenth anniversary, these three double-CDs showcase the sharp ears and canny self-reinvention skills that have ensured Warp's longevity and continued relevance.

Warp's first phase of cool came as the prime purveyor of  "bleep-and-bass"--a style that owed as much to electro's pocket-calculator melodies and dub reggae's floorquaking sub-bass as it did to acid house's trip-notic compulsion. Much of Classics sound like a direction Kraftwerk could have followed after 1981's Computer World. Sweet Exorcist's "Clonk," for instance, is like Ralf und Florian lost in the K-hole, an inner-spatial  maelstrom of  weird geometry and precise derangement. Ranging from Tricky Disco's cartoon-quirky almost-pop, through the cold urgency of  LFO and Forgemasters, to Nightmares On Wax's proto-darkside disorientation, Classics is a fabulous document of a forgotten era of UK dance culture. Fortuitously, bleep-and-bass sounds fresher than ever today, chiming not just with the electro renaissance within techno (i/F, Ectomorph) but with the dry, drum machine beats, geometric stab-riffs, and chilly-the-most synth-tones audible in recent rap/R&B--Cash Money bounce boys like Juvenile, Ja Rule's "Holla Holla", Timbaland/Missy/Ginuwine.

Influences mostly consists of  sinister acid house from the import-dominated era of Brit-rave. But two inclusions locate the blueprint for early Warp more precisely in that late Eighties phase when twilight electro merged with the harder, tracks-not-songs side of  house. New York outfit Nitro Deluxe's  1987 "Let's Get Brutal" is a vast drumscape underpinned with tectonic shock-waves of sub-bass and topped by a shrill, staccato keyboard vamp made out of a vocal sample played several octaves too high. Kickstarted by the hilarious vocoderized mission statement "we are the original acid house creators/we hate all commercial house masturbators," and motored by a miasmic bassline that recedes into the  mix then swarms back to subsume your consciousness like malevolent fog,  Unique 3's "The Theme"  was actually the first bleep tune; as their old skool name suggests, the group was a North of England B-boy crew turned ravers.

Where Influences works as a superb primer in early house, Remixes intentionally fails to document the post-bleep Warp that most people know-- revered home of Aphex Twin, Black Dog, Autechre and Squarepusher, those godfathers of IDM  (Intelligent Dance Music, or dance music you can't really dance to). Instead, the double-CD  aims to capture the shape-shifting spirit of  the post-rave network (with its one-off collaborations, multiple aliases, and omnivorous eclecticism) by subjecting some of  Warp's finest to remixes from a host of  suspects usual and unusual.  UK post-rockers Four Tet, for instance, take a track from Aphex's Selected Ambient Works Vol II and turn what was originally as lustrous and near-motionless as crystals forming in a solution into a frisky work-out reminiscent of an over-caffeinated Tortoise. 

Highly listenable, the double-CD nonetheless suffers from the cardinal drawback of modern remixology--rather than enhancing the beloved original or locating some latent potential within it, the remixers almost invariably replace it with an all new track containing only a token trace of the ancestor. In that sense, Warp 10+3 Remixes  effectively evokes the present moment in electronica, where too many producers have got so infatuated with technique, they've lost contact with the dancefloor. Whereas Classics captures a lost moment of perfect coexistence between auteurism and popular desire, when experimentalists (like Sweet Exorcist's Richard H. Kirk, formerly of Cabaret Voltaire) briefly got on the good foot.  

Friday, September 15, 2023

Mo' Wack

Various Artists

Royalties Overdue

Mo' Wax

Melody Maker, June 18 1994

by Simon Reynolds

Headz 2 
(Mo Wax)
Village Voice, 1996 (remixed slightly for Faves of 1996)

by Simon Reynolds 

In the age of compilation gigantism, Headz 2 dramatically ups the ante. Mo 
Wax's latest anthology consists of not one but two separately sold double-CD's  (or two quadruple albums, boxed like Wagner's Parsifal), which contain nearly five-and-a-half hours of music spanning not just trip hop but leading innovators in drum & bass, techno, art-rap and electronica. Before I even saw these dauntingly oversize collections in the stores, I was put off by the air of hubris and self-congratulatory connoisseurship hanging over the project. When I saw them, the deluxe vinyl sets instantly reminded me of those calfskin-bound, gilt-inlaid editions of Dickens (sold through mail-order ads that appeal to "your unstinting pride"), which remain unread on the shelf but testify to an 
interest in being cultured. In Headz case, the word is subcultured. 

