Monday, September 29, 2003

Old School Classics

It’s initially somewhat jarring to think of an album like The Future Sound of London’s 1992 debut full-length, Accelerator, as being “old school.” Jarring, maybe, because I’m not entirely sure what the term “old school” fully implies, while at the same time I share, at least with a few, the implicit agreement that by granting it such status we give ourselves a new set of tools with which to evaluate it, however tenuous.

I think, at the most basic level, that when an album begins to be referred to as “old school” it has passed some vaguely agreed upon criteria that allows it entry into a new historical echelon where it’s endowed with all sorts of interesting cultural signifiers and, most importantly, a kind of elevated, “classic” status.

Uh-Oh. Am I saying Accelerator is entering the canon and now endowed with all the privileges that come along with such a gesture? Sure. Well, let me make myself clear, because I, like many, find such things like the idea of canon's to be troublesome if not downright dubious. So, how about if it's just my own canon, mind you, just my own and maybe a few others. A personal canon, not one force-fed via the agreed upon curriculums of, say, various English departments in the university system. Like all canons, however, mine is a guide, and here we’re hoping to highlight one of the seminal works of electronic music from the early 90’s. I want to talk about its many commendable attributes and elevate its special status in my collection. I have an agenda. This album rocked my world, man!

Just how long must pass before something can be called “old school” is a topic of great concern for many. (And the term itself seems to apply generally to albums only, especially hip-hop, but increasingly I’ve seen it used when referring to old albums of electronic music.) From what I can tell, a decade seems to be the agreed upon threshold an album must travel before being endowed with this particular status, though I know there exists a strong contingency arguing for 15 to 20 years as well. They’re preparing their very own position papers as we speak, gearing up to launch an all-out campaign to reach as many music collectors as possible in hopes of persuading their allegiances to the simple idea that any culture living in the present must regulate its nostalgia for another time to cycles of (at a minimum) 15 to 20 years. This longer nostalgia cycle seems to be well established in the world of Fashion where, for example, 20 years prior is always so very now. Same with television, where each season introduces at least one popular sitcom that rides on the premise of making fun of what we looked like, talked like and consumed 20 years prior. (Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, The Wonder Years, That 70’s Show being some of the more popular and enduring examples of this.) Some folks, however, believe that the cycle for when we begin co-opting the cultural signifiers of a previous time and incorporating them into our own is speeding up, perilously growing closer to a time when we find ourselves overwhelmed with near-paralyzing nostalgia for the present. What we all share, I suppose, is a desire for agreed upon nostalgia boundaries, preferably our own. When it comes to music, a decade seems as good a number as any that must pass before granting an album with “old school” status.

We like out eras wrapped up in nice bows. We like them comprehensive. At the end of the 80’s and 90’s newsstands were flooded with retrospectives for the decade that had passed. Best, I find, are the glossy news magazines and their tidy and effective, The Decade in Pictures issues. Bathroom reading of the highest caliber, an editor’s ode to the zeitgeist of the last decade as revealed through images of natural destruction, war, athletic triumph, perfectly coifed politicians, twenty-five million a movie celebrities and a scattering of sparkling moments that represent what is commonly referred to as “the American spirit,” they act as easily digestible summaries of the previous ten years. Sometimes there’s a picture of people cheering, always there’s a picture of an extraordinary child and an act of heroism- of trapped men freed from mines and babies from wells. Looking at them, we have mini-eureka moments as we cast back all those years ago and recall elements of our shared popular history. But maybe it’s not really “history,” per se, but a kind of mythology. Some of those images, just a few, will go on to become potent entities of their own, acting as cultural signifiers that become a kind of short-hand for a more complex, grossly intertwined set of social and economic indicators. They’ll appear again and again alongside articles, books, documentaries and textbooks that seek to summarize or simply comprehend an era, accumulating more and more status as a touchstone for our collective understanding of a particular era. They’ll move further and further away from their original essence and take on all sorts of additional baggage. They become visual metaphors. Accelerator is one of those touchstones for me, a tool for understanding my own musical history as well as the larger more amorphous collective history of electronic music. It no longer packs the same punch it used to (time has not been kind to some of the tracks on the album) but as a signifier for where my own tastes and musical exploration were headed, I find it fascinating.

