Saturday, January 6, 2018

Roni Size / Reprazent

In the Mode 
Talkin' Loud)
Uncut, 2000

by Simon Reynolds

Call it the Mystery of Subcultural Persistence--the reason why there's Goths galore in the Y2K, why death metal refuses to die, why there's 16 year old kids with gel-spiked hair and Discharge T-shirts mooching around St. Mark's Place. Fact is, at any given moment, 95 percent of listeners are not "in the place to be" (as decreed by style mags and hipster vanguardists). 

Long after its claims to cutting edge-ness have faded and its street audience got hijacked by UK garage, drum'n'bass mysteriously persists. Globally, there's more producers and labels than ever, and pioneers like Omni Trio are up to Album #4 already. And now here's Size & the Reprazent crew with the sequel to 1997's New Formssimultaneously the highwater mark of jungle's crossover and an aesthetic pinnacle.

Against all the odds, it's a terrific record. Like last year's Breakbeat Era project and Krust's solo debut, In the Mode is darker and harder than the jazz-inflected New Forms, largely replacing the latter's warm acoustic instrumentation and lavish arrangements with nagging computer bleats and garbled cluster-fucks of dirty samples. It's also the Bristol clan's most concerted effort yet to align themselves with hip hop, expertly weaving guest rhymes from
Method Man, Rage Against the Machine's Zack, and human beatbox jester Rahzel, into the frenetic rhythmic onrush. 

The only slight disappointment is those beats---pulse-racingly urgent but (like most drum'n'bass these past three years)rather linear in their chase-scene propulsion. Whither the frisky topsy-turviness and polyrhythmic exuberance of jungle's annus mirabilus, 1994?

Still, tunes like the Onalee-crooned "Lucky Pressure" show that Size & Co remain unrivalled at integrating songfulness with jungle's dense, fissile grooves. 

Overall, an unexpected triumph. Long may they persist. 

New Forms 
(Talkin’ Loud/Mercury)

director's cut version, Spin, November 1997

by Simon Reynolds

Its day in the British media limelight past, jungle is now in disarray. Riven by schisms--the white industrial sado-masochismo of techstep versus the populist boisterousness of jump up--the scene has lost much of its black audience to yet another new London sound: speed garage, soulful house music turbo-boosted with sub-bass and rude-boy ragga samples. Meanwhile, increasingly divorced from the dancefloor and its dissensions, album-oriented drum’n’bass (jungle’s respectable cousin) is firmly established as an art form and industry in itself, winning a pop audience that has never experienced the music in its proper context of DJ rewinds and MC chatter.

Leading the pack of impending major label debuts (Adam F, Dillinja, Krust, 4 Hero, Source Direct, to name a few) Roni Size’s New Forms is to '97 what Timeless was to '95 and Logical Progression to '96. It’s this year's consensus electronica album, the double-disc magnum opus garlanded with critical acclaim and hyped with the dubious sales-pitch "if you only buy one jungle album this year....". Roni Size and his Bristol-based Reprazent clan (DJ Die, Krust, Sov) have even won the UK’s prestigious Mercury Music Prize--a seal of approval that will doubtless doom jungle as outsider chic. Some scene insiders are already complaining that the fusion-flavored New Forms is mere coffee table jungle-lite.

But then white bohemians (myself included) have never truly grasped why the likes of LTJ Bukem glimpse utopia in the jazz-funk of Lonnie Liston Smith and Roy Ayers, why Goldie flips out for the fuzak of The Yellowjackets and mid-Eighties Miles Davis. New Forms is a timely reminder that elegance can be a form of rebellion for the black working class (not just straightforwardly upwardly mobile aspiration). From Earth Wind and Fire and Chic to today's G-funk and nu-R&B, the regal panache and sheer slickness of sound communicate a kind of defiance, a refusal of your allotted place in the social pyramid. Like Notorious BIG/playa rap's commodity fetishism (Hillfiger, Cristal, Rolexes, Hennesy, Lexus et al), New Forms’ sonic luxury --stand-up bass, lush strings and jazzed cadences--proclaim: "Nothing's too good for us".