Despite their garish abstrakt covers, the vinyl Headz also resemble headstones, 
perhaps because Mo Wax supremo James Lavelle has herein constructed a kind of mausoleum of late '90s "cool". Appropriately, the music itself is sombre and 
subdued, mostly cleaving to the trip hop noir norm: torpid breakbeats, entropic 
sub-bass, dank dub reverb. (When it comes to non-junglistic breakbeats, give me the rowdy, rockist furore of the Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim and their amyl brethren, any day). The same Mo Wax kiss-of-def that resulted in Luke Vibert's only uninteresting release to date affects contributions from the likes of Danny Breaks, whose abandons his normal hyper-kinaesthetics for the idling headnooding tempo of "Science Fu Beats". (Perking the track up to 45 r.p.m improves this, and several other tracks, considerably). 

Mo Wax belong to what you might call the "good music society", or more 
precisely, they belong to a specific "good music society" which dates back to 
the "eclectic" list of influences on Massive Attack's "Blue Lines" (wherein PiL, 
Mahavishnu Orchestra, Isaac Hayes and Studio One coexisted in smug 
self-congratulation). The sensibility is pure fusion: "it's all music, man", 
"what kind of music don't I like? -- just bad music!". Every area of music has 
it own "good music society", its little cabal of cognoscenti, what Kevin Martin 
calls the "taste police": Junior Boys Own for deep house, Creation (in the late 
Eighties at least) for leather-trousered rock, Grand Royal for white American 
B-boyism. Each maintains a canon of cool, and as with all canons, what is 
excluded is as significant as what is included. What is excluded tends to be 
both the vibrantly vulgar and the genuinely extremist/out-there: neither The 
Sweet nor Stockhausen make it. (Although Pierre Henry, bizarrely, has been 
canonised --as a pioneer of E-Z listening alongside Jean-Jacques Perrey!!!).

Bonus hateration

The return of WANKLE 
(from Retromania blog)

I saw an early version of this James Lavelle doc at a festival a few years ago and what amazed me, first and foremost, was how many UNKLE albums there'd been.

The first was bad enough - so I guess I'd assumed that that would have been it

But no, no, they persisted after Psyence Fiction (yuk wot a title) -  there's something like FIVE subsequent UNKLE albums!

And what's worse is that they get increasingly rocky, involving such as Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age

Like Lavelle started buying into this really naff idea of rock rebellion and intensity and authenticity

Like a less tastefully executed version of the Death in Vegas approach - a studio assembled simulacrum of rock, without the actual rhythmic engine of band-energy powering it

I guess it shows the odd lingering prestige of rock - and especially the punk strand within rock - as the ultimate stand-in for rebellion and individuality, which continues to exert its thrall over people who've come up through hip hop or dance music, and whose creative procedures are radically different

For some reason deep in their hearts their burning desire seems to be to collaborate with Noel Gallagher (as with Goldie circa Saturnz Returnz on "Temper Temper") or Pete Doherty or somebody like that, despite being light-years ahead sonically of those guys.

Give this a butchers if you fancy a cringadelic experience

The other thing I gleaned from the doc - and Lavelle's embrace of rockism - was that he'd managed to convince himself that  being a curator really is the same as being a creator -  that's there's really nothing to writing songs, creating a distinctive band-sound, a band-voice.

All you need is some famous pals, and some connections - and taste, and attitude

Simply convening the ingredients would somehow generate vibe in itself, hey presto, through the magic of chutzpah


Hubris 101: not knowing your limits, the nature of what you are actually good at (in his case, arguably at any rate,  branding, packaging, spotting talent in others i.e. Shadow, Krush, building a buzz)

Yet despite this, UNKLE is still going - there's a new album out soon  -  The Road: Part II/Lost Highway -  a "filmic" affair whose cast includes the  Clash’s Mick Jones, Dhani Harrison, Editors’ frontman Tom Smith, The Duke Spirit’s Leila Moss, Mark Lanegan, Keaton Henson, Queens Of The Stone Age’s Jon Theodore and Troy Van Leeuwen, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds vocalist Ysée, Brian Eno collaborator Tessa Angus, producers Justin Stanley and Chris Goss,  BOC,  spoken-word contributions from legendary Scottish actor Brian Cox, and more

First single

Press release:

“Once you have walked the road, everything becomes clear,” says Elliott Power on the Prologue to the sixth album from genre-bending pioneers UNKLE. ‘The Road: Part II / Lost Highway’ is the sound of an artist forever in transit on life’s journey of discovery.

