Drexciya – Journey Of The Deep Sea Dweller I review

‘May you live in interesting times’ says the Chinese proverb, and to call the challenges posed by modern life interesting is a massive understatement. But can a collection of tracks that are over 15 years old provide the soundtrack for the ‘interesting’ times we live in?

By now, everyone who has had an interest in underground electronic music for a few years is familiar with the electro act Drexciya and the myths that surrounded them. James Stinson and Gerald Donald’s own myth-making was as advanced as the body of work they produced, and spawned a following that would struggle not to be called obsessive. Drexciya weren’t just a cult act; they were more like a cult that happened to make and release music.

From the near mythical status of its leaders, the shadowy Stinson and Donald –  remember, they first ‘surfaced’ in pre-internet times, which only added to their mystique – to the quasi-religious underwater, Atlantis references intertwined with black empowerment messages and the offshoot experiments, Drexciya still function as the de facto belief system for every electronic music nerd.

That debate and discourse still takes place online about their work, that some of their vinyl releases change hands for insane amounts of money and that Dutch label Clone have taken it upon themselves to re-release and re-master large tracts of their catalogue all point to the fact that Drexciya still command a high level of interest.

But is their music still relevant or is this compilation just another example of repackaging the past to make some money? To answer these questions, it is first necessary to go back 20 years in time. The early 90s were a time of change and upheaval, chaos and positivity, as the Eastern Bloc imploded and Europe exploded to the adrenaline rush of acid house.

In the US, Clinton’s election victory provided an end –albeit a superficial one in many regards – to the savage period of Reaganomics inflicted on cities like Detroit. It was against this sense of stillborn euphoria that acts like Drexciya, Underground Resistance and Jeff Mills – both Mills and Drexciya were members or affiliates of UR – appeared, bringing a militaristic sense and confrontational attitude to what had previously been a primal, sexually-charged music sound.

This aggressive approach is audible on “Seaquake”, which originally featured on Deep Sea Dweller, Drexciya’s 1992 debut for Shockwave, and which also pops up on Journey Of The Deep Sea Dweller. The raw anger and righteous fury is there right from the first few bars, as a discordant bass and pummeling 4/4 drums underpin distorted, coruscating riffs. It’s not radically dissimilar to the type of music that UR or Mills were releasing at the time, and in many ways it and the equally harsh “Darthouven Fish Men” – taken from 1995’s Journey Home EP on Warp – and the angular funk and punky vocals meet typewriter repetition percussion of “Take Your Mind” – from 1994’s Drexciya 4 – The Unknown Aquazone – could be seen as visceral responses to the miserable situation caused by Reaganism in Detroit. Lest anyone thinks this period has no bearing on the modern world, it should not be forgotten that the policies initiated in those times by Thatcher and Reagan led to the financial and economic chaos that we are now experiencing, decades later.

For that reason alone, Dweller says more about contemporary life than any modern-day release. In assessing Dweller’s relevance to modern times, we should not forget the views of Drexciyan affiliate Stingray, who said on his recent interview on Juno Plus that electronic music has to strive to disseminate a message and to communicate with its audience. There is no doubt that Drexciya always gave something to their listeners, and if it wasn’t anger at what they saw around them, it was the flipside emotion – humour, which is audible here.

While Drexciya probably aren’t the most obviously funny electronic music act, the androgynous vocal on “Bubble Metropolis” –  taken from 1992’s Drexciya 2 –  Bubble Metropolis – where visitors are welcomed to a new dimension as squelchy bass makes out with high-paced drums raises a smirk and the mock-serious “Rubick’s Cube” (from 1996’s The Return Of Drexciya on UR), where menacing synths and a sinister robo-vocal intones the title provides a daft prelude to Donald’s “Pornoactress” as Dopplereffekt.

The other reaction to the upheaval and exclusion that surrounded them was the creation of an alternative, virtual world. While much has been made of Drexciya’s release titles and the references to worlds unknown on their record inlays, it would be tempting to dismiss talk about unknown aqua zones and anti-vapor waves if they came from a lesser act or if they didn’t live by their own manifesto.

Indeed, it appears that Drexciya themselves felt it necessary to enter a parallel world to create their music. When this writer spoke to James Stinson a year before his death about Drexciya’s music-making and asked him what influenced it, the answer was that nothing did. Furthermore, Stinson added, they simply went into their studio, turned on their machines and jammed.  This is the greatest strength of Journey Of The Deep Sea Dweller I: it contains so many magical moments that are derived from that unmistakable underworld.

From the sharp, shuffling 808s and fluid bass on “Wavejumper” (from 1995’s Aquatic Invasion), which pits seemingly incompatible eerie and abstract sounds with beautiful melodies; or “Hydro Theory” (from 1995’s Journey Home), which achieves a similarly spine-tingling juxtaposition as brooding sub-bass reveals bursts of cosmic synth bliss to “Lardossen Funk” and “Aquarazorda” (both from 1994’s Drexciya 4) where hushed melodies shimmer over rolling drums on the former and a mysterious synth coda is accompanied to menacing low-end depths on the latter, this collection shows that Drexciya made music that defines the times we live in.

Richard Brophy