Yet often when electronic musicians attempt a synthesis of sequenced sound with "musicality" ("real" vocals, "live" playing), the result is an embarassing mish-mash; witness the worst bits of Timeless. If New Forms mostly escapes that dire fate, it's because Size/Reprazent are minimalists where Goldie is a maximalist (I quail at the prospect of the G-man’s forthcoming 45 minute track recorded with a 30-piece orchestra). Stepped in the Bristol confluence of dub reggae and hip-hop that spawned Massive Attack and Tricky,  Reprazent understand that the real "jazz thing" going on in drum & bass doesn't involve sampling electric piano licks or hiring a session-musician to noodle out a sax solo. Rather, it resides in the rhythm section--the tangential relationship between the hyper-syncopated breakbeats and the roaming, ruminative but always visceral bass. Strip away the stereo-panned streaks of abstract tone-color and the Pat Metheny-style guitar glints from "Matter of Fact" and the track is basically a richotet-rimshot drum solo (albeit one painstakingly constructed over days of red-eyed computer-screen toil rather than played in real-time and in a real acoustic space).

The first disc of New Forms contains all the "big tunes", as well as the most overt nods towards jazz: the double bass driven "Brown Paper Bag", the title track with its tongue-twistingly sibilant scat-rap from Bahamadia, and the gorgeous singles "Heroes" and "Share The Fall," both graced by the torch-song croon of Onalee). "Share The Fall" isn't as good a song as "Heroes", but it's better jungle. Singing inside your flesh, the beat is the melody, its rolling tumble of rapid-fire triplets making you step fierce like a bebop soldier.

Disc Two of New Forms is more cinematic and soundtrack-to-life oriented, achieving a widescreen feel and Technicolor sheen rivaled only by Spring Heel Jack. "Trust Me", for instance, sounds like it might be woven out of offcuts from Dudley Moore's symphonic jazz score for the Sixties movie Bedazzled. Truer to jungle’s anonymous funktionalism, the tracks on Disc Two strip away song-structures and "proper" vocals to reveal a music of lustrous details. Drum & bass is an engineer's art, oriented around specifications and special effects, timbres and treatments. What you listen for is the sculpted rustle and glisten of hi-hat and cymbal figures, the contoured plasma of the bass, the exquisitely timed placement of horn stabs and string cascades. You thrill to the music's murderous finesse--intricacies and subleties designed to enhance the ganjadelic mind-state but which are so nuanced and three-dimensional that they stone you all by themselves.

After techstep’s explosive psychosis and dirty distortion, New Forms offers implosive anxiety and obsessive-compulsive cleanliness of production. Tracks like the eerie, menthol-cool "Hot Stuff" modulate your metabolism like the impossibly refined neurochemical engineering and designer drugs of the next century. New forms, for sure--but  in Roni Size/Reprazent’s music, the clash between the ghettocentric exuberance of the breakbeats and the opulent arrangements of the studio also forges new emotions: tense serenity, suave unease, fervent ambivalence. 

Friday, January 5, 2018

Voodoo Magic

Equinox, London
Melody Maker, May 1994

by Simon Reynolds

The host: Moving Shadow, the UK's leading "intelligent hardcore" label. The line-up: jungle's top DJs, including  the ubiquitous Randall, Grooverider, Ray Keith, Brockie and LTJ Bukem, plus PA's from Moving Shadow's three most popular artists, Foul Play, Omni Trio and Deep Blue. The venue: Equinox, a  slightly cheesy disco on Leicester Square usually full of tourists, whose 
balconies and upholstered alcoves provide welcome rest and respite for the combat-fatigued and shellshocked. 

For hardcore is warzone music; its jagged breakbeats are  treacherous, a simulation of the minefield that is modern life. Hardcore strafes the listener's body with percussion, so that dancing is like striding into a stream of machine-gun snares and ricocheting paradiddles, while bass-bombs send 
shockwaves through your intestines. But, with Moving Shadow's brand of hardcore, the danger-beats are incongruously swathed with soothing, silken tenderness: strings, harps, jazz-fusion 
chords, soul-diva sighs and gasps, plus the kind of woogly textures you'd usually hear from The Irresistible Force. 

This "ambient hardcore" sound was traiblazed on tracks like "Music" by LTJ Bukem (who plays a brilliant set, finding an extra five notches of volume to really detonate the night) and "Open Your Mind" by FOUL PLAY. Sadly, FP don't include this sublime song in their PA, but they do debut their fab new single ["Being With You"], all phuture-jazz synth-clusters and diva 
beseechings, while lazers scythe and slash the crowd. Foul Play also 'play' their remix of Hyper-On-Experience's "Lords Of the Null Lines", demonstrating how fluid the notion of  'authorship' is in this scene, where an anthem's life is prolonged by endless, drastically altered versions. 