“My work has always had an eclectic essence and soundtrack-influence in its structure,” says Lavelle. “If you go through the back catalogue, there’s a continuity between the motion and the ambition of the sound. Ideally, you’re constantly collaging and sampling elements of what’s relevant at the time to create something new.

“Now, there’s a lot more freedom. When I first started, the walls between genres in front of you were a lot greater to climb. We’re at a much more open-minded and eclectic place with music now.”

"I started doing a show on Soho Radio last year, which made me think about playing records in a different way,” says Lavelle of his life after ‘Part I’. “It wasn’t about trying to make people dance in a nightclub. It was a breath of fresh air, and about playing a more eclectic mix. ‘The Road Part 2’ was made in the same way – it’s a mixtape and a journey. You’re in your car, starting in the day and driving into the night. The language of it was for it to be the ultimate road trip.

He continues: “It’s the mid-part of a trilogy. The first record is like you’re leaving home; you’re naive and trying to discover. There are elements of my early days in there, as well as a bit of everything since. There’s an optimism and excitement to it, as there was with me having to direct this project alone for the first time.

“This record is the journey. You’re on the road, out there in the world. There are let downs, highs, lows, love, loss and experiences. The third record to come is basically about coming home; wherever that may be."

With the album split into two acts each with a beginning, a middle and end, the trips from light to dark, from brute force to tenderness make for both the full arc of the adventure and suites to be enjoyed separately. It’s a bold, assured and confident collection – from the Americana of ‘Long Gone’, to the Kanye West ‘Black Skinhead’ - inspired ‘Nothing To Give’, the alt-orchestral rush of ‘Only You’ to the guitar-heavy mantra of ‘Crucifixion/A Prophet’ and the electronic child’s lullaby of ‘Sun (The)’ – via covers of ‘The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face’ made famous by Roberta Flack and the ‘guilty pleasure’ of the euphoric ‘Touch Me’ by Rui Da Silva. Helping to travel further down the myriad avenues of UNKLE’s sound are the full spectrum of collaborators and guests.

‘The Road: Part II/Lost Highway’ welcomes The Clash’s Mick Jones, Dhani Harrison, Editors’ frontman Tom Smith, The Duke Spirit’s Leila Moss, Mark Lanegan, Keaton Henson, Queens Of The Stone Age’s Jon Theodore and Troy Van Leeuwen, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds vocalist Ysée, Brian Eno collaborator Tessa Angus, producers Justin Stanley and Chris Goss,  BOC,  Philip Sheppard and artist John Isaac among others –  as well as spoken-word contributions from legendary Scottish actor Brian Cox (who used to be Lavelle’s landlord) and Stanley Kubrick’s widow Christiana, who leant her trust and voice to Lavelle following his acclaimed exhibition to the seminal director. The two names who crop up most throughout the record however are rising West London singer and producer Miink and experimental rapper Elliott Power.

“They’re just both so incredibly talented, and everything I love about London right now,” says Lavelle. “I’ve been playing a lot with going back to sampling and going back to certain aesthetics from when I was first buying records and DJing, then to mix that with something contemporary. They’ve helped me create this ‘Bladerunner meets London Soundsystem’ kind of vibe.”

But then, Lavelle has always been an artist as inspired by the past as he was racing towards the future.

“The way that things are now are what we were always doing with Mo’Wax,” says Lavelle. “The legacy was that we broke down barriers, took down everything culturally-lite and put it into something. Now street culture is the predominant visual culture of the world. It’s mad to think that Supreme is more popular and recognised than Louis Vuitton. Every major label and rapper is making sneakers and toys. At the time it was seen as vanity and gimmicky, but look at the way culture is now. That’s what we started.”

The striking artwork of the hooded knight that adorns the sleeve on 'Lost Highway' is by celebrated artist John Stark – renowned for drawing upon magical realism and using the more mystical elements of the past to reveal something profound about the present.

