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Reel By Real – Surkit Chamber: The Melding review

In the world of Detroit techno, there’s not much that hasn’t been uncovered, ripped, or reissued. The names of Detroit’s figureheads, Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, roll off the tongues of kids so young that their parents would struggle to have been old enough to remember them first time around. But one man’s name isn’t quite the household name it should be despite his purported influence: Martin Bonds. Better known as Reel by Real, Bonds was responsible for the Surkit EP, released in 1991, which featured collaborations with Anthony ‘Shake’ Shakir and Atkins. Filled with hard, yet fluid drum programming, raw basslines and the kind of retro-futuristic sheen that characterises so much of this kind of music, it’s nonetheless as good as anything from his more prolific collaborators, and is spoken about in hushed enough tones by his fans to have scored itself a reissue through a.r.t.less last year. However, unlike the reissue of Chicago contemporaries Virgo through Rush Hour last year, it hasn’t earned him the widespread reappraisal he obviously deserves. Surkit Chamber: The Melding, the first new material from Bonds in 20 years should go some way to rectifying that; after all, how often do we get a full album of brand new Detroit techno nowadays?

It’s an album that, like so much Detroit techno, flirts with the idea of futuristic themes; its name suggests a fusion of man with machine, and its cover (by Underground Resistance sleeve designer Abdul Haqq) depicts a scene that is very much like something out of a William Gibson novel. It’s something that is obvious from the album’s opener “I Won’t Follow”, which combines a strobing bass arpeggio and disembodied human vocals with a melancholic, yet detached quality. But it’s also an oddly personal take on Detroit techno, full of optimism yet with an air of oblique introspection; it’s something that sets the tone for the album as a whole, and it’s not hard to imagine the album’s cover as an impression of Bonds’ potentially difficult relationship to the music making process. After all, the use of the name of his original EP in this album’s title suggests that this is in some sense a follow-up, albeit one that has taken twenty years to make. This personal touch carries over on “Fate” where Bonds utilises classic Detroit pads and soulful electric piano tones with the vocal line “Let us folk choose our fates”. It’s not a million miles from the militant politics of Underground Resistance, but somehow with more sparing touches he allows a personal voice to come through in a way his somewhat colder contemporaries can’t, and it’s hard not to feel a sense of regret in this album in terms of lost time on the part of Bonds, but he has done the best thing he could do: pick up where he left off.

The emotional weight of the album would be for nothing if Surkit Chamber wasn’t also great techno, and thankfully it is. The underlying political subtext of “Freedom From Want” is married with a positively caustic 303 line,  “Switchback” combines a funky gurgling bassline with glass textures and a mechanoid melody, creating just the right mix of futuristic experimentation and dancefloor drama, and “Stow Away” has all the syncopation and acrid tones of the best Drexciyan techno with the melodic accessibility of James Holden. But Surkit Chamber saves its best for last; “WRX” is like a transmission directly from 1991, eschewing any kind of bass for fluctuating synth pads and aquatic melodies, all held together with a vitreous proto 2-step rhythm. It’s an effortlessly delicate production that highlights why this particular strand of techno still has the power to endure musically after so long.

Scott Wilson