After Bukem's set, Andy C keeps the music rollin'. Junglists and junglettes do a palsied version of 'steppers', originally a roots reggae dance that involves skipping on the spot like a manic jig'n'reel. But with jungle, it's like they're Morris-dancing on bullets. The crowd tonight mixes 
chic, style-conscious sophisticates (usually black or Asian) and dressed-down white kids who mostly look like they're well under the 18 age limit emblazoned on the flyer. There's all sorts here tonight, friendly luv'd up types who probably secretly mourn the days of "happy 'ardcore", and the moody, 
self-contained junglists into dark tunes, who despise the rave ethos with its Vicks, white gloves and gushing euphoria. 

OMNI TRIO hit the stage, or rather a proxy does, since the true creator behind this country's sublimest dance-pop is a 38 year old Can fan who prefers to remain an enigma. The 
stand-in pretends to knob-twiddle as Omni's classic "Renegade Snares" tears up the floor, with its soul-shocking cannonades of polyrhythm, hypergasmic chorus "c'mon, take me UP!" and 
sentimental verging on twee piano motif. Then the MC announces "the one 'n' only, the livin' legend", DEEP BLUE.  The latter is a unassuming bloke whose "The Helicopter Tune" is still massive after 6 months floor-life. Recently reissued with 4 remixes, it sold 22 thousand and became the first 
hardcore track to go Top 70 in years. Based around a geometric Latin beat cranked up like some crazed clockwork mechanism, "Helicopter" gets the crowd seething like a cauldron. 

A few hours later, we stumble bleary and squinting into a viciously crisp dawn, battered and bruised but still glowing with the beauty-terrorism of "Voodoo Magic."

bonus beats

Moving Shadow, ASHADOW 2LP/CD, 11 tks/72 mins/FP
            With next to no media profile, Foul Play's John Morrow and Steve Bradshaw have quietly built up one of the finest back catalogues in drum & bass. As is the norm with jungle albums, the back-cat is basically what you get on "Suspected": this is Foul Play's greatest hits, reworked by the band plus a r-r-r-rollcall of famous remixers, and bulked up with a handful of new tracks. While this makes "Suspected" a superb introduction for the uninitiated, for fans who've been following the duo's career for a while, it's a tad disappointing (ditto the ratio of new to old material on Omni Trio's "Deepest Cut" and Goldie's "Timeless").
            Still, fans will crave those remixes, which all add new dimensions to the beloved prototypes. "Re-Open Your Mind" remodels Foul Play's 1993 classic (possibly my fave drum & bass track of all time), retaining the goosepimply synth-ripple (still the ultimate aural analogue of a skin-tingling E-rush) but convoluting the beats and bass in accordance with 1995 specifications, and making the twilight-zone bridge passage even more ethereal. "Total Control" is rinsed and blow-dried by Desired State (one of several alter-egos used by top production team Andy C & Ant Miles), who toughen the beats and sub-bass and  curb the original's misguided sax solo (for which, many thanks).
             Then come all four new tracks in a row. "Ignorance" sustains "Total"'s military-jazz vibe, with stabbing bass and almost be-bop hi-hats and cymbals, which are programmed with such glistening intricacy they tie your ears in knots. Less impressive is "Artifical Intelligence": E-Z listening jungle, its Mantovani strings and twinkling tinkles of cocktail piano conjuring up a rather obvious aura of  'heaven'. As does "Night Moves", a stab at downtempo hip hop graced by a keyboard motif uncomfortably close to Omni Trio's "Together". "Strung Out" is far better, living up to its paranoiac title with fidgety, feverish snares, a stalking B-line and an edgy, persecuted guitar-figure that sounds like it might be sampled from Santana or somesuch jazzbo fret-wanker.
            The remainder of "Suspected"  reverts back to   { TO: SIMON PRICE
Foul Play's 'Club Classics, Vol 1'. "Cuttin' Loose" is a drastic revamp of the duo's contribution to Moving Shadow's experimental EP series "Two On One". Kickstarted with an unnerving Afro-futurist kazoo motif sampled from Herbie Hancock, the track unleashes a swarm of scuttling breaks, glassy percussion and furtive, sidling bass. "The Stepperemix" is even more militantly minimal, an endless tidal wave of rustling snares and metallic rim-shots, sheer digital gamelan. Hopa & Bones' evisceration of "Being With You" is the most brutal of the four  remixes this late '94 beauty has undergone, with a brand new drum & bass undercarriage and a spray-job to boot. Wiping the floor with the fusion-lite that dominated  'intelligent'  jungle in '95, "Being With You" is real phuture-jazz, its densely-clustered synth-chords verging on harmolodic dissonance. The CD version of "Suspected" adds Omni Trio's widescreen film-muzik reinterpretation of  "Music Is The Key" (beautiful, but the 'real' diva vocal is a tad Whitney) and the original version of "Total Control".
            Hardcore Foul Play devotees, like myself, might be impatient for more new hints as to where the duo is headed next.. But as a summation of the story so far, "Suspected" is fabulous and undeniable.