"It’s about the yin and yang, night and day, the rolling journey," says Lavelle of the artwork. "Here's a Ronin-like, lone warrior. It represents what it means for me to be going out into the world and finding myself."

Sunday, September 10, 2023



Analord 01--11
Village Voice, August 30th 2005

By Simon Reynolds

Since the debacle that was 2001’s over-programmed Drukqs, there’s been zero transmissions from Planet Aphex. So when Richard D. James reemerged at the start of the year with the launch of an extended series of EPs, the response from his still sizeable cult mingled joy, skepticism, and a heap of curiosity. Could James--once techno’s greatest melodist-- possibly have anything more to give?

The analog-only concept underpinning Analord seemed like a tacit admission that, like so many of his peers, during the late Nineties James had gotten lost in the mire of options offered by state-of-art technology. Riddled with detail and addled by effects, Drukqs’ delirium tremens of twitchy-glitchy beats and fruitless FruityLoops-ery suggested it was time for a drastic rethink. In the Dogme-like spirit of Holger Czukay’s maxim “restriction is the mother of invention,” on Analord James shuns digital signal processing, plug-ins and “virtual studio technology” programs in favor of synths, sequencers, and house music’s favorite tools, the Roland 909 drum machine and the Roland 303 bassline generator (source of the wibbly-bibbly acid-sound). The series stages a strategic retreat to the sort of set-up James used at the very start of his career some fifteen years ago.

Consistent with the analog concept, these EPs are vinyl-only releases, high quality pressings from whose deep grooves emanate sounds as thick and glossy as the platters themselves. Vinyl fiends always bang on about “warmth”, but that’s not exactly what you hear on Analord, given that the music is electronic and therefore innately glacial. But even before you appraise the tracks as compositions, your ears are struck by the rich presence of the sound. Vinyl-fetishism is also a crucial aspect of the EPs visual appeal: transparent sleeves invite your eyes to feast on the inky blackness.

Analord 11 is where the series has paused (for breath, or permanently, it’s not clear), which makes now a good moment to survey the length and breadth of what by any standard constitutes a formidable amount of sound (three 74 minute CD-R’s worth) to have issued in just six months. Alongside reverting to the restricted means available to him as a youth, it seems like James has also tried to recover the creative mindset. Circa ‘95, jungle threw the entire “electronic listening music” community off-balance, making producers focus their creativity on rhythmic complexity rather than haunting melody (the genre’s true forte). Analord reverses that priority. The beats, while deftly programmed, assume a largely subservient role; mood and melodiousness return to the fore. These tracks invoke a time when the concept of “machine soul” was fresh and inspirational: the era of classic releases by Derrick May, Fingers Inc, LFO, Carl Craig, The Black Dog, et al, long before chopped-up breakbeats impinged on the “purity” of electronic music.

The crucial question, though, is whether any Analord tracks approach the heights of James’ own classic phase (1991’s “Analogue Bubblebath” to 1995’s “Alberto Balsalm”, approximately). The answer: not quite, but close enough. If the weaker material recalls the output of James’ early Nineties second-division pseudonyms, the better pieces--the lustrous chitter of “Boxingday” (A3), the cyborg-toad jabber of “Analoggins” (A6), the writhy glisten of “”Backdoor. Netshadow” (A9)--display his unique flair for clustered dissonances, ghostly harmonic wisps, and eerie in-between emotions. (Consumer Guidance: your best buys are 2, 3, 10, and 11). The pieces that linger in your memory possess a somber, sorrowful quality: the pensive, frowning chords of “Pissed Up In Sel” (A2), the weepy-eyed melody-foam of
“Pwsteal.ldpinch.D” (A8), the dank mazes of glum that take up side two of Analord 11.

Instrumentally, the most Valued Player here isn’t the near-omnipresent 303 but whatever reverb unit James uses to drape his sounds in his signature shroud of muzzy melancholy. You start to wonder: could it be that The Aphex Twin is, like, depressed? Has he been dumped (one mournful ditty is titled “Where’s Your Girlfriend?”)? Or is this simply the blues of the innovator who ran out of future, and who’s gone back in the hope of finding a better way forward?

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Stewart Home - Pure Mania - Melody Maker, January 20 1990

Reprinted in celebration of the reissue this month of Pure Mania 

Stewart Home is doing an event at Typewronger Books in Edinburgh, on September 10, at 7pm. Details here. .