Accelerator’s most celebrated track, 1992’s top 20 UK hit, Papua New Guinea, has accumulated some interesting cultural baggage. After more then a decade, it now sits in the beginning of the 90’s and acts as a kind of port of entry into the then nascent IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) and Ambient movements. There was something about this track that was noticeably different from so much of the hardcore (‘ardkore) rave music surrounding it at the time. Sure, you could dance to it, but you could also recline in your armchair and read a book to it as well- at least that was the marketing construct the good folks at Warp Records used when they surveyed the scene, noticed the need and launched their Artificial Intelligence series, compiling some of the first ever CD recordings by folks like Autechre and The Black Dog. The music was more “intelligent” and “enduring” then the more “hedonistic” and “disposable” dance floor fodder. It was “electronic listening music.” Thus, the term Intelligent Dance Music (IDM) was birthed, with all its sticky connotations. And truth be told, there were many of us who were ready and waiting for such music. We were having a blast on the dance floor, sure, but sometimes we didn’t want all that sub-bass and pumping beats while we kicked back with a good book on a Sunday afternoon. Papua New Guinea acted as a kind of halfway house. It had a lazy, shuffling breakbeat (the same one, I believe, that propelled The Prodigy’s Charlie to such commercial success, who had, in turn, lifted it from Meat Beat Manifesto’s 1990 classic, Radio Babylon and where Jack Dangers took it from, I have no idea) a lovely seraphic sample of Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard, (taken from the track Host of Seraphim from their masterpiece, The Serpents Egg) and chugging reggae bass line (again, lifted from Radio Babylon) along with a heady mesh of samples (submarine “pings,” various industrial-like reverberations, a random house diva, etc.) that acted as polyrhythms or sonic splashes of sound.

All this talk about samples makes me think that I would like it very much if somebody would begin a website that traced samples from their origin (that is, the original, in all its pre-sampled wholesomeness) through its many appearances elsewhere, chronologically. Could you imagine somebody trying to catalog all the sampled appearances of James Brown’s infamous “Whoo! Yeah!” plundered from his Lynn Collins production of the mighty Think (About It)?

I don’t know much about Brian Dougans and Garry Cobain, the duo behind The Future Sound of London. Their public personas (that odd accumulation of characteristics gleaned from various reviews, interviews and press releases) painted them as a couple techno hippies conspiring to fuse the technological with the spiritual. They would have been perfect Wired cover boys, joining that impressionable readership as “digital revolutionaries.” (It took Wired a few years, but after Moby learned to play the kind of kick-ass capitalism game their readership craves, turning his songs into commercial jingles, they crowned him with a cover and the headline, “Tech-smart, self-effacing & supremely market savvy.”) Their own album covers were usually wonky collages of psychedelic imagery and fetishistic close-ups of gear. They seemed carefully constructed to appear as being on the forefront of gee-whiz cutting edge technology, guru’s living in a virtual world and creating their very own rainbow soundtrack using the most up to date equipment. Truth be told, back in the early 90’s I adored all this. Of course, part of it was my own desire to get my hands on all that cost-prohibitive musical equipment and joyfully while away my afternoons and evenings creating intricate sample-fuelled musical collages of my own. I couldn’t help but live a bit vicariously and cheer them on. I followed the downward arc of their output up through their mildly interesting1996 release, Dead Cities. After that, the duo seemed to stop recording all together, releasing their first new album of new material just last year, 2002's The Isness to less then enthusiastic response.

For me, Accelerator is lumped in with Aphex Twins’s Ambient Works 85-92, LFO’s Frequencies, the KLF’s Chill Out, Biosphere’s Microgravity, Reload’s A Collection of Short Stories, The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, Ultramarine’s Every Man and Women is A Star, Jam and Spoon’s Stella single and all the artists featured on Warp Record’s first Artificial Intelligence compilation. Accelerator was also one of the first full-length albums of the electronic music representative of the acid/warehouse/house/techno/rave/ movement that was, by 1992, 4 years old and going strong in the UK but only just then becoming available (via imports) in the U.S. And it rocked my world. Passing that ten year mark, it can safely be hailed as an old school classic.