Melody Maker, 1995


      If anyone from the 'ambient jungle' scene deserves a wider audience, it's Omni Trio's Rob Haigh. Draping lush, movie-theme orchestration and explosively rapturous soul-diva vocals over strafing breakbeats, Haigh is a sampladelic sorcerer. Anybody who loved The Art Of Noise's "Moments In Love" or Saint Etienne's "London Belongs To Me" will swoon to the sheer pop genius of  "Renegade Snares" or "Thru The Vibe". Now here's Omni's debut LP "Vol 1: The Deepest Cut", sweeping up the best of Haigh's work to date and providing an unbeatable introduction for the uninitiated.

      An enigmatic figure, Haigh's musical route to jungle was strange and winding. He grew up on left-field rock (Can, Faust, Pere Ubu,  PiL), jazz (Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew") and dub ( Lee Perry, King Tubby). In the early Eighties, he formed an "avant-funk band", The Truth Club, and supported the likes of Cabaret Voltaire and Clock DVA. Like many avant-funk veterans, Haigh was seduced into rave culture by the music of Derrick May and early Warp. But unusually, Haigh gravitated towards the hardcore scene rather than 'electronic listening music'.

      "In '91, people started adding breakbeats to house, and it was a very exciting time," Haigh remembers. "When the backlash against hardcore occurred in late '92,  I couldn't abandon breaks and return to the 909 kick-and-hat rhythm, so I stuck with it."

      From early '93 onwards, Haigh released a series of brilliant EP's on Moving Shadow, which spawned monster tunes like "Mystic Stepper (Feel Better)" and "Renegade Snares". The latter is still going strong a full year after it's release, thanks first to Foul Play's turbo-boosted remix, and now to their electrifyingly intense 'VIP Re-Remix' on "The Deepest Cut".

      Film soundtrack music is a major reference point for Omni tracks like "Living For The Future" (originally from the recent "Vol 5" EP, now revamped by FBD Project for the album).  "John Barry is a big influence," says Haigh. "I love the powerful, melodic, soaring strings!" But for all his brilliant arrangements, with their sentimental piano motifs, mellotronic strings and hypergasmic acappella vocals, Haigh's real forte is as a virtuoso orchestrator of rhythm. Where most jungle producers sample and loop whole breakbeats,  Haigh builds his breaks from scratch using "single shot" samples (kicks,  hi-hats, shakers, toms etc).

     "The beat becomes mine," he says, "and is no more a sample than programming a drum machine." 

      Throughout his recent work,  Haigh's beats are so nuanced, so full of varied accents, that it's like listening to a real-time, hands-on drummer who's improvising around the groove.  Just check out the fierce-yet-gliding elegance of the snares on "Soul Freestyle" (from "Vol: 5")--it's like listening to a goddamn jazz drum solo! Haigh is the maestro of a rhythmic innovation in jungle he's dubbed "the soul step".

      "The first and third beats are emphasised, giving the illusion that the track is running at 80 b.p.m. and 160 b.p.m. at the same time," he explains. "This gives the music room to breathe, and makes it easier to dance to."

      Although  Omni Trio firmly belongs in jungle's 'ambient/intelligent' camp, Haigh is wary about jungle's new smooth direction, and in particular the trend towards  incorporating so-called 'real' instrumentation.

     "House and jungle is a sequenced music, created on computers and workstations. There is nothing worse than seeing house artists trying to get into that live muso vibe. The potential in fusing atmospheric ideas with drum & bass is unlimited. But although the music is getting more sophisticated, it must retain the ruffness of tearing drum & bass. This is the core of our music: to lose it would be like, say, rock music without guitar riffs!"


Friday, December 29, 2017