 Déjà vu - or  déjà lu?

Monday, September 4, 2023

Criminal Injustice


+ micro interviews with MY BLOODY VALENTINE and BARK PSYCHOSIS

Melody Maker, summer 1994

[whole feature package below with contributions from Carl Loben and Ngaire Ruth + bonus material]

by Simon Reynolds

   The Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill is oozing its way through the parliamentary digestive tract and will be probably be passed into Law by a Commons majority in July.  It contains a host of pernicious extensions of police powers, but it's Part 5 that will affect your world most, with its devastating attack on the radical fringe of pop culture: illegal raves, free festivals,
squatting and travellers.

     Cutting through the Bill's legalistic nuances, the gist of Part 5's provisions is as follows.  First, it gives the police hugely expanded and highly discretionary powers to thwart raves.  Whilst a rave is defined by the Bill as a mere 100 people playing amplified music "characterised by the emission of a
succession of repetitive beats" , the most disturbing clause allows the police to harass gatherings as small as ten.  If an officer "reasonably believes" the ten are setting up a rave, or merely waiting for one to start, he can order them to disperse; if they fail to do so ASAP, they're committing a crime, punishable by a three month prison sentence or a œ2500 fine.  Moreover, the police are granted
the power to stop anyone who comes within a one mile radius of this 'rave' and direct them not to proceed. The leeway for local police to interpret events, and the scope for abuse, is enormous.

     Another bunch of provisions practically illegalise squatting. If an 'interim possession order' is granted against squatters, they have 24 hours to leave; failure to do so, or returning to the premises any time within a year, is punishable by a prison sentence of 6 months or a œ5000 fine.  Part 5 of the Bill also includes draconian measures to deal with trespass and unauthorised campers (i.e travellers) and against 'aggravated trespass' (aimed at hunt saboteurs, but these could be used to suppress, say, environmental protests against new motorways.)

     As a whole, the Criminal Justice Bill is a desperate attempt by a decrepit government to toughen up its image.  (Labour, chickenshit about opposing the Bill for fear of seeming "soft on crime", looks likely to abstain rather than vote against it.) The origins of Part 5 go back to the Castlemorton mega-rave of May '92, which created a new 'folk devil' in the crusty-raver/New Age traveller. The
ensuing media panic about this unfamiliar subculture convinced the public that hordes of unwashed, drug-crazed, outlandishly garbed anarcho-mystics were set to descend upon hitherto genteel neighbourhoods, whereupon they would blast deafening hardcore techno for 7 days solid, sell acid to children and shit on the shrubbery.

    Few people sympathise with travellers and squatters; fewer still are prepared to defend them. So it's been easy for the government to add them to the list of 'enemies of society' targetted by the Criminal Justice Bill.  It may be hard to believe, but Kenneth Baker once lumped squatters in with armed robbers and rapists as wrong-doers that the Tories vowed to "get tough" with.  Squatters!
who harm nobody but just help themselves by taking over abandoned, usually derelict buildings (90% of squats are empty public sector housing owned by local authorities).  Squatters!  who actually preserve the market value of these delapidated domiciles by fixing them up.  Of course, the Bill doesn't appeal to reason or statistical reality, but to bigotry and paranoia--the consternation
caused by those who look and live differently.  And it appeals to a secret resentment many feel towards those who repudiate 'straight' reality (suburban slow-death via the satellite dish and other forms of stupefaction).  Sort of: "I don't live today--so why should they?!"

     But why should you care about the rights and the plight of squatters, travellers and other n'er-do-well deviants?  Simply because Part 5 of the Bill threatens to extinguish some of the crucial spaces in which radical popular culture has survived and thrived over the last 25 years. Squat culture has been the breeding ground for bands as diverse as the Sex Pistols, My Bloody Valentine
and The Shamen.  Squatting enables bands to survive through those difficult, impecunious early days, especially if they're trying to do something innovative or uncommercial. Much the same applies to artists, film-makers, writers etc. Destroy squatting, and our pop culture will be depleted--not instantly, but insidiously and inevitably.