Accelerator’s first track, Expander, was something of a revelation. A big old driving funky break but with splashes of samples acting as polyrhythmic shadings. The production savvy was on par with the Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, only darker and far less meandering. The taut, innovative use of samples (such attention to detail!) coupled with the driving rhythm seemed to herald a new direction in electronic music.

Stolen Documents is like an early tech-house prototype, the drum programming, when they aren’t sampling beats, matched the best grooves coming out of Detroit- in fact, some jazzy Juan Atkins style synth chords fizz things up considerably. Again, the groove is paramount, with all sorts of samples shading things in a heady polyrhthmatic collage. There has always been something cinematic about their work, a kind of wide-screen grandeur, but where they excelled the most, especially on this album, was with the sound design. Behind all the grooves they were carefully creating exciting kaleidoscope collages of exuberantly manipulated sonics.

While Others Cry is definitely one of the album’s stand-out tracks. It has a loose, jazz-house feel to it, with a somber but oh, so soulful sample of a man (who?) singing “Day’s go by, people pray, days go by while others die.”. This was once a mix-tape favorite of mine. It’s a cross-over hit that never was. A beautiful vibes breakdown about mid-way through the song warms things up considerably and, again, the beat programming is never any thing less then sublime.

Calcium is a warning of things to come. The first 30 seconds of the song act as a harbinger of sorts to the kind of stoned meanderings (lost amongst a fine collection of samples carefully strained through all sorts of sound processors and turned into a fine mush) that would go on to plague the bands future work. That is, come later albums Dougans and Cobain would forfeit their prodigious talents as purveyors of the perfect blend of killer beats and textured samples and content themselves to wallow in what seem to be cannabis inspired soundscapes, so amorphous and murky they might as well have been swamp gas. Here, though, both were still residing on planet earth, and when the groove comes in accompanied by deep bass the song is at least catchy enough to demand some respect.

It’s Not My Problem comes from the same school as Front 242’s Headhunter or Cabaret Voltaire’s Don’t Argue, a couple of late 80’s pop-industrial dance floor anthems. A sample of a vanilla smooth politician is heard dryly intoning, “It’s not my problem,” over ricocheting beats and other sounds overheard at the apocalypse. To underscore all this, a drone at the songs end has a discombobulated vocal repeating, “Primarliy controlled and operated….” It's a reminder of just how much fun creepy can be.

1 in 8 (also known as Innate) is my favorite track on the album. A gritty beat builds up before a perfectly placed “Oh, wow” sample, full of wide-eyed Disney like wonder, ushers in a massive groove and rolling sub-bass. Throughout the album, Dougans and Cobain drop some killer bongo loops in to flush things out and add additional funk to the mix and never more successfully then here. They add some succulent bleeps and blonks and an absolutely killer house diva who demands that you, “Love me….Love me….Yeah!” It’s body poppin’ music of the highest caliber.

Pulse State is the album’s most blatant homage to Detroit techno. It nicely follows the Derrick May rule book, replicating his exquisitely delicate, ever-building drum programming (how he relishes the trebly hiss of the dancing cymbals) and there’s a slyly morphing, funky-ass glurp of a baseline- even some overtly inspired Strings-of Life string stabs too. Some heavenly choired synth pads enter into the proceeding and don’t help things much, but they don’t do too much damage.

Central Industrial, Accelerator’s last cut, begins with the sample, “We are the new generation.” It continues the vague political-conspiracy thread we find appearing in some of the songs. None of the tracks on the album are what one might first describe as joyful. The atmosphere’s they create, the landscapes they provide, the beats they lay down, all reside in the dark early morning hours of the future. They’re both soulful, like all the best Detroit tracks, (May’s Strings of Live, Underground Resistance’s Jupiter Jazz, Kenny Larkin’s Metaphor album, Model 500’s Night Drive) and futuristic, indebted as they are to the likes of George Clinton, Kraftwerk and those first Detroit Techno albums to reach the English shores in the Summer of '88.