    Warehouse and squat parties, illegal raves, and the free festival circuit are also vital spaces for alternative culture. Ever since the 30,000 strong gathering of the tribes that was Castlemorton, the police have been determined to crush the sound-systems and the festival-bound convoys; the Criminal Justice Bill provides them with an embarassment of powers to abuse.  Local police forces are already collaborating in the use of computers to log data on 8000 travelers (including info on their vehicles, nicknames and associates).  Some county police forces are determined to ensure that even legal raves don't happen this summer.

    All these developments reinforce a general trend in British society over the last decade: the contraction of possibility. Dole culture (another breeding ground of bands) has been all but obliterated, via the harassment of claimants, compulsory Restart programmes etc.  Once students were able to use their time to explore ideas as well acquire marketable skills.  But the loan system and the removal of dole and housing benefits have plunged them into debt and into dread;
now they must scurry up the conformist career ladder in order to pay off loans and overdrafts. The impoverishment of students (who incidentally make up eight percent of the squatting population) and the bare subsistence offered by dole, have a knock-on effect on pop culture: there's a severely reduced market for interesting, risk-taking music, media and culture generally.  Only the most dedicated bands and labels perservere with innovation in the face of declining sales and meagre prospects.  The effects of all the above converge to create a palpable feeling of contraction in the culture, a withering away of possibility, daring and risk.

    All these effects on pop life may seem minor compared to the other sinister ramifications of the Criminal Justice Bill: the removal of the right to silence, arbitrary stop-and-search powers for the police, and a host of other measures that push this country closer towards what has been called "elective tyranny".  A decrease in the number of interesting rock bands may seem a negligible
side-effect of the illegalisation of squatting, given its more immediate result: another 50,000 added to the number of homeless sleeping rough on the streets.

    But since Melody Maker is a music magazine, in this 4 page special we focus on the ways in which our turf--rock and rave culture--is threatened; at the ways your world is being circumscribed and impoverished.


   Colm O 'Ciosig (drummer): "Originally, it was just a question of finding somewhere to live when Kevin Shields and I first came to London. We couldn't afford a deposit for a flat, so we squatted a house in Kentish Town.  It's more fun living in squatland anyway, outside the landlord system.  It raises your spirit, whereas bedsitland makes you apathetic.  You have to be quiet, it's
really oppressive.  If we hadn't squatted, we'd probably have got really depressed and left London.  We paid for our first records with dole.  If we'd also had to pay rent, we'd have had to get jobs, and doing something we didn't want to do would have destroyed our spirit. We sat around a lot, sure, but that's conducive to coming up with ideas. We wrote the 'You Made Me Realise' EP in a
rehearsal room in our squat."
     Bilinda Butcher (guitar/vocals): "I squatted for four years in the barrier block on Coldharbour Lane, Brixton.  Having a baby boy, I wouldn't have been able to be in a band without the squatting community, cos they ran creches. And MBV wouldn't have gotten anywhere if we hadn't been able to squat. You can't practise in a bedsit.  You need somewhere you feel free to make a noise. Plus, if we'd
been paying rent we'd never have had enough money to pay for rehearsal space and gear and guitar strings, which are always breaking.  If the Bill is passed I don't know how bands starting out will manage.  The whole music scene will suffer, there'll only be room for mainstream stuff."


     "I don't go along with the hippy baggage that surrounds the squat lifestyle, that whole heroic outsider thing," says singer/guitarist Graham Sutton, who squatted for several years with (now former) Bark bassist John Ling.  "For us, it was more a survival thing, surviving to make music. It made sense to dodge rent and poll tax.  There was kind of a punk, DIY ethic to it, too--fixing up the
place, doing your own decorating, electrics, plumbing.  Where we squatted (Claremont Road in Leyton, East London) was quite a scene: every other house was squatted, and everybody was doing creative things. There wasn't that wastoid culture element.  That scene got a name for itself, and for a couple of years it was really good--lots of parties, a real community feeling. Then they started
evicting people to make way for the M11.  I'd already left, for rented accomodation, 'cos the scene had become a bit of a bubble.
     "What I find weird about the 'crime' of squatting is that it doesn't make sense, even according to Tory logic.  Most squatters repair the places they live, cos it's horrible to live in a shit-hole. They're saving these places from deteriorating and losing their value."

From future Labour MP  Rupa Huq 
(who had also done work experience at Melody Maker at some point either before or after this letter)

All clips via Nothingelseon